SOUTH BLOOMINGVILLE — The search for Sasquatch continues in the Hocking Hills today (Saturday) at the 2021 Hocking Hills Bigfoot Conference.

Held at Camp Oty’Okwa, 24799 Purcell Rd., the Hocking Hills Bigfoot Conference returns for its fifth annual installment to fundraise for the central Ohio branch of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. According to its website, the Hocking Hills Bigfoot Conference is a one-day charity event for Camp Oty’Okwa’s camper scholarships.

The conference began in 2016 after Bigfoot enthusiast and Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist Bea Mills visited the camp and saw how it helped underprivileged children in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

“I just fell in love with camp because I saw all the programs they do for the kids and all the great resources,” Mills said.

Later, Mills said camp staff created a program related to Bigfoot; that’s when she decided to do something more. “I’m kind of a Bigfoot nerd; if there was some way we could do more to help these kids and get them out in the woods and get them to experience nature, I’m gonna do it.”

As a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters, Camp Oty’Okwa provides free summer camp experiences to children whose families cannot afford to send them to traditional camps. It is also the residential Big Brothers Big Sisters camp in the country, Camp Director Rick Perkins said. Camp Oty’Okwa is a 775-acre property one and a half miles from Old Man’s Cave, he said.

The conference has been going strong since its inception; however, last year’s was canceled due to the coronavirus. The conference has a turnout of between 200-300 people each year, Perkins said.

Typically, Mills rents the camp for the entire weekend for the conference. Camp Oty’Okwa’s mission is primarily for children, but when organizations use it as an event space, all revenue goes back into the camp to support its campers in the summertime, Perkins explained.

“The best thing that goes on is that pretty much everything that is auctioned off and all that kind of stuff is donated back to camp to send kids to camp,” Perkins said.

The camp serves school-age children up into their senior year of high school, Perkins said. In a typical year, it serves more than 50,000 meals to its campers.

Any child who is a camper at Oty’Okwa becomes a Big Brothers Big Sisters kid, Perkins explained. “We definitely have the mentoring – we have the bigs and the littles – but we have a whole bunch of kids from local counties – Athens, Hocking, Vinton, (Pickaway) – who actually come to camp during summer, too, in addition to (those from) the Columbus area.”

Many of Camp Oty’Okwa’s campers are children who are victims of crime, Perkins said; it also has one whole week (called Grief Week) for children who have had loved ones die violently. When kids are at camp, they get to explore what the Hocking Hills has to offer; Old Man’s Cave, Conkle’s Hollow and the camp itself. The camp also has a swimming pool.

“The exposure’s great,” Perkins said. “I’d say 95-plus percent of the kids who come to camp here, they’d never be able to get camp residential experience – every other camp, you’d have to pay to go to camps, and we’re not one of those, so we are targeting the families who can’t do it.”

According to Mills, there is a long record of Bigfoot sightings in Hocking County.

“Historically speaking, on the record, it goes back to the 1950s,” Mills said. “The whole region is just littered with Bigfoot reports.”

Mills is no stranger to Bigfoot. The creature piqued her interest in 2013, and the next year she had her own “Class A” encounter — a visual sighting. “That’s when I went ahead and took the steps to become a certified volunteer naturalist in the area... Learning the natural component and the environment kind of helped me have more fun out ‘Bigfoot-ing.’”

Mills is now an established name within the Sasquatch world. As part of a four-and-a-half-year-old ongoing study, she’s cast over 20 Bigfoot tracks and has the largest collection of Bigfoot-related audio in the world, she said. In 2019, she was awarded ”Bigfooter of the Year” by the Bigfoot Times, making her the first woman and only the second Ohioan to win the major accolade, she said.

The conference opens up at 10 a.m., Mills said. This year’s conference focuses on Ohio. It will feature vendors, four guest speakers and an additional fifth surprise guest speaker, according to its website. Speakers include Jannette Quackenbush, Suzanne Ferencak, Doug Waller and Mills herself. Presentations begin at 11 a.m. and will end around 7 p.m.

Bigfoot art and items will be for sale, money raised from which will benefit the camp; there will also be a 50/50 drawing for the camp, Mills said.

“It’s going to be super laid-back, fun, talk about Sasquatch, and raise some money for camp,” she said. Promoting conservation is also a major component to the conference, she added, and embraces the culture of the Hocking region.

The Hocking Hills Bigfoot Conference is family-friendly, vendors are free and open to the public; $30 tickets for all presentations are available at the door, as well as on its website. Tickets and more information can be found online at hockinghillsbigfootconference.org/ and www.facebook.com/HockingHillsBigfootConference/.

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