ANCHORAGE, Alaska — He's as big as Bigfoot, not so abominable as the Snowman and as elusive as Sasquatch. He's Alaska's Hairy Man, and a statewide group of newspapers is on his legendary trail.
"I think there are very few people who've actually sighted Hairy Man, but there are plenty of stories," said Chris Casati, editor of the Anchorage-based Alaska Newspapers.
The group operates seven rural weeklies, from Cordova to Bethel to Kotzebue, with a combined circulation of 17,000. The papers have started asking readers to send in stories about Hairy Man, a folklorish creature who is said to inhabit the vast tundra of southwest Alaska.
"People here really do believe it and I respect that," said James MacPherson, editor of Bethel's weekly newspaper, the Tundra Drums.
Last month, three schoolteachers raised havoc in remote Quinhagak by tramping around in the snow with foot-shaped pieces of plywood to make fake Hairy Man tracks.
Worried calls poured in to police. One officer called it "a bad joke." The teachers apologized and visited classrooms to show off the wooden feet and assure children that there was nothing to fear.
Days later, some parents were still asking for a police escort when their children went from house to house.
Bethel storyteller John Active, a Yupik Eskimo, says he knows all about Hairy Man.
"He's very tall, taller than a 9- or 10-foot-tall spruce tree. When he was standing, his hands could touch the ground next to his feet. He grew hair to keep warm," Active said.
Hairy Man is more curious than predatory but so horrendous-looking, Active says, that people run off in fright.
Active says Hairy Man's Eskimo name, Arulataq, means a creature that makes a bellowing cry.
"Years ago," he said, "during World War II, there was an air raid siren in the middle of town. When it would go off, the old natives would say that is the sound the creature made.
"It was scary."
Alaska anthropologists say the theme of the big-footed hermit is universal--a regional equivalent of such urban tales as the vanishing hitchhiker.
Phyllis Morrow, a Fairbanks cultural anthropologist who has studied the indigenous people of southwest Alaska for 15 years, says other village legends deal with people who get lost and become wild. One story talks about a boy who ran away long ago and is glimpsed today through his shaggy hair.