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In search of the Wild Man
Filed under Anchorage Press, Home Page - Highlighted Stories, News & Features, Feature Story, Archives, Vol. 16, Ed. 31 on Thursday, August 02, 2007 by Author: Press Staff.
By Bill Sherwonit
“I was never afraid of anything,” Sam Stepanoff recalls, “not even in the dark.”
An Aleut resident of Perryville and, later, Chignik Lake (villages on the lower Alaska Peninsula), Stepanoff learned wilderness survival skills from village elders at a young age and felt no anxiety about camping alone, even as a boy.
But once, at age 14, he lost his usual cool.
Out harvesting sea urchins with friends one night, Stepanoff heard a dog barking in the nearby mountains. Recognizing it as his dog that had run off four days earlier, he followed the howls into the hills and tracked it down. As he stooped to pick up the dog, “the alders made some noise right beside me, and I saw a person. I thought it was the boys; we used to play around, scare each other. I said, ‘Knock it off, I know who you are.’ But it didn’t move, so I shined a flashlight and it was a man, his face just pure wrinkles. I said, ‘Who are you?’ but got no answer. He’s just looking at me, not speaking. I got so scared I dropped my dog and went down the cliff. I ran to where [the others] were gathering wood for a bonfire, and told them what I’d seen, and they took off running, too.”
Back in Perryville, Stepanoff shared his story with the village elders, who searched the hill but found nothing, not even tracks. The elders told him other “hairy guys” had been seen in the hills; occasionally they’d come into the village and rob fish from smokehouses.
Over the years, my imagination has been stirred by periodic reports of giant, shaggy primates roaming the forests of North America. Like many people, I’ve wondered: are they physically real? Invented? Imagined?
A middle-aged reading of Robert Bly’s Iron John — a book that introduces readers to the “Wild Man,” a mythical Indo-European being — led me back into ancient, shadowed forests and sent me on my own search for the archetypal figure. Until then, I’d never linked the two creatures. Now I can’t help wondering how Western culture’s repression of its own Wild Man relates to Americans’ schizophrenic fascination with that hairy anthropoid variously known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch.
It turns out I’m not alone in my curiosity. Among the dozens of books written about Sasquatch and his hirsute contemporaries is Robert Michael Pyle’s Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide. Pyle’s book stands apart from most other works of the genre by considering the creature’s mythical roots.
Only a few pages into his narrative, Pyle reflects, “Certain social anthropologists like to consign Bigfoot to the category of archetypal myth . . . But is there more to it than that? Looking at the traditions of Northwest Coast Indians, we see through the moss and the mist a furry figure who fits that deep myth of the monster-beyond-the-fire-circle, while clutching about itself a coarse-haired cloak of reality.”
Pyle then tells us about the Kwakiutl tribe of Washington and British Columbia, whose world includes Bukwus, the Wild Man of the woods, and Dzonoqua, the Wild Woman. Roaming the forest’s deep shadows, they are local, indigenous manifestations of Sasquatch, with one critical difference. The Kwakiutl accept these wild folk the same way they accept frogs, spruce trees, bears, and salmon: as part of their literal, physical world.
The Kwakiutl tribe is just one among many Native American groups who include wild people in their world.
Here in Alaska, Interior-dwelling Athabascans share the boreal forest with the Nuhu’anh, literally, “the sneaker,” but nowadays more commonly called the Woodsman. And throughout the state’s southern regions, residents tell stories of creatures who, by most accounts, are dark-haired, larger than people, reclusive, solitary, nocturnal, and a forest- or mountain-dweller. Almost always, these beings are “Hairy Men,” not women. Sometimes gentle, other times menacing, they never seem to speak, but they may scream, whistle, or imitate animal sounds. To many southwestern Eskimos, this being is Urayuli. To Lake Iliamna’s Athabascans, he is Get’gun, to Southeastern Tlingits, Kushtaka, to Bristol Bay’s Yup’iks, A-hoo-la-luk, and to the Alutiiq he is A’ula’ats or A’ula’aqs
Of all those Alaskan beings, I’m most familiar with the Hairy Man, whom I met, second-hand, in the early nineties.
I began hearing stories about the Hairy Man in 1993, while working on a project for the tribally run Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation. My job required that I talk with many of the region’s Native leaders and elders. Besides sharing their memories of traditional healing practices, the influence of Christian missionaries, and introduced diseases that killed thousands of Native residents, a few storytellers shared tales of huge, hairy, human-like creatures. I began collecting their stories in notebooks and on audiotapes and, over time, compiled an impressive record of encounters.
Ted Angasan’s stories immediately come to mind. A westerner listening to this Aleut’s quiet but earnest accounts might say that Angasan truly believes in Hairy Man. But that would be like saying that you or I believe in whales, or northern lights, or Jupiter. In the same way that Bukwus inhabits the Kwakiutl’s homeland and the Woodsman roams the Koyukon landscape, the Hairy Man is as much a part of Angasan’s world as bears, birds, and trees. He requires no proof and offers none. But he has stories to tell that speak of the creature’s existence.
In the late 1950s, Angasan told me, one of his teenage pals reported seeing a hairy, humanlike creature near the village of South Naknek. The friend, named Peter, had surprised the animal as it lay on some 55-gallon fuel drums. Panicked and alone, Peter grabbed his gun, shot — and missed. The creature, in turn, screamed loudly, and then took off running.
Peter ran, too, and didn’t stop until he reached the village, where he told of his meeting with Hairy Man. Most people remained skeptical. “They thought he’d seen everything but a Hairy Man,” Angasan recalled. “But I believed. You can tell when a guy is lying or not. He was scared to death.” Angasan then paused a moment, as if sorting through memories, before adding, “I know the story is true, because I’ve seen it too.”
Angasan saw Hairy Man in 1985, while on a commercial flight from Kululak Bay to Dillingham, the region’s largest town. Passing over forested mountains near the village of Manokotak, he noticed an unusual form below: “There was this giant thing sitting in the trees. He looked like, not quite a gorilla, but dark and full of hair. I’d say, from the trees around him, he was between seven and 10 feet tall.”
When I suggested the creature might have been a bear, Angasan shook his head and replied, “Uh-uh. I’m color blind, so I look for shapes. I could see his eyes and his head, his whole body. He was looking at us, watching us fly by; he didn’t seem bothered at all. But he was a Hairy Man, all right.”
Besides the stories themselves, what stands out in my memory is that Angasan told them in a dispassionate, matter-of-fact manner. There was no attempt to convince me or sensationalize the experience. If anything, he seemed reluctant to say any more than necessary. Yet the fact that they are his stories makes them all the more believable, because this soft-spoken man is a respected leader within his community. Among other things, he has served as the Bristol Bay Native Corporation’s executive director and represented the region on Alaska’s Inter-Tribal Council. From a western perspective he’s articulate, politically savvy, sharp. In both worlds, Native and Western, he’s a credible witness.
Then there’s John Gumlickpuk, a Yup’ik elder who once encountered a Hairy Man near Togiak, where he was born in 1906. Then in his early 30s, he went outside at sunrise and met a man covered with long hair. “He was as big as us, but hairy all over,” Gumlickpuk recounted. “The only place he didn’t have hair was his face.”
Startled by Gumlickpuk, the man quickly ran away. Speedy exits are characteristic of many Bristol Bay Hairy Men, which by most accounts can run incredibly fast. They can also jump high and far, sometimes over rivers or trees. John Gumlickpuk’s wife, Elena, tells of a Hairy Man who was spotted by a woman washing clothes. When confronted, she says, “he jump off, way far. He could jump over high bushes and really run fast.”
Stepanoff, Angasan, and the Gumlickpuks are among the many people throughout Alaska — mostly Native and mostly rural — who acknowledge the existence of a large, hair-covered, two-footed creature that is human or apelike in nature.
Scientists and other researchers have so far shown less interest in Alaska’s hairy bipeds than in Sasquatch or Yeti. Of the half-dozen Sasquatch/Bigfoot books at Anchorage’s public library — books aimed at a general audience — I could find none that mentioned Hairy Man. From an academic perspective, the anthropologists who’ve documented Alaska Hairy Men stories have tended to treat them as Native mythical beings, rather than real creatures; not surprising, given their scientific bias. One notable exception to that rule is Anchorage resident Patricia Partnow, who studied the Alutiiq people of Southwest for her dissertation with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In one section of her work, Partnow describes a group of outsiders known to the Alutiiq as A’ula’ats or A’ula’aqs, while avoiding judgments about their reality.
“A’ula’aqs are not human,” she observes, “though it is possible for them to be mistaken for people and for people who go to live with them to take on their characteristics.” Strong and hairy, they are dangerous beings who lure people away from human society. Much like Dracula, they can be warded off with crosses or holy water, but “the best strategy with A’ula’aqs,” writes Partnow, “is to avoid them altogether.”
Not all Natives believe A’ula’aqs to be supernatural or “other than human.” Several Southwestern residents interviewed by both Partnow and me believe such creatures to be runaways, ranging from members of their own tribes to AWOL servicemen and “hippies” who’ve “gone wild.” But nearly all are similar in these respects: they are not normal; and they usually pose some sort of danger associated with what Partnow calls “an irresistible power which can only be countered by quick minds and feet and powerful religious (i.e., Russian Orthodox) beliefs.”
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has not undertaken a Hairy Man study, says Jim Fall, an anthropologist with the state’s Subsistence Division. And yet he’s often heard Dena’ina Athabascans — some of whom live in and around Anchorage — speak of Nant’inas: large, shaggy creatures that “are fairly malevolent and dangerous. One of the themes is that they [like the Woodsman] steal children and raise them in the wild.” From a Western perspective, Fall adds, “One could speculate that the origins of these stories might come from outcasts or social misfits not subject to traditional norms, and therefore dangerous.”
“The thing you have to remember about Native beliefs,” he says, “is that boundaries between humans and other creatures are often blurred. There’s no question that Nant’ina is part of Dena’ina reality.”
The parallels are striking. From arctic boreal woodlands to Washington’s old-growth forest, and as far south as California, the wild people of Native lore are as real as any creature that inhabits the landscape.
But they’re also mysterious beings that move through the shadows, only rarely showing themselves. They also may possess superhuman, or supernatural, abilities. Though no one knows their origins for sure, each region has legends that suggest these wild folk are social outcasts or misfits, people who left the human world for a more primitive or even animal-like existence. And while many stories describe them as tricksters or even malicious beings who sometimes steal children, these wild men and women usually seem more shy than dangerous. In all of these aspects of the Wild Man, what seems important are the human ties and supernatural elements, which harken back to Western stories from the Middle Ages and more ancient times.
Few cultures, past or present, have lacked a human-faced hairy monster, giant, or wild man in one form or another, whether myth or “real.” Such shadowy creatures lurk, mostly hidden, across the planet, including in Western societies — a reminder of the wildness concealed within everything, even “civilized” human beings. The best known outside the Pacific Northwest is the Himalayan Yeti, or abominable snowman. But the residents of southwest Russia’s Caucasus Mountains tell stories of another hairy man, named Quidili; and reports of strange hairy primates have also come from western China. Still other hairy monsters inhabit islands, deserts, and even the tropics. In his book, Pyle lists several: the Cigouave, a Haitian forest beast tied to voodoo; the South Pacific’s Oreng-Pendek of Borneo and Sumutra; Malaysia’s Orang-Dalam; and East Africa’s Agogue. “There are,” he adds, “swamp beasts galore, the Moth man, the Gray Man of the Carolinas, and a wide array of troglodytes.”
Because their experience of what’s “real” has remained much broader than that of Euro-Americans, our country’s indigenous peoples have left more room in their worlds for the likes of Bukwus, Hairy Man and their wild kin, even in this modern era. Even this may be changing, though, as older traditions and beliefs fade in a world where TVs, computers, and the Internet bring new realities and mysteries.
Given my background I naturally find the physical existence of such Hairy Men — and their acceptance by many Alaska Natives — to be incredible. Once upon a time, I would have said “unbelievable.” But now I’m not so sure. Surely the Hairy Man is no more amazing than some of what’s in the Bible. Or what scientists have discovered about the origins of the universe and life on our small, blue planet.
The older I get and the more I learn, the more room I leave for the mysterious, the fantastic and magical. I’m open to the possibility of Hairy Man and his kind, because I’ve come to realize there’s so much we don’t — indeed, can’t — know about this wide, wild world.
No culture, Pyle muses, “has ever been so confused as ours as to what it really believes. Are we such wonderful observers of the natural world that we should expect to know everything that looms, walks, creeps, or grows outside our doors or beyond the city wall?”
I like that gentle jab. I’m reminded how the simple act of bird feeding expanded my own small world, which suddenly exploded with songbirds and their melodious voices after 43 years of inattention. I’m reminded that I largely ignored the spring and summertime wonders of Anchorage’s coastal refuge for more than two decades. And I’m reminded that ecologists now believe we modern humans have discovered only a tiny fraction of the species with whom we share the Earth. Our greatest minds admit how little we understand the workings of our planet, despite the past century’s explosion of knowledge and technological advances. Wildness — like the Hairy Man, it seems — is capable of popping up anywhere.
Yet all too often we won’t take seriously what we can’t see or hold onto or measure: the invisibles of life. If we only value and protect that which we know and love, where does that leave the portions of creation that fall beyond the scope of our knowledge? Only by getting to know wild nature will we learn to embrace and cherish and preserve it, both within ourselves and as manifested in myriad other forms, in the larger, more-than-human world.
The good news is that wildness reaches everywhere, from the far wilderness to the innermost pockets of our biggest cities. We can each choose where, in what form, and in what way we get to know the wild. In touching the Wild Man, we learn to better love the world. And in loving the world, we embrace our own richly wild essence.
This story is adapted from a longer essay, which will appear in Bill Sherwonit’s book, Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey, to be published this winter by the University of Alaska Press.