Emma Poole, Salvatore Ambrosino
Cones and barricades lined the way across an empty paved lot toward entrance two of RP Funding Center. The unassuming exterior of the event gave no clue that for many Bigfoot enthusiasts across the state of Florida, this was Mecca.
Jan. 22, marked the annual Great Florida Bigfoot Conference — an annual event that for Florida Sasquatch hunters and believers, represents solidarity among a group dedicated to finding out the truth behind cryptid sightings.
Behind all the cowboy hats, hiking boots and cameras that clogged the halls, several Sasquatch experts waited to share their experiences at a group of tables known as Researcher’s Row.
There they sat — people who had devoted their life to discovering more about Bigfoot — ready to discuss what they have witnessed.
In the middle of all the commotion sat a man behind a table stacked with books, movies, CDs and bottles of Sasquatch hot sauce. The vinyl banner hanging behind him revealed that he was Lyle Blackburn, an acclaimed Bigfoot researcher.
“I live in Texas, so I live about three hours from where the infamous legend of Boggy Creek took place, and that is essentially reports of a Sasquatch-like creature in Southern Arkansas,” Blackburn said.
Boggy Creek was an incident that shaped Blackburn’s interest in Bigfoot.
“They made a movie called The Legend of Boggy Creek that came out in 1972, which has kind of become a famous case as far as Bigfoot, and especially Bigfoot in the South.”
Blackburn wasn’t the only one at Researcher’s Row who has long been fascinated by Bigfoot.
“My interest started at the age of 7, seeing the Patterson-Gimlin film,” Sidoti said. This film was the first documentation of Bigfoot, captured in 1967 by two Bigfoot hunters in California.
Sidoti is still waiting to have a Sasquatch encounter. “I have never had eye-to-eye contact with a Bigfoot, but I’ve seen and heard everything that they do, been in areas where they’ve been, I just haven’t personally laid eyes on one yet.”
“It’s something that I’ve always believed in, even as a young man,” Dr. Bill Hewitt said. “People are seeing things—they can’t all be lying.”
In the field, they call him “the doctor.” Hewitt is a cryptozoologist. He studies animals that fall under the catagories of well-known and extinct to little known and mythic. He’s been the boots on the ground in the search for Bigfoot in Miami for a decade.
“There’s been so many good researchers over the years,” Hewitt said.
He went back to school at the age of 65 and found a course on cryptozoology.
On his chest sit two skunk-ape sightings like pins.
Hewitt says that conventions like the one in Lakeland are that much more important since the coverage of Bigfoot sightings has been few and far apart. Rarely are the claims taken seriously. But Hewitt also says he likes the skeptics.
“The skeptics help keep us honest,” Hewitt said. “I know a lot of people who do research who get a little carried away. So it keeps us honest.”