Their headlamps beamed through the darkness, reflecting off the deer’s eyes and metal wilderness signs along the path. Six campers in Augusta County were hiking the mile-long trek back to their campsite around midnight. Daniel Benoit, who led the pack, was suddenly distracted by a reflection — what he thought was a metal sign — off to the left.
He looked closer and then realized the reflection was blinking. The group huddled around and watched as three pairs of large, bright yellow eye shine stared back. The first appeared to be 4 feet tall. The others, 6 and 8. After a few silent moments, the tallest of the group turned, took a step to the side and looked back at the campers before the three creatures disappeared into the forest.
“What I saw, I will tell you, it was not no bear,” Benoit said, remembering the May 3, 2014, event.
He believes it could’ve been Bigfoot.
Benoit, 38, founder and researcher at the East Coast Bigfoot Research Organization, started his research eight years ago after watching a documentary that supported the existence of the elusive sasquatches. It wasn’t until after the start of his research that he would actually encounter the three creatures in the woods.
Since its start, ECBRO has grown to include members not only along the East Coast but individuals in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and South America. Benoit attributes this growth to the credibility of the researchers in the group.
Benoit admits that at this point his belief in the existence of sasquatches is just that: a belief. Regardless, he spends his free time, sometimes 20 hours a week, in the wilderness casting footprints, scouting for stick formations and documenting discoveries on a research blog. The hope is that one day these clues will lead researchers to more profound evidence that scientists cannot dispute.
In the meantime, Benoit holds events and posts online articles and videos about his discoveries to educate the community on the beliefs of ECBRO and other research organizations around the country. These seminars allow for open discussion with the audience about their encounters.
On Oct. 5, Laura Martlock, owner of Wildwood Farm in Swoope, attended one of Benoit’s Bigfoot seminars at the Waynesboro Public Library. She spoke about a situation her husband had experienced 10 days prior in Augusta County after clearing several miles of a walking trail.
“One of the pines that was not broken when he went out, was snapped off clean near the top, about five or six feet up,” Martlock said. “There’s all these other pines all around it and it was laid over in the trail, which he would have noticed when he went out.”
Encounters like Martlock’s husband’s are common among Bigfoot researchers and believers. Although they may not physically see a sasquatch in the moment, the evidence of what could be pushes them forward.
There is no consensus in the sasquatch-research community about where Bigfoot came from. Some believe sasquatches are alien researchers from space. Benoit’s approach likens the creatures to primates with habits that are similar to bears and cats.
“Cats, when they get sick and ill, there’s a time where they’ve been known to go off on their own in peace to die off,” Benoit said. “Cats do that. Bears I believe do the very same thing. Question is, is sasquatch doing it? There’s a possibility.”
Benoit believes it’s important to learn more about the wilderness that’s known to exist before going out to search for Bigfoot. He asserts that sasquatch searchers need to learn about the known before researching the unknown.
While sasquatches seem to be elusive, Fred Kanney, 59, who runs the Virginia Mountain Bigfoot Research Organization in Augusta County, says he actually sees the creatures on his property almost every day. Kanney and his wife have named the sasquatches around their home and try to communicate with them in ancient Cherokee dialect, which they believe the creatures use to communicate.
Kanney believes sasquatches migrate like many other animals but ultimately return to where they were born to give birth to their children. He asserts that juvenile sasquatches are curious and are taught by their parents to be elusive.
“The juveniles will try to get as close as they can to touching a human without being noticed,” Kanney said.
Kanney says a 10-foot sasquatch is strong enough to flip a tractor trailer. But they don’t use this strength at every opportunity.
“They are very shy creatures,” Kanney said. “If you’d seen an 18-footer stand over and you start walking toward it, it’ll turn around and walk away.”
Even though Benoit and Kanney frequently speak at events together, their research beliefs don’t always line up. Benoit believes it’s imperative to find information from many fields to back up the claims he makes. For this reason, he studies topics in biology, zoology and primatology and tries to gaining an understanding of any subject he feels may impact his research.
Benoit said Kanney’s method differs primarily because of his reliance on first-hand experience when researching Bigfoot. The most important element to Kanney is what he’s seen and heard in the field.
Despite their differences, the two come together for events and look for evidence in similar areas of Virginia. Their common goal is to educate the public on the existence of sasquatches.
“Going out in the woods doesn’t guarantee a sighting. It doesn’t guarantee you finding enough evidence to believe,” Benoit said. “But I’ll tell you what, if you’re out there enough and you take your time observing, there is evidence out there.”
Contact Alexis Miller at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.