NORTH BONNEVILLE — Leaving Clark County on Highway 14, a traveler enters a foreboding land.
Even on warm summer days, mist clings to the dark trees framing the road. Then there’s Beacon Rock, the towering monolith.
And a few miles beyond the rock, a mythical creature stands by the highway — Bigfoot.
On second sight the 12-foot figure hewn from cedar doesn’t look threatening. The ape-man’s giant paw lovingly rests on a baby Sasquatch’s shoulder. A few hundred yards deeper into the hamlet of North Bonneville, a whole family of the creatures plays among the oak trees.
The Bigfoot collection is the work of Ken Craig, a Washougal wood carver. The statues were commissioned by the city of North Bonneville to attract visitors and educate locals about the unique ecosystem in their backyards.
The 15 Sasquatches of all ages are lined up along one of several trails in the unusual town. North Bonneville was designed from the ground up after the original town had to be moved a few miles in the late 1970s to make way for a new powerhouse at the nearby dam. The new town was laid out in a parklike setting with about 13 miles of trails between the homes, said Tom Jermann, a planner for the city.
About four years ago, the city installed interpretive signs along some of its trails that explain the particular environment here, Jermann said. The park in the center of town is an oak savannah with stands of Oregon White Oak. The trees, which once covered the western valleys of Oregon and Washington, have been edged out by conifers since European settlers suppressed natural wildfires, according to information from the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The oaks in North Bonneville are home to several threatened species that can only survive in the knotted trees, including western gray squirrels and certain woodpeckers.
City officials wanted to tell tourists and residents, especially the children, what a special place they’re in. Naturally, they reached for Bigfoot to help them get the kids’ attention. Skamania County, which includes the small town, takes its Yetis seriously, at least for marketing purposes. The county government years ago issued an ordinance on the “possible existence” of apelike creatures in its forests, making it a felony to kill them.
The man who carved the statues out of logs has a history with Bigfoot, too.
Ken Craig moved to Washougal four years ago. He previously lived in Gold Beach,
Ore., and California. He’s made other Bigfoot statues, one of which stands in the apeman mecca of Willow Creek, Calif., and has been featured in many photos and films, Craig said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he fully believes in the mythical creatures’ existence. But he doesn’t dismiss them, either.
“I want to believe it,” Craig said. “Just because we haven’t found evidence doesn’t mean they’re not there. I’m open-minded.”
He said working on the Bigfoot family was “really fun.” He began carving up logs for the project around Christmas. The last of the creatures — the large one right by the highway — was set in place last month.
One of the joys of Craig’s job was perfectly illustrated during the raising of the tallest statue. Right after it was put in place, a school bus full of kids happened to pull up, Craig said. The children immediately flocked to Bigfoot, he said.
“It was a complete hit,” he said.
He’s seen similar reactions to his other creations. Much of his work makes people smile, he said. That would be the sculptures he calls “whimsical,” the bears and beavers sliced out of the wood with a chain saw.
Craig also makes finer art, museum-quality pieces that require hours of chiseling with small tools. He sells most of it through word of mouth, he said.
Craig “started messing” with wood sculptures about 25 years ago. “I haven’t stopped,” he said with a laugh, standing in his outdoor work space in the forest above Washougal.
He had a swift business selling carvings to tourists when he lived in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Living near a large metropolitan area now, his business model has changed drastically, for the better. Almost all of his work now is on commission, much of it custom pieces.
“This is more personal,” Craig said. “I meet the people, work with them and do pieces in their yards.”
He even carves his art out of stumps left standing on people’s properties after trees were cleared out.
The wood for Craig’s art often comes from private property owners. Back in California, he scavenged the forests for dead trees to get his raw material.
But “trees don’t die up here,” Craig said. “It’s so green.”
He’s taken to buying logs from the public, or trading logs for a sculpture made out of one of an owner’s trees. Craig prefers cedar and redwood for his work, with redwood being rare in these parts. They’re soft and easy to work on, yet last very well in the local climate, due to natural preservatives in the wood that keep them from rotting, Craig said.
There’s something else for Craig in the trees and the animals he carves out of them: a connection to his heritage. Craig is part Lakota, an American Indian tribe of the Great Plains. He recently found out that Arthur Amiotte, a famous Lakota artist, is his second cousin.
Working with the natural medium and turning it into pieces depicting animals native to these forests brings Craig closer to his roots, he said.
“(My Lakota heritage) is a big part of everything I do,” he said.