Ashley Membree, Michael Rugg and Ralph Jack hunt for a Bigfoot around Felton. (Chip Scheuer)
When they later watched the video, they saw in the distance a blurry figure moving between two trees. When Rugg shows me the footage it’s hard to tell what the image is, but clearly it’s something moving. Because of all these factors—the howl, the smell, the report of a sighting and the footage itself—Rugg believes they taped a Bigfoot.
Of course, he also realizes that this isn’t the kind of thing to make any public announcements over. They need something bigger.
“We’ve been sitting back quietly collecting evidence, building a database, going out and testing stuff, watching what everybody else is doing and realizing all the mistakes that are being made and all the crap that is going on,” Rugg says.
It annoys Rugg that other members of the Bigfoot community, some of whom he’s friends with, make public statements of having found evidence when it’s only circumstantial. But, as Rugg notes, these are the people getting the funding, while The Bigfoot Discovery Museum struggles every year to keep the doors open.
Refuge for Believers
When Michael Rugg was 4 years old, he saw something that forever changed his life. It happened on a family camping trip near the Eel River in Humboldt County, after he had wandered off into the woods alone. Here’s how he describes it:
“As soon as I turned, there was this great big man. We made eye contact. There was nothing threatening about it. I was just awestruck because I had no frame of reference for this thing. I heard my parents screaming, ‘Mikey, where are you?’ So I ran back. I told them, ‘Come see the big hairy man.’ We went running back over there and it was gone. My parents looked around and said, ‘Don’t worry, it was probably just a tramp.’ Well, that was the weirdest tramp I’ve ever seen.”
That was in 1950, one year before reports of Yeti were coming out of the Himalayas and eight years before reports of Bigfoots were being published in the Humboldt Times.
Now, 62 years later, Rugg has spent his life searching for indisputable evidence that Bigfoot exists. He’s never had another face-to-face sighting like that first experience, though not from a lack of trying. While most of Rugg’s time has gone into research, he has made several trips back up to Northern California to find another Bigfoot. And for the last eight years, Rugg has gone Bigfoot hunting nearly every night here in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
In 2004, Rugg turned his Bigfoot obsession into a Bigfoot business. Located on Main Street in Felton, the Bigfoot Discovery Museum occupies a small unassuming building with several wooden Bigfoot statues out front. The front part of the museum is set up like a roadside attraction, packed with toys, comic books and album covers. The second half is more of a research center, loaded with newspaper clippings, video clips, books, skulls and other items Rugg believes point to the existence of Bigfoot.
But the real treasure in the museum is Rugg. He’s a walking Bigfoot encyclopedia.
“There are few people on the planet that have thought about Bigfoot as much as I have,” Rugg says.
At the Bigfoot Discovery Museum, I watch as Rugg tells his visitors about his Bigfoot encounter and eagerly answers all their Bigfoot questions. He isn’t lying when he says he’s an expert on the subject.
“I heard something about Patterson giving a deathbed confession,” one guest remarks, referring to the infamous grainy 1967 footage Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin shot of a hairy lumbering creature they claimed was a Bigfoot.
“That’s a common myth,” Rugg responds. “Neither man have claimed it was a hoax. I’ve met Robert Gimlin. He’s never made a nickel off that film. Still, to this day he swears he watched his buddy film a Bigfoot.”
One of the first things Rugg explains to me is that many people come to the museum because they’ve had a Bigfoot experience, or maybe even a paranormal encounter of some sort. They have no one to talk about it with, and they’re afraid their friends and family will laugh at them.
“I hear their stories. I don’t put down witnesses. They can come in and tell me the sky is red and I’ll listen to them. The museum serves a psychiatric purpose,” Rugg says.