An intriguing e-mail hit Bush Alaska in May. In it, a hunter from Marshall recounted how he found a boy alleged to have been abducted by the ircenrraat.
Ircenrraat (singular: ircenrraq; say "irr-chin-hhak" with a harsh hh and you're getting close) are a recurring theme in traditional Yup'ik teachings and legends, "little people" who dwell in the tundra, usually underground. They disorient, discomfort and trap unwary humans.
City folk usually dismiss ircenrraat as superstition. Those who have lived in Yup'ik country for any period of time tend to be a little more inclined to listen. For one thing, the stories are persistent and often come from respectable observers. For another, when you're by yourself in the middle of nowhere, things happen that are hard to explain.
For instance, a few years back, on a very remote solo kayak trip in the lower Yukon region, I swear I heard rocks tossed in my direction by unseen hands or whatever. Big rocks. Whoosh. Plunk. Weird. A little scary -- and not particularly on target, assuming they were trying to hit me. A close inspection of the presumed point of origin showed no evidence of anything. There was nowhere for anything bigger than a squirrel to hide. I can't say it was an ircenrraaq, but neither can I absolutely refute those who suggest it was.
Yup'ik descriptions of the "little people" resemble those in widespread stories shared by many cultures around the world. A conference on such creatures is held every year in Twisp, Wash.
Though accounts of sightings or of inexplicable events attributed to ircenrraat are common in Western Alaska, they seldom receive wide circulation outside the area.
The Internet age changed that.
I called Nick Andrew Jr. in Marshall, whose e-mail started the latest excitement. He intended it as a private message to a family member, he said, and was a little disconcerted that it got forwarded far and wide.
He confirmed the details, however, and gave me permission to use his name, requesting that I keep other names out of print.
Andrew was on a snowmachine hunting birds the evening of May 7, some distance out of town -- three hours away if you had to walk it, he estimated. Preparing to return home, he decided to check a different location on a hunch.
"Stopping to look, I saw a small boy all alone in middle of the marsh," he said.
He recognized the child as a boy from the village. "I asked him where's his dad or hunting partners? I grilled him with questions of who he was with and if he was alone. He was scared and had been crying. All his answers were 'I don't know.' "
He described the boy as "disoriented, dazed, confused and scared" with "no concept of time. He did not appear tired, nor was he hungry or thirsty."
But the lad was lucky, it seems. He was found in a spot frequented by large tundra brown bears.
Andrew took the boy home, noting that there were no footprints in the spring snow to indicate anyone had walked into the area. He found that puzzling. He counted at least 10 other snowmachiners in the neighborhood, none of whom had spotted the boy.
After getting the boy back to the village, he left his VHS radio on overnight, in case some other hunter reported a missing child. No one did.
"It wasn't until the next day that the story started emerging that he'd had what you'd call an out-of-the-ordinary experience," he told me. "He'd had some missing time, just like people who report being abducted by UFOs."
The boy said he was "brought into" Pilcher Mountain, a site often associated with ircenrraat encounters. There, he was questioned and saw other "little beings."
"He said he made contact with a little girl abducted over 40 years ago," Andrew said. "She told him who she was and she wanted help."
After that the ircenrraat decided to release the boy. "And that's when he came to, I guess, a few minutes before I found him."
Andrew maintained calm perspective about the experience. "Is this kid telling the truth?" he said, leaving the answer open-ended.
Responses to the e-mail, by the time it was forwarded to me, treated the news with gravity. "Ladies, please share with your husband/partners," read one forwarder. "Please tell your children about Ircinraqs (sic) and their deceptiveness," said another. "Thank God (he) found this little boy alive."
If you have an experience with ircenrraat that you wouldn't mind sharing, e-mail email@example.com. Confidentiality will be observed and nothing will be used without permission.