The Tlingit Legend of the Kóoshdaa Káa

Within the forests and oceans of Southeast Alaska, there are forces at work that even the most experienced hunters can’t explain

THERE ARE PLENTY of mysterious tales about Thomas Bay in Southeast Alaska, which prospectors named “Devil’s Country” in the early 1900s, but the most prevalent is the legend of the Kóoshdaa Káa. Tlingit stories say the Kóoshdaa Káa is a shapeshifting otter-like creature that lures people into the wilderness, sometimes tricking them to their deaths.

Many Tlingit, whose people have lived in Southeast Alaska since time immemorial, won’t go into Thomas Bay to this day. They believe it’s haunted. Growing up in Southeast Alaska, I’d heard stories of the Kóoshdaa Káa being a furry monster that could shapeshift into the form of a loved one, or play tricks like mimicking the sound of a crying baby to lure you into the woods or out to sea. Once captured, its victim would turn into a Kóoshdaa Káa as well. The Tlingit used to believe anyone who went missing at sea or in the forest likely became a Kóoshdaa Káa. There’s an unverifiable account of a landslide in Thomas Bay wiping out a Tlingit village and killing hundreds, whose bodies were never recovered—all turned into Kóoshdaa Káa.

Then about 10 years ago I decided to travel from my home in Juneau down to Thomas Bay to see what all the talk was about. The peaks in the area still bear names like Devils Thumb and Witches Tit, but I found that the wilderness and the sinister stories that went with it had been largely tamed. The place was crisscrossed with logging roads. Small cruise ships were anchored in the bay. When I got home, I penned a tongue-in-cheek account of the adventure and sent it to a handful of magazine editors. They all declined it.

Eventually my girlfriend, who was standing in as the editor of our local newspaper, got desperate for a feature story and published my Thomas Bay piece. After it went to print, a Tlingit man called to swap some Kóoshdaa Káa stories. Toward the end of our conversation, he suggested I write a book on the subject.

I wasn’t a ghost guy, but I was a struggling writer and figured…what the hell. I sent out a proposal for a book on the history of Southeast Alaska as told through unsolved mysteries and supposedly paranormal events. At the project’s center would be the Kóoshdaa Káa. By the end of the week, I had two offers from publishers.

It turned into a strange and interesting project that, in part, consisted of me of cold-calling strangers and saying, “Hi, I heard you had an experience with a Kóoshdaa Káa?”

Some people laughed. A few folks said they had but had no interest in telling me about it. A handful of the people I called confided some unsettling stuff. A couple of people warned that what I was doing could open doors to a dark, dangerous path.

I was skeptical, of course. I believed that the stories grew from the psychological pressures of living in a place where it’s not abnormal for people to die or disappear in the outdoors. Here in Southeast Alaska, rugged mountains, usually hidden in clouds, jut out from the stormy ocean. The forest is thick and dark, and it’s easy to get turned around. It rains more than 100 inches each year in most of the region—sometimes a month or more will pass before you’ll get a glimpse of sunshine. In short, the weather and country are unforgiving. The conditions can impart a looming sense of dread. That, combined with a lot of people recreating and living in wild country, means there are going to be accidents and disappearances.

Reality television culture came up with the sensationalized idea of an “Alaska Triangle,” like the Bermuda Triangle. I was cynical about it all; the truth was that there was nothing nefarious or supernatural at work, just overhyped stories.

But then weird things started happening to me.

The Strangest Story Ever Told

I’m far from the first non-Native person to write about the Kóoshdaa Káa. In 1950 a prospector and fisherman named Harry D. Colp died, and his widow found a manuscript entitled “The Strangest Story Ever Told.” Colp’s daughter promptly published his small book, and the story has become the best-known legend in Southeast Alaska.

The story begins in 1900, when Colp, then 19 years old, was living in a shack with three other prospectors in the village of Wrangell. All three were broke. One prospector, called Charlie in the story (he didn’t want to be named), was given a tip by an old Tlingit man: There was a mother lode of gold in Thomas Bay. But the elder warned him not to go looking for it, because the country was haunted by evil spirits. Even if he tracked down the gold, it wouldn’t do him any good; he’d be haunted too. Charlie ignored the warning and immediately set out in a canoe to find the gold. He paddled along the edge of the Stikine River Delta and beneath the Horn Cliffs before entering the steel-colored waters of Thomas Bay. Following the old Tlingit man’s directions, he hiked up the Patterson River to where the gold deposit supposedly lay. Weeks later, Charlie showed back up in Wrangell with nothing but a big hunk of quartz that was full of gold specks. He looked like hell and wouldn’t say a word, other than to ask for money to get a ticket on the first steamship to Seattle. Right before Charlie boarded, first vowing to never set foot in Alaska again, he told the other prospectors his story.

“Swarming up the ridge toward me from the lake were the most horrible creatures. I couldn’t call them anything but devils, as they were neither men nor monkeys—yet looked like both. They were entirely sexless, their bodies covered with long coarse hair except where 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. I forgot my broken gun and tried to use it on the first ones, and then I threw it at them and turned and ran. God, how I did run! I could feel their hot breath on my back. Their long claw-like fingers scraped my back. The smell from their steaming, stinking bodies was making me sick, while the noises they made, yelling, screaming and breathing, drove me mad. Reason left me. How I reached the canoe or hung onto that piece of quartz is a mystery to me.”

wood statue of figure
A Tlingit canoe prow ornament depicting the Kóoshdaa Káa, or Land-Otter-Man. Werner Forman Archive / University Museum, Philadelphia / Heritage Images

Colp and his partners decided to go to Thomas Bay to see for themselves, and most lived to regret the decision. Some of the men from the group claimed to have seen the devil creatures. Others went insane. Some simply disappeared.

But I didn’t need to search back to the 1900s to find strange stories from the wilderness. Decades ago my dad, a very experienced outdoorsman, had what many locals would say was an encounter. He’d been hunting deer when a strange feeling overwhelmed him and he blacked out.

“I remember seeing a deer walking through the mist and then, for some reason, I sat down at the base of a tree,” he said.

Some time later, he woke up groggy. He was wandering deeper into the woods, clutching his rifle. His backpack, which contained all his hunting and survival gear, was gone.

Other Southeast Alaskan hunters have similar stories. David Katzeek, a Tlingit elder, told me the story of shooting a deer and then spotting his dad and brother-in-law at the edge of the woods. They disappeared into the dark maze of the forest, and Katzeek felt compelled to chase after them. He yelled at them to stop as he ran along a well-defined trail, but they wouldn’t listen. Katzeek suddenly snapped to and realized that he was clawing through a thicket of devil’s club. The Kóoshdaa Káa, he told me, had tricked him with an illusion of his family.

Into the Darkness

After a few months of working on my book, I found the wreckage of a small plane during a 30-mile hike around Douglas Island. Much of the island is wild, and I regularly hike around it when I need a break from the stresses of the ordinary world. When I first spotted the plane, I wondered if it belonged to my family friends the Andrewses, who went missing in 2008. Pieces of metal lay strewn about, some hanging from branches 15 feet up. A chunk of metal impaled the trunk of a tree. The plane had been on a trajectory that’s often taken to get into Juneau when the weather is cruddy to the north. The wreckage looked old, and there were pieces of what appeared to be a broken skiff mixed in with it. After the site was investigated, the only thing officials were willing to tell me was that the wreckage wasn’t the Andrewses’ plane.

That winter I worked nights on a psychiatric ward at the local hospital. I spent most of my 12-hour shifts with a violent patient who had both autism and schizophrenia. Between screaming threats and profanities, he would sometimes rant about the Kóoshdaa Káa. Sitting in a dark room waiting to be attacked and listening to that sort of stuff was trying. I started to wonder about my own sanity.

The Kóoshdaa Káa is much more complicated than a take of a furry monster running around in the woods trying to entrap you. For many it’s disturbingly real, even if it’s more often in a metaphorical way.

But in the spring, I quit the ward and turned in my manuscript. I celebrated by hiking around Douglas Island once again, this time with my girlfriend, MC, and our dog, Fen.

When I walked back to our camp after gathering some firewood, MC was acting weird and nervous. Fen was growling and barking.

“There’s something in the woods,” said MC, sitting by the fire, holding a can of bear spray with the safety off.

After a quick search of the forest around our camp, I joined MC at the fire and told her it had probably been a porcupine or marmot. We ate dinner, then set up our tent just inside the woods as the sun set. I drifted off to sleep right away, but it wasn’t long before MC shook me awake.

“There’s something outside the tent!” she said.

I hushed our growling dog, listened, and then climbed out into the night. I walked a wide circle around our camp but didn’t see anything…but then I heard the distinct noise of tumbling rocks falling. This was odd, since we were camped on a flat. I thought back to the time my little brother and I heard weird voices approaching us in the darkness while we camped at this very spot a few years earlier during a deer hunt. When I got back to the tent, MC was snoring, which was also odd considering how worked up she’d been just minutes before. I ignored the strangeness and went back to sleep. But again MC shook me awake, insisting that there was something outside the tent.

I went out once more, this time annoyed, but didn’t see anything. Even if there is something out there, I told her, don’t wake me up unless it’s a bear.

After some unknowable amount of time I was startled awake again, but this time it wasn’t MC. Something was pushing against my feet. At first I thought it was Fen. I kicked, but she wouldn’t budge. Then I felt around our dark tent and found that our dog was asleep between me and MC. Whatever was on my feet was compressing the tent wall and pushing from outside. I kicked harder, and the thing ran off on what sounded like two feet. I woke MC and told her there was, indeed, something outside the tent.

“You were dreaming,” she said.

I lay there feeling like I had been drugged. It took all the energy and courage I had to unzip the tent and search the blackness with my headlamp. I found nothing.

The Wreck

A year later, my two brothers, my dad, and I were deer hunting out of a public-use cabin when I had another unexplainable encounter. It was the same cabin that the Andrewses had been using before they went missing nine years earlier. Back then, my older brother Luke’s lifelong buddy BJ Andrews, his dad Brian, and his younger brother Brandon had all flown in to the cabin in their Cessna 182 floatplane. The next day, during a break in the weather, they all flew home to Juneau and dropped off BJ and their dogs. Brian and Brandon had to fly back to retrieve the rest of their gear. But they went down somewhere on the flight home. I was on a caribou hunt when it happened. Around the time we made it home, the Coast Guard, after covering 4,800 miles of land, water, and shoreline, called off the search. BJ, other family members, and friends were still poring over maps, chartering small planes and helicopters, and searching on foot. My brother Luke ran miles of coastline in his boat. I spent a day walking a grid across a mountain.

Nine years later, I hiked with Luke and our dad along a valley bottom until they cut up the mountainside. I went another mile and did the same. I hunted awhile without seeing anything before climbing a ridge above the treeline. A black wall of clouds was engulfing the ocean and mountains. It was a few hours’ hike back to the cabin, and dusk wasn’t far away, so I headed back. The fog grew thick, limiting visibility to about 40 yards. Sheets of rain mixed with the dumping snow, and the gusting wind set the trees swaying and moaning. I zoned out, thinking only about getting back to the cabin. But then movement to my right jolted me to my senses. A small deer appeared for a second and then disappeared in the fog. Hoping it was a young doe that might have a buck trailing her, I crept to the spot where I’d last seen the deer. There, 30 yards below in a ravine and barely visible in the fog, was a wrecked plane. One float was propped nearly vertical while the rest of the plane lay in a broken heap. I knew immediately it was the Andrewses’ plane.

I took a few moments to say a prayer for Brian and Brandon before marking my GPS location. I climbed just a few yards out of the ravine and to my surprise spotted Luke and my dad, who were below, lumbering downhill, carrying heavy packs. Luke swung around, thinking I was a bear as I crashed through the brush toward them. I took them to the plane, and Luke found a bone among the wreckage. He knelt and held it for a few moments before returning it to the moss and ferns.

The Kóoshdaa Káa is much more complicated than a tale of a furry monster running around in the woods trying to entrap you. For many Southeast Alaskans it’s disturbingly real, even if it’s more often in a metaphorical way. It’s a spirit, says Tlingit elder David Katzeek, that tries to take you in both a literal and a spiritual sense.

“On one hand, everyone experiences it,” Katzeek said. “It basically tries to steal your mind; tries to steal, in a way, your self-esteem. It takes away from you. It causes you to become a person you really were never intended to be. Like being an alcoholic, a drug addict, a child abuser. What is a Kóoshdaa Káa? In a way, it’s a spirit that basically says, ‘Only if you’re like me, then you’re going to be OK.’”

My string of strange events seems to have ended, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake the weight of Kóoshdaa Káa stories. While hunting and exploring Southeast Alaska, I’ve come to think of the rainforest as a mirror of my subconscious. There’s something nebulous—call it a monster or maybe, more specifically, a conglomeration of fear, pain, anger, and madness—​prowling our minds just beyond the safe edge of reason. As with the actual wilderness, you can get lost in it.

Bjorn Dihle is a lifelong Southeast Alaskan. His most recent book is A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears. This story originally ran in the Alaska issue of Outdoor Life. Read more OL+ stories.