CASS COUNTY, Minn. — Abe Del Rio parked his SUV on the side of a gravel road, off a gravel road, off another gravel road in the Chippewa National Forest, where the buzz of mosquitoes is as bad as their bite.
He doused himself in bug spray until his skin shined — he goes through gallons, he said — and pulled gear from the back of his Chevrolet Equinox: a bat with the circumference of a soda can and the length of a souvenir, a high-end camera, pepper spray and a belt.
The belt, in this case, is just a belt.
It keeps his pants from falling down, Del Rio said.
This, too, is tied to his work with the Minnesota Bigfoot Research Team, which he founded and where he serves as lead investigator. In 2001, Del Rio had a Class B encounter with a Bigfoot, and he was still green enough to run rather than face the figure crashing in the Ohio woods. There he was, sprinting 50 yards back to his car, beltless, trying to keep his pants from falling down.
Del Rio, now in the Sasquatch game for 20 years, and his squad are hosting the Minnesota Bigfoot Conference this weekend in Grand Rapids. It’s three days of Bigfoot stories, guest speakers and night hikes in a region of the United States billed by some as a prime territory for sightings.
Del Rio recently made a mid-week trip to the Chippewa National Forest near Remer, Minn. — a small town, less than 30 miles from Grand Rapids, with a special distinction.
It’s billed as “The Home of Bigfoot.”
Del Rio estimates there are 1,000 Bigfoot creatures in the state, primarily in the dense, wooded areas of northern Minnesota.
Giving Bigfoot a home
Marc Ruyak, who grew up in Remer, left his hometown and then returned. He is a local businessman and community leader who made a push to connect the town with its history of Bigfoot sightings. His first thoughts of branding started in 2009, when hunters north of Remer — self-described skeptics — found inexplicable footage on their trail cam: a long-armed, upright being walking past their hidden recorder.
The video made national news.
For the next five years, stories of sightings continued to pile up, like the figure that tossed a 10-foot log into a tree or the bipedal creature spotted through a cabin window.
“The biggest thing that we wanted to do, and that has really taken hold, is to let people know that if you have a story or a sighting, you won’t be made fun of when you come to Remer, Minnesota, and tell your story about Bigfoot,” Ruyak said. “Because there are a lot of people around here who have seen him, heard him, have had things happen at their homes, at their cabins, at the lakes. You’ll always be welcome here to tell your Bigfoot story.”
He did the paperwork to trademark the town, which has a population of just more than 400 and is pro-Bigfoot, according to Ruyak. An annual summer Bigfoot festival was formed — though this year it was canceled because of the pandemic. People traveling to or through Remer are welcomed with a tall, dark Sasquatch cutout and a sign: “Home of Bigfoot.” Its website is homeofbigfoot.com. The town’s Main Street includes Thrifty, Nifty & New — a shop with a rack of Bigfoot T-shirts — and there is a small statue outside Woodsman Cafe.
Swag headquarters, however, is Ruyak’s own Bigfoot Gas & Gifts. The back half of the store is filled with souvenirs: sweatpants, stuffed Bigfoot toys, water bottles and whimsical signs ranging from an image of Bigfoot showering to “Warning: do not taunt Sasquatch.”
The Bigfoot air fresheners smell like pine, and not at all the way Del Rio describes the creature’s essence: wet dog, wet deer, rotten eggs, feces, cabbage, sulfur, swamp and old blood.
The store’s centerpiece is a true-to-life-size Sasquatch statue, a human-ape hybrid, muscular, with the signature stance: big foot forward, hairy head turned. Barb Raines, who has worked at the store since it opened, calls him "Fred."
When investigators from the Animal Planet series “Finding Bigfoot” made their third trip to Minnesota, they landed in Remer. The episode, which aired in 2017, featured both Del Rio and Ruyak.
The reality show’s crew met Remer-area siblings who once saw a massive figure swoop up a deer and run off into the woods, and a fisherman who watched Bigfoot crash along the edge of the water and later found its footprints.
After several days of wood-knocks, calls and examining locations of previous sightings, the “Finding Bigfoot” team was willing to call Remer “A Home of Bigfoot” — maintaining some loyalty toward their roots in the Pacific Northwest.
A Sasquatch sighting is on Raines’ bucket list. She shares a checkout counter with a guestbook thick with signatures from people around the world. They have a framed photograph of a Bigfoot fan from Puerto Rico wearing a "Home of Bigfoot" T-shirt. She has heard hair-raising stories, she said. Raines hunts and fishes, and she has seen things that could be signs, such as tree formations and paths that definitely aren’t deer paths.
Still, she needs more before she will say "yes" to Sasquatch.
“I can neither confirm nor deny,” she said. “I would like a nice confirmation. It would be interesting to see.”
Class B experience
Del Rio has been Sasquatch-curious since he was a kid and his mother likened the woodland creature to the gorillas that awed him at the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul. Del Rio read articles and books and studied images from the famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film that some, including Del Rio, believe shows a female Bigfoot striding through a clearing.
“Even as an adult, it’s like, ‘wow,’ reliving that as a kid,” he said. “It scared me back then. So, I don’t know if this is a thing of me facing my fears or what, but I definitely have a huge interest in it.”
He began to research Bigfoot more fervently and to collect stories — like the friend’s grandmother who saw a red-eyed Bigfoot peeking in her window.
“I got sucked in like quicksand or a black hole — I found out I have a lot more questions than I have answers for,” he said.
In 2001, Del Rio went to Ohio — then a hotbed of reported activity — with friends to check out an area nicknamed the "Sasquatch Triangle." It was daytime and partly cloudy, with a touch of rain. Del Rio and his fellow researcher were about 50 yards from their car when they heard a noise, he said.
“It was either a tree limb or a tree itself being snapped,” he said. “Then we started hearing heavy bipedal footprints. Unmistakably two legs, and it’s almost like you could feel it, too.”
They ditched back toward the car. But Del Rio, who was carrying a Polaroid camera around his neck, saw an opportunity.
“This could be the shot of a lifetime — even with a Polaroid camera,” he recalled thinking.
He stopped. He flipped open the camera. He waited for a visual, he said.
His friend, who had a better vantage point, yelled to him that the figure was almost on him.
“I’m looking up at him, and his eyes are as wide as saucers. His face looks like he’s seen a monster, and I’m still hearing these footsteps coming closer, and whatever is stepping on the foliage, the branches, the leaves; it’s getting closer,” Del Rio said.
Later, safe in the car, his friend described the figure as being about 7-7½ feet tall with red hair, running from tree to tree. He took his eyes off it for a second and lost it. In Bigfoot hunting parlance: His friend’s visual is Class A, his own is Class B — the highest he has achieved.
Del Rio, who lives in Forest Lake, Minn., travels with a small bat, which he uses to strike tree trunks — a communication tool. Then he waits 30 seconds to a minute, maybe more, for a similar sound in return. His Bigfoot call is a deep siren sound that goes on and on. His parabolic disc amplifies sounds — including the guttural animal noises of Bigfoot, which once brought a Bigfoot hunter to happy tears.
He has a thermal imaging camera and the ability to make videos in the dark of the deep woods.
For this trip to the Chippewa National Forest, he has brought castings of large feet, hands and a Bigfoot’s knuckles.
Del Rio dives into the thick of the woods, off the beaten ATV path. He looks for prints within wet earth, and he studies trees in an "X" formation — seemingly a sign of Bigfoot, but he’s not sure what it means. He is quick to note when the shape was obviously made by falling branches and wind.
On this mid-week visit, there is no concrete evidence of a Bigfoot. No response from the knocks or Del Rio’s siren call. The earth is too dry for prints. A certain formation of downed trees, though, interests him.
“It does raise an eyebrow,” he said.
The goal of his 11-member team, Del Rio said, is to find enough evidence to prove Bigfoot exists — to protect the creature and its land.
“It all started as a hobby, and then it turned into an obsession,” he said. “I was sleeping Bigfoot, reading all about it. Now it’s more of a passion.”
The Minnesota Bigfoot Conference is this weekend, Aug. 7-9, at Timberlake Lodge Hotel in Grand Rapids, Minn. Tickets start at $20, available at eventbrite.com. For more information, find the Minnesota Bigfoot Research Team on Facebook.