Port Chatham left to spirits
By Naomi Klouda
Condensed by Native Village
Malania Kehl is the eldest resident in Nanwalek and
knows many traditional stories about history and culture. One is how her birth village, Port Chatham,
was haunted by a
a creature similar
to a Sasquatch.
Because of Nantiinaq's ghostly hauntings, Port Chatham was deserted and shunned.
Those who once lived there vowed never to return.
Malania was born Jan. 25, 1934 at Port Chatham, a small village at
the edge of a peaceful moorage. The village
once offered shelter for many
people, including Capt. Nathaniel Portlock’s ship on his 1786 Alaska expedition.
But when Malania was a baby, the family abruptly moved away from Chatham and
fled to Nanwalek.
“We left our houses and the school, and started all new here,” Malania said as
her words were translated
from Sugt’stun to English.
What had frightened Malania’s parents hadn’t been a single event. Over a “long
period of time,” a Nantiinaq – or big hairy creature – terrorized villagers.
Also haunting the areas was the spirit of a woman
dressed in draping black clothes that would come out of the cliffs.
“Her dress was so long she would drag it,” Malania said. “She had a very white
face and would disappear back into the cliffs.”
The terror people felt when they saw these spirits was nothing
compared to what happened to Malania’s godfather, Andrew Kamluck. He was logging
in 1931, when someone or something hit him over the head with a piece of
log-moving equipment. The blow killed him instantly.
Malania isn’t the only one to tell of strange events at Port Chatham. Port
Graham Elder, Simeon Kvasnikoff, remembers when Nantiina was blamed for
the disappearance of a gold miner.
“This one guy over there had a little place where he was digging for gold,”
Kvasnikoff said. “He went up there one time and never came back. No one found
any sign of him.”
Another story talks about a sawmill owner named Tom Larsen, who once spotted
the beach. After going back to his house to get his gun, he returned to the
beach and “the thing looked at him,” Kvasnikoff said. For some reason, Larsen
decided against firing a shot.
A 1973 issue of the Anchorage Daily News featured an article about the abandoned cannery town of Portlock near Port Chatham. The writer
learned the story from a school teacher and his wife in English Bay (Nanwalek) while on a boat trip.
The story is told:
“Portlock began its existence sometime after the turn of the century as a
cannery town. In 1921, a post office was established there, and for a time the
residents, mostly natives of Russian-Aleut mix, lived in peace with their
picturesque mountain-and-sea setting.”
According to the story, sometime in the beginning years of World War II,
rumors around Kenai Peninsula warned that things were not right in Portlock. Men would go up into the hills to
hunt Dall sheep and bear, and never return. Some stories told of mutilated bodies that were torn and
dismembered in a way that bears could not, or would not, do.
“Tales were told of villagers tracking moose over soft ground. They would find
giant, man-like tracks over 18 inches in length closing upon those of the moose,
the signs of a short struggle where the grass had been matted down, then only
the deep tracks of the manlike animal departing toward the high, fog-shrouded
Eventually, townfolk decided to move en masse,
and by 1950, the U.S. Post office had closed there.
Even into more recent times, Nantiinaq reports haven’t stopped entirely. A man
who prefers to remain anonymous also shared his story.
“In 1990, while I was working as a paramedic in Anchorage, we got called out on
an alarm for a man having a heart attack at the state jail in Eagle River. He
was a Native man in his 70s, and after I got him stabilized with IVs, O2 and
cardiac drugs, my partner and I began to transport him to the Native Hospital in
En route to the hospital, the paramedic and the Native man, an “Aleut” from Port
Graham, talked about hunting. The paramedic had been to Dog Fish Bay and was
once weathered in there.
“This old man sat up on the gurney and grabbed me by the front of my shirt. He
got right up to my face and said, ‘Did it bother you?’ Well, with that question,
the hair just stood up on the back of my head. I said, ‘Yes.’ “Did you see it?”
was his next question. I said “No. ..Did you see it?” He said “No, but my
brother seen it. It chased him.”
In August of 1973, an man named Ed and two others were bowhunting for goats and black bear
when a storm forced them to take shelter in Dogfish Bay Lagoon.
“We beached our skiff and let the tide run her dry. After a dinner of broiled
salmon we turned in to our tent. Back in those days, the best tent I had was a
dark green canvas job with a center pole and no windows or floor. We left the
fire burning and cleaned the pots and pans so as not to attract bears during the
night and turned in,” Ed says.
The sky was clear, but the wind was howling. Sometime around 2 a.m., Dennis woke Ed after hearing what
sounded like footsteps outside the tent. It wasn’t a bear. Ed said the walking –
or rather creeping – continued until it half circled the tent.
“In August, there is still some light in the sky until about 10 or 11. I recall
that we all were embarrassed about being afraid about the coming night. We had a
flashlight and the rifle in the tent between us, locked and loaded. I finally
dosed off but woke right up when Dennis squeezed my leg. The illuminated hands
of my watch showed it was 2:30. Joe was already sitting up and had the rifle in
hand. I heard the first step, not more than about 10 feet from the back of the
tent. Slowly. Then another and another. Whatever this was, it sounded like it
was walking on two feet. It made the same semi-circle around the tent. When we
finally got enough courage to crawl out of the tent and turn the flashlight on,
we saw nothing. No tracks, nothing. The third night we decided if it bothered us
again, we would come out of the tent shooting. We were actually scared. It never
came back the third night and the following day we had a break in the weather
and got the heck out of there.”
Beginning around the 1960s, Sasquatches began as popular lore in the lower
48 states. But the Nantiinaq in Sugt’stun culture has been around for a
long time. According to the culture, he might be a different kind of creature, a
tragic half-man, half-beast who wasn’t always in this condition. He perhaps used
to be fully human.
Elder Nick Tanape said that while he hasn't seen a Nantiinaq, he doesn’t
discredit the stories.
“I think there’s something to them,” he said.
Malania said that once her family moved away from Port Chatham, the Nantiinaq stayed far
away and left them in peace. She grew up in Nanwalek, raised 13 children and remains one of the few regional
elders who can pass on these old stories and traditions.