ELLISTON — As the sun set last Saturday, Bigfoot sat curled up in some willows near Elliston and listened to spooky stories on his iPod. The almost-full moon had not yet risen and Jupiter and Venus shone brightly in the western sky. Except for the sound of an occasional snowmobile, it was quiet along Little Blackfoot River Road. In less than half an hour, an army of more than 300 hunters would invade Bigfoot’s solitude. Armed with flashlights, whistles, beer cans and Sasquatch bait, they would seek him out, not giving up until they captured him. Bigfoot nestled further into the willow thicket.
Bigfoot is an Elliston resident. As far as Sasquatches go, the Elliston Bigfoot isn’t that big. He’s 6-foot-2 and wears a size 12 shoe. He’s also a card-carrying viola player who performs with the Helena Symphony and teaches orchestra at Capital and Helena high schools. His students and his wife know him more formally as John Peskey.
Peskey says he enjoys living in the Elliston area. This is his second year as the star of the annual Bigfoot Hunt, which is sponsored by Lawdogs Saloon. When he and his wife moved to the area more than a year ago, the couple couldn’t resist asking bar owners Bill and Becky Henne about all the Bigfoot paraphernalia on the walls at the saloon. A short conversation later, he had been recruited.
As the sky grew darker, Jay Laughlin arrived at the scene with two large gas cans. He poured the contents onto a pile of wood as big as a barn and lit it on fire. About a hundred yards away in either direction, Josh Dupler and Garret VanHuysen climbed into 6-foot-tall Rainier bottles, which they hoped they had sufficiently hidden in the thicket. While Bigfoot is the big prize, with a $150 bounty, capturing a Rainier bottle earns a hunter an embroidered jacket.
The flames of the fires reached into the night sky as a stream of headlights oozed down Little Blackfoot River Road. Trucks, sedans and even a stretch-limousine maneuvered into parking spaces along both sides of the narrow road. A few minutes later, the bonfire was surrounded by Bigfoot-hungry hunters — some obviously more experienced than others.
The ground was covered with about three feet of snow and warm temperatures earlier in the day had softened the upper layer. Upon stepping out of a pickup truck, one unwitting hunter immediately sank up to his crotch in snow.
“Watch out, that first step’s a doozy,” he announced to no one in particular.
Nearby, Scott Kuehn, of Missoula, strapped on a pair of snowshoes while other hunters looked on with envy. This was Kuehn’s second year of hunting.
“Last time, I took three steps in knee-deep snow and then face-planted,” Kuehn said. “That was the end of that hunt.”
A group of young women nearby looked down regrettably at their own fashionable footwear. Their boots were cute, but impractical for the hunting conditions.
Kenzie Garrett and his friend, Colter Giesick, both of Helena, turned heads as they squeezed through the growing crowd. The two were dressed in adult-sized onesies.
“We’re dressed for aerodynamics,” Garrett said.
A few minutes later, a stranger stopped Andrew Glueck to ask him where he got his white plastic suit, which resembled the hairy hide of an abominable snowman.
Giggles erupted from a group of women who had traveled together from Deer Lodge. They had one flashlight among the five of them, but they still figured they had an edge on the other hunters.
“Bigfoot is obviously a man,” said Corisa Williams. “We thought if we get a few girls together, wear some perfume, we could get him to come out of hiding.”
Sitting on a log, observing it all, Martin Kroll of Elliston sipped a beer. Kroll has attended the hunt at least 10 times.
“I figure if I keep coming up here, I’ll stay younger,” Kroll said.
As sparks from the fire mingled with stars in the sky, Bill Henne determined it was time to start the hunt. He grabbed a flare gun and fired it into the dark night. The crowd of 327, a record number, scattered in all directions.
This marks the 22nd year of the Bigfoot hunt. Henne inherited the tradition when he bought the Elliston bar from Guy and Mary Jo Stoner a few years ago. The Stoners started the hunt to help drum up business during the slow part of the year.
“A guy from Wisconsin was in the bar and I was BS-ing with him,” Guy said.
The guy told Guy about an event he had participated in at another bar back East.
“They had this stuffed walrus that they hid and people went and looked for it,” Guy explained.
The Stoners thought that looking for a Bigfoot would be much more fun than a walrus. They visited with a costume maker at Grandstreet Theatre and got a couple human-sized Rainier bottles from Clausen Distributing. They planned the hunt to coincide with the full moon.
“The first time we had a bonfire in the parking lot of the bar,” Guy said. “The Sheriff in Powell County — Dave Collins — called up. He said, ‘This is Dave Collins. There is a fire in your parking lot. Put that fire out or I’ll shut down the bar.’ ”
The Stoners decided to move the bonfire to their property on Little Blackfoot River Road, which is where the event is still held. The costume, which cost $110 to make, and the giant Rainier bottles are still part of the hunt. Mary Jo likes to walk from their house down to the bonfire while Guy sits on their porch, drinks a beer and watches the action.
The hunt is contained within a 10-acre area. The Stoners and Henne, who is an ex-law enforcement officer, said that no one has ever been hurt or lost during the festivities and they go to great lengths to secure proper permits and ensure safety for the participants.
A “hunting license” costs $15 and comes with a whistle, a flashlight, gloves, jerky pucks and beer nuts. Back at Lawdogs, hunters dine on the Montana beef hamburgers, hotdogs and chili the saloon is known for. Designated drivers receive free food and soda.
By the end of the hunt Saturday, Henne had served 140 pounds of hamburger, 80 pounds of hot dogs and 50 pounds of chili. More than $250 worth of free food was fed to the non-drinking drivers.
About 20 minutes after the flare gun fired, Eric Loomis of Missoula proudly dragged one of the Rainier bottles to the bonfire. “This here is the largest bottle of beer I’ve ever seen,” he said.
A few minutes later, Levi Van Zee of Bozeman dragged in the other giant bottle.
“I ran as hard as I could,” he said. “I fell down and then I saw the bottle shimmering in the moonlight.”
Cold, wet and exhausted, several hunters returned empty handed to the warmth of the fire. Occasionally, rumors swept through the crowd that Bigfoot had been found. But after a half-hour, there was still no sign of him.
Another half hour went by, still no Bigfoot. Finding Bigfoot had never taken this long before. Finally, an hour and 20 minutes after the hunters ran into the darkness, a series of whistles sounded indicating that Bigfoot had been captured.
Cathleen Dobson, a member of the National Guard in Helena, emerged from the darkness, pulling Bigfoot by his wrist. The crowd cheered wildly.
“There was no way I was going to give up,” she said.
Dobson had the help of her friends Erin Bayse of Missoula and Jeni Hayes, also of the National Guard in Helena. They found Bigfoot at the far end of the hunting grounds, where he was curled and wedged tightly into the willows.
“I had hunkered down so well that I got kind of penned in,” Peskey said. “My arm fell asleep and I had a horrible cramp in my leg.”
Hunters lined up to have their photos taken with Bigfoot. Back at the bonfire, Mary Jo Stoner stood next to her friend Jo Dunn.
“This is a good thing,” she said, “a happy time.”
“It’s amazing what people will do at the end of winter,” Dunn said.