It Came From the Swamps!

A huge, hairy beast that walks upright and craves lima beans is stalking South Florida's marshland.

When I return alone at 8:30 the next morning, the footprint is still there. A quick measurement confirms that it is, in fact, quite big -- about fourteen inches from its toes to its deep-pressed, water-filled heel, and about five inches across at its ball. It appears to be a right foot. Now I'm left to wonder just what it was we almost encountered last night. With the sun up, it's much harder to imagine a rampaging Skunk Ape loose in these woods. And yet this is about the same time of day that Chief Doerr snapped his now famous picture of a fuzzy, red-brown figure standing right there -- an image that has since appeared on TV news here and abroad and has been picked up by dozens of newspapers and posted on multiple Bigfoot Websites.

Doerr, who retired as chief two months ago, is a paradoxical figure in the Skunk Ape craze. On the one hand, his photograph probably did more than anything else to make the story attractive to tabloid TV shows like Inside Edition, which ran its take on the sightings late last summer. On the other, he thinks the Skunk Ape's most recent appearances are probably hoaxes. "I just think somebody's playing games," Doerr says when asked his opinion of what he saw. Then he gives his stock answer, well practiced after a two-month barrage of calls from reporters as far away as Australia: "All I can say for a fact is that I seen something at 800 feet and took a picture at 400 feet."

Doerr's story of his meeting with the creature is straightforward enough. Unaware that two vans of tourists had seen "Bigfoot" the previous week, he was calmly making his regular Monday-morning drive down Burns Road to the district's main fire station in Everglades City. On the truck seat beside him was his camera, which he always carried in case he had to document a fire or accident scene.

"It came from the left, which is the east," Doerr recalls. "When it crossed the road, it looked like it was taking kind of long steps. When I got to that point [even with it], then I got out with my camera. I yelled and it kind of stopped, turned a little bit, and then it started north. I snapped one picture, which was the first picture on the new roll that I had. I had 23 more, but I just snapped the one, and I looked at [the creature again], and it was kind of a small brown spot."

Deciding that whatever he was looking at was too far away to justify another shot, Doerr got back into his truck and headed on to work. At most, he says, he thought what he had seen would make a funny story to tell that morning at the station. It never occurred to him that he had just jumped with both feet into the world of tabloid media.

The flood began as a trickle that afternoon with a phone call from the local weekly paper, the Everglades Echo. Doerr told reporter Cindy Hackney what he'd seen and that he'd taken a photo of it and offered his opinion that someone was "playing a little situation here." She told him some things he hadn't known: Realtor Jan Brock, one of Doerr's neighbors, had seen the thing a few minutes before he had, crossing Burns Road from west to east. And an hour and a half later, two miles to the west, about twenty tourists in a van driven by Naples Trolley Tours guide John Vickers had experienced a far more intense encounter with the creature.

First they'd glimpsed it from a distance, jogging east to west across Turner River Road, a common sightseeing route. Then, after Vickers pulled off the road to lead most of his passengers a few hundred feet north along the Turner River, the thing popped out of the bushes 30 yards from the van -- frightening the three people who had stayed behind, two women in their thirties and an eight-year-old girl. "The ape man is out there, and he's going to eat me!" Vickers reports the girl screamed when he arrived back at the van, too late to get a close look at the cause of her terror. Vickers cut his tour short, loaded his passengers back into the van, and drove down to the local Everglades City ranger station to report what he'd seen.

It was all great stuff, straight out of a '50s B movie. The Echo ran the story at the top of page one, headlining it "'Beast' Causes Stir." The paper illustrated the account with a pencil sketch that looked suspiciously like Lon Chaney in The Wolf Man. Doerr, though, paid scant attention to the gathering Skunk Ape storm. He didn't even bother to develop his film until ten days later. By that time another player had stepped forward to take charge of the game.

That player was David Shealy, who, along with his brother Jack, co-owns the Florida Panther Gift Shop and the Big Cypress Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee. Located three miles east of where the Tamiami Trail meets the road down to Everglades City, the Shealy brothers' place is a perfect example of that endangered Old Florida institution, the roadside attraction.

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