Anne Dudley Ellis
Oct. 11, 2007 12:00 AM
FRESNO, Calif. - What's David Raygoza's idea of a good time? A full tank of gas in his Jeep, fresh batteries for his video camera and a bag of apples for bait.
Raygoza, 49, is an award-winning principal at Central Unified's Pershing Continuation High School west of Fresno, Calif. But for 14 years, he's also had a secret hobby: tracking Bigfoot in Sequoia National Forest in the southern Sierra Nevada.
Raygoza admits his belief in the legendary creature makes him sound crazy.
"It's one of those things that you don't talk to people about. I think mainstream America looks at it like UFOs or ghosts," Raygoza said.
Also known as Sasquatch, Bigfoot purportedly is covered in hair and stands 7 feet tall. The creature roams remote forests, with most sightings concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, from north of Eureka to British Columbia, said David Byrne, a high-profile Bigfoot hunter.
Raygoza had kept a low profile on his Bigfoot convictions until July, when he led a symposium on the creature in Hanford, Calif. Raygoza has several photographs of large footprints he believes could be from Bigfoot, as well as video he says shows glimpses of the creature. He said he once found an old nest Bigfoot may have used. Raygoza's interest in Bigfoot dates back to his senior year at Riverdale High School, when he read a newspaper article about a 17-year-old student in the Bay Area planning a Bigfoot hunting expedition.
"I thought, Wow. What a bold thing to do,' " Raygoza said.
Then, 14 years ago, while camping with a friend in the Sierra east of Fresno, Raygoza came across 17-inch footprints he could not identify. A science teacher at the time, Raygoza was hooked on tracking Bigfoot. But he found no further evidence for 10 years: "I was really beginning to believe there was no such thing."
A chance meeting with a man in Coarsegold, Calif., at a gold-panning exhibit four years ago piqued his interest again. The man, an American Indian, said Bigfoot roamed an area near an old sweat lodge in Sequoia National Forest. He told Raygoza: "If you go there, you'll find what you are looking for."
Raygoza and a friend made a trip to the location and found several sets of tracks Raygoza thinks were from Bigfoot. Over the past four years, he's videotaped what he believes may be Bigfoot in the forest, although he admits the images are inconclusive.
"Is it definitive? No, of course not," he said.
Raygoza said he once filmed Bigfoot eating an apple he had put out as bait.
Stephanie Martin, a counselor at Pershing High, said she "didn't have words" when she learned last summer that her boss believed in Bigfoot. She prefers not to discuss it with him; she said his stories sound credible, and she is scared by the idea that Bigfoot may exist.
"I know it sounds kooky and crazy, and (Raygoza's) obviously not," Martin said.
Terry Cox, president of the Central Unified School District board, had not heard of Raygoza's Bigfoot tracking but isn't bothered by it.
She said she and her sons, now grown, have always enjoyed the Bigfoot legend. Her children belonged to Indian Guides when they were young and participated in several Bigfoot hunts.
One of the Indian Guide mothers made a Bigfoot costume that an older guide wore, running through the woods, allowing the younger guides glimpses of "Bigfoot."
One year, they forgot to bring the Bigfoot shoe coverings, so the creature ran around the forest in silver basketball shoes, Cox said.
Raygoza declined to be specific about where he searches in the Sequoia National Forest, saying that he's worked hard tracking the creature and wants to be the one to come up with indisputable evidence that Bigfoot is real. He has plenty of company hunting Bigfoot. Byrne, the Bigfoot expert, has led three expeditions since the 1960s, outfitted with helicopters and infrared sensors. The work of Byrne and two other Bigfoot aficionados are part of a yearlong exhibit that opened Saturday at the State Capital Museum in Olympia, Wash., examining Sasquatch as a cultural phenomenon in the Northwest.
Several Web sites are devoted to the legend. The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization lists hundreds of sightings, separating them into Class A or Class B reports. The organization says that Class B reports are not considered less credible or less important, but they have more potential to be something other than Bigfoot, such as bear sightings or practical jokes.
Byrne, though a believer, says that "90 percent of what we think we know is pure speculation. There's no experts. We're all students." There are too many eyewitnesses to discount Bigfoot's existence, Byrne said: "These are really good, down-to-earth people with no reason to fabricate a story.
"I think there could be something out there."
But Denise Alonzo, a spokeswoman for Sequoia National Forest, is more skeptical. She's worked in the area for 20 years, and "I've never heard or seen anything about a Bigfoot in the forest."
Stephen Lewis, chairman of the earth and environmental sciences department at California State University, Fresno, said that if the creature existed, trackers would have found "Bigfoot poop" and other forensic evidence.
His department offers a critical thinking course, "Facts, Fads and Fallacies in the Natural Sciences," which explores the pursuit of mythical creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster.
"My speculation is that people have a need to believe in magic and mystery, unexplained phenomenon," Lewis said. "People enjoy the idea that there's something out there that is mysterious and not yet discovered. They get captivated by all this stuff."
Raygoza is not bothered by the skepticism. He said he's enjoyed not only the pursuit of Bigfoot, but the beautiful wilderness he's explored.
"I'm going to continue looking until I get that shot that is definitive, where people won't say, That's a bear,' or until I can't walk those hills," Raygoza said.
Students at Pershing relish hearing about their principal's hunting expeditions. Raygoza does not bring the topic up, but he said students have known about his hobby for about four years. One drew a cartoon that Raygoza has on his wall, beneath the awards he has won as an educator. The cartoon shows Bigfoot selecting a tie from the closet and a human hiding under the bed. The caption says, "There's no such thing as a Raygoza."
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