Port Chatham, a bay on the southern tip of the Kenai and a former village of the same name, hardly seems like a setting for inexplicable terror and fright.
But a series of mysterious disappearances and deaths where the Kenai Mountains narrow before plunging into the North Pacific gave birth to rumors that began in the 1930s and continue to this day. And the rumors all point the same thing: Something’s not right around Port Chatham.
Take for instance Andrew Kamluck, who had gone out logging in 1931. He was found dead in the woods from a blow to the head; a piece of log-moving equipment nearby may have been used as a weapon. Around the same time, elder Simeon Kvasnikoff of nearby Port Graham (present-day Nanwalek), said that a gold miner headed out for the day and just disappeared. No sign of the prospector was ever found.
Sometime later, Tom Larsen went out to chop wood for fish traps when he saw something large and hairy on the beach. He ran back home for his rifle. When he returned to the water’s edge, the thing just stared at him. Larsen never could explain why he did not fire.
Then in 1973, an Anchorage newspaper ran a piece on a retired schoolteacher who had taught in Port Chatham during World War II. She told of cannery workers who went into the mountains to hunt Dall sheep and bear but never returned. Search parties found no trace of them. Then rumors spread that a mutilated body, torn and dismembered in a fashion that didn’t resemble wounds from a bear attack, had been swept by rains down the mountain and into the lagoon.
Other rumors include specifics of the beast’s features. Hunters following signs of a moose came across manlike footprints that exceeded 18 inches in length. As they closed on the moose, they realized that they and the owner of the big feet were tracking the same animal. The hunters soon came across matted-down grass that held indications of an apparent life-and-death struggle. Beyond the grass, the hunters found no moose tracks, but the large manlike footprints continued upward into the cloud-draped mountains.
The history of human habitation around Port Chatham is relatively short even though the crook of her sheltering bay offers protection from a turbulent ocean. Capt. Nathaniel Portlock, a member of the British Royal Navy, found sanctuary here in 1786 during his Alaska expedition and praised the site. Around 1900, an American firm brought in a fleet of fishing boats and built a cannery to take advantage of the calm waters and the healthy run of salmon. The Russian-Alutiiq village of Port Chatham grew around the cannery, and by all accounts, it was quaint, tidy and in a beautiful setting, nestled between the sea and vistas of snow-covered peaks. By 1921, residents established a post office.
In an interview that ran in the October 2009 edition of the Homer Tribune, Nanwalek elder Malania Helen Kehl, who was born in Port Chatham in 1934, gave insight into the demise of her hometown. She explained that her parents, along with the rest of the village, grew weary of being terrorized by a creature the Alutiiq called a Nantiinaq, meaning half-man, half-beast. She said that many of the residents refused to venture into the surrounding forests, and over time, abandoned their homes and the village school, and moved up the coast to Port Graham. Only the postmaster remained in Port Chatham, but the post office closed in 1950.
Earlier records made by Portlock cannery management showed that the site had been vacated once before. The cannery supervisor noted in 1905 that all the Native workers evacuated the area because of “something” in the forest, but they returned to work at the cannery the following year.
The stories did not stop with the abandonment of the village. A goat hunter in 1968 claimed to have been chased by a creature while he was hunting in the area. In 1973, three hunters took shelter there during a three-day storm and claimed that each night something walked around their tent on what sounded like only two feet.
In 1990, an Anchorage paramedic was called out to aid a 70-year-old Native who had suffered a heart attack but was incarcerated in the Eagle River jail north of the city. While treating the man, the paramedic happened to mention he had hunted in the area of Port Chatham. The elderly man suddenly sat up, grabbed the medic by the shirt and asked “Did it bother you? Did you see it?”
The mystery continues.