Bigfoot Encounters

Alaska's Bigfoot: Creature of Lore or Reality?
by Steven C. Levi

August 2005 -- Let's face it, there is only one person with a lower credibility than an Outsider with a bear story, and that's an Alaskan with a Bigfoot story. Bigfoot, of course, is the legendary humanoid that haunts the wilds of North America. So elusive that few scientists believe it exists at all. The evidence is, at best, scanty, contradictory, and largely apocryphal. When it comes to Alaska, legend and lore have become even more convoluted.

While the Pacific Northwest may have Bigfoot — often called Sasquatch — Alaska has a veritable smorgasbord of humanoids. Unlike the “Lower 48,” there is a substantial history of sightings of these creatures, mostly by Natives. These sightings were not in some by-gone era but recent and consistent enough to be investigated — if mainstream science wants to take a serious look at the phenomenon.

In many parts of Alaska there are humanoids that Natives firmly believe exist. In addition to the “Hairy Man” of Kokhanok and the “Little People” of Noorvik, there is also “Caribou Man,” called the Tutu by the Innupiat. In the forests of the Interior there is the Nakhani, and in Kotzebue Sound there is the Nuyaqpalik or “long hair.” A mermaid of sorts, she has extremely long hair and drags solitary fishermen out of their boats to a watery grave.

The Alaskan humanoid perhaps best know by non-Natives is the Kushtacah or “water devil” of Southeast Alaska. The Kushtacah leapt from lore to literature during the Alaska Gold Rush when encounters between man and beast began to be recorded. This, however, is not a passive, shy beast but one of violence. Perhaps the most graphic description of Kushtacah and its alleged violence was included in the 1953 self-published Alaskan classic, THE STRANGEST STORY EVER TOLD, by Harry D. Colp. Historians, it should be added, have had trouble verifying Colp's claims.

On the other hand, W. R. Abercrombie, a reputable historical source, added a new twist to the story of the Kushtacah. That was in 1898 as the disastrous Valdez Stampede was drawing to a close. Several thousand miners had stampeded across the treacherous Valdez Glacier hoping to find gold nuggets the “size of goose eggs” in the Copper River watershed. They were to be worse than disappointed.

Hundreds never made it over the glacier and as many as a thousand were starving to death along the Copper River. The few who were lucky enough to make it back to Valdez were living in decrepit mining shelters “packed like sardines in a box.” Abercrombie wrote that he believed that “70 percent [of the derelict miners] were mentally deranged.” But he did record one conversation of interest. One Swede had talked about a “glacial demon” which had attacked him and his son twice. During the second attack, the boy had been strangled to death. “When I heard this story there were some ten or twelve others than me in the cabin,” Abercrombie recalled, “and at that time, it would not have been safe to dispute the theory of the existence of this demon on the Valdez Glacier, as every man in there firmly believed it to be a reality.”

Although the white man has always had trouble linking the Bigfoot to reality, Natives have had no such difficulty. Sometimes the disparity of opinion led to comical results. In the early 1900s, a ship went down outside Katalla. Because the water was only 15 feet deep and the ship submerged close to shore, the insurance company decided to salvage the wreck and sent a deep-sea diver north to inspect the wreck. Soon after he had submerged for the first time a group of Natives paddled alongside the scow handling the air hoses and asked what the whites were doing. As a joke, the whites said that a Kushtacah had capsized a boat and they were fishing for the water devil. If they caught him, they would kill him.

The Natives hovered around the scow so the whites decided to pull a practical joke. As soon as the diver indicated he was coming up, the whites went into a frenzy explaining to the Natives that they had caught the Kushtacah. As soon as the diver's hardhat broke the surface of the water, the Natives “all jumped overboard and swam to shore.”

Back in the present, an unscientific survey of hunters showed them to be as divided as the scientific community. Although no hunter surveyed admitted to ever having seen a Bigfoot, many of them did report seeing other aspects of nature equally perplexing, including a cheechako trying to catch ducks with a king salmon net, a mid-air collision involving a plane and a fish, UFOs, and very close encounters of the large, hairy, hungry, brown kind. Those who did not believe in Bigfoot stated that with so many hunters in so many parts of Alaska, it was hard to believe that hide nor hair of the beast has been found. Not to be outdone, true believers pointed out that it was rare for a hunter to find the remains of bear in the wild. Considering that the Bigfoot population was substantially smaller than that of the bear, it was thus not reasonable to expect that hide, hair, bones, or teeth of the elusive beast would be found even with all of the hunters all over Alaska. Native sightings were discounted by some hunters as “unreliable” although true believers state that it is reasonable for Natives to see the humanoid because, after all, the Natives have been living in the Alaskan bush a lot longer than any professional hunter. Thus the debate rages.

Is there a Bigfoot in Alaska? According to the lore of the region, absolutely. With regard to established scientific standards of proof, no. But then again, as Alaskan humorist Warren Sitka notes lyrically,

Myth and legend often find
Truth and fiction intertwined
And oft the truth is stranger still
Than fantasy with all its frill

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