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