Back in November, David Childers was at an abandoned playground in Vicksburg, trying to take some pictures and catch some paranormal activity on film — which is unusual enough — but he was not prepared for what he ended up seeing.
Suddenly, he heard the noise of something crashing through the woods.
"A creature, I don't know what it was, about 6 feet tall. And it just bolted off through the woods," he said Sunday, just before setting off into the woods to continue a search that has become increasingly mysterious.
"It was definitely a shaggy coat to it, like a grayish-brown color. When it made the noise that spooked me, I looked over, and it looked like it stood up and just bolted off."
Childers is used to dealing with strange occurrences, and he has even been featured on A&E for his paranormal investigations. But the large creature, whatever it was, actually startled him. "I think it was hiding out. It was bedding down, and I spooked it whenever I got there to take pictures."
The abandoned playground is creepy in its own right. Located several hundred yards off Confederate Avenue, the equipment needs a paint job but is functional. The merry-go-round spins, the slide is slick, and the swings look like they're just waiting for children to rediscover their hidden joy. It's not a place for children, though Childers said he's gotten recordings of children's voices there before on paranormal investigations.
The woods are so thick it's hard to navigate them. Anyone venturing in needs to carry a stick to beat the deep undergrowth and scare off snakes. It can also be used to fend off spiders hanging at face-level in huge webs.
Childers isn't the only one who believes there could be something — he won't say Bigfoot or Sasquatch, but something — in those woods. On Aug. 12, Peyton Lassiter was working on an air conditioner at a structure about 400 yards from the abandoned playground when he found a footprint that wasn't a man's and didn't appear to be a bear's either.
Lassiter made a cast of the footprint. It's about nine inches long, and at the widest part of the toes, it's almost six inches wide.
After finding gray hair that didn't seem to fit a black bear in the print, as well as some fingerprint-like ridges and valleys, Lassiter did his homework.
"There are only two species that have that. Number one, humans and primates. Bears don't have fingerprint-like impressions on the skin of the foot, so that kind of changes the game a little bit," he said. "I have no knowledge of what made it, and I didn't see what made it, but it's very intriguing."
The color of the hair matches Childers' description of a grayish-colored animal.
"And I haven't seen any polar bears in Vicksburg," Lassiter said.
Childers and Lassiter found each other when Lassiter flagged him down one day after seeing his truck, which is marked with the logo of his paranormal investigation team, Delta Paranormal Project. When they realized their experiences were only a few hundred yards from each other, "we were just blown away. That kind of brought some clarity to what we were dealing with. In other words, it raised additional questions."
Childers pointed out that, if the creature was a bear, it would have been raiding the trash at nearby buildings.
"And it wasn't a deer. I've hunted all my life. I know what a deer looks like," Childers said.
Lassiter said he has found chronological histories of "wood ape" sightings in the region. The earliest written account was in 1721, he said, when a priest in Natchez wrote in his journal about a huge human-like, ape-like creature. Lassiter said he's also found a story in the Vicksburg Daily Herald in 1867 of a sighting in Vicksburg. Some hunters claimed they got behind it and sent the dogs after the wood ape, and it killed one of the dogs. When they chased it to the river, it swam across to Louisiana.
"The terrain is similar," Lassiter said of Vicksburg and Natchez. "If we follow this terrain, we're about three miles to the river. Something could cross almost the entire city of Vicksburg through these woods without even being seen."
Whatever the animal is, Lassiter and Childers agree it must be intelligent to have avoided being seen, as well as to have figured out how to live in the deep, dark woods in the middle of town where hunting is not allowed, thus assuring safety.
The men say that, no matter what others may think, they're not making this up.
As their stories have circulated, people have sought them out to thank them for being unafraid to talk.
"If it helps even one person feel better about what they've seen, it's worth it," Lassiter said.