Joseph Bongiovanni said he has always been interested in the idea of Sasquatch, but the Kalama man never gave to much weight to the stories of the mysterious creature said to inhabit forests in the Pacific Northwest.
Surely, given modern technology, someone should have proven the species’ existence by now, he thought.
But that all changed in the spring of 2000 during a camping trip in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Bongiovanni and two friends were hiking, looking for a spot to camp, when he spotted a tall, black figure. As soon as Bongiovanni spotted the creature, it took off running.
“It moved like an Olympic sprinter,” Bongiovanni said, “very fast and very fluid.”
From that day on, Bongiovanni was a believer.
“The remote curiosity turned into ‘Holy cow. This is real,’ ” he said. “Now, we have to prove it.
“It’s been a sickness ever since,” he added.
That “sickness” landed Bongiovanni, 39, on the radar of the people at the TV network Animal Planet. This weekend, a filmed expedition by Bongiovanni and two other Sasquatch investigators will air on the two-hour season premiere of the show “Finding Bigfoot,” which begins at 9 p.m. Sunday on Animal Planet.
With his curiosity piqued by the 2000 Sasquatch sighting, Bongiovanni turned his attention to proving to the world that the hairy, bipedal nonhuman primate exists.
About six years ago, Bongiovanni — who works as an ophthalmic assistant at PeaceHealth Medical Group Eye Care in Vancouver — established the Cascades Sasquatch Research Organization. In addition to proving the existence of Bigfoot, Bongiovanni’s group advocates for serious research and federal protection of the species.
The group goes on regular expeditions in the Northwest in hopes of learning the habits and behavioral patterns of Sasquatch. They report everything about the environment — moon phase, temperature, precipitation, location, altitude — and anything they see or hear.
The “Squatchers,” as they call themselves, try to communicate with the creatures through calls and wood knocks.
The calls are loud, almost-howls. The Squatchers give out a call and wait for a return call. Typically, a Sasquatch will only respond once, Bongiovanni said. Bongiovanni hasn’t had much luck getting a return call, but his wife, Diana, has had success, he said.
The creatures also use wood knocks to communicate with one another, similar to the knocks done by apes. Like calling, the Squatchers knock and wait for knocks in return. Bongiovanni has had success with knocking, getting several responses before the forest goes quiet, he said.
But, overall, interaction is rare, Bongiovanni said.
“It’s very few and far between,” he said. “You get lucky with something once every 10 times.”
During a February expedition, Bongiovanni had his third Bigfoot sighting. His second sighting came in 2013, when he spotted a large silhouette while driving back from a hike near Mount St. Helens.
The February sighting occurred on an expedition to the west side of Mount St. Helens. Bongiovanni and a new member to his organization were walking along a river when they heard something pacing them in the woods. A short time later, a rock came flying toward them from the brush. A thermal camera picked up the warm rock lying in the road.
As they continued walking, Bongiovanni spotted a pale silhouette. When he lifted his flashlight toward the figure, it took off running, he said.
“That one actually made me even more sick in the head,” Bongiovanni said. “It was without a doubt.”
That encounter is what led to Bongiovanni’s upcoming appearance on “Finding Bigfoot.”
Bongiovanni sent a report about the incident to a Bigfoot researcher, who passed the report onto a producer at Animal Planet. The producer reached out to Bongiovanni soon after.
“It just kept snowballing from there,” Bongiovanni said.
On Memorial Day, Bongiovanni and two others — James “Bobo” Fay, a field researcher with Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, and Matt Moneymaker, the organization’s founder — set out for an expedition in the Olympic Peninsula with an Animal Planet camera crew in tow.
The upcoming episode pits U.S. Squatchers against their counterparts in Canada. The U.S. group headed into the woods at about 8:30 p.m. and didn’t return to base camp until about 6 a.m. The cameras followed the group as they called and knocked.
Bongiovanni said he can’t reveal what, if anything, happened on the expedition. But the episode’s video preview shows Bongiovanni reacting to movement on a thermal camera the group had set up in the woods.
“What it is, I can’t say,” Bongiovanni said. “You’ll have to watch.”