Icebergs beached neared Frederick Sound.

Icebergs beached neared Frederick Sound.

A few strange stories

In the early 1960s, shortly after Alaska became a state, a stranger knocked at Nancy Strand’s door. This was Petersburg, a small, rough yet friendly fishing village full of salty Norwegians. Surrounded by dark rainforest and dangerous seas, hard men and women toiled to make their livelihood from the wilderness. Many hugged their families goodbye in the spring, boarded commercial fishing boats, and were away until the following winter. Others moved from one nearby logging camp to the next. A few chased dreams of gold, but they were the less pragmatic members of the community.

This stranger didn’t look like a fisherman, logger or prospector. Nonetheless, Strand’s father invited him into their living room. A commercial fisherman who drift-netted salmon on the nearby Stikine River, Mr. Strand served on the newly formed Alaska Department Board of Fish and Game. More than a half century later, Nancy’s recollection of the interaction is still clear.

“I remember the man wearing a hat like Indiana Jones and asking Daddy questions about them (kushtakas). Most specifically, he wanted to know if he needed any special permit to capture or shoot one. Daddy told him that he didn’t think any permits were required. He told him Mr. Colp liked his whiskey and a good story.”

Harry D. Colp is best known for writing the “The Strangest Story Ever Told,” the classic Southeast Alaskan spooky legend. Colp’s daughter, Virginia, found the manuscript a few years after his death and had it published. It describes a futile search for gold that leads to madness, encounters with hairy fiends and men vanishing into the wilderness around Thomas Bay. Most agree the narrative was inspired by experiences—whether real or imagined is debatable—with kushtakas, the Tlingit boogeymen. The cryptid hunter in the Strands’ living room no doubt had stumbled upon a copy of the text.

Like Colp, most Alaskans enjoy whiskey and a good story. Many of us consider it a crime to let the truth get in the way of an interesting tale. Whether the events described in the stories Colp left behind are true matters less to me than why they still resonate. In the 115 years that have passed, logging operations, roads, a gravel quarry and dairy farms have changed Thomas Bay. Cruise ships regularly anchor in its protected waters, and guides lead tourists on short walks up Cascade Creek near an idyllic Forest Service Cabin. Yet “The Strangest Story Ever Told” is still fascinating and scary. Perhaps it reconnects us, if for only a moment, with something primal, magical and horrifying—an ancient sense of reality that’s so rare it’s become a kind of treasure. No matter how vivid Colp’s imagination was, I can’t shake the notion he seemed to believe what he wrote. Irving Warner, a Washington writer, interviewed Virginia in 1974 and stated that “she (Virginia) had confidence in her father’s abilities and truthfulness.” As a writer, I can say that’s a unique phenomenon—I don’t believe half the stuff I write even when it’s the truth.

I wanted to know more about the man behind the legend, so I began digging into the Petersburg archives and harassing a few old timers. Colp was 17 when he caught the steamer Derigo from Seattle and came north in November of 1898, according to a March 12, 1957 article in the Petersburg Press. The mass hysteria of the Klondike Gold Rush was petering out. Hardened men and women were returning south, poorer in pocket but richer in experience. Some who remained had fallen in love with the northern frontier. Many who hung on were half mad with gold-lust, abandoning their diggings at the slightest whisper of a new strike. Dance hall queens and merchants followed in their wake. Boom towns turned to ghost towns overnight. They worked their way west, prospecting different tributaries of the Yukon River, until they reached the Bering Sea and the city of Nome. There, some say, the spirit of the Klondike gave its last gasp and dissipated into the howling wind and pounding ocean.

Colp didn’t follow the masses north. Instead, for reasons I can only guess at, he disembarked in Wrangell. The Stikine Gold Rush had long since ended and Wrangell, according to John Muir (I’m paraphrasing here), was kind of a pooh-pooh stain on the surrounding wilderness. Colp worked at a sawmill, transported mail to Kake, deck-handed on halibut boats and steamships and prospected.

In 1900 he formed a partnership with three other men. They were broke and ready to stampede at the next whisper of gold, no matter the consequences. The Petersburg Press reports: “Colp had first heard the story of the strangeness of the Devil’s Thumb country from an Indian who came into Wrangell with stories of devils and spirits inhabiting the area. A gold specimen brought out by the Indian inspired Colp and some of his friends to go into the country.”

The country the Tlingit man described was Thomas Bay, a place Nancy Strand, now the board president of the Clausen Memorial Museum, says Tlingit folks at least used to dislike visiting. Two of Colp’s three fellow prospectors claimed to have encountered “devil creatures” that “were neither man nor monkey — yet looked like both.” At least one went temporally insane, barking like a dog on his hands and knees and convinced that “devils” were “trying to scare and fool me.” The same man claimed that, after he and his partner had abandoned their outfit and fled Thomas Bay, a creature sat on the bow of his boat and cursed him every time he stopped rowing. Both men left for the south right afterwards, supposedly never to return to Alaska. Colp’s other partner did not see any creatures, but was quite disturbed by their partners’ behavior. Colp and the unnamed man went into the bay early that September to salvage their outfit. He describes the setting as beautiful but a little eerie. “I felt as if we were the only living things in the big expanse of water and land,” he wrote.

In 1906 Colp tried to build a sawmill near Thomas Bay, in Brown Cove, and log parts of the Muddy River watershed. The venture was unsuccessful, but before leaving he ventured deep into that country and made a most surprising discovery. The March 22, 1957 article in the Petersburg Press reads: “When getting 28 miles inland from the mouth of the river they (Colp and his partner Johnny Sales) came to upon a place where indications showed that there had been a complete settlement of Chinese working the soil for gold about 50 to 75 years prior. Tools, which were hand made, were found and it wasn’t difficult to find the place where they had been washing the soil for gold, having done a great deal of digging. The place where the Chinese camp had been was along side of a glacier deposit and valuables had been taken from this place as no traces of gold were found. The Chinese had done a good job.”

“The Strangest Story Ever Told” ends with a trapper disappearing along the Muddy River. One night during a snowstorm the trapper’s dog began running around barking and howling. In the morning it was nowhere to be seen. The trapper followed the dog’s trail and soon came across strange tracks that appeared to have been chasing his canine companion. The hind prints “were about seven inches long and looked as if they were a cross between a two-year-old bear and a small bare-footed man’s tracks…The front set looked like a big raccoon’s tracks, only larger…the creature could and did walk sometimes on all fours and at times on its hind legs.”

The dog’s tracks vanished mid-stride, much like a leaping snowshoe hare being snatched in a wolf’s jaws. The trapper followed the mysterious creature’s trail, so “he might get a chance to shoot it and see what kind of animal it was.” The tracks made a wide circle—it soon became apparent the thing was stalking the man. Horrified, the trapper left the area and reported the incident to a dairy farmer in Brown Cove. A short time later, after returning to his trap-line, the man disappeared.

Between 1900 and 1911, Colp made a number of trips into Thomas Bay in search of gold. He was never able to stay long because his partners “became frightened by strange characteristics and tales of the country and refused to stay.” He didn’t find much for gold nor did he suffer any madness or encounters with “devil creatures,” though some of his partners on expeditions did.

Colp spent the next decade of his life prospecting and selling mining claims in different parts of Southeast. One colorful story relates an encounter he and a partner had with inquisitive brown bears in the alpine of Baranof Island. The two apparently didn’t have a firearm, so they readied sticks of dynamite in case the animals attacked.

From around 1917 to 1926, Colp homesteaded with his family at 5 Mile Creek on Kupreanof Island. He farmed foxes and fished for halibut. One old timer remembers that Colp used to fish halibut with a hand-line “tied from the home to Sukoi island with hooks every few feet. He would start at one end and with a skiff, lift the line as he pulled himself along taking off the fish and re-baiting the hooks all the way to the island.” Colp also worked as a skipper on a commercial shrimp boat and was know as “The Deacon” amongst the fleet. A tough, able and industrious man, Colp embodied the spirit of old Alaska. He died in 1950 and took with him a whole pile of stories I wish I could have heard.

Nancy Strand never did find out if the strange man made it to Thomas Bay. He wasn’t the first — nor will he be the last — to feel inspired to make the journey. The following is the list of expeditions I know of.

 

THE CLAUSEN EXPEDITION, 1932

The first documentation I found consisted of four men, led by the honorable U.S. Commissioner Carroll Clausen of Petersburg. This was in the days before searching for kushtakas was political suicide or anything to be ridiculed. In fact, there’s rumors Theodore Roosevelt was an avid Bigfoot hunter and there’s a secret trophy room in the oval room full of all sorts of stuffed cryptids. I’ve invited Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to join me on a foray to Thomas Bay but have yet to hear back.

Clausen and his men touted they were going to Thomas Bay for geographical reasons and to do a little prospecting. The Petersburg Press reported: “Many hair-raising tales of the urchins and queer people in the “Devils Country” seem to bear little truth from the stories told by these men who spent all their time in and about the Half-Moon lake where great quantities of gold are supposed to have been found. Absolutely no trace of gold was found on this trip, however the party of men returned to Petersburg greatly satisfied in having made the trip being more familiar with the lay of the land and not half as willing to believe the tales of the large deposits of mineral, other than granite, which might be found in “them thar hills” commonly known as Devil’s Country.”

 

THE CRAIG EXPEDITION, 1961(?)

My good friend Joe Craig grew up chasing gold all over Southeast Alaska with his family. They lived on the M/V Denali, a wooden yacht that Al Capone had ordered built. Joe spent 42 years commercial fishing, power trolling for salmon and long-lining for halibut. When I mentioned two friends and I were going to check out Thomas Bay, Joe told me the following story.

“When I was a kid about eight or so my family took our boat to Thomas Bay. We had all read the book and my father was an avid prospector and he wanted to find the gold deposit. So we get there and discover it’s a %$*^@$# logging camp! Skiffs zooming around, lots of noise, etc. Anyway the next day we all went hiking, armed to the teeth-only thing we were lacking was some rocket propelled grenades, and got quite a ways up the valley. Saw most of the landmarks described in the book but no ledge of gold. Actually the valley was quite peaceful, all in all. However knowing you, I imagine you will have hand to hand combat with the little furry guys.”

Logging operations have been active in Thomas Bay since at least 1913. I phoned a Petersburg man who grew up in a camp in the bay. He’d never experienced a run in with a kushtaka or knew anyone that had, but admitted being creeped out by the stories.

 

THE ATTERTON EXPEDITION, 1978

Expedition 1978 was by far the most grandiose. The Petersburg Pilot reports: “Steve Atterton, 24 of Gig Harbor, WA., according to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter, has organized a 22 man party made up of chemists, anthropologists, zoologists, biologists and cooks, to name a few; that will travel to the shores Of Thomas Bay to investigate reports of “2 1/2 foot dwarfs and hairy creatures” that are said to exist in the area.”

Atterton came to Petersburg to ask the Forest Service about what sort of permit might be required for the expedition. Officials deemed none needed. Virginia Colp, for one, did not approve of it. By this time she was getting sick of all the hype the book had generated. The Petersburg Press reported: “Virginia Colp, daughter of the author of the book that was the catalysis for the expedition, wrote to the photographer Mike Siegrist and explained that “she thought the whole idea was foolish.” According to Colp’s printed statements she indicated that Thomas Bay was no longer a primitive area, and it did not need exploring. Colp also said that she had been approached by two different film companies to do a film which would make use of her father’s book for material. Colp refused the companies the right to use the book in their productions.”

The expedition was foiled by a lack of funding. Atterton claimed it would be postponed until the following year when enough money had been secured. I found no further documentation on the expedition and my attempts to communicate with Atterton have thus far been unsuccessful.

 

THE MUSE AND CROZIER EXPEDITION, 2012

B. Muse, B. Crozier and one other member, a dark and mysterious man who may be me, made a four-day foray into Devils Country to retrace the different routes described in “The Strangest Story Ever Told.” A deer, several cows and heavy machinery under operation were encountered. The three didn’t spot any devil creatures or come down with any abnormal madness, though B. Cozier did find a piece of quartz flecked with what appeared to be gold. The quartz vanished mysteriously before the three were able to bring it to a geologist to examine it. The trip is detailed in “The Second Strangest Story Ever Told.”

 

THE SHEEN EXPEDITION, 2013

Apparently Charlie Sheen found a copy of “The Strangest Story Ever Told” and decided to mount his own investigation. The expedition is said to have occurred shortly after he finished looking, unsuccessfully, for the Loch Ness Monster. He didn’t reveal many details to the media other than saying he read about kushtakas, became fascinated and took his private jet to Alaska to search for them. I called his agent to get more details but have yet to hear back.

Charlie, if you’re reading this, call me. Imagine the two of us, surrounded by the great Alaskan wilderness, sitting around a campfire, swapping stories, drinking scotch laced with human adrenaline and pituitary glands and eating amanita mushrooms. If we survive, I plan to write a piece entitled “An Even Stranger Strangest Story Ever Told.”

• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He can be reached at bjorndihle@gmail.com.

Sunrise on Petersburg.

Sunrise on Petersburg.

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