According to a friend: "We all think that living in Alaska is one big party (except when the rabid otters are on the march)." When I told this friend that I was going to do a blog about otters, he immediately sent me an email titled "Beware of Otter" and warned, "Just don't get too close to them without having your gun and a sturdy knife and your aerosol otter-repellant spray with you! Those critters are nassssss-tay!" And my brothers regularly assure me that there will be a Revenge of the Land Otters apocalypse at some point in our near future.
How did the delightful river/land otter wind up with such a bad rep?
I think it's mostly due to the Tlingit tales of the Kushtaka, a half-human, half-otter hybrid that terrorized the early Native Alaskans with its shapeshifting and kidnapping ways. (For more on the Kushtaka, see the category "Myth Busting.")
Some famous totem poles propagate this otter scaremongering as well, such as the "Man Captured By Otters" and the "Fight with the Land Otters" totem poles. A story that accompanies one otter pole tells of four Tlingit boys who catch and barbecue some salmon. (They dig a shallow hole and place heated rocks in it and cover them with skunk cabbage leaves. The fish, wrapped in more of the leaves, are placed on top to cook. We've cooked trout this way and it's delicious.) Sounds charming, right?
The story goes from folk to Brother's Grimm in a hurry, so be forewarned. Not content with simply eating the salmon, the boys decide to throw some live salmon onto the hot rocks and mock and ridicule them when they wriggle. By doing so they break a fundamental law: no living creature should be ridiculed or tortured.
Their bad deed does not go unpunished. One the way home the boys' canoe capsizes and they're kidnapped by vengeful land otters who haul them off to their den. The villagers come looking for them, and when they find them they build a fire in front of the otters' den and throw urine on the fire, presumably to smoke them out. The fire gets out of control and the boys and most of the otters are killed. But enough otters survive to, we can only suppose, exact some bloodchilling, horrible revenge upon the villagers in the future.
The end. Sleep well, kids.
My introduction to otters was much less Grimm. It was a family film called "Tarka the Otter." I barely remember it now, having seen it when I was about seven when we lived in Thorne Bay (at the time, the largest logging camp in the world), but I remember the friendly feeling I had toward all otters after watching it.
Since then I've seen them cavorting on docks and logs, entire families playing with jovial good will. A few summers ago, I had a close encounter with one that convinced me that while they might feel some (perhaps justified) condescenion toward humans, they aren't as vicious as their reputation would have you believe.
While I was upstairs in my floathouse, I heard what sounded like a dog ease in through my cat door and thump inside. Surprised, since there are no dogs here, I looked down from my loft and saw a huge otter standing on its hind legs in my kitchen, casually looking around like he was thinking about buying the place if the price was right.
My Main Coon Katya got up from where she was sleeping and slunk halfway down the stairs to subside on a middle riser and stare at him. They eyed each other, neither making an attempt to escalate the stand-off. Finally, Mr. Otter gave a kind of insulting shrug, obviously not impressed, and oozed out the cat door.
This summer while my sister Megan was visiting, we took a hike around the outer rocks that protect our small bay and stumbled upon an otter den, complete with several rooms. Like the worst sort of tourists, we plunged right in and checked out the bedroom area where the dirt was tamped down in a circle, snapping pictures. It segued into the bathroom, which in turn led to the slide down to the water. The kitchen area was strewn with abalone and sea urchin shells which we picked up to admire and photograph.
Out on the patio with the fantastic view of Clarence Strait, Megan found a guest hanging out under a sea urchin shell. The slug looked up at her quizzically, like we do when the tourists climb onto our front porches and peer in through our windows.
The den was obviously home to quite a large family and Megan and I began to wonder what would happen if they returned while the two Goldilocks were there making free and easy with their belongings and home. We decided to keep on hiking.
While we were oohing and aahing over some bubble feeding humpbacks in the distance, Megan suddenly pointed. "Look, it's an otter!" She gave a slightly nervous laugh. "How long do you think it's been watching us?"
We thought guiltily of our trampling through the otter den. "I'm sure they won't hold it against us," I said, thinking about the otter who had barged into my house sans invitation. Turn about was fair play. Right?
Besides, otters are nice, intelligent, friendly folk. And despite what the totem pole tales and my brothers say, there's no such thing as a revenge otter.
Note: Special thanks to my dad for the final image.
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)