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Nakani: The Wildman of the North

Virginia Falls in the Nahanni Valley.

Deep in the wilderness of Northern Canada lies a mysterious region around which strange tales have swirled for more than 100 years. Located near the junction of British Columbia, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, the Nahanni Valley is region replete with stories of headless prospectors, hidden gold mines, tropical oases, lost tribes, evil spirits, Indian curses, prehistoric monsters, and a mysterious “White Queen”. For about a year now, the legends of the Nahanni have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. They have been mentioned in many different YouTube videos and podcasts. A group of filmmakers from Calgary, Alberta, are currently in the process of making a brilliant documentary on them called Secrets of Nahanni. Quite a few people have seen my video Interview with a Cryptid Hunter, in which I interviewed Frank Graves, and adventurer who made an expedition to the Nahanni region in 1965. By the way, if you enjoyed that video, I have a feeling that you’ll love another of my videos entitled Legends of the Nahanni Valley: Northern Canada’s Greatest Mysteries, which also features and is narrated entirely by the actress Kelsea Crowe. To find that video, just type the word “Nahanni” into the YouTube search bar.

An interpretation of the legendary tropical valley in the Canadian subarctic.

The popularity of the Nahanni legends seems to wax and wane over time, and to change with every generation. Back in the early 1900s, the most popular of the Nahanni stories was the tale of the Lost McLeod mine- a golden bonanza in the Mackenzie Mountains discovered and lost by two brothers who were found headless on the banks of the South Nahanni River. In the 1940s, newspaper readers across Canada and the United States were captivated by tales of a tropical oasis hidden away somewhere in the Nahanni region, where snow never fell and ice never formed. In the 1970s, the stories of all the trappers and prospectors who have disappeared or turned up headless in the Nahanni region turned the heads of magazine readers across the North American continent. Today, however, the most popular of the Nahanni tales are undoubtedly the stories of the many strange animals which are said to inhabit this secluded vale in the Canadian subarctic. In this video, we’re going to focus on one of those creatures, namely a mysterious figure said to haunt the frozen forests of Northern Canada. Very little known outside of the Canadian Territories and Alaska, this figure most closely resembles the Sasquatch said to roam the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. To the Dene people who have inhabited the Athabascan wilderness since time immemorial, however, these creatures are known as Nakani.

The following article is essentially made of up excerpts from my book Legends of the Nahanni Valley, edited slightly for the sake of context and continuity. If you haven’t done so already, please consider getting yourself a copy of this book. It consists of thirteen chapters detailing various stories and legends endemic to the Nahanni region, and is the first and only book to deal exclusively with the topic. It would make a great Christmas gift for anyone with an interest in history, folklore, mysteries, cryptozoology, or the far-flung corners of the globe. To get yourself a copy of this book, please click the following link:

LEGENDS OF THE NAHANNI VALLEY

 

 

Nakani: The Wildman of the North

 

“That he had nowhere seen the slightest Indian sign bore out the redskin reports that the country was taboo and recalled their superstitions that it was haunted by a race of prehistoric Troglodytes, or Nakanies, as they called them, with repulsive gargoyle-like faces who lived in caves cut from the living rock; creatures reported to be twice the size of ordinary humans, who never missed a chance to carry off unwary hunters or stray squaws in their powerful, gorilla-like arms.”

– Philip H. Godsell, The Curse of Dead Man’s Valley, 1950

Philip H. Godsell

A wildman mask.

FROM THE YOWIE OF AUSTRALIA to the Yeren of China to the Yeti of the Himalayas, huge hairy wildmen feature in folklore around the world, and Canada is no exception. Undoubtedly, the Great White North’s most famous wildman is the Sasquatch, the shy, reclusive giant said to roam the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest; often colloquially referred to as Bigfoot. Less well-known are the Sasquatch’s coastal counterparts: the emaciated, long-haired Bukwus, or “Wild Man of the Woods”, said to haunt the rivers and streams of Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Sound; and the huge, dimwitted Dzunukwa of Kwakiutl and Nootka legend- an old, black-skinned, red-lipped ogress purported to snatch up mischievous children and carry them off in a basket to her forest lair. More obscure wildmen have been reported in other parts of the country, from the Rocky Mountains of Western Alberta to the rocky highlands of Labrador. Perhaps most mysterious of all, however, are the various subhuman hominoids said to inhabit the taiga, tundra, and alpine areas of the Canadian North. Among the most prominent of these are the Nakani.

Long before Alexander Mackenzie dipped his paddle into the Deh Cho, Dene tribes from all over the North, from the eastern shores of the Mackenzie River to the forests of Alaska, spoke of mysterious wildmen who harassed them at night, often lurking in the shadows just beyond the light of the campfire. The Dene were terrified of these elusive creatures, who were as vividly real to them as the wolf and the raven, and went to great lengths to avoid crossing paths with them.

One of the first frontiersmen to write about these wildmen was Father Emile Petitot, a 19th Century Oblate missionary who lived among the Slavey and the Sahtu Dene of the North Country’s two great lakes. In 1876, Petitot wrote of a fear that spread among the Indians each summer like an epidemic: “They live at times in continual terror… of an imaginary enemy who pursues them without rest and who they believe to see everywhere even though he doesn’t exist at all.”

Father Emile Petitot.

According to ethnographer Cornelius B. Osgood, belief in the Nakani was strong among the Slavey, Dogrib, and Sahtu Dene as late as 1929. When they suspected that a Nakani was lurking nearby, entire Dene bands would often abandon their camps and seek shelter on a nearby lake island, secure in the belief that their pursuer, for one reason or another, was unable to cross over to their new campsite from the shore. On other occasions, according to a Hudson’s Bay Company trader named John Firth, entire encampments would instead stand their ground and fire their muskets “into the forest at suppositious wanderers in the night.”

Hudson’s Bay Company trader John Firth.

According to HBC trader B.R. Ross in his 1879 report entitled Notes on the Tinneh or Chipewyan Indians of British and Russian America:

          “A strange footprint, or any unusual sound in the forest, is quite sufficient to cause great excitement in the camp. At Fort Resolution I have on several occasions caused all the natives encamped around to flock for protection into the fort during the night simply by whistling, hidden in the bushes. My train of hauling dogs also, of a large breed of great hunters, would, in crashing through the branches in pursuit of an unfortunate hare, frighten some women out gathering berries, who would rush in frantic haste to the tents and fearfully relate a horrific account of some strange painted Indians whom they had seen. It was my custom in the spring, during the wild fowl season, to sleep outside at some distance from the fort. Numerous were the cautions that I received from the natives of my foolhardiness in doing so…”

H.B.C. trader B.R. Ross.

The names that the Indians applied to their mysterious unseen enemies varied from place to place and from tribe to tribe. To the Slavey, Kaska, and Mountain Indians of Mackenzie Country, they were the “Nakani”. The Gwich’in who lived further to the north, in the frozen forests that skirt the Arctic Circle, referred to them as “Mahoni.” The Koyukon Indians of the Yukon River Valley called these creatures “Nakentlia,” or “Sneakers,” while the Tanaina of Southwest Alaska referred to them as “Nant’ina,” or “Hairy Men”. Other appellatives included “Bad Indian,” “Bellowing Man,” and “Bushman.” Although the labels attached to these wildmen were numerous, Indian descriptions of them were eerily consistent across the Northland.

 

DESCRIPTION

Physical Appearance

Most 19th and 20th Century frontiersmen who wrote about the Nakani in their books and journals were under the impression that the Dene regarded them as hairy cannibalistic giants, vaguely human in appearance, with red eyes and long, muscular arms.

An interpretation of the Nakani, the legendary wildman of Northern Canada and Alaska.

British adventurer Michael H. Mason.

According to English adventurer Michael H. Mason in his 1924 book The Arctic Forests, the Gwich’in of Peel River Country in Northern Yukon described the Nakani (or “Mahoni,” as they called them) as “terrible wild men, with red eyes, and of enormous height, completely covered with long hair.” Their tremendous size was attested to by the three-foot-long, human-like footprints that they left in their wake, as well as their alleged ability to tear entire birch trees from the earth with their bare hands, roots and all. Similarly, Philip Godsell, who spent much time around the campfires of the Slavey and Kaska during his years as an inspector for the Hudson’s Bay Company, described the Nakani as “troglodytes, twice the size of ordinary humans, who went about naked save for a coating of evil-smelling hair…” In some articles, he likened them to gorillas and gargoyles, and commented upon the superhuman strength and speed they were said to possess.

Many frontiersmen wrote about the incredible size of this creature’s footprints, which they left behind in the snow and muskeg. Their tracks were purportedly manlike in appearance, yet much longer and narrower. In some accounts, their big toe stood out from the remaining four. Although their footprints never bore any nail marks, some said that the Nakani’s fingers were tipped with long, nail-like claws.

By the mid-20th Century, the image of the Nakani as an enormous hairy monster was making its way into books and popular magazines, often in dramatic fashion. For example, an article entitled “Cursed Treasure of Deadman’s Valley,” published in the June 1968 issue of the magazine Saga, maintained that the Nakani (or “Naconni,” as the author called them), were “hairy demons who stand as high as a Kodiak bear, are as swift as a bird in flight, and… kill all things they can reach by cutting off their heads… Their skin is so tough that a bullet will not penetrate it, and cutting it with a knife is more difficult than cutting stone.”

Domain

The Kaska, Slavey, and Mountain Indians of Mackenzie Country long maintained that the Nahanni Valley was the domain of the Nakani, and that these fearsome monsters resided within its foreboding caves and canyons. This belief is attested to by the region’s toponymy; according to Dene language expert Allan Adam, “Na’aahdee”, an old native word for the South Nahanni River, means “River of Giants.”

Map of the Nahanni Valley.

The Nakani were by no means confined to these remote mountain hideaways. Many of these monsters tirelessly traversed the subarctic forests in search of prey, often travelling extraordinarily long distances without stopping for food or rest, usually alone. Natives all over the Northland, from the coastal regions of Alaska to the forests of the Yukon, lived in almost perpetual fear of them.

Nakani attacks occurred almost exclusively during the spring, summer, and early autumn. The subarctic winter, on the other hand, though dark, miserable, and bitterly cold, was mercifully devoid of these dreaded encounters. Where the Nakani retreated to during the winter months was a mystery to the Dene. Some said that they retired to carefully-concealed burrows that they dug from the permafrost, where they spent the winter hibernating like bears. Others claimed that they migrated south to a place where their kind were more numerous.

Behavior

Willie and Frank McLeod

Like the Nahanni Indians, the Nakani have been blamed for the unusual number of mysterious deaths and disappearances that have plagued Nahanni Country since the days of Willie and Frank McLeod. Legend has it that these monsters did their grisly work at night, prowling about the river valley in the dark and quietly dispatching any campers they happened to encounter, perhaps tearing, twisting, or hacking their victims’ heads from their shoulders.

Outside the Mackenzie Mountains, the Nakani hunted travelling Indians, stalking them from concealment in the brush. Oftentimes, a Nakani’s intended victims only became aware of its presence when one of their number- perhaps a scout on reconnaissance duty- stumbled upon its strange tracks in the forest, or caught a glimpse of its dark figure out of the corner of his eye, darting noiselessly into the bush. In other instances, the uncanny feeling of being watched might serve as sufficient proof that a Nakani was somewhere nearby.

When a Nakani targeted a particular camp, it took up residence in the trees just beyond the light of the campfire and waited. Sometimes it taunted its intended victims by throwing rocks or sticks at them. It also, on occasion, emitted strange whistling sounds or noises resembling human laughter. Often, it would slip into camp in the middle of the night and steal food- typically fish, either from drying racks or smokehouses- or destroy fish nets and other equipment.

Legend has it that the purpose of the Nakani’s visits were twofold. Its primary objective was stealing women; girls who strayed too far from the camp, especially at dawn or dusk, were in serious danger of being abducted and dragged away into the woods, never to be seen again. The other motivation that drew these monsters to Dene camps was sustenance. If afforded the opportunity, Nakani would snatch children and lone hunters and carry them off into the woods, where it would devour them.

On rare occasions, intended victims- most often young women- narrowly escaped the Nakani’s clutches and returned to tell the tale. Those who survived such encounters often described a powerful, nauseating odor which preceded the attack. Others reported being beset by an overwhelming, almost petrifying sense of dread, as if the Nakani had exercised some sort of hypnotic power over them.

 

THEORIES

Wild Indians

Frontiersmen weren’t the only white men to document the Nakani phenomena; another category of Caucasian to write about these subarctic wildmen were ethnologists and anthropologists- professional academics who included the tale in their peer-reviewed articles on Dene culture and beliefs. Interestingly, the majority of these scholars extracted an entirely different version of the Nakani legend from the Indians whom they interviewed. In this version, the Nakani are not huge, hairy hominoids, but rather strange-looking bedraggled Indians.

Many ethnologists who have studied the subject have concluded that the Nakani are strange, bedraggled Indians who lived solitary lives in the wilderness.

Most academics who wrote on the subject agreed that the Nakani, according to their Dene informants, were Indians who became wild after engaging in murder or cannibalism. As a result of their hard life in the bush and their separation from society, they acquired a frightening, grotesque appearance. Their faces were gaunt and their bodies emaciated on account of malnutrition. Their skin was often caked with filth and grease, their hair unkempt, and their clothing worn and ragged. Oftentimes, their outfits were strange or incomplete. One knife-wielding Nakani, for example, was said to have been seen wearing nothing more than hard-soled shoes made from untanned hide and a headscarf. Others were purported to wear strange boots which could not be purchased at any trading post in the region.

Although the Nakani described by academics were literally wild men bereft of civilization, some of the attributes with which they were ascribed were distinctly inhuman. For example, although Osgood described the Nakani as “a human being, generally an Indian… dressed either in the fashion of an Indian or a white man…” he also maintained that it wore “tremendously large boots which are noted by the tracks he leaves in the mud”- tracks evocative of the long, narrow footprints left by the hairy giant of frontier legend. In a similar vein, anthropologist Richard K. Nelson wrote that the Koyukon Indians of the Yukon River Valley described the Nakani as being among the “large mammals”- a creature that was neither Man nor Beast, but something in between.

Most academics dismissed these inhuman qualities as inevitable distortions added by Dene storytellers who hoped to make their tales more interesting to the listener.  The Nakani, they firmly maintained, was nothing more than a man (or, in rare occasions, a woman) who became separated from society, either having been banished for some crime he committed, or isolated through some tragedy such as starvation or revenge warfare which claimed the lives of everyone else in his band. The Dene were afraid of these wild Indians because they considered them crazy and unpredictable, well aware of the deleterious effect of extreme isolation on one’s mental state.

A Dene Fairytale

A Dene hunter and his son.

Many of those who have written on the subject have concluded that the Nakani was a boogeyman who served to dissuade women, children, and lone hunters from wandering too far from the safety of the camp. These people maintain that the Nakani legend is probably a relic of bygone times, when the Dene tribes of the Canadian North were in a state of total warfare with one another. During those days, Dene raiding parties would stealthily approach their enemies’ camps during the night and, hiding in the brush, would steal any women and children they found alone on the outskirts. As Poole Field put it on one of his letters:

“In trying to run the stories down and by careful investigation I have finally come to the conclusion that it originated from the old days, when practically all the Indians at one time or another used to make raids on each other and would take anything of value found in the camp conquered, killing the men and taking any women or young girls or boys back to their own camp. After Dawson was struck and the civilized portion of the country became policed, it was given up, but still some of the younger men and also some of the older ones would take hunting trips into the country that was claimed by other tribes, and while doing this they would hang around any Indian camp at night in some case they would capture a young girl that some of them had taken a fancy to and take her back to their own tribe. Each tribe if the occasion just came right would give a foreign tribe a good scare any way even if they didn’t do any worse. In the tribe that I was travelling with, there was a grandmother that had been stolen as a girl from the Pelly’s and another from the Loose Shoe tribe at Peel River and I know several on the Pelly at the time of which I write.”

A Dene camp.

Some believed that the Nakani legend specifically derived from warfare between Dene tribes and the more southerly Cree, who, equipped with HBC muskets that were far superior to traditional Dene weapons, invaded the North Country in the late 1700’s, pressured by their fur trading rivals to the south.

The Cryptozoological Explanation

Gigantopithecus.

One of the most intriguing theories regarding the nature of the Nakani is that this figure is a cryptid, or “hidden animal”- specifically a species of great ape endemic to North America. Some cryptozoologists, as experts in the study of hidden animals are known, suggest that the Nakani might be the same species as the Sasquatch, another suspected North American hominid. Some have theorized that it is a remnant Neanderthal or Denisovan- archaic humans generally believed to have gone extinct about 40,000 years ago. Others believe that it might be a relative of Gigantopithecus, an enormous, possibly bipedal ape that disappeared from the jungles of Southeast Asia around 100,000 years ago. Others still hypothesize that the Nakani is an entirely new species of hominid which has yet to be accepted by the scientific community.

Homo sapiens, or modern humans, are the only species of great ape widely believed to have migrated to the Americas in ancient times, although the ancestors of New World monkeys, as improbable as it sounds, are suspected to have voyaged from Africa to the eastern shores of South America via vegetation rafts sometime during the Paleogene Epoch, preceding Christopher Columbus’ first trans-Atlantic voyage by about 50 million years. If archaic humans or some other variety of great ape really travelled to the Americas in prehistoric times, how did they do it?

Possible migration routes taken by the PaleoIndians.

Most anthropologists believe that the first humans to arrive in the Americas travelled from Siberia to Alaska via an ancient bridge of land and ice, formally referred to as Beringia. The first of these nomads are believed to have followed large game herds across the Bering Strait around 13,000 year ago, near the end of the last ice age. At that time, North America was dominated by two great glaciers: the western Cordilleran ice sheet, and the easterly Laurentian ice sheet, which met at a point just east of the Rocky Mountains. During an event known as the Wisconsin Glacial Episode, these glaciers began to melt, opening up a longitudinal passage that ran down the length of the continent. Seeking greener pastures, many of the nomads followed this passage south. Their descendants multiplied and scattered across North and South America, forming the various nations whose members are collectively known today as Amerindians.

The Wisconsin Glacial Epoch.

 

The Siberian wilderness.

Is it possible that other less-advanced hominids- perhaps the ancestors of the Sasquatch and the Nakani- also crossed from Siberia to the Americas via Beringia? Fossil evidence clearly indicates that both Neanderthals and Denisovans inhabited Northeast Asia around the same time as Homo sapiens. And intriguingly, Russian folklore contends that the Altai Mountains of Central Asia and the boreal forests of Siberia are home to hairy subhumans eerily evocative of North American wildmen, known respectively as the Almas and the Chuchunya.

Although most scientists believe that human beings were the only hominids to make their way to the New World prior to the Age of Exploration, a tantalizing archaeological discovery made near the Gwich’in village of Old Crow, Yukon, in the late 1970’s indicates that the Canadian North was occupied by intelligent, tool-wielding animals at least twelve thousand years before the first Paleo-Indian set foot on Alaskan soil. In the Bluefish Caves, located about 110 miles from the shores of the Arctic Ocean, anthropologist Jacques Cinc-Mars discovered a mammoth bone which appeared to have been fashioned into a caribou fleshing tool around 23,000 B.C.

More recently, some archaeologists have argued that a mastodon bone unearthed near San Diego, U.S.A., during a routine highway excavation in the early 1990’s- coupled with a handful of primitive stone tools discovered nearby- constitutes proof that some sort of intelligent hominid lived in the Americas as early as 130,000 B.C. The bone in question bore spiral fractures which indicated that someone or something had smashed it with a rock when it was still fresh, presumably in an attempt to gain access to the nutritional marrow within. Flat cobblestones and round stones discovered nearby bore markings which implied their employment as primitive hammers and anvils.

Dogrib Indians.

One of the most intriguing pieces of evidence supporting the notion that the Nakani are real, flesh-and-blood cryptids is that the fact that they share a number of peculiar attributes with other supposed wildmen from all over the world. For example, 19th Century Slavey trappers, whose only connection with the Outside was through a handful of missionaries and the HBC traders with whom they haggled, claimed that the Nakani made whistling calls, left behind huge footprints, had a penchant for stone-throwing, and emitted a putrid odour somewhat akin to the smell of rotten flesh- characteristics which the Coast Salish of the Fraser Delta ascribed to the Sasquatch, and Aborigines of the Australian Outback to their own wildman, the Yowie.

 

SIGHTINGS

The Nakani of Old Crow, Yukon

Harrowing stories of encounters with the Nakani have been a staple of Dene campfire conversation for countless generations. Unfortunately, most of these tales have long been lost to history, as is so often the case with oral lore.

One old Dene story which survived to the present day, recorded as it was in 1964 by Northern folklorist Charles J. Keim, tells of Nakani which haunted the woods surrounding Old Crow, Yukon, not far from the Bluefish Caves. According to this narrative, a young girl tasked with gathering spruce branches for her bed wandered a little too far from the camp. The Nakani, who had been watching her from concealment in the trees, “snatched the girl and took her back to his cave.” There, he bound her hands with babiche and tethered her to a tree stump situated just outside the cave’s mouth so that she could not escape.

After spending several days outside the Nakani’s lair, the girl asked the wildman to give her some privacy. The monster obliged and turned his back while she moved behind the tree stump, contenting himself with holding one end her tether in his hand. Somehow, the girl managed to free herself from her bonds when the Nakani was not looking. She stripped naked, dressed the stump with her clothes and bonnet, tied her tether to the stump, and stealthily slipped away into the woods, homeward-bound.

When some time had elapsed, the Nakani, oblivious, called out to the girl to see if she still required privacy. When she failed to answer him, he tugged on her tether and was surprised to find that he could not move her. The wildman began to sing a love song and moved towards what he thought was his prisoner, dancing as he went. “What a surprise he had,” wrote Keith, “when he leaped and hugged a stump.”

Eliza Andre’s Tale

In the 2007 book The History and Stories of the Gwichya Gwich’in, Eliza Andre, a Gwich’in elder from the settlement of Tsiigehtchic, NWT, located at the confluence of the Mackenzie and Arctic Red Rivers, related an old local story involving a Nakani:

Once, an old woman and her grandson went out into the bush to snare rabbits. One day, when they were inspecting their traps, the grandson stopped dead in his tracks. “Grandmother,” he said, “I hear something.”

“What do you hear?” the old woman asked.

“Back past our trail, someone is making noise.”

The old woman listened very carefully until she, too, heard the sound. Immediately, she stuffed the rabbits she had snared into a bundle, threw the bundle over her shoulder, and set out for camp as fast as she could, urging her grandson to follow quickly.

When the pair finally reached their tent, the old woman promptly built a fire, hastily skinned the rabbits, and threw their intestines onto the burning wood. Slowly, the intestines began to sizzle.

“By this time,” wrote Andre, “they could both hear someone making noise outside their camp; someone was approaching their camp, drawing nearer and nearer.” In preparation for their encounter with what could only be a Nakani, the old woman gathered the hot intestines and crouched by the door of the tent, waiting. Sure enough, the intruder, who was indeed a Nakani, poked his head through the tent opening. His ravenous eyes fell upon the old woman and her grandson.

Immediately, the old woman slapped the creature in the face with the hot intestines. The Nakani howled in pain and surprise and reeled back from the tent, clutching his scalded face. With a heavy thump, he landed on the ground and lay still.

“The following morning,” Andre continued, “they went out to investigate the incident of the previous night. They found a big bushman stretched outside their camp. They did not bother to do anything to him but instead retired to their tent, never to be bothered again for a long, long time.”

John McLeod’s Experience

It is possible that the first white men to have a brush with the Nakani were HBC engage John McLeod and his crew, during their expedition up the ‘West Branch’ of the Liard River in the summer of 1831. One night, while resting by the fire after a long day of tracking and portaging, the voyageurs were harassed by an unseen assailant, who hurled stones at them from the shadows. Although McLeod speculated that this marauder was probably a Nahanni Indian, native legend suggests that this stone-throwing provocateur, considering his behavior, may have been a Nakani.

Paul Peters’ Sighting

In his 2002 book Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, author George M. Eberhart related a Nakani encounter had by a native named Paul Peters in August, 1960. While at his fishing camp, located ten miles down the Yukon River from Ruby, Alaska, Peters watched a Nakani make its way along a rocky beach towards his dogs, “which were whining and acting strange.” The creature was broad-shouldered and very muscular, and walked on two legs like a man. It was covered in black hair, and was about 6’6’’ tall. Suddenly, perhaps frightened by the dogs, the Nakani altered its course, climbed a steep hill overlooking the river, and disappeared into the bush.

Recent Eyewitness Accounts

Far from being obsolete phenomena relegated to the 19th and 20th Centuries, Nakani sightings still occur with casual frequency in the wilderness of Northern Canada and Alaska. On July 28, 2016, for example, the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; a major Canadian media company) published an article describing a Nakani encounter reported by Tony Williah, a Dogrib native from the settlement of Whati, NWT.

Lac la Martre

Earlier that month, while boating from his hometown to the northern tip of Lac La Martre (the third largest lake in the Northwest Territories, situated roughly halfway between the Great Slave and Great Bear Lakes), Williah spied a plastic bag bobbing in the water. Hoping to retrieve the object, he pulled his boat alongside it. While he reached down to grab the bag, a rogue wave tipped his boat over, and Williah found himself immersed in freezing water. After struggling in vain to right his vessel and climb back inside, he decided to swim for the nearest island. Hampered though he was by his waterlogged clothing, he managed to reach the island and crawl onto its rocky shore, exhausted and chilled to the bone.

A map of Great Slave Lake, Great Bear Lake, and Lac la Martre.

“All of a sudden,” Williah told the CBC, “there was a big man standing beside me. He must have walked away, because I heard some branches break throughout the bushes. I packed up my clothes in a white bag and readied myself to leave.”

And leave he did, though not before spending a terrifying 48-hours alone on the beach, certain that the isle’s mysterious resident was watching him from concealment. On July 19, 2016, Williah was rescued by an RCMP and Canadian military search party and taken to the Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife, NWT, where he made a full recovery. He later claimed that he never slept a wink throughout the entire ordeal.

One blogger who commented upon Williard’s experience suggested that the Dogrib’s Nakani sighting may have been a case of what has been called “Third Man Syndrome”- a phenomenon reported by explorers, outdoor athletes, and disaster survivors in which a mysterious, guardian angel-like figure appears in times of extreme difficulty to offer comfort and assistance. Intriguing though it may be, this explanation cannot account for another potential Nakani sighting reported in the fall of 2012 by two Inuit women from Quebec’s northern Nunavik region.

While picking berries near the village of Akulivik, Maggie Cruikshank Qingalik and her friend spotted a strange creature out on the tundra. Initially, the two ladies thought that that the figure was another berry picker. As it got closer, however, they realized that it was covered in long, dark hair.

“We weren’t sure what it was at first,” said Qingalik in an interview. “It is not a human being, it was really tall, and kept coming towards our direction and we could tell it was not a human.” Qingalik estimated that the creature was around three metres tall (9’10’’). Its footprints were later found to be 40 centimetres (15.7 inches) long.

 

Other Northern Wildmen

Over the years, hundreds of wildman sightings have been reported on the Pacific Coast of Alaska, the historic homeland of the Tlingit Indians. Although many witnesses referred to the figure they encountered as a “bushman”, evoking the Nakani of Dene lore, some of the descriptions they furnished correspond more closely with the classic portrait of a Sasquatch- a supposed ape-man whose coastal range, some believe, extends from California to as far north as St. Michael, Alaska.

Indeed, the Nakani is not the only wildman said to inhabit the North Country. As Pierre Berton put it in his 1956 book The Mysterious North:

“The Mohoni, who flit through the Peel River country in the northern Yukon, are enormous hairy giants with red eyes, who eat human flesh and devour entire birch trees at a gulp. The predatory Sasquatches of British Columbia’s mountain caves are eight feet tall and covered with black woolly hair from head to foot. There are others, all akin to these: the terrible Brush Man of the Loucheaux in the upper Mackenzie, with his black face and yellow eyes, preying on women and children; the Weetigo of the Barrens, that horrible, naked cannibal, his face black with frostbite, his lips eaten away to expose his fanglike teeth; the eight-foot head-hunting ‘Mountain Men’ of the Nahanni; and those imaginary beings of Great Slave Lake whom the Dogrib Indians simply call ‘the Enemy’ and fear so greatly that they must always build their homes on islands safe from the shoreline where the Enemy roam.”

In my book Legends of the Nahanni Valley, I talk about eight more wildman legends endemic to Northern Canada and Alaska, including the Wendigo of Cree and Algonquin folklore and the Kushtaka, or Land Otter Men, that the Tlingit say haunt the Alaskan Coastline. I also offer a more thorough description of the various ethnological theories regarding the nature of the Nakani, and include a few more Nakani sightings that require more context than I was prepared to give in this video, including a fascinating encounter that took place right inside the Nahanni Valley itself. If you’d like to get yourself or a special someone a copy of this book, please check out the link below:

LEGENDS OF THE NAHANNI VALLEY

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I'm a Western Canadian writer, carver, and fiddler who has a special place in his heart for history and the unexplained.

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