This weekend’s inaugural Smoky Mountain Bigfoot Festival will bring all manner of sasquatch acolytes to Townsend, from the skeptical to the ones wearing “X-Files” shirts about wanting to believe.

For one attendee, however, there is no “belief.” Cliff Barackman, one of the featured guests for the event, which takes place Saturday at the Townsend Visitor Center and the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, listens to the evidence. And that, he told The Daily Times recently, is indisputable.

“Belief is for things like religion or politics, where there’s no right or wrong answer, and that’s not the situation with sasquatches,” said Barackman, whose interest in all things Bigfoot is lifelong, but whose claim to fame came via the nine-season Animal Planet series “Finding Bigfoot.”

“I might have believed in Bigfoot when I was 12, but that doesn’t matter, because belief doesn’t make it true or untrue,” he added. “What matters is the evidence, especially when the evidence supports the existence of something. In the beginning of my serious study of the subject, it was the evidence that compelled me to think that these things are real.

“And many years later, I actually saw a sasquatch. So when someone tells me they don’t believe in them, I ask, if they believe in dogs, and they usually say, ‘Yeah, because I’ve seen one!’ Well, in this case, so have I, so there you go. Sasquatches are real.”

Born and raised in Long Beach, California, Barackman’s interest in cryptozoology developed as a result of ‘70s horror and “schlockumentaries,” as he calls them: 1972’s “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” for example, or the TV series “In Search Of …,” which aired from 1977-82.

“I loved everything weird. I was a weird kid — I’m still a weird kid in a lot of ways — and those things had a big effect on me,” he said. “I always had eccentric interests, and as the weird kid in school, I would finish my work early and go to the library and get books.”

His thirst for knowledge continued in college, where before opting to pursue a degree in jazz guitar, he focused on various scientific fields. It was during that time that he discovered compilations of various journal articles written about the Bigfoot phenomenon, he said.

“I was drawn to everything funny and quirky and unusual, but that’s when I realized, this thing might actually be real,” he said. “I was exposed to the evidence, and I realized it was not just fodder for fantastic television. It was a subject worthy of serious scientific study.”

As a teacher, he sought to inspire young minds; as a budding sasquatch researcher, he moved to the Pacific Northwest and settled near Portland, Oregon, where he lives today. His work attracted the attention of Discovery Communications, Animal Planet’s parent company, and he was one of the four cast members of “Finding Bigfoot,” which ran from 2011-18 and became something of a water cooler pop culture phenomenon, with Barackman serving as the group’s evidence analyst.

It was early on in the series — Season 1, Episode 3, filmed in North Carolina’s Uwharrie National Forest, to be exact — that the team saw one of the creatures, Barackman said.

“It was about 2 in the morning, about 2 miles off the trail in this big, bowl-shaped valley that had had quite a number of occurrences over the years,” he said. “We were on a break filming, and on an opposing hillside in the woods, we saw through the thermal imager a human-like figure standing there watching us, in a place no one knew we were going to be.

“It started walking away, and one of our guys thought it was somebody spying on us and started trying to chase us down, but this thing navigated through the brush, without a light, and outpaced everybody in those woods. Whatever it was hopelessly outclassed all of us navigating through the woods without a light.”

Closer to home, Barackman and his team appeared in East Tennessee in November 2012 for “Bigfoot Day,” declared by then-mayor of Knox County, now U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett. While in the area, they investigated sightings at Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg.

“We had a couple of sightings and encounters that happened up there,” he said. “A couple of different times, we got distinctive sounds of sasquatches in the woods, and they even pushed some trees down. They were not happy we were there.”

Again, Barackman states, unequivocally, that the creatures are real. In the Pacific Northwest, legends of Bigfoot-like creatures date back hundreds of years to folklore passed down through generations of Native American tribes, but they’ve persisted into the present day. In urban areas, Barackman estimated, one in five people has a story about a personal encounter or knowledge of someone who saw a sasquatch, but in rural areas, that number is much higher — approaching 100%, he added.

“Most people are afraid to speak up because they don’t want to be thought of as hallucinating or crazy or lying, but they’re not as rare as some people might think,” he said.

And, as his research east of the Mississippi has demonstrated, the sightings aren’t limited solely to the Pacific Northwest.

“They’re like any other large mammal in North America — distributed through likely habitat,” said Barackman, who now devotes his time to the North American Bigfoot Center in Boring, Oregon. “The black bear is an excellent analog for a sasquatch. It’s a large omnivore, the same as a sasquatch, that needs food, water and cover. Wherever black bears live, or where black bears once lived but don’t anymore, you can overlay that habitat with sasquatch reports and get a 99% match.

“For me, education is the most important thing, and after academic acceptance takes place, it would be a shame to see them treated as monsters as they are in horror movies instead of like most great apes. They’re not monsters; they’re big animals, and they should be given a wide berth. I don’t think there’s any reason to fear them, but they should be respected, because if they were out to get us, there would be very few of us left.”

While conversations about local sightings around the dining room at a place like Midland Restaurant aren’t as plentiful as they might be at a meat-and-three in rural Washington state, a lot more folks than the average skeptic might have stories or encounters that can’t be dismissed out of hand.

“With some variability, the stories are honestly about the same, which is what you would expect from a real biological animal,” he said. “Half the time, it happens while a person is driving, when they see one crossing the road or on the side of the road, and it lasts about 2 seconds on average, and they don’t see it again. They’re bewildered, perhaps a little scared, and maybe they tell one or two people, if that.

“Other times, people are camping or hiking, and sometimes it’s a big group of people, and they’ll see one of these things just observing them before it quietly leaves the area, or something happens that they can’t explain — something weird in the woods — and they’ve had a Bigfoot encounter without even realizing it.”

Folks come to events like the inaugural Smoky Mountain Bigfoot Festival, which will feature talks by Bigfoot experts, vendors, live music, children’s activities, a 5K run and more. Cryptozoology is fascinating as a pop culture phenomenon, and Barackman loves laying out the evidence for the creatures’ existence as a Bigfoot researcher — but in many cases, he finds himself playing the role of sasquatch counselor as well.

“They usually ask a lot of questions, but those are only doorways so they can tell me what they think,” he said. “They want to tell me what happened to them, because they want validation, and unfortunately, 95% of the time, my answer is, ‘I don’t know, because I wasn’t there.’ But they want to share with someone who realizes these animals are real, and they want someone to listen who won’t laugh at them.

“I find that most people want to share their story with someone who has a sympathetic ear, and I try to tell them that it’s OK, that they’re not the only one who has seen one of these things, and that it’s perfectly normal. They’re not alone.”

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