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How Portland became the center of the unknown (like Bigfoot, Nessie, the Yeti, all that stuff)

Tim Binnall of Burlington (right) checked out an exhibit inside the International Cryptozoology Museum.
Tim Binnall of Burlington (right) checked out an exhibit inside the International Cryptozoology Museum.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

PORTLAND, Maine — Loren Coleman made his way through a small conference room at the Clarion Hotel in Portland, browsing the tables of vendors who were selling such things as plaster casts of Bigfoot footprints, crocheted dolls of the Loch Ness Monster, and posters of Champ, the fabled sea serpent that is said to haunt Lake Champlain in Vermont.

His movement was slow, for Coleman cannot move more than a few feet before he is stopped by someone wanting to engage him in conversation, ask his opinion, or just thank him for, well, everything.

It was a spring Saturday, and the vendor room was packed with people because there was a break in the speaker program at the fourth annual International Cryptozoology Conference here, which was being held a short walk from the International Cryptozoology Museum.

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Coleman is the man behind both, helping to make Portland into the world capital of cryptozoology — the study of hidden and unknown animals that have yet to be verified by science — and to make the 71-year-old Coleman into as much of a celebrity in the field as Nessie and the Chupacabra. When the FBI recently released its Bigfoot files, Coeman’s phone rang off the hook with calls from the world’s media.

“Looking back over 60 years, since I was a boy in Decatur, Illinois, chasing large bird sightings, it’s amazing how central I’ve become to this field,” Coleman says as yet another person interrupts his path to ask him a question.

Coleman, who has white hair and a white beard and the soft warmth of someone who would make a good Santa Claus, has long heard his name prefaced with the phrase “world’s foremost living cryptozoologist,” the latest step on a journey that began in the 1950s when he saw a movie called “Half Human” about a yeti-like creature.

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 Loren Coleman is the man behind the International Cryptozoology Conference, and Bigfoot is the man behind him.
Loren Coleman is the man behind the International Cryptozoology Conference, and Bigfoot is the man behind him.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

“I went to school the next day and said, ‘What’s this about the yeti?’ ” talking about the ape-like creature that is said to live in the Himalayas. “The teachers gave me three answers: ‘They don’t exist.’ ‘Get back to your studies.’ ‘And leave me alone.’ ”

So he began his own studies, chasing down leads and rumors, and was soon corresponding with 400 people around the world, asking questions about all the strange animals that had been written off as myths.

By 21, he had published his first article in the field. In 1975, he published the first of 40 books, including “Cryptozoology A to Z,” which came out in 1999 and is credited with popularizing the field to the masses. (He also has a master’s degree in social work and spent a good stretch of his life living in Cambridge, Mass., teaching at various colleges and working with socially disturbed children, and he has written extensively about the so-called copycat effect of suicides.)

He eventually settled in Maine, and in 2003, having grown “tired of having a house full of artifacts,” he opened the world’s first and only museum dedicated to cryptozoology. The museum, which is now in its third and largest location on Thompson’s Point, where it sits between a distillery and a burrito joint, has a giant wooden Bigfoot marking its entrance.

Inside there are more than 10,000 items from Coleman’s travels and investigations, lots of kitsch, as an entire case devoted to scat, and a section on hoaxes, which is there to encourage skepticism. Perhaps the prized possession of the museum is a large snakeskin that is believed to have belonged to Wessie, a 10-foot-long snake that was spotted by several people in the nearby Presumpscot River in 2016 and became something of a media sensation. DNA tests identified the skin as belonging to a green anaconda, though many have theorized that skin had been placed there as a hoax and that the real Wessie was still out there. When, this past winter, that same river developed a giant, rotating disc of ice that drew crowds of onlookers, the spooky conspiracies only deepened.

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Lija Fisher (center), author of "The Cryptic Catcher," chatted with a convention goer.
Lija Fisher (center), author of "The Cryptic Catcher," chatted with a convention goer.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Cryptozoology, Coleman and others point out, is not connected to the paranormal, though many want to drag it there. It seeks to be biologically and scientifically based, and while it mostly operates outside the academy, many within academia have dabbled in the field; the roster of conference speakers this year was loaded with PhD’s.

“The reason I created the conference is because I would go to Bigfoot conferences and it was just foolish,” Coleman says. “I wanted to talk about this academically.”

His wife, Jenny White Coleman, who helps run the museum, said she gets upset when people walk into the museum, look around and say, “This is stupid.”

“Loren never uses the word ‘believe’ because it has a faith-based connotation,” she said. “His feet are firmly planted in science and reliable data. He just approaches it with a childlike wonder that he has never lost as he’s aged.”

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As Coleman made his way through the vendor booths, you could see him taking delight as he browsed the T-shirts and magnets, the toys and dolls, until something caught his eye and he could not help but reach for his wallet.

It was a handmade sculpture of an odd creature with large eyes and tendril-like fingers, crawling along a stone wall. Coleman knows it well; it is based on a drawing he discovered when he just happened to see the illustration hanging in a country store in Dover, while working in a school nearby.

Naturally he investigated and was the first to interview the three Dover teenagers who reportedly saw the creature over the course of two consecutive nights in 1977, and it was Coleman who gave it a name, one that is now known around the world: the Dover Demon.

“It’s for the museum,” he said with a shrug and a sly smile as he slid the Dover Demon sculpture into a small bag, and then continued on his journey through this world of the unknown.


Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.