Skunk Ape Encounter Smells
What was this beast doing out in broad daylight? And how had I managed to get so close?
In the early 70s, I watched a movie that scared the gajeebas out of me. “Legend of Bogey Creek” was set in Fouke, Arkansas, a little town that claimed a big hairy creature with glowing red eyes and human hands had been stalking the community since the 1940s.
The creature walked upright like a man, but had only three toes. It hid out in the densely thicketed bottomlands, sharing the swamp with venomous cottonmouth snakes and toothy alligators. It seemed to have a particular taste for prize livestock, especially large hogs, which it was able to kill with its bare hands and eat raw. Cats that saw it were frightened to death. Literally. The creature was rarely seen during the day, preferring the darkness of night to prowl about town.
Before the movie started, some text rolled across the screen stating,
This is a true story. Some of the people in this motion picture portray themselves...in many cases on actual locations.
I had no idea if the movie really was true. Could a whole town make up such a tale just to draw in tourists and sell t-shirts depicting a swamp monster?
In 1983, I was hitch-hiking from Nashville, TN to Shreveport, LA and back, to visit my biological father. When I saw that Fouke was on my way, I figured, why not? I’ll stop and snoop around.
Here is an unpublished account of what I wrote about that visit:
Two young black men in an old Cadillac picked me up southwest of Little Rock. As we were driving, I asked them about Fouke.
“I wouldn't want to break down there,” the driver said. “and it isn’t Bigfoot I‘m afraid of. They have a saying there for our kind: ‘Don‘t let the sun go down with you still in town.’”.
We soon passed a sign that read, "Fouke: Population 506.
“I guess this is where I‘m getting off,” I said. “I sure appreciate the ride.”
The men slowed, but refused to come to a complete stop. When my feet hit the pavement, the rest of me soon followed in a slow roll. Brushing myself off, I stood and saw that I was in front of Pat's Café. Sitting in the shade was a 40’s something man wearing a soiled stetson. He tipped his dark sunglasses downward and looked me over.
"Yes, sir," I said, wondering if he was going to ask me about the company I was keeping. I told him about visiting my father in Shreveport and why I wanted to stop in Fouke.
He spit a stream of tobacco juice onto the pavement.
"My name's Harrol Smith," the man said. "That's H A R R O L." All I can tell you is the truth. There ain't no sense lyin' about it. The only time I ever lie is to a jealous husband or the police, and at times I've had to do both.
"They filmed the movie in 1972," he continued. "I whattin’ in it but my father, Willie Smith, was the old man tendin' the store in the beginin' of the show when the lil' boy come runnin' up hollerin’, 'Mr. Willie, Mr. Willie…'"
"How much of it was based on truth?" I asked.
"Almost all of it. They even used the people it happened to and not them Hollywood actors."
"Do you think there's anything to the sightings?" I pressed.
"Has to be. Been too many things happenin' too long for there not to be. My aunt is 85 years old and she told me about it.
"Back in the early 70s, I owned a little grocery store across the street there. Hell, I earned $25,000 that year. I had tourists comin' in from ever-where. Even had a plaster cast made of a foot print. It was 14 inches long and 57 inches between steps."
"Have you ever seen the creature yourself?"
"No, I haven't. But I heard 'em. They sounded like a retarded person screamin', only 10 times as loud…like a high-pitched moan. The hair on my arm stood straight up. They're s'posed to be anywheres from four to eight feet tall, black and hairy."
"So there's more than one?"
"Could they just be bears?"
"There ain't no bears ‘round here."
We were interrupted by a customer at the gas pump. I walked inside and paid the woman behind the counter for a Coke, then asked directions to the restroom. There was a sign on the wall there that read, I'm in this business for one reason: to make a profit. I do this by selling food and drinks, not by providing a free restroom service. –The owner.
I was going to ask more questions, but there was a second car waiting to get gas. So I thanked Harrol for his time and started footing it out of town.
Soon I was making the best of the 90s. As a nature guide, I led groups of tourists into the Fakkahatchee Strand State Park and Big Cypress Preserve in the Florida Everglades. About the most unusual thing I ever witnessed was an osprey swoop down and grab a fish, only to have a majestic bald eagle ram it from behind, forcing the osprey to drop his catch. I tried to imagine the fish swimming back home, late of course, and explaining what happened to his mate. Surely it was the biggest fish story he’d ever told.
I also nearly ran over an endangered Florida panther, or should I say a Texas cougar on permanent loan to the state because of dwindling panther populations. The big cat passed so close to my van that I could make out the color and texture of its radio collar.
But one day I had an stranger encounter. I learned long ago, beginning as a kid when the television show “Outer Limits” aired, that monsters only came out at night. So what was this monster I was now facing doing out in broad daylight? And how had I managed to get so close?
The hairy Arkansas beast had red eyes and stood up to eight feet tall. The hairless beast I had just come face to face with was no more than six feet tall and had eyes that were as blue as a rare Seattle sky. They were intelligent-looking eyes, but still wild.
What I saw behind the creature got me confused. I thought long and hard about the intense fear and sense of wonder I experienced watching the movie, “Legend of Bogey Creek” in the 70s. I thought about Fouke in the 80s, and how convincing Harroll Smith sounded as he described the hair dancing on his arm when he heard the creature scream.
I wondered if the creature I was now confronting in the 90s knew what I had just seen behind it. I wondered if everything I ever hoped about the mysteries of life had all been an illusion. I thought about saying nothing and pretending I hadn’t noticed. But after decades of international Bigfoot stories, wondering why no one had ever managed to trap one of the beasts, or find the bones of a dead one, I had to have an explanation for what I had just seen.
“So what’s with the monkey suit sticking out from behind your car seat?” I blurted out.
The creature said nothing. It was a moment of truth or denial. It had been caught red-handed. Instead of denial, a slow smile spread across its weather-worn face. “Bigfoot’s about to make some appearances,” came the admission.
I had known this creature for some time. He was a Collier County resident. A nice enough guy. Acted kind of crazy at times. Then again, don‘t we all?
I didn’t give things much thought after that face-to-face encounter, but a few months later, I was sitting in a local Everglades restaurant with my group of northern tourists. We were sampling alligator tail and washing it down with swamp-colored ice tea when another guide approached me.
“Hey, did you hear about one of Naples Trolley’s guides? He and his group spotted the Skunk Ape yesterday. The guide, who’s also a part-time preacher, was so scared he nearly had a heart attack!”
“Did they describe what they saw?” I asked.
“The guide swore it was nine feet tall and must’ve weighted at least 400 pounds. He said it ran upright like a man, but was covered with hair from head to toe. He’s afraid to drive back down Turner River Road.”
“What about his group? You said they saw it too?”
“Just the guy riding up front.”
“And his description?”
“He said it stood about six feet tall and looked like a man wearing a monkey suit.”
Two eye witnesses and two different descriptions.
It reminded me of another day when I was walking with my group along the boardwalk in the Fakkahatchee Strand State Preserve. A family of tourists were pointing at something in the swamp, exclaiming in loud whispers, “Did you see that?! Did you see that?!”
Noticing my park ranger-looking uniform, the father ran up to me. “We just saw a black panther!” he exclaimed.
“Really?” I replied. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes, it’s right back there about 200 feet!”
A black panther? If he was right, it would be a first for me. Of all the panther sightings in Florida, wildlife officials say none are black.
I climbed up on the railing and grabbed a cabbale palm tree to keep my balance. With my binoculars, I scanned the area where the man was pointing. Sure enough, there it was…a black feral hog, rooting around in the muck.
If I hadn’t encountered my buddy with the monkey suit, perhaps I might have become a Skunk Ape believer. I also might have believed in the Yeti, Sasquatch or Bigfoot. Plus Loch Ness, crop circles, little green men and tales from behind the pulpit. But as always, I saw how easily someone can fake a mystery. And I saw how much other people wanted to believe the hoax was real.
Over the next decade, the Everglades Skunk Ape would get a lot of international coverage. Daily newspapers across the U.S., Canada and throughout Europe mentioned the sightings. So did radio stations. CBS’s unsolved mysteries spent a week trying to track down the elusive creature.
A local panther tracker, Dave Shealey, has taken throngs of reporters on expeditions to hunt down the ape, enticing it with lima bean traps. Why lima beans? According to Shealy, when the creature breaks into hunting camps, the lima beans are the only food item missing. Shealy says he has spent the last 40 years of his life looking for the beast.
Marco Island resident Nate Martin spent six years shooting, editing and producing his very own full-length feature film staring Shealy.
Shealy, Martin and the media went about things backwards. They started with the assumption that there really is a Skunk Ape, then searched for the evidence to prove it. They should have started with the assumption that there is no such creature. At the time of the first sightings, had any gorilla costumes been rented or purchased within 100 miles? Who could benefit by creating a swamp monster hoax? Or who was wacky enough to do it just to stir the pot?
I’ll never tell. But the truth is out there.