By GARY CORSAIR, DAILY SUN
--Photograph-Dan Jackson, a venomous snake expert in Lithia, displays a plaster cast of a footprint he discovered while searching for Bigfoot in Collier County. The cast measures 19 1/2 inches long. Gary Corsair / Daily Sun
In the early-morning blackness, partially bathed in a Hollywood-weird glow of incandescent light and rolling fog, Dan Jackson slowly uncoiled from a half-hour crouch in his hiding place behind a garbage Dumpster.
What he saw, the very thing he had spent 20 years looking for, was so terrifying, Jackson would see it in his broken sleep for months.
A dark, hairy head. Glistening black eyes. A mouth full of bared teeth clenched in rage.
''He was huffing like a damn freight train,'' recalled Jackson, a venomous-snake expert from Lithia, who claims he came face to face with a fearsome creature he once didn't believe existed.
''In November 1983, if you had asked me whether I believed in Bigfoot or Sasquatch, I would have said, 'You mean that thing Hollywood made movies about? Are you crazy? No, of course not,''' says Jackson, an experienced outdoorsman who trapped alligators before he began extracting venom from snakes.
His opinion changed on a hog-hunting trip in a bayhead of sawgrass and cypress bog near Naples.
Jackson was tracking a ''bunch of hogs'' he had spooked when he became a believer.
''As I was looking into the sun, I saw a dark object about 150 yards away. I thought, 'Good, I'm going to have bear steaks tonight.' That's when what I thought was a bear, turned out wasn't a bear,'' Jackson recalls. ''It had been bending over, then it turned at the waist and looked at me. It had a black face and black eyes. It stood up and turned and walked on two legs right into the bayhead.''
Jackson was momentarily paralyzed with fear.
''It scared me so bad, I forgot I had a shotgun in my hands. It wasn't a gorilla, and it wasn't a chimpanzee,'' Jackson said. ''It was like water pouring into a computer. My mind just short circuited. What transpired might have taken 10 seconds. It could have been 10 hours for all I know.''
When Jackson regained his senses, he investigated where the creature had crouched.
''Where his head came up to the cypress trees, I estimated it was 6 1/2-to-7-feet tall,'' Jackson said. ''The grass was matted down and there was a terrible smell. I equate it to someone who's been sleeping in a goat pen.''
Back home, Jackson began spending long hours in libraries trying to learn all he could about what he saw. Even before the Internet was a household word, he found plenty of information.
''Everything I read indicated that it was peaceful, and never hurt a human,'' Jackson said. The more he read, the more he wanted to return to the Collier County bayhead.
''As often as I could, I went back down there. I wasn't trying to catch it or anything like that, it was just that I know I saw it, and I wanted to see it again.''
Each time, Jackson tried something different. Night-vision goggles. Floating bait. Hiding in tree tops. He hung a tether ball off a tree limb in hopes of getting a handprint. He even mounted a mirror in the swamp, seven feet off the ground, because he had seen primates in a TV documentary lick mirrors. ''Saliva contains DNA,'' Jackson reasoned.
''I admit, for the first two or three years it was probably comical the way I was doing things in the woods. But I started to get better and better. My techniques got better,'' Jackson said.
But he couldn't find what he calls the Florida Skunk Ape. Still, he was certain the creature was there, which made him only more determined.
''I can't look you in the eye and tell how I knew he was close, but I know there were times that he was,'' Jackson said. ''I've been in the wild enough to know when something is wrong — times when it's like someone threw a switch and all the noise stops. You just knew that sucker was watching you.''
Through years of searching, Jackson became convinced his prey was extremely clever.
''You're dealing with an intelligent creature, and he knows his environment better than you know your home,'' Jackson said. ''I feel like he has a heightened sense of hearing, eyesight and smell. He knows you're there long before you know he's there.''
If you believe Jackson on this point, then you'll probably believe his search encompassed 20 years.
''I'd go two to three times a month over a period of 20 years,'' Jackson said. ''I was driven because I saw one of these things and I wanted to see it again.''
Long after most people would have given up, he was finally rewarded.
''Eighteen years into my search, I found a footprint,'' Jackson said. ''I found a group of smashed-down palmetto bushes, then a footprint, and then its next step was into a creek. It didn't come out on the other side. I would have seen where it came out because the other side was heavy brush. I went down the stream, but I didn't see any evidence where it left.''
Jackson made a plaster cast of the 19 1/2-inch footprint, which he found ''in the middle of the Everglades, 6.2 miles from the nearest road.''
''I'm 6-foot, about 240. The impression my foot made where I found the footprint was barely a quarter-inch. Whatever made this track went down two inches,'' Jackson said. ''You can't hoax this. Not where I found it. You'd put it where other people would find it.''
An engineering professor Jackson consulted estimated whatever made the footprint weighed ''a little better than 500 pounds.''
Jackson figured something that large must do some serious eating, so he began concentrating on what the Skunk Ape likely ate.
''I got smart and started watching game trails. I figured if I could find game trails, then I could find him,'' Jackson said.
Jackson hit the jackpot when a friend with thermal-imaging equipment took him for a nighttime helicopter ride over the area he had been searching. Jackson didn't see the Skunk Ape, but he saw the mother of all game trails.
The next night, Jackson began following the trail. After 21 days (during a ''six- to eight-week period) of meticulously ''working the trail,'' he reached the edge of the woods. To his surprise, the trail ended near the rear of a new, small strip mall.
''At the back of the strip mall there were six brand-new dumpsters,'' Jackson said. ''I thought, 'Hot damn, I hit the jackpot. This where I am going to set up.'''
On the third night of his stakeout, he saw the Skunk Ape approach the dumpsters. Unfortunately, as Jackson moved from his hiding place at the edge of he woods, the creature ran away at a startling speed.
It was clear to Jackson that he couldn't sneak up on the creature. He would have to station himself closer to the dumpsters.
Jackson stayed away for ''eight or 10 days.'' During that time, he worked out a plan. He decided to put ''bait'' — a half-gallon of orange juice with sugar and chloral hydrate (triple the dose that would ''drop a 250-pound man'' he says) — in the dumpster behind a pizza restaurant. He would place pop cans containing pebbles on the lids of the other dumpsters, which would alert him to the arrival of the Bigfoot.
He considered setting up a video camera, but rejected the idea because of the ''weird'' lighting behind the strip mall. Plus, he knew his video would be dismissed as fake. If people questioned Roger Patterson's famous Bigfoot footage from 1967, they would surely dismiss anything Jackson produced.
At about 2 a.m. on the foggy night described in the opening paragraph of this article, Jackson, armed with a magnaported .44-Magnum in case the encounter turned violent, was crouched between two dumpsters when he heard a pebble-filled can hit the pavement.
''You've heard of the 'pucker factor?' Well, my 'pucker factor' went up,'' Jackson said. ''Another couple cans hit the ground. Now my 'pucker factor' went up into the red zone. As I raised up, and brought my head above the top of the dumpster, I saw a pair of eyes.''
There was nothing friendly about the eyes just 10 feet away from Jackson's face.
''If he heard me, or smelled me, I don't know, but he had a-hold of the dumpster he was in and he was glaring at me with a look of rage on his face,'' Jackson said.
For the first time in his 20-year search for the Skunk Ape, Jackson feared for his life.
''My instinct was self preservation. As I straightened up, he jumped out and landed; it was me and him. There's no way to describe the fear,'' Jackson said.
Jackson squeezed off a shot as the Skunk Ape leaped toward him; then, in a blink, it was gone.
''There's no way I would have been able to fire twice. He was gone that quick. He was tremendously fast,'' Jackson said. ''It was one, two, three, and then it was over.''
And so was his search. Forever.
''I had been lulled into a false sense of security. I always thought they were peaceful creatures. You didn't see the look in his eyes. It was purely a look of rage on its face,'' Jackson said. ''I told myself, 'Dan, you idiot, you might get another chance. You saw his strength, don't push it.' Yeah, I had disturbed his supper, but it was more than that. What I'm going to tell you next, you're going to think I am crazy, but I think the rage was because I had outsmarted him.''
Jackson created a stir in the Bigfoot research community when he posted his story on his Web site (Bigfoot, Skunk Ape & Me). Naturally, other seekers wanted to know where his frightening encounter took place.
''I have had requests from three who said they wanted to know the location and check it out. These people seemed too insincere and ill prepared, beside the fact that they were intending to spend only one night every other week to check things out,'' Jackson said. ''Please excuse me here, but I worked on finding that location for a total of 21 days out of a month. It made me angry that they wanted to stand on my shoulders and try to do in one night what I had worked for and took the chances for so long to do. I've never told where it happened, and I never will.''
And Jackson, who is writing a book about his experience, remains adamant he is through searching for the Skunk Ape, Bigfoot, Sasquatch, whatever you want to call it.
''I made the same mistake others had made; I wanted to prove it existed. And it almost cost me,'' Jackson said. ''I'm satisfied. I'm not running into any lightning storms.''
Gary Corsair is a senior writer with the Daily Sun. He can be reached at 753-1119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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