Whether you call it Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Skookums or one of the more than 60 names American Indian tribes have given the legendary beast, the harder you look, the less likely it is you'll find him, said Frank Smith, supervisor of the Sanostee Senior Center and keeper of tales from the various recent sightings.
"If you look for it, you never see it," Smith said Wednesday. "You have to be in the right place at the right time. Or maybe it's the wrong place at the right time."
The lunchtime conversation Wednesday at the senior center briefly turned to Bigfoot. The topic got smiles, chuckles and the occasional knowing smile. Many don't believe the stories of sightings, but a few swear they have seen the creature firsthand.
They are not alone.
Mobile photo messages, emails and word-of-mouth stories have circulated the northeastern chapters of the Navajo Nation in recent months. Some photos show giant footprints in the snow or mud; others show shadowy figures at water's edge or among trees.
All of the accounts are similar: a hulking, hairy figure is sighted standing or walking upright, leaving giant footprints in the earth and spooking animals and humans. Other reports tell more gruesome tales of slaughtered or missing livestock.
But the particulars of each story vary as much as the people who tell them.
Raymond Peter, of Sanostee, remembers the first time he encountered Bigfoot. A sheepherder, Peter was in the Chuska Mountains at about 5 p.m. on July 4, 2009.
"First, my dog Stookie started to growl," Peter said through an interpreter. "I looked to where the dog was growling. Bigfoot didn't see me, but I saw Bigfoot."
Gesturing with his tattered NYC baseball cap, Peter indicated the creature was 8 or 9 feet tall, gray in color and about a quarter of a mile away.
"I could smell him," he said. "He really stinks, like it doesn't take a shower."
The creature was walking among the trees, heading west, Peter said. His face was covered in "shaggy hair" and his legs were "big, like tree stumps."
After the creature left, Peter said he found giant footprints in the damp earth.
"I didn't have a gun," he said. "After I saw that, I didn't want to be there anymore."
Bigfoot sightings on the Navajo Nation are not uncommon, especially on the pinion- and juniper-covered Chuska Mountains that frame the Sanostee community and tower over portions of the Nation in New Mexico and Arizona. Sheepherders often camp high in the mountains during the summer with their livestock.
The mountains have become prime Bigfoot hunting grounds even for outside experts. The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization sent a team in October 2002 to the Chuska Mountains to investigate reports of sightings.
Armed with scented bait as well as tracking and recording equipment, the team spent five days camping in the mountains and searching for evidence of Bigfoot.
"With only four full days to spend there, we were limited in what we could accomplish and, like everyone else who looks for this creature, we were surrounded by thousands of square miles of forested mountains, valleys, canyons and it could be anywhere," team members wrote in an online report.
"We chose to rely mainly upon finding tracks as a way of detecting the presence of Sasquatches," the team wrote.
The team did not find any evidence linked to Sasquatch, but after researching the mountains, the team found that the likelihood of meeting Sasquatch face-to-face was very low.
Based on the assumption that Sasquatch lives in black bear country, it is likely that the creature dwells in the Chuska Mountains, the organization found. The estimated population of black bears in North America around the time the team visited the Navajo Nation was about 685,000.
"Even using a generous estimate of 10,000 Sasquatches in North America, it would mean that for each Sasquatch, there are at least 68 bears," the team wrote in its report. "So, at best, in the Chuskas with 300 bears, there could have been 4.4 Sasquatches, and for us to have any real expectation of seeing one of those Sasquatches during our four days in the Chuskas we would have had to see at least 68 bears.
"We didn't see any bears (we saw one fresh track and one bear dropping). And if the North American Sasquatch population is around 1,000, we would have needed to see about 685 bears before having a statistical chance of seeing a Sasquatch," the report states.
"The same reasoning applies to finding the tracks of the two animals," the team found.
The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, when reached by email this week, confirmed it was familiar with the Chuska Mountains. The organization did not immediately respond to a request for a phone interview.
The organization was founded in 1995 and is touted as the only scientific research organization exploring the Bigfoot mystery.
Most consider Bigfoot to be a large, hairy, bipedal non-human primate distributed across North America, though the concentration varies greatly. Staffed by a group of stanch believers, the organization describes the beast as a creature unlike any other.
"Its massiveness, deviation from human bearing and different gait leave no doubt in the mind of observers that they have seen a creature different from man or known animals," the organization's website states.
A handful of Sanostee residents agree with that description. They are the few who claim encounters with Bigfoot, despite what doubters may say.
"I know what people think," Peter said. "People don't believe until they see it."
Reported sightings of Bigfoot on the Nation come in waves. Historically speaking, dozens of sightings were reported in 1973. Another wave of reports of strange phenomena came in 1989.
More recent sightings were reported in January 2011, November 2011 and last month, Smith said. Those sightings range from actual views of the big animal to footprints left in mud or fresh snow.
And some residents believe Bigfoot had a presence in the area even in prehistoric times.
Carved into the bluffs north of Sanostee are etchings reminiscent of the big creature. Although no records exist to indicate when the pictures were formed or who made them, some locals point to them as further evidence that Bigfoot roams these hills.
Some of the pictures show giant figures with oversized hands and feet with six toes. Other pictures are simply enormous footprints.
Sanostee resident Jerry Lewis said he recently saw Bigfoot in the Chuskas when he took his horse and donkey into the mountains.
"My animals froze and I saw the thing walk over the hill," Lewis said through an interpreter. "It was taller than 8 or 9 feet, taller than the bushes, upright and hairy."
Lewis also observed holes punched into the ice in his livestock trough holes that looked like they were made by a fist.
Seeing Bigfoot may not be a good thing, however, Lewis said. Navajo legend states that when such creatures start coming back, it's an indication that the end of the world is near.
"Things that are happening now are things we learned about," Lewis said. "Once people know how everything works, when there's nothing else to learn, some of these creatures start coming back."
Smith, however, takes a lighter view of Bigfoot. Although he believes some of the stories, he doesn't think the beast is a threat.
"I feel like it's probably hanging around here," he said. "To me, from all the stories I've heard, he's afraid of humans. Maybe he thinks we look funny, too."