One Sunday in 1976, 8-year-old Mike Quast was out for a Sunday drive with his family near Strawberry Lake, about 20 miles north of Detroit Lakes.

There, in the rural, wooded wilderness, Quast saw it - something about 100 yards up the road, 6 to 7 feet tall and solid black.

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"At first I thought it was a tree trunk that was burnt," says Quast, who now lives in Moorhead and is one of the only dedicated Bigfoot hunters in the area. "But then it stepped away from the road on two legs and walked into the trees."

Ever since he watched whatever that was step away, Quast has dedicated much of his life to searching for Bigfoot. Like many in the area, he watched with interest as the producers and investigators of the Syfy network's "Haunted Highway" show traveled this summer to Vergas to look into the legend of the Hairy Man of the Vergas Trails.

In true cable TV fashion, that episode, which aired for the first time last month and is available online, made viewers believe that the investigators were tantalizingly close to proving the existence of the Hairy Man, a Bigfoot-like legend that has haunted the west central Minnesota woods for the past several decades.

In the end, though, the investigators admitted that the evidence they found was mostly inconclusive, and they couldn't say whether the Hairy Man truly exists.

Despite what Quast called an ultimately "contrived" episode, he says it was good for small-town Vergas and the area's legends to get some national attention.

Even though, he says, the Hairy Man probably doesn't live there anymore.

Searching for Bigfoot

When Quast started investigating Bigfoot rumors the year after he graduated from high school in 1986, he started with one of the closest to him - the Hairy Man.

In 1989, Quast found several different tracks in the Vergas Trails area, of which he made casts and still keeps in his Moorhead apartment.

The difference in sizes, ranging from 12 inches up to 20 in length, made him believe that there was not just one Bigfoot living in the area but potentially a family.

However, Quast says reports of sightings have dropped off lately, making him believe that whatever was around in the late '80s isn't there anymore.

But that doesn't mean that there's no dearth of material for him to dig into. Quast, who has written two books about Bigfoot, has been all over Minnesota looking into potential sightings.

And he's come pretty close to seeing one again, he says.

One night, while looking into some strange footprints found in a wooded area near Mahnomen, Quast thinks he actually heard one of the creatures.

It sounded like whooping with a voice like a police siren, he says. "And it sounded like it came from a big set of lungs."

Recently, Quast has been communicating with Bigfoot hunter Don Sherman of Cass Lake, about Bigfoot activity in that area, where a large footprint was found in 2006.

Last month, Sherman gave a presentation at the Fargo Public Library, where he discussed the history of Bigfoot with a crowd of families and young children.

Sherman, like Quast, says he's seen a Bigfoot before, and it's that past experience that drives his current interest in the creature.

In the end, though, for searchers like the two men, what's the ultimate goal in dedicating hours of their lives to searching for something that most people don't even believe exists?

For Sherman, at least, it's the thrill of the search, and the mystery of the creature that makes it worth his time.

"If one were ever found, it'd take the mystery out of it," he says.

Quast, though, sees it differently.

"I think the ultimate goal has got to be to prove to the world that it exists," he says. "To prove it beyond reproach."

That's easier said than done, Quast believes, because there are so many skeptics when it comes to the subject.

The reason is that when reports of Bigfoot first started popping up, it was labeled as something outlandish and unbelievable, Quast says.

"It's really unfortunate that early on, when stories of Bigfoot started, our culture labeled it as a monster, instead of a new species of animal," Quast says. "Everyone knows there's no such thing as a monster, so that throws up all kinds of roadblocks."

"Why bother looking for a monster when everyone knows there's no such thing?" he adds.

Quast says definite, material proof of Bigfoot needs to be found to convince the public that it's real.

And that may mean having to produce a body, dead or alive.

This fall, Quast plans to write to private landowners in Moose Lake, about 45 miles southwest of Duluth, to get permission to investigate their land where some of the most recent sightings have been reported.

More than 35 years after Quast first saw that 7-foot-tall creature walk into the thick woods of Becker County, his search continues.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535