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.
Aside from the more lurid accounts of speculative research, late night campfire tales and horror novels, is there a more rational explanation for Alaska's demon, the Kushtaka? What is the scholar's take on this legendary creature?
Classical scholar, Mary Giraudo Beck explains, "Kushtakas [according to historical Tlingit belief] were human beings who had been transformed by land otters into creatures similar to themselves, but who retained some human qualities. [They had] the special mission of saving those lost at sea or in the woods and transforming them into half-human, half-otter beings like themselves."
The question arises: Are these stories based on anything other than imagination? Or were they based on actual events, possibly a First Contact scenario, in Native Alaskan history? Interestingly, the Land Otter People were also called The Slim Men. This would seem to indicate that they could be impressively human, although very differently shaped than "normal" humans, the Tlingit.
Who could these Slim Men have been?
In 2004 a friend I'd attended the small bush school in the nearby fishing village with, loaned me The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake 1577-1580 by Samuel Bawlf. In it, the author postulates that Drake was the first European to discover British Columbia and the southern part of Southeast Alaska (where I live), in his secret mission to discover the Northwest Passage.
Historians and Drake aficionados, not to mention those invested in the idea that California was the furthest north Drake ventured, have since tried to poke holes in the idea. However, it is acknowledged that Drake's contemporaries were seeking the Northwest Passage's entrance on the Atlantic side and some of the powerful men backing these endeavors, high up in Elizabeth I's court, were also the ones who backed Drake's Pacific voyage. There are various essays by respected historians who, before this book was published, speculated that because of Drake's behavior on the voyage, that he was on a secret mission by Elizabeth I to find the Northwest Passage, or Strait of Anian, as it was called.
One of the problems historians have with Bawlf's account, is why there is now no clear documentary evidence of this secret mission. And why was it secret? I was curious, so I did some research and found that throughout the history of early exploration documentary evidence of newly discovered lands and passages was kept under lock and key, for the eyes of only a select group of people:
"The Feats of Rodrigues Cabrilho and Ferrelo [in possibly reaching the border of California and Oregon in the 1540s], high water marks of sixteenth-century exploration northward, were never mentioned in subsequent early accounts of California voyages. The explanation lies in deliberate Spanish policy....Mardrid considered it in her interest to keep geographic details as secret as possible....Maps from each new exploration were treated as state secrets and their data added to the master chart. The few that escaped destruction were filed away and remained unaccessible until they were encountered by modern historians. Later expeditions set out without detailed knowledge of previous accomplishments." (Flood-Tide of Empire: Spain and the Pacific Northwest 1543-1819 by Warren L. Cook, p. 4)
"As a result of King John's [of Portugal] strictly maintained policy of secrecy about these expeditions [to find an alternate route to the Spice Island through the Atlantic and Arctic], it is now next to impossible to find official records of these early Portuguese voyages. All charts, logs, and journals were confiscated and suppressed by the Crown, and their publication was prohibited under pain of death. There now survive only tantalizing but convincing traces of the manifold [exploratory] activities of this dynamic Portuguese ruler." (Ferdinanad Magellan: Circumnavigator by Charles McKew Parr, p. 172)
"Any public mention of the discovery of the eastern passage [discovered by Bartholomew Dias, 1487-8] was suppressed, and Dias was given no public recognition of his achievement....During the eight years following Dias's discovery, King John [of Portugal] concealed all news of further expeditions. It seems incredible that he could have suppressed every log and diary written in those eight years, but none has yet been found. There are some scattered clues here and there which suggest that...King John sent out as many as fifty exploring expeditions from Lisbon." (Ibid., p. 39)
This is, in essence, what Bawlf argues has happened to most of the documentary evidence of Drake's exploration of British Columbia and southern Southeast Alaska. In his book Bawlf follows the scattered clues to present a compelling picture.
But if Drake had made it this far north, what was his impact on a Native population that had never met a European? Is there any evidence that Europeans had been in the area before the first acknowledged Europeans arrived, namely the Russians and Spanish?
The Smithsonian magazine's online version notes: "...evidence is building that the English discovered Canada's west coast hundreds of years before it was officially charted by Spanish explorer Juan Perez. The latest piece of evidence...is a coin [found on the shores of Vancouver Island, March 2014]. The newly discovered coin bears marks indicating it was produced between 1551 and 1553 during the reign of King Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII and half-brother of Elizabeth I....This is the third 16th century coin found along the coast. Thsi [sic] physical evidence adds support to documents that, during a 1579 voyage to North America's west coast, British sailor Francis Drake made his way further north than was thought."
In the classic 1885 anthropological text The Tlingit Indians by Aurel Krause (translated by Erna Gunther in 1956), the author notes: "Contagious diseases have repeatedly ravaged the Tlingit....According to the reports of Maurelle, the disease [small pox] is supposed to have been present among the Indians before the Europeans came." Did Drake's men expose them to this disease that was rampant in Elizabethan England?
"To their astonishment the first visitors [to Alaska] found the knowledge and use of iron spread everywhere, even though it was scarce and highly valued. In 1741 Stellar saw iron knives, supposedly not of European manufacture, in the possession of two indians on Shumagin Island." Was Drake the one who first introduced the Native population to iron?
Despite this evidence, many scholars still insist that Drake couldn't have explored BC and SE Alaska because of the dangerous nature of the island, rock and reef infested waterways of these regions. How, they demand, could he have made such fast progress despite all the dangers?
In my reading of the early European seafarers, I noticed that again and again their answer to this difficulty, that all of them faced to one degree or another, was to kidnap the locals to gain navigation information and act as pilots.
For instance, in 1606, the Dutch explored the seas around Australia. One of their "chief activities was the kidnaping of natives in order that they could be taught Dutch of Malay and so disclose what knowledge they possess." The Dutch were surprised that when word spread among the indigenous people that the Natives "received us as enemies everywhere." (The Coral Sea by Alan Villiers, p. 120)
This same author notes that: "The whole way up the west coast of America, Drake kidnaped local and deep-sea pilots." Drake's immediate successor, Thomas Cavendish, followed his example in kidnapping pilots. Why wouldn't Drake have kidnapped the Natives to help him navigate through this confusing and dangerous archipelago?
And how would the Alaskan Natives feel about these alien people in their strange Elizabethan attire kidnapping their family members? Couldn't this be the basis of the Kushtaka legend?
I have been around land otters most of my life, since I grew up in the Alaskan bush where they are common. When, after reading Bawlf's book, I saw a picture of English sailors of Drake's day in their wasp-waisted ("slim") shirts, baggy, knee length breeches, and awkward sleeves, I immediately saw the resemblance to the land otter. Why wouldn't the Tlingit make that same connection?
As Mary Giraudo Beck comments: "In these stories [of the Land Otter People], instances of the benevolence of kushtakas suggest a duality in their nature to match their physical traits [they were at home in both the sea and on land]....Kushtakas, with their power of illusion, appear in the guise of dead relatives....One victim sees them as hybrid half-human, half-otter beings; another sees their upper lips caught up under their noses to resemble a land otter's mouth, their arms seeming to grow out of their chests rather than their shoulders."
To the Tlingits of former times the Elizabethan style of trimmed mustache and Van Dyke beard must have been strikingly reminiscent of the land otter, and their sleeves--which were unknown to Native Alaskan weavers---might have made it appear as if their arms were growing out of their chests.
Drake was known for his humane treatment of Natives, so perhaps that is where the duality of kindness and terror comes from. On the one hand he was kidnapping the Tlingits to be used as pilots, but on the other hand, he might have made more than one altruistic rescue. Some of the Natives, in addition, might have adapted to the European way of life and tried, now dressed in European, otter-like clothes, to lure their relatives (who had written them off as dead) over to the Dark Side of the Land Otter People.
But could such a brief encounter have brought such a lasting cultural memory that it produced the many stories of the Kushtaka? The stories speak of a Land Otter "kingdom." This would suggest a much longer stay than Drake could have spent in Alaska before completing his circumnavigation.
On the other hand, Bawlf points out that there is a curious discrepancy in the amount of men between Drake's Northwest sojourn and the next leg of his trip back home. Bawlf suggests that some of Drake's men were left behind to continue exploring for the Northwest Passage using a pinnace, an ancillary boat that could be rowed or sailed in closer to shore.
If that was the case, these Elizabethan sailors were doomed to not find the Northwest Passage back home. They might have ended up marooned in Alaska, kidnapping Native women and children to create famlies, and kidnapping men to help do the work in constructing a safe haven in the wilderness--their "kingdom."
Interestingly, the stories of the Kushtaka say that the Land Otter People, or Slim Men, traveled on a canoe that they identified with the skate (fish). The skate is, in appearance, very much like the sails used on pinnaces. It's mentioned in the Native stories that the skate-canoe could also be rowed.
If this scenario is correct, how long did the Elizabethan sailors survive in the Alaskan wilderness? How many Natives did they kidnap and interact with? They must have given up hope at some point that Drake would ever come back to rescue them. Did they attempt to take the pinnace out onto the open seas and try to make it home, either back-tracking through Spanish waters, or attempting to cross the Pacific and circumnavigate the globe? Did they perish at sea?
We have no way of knowing.
But it's quite possible that they left a lasting testament to their time in Alaska in the frightening stories, told down to this day, of the Land Otter People and their kingdom. Now when I'm on the water here I think of Drake and his men seeing these same waterways, the same sights. And I imagine that moment when the Natives met their first Europeans in a traumatic moment of First Contact that is forever captured in the legends of the Kushtaka.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)