(DoNorth/Courtney Bombard and Illustration by Brendan Clark)
In 1609, while French explorer and cartographer Samuel de Champlain was sailing along the lake that would later have his name, he was accompanied by an unseen creature. In the 400 years since, the beast has gone by many names: “His majesty, the great sea snake” or the “Champlain Lake Monster.” Champy, better known as Champ, is a monsterous aquatic reptile said to be the cousin of the Loch Ness Monster. He (or she?) resides hidden at the bottom of the lake that carves the Adirondack Coast. Fear of the unknown used to make Champ sinister, but now the elusive 20-foot creature is welcomed as a regional friend.
Robert E. Bartholomew’s 2012 skeptical but witty book about this phenomenon “The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America’s Loch Ness Monster,” is 250 pages of historical accounts that chronicle Champ’s adventures and weighs reports of its possible existence.
In the book, and in most web documentation of the creature, Champ is said to be a breed of plesiosaur, a snake-like reptile with a long neck, thick round abdomen and four pectoral flippers.
As reported in Vermont Life magazine in 1970 by Marjorie Lansing Porter, Samuel de Champlain described his first sighting as of a “20-foot serpent thick as a barrel, and a head like a horse… it is protected by scales of silvery gray colour [sic] and so strong that a dagger could not pierce them.” Porter compiled her information from historical accounts and folklore, but the sourcing remains unconvincing, leading some to think Champlain’s sighting is just a myth. Since Champlain’s day, the color of Champ’s scales has varied by sighting, but an eerie black, brown or green color remains consistent as do the large abdomen and long snake-like neck.
Bernie Bassett, member of the board of directors at the Clinton County Historical Society, says in our culture, people create things to believe in. He thinks local residents want to embrace the Champ story in order to have a local mascot.
“We need to believe in heroes,” Bassett says. “Champy has fulfilled that for us for a number of years. And I’d hate to shatter that thought.”
He related Champ to something mysterious but rather wonderful for people to put their faith in much like the Marvel heroes created during World War II to uplift American morale.
Closely associated with the idea of Champ is Nessie, the Loch Ness monster — who is far more popular. Although the two share chapters in cryptozoologists collections, Nessie has stolen the spotlight for years. To scale, a simple Amazon search leads to 95 books on the Scottish monster, where Champ has but 15. Yet both monsters are common characters in children’s books, including local author and illustrator Gordie Little’s “Little Champy Goes to School,” which gives children a chance to relate to the monster.
With regional acceptance assured, New York and Vermont placed the creature under legal protection by adding him to the endangered species list in 1982. This was in hopes of protecting the creature — if it were ever found.
Indigenous people of the Lake Champlain region didn’t think of Champ as a hero and had their owns names for him. The Abenaki referred to him as “Peetaskog,” which means “big snake.” For a stronger resonance, they also called him “padoskoks,” or “bigger than big snake.”
The 1800s were a particularly active time for Champ. Bartholomew wrote of reports from lakeside farmers missing livestock — even dogs — with a trail of matted grass leading back to the water. In the summer of 1873, Clinton County Sheriff Nathan Mooney reported seeing “an enormous snake or water serpent” that was 25 to 35 feet long.
That same summer, the W.B. Eddie steamboat reportedly struck Champ, or what people thought was Champ, and caused the craft to nearly capsize. At first, passengers thought they had hit a log, until they saw the long neck and head of the sea snake raise above the surface and dash away, leaving jets of water in its wake. Champ was apparently reckless in the late 1800s, and the number of sightings increased. P.T. Barnum, oddities collector and creator of the World’s Fair, got in on the craze and offered $50,000 for the monster’s hide.
Many people wonder how a prehistoric creature can live in a highly traversed body of water that runs 125 miles down the New York border with an average depth of 64 feet, reaching 400 feet at its deepest. But in 1977, the monster was captured on film. At an uncertain location between St. Albans and the Canadian border, Sandra Mansi, a novice photographer from Bristol, Vermont, took the clearest picture of Champ to date. The photograph shows a serpent-like creature with a humpback peeping out of the water. Mansi kept the photo secret for years because she didn’t know what she had captured. She later had the image published in the Burlington Free Press in 1980. The New York Times picked up the photograph and the story the following year. Some say the photo shows only a decayed log floating to the surface. Others say it’s the best documentation of the creature to date.
Other Champ fanatics have done their own research and stitched the serpent into existence. Thousands of years ago, the Atlantic Ocean stretched into Canada and down into present-day Lake Champlain, creating the Champlain Sea. Over thousands of years, the ocean level went down, and the trench left behind became the familiar lake. Champ fans theorize that the monster got trapped in the trench and made the lake its home. Lake Champlain being connected to the ocean could explain the echolocation that was found in 2009.
Sophisticated sea creatures communicate and maneuver using echolocation to identify what food or barriers lie in their path. In the fresh waters of Lake Champlain, fish lack the ability and the need to echolocate; yet Lake Champlain native Elizabeth von Muggenthaler found a clicking in the water that sounded similar to a killer whale’s biosonar. While these sounds can’t be coming from the trout or bass that live in the water, they have to be coming from something — a plesiosaur some would claim.
Bassett says this evidence is all fun, but what he and many others want is tangible, concrete — or maybe a slimy gray-green — evidence. They want a body. In 1849, a railroad crew on the east side of the lake thought they found the skeletal remains of the beast, but these bones were later identified as a beluga whale. Sturgeons may have been mistaken as the Lake Monster over the years. More common than the mythical beast, these fish can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh more than 1,500 pounds. Despite the sturgeon’s enormity — and the likely source of all the confusion — people are still convinced Champ is a prehistoric beast living among these other monster-sized fish.
While the evidence of Champ’s existence may be lacking, arguments questioning its existence are plentiful. How could an organism sustain itself for 400 years? How would could an aquatic creature build up the muscle in its neck to lift its head 10 feet above the water? How could something go unconfirmed for this long? Does it procreate? Are there more?
Bill Laundry, treasurer of the historical association and Clinton County Native says most people are amused by the character.
“There is just enough evidence that it can’t be dismissed,” he says. “A lot of people say the sighting have to do with… ,” his voice drifted as he tipped his head back and mimed taking a swig from a bottle.
Whether Champ’s existence is proven by drunken reporting, fish stories or physical evidence, the Champlain Lake Monster is a big deal in little circles, and his existence excites the people of the region and beyond.
“Until you have the carcass, until you bring him home, keep looking,” Bassett says.
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