THE BELIEVERS WAITED patiently in a line that crawled across the expansive lobby of the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
After being fitted with admission bracelets (emblazoned with their hero's hairy face), they made fresh tracks into a theater where a charismatic master of ceremonies made them feel right at home.
“Out there in the real world you tell your story and what happens? Everyone starts to crack jokes and make fun of you,’’ Ryan Golembeske of the Travel Channel's Expedition Bigfoot said Saturday, stomping across the stage with a hand-held microphone.
“Here you’re safe. Here we all share your corner. Look beside you and see people who will want to go in the woods and call out into the night and want something to call back to you.’’
Welcome to the inaugural Great Florida Bigfoot Conference, a daylong Sasquatchpalooza that attracted about 1,000 believers of the elusive bipedal creature known by household aliases such as Sasquatch, Skunk Ape and Yeti.
The Youkey Theater was about half full for Golembeske’s welcoming remarks on July 10, but only because hundreds more were either still waiting to get in or prowling the dozens of vendor tables outside the theater.
Like a pop-up Wal-mart stocked with all things sasquatch, you name it, chances are one of the vendors was selling it.
Bigfoot earrings, Bigfoot golf covers, Sasquatch Hot Sauce, replica Skunk Ape plaster footprints, Sasquatch Field Guides, Sasquatch koozies, Bigfoot wood carvings, Bigfoot coasters, Bigfoot bottle openers.
Even the conference signage and posters were sold in a silent auction.
“Isn’t this adorable?” Debra Watkins of Portage, Ind., gushed as vendor Patrick Vasser stood behind her to fasten a newly-purchased bigfoot necklace.
Watkins, who also bought a pair of sasquatch earrings, said she has attended three other bigfoot conferences, including one in Tennessee hosted by Gather Up Event Management.
When she heard Gather Up was hosting a show in Florida, it was a no-brainer that she and her husband Allen would mark their calendars for a Sunshine State road trip.
“This is my passion,’’ she said about the mystery of Bigfoot and his mythical cousins. “I've never seen one. I don't know that I ever want to see one. But I’m a believer.’’
“You hear some of those stories and they’re so moving,’’ she said, putting a hand across her heart.
“I know there are some people who you want to talk to about bigfoot and they look at you like, ‘cuck-coo, cuck-coo.’ But there have been too many sightings. How can it not be real with so many different people telling the same story?’’
Others wanted the chance to step on stage and share their own personal stories during an hour long session called “Encounters.’’
“I hit bigfoot with my truck,’’ said a man named Matt, describing a 1995 encounter on Interstate 75 between Tampa and Bradenton. He doesn’t know what happened to the creature, but it left a dent and some hair (lost over time) on the front of his truck.
Golembeske described a recent encounter where his wife spotted bigfoot in the backyard of their home on the Pithlachascotee River not far from the J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park.
”We got a sasquatch on our property. We’re really excited. It’s been a dream my whole life,’’ he said.
The crowd roared.
Stacy Brown Jr., one of three Florida-based guest speakers, got rousing cheers, too, after showing a 22-second thermal image video, shot one night in 2012, of what he says is a skunk ape running through a forest.
“It was the greatest moment of my life,’’ Brown said.
A 2018 audio sample, titled “Chattahootchee Florida Death Clip,” played the frantic screams of a raccoon followed by a loud thud and silence, the purported sounds of a Skunk Ape stalking and slamming its prey against a tree.
Golembeske described the “gibberish” sounds of a sasquatch voice as “like somebody dialing a radio really fast.’’
And among the many bigfoot photographs displayed on a giant video screen were images taken in 2019 in the DuPuis Management Area in northwestern Palm Beach County.
“It was 7 ½ feet tall,’’ Dr. Bill Hewitt, an I.S.R.T. cryptologist, said of the creature he spotted at night near the campgrounds.
Whether you believe it all or not, one indisputable fact emerged from the conference: Bigfoot hunters and followers are dead serious about their shared passion.
“The universe is so big. We share it with a lot more out there than we know,’’ said Janene Romero, a school crossing guard from Melbourne.
“I want to know what's in the woods. This is a safe environment for people to share without being laughed down.’’
And many believers casually fashioned their passion into a verb — “sasquatching.’
They have a sense of humor, too.
The line waiting to enter looked like a fashion runway packed with Bigfoot T-shirt models — from “Social Distancing Champion” to “Just a girl who loves bigfoot’’.
They posed for photos in front of large sasquatch cutouts and a still photo from the famous Patterson–Gimlin film of bigfoot strolling in northern California in 1967.
“The big guy,’’ as many conference-goers casually referred to the creature, even made an appearance, albeit in costume.
“We’re all Peter Pans. We don't want to grow up,’’ Golembeske said to the crowd.
Many left the show wanting more. And they’ll probably get it some time next year.
Gather Up president Nikki Beaty, a Vero Beach native, said the turnout exceeded her expectations.
“We ordered a thousand (entry) bracelets thinking we’d have more than enough and that’s how many are left,” she said, pointing to about five that dangled from a coworker's hand as more people waited in line to enter.
That means there will be a second annual Florida Bigfoot conference, maybe in January, she said. A date and location will be announced later this year.
Golembeske thanked the crowd for attending Saturday’s show.
“You are making the world a better place for people like us who believe,’’ he said to rousing cheers.
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