Did giants roam Canada's Northwest Territories — or do they still?

A pair of photographs are stirring up the folklore pot in the Northwest Territories — or perhaps more accurately, leaving a big impression.

Given its large expanse and low population, there's plenty of room for folklore in the Northwest Territories

Andrew Paul Beaverho took this shot while flying between Whati and Yellowknife. (Andrew Paul Beaverho)

A pair of photographs are stirring the folklore pot in the Northwest Territories — or perhaps more accurately, leaving a big impression.

Both photos, sent to CBC North, show lakes that resemble gigantic footprints.

"Godzilla exist!" Eric James wrote on CBC North's Facebook page, under the photo of a lake with the unmistakeable shape of three-toed foot.

The photo was sent in by Kailie Letendre, who snapped it on on her way up to Inuvik.

Another, shared more than 250 times, shows another foot-like lake formation — with islands and trees at the top forming the toes. The aerial shot was taken by Andrew Paul Beaverho between Whati and Yellowknife.

"It's Yamoria's footprint from when he fought the giant beavers!" Keith Shergold commented on CBC North's Facebook page.

Kailie Letendre snapped this shot from the window of a plane on her way to Inuvik. (Kailie Letendre)

While many comments are made for amusement, they are steeped in lore that goes back millennia and form the rich culture of the land's first inhabitants.

"A lot of this is still revered and adhered to. People use these stories and legends to guide their lives," said Alestine Andre, heritage researcher with the Gwich'in Tribal Council.

"Some are very serious, but some of them are for entertainment as well. It's a very rich description of how things used to be and an explanation for how our land was shaped."

The Northwest Territories is nearly 1.2 million square kilometres with a topography of Precambrian volcanic rock heaved into mountains and carved into valleys, along with untold lakes, rivers, turbulent waterfalls, islands and a tapestry of trees.

The Nahanni Valley, west of Yellowknife, is many worlds unto itself. Despite the harsh conditions in winter, the valley contains tropic areas with hot springs, lush plants and sweltering whirpools in an area known as Hell's Gate.

Then there's Great Slave Lake, which is too deep to know what really lurks at its dark base. The official estimate is that the deepest lake in North America — the sixth deepest on Earth — goes down 614 metres but a University of California researcher claims there are trenches that reach even farther down.

For all of its breadth, the N.W.T. is populated by just 41,462 people, according to the most recent Census.

That leaves an extensive reach of uninhabited space — and room for plenty of legends.

The earliest of days was a time when people and animals were equals and giant creatures wandered, and it was during these days that many features of the modern landscape were created, according to Andre, ​co-author of the book, Gwichya Gwich'in Googwandak: The History and Stories of the Gwichya Gwich'in, As Told by The Elders of Tsiigehtshik .​

"These marks and tracks show that the animals who made them must have been of enormous size. Mostly these were animals that everybody knew — beaver, fish, or wolverine — but they were bigger than any that the people had ever seen, and they lived much longer," the book states.

"These giant spirit animals, chijuudiee, have inhabited the land since the earliest days."

A still image from a video about the legend of Yamoria and the giant wolverine. The animation is based on paintings by Archie Beaulieu. (Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre/Cogent/Benger Productions)

Ch'ii choo's thunderous steps

One of the greatest legends is that of a great traveller and warrior known by many names, depending on the region and tribe. The the Gwich'in call him Atachuukaii, while he is Yamoria for the Dene of North Slavey and Zhamba Deja for the Dene of South Slavey.

The Chipewyan call him Hachoghe while the Tlicho and Yellowknives Dene have named him Yamozha.

By all, he is known as a hero.

The Gwichya Gwich'in Googwandak says Atachuukaii encountered the man-eating giant Ch'ii choo near present-day Fort Yukon. The giant chased Atachuukaii across the land and all the way up the Mackenzie River.

The chase lasted a long time and Ch'ii choo's thunderous steps made indentations in the ground, creating six big lakes between Norman Wells and Fort Good Hope.

Giant beavers, wolverines

According to the Dene, their ancient land Denendeh, was terrorized by giant beavers that would attack people. 

Yamoria chased them to the northwest corner of present-day Saskatchewan, where during the struggle, one beaver kicked away all the trees, creating the Athabasca sand dunes. After killing another, Yamoria tossed part of the empty dam into the Athabasca River, where it is now an island.

Yamoria also saved people from two giant wolverines, who used a medicine power to control their minds and entrap them before devouring them. Yamoria tricked the adult wolverines in order to get close, then killed them.

He then squeezed the young wolverines, shrinking them to the size the animals are today — an animal small in body but with the power of a giant.

Some other legends from the Gwichya Gwich'in Googwandak include:

  • Gyuu dazhoo

A giant hairy worm, or snake, that came out of the ocean and travelled up the Mackenzie River and into the Peel River. He wanted to go up into the mountains, so he swallowed big rocks as he moved along, burrowing out the shape that is now the Snake River. Gyuu dazhoo still lives in the area, but it has not been sighted for so long now that nobody is quite sure whether it actually lives in the mountains near the headwater of the Snake River, or in a lake beside the river.

  • Nehtruh tshì'

This is the name of an area on the bank of Tsiigehnjik, just downstream from Martin zheh, which is very distinct from its surroundings. The land here looks as if it has been torn apart. It is said to be the work of a giant wolverine that came out of a nearby lake. He broke up the hills and big boulders while heading underground.

  • Chijuudiee

Nobody knows what these giants looked like or who they were, but the marks they left were so large and unusual that they could not have been made by a normal-sized being. One such chijuudiee must once have come out of a little lake southwest of K'eeghee chuudlaii, where it created a wide trench through the trees.

More beasts whose stories persist in the Northwest Territories include:

  • Nàhgą

The Tlicho sasquatch known for stealing people from bush camps. It is said to have powerful magic that helps it lure people who are then never seen again.

  • Waheela

Described as a creature resembling a wolf or wolf-bear hybrid. It is said to stand four to five feet tall at the shoulders, with a wide head, enormous body, and blazing white fur. Various legends describe it as an evil spirit with supernatural powers and a penchant for removing people's heads.

It is said to reside in the Nahanni Valley, which has earned the nicknames Valley of Headless Men, Deadmen Valley, and Headless Range.

The decapitated bodies of prospecting brothers Willie and Frank McLeod were found along the Nahanni River in 1909, while Swiss prospector Martin Jorgenson was found in the same condition in 1917, followed in 1945 by a miner from Ontario, who was headless and still in his sleeping bag.

'Tip of the iceberg'

These stories are "just touching the tip of the iceberg because there's just so much," said Andre. "And this is just on the land — we also have stories about the sky.

"People are still very respectful of the teaching of our ancestors so we still have a great deal of respect for these stories and the information. And I'm only talking about the Gwich'in area — you go into the Sahtu, you go into Behchoko and all that area, and also south of [Great Slave] lake and around there.

"Aboriginal culture is just so rich."

So is there still a chance some of those legendary beings still exist, somewhere in the vast hinterland of the Northwest Territories?

"You could think that, yeah," said Andre.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.