Lying out off the southern coast of Alaska is the Kodiak Archipelago, a group of pristine forested islands surrounded by gray, storm lashed frigid seas. Among these islands is one at the extreme southern end, shaped sort of like a webbed duck’s foot, called Chirikof Island, which is itself a presently uninhabited treeless expanse of 33,000 acres of desolate grassland, populated by little more than ground squirrels, introduced foxes brought here for the purpose of fox farming, and a herd of feral cattle brought here in 1867 by the Alaska Commercial Company. Although once a base of operations for fox farming and holding a colony of settlers living a sustenance life, the village would later be abandoned in the late 19th century, after which it would be the location of a beef farming operation from 1925 to as late as the 1980s, which was inevitably doomed due to shipwrecks, plane crashes, unruly feral cattle, unfulfilled contracts, and stringy, inedible meat, which all conspired to make the operation extremely unprofitable and it was abandoned. The island is also known for its stories of the paranormal, and has acquired quite the reputation for being a forsaken cursed place.
The main ghost stories surrounding this remote, desolate place revolve around an alleged Russian penal colony that supposedly once existed here. The author and explorer Henry Wood Elliott first wrote of this place in his book Our Arctic Province: Alaska and the Seal Islands, describing a cruel and treacherous place where Russian Czars sent the worst of the worst criminals and exiles to wallow in filthy conditions. Although he was accused of perhaps making much of this up, Elliot was not the only person to make mention of the notorious penal colony here, and in 1908 a seasoned skipper by the name of Captain E.L. West would also write of this spooky place, saying:
There is one island in Alaskan waters on which the foot of man, white or red, is never placed. Chirikof Island, south of the Semedi Group, is inhabited beyond doubt by the spirits of former Russian exiles, and they will permit no intrusion of their haunts by earthly inhabitants. The Aleut Indians, who are the most intelligent of their race, realize this fact, and neither love nor money can induce them to step foot on the island or go near it in their canoes or boats. Years ago, before Alaska was purchased, Russia made use of the island as a prison for her criminal exiles. Murderers, thieves and other convicts of the worse class were shipped there under life sentences. And as the exiles were there for life, there was no incentive to keep them alive.
According to West, the convicts were ruthlessly tortured and often executed for no reason, sometimes in the cruelest of ways, such as being buried alive or being starved to death. The prisoners were always weighed down with heavy balls and chains around their ankles, and it was apparently all quite the hell on earth. It is perhaps no wonder that the place would gain a reputation as being haunted, with various skippers passing the island to hear the ghostly wails and screams of these long dead prisoners, as well as the loud clinking of chains, and those brave few who dared to venture ashore would often find the macabre scene of skeletons of the prisoners strewn about. West would say:
On still nights the pitiful shrieks and cries of anguish from the dying men tortured the ocean air for miles around. A few white men have had the temerity to set foot on the bleak shores of Chirikof, but they quickly left there with shattered nerves, vowing never to return. They bring skeletons of men with chain and ball bound to the ankle and wrist bones. Other skeletons are to be found there with the ribs broken… others with the skull, forehead or jaws crushed into an indistinguishable mass. There are on every hand evidence of the terrible brutality of the fiendish keepers to the helpless men in their charge– some of them too horrible to mention.
West would give a very spooky account that he had heard from an old Scottish man by the name of Philip Graham, who went to Chirikof Island to build a cabin and would soon learn to regret it. Graham claimed that when he was on the island, he was tormented every night by the sounds of screams, stomping feet, the rattle of chains, the noise of earth being shoveled, and the sickening sound of flesh being pounded and smacked by heavy objects in gruesome thuds. He would claim that one night he had dared to venture outside to look around, when he saw a ghostly procession of skeletons marching along in the moonlight, a terrifying sight that made him rarely venture out from the confines of his crude cabin. He eventually abandoned the cabin altogether and never went back, apparently leaving all of his possessions behind to go swimming out into the freezing sea to swim towards a passing ship, deliriously ranting about screaming skeleton ghosts. Others who have passed the island have also claimed to have seen spectral skeletons roaming about on shore, as well as mysterious orbs of light in the dark, and there have been an inordinate number of shipwrecks and plane crashes in the area, which along with the fact that no one has ever been able to stay here for long has led to the idea that the island is not only haunted, but cursed as well. Then there are the stories of the feral cattle here acting almost like zombie killing machines.
There have long been tales that the cows here are rather odd, to say the least. They not only don’t herd normally, but they are often seen swimming out into the water and will aggressively attack visitors to the island. They also show an unsettling apparent ability to communicate and coordinate with each other, leading to the idea that the cattle are actually possessed by some supernatural force. A strange account was given in the 1930s by a woman named Kay Barker, who visited the island with her friend Mesha and said:
Mesha and I had gone to the island to take pictures. We soon spotted a small herd but they ran as we approached. However, we found they had gone for the ‘army’, which advanced in charge of a big white bull… I was busy taking pictures as they got near and circled around us. Suddenly, as though at a signal from the white bull, they charged. Mesha grabbed me by the arm and we ran to the shore where we had a boat waiting.
According to Barker, the mad, bloodthirsty cows actually swam out into the water and tried to chase their boat as they escaped. These “Hell Cows” might be one of the reasons for why a good number of people who have ventured to the island have disappeared without a trace. What is with this place? Is there some paranormal force permeating this island or is this all just spooky rumors and urban legend cropping up around a decidedly creepy and isolated spot? The mystery remains, and for now that cold, windswept island lurks out there on the periphery, drawing around it dark legends and tales we may never be able to peer through.