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From the archives: In pursuit of the famous Swamp Ape

Terry Tomalin stands by a large campfire as he speaks to a group of Boy Scouts about the skunk ape that he says lives in the nearby forest. [Times (1999)]
Published May 20, 2016

Editor's note: This is a column by Terry Tomalin that appeared in print on Oct. 31, 1999.

SOMEWHERE IN THE GREEN SWAMP — The search continues — this time at the nearby Withlacoochee River — for the much-discussed, little-seen beast.

A full moon lit up the pond like a supermarket parking lot. A few feet away, an animal lurked in the shadows of the dense undergrowth at the water's edge.

"I hear something," I said to my assistant. "Get the camera."

Knife in hand, I crawled closer. A couple more feet and I would be famous.

"Man captures Skunk Ape " the tabloids would scream, "and lives to tell the tale."

The creature that had eluded researchers for centuries — Big Foot, Sasquatch, Yeti — was within my grasp. We had been hunting the monster for two days and now the hour had come.

I held my breath and readied my flashlight.

"Ready?" I whispered, but received no response.

My companion, it seemed, had bid a hasty retreat.

I was alone.

Or was I?

Colleagues laughed when I told them I planned to spend three days in the Green Swamp looking for the legendary Pasco Primate.

"Is it a skunk?" my friend Rob asked. "Or is it an ape?"

Evidence suggests it is some sort of hairy hominid, I explained, a bipedal beast, frequently smelled but not seen.

"An opportunistic omnivore, which feeds on roots and berries, and at times, small game," I continued. "Rumor has it they also like lima beans."

Rob, who runs a small deli in Dunedin, handed me a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie.

"If it likes lima beans, it will love one of these," he said.

My friend's response was typical. Most educated people scoff at the idea of an undiscovered vertebrate, especially one living in a state populated by 13 million people.

But history is full of examples of previously unclassified species going mainstream. The mountain gorilla, first reported by an explorer in 1860, was not officially recognized until 1902. So why not a secretive simian hiding on the outskirts of Dade City?

I am not alone in this belief. There is a discipline, albeit a small discipline, dedicated to the discovery and identification of species yet to be classified by science — cryptozoology. Historically, cryptozoologists have focused on "mega monsters" such as the Mokele-mbembe, a supposed living sauropod dinosaur thought to inhabit the Likoula Swamp region of the Congo, and of course, the Loch Ness monster.

But cryptozoologists also have focused on various "wildman" sightings reported from the steppes of China to the swamps of South Florida. My introduction came in 1972 with The Legend of Boggy Creek, a film ignored by critics, which chronicled the exploits of an Arkansas Bigfoot bearing striking resemblance to the Sunshine State's Skunk Ape.

One specimen was rumored to have been captured and held by federal authorities at Everglades National Park in the 1960s. The animal, however, escaped by ramming itself through a concrete wall. Officials made plaster casts of its footprints, which now are locked away in a government vault along with the bodies of aliens collected at the 1947 Roswell incident.

Over the years, cryptozoologists and paranormal researchers have kept meticulous track of the fabled Swamp or Skunk Ape (the terms are used interchangeably). Some of the most recent reports came from Ochopee, where a group of British tourists and their guide reportedly saw a creature "6-foot tall, with long brown hair" walking across a road.

Another report, this one from the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in January 1999, mentioned an animal with a "coned head, wide shoulders and no visible waistline," a description that could fit any number of hunters in the woods that time of year.

But there also have been reports closer to home. In the spring of '66, Mrs. Eula Lewis of Brooksville was chased into her house by a Bigfoot. Several months later, Ralph Chambers spotted a creature with a "rancid, putrid odor" standing in the trees near the Anclote River.

That December, four teenagers in the same area reported that a "smelly Bigfoot with glowing green eyes jumped on the hood of their car." Granted, that was the '60s, and the teenagers' testimony could be attributed to mind-altering drugs. But what about Chambers and Lewis?

That is why the Boy Scouts of America decided to call their yearly gathering "The Bigfoot Wilderness Survival Camporee." The scouts had planned to camp on the outskirts of the Green Swamp, where they would study wilderness survival.

My mission: Give a vivid, no-holds-barred account of the current state of Sasquatch research at a campfire presentation, then send the youngsters off into the woods to sleep.

"You can scare them," the scoutmaster told me. "Just not too much."

So I gathered my camping equipment and secured an assistant, 12-year-old Andrew Mort, a bright lad who shared my passion for cryptozoology and enthusiasm for fine root beer.

"You have nothing to worry about," I told him as we headed toward the swamp. "The Skunk Ape eats mostly roots and berries and the occasional small child."

Our first stop was Pasco County's Withlacoochee River Park, where we met with several members of the local American Indian community.

"Our people always have known about them," said Thunderwalker Wilson, who ran across a Swamp Ape in Sumter County a few years back. "They are curious animals, and as long as you don't bother them, they won't bother you."

That night, Andrew and I camped on the floor of an old cabin and tried to sleep as an unknown animal fed upon the pile of lima beans we had left outside the front door.

"Did you hear that?" I asked Andrew. "Sounds big and hungry. Go see what it is." He declined and pulled the sleeping bag over his head.

The next morning revealed no telltale footprints, but undeterred, I drove to a local convenience store and resupplied myself with Swamp Ape bait.

"Got any moon pies?" I asked the clerk. "No," she replied.

I scanned the shelves and spotted a package of deep fried pork skins, the favorite food of George Bush. "These will do just as well," I said.

Back at the Camporee, we set up our tent at the edge of the pond, far away from the rest of the scouts. We didn't want to take any chances, I told young Andrew, with some rookies chasing off our prey.

That night at the campfire, I told the scouts about my selfless quest for the truth. "As a journalist, paranormal researcher and cryptozoologist, I have dedicated my life to explaining the unexplained "

I told them about the Swamp Ape's horrible odor, sharp teeth and insatiable appetite for the flesh of young boys.

"You should be relatively safe," I said. "As long as the beast has eaten recently."

The scouts retired to their primitive campsites and Andrew and I returned to our tent pitched at the edge of the pond. We were there only a few minutes when I heard a noise in the bushes. Knife in hand, I crept slowly toward my prey ...

"Ready?" I whispered. "Are you ready?"

My assistant, it seems, had disappeared. I turned and shined my flashlight toward the tent. I spotted him heading to the truck. "I'll just wait in the car," he yelled. Then there was a loud crash. I turned, but it was too late. The beast was gone.

Andrew returned and we sat there a moment and considered our options. After a brief discussion, we decided to set out a meal no Swamp Ape could resist: lima beans, pork skins and one of Rob's chocolate chip cookies.

Minutes seemed like hours as, camera and flashlights in hand, we stared out the tent window. Then, without warning, it was morning. We rushed outside to look at our bait.

The lima beans and cookie were gone. All that remained were the pile of pork skins, just as we had left them, which proved, of course, that the Swamp Ape has better taste than the president of the United States.

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