I asked someone whose opinion I value what my next blog post should be on, and then I gave her a list of topics.
She said she liked them all, but what she'd really like was to "hear about how hard your life is--i.e., use propane to power what? Do you have lanterns like camping? You don't have a stove or oven, right? How do you get heat in your house--wood stove? ....How you have learned to co-exist with very dangerous animals. Stuff like that."
(She also asked about how we've adapted to the weather, but that deserves it's own post. Also, I don't think our life is all that hard. It just doesn't have a lot of luxuries. The ones we have, we appreciate very much.)
Okay, Nancy, this one's for you.
My propane usage is limited to a cookstove, which means just the burners since the oven is currently out of order. I also do a lot of cooking on the woodstove in the winter, and always heat water on it for shower and dishes, etc. Others use propane for hot water heaters and regrigerators. The problem with propane is that you have to cross a dangerously unpredictable body of water to get it. For a while my dad operated a propane hauling business in his boat. He wound up in some pretty treacherous weather, and it was a physically brutal job.
Another problem is that the man who now operates the propane supply is only there a few days of the week. Lining those days up with good weather is a hassle. Occasionally, we've called over when we were desperately low and he was kind enough to make a special trip into town (he lives out) to meet us at the propane depot and let us fill up our tanks.
Then there's the fact that propane is heavy. And we only have man and woman power to haul the tanks in and out of the skiff (or boat) and up a ramp to the propane supply. My dad tackled this issue by monstering up his handtruck. You've heard of monster trucks? Well, this is a monster handtruck. (See opening image.)
He's now the envy of all the local guys and more than one gal. They look at his ghetto-epic (as my nephew Sterling would say) handtruck with jealous, covetous eyes.
Some people have camping style lanterns, mostly for backup these days. I grew up with kerosene lamps and it wasn't until the '90s that I switched over to 12-volt lights and a battery-inverter system. We also run the generator for four hours every night to recharge the batteries and keep food in the freezer frozen. When the genny's on, so are my regular houselights, which is nice in the long dark days of winter. In the summer, when the sunset blends with the dawn, lights are rarely needed.
Wood heat all the way. I've been hauling firewood since I was four or five years old. It's hard to lose muscle tone when you haul firewood approximately three-quarters of the year, often every day.
When we were kids we got tired of the regimen. My evil genius older brother, Jamie, taught us how to hide the pieces of firewood all over the beach. My dad was none too pleased when he saw that the amount of wood in the woodpile was half what he'd sawed, chopped and sweated over.
Needless to say, we were sent out to recover every single piece of wood, making twice as much work for ourselves. The moral: Crime doesn't pay. (Or was it: Don't listen to big brothers?)
We lived next to a major salmon spawning creek when I was growing up so bears have just been a fact of life for as long as we've lived in Alaska. To keep us kids safe my parents tried various ideas: Telling us to sing loudly wherever we went to scare off the black bears (since we lived on the mainland we had both black and brown bears; on islands it's either/or); hanging open bottles of amonia on the trees around our house; teaching us kids a "bear drill;" teaching us how to shoot.
A few years ago we had a rogue grizzly breaking into homes. It broke the window in the cabin my aunt was alone in--ironically while her husband and local men were out hunting the bear. Fortunately, the little beagle she had with her was of a lunatic turn of mind and had such a fit at the intrusion that the enormous bear beat a hasty retreat.
I had an encounter with it on my morning walk. I stepped out of the woods and had gone about thirty feet when something made me look over my shoulder.
At the rogue grizzly.
It was about 25 yards away, looking right at me with nothing but level, unobstructed beach between me and it. Worse, I was upwind of it and a breeze was blowing my scent toward it.
I froze, remembering the hurricane-like damage it had inflicted on several houses in the area.
The grizzly lifted it's snout, sniffing. Then wagged it's head in a ponderous, unhappy way that might have been comical in other circumstances. It gave a short, stiff-legged hop on its front legs. All signs of mounting aggression.
I had three choices, as I saw it, since I didn't have a gun with me. I could run and have it catch me in seconds. I could drop and play dead and see if a rogue grizzly would play by the rules that I'd been taught as a kid and not eat me. Or I could move slowly and non-threateningly back into the woods.
I chose number three. I watched it with riveted attention (to say the least) as I eased backwards, feeling my way over rocks, grass and drift. The bear made huffing noises and bounced again on its front legs in a way that wasn't exactly heartwarming.
I made it into the edge of the woods. As soon as I was out of sight, I booked it for home. I'm pretty sure I broke a few landspeed records.
When my dad and I came back with his .416 the bear was gone.
I spent the rest of that year packing a gun everywhere.
Photos: Top, the epic handtruck; 2nd, the locals watching my dad unload propane tanks; 3rd, my mom's collection of kerosene lamps, now mostly decorative, but always ready to be pressed back into service if the generator dies, or we run out of fuel; 4th my dad doing what's second nature at this point, sawing up a log on the beach. Note the cane: he has bad sciatica, but it doesn't stop him from getting the job done; 4th, bear damage to a local's house; 5th, my dad shows how tall the rogue grizzly was. You can see the smudges of its paw prints on the window, the framing of which it tore away. My dad is about five ten.
In 1750 a Tlingit Native village in Thomas Bay in SE Alaska was obliterated by a massive landslide. On that day, more than 500 people died in what came to be called Geey Nana, or "The Bay of Death."
Some time slightly before 1900, a ship carrying Chinese immigrants hired to work the Alaskan salmon canneries wrecked just outside Thomas Bay. It was reported that all souls were lost.
In June of 1900 Harry Colp, visiting Thomas Bay for the first time, was told by a prospector named Charlie "The strangest Story Ever Told." It has come to be one of the most famous and eerie stories in Alaskan folklore. As such, it is sold on the Alaska State Ferries by the gross in paperback-pamphlet form, read curiously by tourists and locals alike.
The prospector, who had canoed alone into the Bay of Death, told Colp and his companion that he'd found gold-rich quartz in Thomas Bay, but he'd never prospect it. And then he told them why.
Charlie gave them the story on his finding the quartz and then said, "I thought I would climb the ridge directly over the ledge and get my landmarks.....Right there, fellows, I got the scare of my life. I hope to God I never see or go through the likes of it again.
"Swarming up the ridge toward me from the lake were the most hideous creatures. I couldn't call them anything but devils, as they were neither men nor monkeys--yet looked like both. They were entirely sexless, their bodies covered with long coarse hair, except where the scabs and running sores had replaced it. Each one seemed to be reaching out for me and striving to be the first to get me. The air was full of their cries and the stench from their sores and bodies made me faint.
"I forgot my broken gun and tried to use it on the first ones, then I threw it at them and turned and ran. God, how I did run! I could feel their hot breath on my back. Their long clawlike fingers scraped my back. The smell from their steaming, stinking bodies was making me sick; while the noises they made, yelling, screaming and breathing, drove me mad. Reason left me. How I reached the canoe...is a mystery to me.
"When I came to, it was night, and I was lying in the bottom of my canoe, drifting between Thomas Bay and Sukoi Island, cold, hungery and crazy for a drink of water....You no doubt think I am crazy or lying....Never let me hear the name Thomas Bay again, and for God's sake help me get away tomorrow on that boat!"
Who, or what, were these terrifying "devils"? To this day people speculate, particularly online. Some think they were the Tlingit devil, the half-man, half-otter Kushtaka. Others insist that they're Alaskan relatives of Bigfoot. Many people dismiss the story as simply the imagination, combined with drink, of a prospector who'd spent too much time alone in the bush.
I heard an interesting, and much more plausible than Bigfoot, theory at a small dinner party of long time Alaskans. One man said he'd grown up in the Thomas Bay area with his father had hunted mountain goats and explored the caves there, which were large enough for people to have lived in if they'd needed to.
"My father found out there'd been a shipwreck not that long before the prospector was on the scene. No lives were saved...supposedly. But what if some of the passengers, which were mostly Chinese immigrants brand new to the country and not speaking a word of English, made it ashore? They could have lived in the caves and subsisted on mountain goats, using the hides for clothes when theirs gave out.
"Imagine this loner prospector, absolutely certain he is the only human for miles in any direction, hiking alone in eerie country believed to be cursed by the Natives, and suddenly he's face to face with desperate, excited Chinese men, a race he may never have met before, dressed in goatskins and yelling in a language completely alien to him. Naturally, they pursued him when he ran--he was their only hope of getting back to civilization. No wonder they yelled and tried to grab him. And no wonder he was terrified!"
The tragic story haunted me so I researched it and was able to verify everything but the exact date of the shipwreck--the reports only said before 1900--or the vessel's name. The only thing sure was that a ship had been reported lost in the vicinity of Thomas Bay.
HistoryLink.org, Essay 10919 confirms that Chinese immigrants were shipped to Alaska from the late 1800s to the end of the first decade of the twentieth century to work in the salmon canneries.
Another online source noted that many of these Chinese immigrants were formerly, in their homeland, goat herders.
And, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, mountain goats are plentiful in Thomas Bay and they use different "cliff habitats" during various seasons of the year.
It seems entirely possible and horribly tragic that these marooned Chinese immigrants believed they were going to be rescued when they saw the lone prospector hiking toward them.
Could anything be more natural than that they'd run toward him? They were on him in a moment, screaming excitedly and reaching for him in their malodorous goatskins, sores--possibly from a poor diet--oozing, their "wrong" skin color and shape of the eyes...all combining to create a creature that has gone down in Alaskan history as a spectral monster and bogeyman.
But what if they were simply marooned men of another race, unable to communicate through lack of a common language...and one man's terror of the unfamiliar?
Pictures: Top, Thomas Bay; Second, paddling the canoe into "devils country"; Third, Alaskan mountain goat, detail of a painting by Bob Hines; Fourth, the product that brought the Chinese immigrants to Alaska; Bottom, Chinese immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century.
The young Tlingit girl I was taking care of clutched me, shivering and terrified, her dark eyes dilated. "Don't leave my side or they'll take me!"
"Who?" I asked.
"The Kushtaka," she whispered, afraid to say it too loud in case they heard.
We had just been told that the house we were staying in had been built on, it was rumored, a Native graveyard. It was late at night and the girl was too scared to sleep. I let her stay on my bed and talked with her about unimportant things until dawn began to shimmer through the windows and she finally fell asleep.
My sister Megan recently told me that for a long time she believed the Kushtaka (often pronounced Coostika) were frighteningly real. Mainly because my oldest brother, Jamie, loved to regale us, by kerosene lamplight, with spine-chilling tales of the supernatural horrors the Kushtaka were capable of. Just outside our night-darkened windows crouched the huge, sinister silence of the wilderness that surrounded us and cut us off from the world.
My two little brothers were so terrified they refused to go out at night alone and had to be accompanied on woodhauling trips after dark.
Now an adult, my brother Robin shared with me the memory of our uncle, Rory, telling late-night Kushtaka stories during a hunting trip to uninhabited islands deep in the wilderness. One morning Robin and my youngest brother, Chris, were hunting along the beach and "came across a dead animal of some sort. Very hairy and grayish. Couldn't tell what it was, but it sure as [expletive] scared the [expletive] outa us."
These terrifying creatures originated in Native Alaskan folklore, passed down orally for generations. In modern times, the half-human half-otter Kushtaka are identified with Bigfoot, ETs, various bogeymen and supernatural beings. They are the subject of horror novels, short stories, blog posts, YouTube clips, newspaper articles, non-fiction books, and conspiracy theorists.
A recent book seeking to understand the Kushtaka put it this way: "The Kushtaka, the mythical Shapeshifting Creature of the Tlingit people. A Beast capable of taking your darkest fears and manifest [sic] them into a Hellish reality. In this [book] ...we'll take a look at the shocking possibility that the Kushtaka may be the remnants of the Fallen Angels and the Nephilim. This book Contains information that the UFO Community and the Church doesn't want you to know."
A horror novel about these creatures summarizes: "Mark wakes up in his Alaskan cabin, alone... [his] greatest fears are realized when he is tormented by the malevolent Kushtaka, the most ancient and evil demon of Alaskan folklore. The battle is not for his life but, but for his very soul."
One of the Amazon reviewers of this book wrote: "Having lived in SE Alaska, and fished for a living, I was well-acquainted with the legends from native friends. Fishermen are a very superstitious group and stories about encounters with this spirit are abundant, and recent, and very believable. I experienced an episode in the forest that makes a believer out of me."
Stories of the Kushtaka are told to everyone visiting SE Alaska who ventures out into the deep wilderness. Here is one of my own experiences with the consequences of this tradition.
"There's something out there."
As a cook/deckhand/housekeeper of a guide boat I was exhausted. I got up at 6:30 am to make bag lunches and cook breakfast and I usually didn't get to my bunk until after midnight, sometimes not until 2:30 am. So to catch up on my sleep I napped in the wheelhouse when the guides and clients were out all day.
Today, though, two of the clients had stayed behind and they felt impelled to wake me. They sounded as if they really wanted to be cool and casual, but couldn't quite pull it off.
Since we were in a lonely bay many miles from the nearest town I asked, "Something? Can you describe it?"
They just stared at me for a moment. Finally the older one said, "Something...strange. Awful." There was no attempt to be casual now. "Come outside. You can...hear it."
I sighed. Not that long ago, the two non-Alaskan guides had gotten me up out of a dead sleep in the middle of the night claiming "something" had bumped into the hull. They ran from one side to the other, peering into the still, dark water where we were anchored for the night and asked me to turn on the big mast light. I did so.
They talked in hushed voices about the possibility of monsters, of the Kushtaka. Everyone knew there were frightening creatures in the wilderness. They asked me what I thought it was, since I'd grown up in the bush.
I could have told them all the spooky Kushtaka sotries from my childhood, but I was tired. "A log," I said, and went back to bed. I fell asleep to their whispered voices and feet pacing from one side to the other directly overhead.
Now the clients were spooked, too. I got up and went outside with them. It was a beautiful, peaceful evening with sunset color beginning to gather in the sky and reflect on the placid bay. The surrounding, endless forest was turning black, javeline tips silhouetted against the glowing sky. We appeared to be the only humans left on the planet, our boat the only safe haven from the wilderness.
The clients crowded close. "Just...listen," they urged, very low voiced. "They're out there."
I listened. A moment later a horrible, guttural cry echoed across the still water, something between a sepulchral howl and threatening roar. It had a strange, unearthly after-note...something like a Harley being revved at one end of a long tunnel.
"There it is!" they exclaimed. "You heard it, didn't you? We told you something was out there!"
They were right. Something was. "It's a sea lion," I said, and went back to bed.
But is there really SOMETHING out there in the Alaskan bush? Do the Kushtaka exist in reality beyond the legends of the oral stories of the Native Alaskan people and the imaginations of horror story writers and conspiracy theorists? What event caused the stories of the half-human, half-otter men to develop in the first place and to continue frightening people down to this day? Is it possible to find out?
I believe it is, and my conclusions will be given in my next post.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)