Texas cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard is making his first trip to Maine, for the International Cryptozoology Conference in Portland this weekend. (Submitted photo)

With a travel agent mom who had a taste for adventure, Ken Gerhard found himself vacationing beside Loch Ness at age 15.

He grabbed his 8 mm movie camera and set off for his first field research.

“I carried it around the lake and I interviewed the locals (about monster sightings,)” he said.

Decades later, he’s one of the busiest cryptozoologists on TV, easily recognizable with his turned-up cowboy hat, frequently seen out in the field looking for Bigfoot and other as-yet-unproven beasts.

At the fourth annual International Cryptozoology Conference in Portland this weekend, Gerhard, from San Antonio, Texas, will lay out the case for the existence of Thunderbirds, enormous dark birds with raptor-like beaks.

“I think the vast, vast majority of sightings go undocumented,” he said. “Just like other cryptids, there are probably some people who see them who just don’t want to be ridiculed, ‘I can’t ever tell anybody I saw that thing, they’ll think I’m nuts.’ But moreover, a surprising number of people don’t realize that a bird with a 15- or 20-foot wingspan should not exist.”

He said he’s interviewed dozens of credible-sounding witnesses. Gerhard has authored, “Big Bird! Modern Sightings of Flying Monsters” and “Encounters with Flying Humanoids: Mothman, Manbirds, Gargoyles & Other Winged Beasts.”

He’s open-minded, but needs proof.

“Thinking critically, that is problematic that we don’t have more evidence,” Gerhard said. “No one has described finding a giant nest or feather — actually there is one account of a giant feather, but it’s very old — an eggshell, a giant pile of bird crap on someone’s window, all of these things you would expect to find.”

Gerhard grew up in Minnesota. He remembers being 8 or 9 when Saturday-morning cartoons were interrupted by a news segment on the now-famous Patterson-Gimlin footage.

“I thought it was the most amazing thing,” he said. “The possibility there could be some giant man-like animal running around the woods in the forests of North America is pretty mind-blowing.”

He went to the library and read all he could. Whenever the family traveled to places like the Amazon River, Thailand or North Africa, “I would always study or research the legends of mythological animals in each region,” he said.

Gerhard has had only one experience personally, near a remote North Texas lake in 2005. He recorded deep, loud, primate-sounding grunts after the sun went down and caught eye shine in a spotlight.

The next morning, “where we’d heard this thing, I saw some deep footprints on the sandy beach, human-like footprints, and I saw there were several turtles that had literally been ripped in half from top to bottom,” he said. “All that to me is the convincing thing, ‘Wow it seems like we encountered some sort of unknown animal tonight.'”

Gerhard has appeared on Travel Channel’s “In Search of Monsters,” History Channel’s “Missing in Alaska” and “Monsterquest,” and will be in the documentary “Terror in the Skies” by Seth Breedlove, premiering at the International Cryptozoology Conference.

He’s also a volunteer educator at the San Antonio Zoo, which, he noted proudly, is “the only zoo that has sponsored a Yeti expedition, back in the 1950s.”

“There are a lot of places on our planet that are still vast and unexplored — people lose sight of that in the modern age,” he said. “There are on average about 5,000 new species described every year. Admittedly, most of them are small — invertebrates, mollusks, frogs. But every few years there is a large, surprising animal.”

So, the hunt continues.

Gerhard, who will be coming to Maine for the first time, said his TV-famous cowboy hat comes from his past as a touring musician.

“We’ve been through a lot, that hat and I,” he said. “I’ve worn it 15 degrees below zero in the Alaskan mountains and I’ve worn it in the sweltering jungles of Central America. There’s a sense of adventure, an Indiana Jones-feel sometimes to what we’re doing. You have to keep it fun, as well.”

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