The Hairy Man
By Lynne Snifka
The Hairy Man
When Donald watches the Discovery Channel, especially programs about the unexplained or mysterious wildlife, he sometimes gets the urge to call his brother-in-law, Frank. He and Frank talk, said Donald (who didn’t want his last name or the name of his village used) and Frank gets somber and quiet. It’s at those times they remember.
They remember the night more than 25 years ago, and the creature that stood a good four feet above their teenage frames in the early winter moonlight. They remember the long arms, the body covered in thick hair, the face with features that were somehow human, somehow not. They remember its strength.
“I remember watching when he was running through the alders in the moonlight,” Donald recalled. “And we have a lot of alders here. He was sweeping them aside and running at the same time.”
Donald and Frank saw what the village elders called Olak. It’s the creature many Alaskans know as the Hairy Man: a solitary, vaguely malevolent, hairy biped with astonishing strength, near-human features and, sometimes, a penchant for stalking people.
“These stories have been around for hundreds of years,” said Danny Seybert, a pilot who grew up in Chignik. “My grandparents heard these stories from their grandparents. And when you think about it, when you go to Canada you hear those same stories from those people.”
In Canada and most of the United States, what Alaskans call Hairy Man goes by Sasquatch or Bigfoot. The Himalayan region has Yeti, or the Abominable Snowman. In Mongolia and China, it’s called the Alma. So persistent and endearing are the stories that an entire field of science, cryptozoology, exists to study creatures like Hairy Man. A search for “Sasquatch” on Amazon.com turns up more than 1,000 books.
Most every region of Alaska has Hairy Man lore. The Dena’ina Athabascans call him Nant’ina and warn that he’ll steal children and raise them in the wild. There’s the story of a man who shot and injured a Hairy Man. The creature escaped, but left behind its blood, something akin to “transmission fluid.” In a 1981 publication from the school in English Bay, a student wrote of her summer in Port Graham and a mysterious figure in the dark that whistled and scared her and hid behind trees. While some dismiss believers as feebleminded, witnesses and their supporters speak without doubt. Donald is reserved when he speaks, but certain of what he saw that night.
The boys were maybe 16 or 17 years old, Donald said. It was the 1970s, and a typical weekend night in their Southwest Alaska village. They stayed up late and played cards at Frank’s house. The dogs started to “go crazy” outside, Donald remembered, which usually meant there was a bear around.
When the barking didn’t subside, the boys decided to investigate. As Frank reached for his rifle they heard someone—or something—toy with the door latch. A massive figure then moved to a broken window that had recently been patched with scrap glass. The creature tried to reach in, cut itself, and ran.
“At first we thought someone was playing around with us, so we decided if it came back we’d run outside and chase it,” Donald said. “We thought it was just some stranger, coming up from another village to scare us.”
Donald and Frank eased back into their evening. Then the creature returned and again fumbled with the door latch. The teens rushed onto the porch, which was built on a foundation nearly four feet high, Donald said. “And we looked up at him.” The creature stood in the snow beyond the house. The teens gave chase toward a series of nearby hills.
“I remember going up the (first) hill. And when I got to the top, it was already on the third hill,” Donald said.
There were a lot of Hairy Man reports from nearby villages for a while. Donald’s grandmother, who lived in a neighboring village, told him a story of when she was younger and caught a Hairy Man.
“They trapped him somehow,” Donald said. “And brought him into the village. And they shaved him and found he was just a runaway from World War II. And the Army came and got him.”
The “man gone wild” or “outside man” is a common theory in Alaska Native culture, said Phyliss Morrow, professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Morrow studied Yupik culture in western Alaska and found the phenomenon so common that a set of rules exists for encounters with a wild person.
“You can approach them,” Morrow said. “You can speak certain things to them in Yupik and you can draw them back.”
Again though, there’s the burden of proof.
“I think it’s just myths and stories,” said Seybert, the pilot. “I’ve spent over 20 years flying all over and I look everywhere I fly. I love looking for animals. I’ve counted (for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game) just about every kind of animal you can count out there from an airplane and I’ve never seen anything I couldn’t explain.”
The Outside Man and the Hairy Man, like the Iliamna Lake Monster or even the deadly Turnagain mud, may simply be cautionary tales or coping mechanisms — colorful ways to explain the otherwise unexplainable, or tools to ensure respect for one’s elders. Reports have certainly become more rare as technology has grown more sophisticated. When village parents can call from house to house to check on their kids, it might be less important to scare them with stories of the Hairy Man who may “get them” if they stray too far from home. How better to keep children away from water’s edge than to have them imagine being torn apart by a helicopter or struck ill by a sea monster’s gaze?
“The standards of truth in terms of documented evidence—photographs, stuff like that—you’re not going to find it,” Morrow said. “These are cultural understandings of what happens. It’s true in people’s experience, and it’s meaningful to them.”
So what, then, of the blood on Frank’s window, and Donald, who saw tremendous footprints in the autumn snow?
Lynne Snifka is a free-lance writer based in Anchorage.
Copyright Alaska Magazine, October 2004
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