Help the Helpers: The Bigfoot Discovery Museum!

“We’re an advocate for eyewitnesses. You’re supposedly innocent unless proven guilty, but Sasquatch witnesses are considered liars and fools. They have to prove that something so extraordinary is real, but we’re learning [that the Sasquatch is] not so extraordinary.” – Michael Rugg

(Clockwise: Me, Mike, Tony, Ralph)

Off the side of Highway 9 north of Santa Cruz, where the towering redwoods play tricks on the GPS, there’s a tiny museum filled with every kind of Bigfoot memorabilia and information you can imagine. At the far end sits Mike Rugg, owner and curator of the Capritaurus Bigfoot Discovery Museum, ready and eager to answer questions at a moment’s notice!

“I saw a Bigfoot in 1949 camping with my parents on the Eel River,” he says, “right before the photographs from Mount Everest raised awareness of the subject, so when I saw this, I had no frame of reference.”

His parents had dismissed his unusual sighting, assuring him that he had just seen a tramp, though at the time, he didn’t know what a tramp was either. But after studying anthropology at Stanford, reading up on the legends of Bigfoot, and interviewing hundreds of other people on the subject, Mike couldn’t keep pretending that what he saw wasn’t one of America’s most enduring mysteries.

It was a curiosity of Mike’s for many years, and when he got laid off from the branding agency where he worked, he knew the time had come to pursue his passion. He converted his art studio into a museum, which opened its doors on July 4, 2004, then re-opened two years later when the Planning Department caught up. Now, he has spent ten years studying Bigfoot full-time, reading articles, trekking through the woods, and interviewing eyewitnesses. Though there’s controversy over what constitutes a “Bigfoot expert,” most folks who visit this museum can agree that Mike Rugg is as close as it gets!

“I’m educating people with facts, and I explain to people that it’s a hypothesis. It’s been great because not a day goes by that I don’t have interesting people to talk to.”

Mike generally starts the conversation with Ray L. Wallace, who claimed to have invented Bigfoot in 1958 when he stamped footprints around a logging camp in Northern California. The lovable prankster probably did plant those tracks, but to claim he “invented” Bigfoot is preposterous! The earliest printed report of an upright, hairy biped walking through the woods appeared in New York’s Exeter Watchman on September 22, 1818!

He talks about the famous Patterson-Gimlin film at Bluff Creek, and his interview with Bob Gimlin, whom he describes as someone genuinely interested in researching Bigfoot. Though Roger Patterson used a fake Bob Gimlin on his Bigfoot lecturing tours—the real one was too busy to tour the country—and another Bob (Hieronimus) claimed he wore a gorilla suit in their video, the second half of the most analyzed video in history, still maintains the truth of that video despite the blow to his reputation.

It’s the stereotype about spotting Bigfoot that keeps so many folks from talking about their encounters, and that’s where the museum comes into play. Mike knows what it’s like to be instantly dismissed by folks after hearing the word “Bigfoot,” and so a lot of folks find comfort in the fact that Mike’s been collecting stories, mapping sightings, and even displaying physical evidence of Bigfoot!

The pièce de résistance of Mike’s collection is a giant human-like molar, wide as a dime, that a shark tooth collector had brought him one day to add to his collection. Mike said he would love to submit it for a mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome analysis, because unlike a hair sample, a tooth has a core that can’t readily be contaminated by human hands or other environmental influences. He thinks it could blow the lid off the whole mystery. The only problem is the process costs $10,000, and, like Bob Gimlin, the scientific community does not take him seriously.

“So here I am with a Bigfoot Museum and now everybody’s being convinced that Bigfoot doesn’t exist or is dead now. What that meant is that half of the people driving by here don’t even come in. They think it’s a scam. If you’ve got a Bigfoot Museum, then you’re doing it as an excuse to make money out of people’s pockets, as if we’re getting rich here.”

Unlike the Mystery Spot down the road, the Bigfoot Museum charges no admission. What little money they make comes from Mike’s art and music business, sales of a small selection of gifts, and sporadic donations from members. The small proceeds are then split three ways among the team that helps him run the museum: Ralph Jack, the field investigator, and Tony Martin, the museum intern. Though the museum hasn’t offered a path to riches, the Bigfoot Discovery team members can imagine no better place to work.

“Never did I think Bigfoot lived here,” said Ralph Jack, lead investigator. “I was always doing my research up in the Sierras until I did an internet search, and BOOM, there was the Bigfoot Museum. It was like love at first sight. I had the equipment. Mike didn’t. So we joined up and haven’t looked back since.”

Ralph saw his first Bigfoot in the Tahoe wilderness back in 2008, and Tony, who grew up in a Bigfoot-enthusiast family in Flagstaff, Arizona, is waiting for his first sighting but has heard them dozens of times over the years. The Museum now has all kinds of recording devices and night vision, and they even invite members to join them on their night hikes during the summer! To them, it’s only a matter of time.

Though I wasn’t a member, yet, Ralph offered to take me on a tour of some of their sighting locations. He pointed out a rock quarry where they hear whoops a lot, showed me where a woman saw an adult and juvenile Bigfoot waiting on the side of the road for a car to go by, and even told the story of a Bigfoot that came to investigate a man’s pet tortoise, which he’d kept in a pen in his yard.

Then Ralph showed me Quail Hollow, which the Bigfoot like to use as a water source. There were swathes of matted down cattails where something big had pushed through, and at one point, he heard some wood knocks that sent us running into the trees. Though we didn’t spot Bigfoot this time around, I learned a lot about the ranges where Ralph believes the Bigfoot population make their home, the unique conditions of the Santa Cruz Mountains that create prime Bigfoot habitat (there’s so much private property that few humans are out wandering the wilderness), and the different types of sightings that recur in this community all the time.

No matter what your thoughts on Bigfoot may be, the Bigfoot Discovery Museum is a fabulous place to stop and learn about one of our modern age’s great unsolved mysteries. Learn how Bigfoot and his friends have gone from ancient Native American lore to pop culture icon. Compare foot casts made by Roger Patterson at Bluff Creek and Ralph Jack at Quail Hollow. See the evidence, weigh the facts, and decide for yourself whether Bigfoot is alive and well in the redwoods north of Santa Cruz.

“We think our ourselves as the Little Museum That Can. We can overcome these silly stories about hoaxes about Bigfoot, we can overcome the shortness of funds and the fact that we’ve had to resort to a poverty-level lifestyle in order to keep the Bigfoot Museum going. We’re not doing it to make money; we’re doing it to solve a mystery.”

To help the Helpers at the Bigfoot Discovery Museum:

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