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Johnson out to prove Bigfoot is not a myth

CAVE JUNCTION ' While Matthew Johnson cooked camp coffee for his two guests one morning last October, a long, guttural roar from a half-mile away rattled the otherwise hush Siskiyou Mountains around them.

The guests, a reporter and photographer from USA Today, were shaking in their boots as Johnson rose calmly to his feet. I had a big smile on my face, and I said, 'That's not a squirrel. That's not a bird. That's what we're here for.'

That, Johnson says, was Bigfoot. Or, more specifically, one of seven Sasquatches that Johnson and his fellow believers say they are studying in the remote forests near the Oregon Caves National Monument. They hope to one day prove that talk of the massive primate is more appropriate in scientific journals than supermarket tabloids.

The Oregon Caves area has been a hot spot of Bigfoot research since July 1, 2000, when Johnson insists that he saw a Sasquatch spying on his family while on a hiking trail.

On dozens of expeditions into the area since then, Johnson and his fellow Southern Oregon Bigfoot Society members have found countless footprints, garnered tooth impressions on food left for the creatures and heard regular howls like those chronicled in the USA Today front-page story last fall.

They came up skeptics, Johnson says of the USA Today team. They went back believers.

Johnson is on a crusade to make Bigfoot not just believable, but real.

The Grants Pass psychologist and his non-profit society plan to hold educational seminars featuring a wealth of what he says is Bigfoot evidence collected in the mountains near the Oregon Caves.

Eventually, he expects to gain enough acceptance among the creatures to photograph them and collect DNA samples to get them accepted and classified as animals, not myths.

Our goal is to educate the public about the animal, prove its existence and get it identified as a species, then get them and their habitat protected, Johnson says. We're feeling pretty confident that in 10 years, max, we'll have this nailed down.

For now, he's content with inching toward developing a Jane Goodall-like relationship with the area's Sasquatches.

At first, they were very elusive, Johnson says. But we're gaining their trust. They're letting us know they're there.

Johnson's first encounter with them came during the family hike within the national monument. Family members first smelled a pungent odor, then heard footsteps in the forest that seemed to follow them.

Johnson says he then spied a massive creature hiding behind a tree and spying on his wife and two children on the trail. Johnson whisked his family down the trail, then reported his encounter to monument officials.

Since then, Johnson, 41, has become the poster boy for Bigfoot researchers, in part because the good doctor, as he's now known, offers credibility to a group often characterized as flaky.

He has given more than 250 radio interviews and escorted scores of print and television journalists from around the globe into his research area, which Johnson describes only as forestland within a 10-mile radius of the Oregon Caves in southwestern Josephine County.

Between interviews, Johnson and his group conduct regular expeditions meant to gather evidence of what Johnson believes are two distinct Bigfoot families living in the area.

In one family is a male with a footprint of more than 20 inches long, his female companion and their two offspring, one with feet that would fit inside a size 16 sneaker. The other family is a male, female and adolescent.

The two groups roam in distinct territories separated by a creek. They peel bananas and shuck corn left for them, show an affinity for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and munch watermelon just to the rind. They possibly have some symbiotic relationship with cougars, much like humans have pet cats.

Twice, group members report finding Bigfoot and cougar tracks through their camp, as if the pair were walking in concert, he says.

While they steer clear of infrared-triggered cameras, the creatures regularly bellow their guttural calls Johnson believes are messages.

Last summer, a 10-year-old boy from Colorado said he saw a Bigfoot peering at him through the open top of a tent during an expedition, Johnson says. At the same time, Ray Rosa ' who runs the Bigfoot Society with Johnson ' saw a huge, dark form walk away from the tent and crash through the brush.

Nobody's faked anything, Johnson says.

Despite scientists' demand for a body to prove that Bigfoot is more than a myth, Johnson still holds out hope that he can establish Bigfoot's existence with a collection of photographs and videos and as much DNA samples as he can garner.

The group hopes to buy heat-sensing and infrared equipment to locate and photograph the creature, eventually establishing enough trust to interact with whatever's out there.

We're going to have more than enough pictures and videos that people will look at it as legitimate, Johnson says. We still think we can do this without a Bigfoot body.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail