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Alaskan Ghost Town: What Happened in Portlock?

Portlock, AK has been abandoned for approximately 83 years, 11 months, and 6 days.

A remote Alaskan city fared well enough in the first half of the 19th century, only to be totally abandoned by the latter half. Tales of what really happened in Portlock, Alaska (AK) range from the ordinary to the supernatural, and it’s not clear where the truth lies. 

The 2021 series Alaskan Killer Bigfoot helped bring Portlock into the spotlight, with fans and curious onlookers alike wondering what really happened there. But are the tales true? Are there really paranormal creatures out there, stalking the dense woodlands near the city? Or is there a more plausible explanation for what happened in Portlock?

This article will discuss everything from the history of Portlock to the odd events that transpired, along with the eventual abandonment of the town and the theories about what happened there. Get your adventure and cryptozoology hats on and let’s look at what happened in Portlock, AK.

An abandoned home in Portlock, AK.
An abandoned home in Portlock, AK (MoneyInc).

Table of Contents

About Portlock, AK

Established in the early twentieth century, Portlock was originally founded on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, mostly to serve as a cannery for salmon. It’s located about 120 miles south of Anchorage. Portlock has also been known by the name of Port Chatham, although the official government name for the town has always been Portlock. 

A map showing where Portlock, AK is located.
A map showing where Portlock, AK is located.

Today, Portlock is abandoned and accessible only by boat or bush-plane and has been abandoned since 1950. Even back when it was founded, the only way to get to Portlock was via a boat; there were no paved roads nor trails. 

History of the Name

The town of Portlock supposedly got its name from a fur trader and British naval captain named Nathaniel Portlock who was thought to have come ashore near the area. (However, if you’re being a stickler for the truth, Nathaniel Portlock probably came ashore near the Cook Inlet instead.) Regardless, the name stuck. 

An image of Nathaniel Portlock.
An image of Nathaniel Portlock (Wikipedia).

Interestingly, there had once been a small native village in the spot where Portlock would eventually be founded. For whatever reason, it had been abandoned — a haunting premonition of what was to become of Portlock in the 1900s.

Portlock’s Population

Residents living in Portlock were mostly natives of Russian-Aluet mix. There never were many people living there, with a census population of 31 residents in 1940. The last time the census was conducted for Portlock was in 1980, and the city again only had 31 residents.

Industries in Portlock

Portlock had a number of industries including hunting, fishing, logging, and mining, some of which dated back to the 1700s. The largest employer though was the Portlock Cannery where fresh salmon was processed and canned.

For about a decade in the 1910s, Portlock’s economy and industry ran smoothly. However, starting around the 1920s, mysterious deaths supposedly began occurring around town. Many were convinced that these deaths weren’t simple logging or hunting accidents; the townspeople believed that something was out there.

The entrance to Port Graham by sea, one of the cities near Portlock.
The entrance to Port Graham by sea, one of the cities near Portlock (Alaska’s Digital Archives).

Mysterious Sightings

Natives living in the Portlock area spoke about several different mysterious sightings of supernatural phenomena. One creature you’ve probably head of before is similar to Bigfoot: the Nantiinaq (sometimes spelled Nantinaq or Nantanaq), as the locals called it. Roughly translated, it means “half-man, half-beast.” It was a huge, hairy ape-like creature that was said to be aggressive toward people — something that makes it different from the allegedly aloof Bigfoot.

The other creature that local natives claimed to have seen was a spirit woman, dressed in black clothes who would appear on the cliffs above the town. Her face was white as snow and she was said to scream and moan. When people came out to look for the source of the noise, she’d vanish back into the cliffside.

Support for the Sightings

Malania Kehl was born on January 25, 1934 in Portlock. She was interviewed by the Homer Tribune and talked about her experiences living in the town and reported that she’d seen the lady in black: “Her dress was so long she would drag it. She had a very white face and would disappear back into the cliffs.” 

Kehl also discussed having to suddenly leave Portlock with her family. “We left our houses and the school, and started all new [in Nanwalek],” she explained. She largely blamed the Nantiinaq for harassing and terrorizing the town’s residents.

A painting called “Hunter Attack” by RobRoy Menzies. Could this hairy, ape-like creature really exist?
A painting called “Hunter Attack” by RobRoy Menzies. Could this hairy, ape-like creature really exist? (Anchorage Press).

Additionally, a Port Graham elder, Simeon Kvasnikoff, also explained about a time when the Nantiinaq was blamed for someone’s disappearance in the area: “This one guy over there had a little place where he was digging for gold. He went up there one time and never came back.”

Sally Ash, a woman of the Sugpiaq tribe of Russian-Aleut natives and Kehl’s cousin, discussed Portlock in an interview uncovered by the Midnight Train Podcast. Ash said of the town: 

“Portlock was kind of a creepy place. They’d tell us don’t go out on a foggy day. That’s when [the Nantiinaq] is walking around. You could run into him and you never know what he might do.”

Sally Ash (Source: Midnight Train Podcast)

However, Ash has also said that her cousin, Malania Kehl, was likely making up a story: “Malania kind of made up a story, because she was getting tired of people asking if this (story) is true.” 

Regardless if there are some rumors and stories mixed in with the truth, it’s a fact that by the 1950s, Portlock was completely abandoned. Even the postmaster had moved out of town by then, and the place has remained a ghost town ever since.

Truth to the Tales?

But did these sightings really happen, or were they just old stories and rumors? Well, that depends on who you ask. Some say that the rumors are just that — rumors — and that there is no truth to the stories. Others, including Kehl, offer some first-hand accounts of what they’d seen in Portlock while living there, suggesting that there was really something out in the Alaskan wilderness. Whether that was the Nantiinaq or something else, however, is up for debate.

Alleged Incidents in Portlock, AK

In order to get a better understanding for the rumors swirling around this Alaskan ghost town, it’s best to look at what available information is out there. Although I usually tend to focus only on more reputable sources, I’ve branched out a little bit with this article for the sake of fully investigating what rumors are out there.

Additionally, all through Portlock’s history, people living in the area reported hearing eerie howls and seeing large creatures in the shadows of the night. The incidents that occurred in Portlock appear to be a culmination of years of reports from the natives living in the area that something was out there.

1905: Letter to the Editor

In an old 1935 Alaska Sportsman magazine, a peculiar letter to the editor from 1905 was discussed. A group of Aleut fisherman claimed that a large, “hairy man” was “bothering” and frightening them to the point that they left the area. This is perhaps one of the first written accounts of a creature being in the Portlock area.

Rumor has it that the incidents with the creature caused the Russian Aleuts (the native population) who had been working at the cannery to move out of town for a year. The cannery then was unable to run without its workers, and even though they set up armed guards to help ensure the workers’ protection, it took a year for the workers to return.

An old 1935 copy of Alaska Sportsman magazine.
An old 1935 copy of Alaska Sportsman magazine (Facebook).

1917: Two Hunters Lost

A newspaper from 1917 reported that two hunters, Ben Sweasy and Bill Weaver, went missing from the city of Seward and were never seen again. A dory (a small wooden boat) that looked like the one they were in was found near Portlock. However, Portlock is over 1,000 nautical miles from Seward, so it seems unlikely that this could have been the same boat.

1921: Post Office Established

A post office was established in Portlock in 1921 which helped to establish the town as an up-and-coming economic center.

1920s: Albert Petka

In the 1920s, a man by the name of Albert Petka supposedly was able to scare off a hairy creature (possibly the Nantiinaq) with the help of his hunting dogs. However, the creature had gotten in a fatal blow to Petka’s chest and though he survived to make it to town and recount his tale of survival, he died soon thereafter. 

1920s: Missing Miners & Hunters

There were also reports of gold prospectors and hunters frequently going missing. This wasn’t necessarily uncommon back then, but what was strange was the frequency in which these mountain men were vanishing near Portlock. Although some of these disappearances can surely be attributed to fierce weather and forest predators, the manner in which some of the bodies were found — dismembered in a creek — led many to believe that something more was going on.

An old photograph of the cannery in Portlock.
An old photograph of the cannery in Portlock (Wikimedia Commons).

1930s: Deaths & Peculiar Incidents

It wasn’t until the 1930s that a number of peculiar incidents began taking place, leading many to start thinking about abandoning Portlock.

After these strange and terrifying incidents, it’s said that most residents decided to up and leave Portlock for neighboring towns and cities. Many people supposedly left the town even while leaving behind all of their possessions. Why would people so willingly abandon their hard-earned homes and property?

A photograph of a moose in Kenai.
A photograph of a moose in Kenai (US Fish & Wildlife Service).

1950: Post Office Closed

The post office finally closed in 1950, with the postmaster having been the last remaining resident of Portlock. When he left, the town was formally abandoned.

Years Later, Tales Still Being Told

Even though Portlock was abandoned in the late 1940s and early 1950s, tales of what had gone on there still swirled around the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Many residents in the nearby villages of Seldovia, Nanwalek, and Port Graham have said that the area is haunted.

1968: Goat Hunter Chased

According to Alaska Magazine, a goat hunter was tracking game in the Portlock area in 1968. While there, he was suddenly chased by a creature that scared him out of the area for good. It’s not clear whether the hunter thought it was simply a predator or one of the supernatural creatures, but one would think that a hunter would be familiar with the predators in the area and be able to identify if one of those had been the thing to chase him.

A photograph of Portlock from the water circa 1949–1951.
A photograph of Portlock from the water circa 1949–1951 (Alaska’s Digital Archives).

1973: A Brush with the Nantiinaq?

According to a blog post by someone identified only as Ed who worked as a paramedic in Anchorage, tales of what happened in Portlock were still going strong. Obviously, take this story with a grain of salt given that it’s not verifiable. 

Sometime in 1990, Ed was sent to pick up a man having a heart attack in the Eagle River jail. The EMTs got the man stabilized, and then Ed talked with him on the way back to the hospital in Anchorage.

According to Ed, they discussed hunting and fishing, and the patient soon revealed that his brother had supposedly been chased by the Nantiinaq. Surprised, Ed told the man of his own brush with the creature back in 1973 when he and some of buddies went hunting near Dogfish Bay Lagoon:

“Sometime around 2 AM, my friend Dennis woke me up by squeezing my leg… Then I heard it. A step. A man was quietly walking outside or our tent, taking very deliberate steps. Not a bear! … The walking, or rather sneaking continued until it half circled our tent and then all was quiet, except for the wind… We were scared shitless, I tell you.”

Ed (Source: Strange State)

Despite the strange interaction, the men continued to stay out in the wilderness, hunting and fishing. Some days later, the same thing happened to them again. 

“I finally dosed off but woke right up when Dennis squeezed my leg. The illuminated hands of my watch showed it was 2:30 AM… I heard the first step, not more than about 10 feet from the back of the tent. Slowly. Then another and another. What ever this was, it sounded like it was walking on two feet. It made the same semi-circle around the tent. When we finally got enough courage to crawled out of the tent and turn the flashlight on, we saw nothing. No tracks, nothing.”

Ed (Source: Strange State)

1980s: Another Possible Nantiinaq Encounter

Ash, the Sugpiaq native, also had a tale to tell of her brother’s supposed encounter with the Nantiinaq:

“My brother went up to the lake… He started smelling something really bad in the bushes, so he opened it, moving the branches… Then he looked in there and there was a man with his hands — in the back way (turned around). It looked like a man, but he was all hairy and he looked really scary. So he and our cousin took off running and didn’t want to be up there. He wasn’t sure if it was a bigfoot, but there was a horrible smell.”

Sally Ash (Source: Anchorage Press)

Portlock’s Alleged Incidents: Fact or Fiction?

Are all these strange tales of death, dismemberment, and odd sightings true? While some are die-hard believers that some Bigfoot-like creature really did haunt the remote Alaskan town, many others are rightfully skeptical. I myself prefer to have hard evidence of something before I believe it, and with a situation like this where all we have now are stories and rumors, it’s hard to suss out fact from fiction. 

Mining cabins from Portlock in 1918.
Mining cabins from Portlock in 1918 (Alaska’s Digital Archives).

Many Deaths Can Be Explained

The podcast Skeptoid looked into the curious tales out of Portlock and could find little to no evidence of all of these so-called suspicious deaths. They rightly pointed out that fishing, mining, and logging are some of the most dangerous industries, so accidental deaths are hardly suspicious. 

In fact, according to Industrial Safety & Hygiene News (ISHN), logging is the #1 most dangerous job in the United States in 2020. Other professions to make the ISHN top-25 list included miners, construction workers, and agricultural workers, all of which would have been prevalent in Portlock during the first half of the 19th century. So, from a logical standpoint, at least some of the “mysterious” deaths are probably explainable by workplace accidents.

Newspaper Reports

Skeptoid also examined newspaper articles from the early days in Portlock and found nothing odd or out-of-place. Only one death from Portlock ever made it into the papers, with a man dying from what was described as “an accident” in 1920. Of course, communication with the remote peninsula town was likely difficult, so it’s also possible that there were other deaths that went unreported.

Furthermore, reported crime in Portlock was almost non-existent. One George W. Henk was arrested by the Prohibition Enforcement Bureau in 1924 for possession of moonshine. However, there were no newspaper reports of murders, and certainly not of mass murder as some of the tales have alluded to.

Possible Explanations

Although there are many stories and tales relating to potential paranormal phenomena in Portlock, there are also many plausible explanations that could explain why the town ended up abandoned that don’t rely on the supernatural. Of course, it’s still interesting to speculate, especially given the long history that Portlock had with mysterious incidents.

The Nantiinaq is Out There

Many people believe all the stories and tales are true and that the Nantiinaq is really out there. This is possible, of course, although there hasn’t been much evidence to back up this idea. Perhaps if the hunters who found the 18-inch prints had either taken a picture of the prints or made a plaster cast, there might be more support for the idea that the Nantiinaq is roaming in the wilderness. Until there is definite proof of the creature though, many will remain skeptical that it even exists.

A beached boat in Portlock in 1918.
A beached boat in Portlock in 1918 (Alaska’s Digital Archives).

Other Large Predators

Many have suggested that when the people of Portlock thought they were seeing the Nantiinaq, they were actually seeing a large bear. Brian Weed, the co-founder of a group called Juneau’s Hidden History, believes that some of the sightings were probably a very large bear:

“Maybe they were seeing an extremely large bear in the area. From a distance of say a hundred feet, your brain has never seen a bear that big, so you put together an idea of what you think you saw. If the bear is standing up say in the 10 to 12-foot range, it may be the biggest bear you’ve ever seen and so you’re brain may not put together that that’s a bear.”

Brian Weed (Source: KINY Radio)

It’s also true that the Alaskan wilderness is host to a number of large animals that could be mistaken for something supernatural. Creatures like moose, elk, mountain lions, wolves, and bears could all possibly be mistaken for the Nantiinaq. 

Additionally, predators like wolves and bears could have been attracted to Portlock because of the leftover salmon corpses from the salmon cannery. It’s entirely possible that some lucky bears were able to get larger than most off the fish carcasses left behind.

A Serial Killer

Some have suggested that perhaps a serial killer was living and operating out of Portlock. Weed said of the possibility:

“We’re not talking about a dozen people. We’re talking like three dozen people. If we have a serial killer in the area at the time, they took out a lot of people in the course of say 20 years.”

Brian Weed (Source: KINY Radio)

While it’s possible that there was a serial killer on the loose in Portlock, there isn’t really any evidence for it. This person would have had to know and plan for when people were going to be in the woods by themselves to strike. And even then, that doesn’t explain the group of people who was allegedly killed. One serial killer would be hard-pressed to take down a group of people without using a firearm. 

Alaska Route 1

Instead of supernatural monsters, some have suggested that the reason Portlock ended up abandoned was because of the completion of Alaska Route 1 in the 1940s. With a connection between Anchorage and smaller towns along the peninsula, boats and ships were no longer needed to forge connections. Towns that were inaccessible by road soon ended up abandoned in favor of other, more connected locations. And, because Portlock was unable to be reached except by ship, it ended up abandoned.

Ash, one of the aforementioned native people who lived around the area, agrees that people likely moved out of the area to find better opportunities for their families:

“People would see Nantiinaq, but that wasn’t the reason why people moved this way to Seldovia and Nanwalek. They moved because of the economy, schools and the church. There really was no killing of people.”

Sally Ash (Source: Midnight Train Podcast)
A view of Portlock from the water around 1949–1951.
A view of Portlock from the water around 1949–1951 (Alaska’s Digital Archives).

What Do I Think Happened?

After examining all the evidence regarding what happened in Portlock, I think that non-paranormal circumstances can explain the vast majority of the deaths, disappearances, and eventual abandonment of the city. 

Ultimately, I think most of the blame for Portlock’s downfall can be explained by the completion of Alaska Route 1. Why live in a city only accessible by boat when you can move 10 miles north and live in a city that’s connected to others by roads? I’m sure that strange occurrences that couldn’t be easily explained also helped push people out of Portlock, but I’d wager that most of them moved to ensure their families had a better life.

Workplace Accidents Aren’t Uncommon

As mentioned before, many of the industries that were prevalent in Portlock — and namely mining and logging — are already statistically dangerous industries to work in. Unfortunately, workplace accidents happen, and I think that explains many of the “strange” deaths in the town.

Disappearances, too, can be explained by the rugged and untamed Alaskan wilderness. For example, the National Park Service Search and Rescue Dashboard reported that in 2017 alone, there were 3,453 reported missing missions and 182 deaths. It doesn’t seem that extraordinary to speculate that some of these missing people from Portlock wandered off into the wilderness and never came back due to accidents, exposure, or predators.

But What About the Nantiinaq?

I consider myself more of a skeptic than a believer in most reports of paranormal activity. The same is true for the case of Portlock. That being said, if there is somewhere that a Bigfoot-like creature would live, I could see it being in the Pacific Northwest. After all, scientists discover new animals and plants all the time — an average of 18,000 new plant and animal species annually. So, is it possible that a Bigfoot-like creature is roaming the Alaskan wilderness? Of course! However, thus far, we haven’t found any concrete evidence of it.


Ultimately, while the tales of odd circumstances, strange deaths, and a half-man, half-ape terrorizing residents make for an intriguing tale, I think the truth of what happened in Porlock is much more banal. Most of the incidents can be explained, either by unfortunate accidents, predator attacks, or misidentified wildlife. 

Still, the legend of what happened in Portlock lives on, with plenty of modern media exploring all possibilities — paranormal or otherwise.

Portlock, AK in the Media

There have been several recent television shows and documentaries released regarding the tale of Portlock and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the town’s abandonment.

2019: History Channel Documentary

In 2019, a History Channel documentary was released called In Search of the Port Chatham Hairy Man, covering the case of what happened in Portlock.

2020: The Alaska Triangle Episode

In 2020, Travel Channel’s Alaska Triangle premiered an episode called “The Hairyman of Port Chatham” which discussed the strange deaths in Portlock.

2021: Discovery Plus TV Series

In 2021, a new series called Alaskan Killer Bigfoot aired on Discovery Plus, again attempting to find out what really happened in Portlock.

A helicopter landing on a beach in Portlock from the series Alaskan Killer Bigfoot.
A helicopter landing on a beach in Portlock from the series Alaskan Killer Bigfoot (Discovery Plus).

Cold Case Questions

  • What do you think happened in Portlock?
  • Is there a natural explanation for why the town was depopulated, or did something supernatural occur?
  • Will this case ever be definitively solved?

Tell me your thoughts about this case in the comments below!

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