PORTLAND, Maine — It had all the trappings of a typical conference — books, bumper stickers, name tags and free coffee.
But the 80 or so people that filled the Clarion Hotel in Portland on Saturday had one thing in common that’s uncommon: Alien abductions.
The Experiencers Speak conference held in Maine for the second year in a row helps people who have had brushes with extraterrestrials realize they are not alone.
“This is not a club you want to be a member of,” said James Weiner of Wayland, Mass.
And he should know.
As a college student in 1976, Weiner set off on a fishing expedition with three friends after a hike up Mount Katahdin. While paddling a canoe through the Allagash Wilderness Waterway one night, a whitish, yellow ball “the size of a two-story house” appeared in the sky before them.
“It was both beautiful and terrifying,” he recalled.
The following night they saw the image again. His friend Charlie Foltz grabbed a flashlight and flicked it on and off. This time their canoe “lit up like a Roman candle.”
“[Then], a beam of light, a craft, came toward us,” Weiner said.
After watching the unidentified flying object for what they thought was minutes, the members of the group were exhausted. When they returned to camp, they discovered that the fire they had set to burn for hours was reduced to embers, Weiner recalled.
“We were half mesmerized. All we wanted to do was go to bed,” he said.
That incident, like all alien abduction stories shared at the conference, would go on to shape his life. It wasn’t until years later, when Weiner sought medical help for sleep deprivation brought on by nightmares, that he discovered he had been abducted.
The incident, known as “The Allagash Abductions,” brought Weiner and Foltz to Portland this weekend to tell those who have had close encounters that it’s not in their heads.
“They are not crazy, they are not sick or distorted, they are not looking for attention. What’s happening to them is real,” said Weiner, who speaks Sunday night. “It’s my civic duty to let people know.”
How many people are purported to be abducted by aliens is not known. The International Center for Abduction Research in Philadelphia says there are “hundreds of thousands,” but few have been investigated by researchers.
Proof is hard to find.
Stanton Friedman, a nuclear physicist from Canada, who has studied flying saucers for 55 years said “the evidence is overwhelming that planet earth is being visited by extraterrestrial spacecraft. Some UFO are alien spacecraft. Some are not.”
Though he has written books such as “Science Was Wrong” and debated the subject for years, Friedman says a lack of evidence means little.
“Because I can’t tell you exactly how they get here, doesn’t mean they are not,” said Friedman.
For signs that aliens exist, look no further than into Travis Walton’s eyes.
The Arizona man, who believes he was taken by aliens while working with a forestry crew in 1975, gets a haunted look when he retells his experience.
“I don’t enjoy talking about it, but it’s important to get the message out; the reality that these kind of things can happen,” he said.
While working outside Snowflake, Ariz., he was attracted to a metallic, glowing light in the woods that was “as smooth as glass with parts glowing.” Walton, 22 at the time, suddenly became fearful.
“There was a high-pitched sound and energy, like static electricity that was building up,” he said.
He says aliens abducted him for five days and six hours. During that time he went “in and out of consciousness,” couldn’t breathe, and likened the experience to waterboarding.
The event that was turned into a book and movie called “ Fire in the Sky,” was just as traumatic for Steve Pierce, who was working with Walton at the time and said he saw him “get zapped.” Only 17, the witness was suspected of murder and couldn’t talk about it for 35 years.
“Lots of people don’t believe you. They think you are nuts,” said Pierce, who wrote a book called “Broken Silence,” on the subject. “It makes life difficult. I’ve been haunted by it my whole life. I still have nightmares about it.”
To Walton, who headlined Saturday’s conference with Pierce, it’s conceivable that there are civilizations that are “thousands or millions of years ahead of us … Look how far we’ve come in 100 years.”
When met with naysayers, skeptics and debunkers, Walton said, “don’t judge this without getting the facts first.” His book seeks to prove them wrong.
Friedman, who believes Walton was abducted, says the government intentionally hides these incidents.
“We are dealing with a cosmic Watergate. That means a few people in major governments have known that the Earth is being visited,” said Friedman, who addresses the crowd on Sunday.
And because they are not taken seriously, abductees start to feel like victims.
“They are ostracized socially, they are ostracized by their churches, all the institutions that they go to for help usually, wind up ridiculing them,” said Weiner.
Audrey Hewins started the conference last year to give them a place to turn.
After the Oxford resident had an encounter in 2006, she launched an alien abduction therapy network called Starborn Support. Since then, the response for her free service was overwhelming. She now has 10 chapters up and down the East Coast.
“I know what these people are going through. There is nowhere for people to get help,” she said
Many conference attendees came seeking solace this weekend. Others, like Martin Willis of Cape Elizabeth, wanted to know more. Years ago when he was living in Carmel, Calif., a blue light arced high in the sky over his head and stopped.
Because it could not be explained, he’s been researching the topic ever since.
“I don’t think anyone has any answers. If they do, stay away from them,” said Willis. “I realize I will probably die without knowing.”
And that feeling is what binds this subset of the population together.
“You want answers. You don’t get it from government, religion … it leads you on a quest,” said Weiner. “It forced me to revisit my outlook about the world and my community. It changes who you are. You are not the same after this.”
Experiencers Speak continues Sunday from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., at the Clarion Hotel, 1230 Congress St., Portland. Tickets are $50 at the door.