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Lake ‘Monster’ Resurfaces

Joe Nickell

March 15, 2006

“Is there a monster in Lake Champlain?” asked Good Morning America, on their February 22, 2006, program. ABC News had obtained exclusive video footage of “something” just below the surface of the water that was possibly “Champ,” the lake’s fabled creature. It has been dubbed “North America’s Loch Ness Monster.”

Two Vermont men, Dick Affolter and his 34-year-old stepson, Pete Bodette—had made the digital recordings the previous summer while fishing from Bodette’s boat. ABC consulted two retired FBI forensic image analysts, who concluded that the video appeared authentic, although they could not say what it depicted.

The incident added to a long list of Champ sightings, which have described a chameleonesque creature that is black, gray, brown, moss green, reddish bronze or other color, and is between 10 and 187 feet long, with multiple humps or coils as well as horns or a mane or glowing eyes or “jaws like an alligator”—or none of those features.

Skeptics attribute such sightings to large fish like sturgeon, schools of fish, and other marine creatures. For example, otters, swimming in a line, can mimic a single long, serpentine creature moving in an undulating fashion. Other Champ suspects include wind slicks, boat wakes, driftwood, long-necked birds, and many other possibilities. A contributing factor is “expectant attention,” the tendency of people who, expecting to see something, are misled by anything resembling it (Nickell 2003).

The popular notion that Lake Champlain may host a dinosaur-era creature is belied by the fact that the lake was formed only some 10,000 years ago. Moreover, a single creature could neither live for centuries nor reproduce itself, so there would have to be a breeding herd for the species to have continued to the present. And—if there were indeed multiple plesiosaurs, zeuglodons, or other leviathans—over time a beached carcass or other certain trace of one would surely present itself.

Nevertheless, the Vermont fishermen insisted they had seen something strange. Bodette stated that the creature was “as big around as my thigh.” Affolter admitted they never saw the entire body, although the men estimated the length at ten to fifteen feet. In a report on the video, the Burlington Free Press observed, “In one frame it almost looks as if the head of an alligator-like animal breaks the surface. . . .”

The newspaper noted that the Champ legend dated from 1609 when French explorer Samuel de Champlain described a creature the Native Americans called Chaousarou (Crawford 2005). Champlain wrote in his journal that the species was reputed to range up to ten feet long and that he had personally seen some half that length and “as big as my thigh”—words subsequently echoed by eyewitness Bodette. Champlain noted that Chaousarou resembled a pike with an exceedingly long snout and “dangerous teeth”—certainly alligator-like features. In short, Champlain’s description seemingly tallies with the creature the Vermont fishermen encountered.

The apparent match is instructive: the explorer was almost certainly describing a Longnose Gar, one of the Ganoidei subclass, which includes sturgeons and other varieties (Nickell 2003).

Although the video is insufficient for a positive identification, the men’s description does permit this tentative solution to the mystery. For four centuries gar have been astonishing people on Lake Champlain. During one of my investigative trips to the lake I interviewed a fisherman who had just witnessed a friend hook a Longnose Gar that—he insisted—was “monster” sized, measuring about 6 feet 4 inches long. He called this “the real Champ,” and dubbed it, appropriately, “Gar-gantua” (Forrest 2002).

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Diana Harris, Tim Binga (director of Center for Inquiry Libraries), and Lauren Becker for research assistance.

References

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.