Americans love to talk about “their” version of the LochNess Monster. “Champ”, however, holds dual citizenship; Lake Champlain is a 125-mile (201 km)-long lake that is shared by New York, Vermont and Quebec,Canada.
There have been at least 300 reported unexplained sightings of Champ in modern history. Many sources report an account of a creature in Lake Champlain given in 1609 by Frenchexplorer Samuel de Champlain, the lake's namesake, who is supposed to have spotted the creature as he was fighting the Iroquois on the bank of the lake. This claim has been traced by historians to actually have occurred in the St.Lawrence estuary however.
Lake Champlain began roughly 10,000 years ago when an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean, the Champlain Sea, was transformed by receding glaciers into an inland, fresh-water body. The Lake is 120 miles long, 400 feet deep in places and home to a diverse population of birds and aquatic life which wouldbe more than enough to sustain the belly of a large beast. However, the maximum for all of Missiquoi Bayand for the eastern edge of Maquam Bay, where many of the sightings take place,is only fourteen feet. There are 6rivers which flow into Lake Champlain and it was once a part of the Great Lakes, bringing the number of Great Lakes up to 6. The Great Lake status was removed 3 weeks later due to funding disagreements.
Experts say it would take at least 50 mature Champs to havea breeding population in the Lake, and 500 to keep the species alive in thelong term. While the numbers are daunting, Lake Champlain does provide an idealhabitat for such a creature.
Native Americans, who inhabited the region long before theEuropeans arrived, had tales of a ‘horned serpent’ that lived in LakeChamplain’s waters. There were at least three tribes in the region: Abnaki,Algonquin, and Iroquois. The Abnaki’s name for Lake Champlain’s serpent wasTatoskok, and it was described as having horn-like protuberances from its head.“The History of Eastern Vermont”, written in 1858, includes an illustration byBenjamin H. Hall titled “Indian Rock.” His writings include the followingdescription, “…in the town of Brattleboro is situated the Indian Rock. It’slocation is about one hundred rods west of the point of junction of theWantastiquet and Connecticut rivers ….Of the ten figures here presented, sixare supposed to designate birds, two bear a resemblance to snakes, one is notunlike a dog or a wolf and one conveys no idea either of bird, beast, orreptile.” The creature, which Mr. Hallcould not name, is now thought to represent Champ or Tatoskok.
A report in the Plattsburgh Republican dated July 24, 1819,titled "Cape Ann Serpent on Lake Champlain", gives the account of a"Capt. Crum" sighting an enormous serpentine monster. Also in 1819, in Port Henry, NY, a railroadcrew reported to have spotted a “head of an enormous serpent sticking out ofthe water and approaching them from the opposite shore.” Near the time of this sighting, farmers nearbyclaimed to have missing livestock, with drag marks leading to the shore. Around 1880, hunters claimed they had killedChamp with a rifle, stating that blood spurted from the monster’s head and thatthe beast sank and never resurfaced. In 1873 and 1887, showman P. T. Barnumoffered huge rewards for the monster—dead or alive-- so that he could includeit in his World’s Fair Show. The first officialreported sighting came in 1883 when Sheriff Nathan H. Mooney claimed that hehad seen a “…gigantic water serpent about 50 yards away” from shore. He reported“round white spots inside its mouth” and that “the creature appeared to beabout 25 to 30 feet in length”. After Mooneywent public with his sighting, many eyewitnesses came forward with their ownaccounts. This report predates thepublic Loch Ness controversy by 50 years.
In 1977, amateur photographer Sandra Mansi released aphotograph that appeared to show a plesiosaur-like body and neck sticking outof the lake. The offshore depth atMansi’s estimated sighting distance of 150 feet is twelve feet or less. Thisphotograph garnered much attention from the media, appearing in the New YorkTimes and Time magazine in June and July, 1981. Mansi showed the photo toJoseph W. Zarzynski who is the founder of Lake Champlain Phenomena Investigationand has stated that there is enough "impressive data" on Champ tosupport belief in its existence. Zarzynski and Jim Kennard of RochesterEngineering Laboratories have used high-tech sonar to search for Champ, and onJune 3, 1979, they took readings indicating the presence of a 10 to 15 footlong moving object in the waters beneath them.
A recording of echolocation from within the lake by theFauna Communications Research Institute in 2003, working as part of a DiscoveryChannel program, concluded that the sounds they recorded are similar to that ofa Beluga Whale or perhaps an Orca, but not of a known animal, and no dolphin orwhale species have been previously known to live in the lake.
Champ reportedly can be seen in a video taken by fishermenDick Affolter and his stepson Pete Bodette in the summer of 2005. The images may be interpreted either as a headand neck of a plesiosaur-like animal and even an open mouth in one frame and aclosed mouth in another; or as a fish or eel. Two retired FBI forensic imageanalysts reviewed the tape and said it appears authentic and unmanipulated. I was unable to locate the actual footage, but this photo is taken from the film.
Debunkers of the Champ monster cite several reasonableoptions for what witnesses report. Theysuggest several Champ sightings could possibly be explained as deliberate hoaxes, presumably for money, or fame. Usually,they say, it involves misidentifications of common animals. Otters, beavers,diving birds, and large fish (such as Eels and Lake Sturgeon) live in the lake. There are sturgeon (currently endangered) in Lake Champlain that can grow to great lengths. They are a very old, almost prehistoric fish with a scale-less body that is supported by a partially cartilaginous skeleton along with rows of scutes, bony external plates or scales like on the shell of a turtle or the skin of a crocodile. The single dorsal fin, running along itsspine, would match many descriptions of Champ, although its sharp, shark-like tail would not. One Tom Forrest witnessed a friend hook a Longnose Gar that—Forrest insists—was "monster” sized. It measured approximately 6 feet 4 inches long and weighed some 40-50 pounds. Forrest has dubbed it, appropriately,“Gar-gantua”.
Two or more large gar, sturgeon, or other fish could easilyappear as a single multi-humped monster. Ronald Binns tells of a young man who spied a 50-foot sea serpent offEngland’s Brighton beach in 1857. Theman later became a marine biologist and changed his opinion, believing he hadactually seen several dolphins “swimming in line.” Multiple fish can appear as a single monster.Walter and Sandi Tappan videotaped a “series of small humps” they believe was alarge creature. The video was included on a September 23, 1992, episode ofNBC’s Unsolved Mysteries. CryptozoologistJohn Kirk believes the video shows “fish feeding near the surface.”
|Longnose gar |
© Doug Perrine
Witness descriptions of Champ with horns, “moose-likeantlers,” or a head “like a horse” are dismissed as other wildlifepossibilities. Allowing for overestimation of length—which is especially easyto do if there is a wake—swimming deer could be the explanation. Additionally, otters are abundant in theregion and enjoy “chasing each other” and “following the leader” and areespecially prone to creating the many hump illusion. Otters have been mistaken for monsterselsewhere, including Loch Arkaig and Loch Ness. The Northern River Otter (Lutra canadensis) measures up to 52 incheslong, and is dark brown with a lighter, grayish throat and belly. Whiletreading water with its hind paws, it can extend its head and long neck out ofthe water, much resembling a plesiosaur.
Others believe that Champ sightings could easily beexplained by nonliving phenomena, such as logs, waves, or rotting vegetation. According to Joe Nickell, there are fewexplanations for how a giant creature could swim, let alone hide, in suchshallow water. It has been suggested that the object in the Mansi photographcould be a rising tree; rotting trees often gather gas in the process of decay,and sometimes rise to the water's surface very quickly. An effect called aseiche—may help to produce just such sightings. A seiche is a great underwaterwave that sloshes back and forth, even though the lake’s surface appearssmooth. The sloshing may dislodge debris from the bottom that rise to thesurface. Still other possibilities forChamp (and many purported lake monsters elsewhere) include wind slicks and boatwakes. A deckhand on the Valcour ferry (out of Burlington, Vermont) claims thatChamp reports had declined in the last fifteen years or so with the cessationof large traffic on the lake. A barge’s wake often traveled across the lake, hesaid, mystifying anyone who might encounter it without seeing its cause.
Button Bay State Park Naturalist Laura Hollowell believes“People have seen otters and mink swimming in the lake and think they've seenChamp.” She said she is “surprised at what unreliable reporters people can bein terms of wildlife sightings,” adding, “I don't believe that there are anylarge, unidentified animals in Lake Champlain.”
Believers in Champ often cite various examples of large andexotic creatures as possible be candidates for Champ. Many people theorize that Champ is asurviving Plesiosaur, an extinct Sauropterygian reptile that lived during theMesozoic Era and died out around 65.5 million years ago. Many believe thatplesiosaurs might have been cold-blooded, so it would be extremely difficultfor them to survive in the waters of Lake Champlain. Additionally, new studies have shown that theneck anatomy of plesiosaurs probably prevented them from raising their headsand necks up out of the water. British cryptozoologist Dr. Karl P.N. Shuker,defends this theory by hypothesizing that a surviving plesiosaur might possiblyhave evolved an ability to tolerate colder temperatures, as well as a differentneck structure.
Cryptozoologist Roy P. Mackal is of the opinion that most lake monstersightings around the world can be explained as sightings of survivingZeuglodons or Basilosaurs. These werelarge, serpentine whales that lived during the Eocene Epoch. The shape of theirbodies appears to fit most descriptions of Champ. Fossils of zeuglodons havebeen found a few miles from Lake Champlain in Charlotte, VT.
Several researchers, including Bernard Heuvelmans and DarrenNaish, have theorized that an unknown species of giant pelagic, long-neckedPinnipeds might be responsible for sightings of sea monsters in the world'soceans, and some researchers have also extended this hypothesis to includereports of lake monster sightings as well. Pinnipeds tend to be very noisy and socialanimals, however, making it hard to believe that they could remain hidden inthe lake for so long. This problem could potentially be solved via evolution,since this hypothetical pinniped could behave differently from actual, knownspecies of pinnipeds.
The theory of Tanystropheus was proposed by Champ researcherDennis Hall, who claims to have seen Champ 20 times. In 1976, his father caught a strange-lookingreptile, on the shore of Lake Champlain and took it to scientists. They concluded it was unlike any knownspecies of living reptile. Unfortunately, however, this specimen was laterlost. Hall then saw a picture of a Tanystropheus, and concluded that it was themost likely candidate, for Champ. Because Tanystropheus was a very specializedspecies of aquatic reptile from the Triassic Period, it very unlikely that itcould have survived and still inhabit Lake Champlain.
An internet forum user named “Robert” submitted this:
“I was looking at the lake using Google Earth and noticed afunny shape in the water. It is about 1.58 miles SW of Mud Island Lat: 44°7’3.59″N, Long: 73°23’40.83″W. “
A second user of the same forum named Paul Cape used the measuring tool provided with the map and found the thing to be 200ft long or about 66.5 yards. This is considerably bigger than most of the reports but some said it could have been this big. This could be due to something Rupert T.Gould, in his The Loch Ness Monster and Others (1976), called “expectant attention.” This is the tendency of people who are expecting to see something and are misled by anything having some resemblance to it.
“Few cryptozoologists deny the possibility of Champ’sexistence,” states W. Haden Blackman in his The Field Guide to North AmericanMonsters (1998), “and many openly accept the creature.” Champ seeker JosephZarzynski has even given it a name: Beluaaquatica champlainiensis ("hugewater creature of Lake Champlain”) (Owen 1982). If the perfect storm of technology, interest, and funding come togetherwe may someday have real answers about what is lurking below.