John Mionczynski: naturalist, accordionist, and Bigfoot expert

  • John Mionczynski on Serendipity, his custom-built motorcycle, which he pieced together out of parts from four different BMW models from the 1950s and 1960s.

    Brad Christensen
 

ATLANTIC CITY, WYOMING
On an overcast August afternoon, John Mionczynski is crouched underneath an aspen by the porch of his one-room log cabin, attending to his motorcycle's broken headlight. Over 30 years ago, he assembled this machine using pieces from four different BMWs -- a 1951, '53, '63 and '65. He named it "Serendipity."

"Whenever I went on a trip with it, it would have some kind of mechanical breakdown and stop me in a place where I had a really significant positive experience," Mionczynski explains.

A fit-looking, sun-weathered 64-year-old, Mionczynski usually has a hundred projects going, from figuring out how things work to constructing them. By training and experience, though, he is an accomplished naturalist/adventurer of the old-fashioned kind -- resourceful enough to earn comparisons to the magnanimous outlaw Butch Cassidy as well as to Adolph and Olaus Murie, who pioneered conservation science in the early 20th century, using field observations of Alaskan caribou and wolves and Wyoming elk.

He also has a reputation as a musician, goat packer, desert guide, wilderness survivalist and medicinal plants expert. He regularly plays piano at bars in nearby Atlantic City and in Lander, 30 miles away. After decades exploring Wyoming's Red Desert -- an expanse of sagebrush, dunes and badlands stretching from the Wind River Mountains to the Colorado border -- he knows that landscape as well as anyone.

The project closest to Mionczynski's heart, though, was secret until recently: He's spent decades gathering evidence of a creature most people think is a myth -- a giant, secretive primate inhabiting the forests of Western North America that's known as Sasquatch, or Bigfoot. "It's a subject of ridicule, but I think it's also cutting-edge science," he says. "People being afraid to suffer ridicule has prevented science from moving forward. They laughed at Lavoisier when he tried to measure oxygen."

Mionczynski was born in 1947 on the east end of Long Island, N.Y. From an early age, he was interested in natural history; he spent his youth and college years exploring Eastern forests. After earning a bachelor's in marine biology in 1969, he pulled out a map of the U.S. and put his finger on the Red Desert. "I like to be alone and that was the greatest place on the planet to be alone at that time," he explains. When his Jeep broke down there, he landed in Atlantic City, elevation 7,675 feet, population "about 57," and found a job playing piano. For only $72, he built a house from salvaged lumber and dump finds. He gained local notoriety for his accordion skills, playing what he calls "Polish bluegrass" with a band called the Buffalo Chips.

Not long after his arrival, the U.S. Forest Service hired him to track radio-collared bighorn sheep, a job requiring careful scientific attention and the ability to spend lots of time alone in the mountains. "No one had ever done radio-telemetry studies on bighorn sheep before, so most of what I was doing was experimental." The U.S. Forest Service acknowledged his resulting habitat and behavior studies with an award  that still hangs in his cabin. In the mid-1970s, he also helped the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team live-trap and radio-collar grizzlies in Yellowstone.

In 1982, he started Wind River Pack Goats to transport equipment for backcountry research and for expeditions such as National Outdoor Leadership School courses. His 1992 book, The Pack Goat, earned him the nickname "the father of goat packing."

When bighorn sheep in Wyoming's Wind River Mountains started to die mysteriously in the '90s, he helped develop a theory that a selenium deficiency caused by nitrate pollution leaching minerals from the soil was sickening the animals. In 2007 and 2008, he co-authored five scientific papers on selenium uptake by plants affecting the diet of alpine wildlife including bighorns and pikas.

To this day, he loves designing experiments. When packrats mowed down his vegetable garden, for example, he live-trapped a dozen and marked each with a spot of paint. He released them at increasing distances from his house to see how far they'd travel to return. A rat that was released in the next draw was back by the end of the day, but it took another a couple of days to cover a mile. In the end, he discovered that he had to transport a packrat three miles away to keep it from returning.

His interest in Sasquatch began with a spooky encounter on a solo camping trip in the Wind River Mountains in 1972. He awoke to what appeared to be a large hand pressing on the top of his 6-foot-high tent. At first he thought it was a bear, but, he says, he could distinguish fingers. The creature collapsed the tent and vanished into the woods. Mionczynski kept watch by a fire while it moved around and threw pinecones at him for hours.

For a couple of decades, he guarded his interest in the creature, even as he looked for evidence of its existence. Once, while working for Wyoming Game and Fish, he took a hair and skin sample to an agency's lab for analysis. An irate superior threatened to have him fired if Mionczynski's name were ever publicly associated with "this Bigfoot thing."

In the late 1990s, though, he met Jeffrey Meldrum, a primatologist at Idaho State University who specializes in the evolution of bipedalism and had accrued a collection of plaster casts of huge footprints. The two traveled around North America collecting data and interviewing people who'd reported seeing Sasquatches. They rated each sighting based on its credibility and mapped only the most credible cases. By their determination, that added up to hundreds.

Over the last four years, Mionczynski has worked full-time on Sasquatch, spending summers assessing possible habitat and food sources, setting camera traps and trying to snare DNA. He's collected plaster casts of tracks from across the West for decades. The largest is about 18 inches long and 8 inches across. Except for the size, it looks human.

The only indications that Mionczynski is slowing down are the days that he has to spend hooked up to oxygen every month or two. He was recently diagnosed with emphysema, which is exacerbated by a local air pollution problem that may be linked to natural gas development upwind of where he lives. He's found he can predict the readings on a ground-level ozone monitor that the state maintains near his house, based on how bad he's feeling. He knows that he may have to move away eventually. But whatever happens, he expects the journey to lead to good things. After all, he will be traveling on the wheels of Serendipity.

A longer version of this story first appeared on WyoFile.com

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.