Fred Beck meets the YMCA

I’ve had some fairly awesome used-bookstore finds recently. The first, Nobody Meets Bigfoot by Marian T. Place, is a 1976 kids’ story about a boy who goes on a bigfoot expedition up Bluff Creek with his adventurous grandma. The second is this homely little volume.

P1030017

The Story of Lige Coalman, Victor H. White, St. Paul’s Press, 1972

Little did I know that this tome would claim to contain the “true story” behind one of the most famous bigfoot stories ever told.  Anyway, I happened to pick up the book and opened it to a chapter entitled “Great Apes of Western America.” Huh? Yes please! I immediately sat down and read the chapter, which is only a couple of pages long, and reads in part:

In December 1965, the San Francisco Chronicle adorned its front page with an article and pictures of a beast or ape-man, supposed to explain what certain persons had seen in the McKenzie Pass – Three Sisters area of Oregon. At various times, generally with several years intervening, a giant ape has reportedly been seen in the western mountains. These sightings have been reported in southwest Canada, from several locations in Washington, at least two places in Oregon and certainly one or more times in Northern California. The beast, according to the article in the Chronicle, stands seven to ten feet tall, is covered with fur and possibly has supernatural mental characteristics which enable it to avoid sight by human beings and communication with them.

No one has ever captured one. No one has ever killed one. A dead one has never been seen. The several photographs which have been taken are at best inconclusive and lacking in exact location authenticity. Yet, stories purporting to evidence the existence of this creature have appeared in such respected publications as the San Francisco Chronicle, several adventure magazines and in some purportedly true publications, including the Readers’ Digest.

If all that has been printed and told of the western mountain ape-man is fiction and the creature does not exist, it would tend to prove that civilized man cannot easily face fact and part with illusions. It indicates that man, even now, as in ancient times, tends to conjure up evil spirits, create demons and struggle against imaginary monsters long after he has conquered those existing. … The ape man is mentioned here in this brief separate chapter to call attention to the fact that Stephen Coalman, the father, never heard of the fabled creature. The author can find in no library, diary or conversation of any traveler on the Oregon Trail any indication that anyone ever saw or heard of this ape-man. No western trapper, soldier or cowboy dreamed him up at any early date. When the west was wild, uninhabited, native and raw, the ape-man simply did not exist.

It seems the author, White, is a bit skeptical of hairy hominoids in the Pacific Northwest. White goes on to mention that the ape-man topic will be revisited in a later chapter, so the book came home with me.

Elijah “Lige” Coalman was a ranger and explorer of the Mt. Hood region in the early part of the twentieth century. His father, the aforementioned Stephen, had come west on the Oregon Trail in the 1850s.

In the 1920s, Lige Coalman fell in with the YMCA and led youth camping expeditions for the organization. Chapter fifteen, Lige Becomes Active in the YMCA, tells the following tale, which White claims is the “birth” of the ape-man legend.

Perhaps the legend of the Pacific Slope tall, hairy and clairvoyant ape originated before the time of Lige Coalman. If so, I have never been able reliably to trace even such a rumor, although I have heard claims of almost every kind that the human mind can imagine.

Author White goes on to say that, in 1926, Coalman served as a YMCA camp counselor in the Mt. St. Helens region; specifically, on the edge of that landmark known as Ape Canyon. The following is quoted by White from Coalman’s writings:

It was traditional with the boys at camp to roll rocks down the canyon wall, a thrilling experience to see such boulders hurtling through space, sometimes bursting in mid-air and always shattering into hundreds of pieces upon contact with the canyon floor.

One day, according to Coalman, two prospectors from Kelso, Washington, chose to camp in the canyon. They fixed up a rough lean-to shelter near the canyon’s wall. Here is where the bigfoot-savvy reader begins to suspect Coalman and White are referring to the notorious “Ape Canyon incident” as described by prospector Fred Beck. Beck had claimed that a group of bigfoot tormented the camp he shared with friends, and that the men spent a harrowing night in an armed standoff with the creatures. It is one of the most-often cited tales in the bigfoot canon.

Coalman writes,

One evening, after dinner, just at sunset, a camping party of boys started rocks over the cliff. Great boulders began bouncing around the valley floor in front of the (prospectors’) cabin. Some dust and small pebbles even rattled onto the roof.

The prospectors, of course, ran out of their shelter to see what was happening. Coalman continues,

Looking up, they found themselves staring into the glare of the setting sun. In this super-sensitive and dazzling lighting arrangement, these superstitious old-timers saw grotesque figures with elongated arms and legs performing weird dances and incantations at an elevation so high and in surroundings so strange and insurmountable from that side of the mountain, that it never occurred to them that human habitation was possible. They concluded that they had unknowingly invaded the habitat of some colony of grotesque and powerful ape-men, who were capable of hurling massive boulders and who were proving their displeasure at such an invasion of their homeland.

As absurd as this account may sound, it is a well-recorded fact that the two men lost no time in retreating down the Lewis River. On the way they met a forestry patrol horseman, told him of their ape-man theory, and warned that it was dangerous both to man and beast to do any fooling around in that vicinity.

In Kelso, the story was given to the local newspaper. No one will ever know exactly what sometimes moves a reporter or an editor, but it is certainly true that a really spine-curdling story went out to the people of Kelso. The United Press picked it up and it hurtled across continents around the world. … Certainly the Y.M.C.A. Boys were not going to rush out and explain, ‘We were just throwing rocks…’

When the time came that I suggested to the rangers at Spirit Lake, which itself had been named for the mysterious and the supernatural, that the truth be told, I found I had contacted men who possessed both creative impulses and incipient senses of humor.  They also had friends and relatives who were making money in Kelso.

A couple of these rangers immediately set to work preparing huge artificial wooden feet, which they attached to logging boots and snowshoes. It became known that undeniable tracks of the strange furry creatures had been discovered. When this was reported to the rangers, what else could they do but investigate and confirm at the same time that they, themselves, discovered new tracks and unearthed new theories? Kelso’s practical joke had now gone beyond the point of denial and, so far as I know, this will be the first time that the full reliable truth has ever been explained. It is in the undeniable reord that the very sane and very learned men came to Kelso to investigate, and to spend a little of their time and money there. They and their money were both welcomed.

So. According to Coalman, the whole infamous Ape Canyon incident started with a few kids goofing around and a couple of “superstitious old-timers.” Before he knew it, forest rangers were planting prints in an effort to keep the public’s interest and boost the local economy. The Coalman account does not seem entirely outside the realm of plausibility. Never mind the fact that Fred Beck’s story took place in 1924 whereas this one takes place in 1926, and there were more than two prospectors involved in the famous account. Never mind the fact that the history of bigfoot sightings goes back way farther than White wants to admit.  I mean, come on, what do such details matter when you’re dealing with stories as good as this one?

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