Kushtuka, Otterman of the Alaskan Triangle
The Alaskan Triangle sometimes referred to as Alaska’s Bermuda Triangle, is a place in the untouched wilderness of the Frontier State where mystery is practically in the air, and people go missing at a bewildering rate. Boundaries of the triangle connect the state’s largest city of Anchorage in the south, to Juneau in the southeast panhandle, and Barrow, a small town on the state’s north coast. The land that makes up this space is some of North America’s most unforgiving wilderness.
The area first began attracting public attention in October 1972, when a small private plane carrying U.S. House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, Alaska Congressman Nick Begich, an aide, Russell Brown, and their bush pilot Don Jonz seemingly vanished into thin air while flying from Anchorage to Juneau. For more than a month, 50 civilian planes and 40 military aircraft, along with dozens of boats, covered a search area of 32,000 square miles, but no trace of the plane, the men, or any wreckage was ever found.
Over the next half-century, more planes went down, hikers went missing, and Alaskan residents and tourists seemed to vanish into thin air in record numbers. In fact, since 1988, more than 16,000 people have disappeared in the Alaska Triangle. To this day, it maintains a missing person rate double the national average. In any given year, 500-3000 people go missing in Alaska, never to be seen again. Authorities conduct hundreds of rescue missions that most often end in disappointment.
These disappearances are blamed on everything from the wilderness itself to aliens and swirling energy vortices. But the Tlingit tribe, an indigenous people in Southern Alaska, have an explanation all their own. The Kushtaka. Roughly translated, Land Otter Man. The Kushtaka is said to be an evil shape-shifting beast frequently taking the form of a massive seven-to-eight-foot tall, hair-covered humanoid monstrosity. The tales of the Kushtaka’s behavior describe a cruel creature who plays tricks on Tlingit sailors to cause their deaths and worse, prevent their souls from continuing in the reincarnation cycle at the center of the Tlingit belief structure. Many legends tell of the Kushtaka emitting a high-pitched, three-part whistle in a pattern of low-high-low, and they are known to lure women to the rivers by mimicking the cries of babies or even taking the shape of a trusted friend or family member. Having lured their intended victim into a vulnerable position, they choose to either transform them into a Kushtaka or tear them to shreds. Locals believe only a few things can ward off these treacherous tricksters: copper, fire, and devil’s club; a shrub commonly found throughout the arboreal rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.
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Modern Tlingit families still tell the tales of the Kushtaka from the old times and there have been countless encounters detailed by residents and tourists alike over the last 200 years. Among the most harrowing of these tales details the account of a prospector in search of a gold strike outside Wrangell, Alaska around the turn of the 20th century. After days of searching, the lone stampeder finally found a rich vein of gold-laced quartz along with a stampede of an entirely different kind. He turned to get his bearings only to find a group of more than a dozen of these ferocious creatures crashing through the underbrush below him. His first-hand account of the encounter was later reported in a short story written by a close friend and fellow prospector, Harry Colp.
“Swarming up the ridge toward me from the lake were the most hideous creatures. I couldn’t call them anything but devils. They were neither men nor beast-yet looked like both. They were entirely sexless. Their bodies were covered with long coarse hair, except where the scabs and running sores had replaced it. Each one seemed to be reaching out for me and striving to be the first to get me. The air was full of their cries and the stench from their sores and bodies made me faint.”
–The Strangest Story Ever Told by: Harry Colp
The man escaped with his life that day but could not explain as to how. He claims to have passed out during the encounter only to wake later, seemingly unscathed, lying in the bottom of his canoe still tethered near the bank.
This close call would by no means be the last encounter with the Kushtaka. The Tlingit people acknowledge a constant and ongoing relationship with the otter-men. To this day, healers and community leaders among them tell of lost women, children, and sailors that were never seen again as if it were a common occurrence. While discussions concerning this seemingly intelligent race of coastal carnivores between the native people and outsiders are extremely rare, a series of accounts were reported in the aftermath of an earthquake off the coast of southern Alaska in 2018. Three separate families witnessed what they believed to be Kushtaka fleeing the lower coastal regions for high ground during the impending tsunami warning. One of the creatures appeared to be seeking refuge in a local family’s outbuilding.
While all accounts recorded from the Tlingit people describe a relationship with the Kushtaka that has been managed over the centuries, however tenuously, outsiders who are unlucky enough to come across these amphibious anomalies seem to be comparatively vulnerable to both trickery and attack. So, if you find yourself in coastal Alaska, but sure to keep a pocket full of devil’s club and one eye on the tree line.