A walrus-ivory carving by Brian Kulik of a hunter killing a kokogiak, one of the many odd creatures in Alaska about which tales and sightings abound. Courtesy Brian Kulik.
“The Arctic trails have their secret tales,” Robert Service wrote, “That would make your blood run cold.” While many myths offer lessons about cultural norms, about survival and life skills and relations with fellow humans, spirits, or animals, there are yarns told in hushed tones around campfires or in the embrace of homes, stories so ghastly they cause even loners to huddle. People relating those tales sometimes claim having dodged the specters described.
Sea-ice shifty, awash in mirages, adrenalin flushing a hunter’s core, and above all awe of the super-predator birthed an eight or 10-legged polar bear called kokogiak by Inupiat and k’ok’satkut by St. Lawrence Island Yupik. It leaves tracks like a sled’s and drags kayaks under. In 1913, Barrow men heard it prowling below the ice where they stood. When one of them coughed, kokogiak poked its head through. The phantom may wail, faking distress, or caws, waving its legs while supine, savaging anybody attracted. Though rare in southwestern Alaska, polar bears do drift south on occasion, to Nunivak Island. Hunters there thought cunning ones lie down, legs up and bent, imitating stooped men gutting a seal. One thus should approach strangers carefully in the white waste.
Archetypes are as hard to slay as this furry, fish-breathed, 11-foot Siren, and the diminutive can spook us as much as the monstrous. “Little people”—trolls, gnomes, fairies, or leprechauns romping through Europe—haunt Alaska too. The accused in a 2012 double shooting had aimed at what he’d believed to be such innuqullit. In various guises, under various names, they populate Eskimo folklore, impish sub-terrestrials, notorious rock-throwers, abductors, and thieves of hunters’ kills. They often wear animal skins and pointed hats, wielding bows and arrows. Their strength far exceeds their Lilliputian frame. A man by himself struggles to load a dead caribou onto a sled, but these goblins, absconding, jog holding them in a Dirty Dancing overhead lift, which explains bush pilots’ reports of caribou running tipped over.
Lake Iliamna in southwest Alaska is a Mecca for odd sightings, a sort of bush Loch Ness fringe zoologists flock to. Some say “Illie,” whale- or seal-bodied, colored like dull aluminum, and repeatedly spotted from planes singly or in pods, is an errant, reclusive sleeper shark. An effort to longline whatever allegedly ended with stainless-steel cable and moose-flank bait severed from a 55-gallon oil-drum bobber. Sports Afield and TV covered the 15-foot lunker—twin to one cruising through Aleut legends—and the Anchorage Daily News offered $100,000 for proof of its existence. It has eluded detection by water DNA analysis and a video camera lowered into the murk. Still, old-timers don’t boat on the lake, one of the state’s deepest.
Predatory presences spring from an ancient fear eclipsing that of dying in bed: becoming food. Goo-Teekhl, a giant whose skin spears couldn’t pierce, tormented Tlingits near Haines by stealing salmon and later stalking and eating villagers. Warriors lured him into a wood-filled pitfall trap they then drenched in “candlefish” (eulachon) oil and ignited. Writhing in agony, the ogre threatened to prey on them from the afterlife. They stoked the flames four days and nights. When they stirred the ashes to ensure nothing remained, specks rose—the first mosquitoes. They’ve plagued us ever since. In fables, ghoulish, taboo meals reliably boomerang. A Kodiak man crushed a shell-armored horror smelling of kelp, and folks feasting on it afterward died, green around the gills.
Creatures of familiar shape
Among the most dreadful are beings resembling us to different degrees: warlocks and vampires, golems and Gollum, aliens, zombies, yetis, werewolves, and doppelgängers. In Edward Nelson’s classic The Eskimo about Bering Strait, infants devour maternal breasts. When helpers rushed to a woman alarmed by her cries, the babe, a changeling, fled through the roof’s smoke hole. It was last seen riding reindeer antlers toward distant mountains. Inupiaq, crying “wild babies” waylaid victims they cannibalized or tickled to death.
Bugbears abound in this place of long twilights. Shamans sent otherworldly assassins as on Sledge Island, where a fireball entering a sod igloo shapeshifted into a skeleton that killed the inhabitants. A Tlingit wolf-orca might be based on nightmares or island-hopping Alexander Archipelago wolves, an amphibious subspecies. Yup’ik raconteurs knew a creature that sank into the earth and traveled underground; one sucking blood from a person’s big toe; a sea beast Cuisinarting whales; a man-worm; and palraiyuk, combining muskox, gator, and shrew traits, and appeased by its painted likeness worming on skin-boat hulls. Tallying the concealed, in 2013, the Bethel paper featured dozens of eyewitness accounts of arulataq, a 10-foot Sasquatch known for his bellowing.
There’s a point to such bogeys beyond titillating or humbling us or getting kids to behave. They remind us of lives we can never understand, deeds we’ll never predict. They distill the world’s volatility, a dark wildness coiled also inside us.