WAYNESBORO, Pa. The mysterious footprints left in a nearly dry reservoir bed are starting to fade, but the debate over their origin lingers on.
Steve Gates and his brother Dennis found the prints on Valentine's Day, just before dark. They had gone to the Waynesboro reservoir to see a reported 13-foot drop in the water level for themselves.
"We been in the mountains ever since we were kids," Mr. Gates, 28, said. "We never seen nothing like this, never."
What they saw was a set of footprints running on both sides of a slow moving creek. He estimates they go for about 400 yards and there are about 300 to 400 of them.
The prints are about 13 inches long and 6 inches wide. They have a rounded heel and spread out into what looks like a set of five long claws.
One of the digits presumably the big toe sticks out prominently to the side. That characteristic may prove to be an important clue in determining their origin, according to one researcher.
Mr. Gates said night was closing in when they found the prints. "Truthfully, I had an eerie feeling," he said about walking out of the reservoir. "I had chills all over me."
They went back Friday and videotaped the prints, then showed the tape to their brother-in-law, Paul Scott.
"I watched the video and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck," Mr. Scott, 42, said.
Mr. Scott, a man with 35 years hunting experience, also said he'd never seen anything like them before. "What could it possibly be?"
On Sunday, they contacted Jeffrey Lemley, a noted Bigfoot researcher who lives in Washington state.
Unable to make it himself, Mr. Lemley mobilized several volunteers from the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. The group's Web site, www.bfro.net, states it is "the only scientific organization probing the Bigfoot/Sasquatch mystery."
Mr. Gates said the BFRO team was baffled by what they found. "They couldn't understand it, they said it wasn't characteristic of Bigfoot."
The problem, it seems, is that Bigfoot doesn't have a big toe that sticks out to the side.
"The hallux sticking out to the side shows they are nonhuman," said Loren Coleman, a University of Southern Maine professor, about the prints. Hallux, Mr. Coleman said, is the scientific term for big toe.
The footprints are much smaller than Bigfoot's, and are more likely an artifact of something he calls a "Nape," or North American Ape. The Nape, also known as a Skunk Ape in parts of the South, is generally not taller than 5 feet, he said.
Mr. Coleman is an author on cryptozoology, which he described as "the study of hidden animals that haven't been zoologically classified."
Animals such as the mountain gorilla and giant panda took decades to find, he said. The Waynesboro Nape is likely very shy and will also tend to stay away from humans, Mr. Coleman said.
Lloyd Hamberger, borough manager of Waynesboro, said he doesn't believe the prints were made by either Bigfoot or Nape.
"Actually, I think they're Klingons," Mr. Hamberger said jokingly.
"I'm not a big believer in Area 51, things like that. I think Elvis is dead," he said.
But then Mr. Hamberger doubled back: "They're apes all right just a bunch of guys horsing around."
He was clear, however, that if public curiosity gets out of hand, the reservoir, which provides water to more than 17,000 customers, would be closed off.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission had not investigated the tracks as of Tuesday morning, according to dispatcher Steve Heaster.
"So far this morning is shaping up," Mr. Heaster said about the calls he had logged. "Bigfoot and birds wearing green plastic granny glasses."