DULUTH -- Moose Lake area residents who claim to have seen Sasquatch will share their stories on an episode of "Finding Bigfoot" airing 9 p.m. tonight on Animal Planet.
The team of researchers and television crew visited northern Minnesota in August to investigate a concentration of claims around the Kettle River. The hour-long TV program, in its second season, shows the four-person team touring the woods on all-terrain vehicles, meeting with residents, re-enacting anecdotal evidence, then doing their own investigation decked out with night-vision gear, jump suits and lures.
"I'm excited and a little nervous about what we'll look like on there," said Kristy Aho, who is featured on the episode with her husband, Dale, and four young children. They claim to have seen Bigfoot while partridge hunting in the area of Automba about three years ago.
Aho said her husband had gone into the woods to make a loop past some birds. The animal had been squatting, then jumped up, creating a loud crash. She described the being as human-like, upright on two legs with hands swinging down by its knees and about 8 feet tall. Then it took off running.
"The whole ground was shaking," she said. "The four-wheeler was shaking. We saw it run by about 15 feet away from us. I was really scared. My mind knew it wasn't my husband, but it resembled a human."
The fight-or-flight instinct kicked in, Aho said, and they opted for flight. It took a while for Aho to feel comfortable going back into the woods, but she wasn't uncomfortable sharing her story with the viewers. While the people featured on the show are earnest in their stories, to other people Sasquatch is no more than campfire lore on the level of the Loch Ness Monster and UFOs.
"You feel like people are going to make fun of you or put you down if you say you saw one," Aho said. "It's intimidating. But we know what we saw."
Lorraine Tomczak is in the Aho's camp.
"That doesn't bother me," she said of naysayers. "I was very fascinated that they would want to talk to me. I wasn't worried about that kind of thing."
Tomczak saw a creature on Carlton County Road 6, going west toward Automba about a year ago. She describes seeing a big ape with human features. She made sure the doors of her station wagon were locked.
"I was going into town that day and the thing was looking into a vacant trailer house," she said. "He was, I don't know, curious, like animals and people are."
Tomczak and "Finding Bigfoot" researcher Cliff Barackman revisit the trailer during the episode and, using a tape measure, determine that it was about 9 feet tall.
"He was a big thing," she said. "I didn't know it was a male, but the lady on the road ahead of me said she had seen the family jewels. I said I didn't look that close."
Tomczak wants to see Bigfoot again. She has even had a dream about encountering an entire family of Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) and being allowed to hold a baby Bigfoot.
"I was fascinated by it," Tomczak said. "It was something you don't see every day."
The investigative team includes two men who claim to have had Bigfoot sightings, according to their bios on Animal Planet's website: Matt Moneymaker had his first encounter while camping in a swampy area in Kent, Ohio; James "Bobo" Fay has had multiple sightings, his first in 2001.
Cliff Barackman has only seen evidence of Bigfoot. Ranae Holland is the crew's resident skeptic, a biologist charged with identifying the creatures behind recorded growls and broken trees.
She said she thinks the people featured on the program genuinely believe they have seen Bigfoot and would pass a lie detector test if pressed. But she also said she believes a lot of sightings can be explained and that it is likely other animals being misidentified.
"The human mind is a funny thing," she said in a phone interview. "Shadows and the way a canopy can move and you see something -- your mind will start molding things into an object it wasn't."
Holland grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D., and said time spent with her late father was time spent either testing stuntman gear or watching movies about UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster and Sasquatch. Part of her reason for being on the show is the connection to him. Part of it is the lure of a Bigfoot story and how it captures the imagination of children and fosters critical thinking. Part of it is pure curiosity.
"What's out there that is creating this phenomenon?" she said. "That fascinates me. We can't seem to get tangible evidence for me to say 'OK, I believe.' I want to know one way or the other. That's what keeps me going back out into the woods when it's cold and I'm hungry. I want to see what these people keep telling me they're seeing. They're seeing something. OK, if Bigfoot is real, show your ugly, smelly face."
Lawler is a writer for the Duluth News Tribune. The Bemidji Pioneer and the News Tribune are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.