It’s no surprise that Dunbar chiropractor Russell Jones, a graduate of the Division of Natural Resources’ Master Naturalist program and a member of a family that hunted, fished and dug ginseng at every opportunity during his childhood, spends most of his free time in the West Virginia woods.
But when Jones has an opportunity to head for the hills, chances are he won’t be packing a fishing rod, a compound bow or a field guide. He’s more likely to be toting a couple of covert, motion-sensitive game cameras and a darkness-activated sound recorder with a six-week power source to leave in terrain he considers likely habitat for a woodland critter deemed mythical by many, but considered highly elusive but very real by Jones and a growing number of Americans.
In addition to being a medical professional, Jones is a Bigfoot researcher and a field investigator of reported sightings of the ape-like creature for the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. He has also appeared on several episodes of Animal Planet’s long-running “Finding Bigfoot” television series, and has literally written the book on West Virginia Bigfoot lore with his recently released “Tracking the Stone Man,” subtitled “West Virginia’s Bigfoot,” published by Oregon’s Willamette City Press.
While Jones has yet to see a Bigfoot, he said he may have had a fairly close encounter with one while he was growing up in farm country surrounded by forest in southeastern Ohio’s Vinton County. At age 12, while on a winter rabbit-hunting trip with a friend, Jones came across a line of what appeared to be barefoot human footprints in the snow, leading to a hillside cave.
“I had the sense that whatever had made the tracks had been weathering out the snow in that cave and heard us coming,” Jones said, since a second set of fresh tracks could be seen exiting the cave and then continuing up a hillside, away from the two young hunters.
The following summer, Jones and an uncle had been fishing at a beaver pond near the head of a nearby hollow when an animal could be heard descending the brushy slope of an adjacent hillside. The two anglers initially thought the visitor was a deer, watching them and waiting for a chance get a drink of water in the pond, until “monkey-like” screams pierced the silence followed by the sounds of someone or something shaking some brush. After a moment, the din from across the pond stopped and silence returned, leaving Jones and his uncle scratching their heads over what they had heard.
Later that year, Jones was watching television when an episode of “In Search Of” hosted by Leonard Nimoy was playing, featuring a segment about a mysterious animal called Bigfoot. “That’s when I began wondering of the tracks I had seen or the screams that we heard could have had anything to do with Bigfoot,” Jones said.
But before Jones could spend much time pondering the topic, study got in the way, starting with four years of college in Indiana and several more in Iowa before earning a doctorate and establishing a chiropractic practice in the Charleston area.
In West Virginia, Jones resumed his meanderings in the woods, completed his Master Naturalist requirements and began reading and thinking about Bigfoot again. He attended a Bigfoot conference in Ohio, which proved to be an eye-opener in a number of ways, including his first exposure to what he calls “Bigfoot culture and politics.”
At the conference, he wrote, there was a group of people like him, who believe Bigfoot is an as-yet undiscovered primate, whose philosophy clashes with that of what Jones calls the “ghost hunters” who believe the creature is essentially a ghost, the “paranormalists” whose beliefs are often referred to by others as “woo,” and a third group that considers Bigfoot to be an alien or a separate creature somehow linked to UFOs.
Jones began following the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization’s website, saw that a BFRO-led public Bigfoot expedition had been scheduled, and decided to take part, giving him the chance to meet BFRO founder and “Finding Bigfoot” host Matt Moneymaker and Cliff Barrackman, a long-time Sasquatch researcher who is also a member of the “Finding Bigfoot” cast.
After the expedition, Jones became a BFRO researcher, investigating sighting reports in West Virginia and southeast Ohio, and eventually leading the “Finding Bigfoot” crew to “Squatchy” but scenic film locations and making on-camera appearances in the two states during multiple episodes shot here.
“One thing I wanted to make sure of was that if people watching the show remembered just one thing, it would be how rugged and beautiful West Virginia is,” Jones said. “I think the show did a good job of presenting the state as a place people would want to visit.”
Jones has since led public Bigfoot expeditions on his own and has appeared as a speaker at various Bigfoot searchers’ gatherings, including the Ohio Bigfoot Conference, where he was first introduced to both Bigfoot culture and the cast of “Finding Bigfoot.”
“Tracking the Stone Man,” named after the American Indian name for the large, man-like beings believed to have lived along the fringes of their settlements in this region, includes a number of what Jones considers the most credible West Virginia sightings of Bigfoot.
They include an encounter between a deer hunter and a suspected Bigfoot near Camp 70 parking area in Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in 2008, during which the hunter heard brush breaking in the near distance, went to investigate, and scoped a hairy, 6-foot-tall primate staring back at him; an off-duty state policeman and his wife who spotted what was described as an 8-foot-tall all-black primate standing to the side of the ATV trail on which they were riding, from a distance of about 30 yards, not far from Shady Spring in Raleigh County in 2009; and the 2011 sighting of a suspected Bigfoot crossing Interstate 64 and narrowly avoiding being struck by a truck between the Lewisburg and Alta exits by a Charleston man and his son, who passed within 50 feet of the creature.
“Probably 90 to 95 percent of the reports BFRO receives involve incidents that can be explained by things other than Bigfoot,” Jones said. “But out of every 100, there will be a couple that can’t be identified as something else, and involve credible witnesses with compelling accounts who are teachers, doctors, electricians or law enforcement officers. Some of these people have been traumatized by what they’ve seen.”
Credible eyewitness accounts along with photos and casts of tracks and sound recordings that appear to match the mysterious primate have led Jones to conclude that Bigfoot is more likely a real, rather than mythical being.
“But I don’t think the question will ever be laid to rest until someone finds a body,” Jones said. “How else can you be totally convinced?”
Jones said he looks forward to the day when Bigfoot’s presence is confirmed. “I would love to be able to tell everyone ‘I told you so,’” he said with a laugh.
“With my book, I’m not trying to convince people that Bigfoot exists — I’m just hoping to convince people to keep an open mind on the subject.”
But until the day someone finds a Bigfoot body that stands up to scientific examination, Jones said he won’t tire of the hunt.
“Spending all this time out in the woods in some of the most beautiful places in the country is good for me,” he said.
“Tracking the Stone Man — West Virginia’s Bigfoot” by Dr. Russell L. Jones is available for $11.99 at Amazon.com.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.