Wormwood Tales By Dr. Abner Mality
“It’s a fancy place that old-timers dream about. … Some said the “valley was full of gold and some said it was hot as hell owing to the warm springs. … It had a wicked name too, for at least a dozen folks went in and never came out’ … Indians said it was the home of devils.”
The above quote comes courtesy of famous author John Buchan, who wrote the mystery classic “The 39 Steps”. It sums up very well the enigma of the place we will be visiting today.The area is known on maps as the Nahanni Valley…but in legend, it has the much more ominous name of “Headless Valley”. It did not acquire that name through random chance.
Are there any more lost worlds left to discover in our modern world? Very few, that’s for sure, but in North America, not too many places are better qualified for that description than the Nahanni Valley. It is an incredibly beautiful and rugged location…and absolutely unreachable by conventional means. Even today, the only real access to it comes through single-engine “bush planes” or boat. It is located in Canada’s Northwest Territories, near the border with Alaska and at the southern terminus of the Mackenzie Mountains.
The Nahanni Valley is breath-taking. It is a gorge carved by the wild Nahanni River and contains many wonders such as huge geysers, sulphur springs and an immense waterfall that is twice the size of Niagara Falls. Perhaps it was the large number of geysers and “hot spots” in the Valley that gave rise to stories of it concealing a “lost world” of prehistoric creatures that stayed perpetually warm and snow-free. Such tales have circulated since the days of the earliest explorers. At this point, it seems fair to say that the Nahanni is no actual “lost world” full of wooly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers and tropical forests. Satelitte imaging would have picked up such features by now.
But the Valley may indeed be home to “forgotten” species…including primitive humanoids. Those same “beast-men” might be responsible for giving the Headless Valley its gruesome nickname. They are known as the Nuk-luk and we will be talking about them more in just a bit. But first, let’s look at some of the historical background of the Nahanni.
The aboriginal natives have many stories and legends of the Valley. They have always avoided traveling there even when it would have been advantageous to do so. They feared the spirit creatures known as the Waheela (more about them later as well) and considered it the abode of evil gods. One especially feared tribe of Indians known as the Naha frequented the area around the Nahanni. They were notorious for vicious slave raids on nearby tribes like the Dene and the Dogrib. Yet sometime around the early 19th century, before more than just a handful of white explorers even knew of Headless Valley, the entire Naha tribe simply disappeared. Except for just a few artifacts and the oral traditions of other tribes, there was nothing to show that the Naha ever existed. The disappearance of this fierce band of natives remains one of the most enduring historical mysteries of Northwest Canada.
As Europeans began to trickle into the remote area in search of gold and valuable furs, more stories were spread. Some of them claimed that the Nahanni Valley was bursting at the seams with gold…nuggets littered the ground and the water was almost yellow with it. These were the days when “gold fever” burned hot and bright across the arctic. Prospectors and fortune hunters poured into the wilds of Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories in search of riches. But the Nahanni was just too wild, too remote, too haunted by dire legends. It was never the site for the huge explosion in population that other Arctic havens had. But that didn’t mean there weren’t men brave enough risk their lives for gold.
And now we come to the real story behind the name of “Headless Valley”.
In 1908, as the rest of the Western Arctic was grudgingly giving way to civilization, the Nahanni Valley was still virtually untouched. But the ongoing stories of gold gave two brothers by the name of Willie and Frank McLeod enough courage to venture into the heart of the valley. The other legends, of “spirit beasts” and “devil men”, they chose to ignore. The brothers loaded all their supplies into canoes and paddled into the valley. They were never seen alive again.
The McLeod brothers’ bodies were eventually found. But their heads never were. The men had been brutally decapitated with what seemed to be a single, strong stroke. Other prospectors had disappeared in the valley over the previous 50 years, never to be found. The McLeods would not be the last to meet this fate, either.
Martin Jorgenson, a prospector from Switzerland, was found headless in 1917. By this time, the Nahanni had acquired its grim nickname of “Headless Valley”. Strange deaths and disappearances continued to occur. In 1945, another miner from Ontario was found in his sleeping bag…his head missing. None of the heads lost in these killings were ever recovered. Not everyone who ventured into the Valley met this gruesome fate, but the amount of casualties was disproportionate. There were other mysterious deaths that did not involve decapitation. In one notable case, the body of a prospector was found sitting at his camp, frozen solid.
Explanations were sought. Some thought maybe a “mad trapper” or hermit was running around the Nahanni. While it is not impossible, it’s hard to believe the same lunatic was killing people in the 1950’s that decapitated the McLeod brothers in 1908. Some said that it was the remnants of the vanished Naha tribe lurking in the vast reachs of the Nahanni that did the killing. Although though why the formerly powerful tribe just vanished suddenly in the 19th century was never answered.
The Dene tribe and other natives of the area had their own idea of what killed the men. They knew it was the “nuk luk” keeping intruders out of their home the only way they knew how, the only way they always had…with murderous violence. “Nuk luk” is a word that translates as “man of the bush”. The Inuit, the Dogrib, the Dene and all the Arctic tribes knew of the nuk luk and feared them. At one time, they roamed the whole of the Arctic circle, but were now believed to have retreated to the remote security of the Nahanni Valley.
And what exactly is a “nuk luk”? One may first conjure up images of Sasquatch or some other giant hairy hominid, but that impression would not be correct. Those who have seen the nuk luk describe them more as primitive, hairy men…much more resembling Neanderthals than the more ape-like Sasquatch. The nuk luk were known to use weapons and even wear clothes. And they had always been at war with “true men”.
Sightings of these savage beings by European men are very rare but not entirely unknown. In 1964, a trapper named John Baptist and several companions were in the Nahanni when they encountered something more advanced than an ape but not quite a man. Standing about five feet tall, the nuk luk had a long bushy hair and beard. The chest and back hair was extremely thick but not so much on arms and legs. It wore a simple wrapping made of moose skin and carried a very crude stone club. Baptist and his associates tracked the creature into some of the most remote and rugged areas of the valley before they could go no further. During the entire time, they heard strange whistling calls around them. According to the Dene, the whistling was how the nuk luk communicated when they were on the hunt. Considering the number of men who were found headless or who disappeared completely in the valley, Baptist can consider himself extremely lucky to have escaped the Nahanni unscathed.
The descriptions of the nuk luk greatly resemble those given for the almas, the wildmen of the Russian and Mongolian wilds. The notable difference is that the nuk luk have a very sinister reputation, whereas the almas…and hairy hominids in general…are generally described as non-threatening. The prevailing theory of the almas is that they are relict populations of Neanderthals hanging on in remote areas, fearful of contact with homo sapiens. Certainly, the Nahanni Valley is as remote as anywhere in the world, but due to its unique properties, it would make a better home for a lost tribe of Neanderthals than just about anywhere else.
There have also been sightings and tales of a mysterious wolf-like creature known as the waheela in the Nahanni Valley. As with the nuk luk, the natives of the area have had legends of the waheela for centuries. They are said to be evil spirits that guard the land from human intruders. We could chalk the legends up just to aboriginal superstition if it wasn’t for two things: one, the waheela have been seen by non-natives who have no knowledge of the legends and two, they are very likely based on an actual animal believed to have gone extinct in the relatively near past.
What is a waheela? They are said to be wolf-like, especially in their facial features, but much larger, with a powerful, stocky build more similar to a grizzly bear. Their legs are thick and massive but quite short and their upper back hunched. The waheela are almost always described as having light or white fur. They are solitary animals, unlike wolves, and extremely aggressive. The natives attributed a vast amount of mystical powers to the creatures, including the ability to appear and disappear at will.
Stories of the waheela were not confined strictly to the Nahanni Valley. As far away as Greenland, arctic peoples described such animals. But reports of them in the Valley were particularly numerous. Some of the early trappers who explored the Nahanni (and managed to keep their heads) reported running into odd creatures like a cross between a bear and wolf. Such reports were made into the 1970’s. Many of them were catalogued by the renowned cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson.
Sanderson believed that the waheelas were surviving members of a type of large carnivore called an amphicyonid. The amphicyonids had characteristics of both dogs and bears and were known to have died out about five million years ago. But what if a relict population of them survived in the Nahanni? It was known to be in their range and the area is perfect to shelter a small population of amphicyonids from the ravages of man.
What indeed if the Nahanni Valley is a kind of “lost world”…a haven for survivors of an earlier time? The nuk luk and the waheela both could have found a refuge there. And perhaps if they are not there any longer, they may have both survived far longer than conventional science would have us believe. The area still remains so remote that they may linger yet…or there might be other “survivors”.
The nuk luk and the waheela are the most well-known examples of the Nahanni’s mysteries but not the only ones. There are also reports of “spirit lights” seen in the area…which have given rise to speculation that the area might even be a UFO base! Some of the wilder theories have the Valley hiding an entrance to the “Hollow Earth”, where a hidden situation exists.
Whether one believes in the strangeness or not, all who visit the Headless Valley remark upon the lonely, disquieting feeling they get wandering its magnificent vastness. Such a place almost commands your mind to wander strange paths.
Estimates say 44 people have been known to have either disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances in the Nahanni Valley. It would be a foolish person indeed who didn’t keep that in mind when visiting there. You wouldn’t want to lose your head…literally!
This is Dr. Abner Mality, turning out the lights…