“I’ve lived in the bush and tundra all my life. Weird stuff does happen, whether people want to believe it or not.” So said Anthony Roche, a native of the Canadian North, to this author in November 2017, after relating some of his own inexplicable experiences in the wilderness of Canada’s Northwest and Nunavut Territories.
Anthony Roche is a Canadian of Mi’kmaq and Inuit descent, who has spent his entire life hunting, fishing, camping, and guiding throughout Canada’s Northern Territories, from the legendary Headless Valley in the Mackenzie Mountains to the tundra of the High Arctic. During the course of his boreal escapades, he has seen, heard, and felt things that he cannot explain. One of his most bizarre experiences took place in August 2017, at a property outside Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, on the southern shore of Victoria Island. Some viewers may recall this story from this author’s 2018 book Legends of the Nahanni Valley. What follows is the full version of Roche’s story, in his own words:
“This past August, my girlfriend and I were out at her parents’ cabin, about 10 kilometres west of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, checking our fish net. I checked the net while my girlfriend went for tea at her grandmother’s cabin. I got three fish in the net, filleted them, and hung them to dry.
“My girlfriend and I were tired… and decided to have a nap. We both woke up to footsteps on the deck, heard the outside door open, and a few seconds later the inside door opened I was looking higher at the door expecting to see our grandma, and there was the smallest human I’ve ever seen, wearing a ragged old orange coloured coat and caribou skin pants. Both doors shut as if they were one. My girlfriend screamed, ‘Someone tried to get in!’ I jumped up to see who it was. Looked out every window and I didn’t see anyone. I walked out the door and didn’t see anyone. I thought to myself, ‘Grandma can’t move that fast.’ Her cabin is eighty yards away. So we came home and tell my in-laws what happened. They told us a little person had visited us- and inuk they call them. Inuagulik in our language. I haven’t found out what it meant or if it means anything at all. But they were supposed to be folk stories for children, and one walked into our cabin.”
Tales of little elusive men with seemingly-magical abilities constitute a staple of arctic and subarctic tradition. In his 1875 book Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo, Danish geologist Dr. Hinrich Rink included several old Inuit stories about the Inuarutligak, or mountain elves, said to live extraordinarily long lives in underground burrows on the islands of the Arctic Archipelago. Rink’s informants told him that these diminutive people were supposed to carry two sets of clothing with them when they travelled, one of which fit their tiny frames, and other being large enough for a man to wear. “During their wanderings,” he wrote, “they wore their own proper clothes, carrying the large ones with them, ready to put on in case they should get some heavy load to carry. They could then, by beating themselves, reach human size. Their way of regaining their natural appearance was by bending down to enter the cave, and hitting the crown of their heads against the roof, on which they dwindled down to their ordinary smallness.”
Inuit tradition contends that the elves are shapeshifters which can assume at will the appearance of certain animals and inanimate objects, such as caribou, hares, or stones. They are also endowed with the ability to travel extraordinarily long distances extremely quickly, presumably though the use of magic. Their weapon of choice is a sort of gun which need only be pointed at a target to kill it. They are said to be fond of dancing and playing magic tricks on each other.
In his 1921 book Eskimo Folk-Tales, Greenlandic-Danish explorer and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen described the elves as being deathly afraid of dogs on account of an unfortunate accident which took place when an elf family paid a visit to an Inuit home.
The Iircingarak of the Alaskan Peninsula
Every once in a while, Northerners like Anthony Roche report encounters with little elfin or dwarfish people in the wilderness of Northern Canada and Alaska. One such report appeared in the October 1995 issue of the magazine Alaska, by Bill Sherwonit. “There are numerous Native stories of ‘little people’ who dwell in Alaska’s mountains,” Serwonit wrote. “But they tend to be leprechaun-sized beings, whose bodies are not covered with hair. John Fumlickpuk, a Yup’ik elder in New Stuyahok, has described an iircingarak, or mountain spirit, that he saw many years ago. It resembled a regular person but was much shorter, carried a stick, and wore a tall pointed hat. When Gumlickpuk approached, the iircingarak vanished without a trace. ‘Most of the time they’re invisible,’ he explained through a translator. ‘But occasionally they allow themselves to be seen.’”
Another man who claimed to have encountered an iircingarak was Sam Stepanoff, an Aleut who lived in the villages of Perryville and Chignik Lake, on the Alaskan Peninsula. One night, when he was fourteen years old, Stepanoff went out with a couple of friends to harvest sea urchins. No sooner had the friends made it to the beach than a dog began to bark in the hills nearby. Stepanoff recognized the barking immediately as that of his dog, who had run off four days earlier. Abandoning the urchin hunt, he set off to retrieve the lost mutt.
Stepanoff found his dog standing at the edge of the forest, his hair standing on end, growling at something in the trees. The teenager scooped up his dog and made to leave when he heard a rustling in the trees. “The alders made some noise right beside me,” Stepanoff told Sherwonit, “and I saw a person. I thought it was the boys; we used to play around, scare each other. I said, ‘Knock it off, I know who you are.’ But it didn’t move, so I shined a flashlight, and it was a man, his face just pure wrinkles. I said, ‘Who are you?’ but no answer. He’s just looking straight at me, not speaking. I got so scared, I dropped my dog and went down the cliff. I ran to where [the others] were gathering wood for a bonfire, and told them what I’d seen, and they took off running, too.
“I’ve read all about the Abominable Snowmans and Bigfoot,” Stepanoff concluded. “But this guy I seen was little, smaller than me. I never could figure it out; he just looked like a real old man, all wrinkled. He had a beard and was kind of hairy, but he was human.”
The Inukins of Noatak, Alaska
Another series of Northern ‘little people’ reports appeared in an article by J. and L. Nicholson in the September 29th 1992 issue of a newspaper called the Valley Sun, based out of Wasilla, Alaska. The Nicholsons referred to the tiny subjects of their article as “Inukins.”
One man who claimed to have encountered Inukins in the Alaskan bush was 78-year-old Kenneth Ashby, who lived with his wife, Ruth, in the hamlet of Noatak, in northwestern Alaska. His first and most dramatic run-in with the little people took place one summer day in 1938, when he was 24 years old. While fetching water from the Noatak River, he and his brother, Bruce, were purportedly accosted by a gang of little wild men dressed in caribou skins, who wore their forelocks cut into straight bangs. Assisted by their grandfather, who slipped on a rock and knocked himself out in the process, the brothers managed to fight off the little men and extricate themselves from the area.
That same year, Ashby claimed that his sister, Victoria, chased a couple of Inukins away from their family’s drying rack after catching them in the act of stealing half-dried salmon.
Ashby’s final encounter with Alaska’s little men purportedly occurred in 1947, while travelling up the Noatak River on a hunting trip with a couple of friends from his hometown. As he walked along the riverbank, Ashby heard the cracking of dry birch leaves in the forest. He turned towards the sound with his rifle raised and was astonished to find himself staring at a little man, similar in appearance to those whom had attacked him and his brother nine years prior, peering at him from behind a tree. Ashby claims that the tiny man was joined by several companions, who played a game of hide and seek with his fellow hunters as they travelled upriver. Lurking at the edge of the forest, the Inukins would quickly duck out of sight after being spotted, only to reappear behind a bush or tree further up the trail.
When they returned to Noatak, the hunters posted guards around the hamlet as a precaution against the little people. The Inukins whistled to each other from concealment in the trees, which Ashby interpreted as some form of communication, before falling back into the bush.
Another man from the Noatak River area, who asked the Nicholsons not to publish his name for fear that the little people would somehow find him as a result, claimed that he and his friends had unsuccessfully chased an Inukin in 1949, one year after Ashby’s final encounter, hoping to push it into the river. “That was many years ago,” he told the Nicholsons, “and I haven’t seen any since. They still might be hiding someplace.”
Little Men of Western Alaska
In her 1958 book Moonlight at Midday, American naturalist Sally Carrighar described several ‘little people’ stories she learned while living at the trading post in the city of Unalakleet, on Alaska’s western shore. “The myths that intrigued me most,” she wrote, “were those about Little Men. Everyone says they aren’t often seen any more- their footprints sometimes and the wide tracks of their sleds, but the Little People are not coming down from the clouds to visit, as once they did. Almost all the Eskimos still believe in them, and when I asked why they stay away, the answer was sorrowful… ‘Everything is so different now.’
One story which Carrighar related took place in 1942, when Colonel Marvin “Muktuk” Marston was in command of the Alaska Territorial Guard. This martial unit, colloquially referred to as the “Eskimo Scouts,” was a ragtag militia composed of Inupiat, white, and Native American volunteers formed for the purpose of defending Alaska against a potential Japanese invasion.
One day, while conducting a routine drill, Marston’s officers informed him that their soldiers were unable to properly execute their manoeuvers, as they “kept running into Little Men.” After some consideration, Marston ordered his soldiers to treat the Little Men as enemy combatants and drive them from the area. “He sent his troops on that mission,” Carrighar wrote. “When they reported that they had accomplished it, the regular military exercises went forward.”
The most recent appearance of the Little Men, at the time of Carrighar’s arctic tenure, occurred in the winter of 1946, in the Inupiat city of Noorvik, on the shores of the Kobuk River about 200 miles north of Inalakleet, beyond the other side of the Seward Peninsula. The winter of 1946 was a particularly hungry one for the residents of Noorvik. Hoping to intercept a caribou herd, a handful of hunters set out into the wilderness with their sleds. After several days of travelling, the hunters exhausted their provisions and began to despair that their enterprise would end in failure.
One moonlit night, when hope among the hunting party was failing fast, one of the disheartened Inupiats glanced out the entrance to his tent and saw a scene that caused him to sit bolt upright. The slope beyond their campground was crawling with hundreds of little people who ran silently atop the snow, beckoning for the hunters to follow them. “Quickly hitching their teams up,” Carrighar wrote, “the Eskimos followed and came to a huge herd of caribou. They killed hundreds and took the meat and hides home on their sleds. Back at Noorvik when one woman unpacked her skins, ‘a Little Man who had been hiding in them jumped out and ran away.’”
- Legends of the Nahanni Valley (2018), by Hammerson Peters
- Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo (1875), by Dr. Hinrick Rink
- Eskimo Folk-Tales (1921), by Knud Rasmussen
- “Elder Recalls ‘Little People’,” by J. & L. Nicholson in the September 29th, 1992 issue of the Valley Sun (Wasilla, Alaska)
- “Legends of the Hairy Man: Alaska’s Sasquatch,” by Bill Sherwonit in the October 1995 issue of Alaska
- “The Missing Spirit,” in the Moonlight at Midday (1958), by Sally Carrighar
- “The Eskimos and the Defense of Alaska,” by Charles Hendricks on Volume 54, Number 3 of the Pacific Historical Review (August 1985)