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Champ, Lake Champlain’s Own “Nessie”

Is the mysterious monster actually a plesiosaur? Or is it an ancient bottom dwelling sturgeon? Perhaps it’s nothing more than a pile of floating debris, playing tricks on the eyes. Or is it simply the product of centuries of legends that have deluded people into believing they have seen something strange when in fact saw nothing at all? What exactly is it––or isn’t it––that lurks deep beneath the placid surface of Lake Champlain?

While specific descriptions may vary, hundreds of eyewitness accounts and a world famous photograph all agree: there is something extraordinarily unusual that calls America’s sixth largest freshwater lake home. Over the centuries this mysterious creature has affectionately come to be known worldwide as Champ.

Rumors of an enormous creature living in Lake Champlain stretch back to times even before Europeans were on this continent. Legends of the lake monster were first whispered among Native American tribes of the area. The Abenaki spoke of a monster known as the Tatoskok that periodically showed itself to hunters and fishing parties who practiced their crafts in the vicinity of Lake Champlain.

The first recorded report of a Champ sighting by a European dates from 1609, and the man who “discovered” the lake itself and had it named after him: Samuel de Champlain. In a log of his travels he mentions seeing a large, strange creature in the lake, some 20 feet long and as thick as a barrel. While he was the first European to see Champ, he has been far from the last. Literally hundreds of people have claimed to have seen the beast over the centuries.

 

In the summer of 1819, a newspaper in nearby Plattsburgh told of one ship captain’s sighting of the infamous monster of Lake Champlain. He saw the beast rise out of the water roughly 200 yards away from his vessel. He estimated that it was just under 200 feet in length, stuck its neck almost 20 feet above the water, and was dark black in color. Incredulously, the captain provided a number of very specific details about Champ’s appearance, stating that the monster had red markings on his neck, only three teeth, and a mark in the shape of a star on his forehead. Many say that the extreme specificity of this article points towards it being a hoax, although this has never been officially proven one way or the other.

A large number of newspaper accounts of Champ sightings occurred in the 1870s. Fantastic stories were told of a large serpentine monster emerging along the shore, frightening work crews who were building in the remote regions of the Adirondacks. Another tale told of a steamship that was nearly capsized when something slammed into its underside. Minutes after impact, passengers of the ship witnessed the creature emerge from the lake about 100 feet away from them. Soon reports were pouring in. Most who glimpsed Champ described him as resembling a serpent somewhere between 25 and 35 feet long, although one group of picnickers reported him as being over 75 feet in length. The sensation of Champ was growing quickly, and his reputation soon extended beyond the shores of Lake Champlain as he became a nationally known phenomenon. He was so well known that infamous showman P.T. Barnum offered a $50,000 reward for the capture of the Lake Champlain monster. Barnum hoped to display its carcass in his New York City museum. Newspaper accounts of Champ sightings, which previously had only been seen in small local papers, were now showing up in the New York Times. In 1873, they chronicled the sighting of Champ by a railroad crew, who described the monster as being silver and poking its head out of the lake to watch them at work. They quickly left their work behind, opting to make their way back to a less desolate (and less monster ridden) area.

Sightings continued into the twentieth century. Every few years someone would report witnessing the sea creature from shore or would claim to have had their boat terrorized by the beast. Most people reported encountering the beast right around dusk, leading to the belief that Champ was nocturnal. These reports became more few and far between as the years rolled by. Then, a century after the first wave of Champ-mania, a truly astonishing photograph focused the skeptical eyes of the world back onto the peaceful waters of Lake Champlain once again.

The year was 1977, and the Mansi family was enjoying vacationing along Lake Champlain’s shores as so many others have over the years. What

started out as a routine day of swimming and picknicing ended as one of the most talked about incidents in the history of cryptozoology. When Anthony Mansi made his way back to family’s car, his wife Sandra made sure to keep an extra close eye on their children, who were swimming and playing in the lake. Sandra noticed an odd patch of water in the distance beyond her children and focused in on it. Then, much to her surprise, a large serpentine beast rose from the water. It had a tiny head mounted on an incredibly long neck that led down to a series of humps protruding from the water’s surface. Anthony returned to the lake to help hurry the children out of the now very dangerous waters. Sandra quickly grabbed her camera and began taking a series of photographs that may very well prove that what many thought was nothing more than old wives’ tales and hearsay is actually very true.

Sandra Mansi’s photographs, while taken from a considerable distance, clearly show what appears to be a green colored serpentine creature sticking its long neck out above the surface of Lake Champlain. It’s humped back is visible, and it appears to be twisting its head around, as if looking in all directions. These pictures are shocking upon first view; those who believe in the existence of a monster within Lake Champlain have pointed to them time and time again as proof that something does live in the lake. Naysayers have claimed that the photos were staged or altered, but tests have proven that they seem to be authentic––regardless of whether there is an explanation for what the photos depict, the photos themselves have not been doctored in any way. Once the Mansi photographs came to light, many others came forward telling of their encounters with Champ. Efforts to find out more about Champ and to gain acceptance of his existence were spearheaded largely by social studies teacher Joseph Zarzynski, who throughout the 1970s and 80s investigated hundreds of claims with the Lake Champlain Phenomena Investigation, an organization he founded. Today, many websites and monster hunters continue the quest to legitimize Champ, most notably Dennis Hall of the Champ Quest website.

By the early 80s, Champ had become nationally known and was considered a local treasure. Port Henry erected a sign containing hundreds of names, all of people who claimed to have encountered the lake monster at some point in their lives. In 1981, the town went further towards embracing Champ by declaring their waters a safe haven for the beast. In 1982, the state of Vermont, which Lake Champlain also borders, followed suit, passing a house resolution granting Champ protection. By the next year, both the state assembly and state senate of New York had passed similar resolutions aimed at protecting the area’s beloved and mysterious creature.

Skeptics have many theories as to what Champ actually is. Most say that it is most likely a large fish, probably a garfish, which is a member of the sturgeon family that spends most of its time close to the Lake’s bottom, which in some spots reaches 400 feet in depth. This imposing creature is quite large, and if seen or encountered at night could be mistaken for something much more sinister. Others have said the Champ may actually be a plesiosaur, a species of aquatic dinosaur thought to have gone extinct in the Cretaceous period. These theorists say that during glacial movements, plesiosaurs may have found themselves deposited in newly created lakes, where they have managed to survive while their ocean born ancestors have died out. This, the theory goes, accounts for both Champ, the infamous Loch Ness monster, and other elusive sea creatures found around the globe––they are all related! Others say that when people think they are seeing Champ, they are actually just seeing nature take its course and are misinterpreting it. They say that wave formations are mistaken for monsters, that submerged timber making its way back to the surface appears to be a strange creature’s neck and head.

Whether there is an unidentified species of creature living in Lake Champlain or not, four centuries of folklore have sprang out of the belief that a monster lives amongst us. From the Native Americans who hunted along Champlain’s shores to the modern Americans who vacation there, Champ is alive and well and enjoys an enduring legacy in the consciousness of those who come to visit Lake Champlain.

 

Seeing Champ is Believing Champ!

I have lived all of my life within 15 miles of the shores of Lake Champlain. I know that there are many stories of Champ, our version of the Loch Ness Monster. What I am writing for is to tell you that Champ is real, and should not be thought of as just a myth or story. He is to be respected and even feared. How am I so sure that he exists? Because I am one of the lucky ones who has seen him with my own eyes.

During the summer of 1988 (I believe), I fell in with a regular group of fishing buddies who would meet at a regular spot very early each morning. We’d try to get in before all the tourists were out in the lake with their boats or swimming, generally scaring all the fish away. We’d tell stories about all sorts of stuff––girls, bar fights, you know, guy stuff. A lot of the old timers would tell tales of the lake monster that has always called Champlain home. We’d all heard the stories before, and took them seriously to some degree or another. I myself figured that they were mostly just stories––that it was a lot of peoples’ imaginations going overboard.

Well one August morning, I ate my words. I had just gotten to our spot and there were already three or four guys out. They were wide eyed, yelling for me to get over there quicker, really going nuts. They were all pointing out into the lake. I ran over and looked out and my jaw dropped. About 100 yards out, through the morning fog, I could make out what looked sort of, and I’m embarrassed to say this, but sort of like a dragon, sticking its head out of the lake. About 10 seconds after I got there it submerged and didn’t come back up. I will admit, it was hard to make out, but all of us saw the exact same thing. Its neck was about eight feet long, in our estimation, and its head was really small. And remember who this is coming from––I am a skeptic. Or at least I was, up until that day. Long live Champ!  –Gil O.

You can read more eyewitness accounts of Champ and many of New York’s other Bizarre Beasts in Weird NY.

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