“He wasn’t hiding or anything — he had no shame in his game!”
Those are the words of Kelsi Camsell of Behchoko, one of the latest Northerners to spot what she is sure was the elusive nàhgą, or Bushman, at Chan Lake on July 14.
She and her parents were making a pit-stop on their way to Fort Providence when they saw it with their own eyes across the lake.
Their pictures are classics of the genre: grainy, poor quality cell phone pics zoomed in and likely snapped in a hurry.
But if you look way down in the left hand corner, you can see (or perhaps imagine?) a mysterious dark shape sticking out from the trees.
Just three days later, a man in Whati who’d spent two days alone on an island after his canoe capsized, reported that he, too, had encountered the terrifying creature. He had swam to what he thought was safety when he saw “a big man” that he now suspects used bad medicine to flip his boat. He swam away to another island, where he was found two days later.
“I’m unsure what I saw, [but] I know what it was not. It was not a moose, bear, muskox, caribou or a man.”
Nàhgą is known by many names throughout the Pacific Northwest, from B’gwus to Sasquatch or Bigfoot. Depending on who you talk to, he is either an elusive wild man or a bad spirit who inhabits the forest, waiting to kidnap anyone traveling alone. Those who are taken sometimes return, usually mute and mentally disturbed.
Though he walks on two feet like a man, he is typically described as more beastly than human, at least eight feet tall and covered in hair. Those who have heard the bushman claim it emits a howl-like scream, or sometimes a whistle.
A sighting recounted by a man from Nahanni Butte on CKLB Radio in 2014 said the creature he saw running off the road had “long arms and really long hair on its arms from the wrists all the way back, a couple feet long.” It had big hands to go with its massive stature. “I think it was about 12 feet tall. This thing was huge… No man is that big.”
A southerner named John Bourne says he caught a glimpse of nàhgą on the winter road from Gameti to Behchoko in 2000 while driving in a blizzard.
“It was just a flash. In fact, I would have thought it was an illusion brought on by the snow, but the two other people with me saw it as well,” he shared in Maclean’s a few years later. “It was tall and hairy, running on its two hind legs. The hair was long and hung from its body in an unkempt and wild manner. It was gone before we could say anything. My friend who was driving shouted, ‘What was that?’ but we all knew. We tried to push our original instinct away and rationalize it as something else. But we couldn’t.”
In Deline, there are many stories about the Nag’aneh, or “kidnappers.” One classic story tells of a young girl who was abducted for years, tortured and forced to have the bushman’s children. When she was older, she escaped. But when she returned to the community, she couldn’t speak any Dene. She only mumbled the bushman language.
Morris Neyelle believes they are members of the spirit world who live underground in a specific ridge of mountains near the community — an area that also boasts frequent UFO sightings.
While Neyelle says some of the stories of the Nag’aneh surely relate to a past where intertribal warfare saw women and children occasionally kidnapped by different Indigenous groups, he says there have been too many stories of people inexplicably disappearing in recent decades to write off the possibility of something more mysterious.
“They exist, but we can’t see them,” he says. “And if they take one of your kids and you get them back from them, the person doesn’t live that long.”
There are also spots around Great Bear Lake that are infamous for such kidnappings, like Broken Plate Creek (kw’átáratǫ) across from Deline.
“In the spring when there was no food, people would go fishing there for grayling,” Neyelle says. “There was a young guy about 25 years old. This happened in the 1940s. They asked him not to go alone, but he went anyways and didn’t come back the following day.”
The Elders had a bad feeling about this. They went out to look for him and only found his net, but his boat and pack were missing. On the third day, they found his canoe on the shore where it hadn’t been before. The Elders said he had been taken by Nag’aneh.
“Even my dad said that is not a good place to be alone,” Neyelle says. “People disappear or are found dead there for no reason. I remember going there with my dad and there was no wood to burn, so I went to collect driftwood. When I came back, he said, ‘Where have you been? Don’t you ever do that again.’ You need to have two people with you at all times.”
Perhaps that’s near where two southerners on a fishing trip with a local guide saw what they believe could only be the bushman on the shores of Great Bear Lake in 2001. A man, his son and a local fishing guide were heading to an old trapper’s cabin across the lake in early July when they spotted a dark silhouette near some trees.
“Standing head and shoulders above and behind the rotting cabin and the trees that were nearby this silhouette seemed to be looking directly at us,” reads the witness report. “We observed its body from mid-thigh to its head. While I could not see any details in the face I could see that it had facial hair. The head appeared large with a conical shape that was broad at the jaw area. Its arms were very long, very long and muscular. Its shoulders were broad, flat arms extended beneath, the humerus area seemed especially large and muscular, the forearms were large and long with what appeared to be hands, very long arms but more human than gorilla like. The entire body was covered in hair that looked more like animal than human hair. The color was consistent all over from what I saw; it was black or a very dark brown.”
“It is a parable to understand a unique and distinct culture in the world.”
The guide, who had also spotted the silhouette, moved the boat closer. The creature reportedly walked on two feet with its head above the tops of the trees, using its long forearms to move trees out of its way as it disappeared out of sight, and left a musky smell similar to a bear but more fishy.
“I’m unsure what I saw, [but] I know what it was not,” the fisherman recounted. “It was not a moose, bear, muskox, caribou or a man. I have never seen a man that tall. I know a basketball player who played in the NBA who is 7 foot 3 inches and he is not as big as what I saw. If I had to describe what I saw and compare it to an animal it was more like a giant human, I mean big.”
Oral tradition and fringe science have attempted to offer many explanations for the frequent sightings of this archetypal woodland monster. Some speculate that the bushman is another type of animal — a cross between human and beast — leftover from the past. Other pysch-minded types think of the sightings as appearances in the human collective memory of prehistoric times. For the skeptics, they are the products of imagination or optical illusions. But in many Indigenous cultures, they are supernatural beings of the spirit world that often come as bad omens.
For Bourne, there could be no explanation at all. But that hasn’t stopped him from thinking about what he saw on that frozen lake between Gameti and Behchoko.
“Logically, I know there is no Bushman. It makes no sense and defies any type of scientific evidence. I know it is symbolic of other things, like the loneliness and darkness one feels when living in isolation in the Far North. It is a parable to understand a unique and distinct culture in the world,” he writes.
“But I did see something on that winter road. Winter is here again, and the long darkness gives you time to think. Tales of the Bushman do not really pervade your thoughts during the times of daylight. But now, they almost seem plausible.”