A hoax in which this writer was involved back in the mid-1970s turned out to be widely believed—despite “facts” that were intended to be too far-fetched to be believed.
It started with a conversation at Bill Higdon’s barber shop in Eagle River. Accountant Gerry O’Connor was in one chair, chatting with barber Don Golden. Golden had been on duty there two years earlier when Don Young, a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, stopped by to seek votes. Young lost to Rep. Nick Begich but won the special election held to replace the incumbent who disappeared a couple of days later on a flight to Juneau. Young now is the longest-serving current member in the House. O’Connor was to become a member of the Anchorage Assembly from 1979-85.
Just so you know, all that otherwise mostly-useless information is intended to give you a little background for what follows.
O’Connor on that day announced to those being treated to, or awaiting treatment in, the tonsorial arts that he received a computer print-out listing all federal grants as provided by the state’s new congressman. It filled a large box of continuous-feed printed pages, O’Connor said while offering to let anyone stop by his office to review it.
That, of course, led to a discussion of possible grants that might be sought by the discussion’s participants. One of the suggestions was to seek federal funds to pay for a search for Big Foot.
After all, that was as logical and legitimate a use of our tax money as some of the items the accountant described in the seemingly unending list of approved grants.
The conversation continued even as customers exchanged places in the chairs, all chipping in with various ideas. Searching for Sasquatch was the popular choice as a purpose for the grant and Eagle River Valley seemed an ideal location for the hunt. After an hour or so of heavy debate, the grant purpose and location were decided. The amount to be asked for was still open. Trying to decide the next step led to the question of how much time would be needed to prepare the request and the date when it might be received.
None of the party wanted to wait as long as was being predicted. It was too good a lie to lie idle, one might say. They wanted to get the search underway immediately, themselves volunteering to be the ones tromping through the woods looking for the big guy.
As editor of the local newspaper I decided to go along with the idea. For the next five weeks, the bottom of the front page was devoted to the story.
Maintaining the integrity of the newspaper being of utmost importance, though, the editor wanted to make the whimsical stories hard to believe in hopes its real intent would be recognized.
For example, Golden’s reported discovery of strange tracks led to calculations of the creature’s size and weight. That was done by measuring the footprints in newly fallen snow down to the thirty-seconds of an inch. Those were compared to Golden’s footprint made next to it a week later. Calculations were described as meticulously conducted. The comparison was said to show Big Foot’s height and weight as being—well, let’s just say very tall and heavy—listed, naturally, down to tiny fractions of inches and ounces.
How many people would reasonably think you could measure footprints in powdery snow to the nth degree and come back later to make another measurement upon which to base a comparison? Besides, the made-up figures didn’t even compute.
Apparently, however, a lot of people believed that what you read in the paper was absolute truth. That was before all the talk of “fake news” today, of course.
Circulation increased and the search for Big Foot became a topic of lively general conversation.
Admitting that the story was without basis would end the series prematurely. That wasn’t in line with the intentions of the plotters. There was a plan for the culmination of the hoax.
Subsequent editions had more search details and an out-of-focus picture of Joe Kapella, a sheet of fake fur draped over him, in the trees behind the newspaper office. It wasn’t hard to get a fuzzy photo because the photographer was laughing very hard when the shutter was snapped. Story details continued to be made as outrageous and unbelievable as possible.
The search report just before the final one apparently accomplished the goal of strongly hinting of a hoax. One subscriber called to say that his father back East had been closely following the search for Big Foot. The caller said he didn’t know if he could sue me if it turned out to be fake, but he would try. (It was, but he didn’t.) The pastor of a local church sent a note cancelling his subscription. He only had one week left on it, so a quarter was sent as a refund, but did not include an apology.
The final outcome was Big Foot’s capture.
Kapella, dressed in the fake fur costume, was placed in a cage and paraded on a flatbed truck through downtown Eagle River. It was the day of the Snow Ball sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. In a ceremony at the ball, Miss Chugiak-Eagle River turned “Big Foot” loose.
As a result of the closely followed story and the number of people who believed it despite the preposterous assertions contained therein, the decision was made by the editor to never again participate in a false story.
That vow was broken once, after the Matanuska Valley newspaper made its second attempt to move into the Chugiak-Eagle River market. Its first competitive attempt was to put a new front and back page, bearing an Eagle River nameplate, on its regular Valley edition. This next invasion, coming out as the Eagle River Sun, involved unvarnished plagiarism. It took stories we had published a week earlier, put the second sentence as the first in each paragraph, using the first as the second sentence, and continued word for word throughout.
Our personal and professional outrage brought to mind a long-past Alaskan journalistic event. In it, a Southeast daily newspaper retaliated craftily to a similar tactic used by a new weekly in its town.
In an attempt to trick the interlopers, I inserted a fake story saying that prospector Swen Nelots had found gold in Eklutna Valley.
They didn’t bite. The name Swen Nelots was taken from the Southeast paper’s effort which actually did humiliate its competitor. You can see that Swen Nelots, spelled backwards, is “stolen news.”
Choosing Sasquatch as the basis for the hoax by the Eagle River barbershop quartet was a good one. Google that name for Big Foot and you’ll find all kinds of references. There is even an extensive Alaska blog dedicated to the big guy—www.sasquatchtracker.com.
Ten years or so after our own Big Foot adventure, the movie “Harry and the Hendersons” hit the big screens.
It is a favorite of my bride and mine and features John Lithgow as a man who takes Harry the Big Foot home and Don Ameche as a Sasquatch museum curator who had given up hope of ever finding the creature. It has a great moral and ends happily.
If there is a moral to this column it has to be that most people DO believe what they read. Not every writer today sticks strictly to facts. Unfortunately, as far as the journalism profession is concerned, unrecognized bias can twist truth into an unintended hoax.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.