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From Wessie to Nessie: This Portland museum offers a crash course on cryptids

The entrance to the museum.
The entrance to the museum.

Your walk in the Maine woods just got a lot more interesting. That crackling noise coming from behind you on the trail — is it a squirrel, or could it be a giant white “Spectre Moose,” a “cryptid canine,” or a giant snake? “People don’t often think about how many ‘monsters' exist in their nearby woods,” says cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, founder of the International Cryptozoology Museum.

Well, you will after you visit this small museum on Thompson’s Point.

This zone along Portland’s Fore River has long been a rail yard-slash-industrial site. Now, it’s home to a brewery, a distillery, a splashy new children’s museum, and theater (set to open this spring) — and the newly expanded International Cryptozoology Museum, an intriguing hodge-podge of all things cryptid.

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A cryptid is a creature that’s out of place, known in the trade as an OOPA (out-of-place animal), say, a gorilla roaming Harvard Yard. Or it can be a species that is not accepted by science, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. This includes unknown, unverified, and undiscovered species that we’re aware of through sightings, folklore, and indigenous art, plus newly discovered species, says Coleman, who’s written and coauthored more than 40 books on the subject. The field of study also encompasses sightings of animals thought to be extinct, or rare animals, such as the black tiger recently caught on camera in India, thought to be one of only six in existence.

The museum has evolved from Coleman’s home, to the back of a bookstore, and finally to this site in 2016. The two-level space holds 20,000 exhibits and objects — including traveling exhibits like “Bigfoot Revealed,” currently on display. It recently added more space and doubled in size, but the museum is still compact and twisty, enhancing its cabinet-of-curiosities feel. Additional signage would help clarify connections between, say, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the giant plaster-cast footprints, and a mounted trout covered in fluffy white fur (labeled “very rare”). They’re working on that, but for now, you make your own connections as you wander, single file, through the museum.

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Big cats and mystery moose

Don’t miss the map of Maine, dotted with pins that represent sightings of cryptids in the state. Green pins represent Wendigo/Bigfoot/Sasquatch-related reports, while Sea Monsters/Sea Serpents, and Lake Monsters are marked with blue pins, and so on. There are a lot of pins in that map, especially yellow ones, representing “mystery cats.” You’re much more likely to see a big cat than Bigfoot in the Pine Tree State, Coleman says. Among the cryptid cats seen in the Northeast, 40 percent are reported to be melanistic, or black cats, he notes. There have even been sightings of giant white moose — something that would excite the most jaded vacationer.

Moving along, you’ll encounter Yetis, giant octopi, sea serpents, Sasquatch (a.k.a. Bigfoot), and even a long stretch of snakeskin that was shed by Wessie, an enormous snake that was spotted in the city of Westbrook in August 2016. You might remember when Wessie Fever gripped the state — there was a Wessie street festival, a folk song, and a local beer named after the reptile. The Westbrook Police Department verified the shed Wessie skin through DNA testing, and then donated it to the museum, Coleman says.

This is a Bigfoot, not a Yeti, and you’ll know plenty about both after a visit to Portland's International Cryptozoology Museum.
This is a Bigfoot, not a Yeti, and you’ll know plenty about both after a visit to Portland's International Cryptozoology Museum.Diane Bair

Bigfoot, the Rock Star

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Even among cryptids, the boldface names are attention-grabbers, celebrity cryptids such as Bigfoot, Yetis, Nessies, and Sea Serpents, joined in recent years by Mothman, Champ, and Chupacabaras. “Bigfoot is a rock star these days — he’s as big as the Beatles,” says museum volunteer Daniel Knight. Bigfoot has been the subject of movies, including “Harry and the Hendersons” (1987) and 2019′s animated “Missing Link,” along with a series of Sasquatch-themed beef jerky commercials. And isn’t that a Bigfoot (“My name is Darryl”) in an insurance company ad? Clearly, Bigfoot has arrived. Recent publicity aside, Bigfoot is one of the most enduring legends in North American history.

Even if you’re not a Bigfoot fan, you’ll want to view video footage of “Patty,” shot in 1967 by amateur trackers Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin in California’s Bluff Creek area. This footage is a key piece in the Bigfoot puzzle, Knight notes. It reveals a hair-covered creature walking in the woods, and turning to face the camera at one point. Researchers have taken this footage apart frame-by-frame and they can’t figure out how it was done, Knight says. “People have tried to fake footage like this, and they can’t do it.” Even Hollywood special effects people are stymied by the lifelike way Patty looks and moves. Could she have been a human being with a condition such as hirsutism (abnormal hair growth), hiding in the woods away from prying eyes? Or is Patty proof that Bigfoot lives? Either way, she gets into your head. And that’s the point of all this.

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“I never use the word ‘believe’ or ‘belief,’ ” Coleman says. “We have a skeptical but open-minded stance. We are not here to convince anyone of the existence of any of these creatures.” The ultimate challenge is to discover biological evidence of new species, he says. Chances are, you’ll connect with something here, whether it’s Patty, an ancient (or furry) fish, or a Yeti, a.k.a. the Abominable Snowman, typically spotted in the Himalayan region of Nepal and Tibet.

Yetis are adorable, if they look anything like the toy counterparts on display here, but are they real? We don’t know — and that’s the appeal. “People love mysteries and they love animals,” Coleman says. "Cryptozoology is science with a mix of entertainment, education, and fun thrown in.

“The museum is a physical reminder that wonder and passion — and research — still exist in this world. Everyone can enjoy the quest,” he says. Plus, it’s a lot more fun to contemplate Abominable Snowmen than it is to think about invisible germs that are out to get us.

And if all of this creeps you out? Well, there’s a distillery right next door.

International Cryptozoology Museum, 4 Thompson’s Point Road, Suite 106, Portland, Maine. Open daily; $10 per person. www.cryptozoologymuseum.com


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com