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Before he got a security job at Skinwalker Ranch, Christopher Bartel didn’t know much about the place.
“I just heard that it was a place where some weird things happened,” said Bartel, who worked at the ranch from 2010 to 2016. “Our job was to secure the property, but also document and report anything out of the ordinary.”
The ranch — which covers 512 acres in Utah’s Uinta Basin, about 150 miles east of Salt Lake City — is famous among those who study UFOs and paranormal phenomena. Stories of an ancient curse, cattle mutilations, rock formations that glow in the dark, and UFO sightings have accumulated around the place, and have drawn their share of scientific inquiry and research.
Its owner, multimillionaire real estate developer Brandon Fugal, calls it “the most scientifically studied paranormal hotspot on the planet.” He should know, since he’s currently bankrolling a research team, whose exploits are chronicled in the History Channel’s “The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch.”
Bartel’s view of the ranch is different than that of a reality show. He shot some 1,500 still images of the ranch during his six years working security there — and 80 of them have been selected for “The Skinwalker Ranch Portfolio,” a photo exhibition, online at skinwalkerranchportfolio.org, being presented by the University of Maryland Art Gallery through the end of the year.
Taras W. Matla, curator of the University of Maryland’s gallery, said that when he first saw Bartel’s photos, “what took me aback is that his work was the antithesis of how [the ranch] has been presented in pop culture. … Chris treated the subject through a compassionate lens, and bestowed a little bit of dignity and respect to something that’s otherwise been presented in a very sensationalized way.”
Though Bartel’s orders were to watch for the extraordinary at the ranch, he said he became drawn to the ordinary things he saw.
“I would be out on patrol, and I would see great shots of the ranch, and be like, ‘Oh man, I want to capture this moment.’ So I always had my camera with me,” he said.
Usually, Bartel said, he carried two cameras. One was provided by the company he worked for — but his personal camera was better, he said, so often he’d use that instead.
The strangest thing captured in one of Bartel’s 80 photographs are a set of large paw prints, larger than those made by the dogs who sometimes accompanied Bartel on his patrols.
Bartel recalled an incident, in October 2010, when his partner saw a set of large paw prints with a long stride, each print at least three feet from the last. They searched for the cause of the prints, but when it started to rain, they headed back.
They saw their own footprints on the return trip — with another set of the animal’s prints. “This thing had been following us from afar the whole night,” Bartel said. “And none of the three dogs that were with us picked up on the animal.”
As Bartel and his partner approached the ranch’s main house, called Homestead 1, they heard “this loud, guttural howl” from a nearby ditch. Bartel said he then saw a black figure, the size of a deer, jump out of the ditch, land on the dirt road and run west.
Unfortunately, he said, he didn’t get photographic evidence of anything besides the tracks.
“You can be out there with all the equipment and not have anything happen,” he said. “But as soon as you go back to Homestead 1, to take a shower and decompress, something happens. You’re like, ‘What the hell?’ And you don’t have your stuff ready.”
“I think everybody who’s been out there says ‘things always happen out there when you least expect it.’”
‘It just felt like being at home’
Aside from the paw prints, Bartel’s photos are more about the ranch’s natural features and the remnants of the dilapidated homesteads on the property.
“My first week up there, I thought, ‘This place is just another ranch,’” said Bartel, who grew up on a farm in Kansas (he now lives in Wichita). “To me, the ranch wasn’t very scary or spooky. It just felt like being at home.”
Matla said Bartel is following “the longstanding tradition of photographing the American West in the mid- to late-19th century,” when photographers were “pushed out to document the bounty of the United States and then report back to Washington.”
Skinwalker Ranch, as seen in Bartel’s photos, Matla said, is “a normal, beautiful, majestic place, like any other place in a rural area of the United States. But there are these small, unexplained anomalies that happen.”
During Bartel’s time working at the ranch, the Pentagon funded a couple of research projects there to investigate UFOs and other unexplained phenomena. Bartel got the job at the ranch, in part, because he had served in the U.S. Air Force and had the necessary security clearances.
The company that owned the ranch then was Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies (BAASS), whose parent company — Bigelow Aerospace — is led by Robert Bigelow, a Nevada billionaire who made his fortune with the Budget Hotels of America chain.
Bigelow declared on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in 2017, in a story about his aerospace company’s efforts to build inflatable spacecraft for NASA, that he is “absolutely convinced” that aliens exist and that UFOs have visited Earth. (He is now offering a cash prize for proof of life after death.)
“I was very, very cautious,” Fugal said. “I hadn’t even told my wife — who is now my ex-wife. … And I am sinking, secretly, a lot of money into this property.”
That money, Fugal said, bought new equipment, including infrared and night-vision cameras — as well as a 16-camera security system to monitor the grounds around the clock.
“We start seeing all sorts of other stuff,” Fugal said. “Dramatic UFOs over the mesa, both night and daytime that are captured on camera. Plus luminous mesa events, where the mesa would actually light up and glow — there’s nothing being projected on it, it’s just like this glow.”
Matla, who said he approached Fugal early in planning the exhibit of Bartel’s photos, said Fugal “is picking up where Bigelow left off.”
‘The absolute truth’
When the History Channel pitched Fugal on the idea of making a reality show about Skinwalker Ranch, he had some conditions: He wanted to remain anonymous, he wanted the producers to use his team of researchers, and he wanted “the absolute truth.”
“Nothing can be contrived or fabricated or faked,” Fugal said. “I’ve had enough of watching ghost-hunter shows with people with night-vision goggles tripping over their d---s in the dark.”
The producers agreed to using Fugal’s team, and that everything would be truthful. They challenged him on the request to stay in the background.
“They said, ‘You want to present something with integrity, that the public will see as genuine, that is authentic? It would be disingenuous for you not to be involved, to not come out,’” Fugal said.
The first episode of “The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch” aired in March 2020, and Fugal is prominently featured. The show’s second season is now airing on History Channel, with new episodes on Tuesday nights through July 13.
The question of UFOs — or, as the government now calls them, unexplained aerial phenomena, or UAPs — resurfaced in late June, with a new federal report that reviewed 144 sightings of aircraft or other devices that could not be explained. The report drew few conclusions, and stressed the need for better data collection.
“I didn’t expect there to be much” in the government’s report, Fugal said. What’s interesting, he said, was “what they did state was 144 cases that they couldn’t attribute to any U.S. technology, or Chinese or Russian. And they couldn’t come to any conclusion. Here’s the thing: They didn’t eliminate alien activity, because they couldn’t disprove anything.”
Matla, who noted that the government report “still leaves wiggle room to continue to gather resources,” said he finds it “incredible to think that this small parcel in northeastern Utah played such a huge role in where we are now with the conversation of UFOs and associated phenomena.”
Bartel said he’s not sure why Skinwalker Ranch has gained its reputation for strange phenomena, though he said he believes “the ranch is ancient native hallowed grounds. I truly think the Native American energy, the vibration, is embedded in the natural environment of the property.”
Still, he said, “it’s how you perceive it. If you go out there looking for darkness, you’re going to find it. Whatever energy you produce, you’re going to get back.”