GRAND RAPIDS — Michael Hexum says he spotted his first bigfoot in the woods when he was 14 years old, living on O’Leary Lake about 20 miles north of Nashwauk.

His father told him never to speak of the incident again.

For years, Hexum heeded that advice, but after moving back to his childhood stomping grounds as an adult, it happened again: Hexum spotted his second bigfoot.

After decades of researching bigfoot on his own, Hexum became a field researcher in 2016 with the Minnesota Bigfoot Research Team. “I’m the oldest one of the group — they call me ‘Pops,’ but I can outwalk any of them,’” Hexum, 63, told the Hibbing Daily Tribune last month.

In recent years, Hexum has appeared on Minnesota Public Radio episode, “Hunting for Bigfoot in northern Minnesota,” and he also works with authorities, collecting information from locals who report possible Sasquatch activity. But these days, when he’s not in the woods, his free time is spent in planning mode.

This spring, the members of the Minnesota Bigfoot Research Team are set to host what they say will be the state’s first ever Bigfoot Conference. The three-day event is slated for May 22-24 at Timberlake Lodge in Grand Rapids. There will be a variety of speakers, vendors, food and mingling amongst fellow enthusiasts nicknamed “Squatchers.”

Abe Del Rio, co-founder of the Minnesota Bigfoot Research Team, told the HDT the conference will mark his group’s 20th anniversary. “I saw it was a milestone and I want to do something big to celebrate what we’ve done — the radio shows we’ve been on, the newspaper articles, the TV shows — so I decided to do one heck of a birthday party. That’s when it came into my head to create a historic event.”

One speaker the group has lined up for the event is Bob Gimlin, a 85-year-old-rancher living in Yakima, Wash., who was there when Roger Patterson captured the 1967 footage of bigfoot padding through Bluff Creek, Calif. Featuring what appears to be a large ape walking upright, the one-minute film has captured the imagination of believers and skeptics alike for more than 50 years. One particular frame of the creature looking over its shoulder and into the camera has become synonymous with sasquatch enthusiasts the world over.

Gimlin will also be joined by Cliff Barackman, a bigfoot field researcher who appeared as an evidence analyst on Animal Planet’s TV show, “Finding Bigfoot.” Barackman is the curator for one of the largest collections of bigfoot cast evidence in the world and also co-owns and is curator of the North American Bigfoot Center.

Del Rio noted that at least two other renowned “bigfoot experts” — whose identities will be revealed closer to the event — are slated to speak throughout the weekend.

Advance general admission tickets are available at www.mnbrt.com and cost $20 for adults, $10 for children. Kids 5 years of age and younger are free with a paid adult. Prices will increase at the door.

On Friday, May 22, a special 5 p.m. speaker and dinner package is available for $100 per person followed by a public meet and greet. On Saturday, May 23, a vendor show is set to begin at 11 a.m. followed by a line-up of speakers, including Del Rio.

On Sunday, May 24, a breakfast and speaker Q&A package will be available for $50 per person.

Additional VIP options can also be purchased online, one of which includes a collector’s 9-inch statue of the Minnesota Iceman that’s being released exclusively for the conference.

The thrill of the chase

Last May, Del Rio’s group hosted a free Bigfoot Event and Native Writing Festival at the Bois Forte Tribal Center in Nett Lake with guest American Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman. Coleman has written numerous articles, more than 40 books and appeared on radio and television programs to share his expertise on bigfoot. Among all the experts — those who say they’ve had a sighting and the field researchers — there is no shortage of stories and tales of close calls.

Hexum told the HDT that he occasionally receives calls from the Itasca County Sheriff’s Department about possible sasquatch sightings. When that happens, he conducts a phone interview, though the real culprit is often a bear.

“It’s rarely a bigfoot,” Hexum said. “I’ll get reports from people, and a lot of times I can explain what it is from being out in the woods. I used to do guidework bear hunting. I’ve been in the woods since I was a kid hunting. I know the signs.”

Those signs, he said, might include size-20 footprints, the sounds of distinct wood knocks or vocalizations Hexum refers to as “mumble-talk.”

“The area I go to, I’ve been associated with [bigfoot] for the last 30 years,” he said. “I kind of feel like I’ve grown up with them. I know when they’re there, they have a distinct smell. You just have that feeling, too, when the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you know you’re not alone.”

He said when he enters the area, he hears them “knocking” to warn the others. He insists he’s even had rocks and branches thrown at him in the woods at night when they want him out of the area.

“Bigfoot is alive and well in northern Minnesota,” he said. “Believe me, we get a lot of reports.”

Unlike Hexum, Del Rio has never seen sasquatch himself, but he said that in 2001, at age 22, he and a friend were chased by one once during an expedition in Ohio.

As Del Rio told it, they were walking on an embankment into the woods about 75 yards away from their vehicle when they heard what sounded like a tree snapping followed by thunderous footsteps with branches crunching under their weight. It sounded large and was headed their way. The two men began racing back as a third friend looked on from a higher elevation near the car. The third friend claims to have witnessed the creature chasing them. Del Rio said he was wearing a Polaroid camera around his neck, so he stopped running to try and snap a picture of whatever was chasing them, but his friend with a clear view yelled, “Abe, what are you doing? That thing is right behind you!”

“I could see his face and his eyes were wide as saucers,” Del Rio recalled. “I’m still hearing this thing make its way through the woods, so I close the camera and continued running. … We weren’t expecting to have anything happen, we just thought it’d be cool to check out, then out of the blue our lives changed.”

He added, “I’ve been addicted every since. It’s been a very blessed and fun ride.”

For additional information about the Minnesota Bigfoot Research Team or their upcoming convention, visit www.mnbrt.com, or view the event on the group’s Facebook page.

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