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.