T.J. Biscardi and his team were making their way through a seemingly ordinary wooded area in rural Crawford County just east of Cambridge Springs last week.
They made careful note of their surroundings, on the lookout for possible signs of their quarry. The afternoon rain had stopped, but the downpour made it difficult to distinguish possible footprints from the effects of runoff. What looked like a possible heelprint was more likely to be the hoofprint of a horse, Biscardi said as the group stopped for a closer look.
Sticks placed in unlikely positions - perfectly upright in the ground, for instance - and saplings twisted abnormally in ways that couldn't have been caused by weather or animals lacking opposable thumbs - phenomena like this provided potentially more convincing evidence that the target of their search had been in the area. And this evidence was definitely present, Biscardi said, as the group plunged deeper into the woods off Hogback Road.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
No effort was made to mask the group's sounds. The likelihood of an encounter with their prey was low.
After all, the creature is known to be nocturnal, Biscardi said.
Watch out, Sasquatch, the hunt for Bigfoot in Crawford County is on.
Fortunately for the residents of Crawford County, that hunt is being led by T.J.'s father, Carmine "Tom'' Biscardi. Calling himself "The Godfather of Bigfoot,'' Tom Biscardi has been hunting the legendary creature for 50 years since he saw the famous footage of an ape-like creature walking upright through the northern California forest broadcast on "The Tonight Show'' in 1967.
In addition to being T.J.'s father, Tom is the grandfather of Tommy _ three generations of Bigfoot hunters on the prowl in the northern reaches of the county, determined to not only prove the existence of the creature so many believe is a hoax, but to bring back definitive proof.
"I want a creature,'' T.J. Biscardi said. "I'm done with pictures, done with prints, done with hair samples, done with fecal matter.''
"I don't want to be 70 or 80 years old and still have to be proving this,'' he added out of earshot of his father. "I want it to be done.''
To that end of finding an actual Bigfoot creature, dead or alive, the Biscardis' Bigfoot Project Investments is offering a $1 million bounty to anyone who provides "information leading to the capture or delivery of a bona fide Bigfoot.'' The family's "Searching for Bigfoot'' team follows up on as many as 30 reports of sightings all over the country each day. Many of them, T.J. admitted, are "crank calls,'' but some are not so easily dismissed.
"We're the only Bigfoot hunters with boots on the ground 10 months out of the year,'' Tom said in the Brooklyn accent that remains thick despite decades in northern California. He was stationed on the front porch of the Morgan family residence, entertaining reporters from Meadville and Erie with tales of his half-century hunting the creature and his seven face-to-face encounters with what he claims were bona fide Bigfoot creatures. Kevin and Robin Morgan first invited the Biscardi team to their farm last fall after Robin saw an immense creature covered in thick black hair walk across their yard and into the woods.
"This thing was not a bear,'' Robin insisted. "It was massive.''
After they checked out the Morgans' initial reports, the Biscardis planned an in-depth investigation for this year at a time when the creatures were likely to be migrating.
"There's not just one,'' Biscardi explains from his seat beside several rather large "museum-quality castings'' of three-toed feet. "There's about 8,000 in North America alone.''
As Biscardi held court on the porch, T.J. was leading the rest of his team through the woods as they set up bait and thermal-imagery cameras. Their hope was that later that night the ordinary-looking woods would come alive with the sounds of creatures "tree-knocking'' and "vocalizing'' to communicate and as they searched for food. The peanut butter-and-sardines bait was carefully suspended from trees at a height unreachable by humans but well within the grasp of the hairy humanoid creatures.
As they identified a likely "runway'' that the creature use through the woods, Kevin Morgan spotted what he thought might be a "tree twist'' - the unnatural twisting of a tree or sapling associated with the creatures.
"Debunk, debunk, debunk,'' T.J. reminded Morgan, explaining the mindset he sees as necessary for the committed Bigfoot hunter. The twisted tree, he said, was likely the result of lightning rather than evidence of the creature whose existence people have been trying and failing to prove for decades. Years of experience on the hunt have helped him distinguish between meaningful evidence and random noise.
Bigfoot hunting can be boring, T.J. admits, since it consists of 99.99 percent disappointment. The Biscardis have had their fair share of disappointment, most famously in 2008, when Biscardi supported the claims of two Georgia men who said they had found an authentic Bigfoot corpse and had stored it in a freezer. The supposed Bigfoot turned out to be a rubber suit. Today, Biscardi claims he was hoodwinked by the men and lost more than $100,000 as a result of the hoax.
T.J. Biscardi can relate to those who doubt stories of Sasquatch in general as well as those who doubt his father in particular.
"I was my father's biggest skeptic,'' he recalled as he walked through the woods. If kids make fun of other kids who believe in fanciful holiday traditions a little too long, he said, imagine what they do to kids who believe in Bigfoot.
But T.J.'s skepticism was dispelled nine years ago when he experienced the 0.01 percent of Bigfoot hunting that is sheer terror and excitement. After what might be called a "come to Bigfoot'' moment, he said he finally came to believe that his father had been right all those years.
Near Paris, Texas, having decided to help his father out after lots of cajoling, he decided to put an end to what he assumed was his father's trickery.
"I was going to get the guy with the monkey suit and show my dad- Scooby Dooby Doo,'' he said, comparing his plan to the formulaic ending of the kids cartoon that so often ended with the mystery-solving dog and his companions tearing the mask off of this week's dastardly criminal.
Instead, he claimed, as he ran toward the man in the suit, it became clear it was some sort of animal.
"I'm screwed,'' the unarmed T.J. thought to himself as he said he came within a few feet of the creature. "It looked at me and kind of tilted its head. Then it just walked away.''
In the nine years since the encounter, T.J. has left a career in real estate and joined his father's team full-time.
Tom Biscardi can relate to his son's response. He claimed to have come within about 12 feet of a large creature, though not as large as people tend to report _ their imaginations get the better of them, he said. The experience, he said simply, was "euphoric.''
Though that encounter was years ago, Biscardi still seemed to be riding the euphoria this week as he was back on the hunt. He even had a message for those who are still skeptical, like his son used to be.
"Any time they want to come out and see the real deal,'' he said, "they're invited.''
This article is a contribution from the The Meadville Tribune.