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Strange & Unexplained - Lake Monsters

[- What is hidden in the Depths? -]
On July 22, 1892, as two boys trolled for bass near the south shore of Lake Geneva, they were startled to see the head of an extraordinary serpentlike creature as it rose out of the water 20 to 30 yards away. It opened its huge mouth, revealing several rows of sharp, hooked teeth, and focused its fierce eyes on the terrified onlookers. It began swimming toward them, and the boys, literally paralyzed with fear, were unable to move.

Fortunately for them, the creature executed an abrupt turn when it got within a few feet of them. As it swam toward the middle of the lake, the boys could see that it was at least 100 feet long and three feet around. "When last seen," the Chicago Tribune reported two days later, "the serpent was still carrying his head out of the water and slowly moving up the lake toward Keye's Park."

On February 22, 1968, at 7 P.M., farmer Stephen Coyne went to the dry bog near Lough Nahooin, one of a series of small lakes linked by streams which run through Connemara. With him were his eight-year old son and the family dog. On reaching the bog, Coyne noticed a black object in the water and assumed that it was the dog. When he whistled for it, however, the dog came bounding up from elsewhere. The moment it saw the object in the water, it stopped and stared.

The object proved to be a strange animal with a narrow, polelike head (without visible eyes) and a neck nearly a foot in diameter. It was swimming in various directions, occasionally thrusting its head and neck underwater. Whenever this happened, two humps from its back would emerge into view as would, sometimes, a flat tail. On one occasion this tail was observed near the head, indicating that the animal was both long and flexible. The skin was black, slick, and hairless. The animal appeared to be at least 12 feet long.

Once, apparently annoyed by the dog's barking, it swam toward the group, its mouth open. Coyne stepped forward to protect the dog, and the creature retreated, to resume its casual, directionless movement through the water. Soon father and son were joined by the other five members of the Coyne family. It remained clearly in view, sometimes from as little as five or six yards away. The creature was still there when darkness fell and the Coynes decided to go home.

Between them these two stories, the first from Wisconsin, the other from Ireland, span the spectrum of lake-monster reports, from the predictably phony to the unexpectedly credible. The Lake Geneva tale is, to all appearances, a nineteenth-century newspaper hoax; though the Chicago Tribune account refers to "thousands of people ... flocking to the shore" of Lake Geneva in a state of intense excitement, not a single reference to the event appears in any other contemporary source. Readers of American newspapers of the last century will recognize such wondrous but undocumented tales for what they are.

The Coyne family's sighting, whatever else it may be, is no newspaper hoax. Soon after the event a team of experienced cryptozoological investigators, including University of Chicago biologist Roy P. Mackal, interviewed the adult and child witnesses and agreed that their sincerity was not open to question. A few months later, as they were engaged in an unsuccessful effort to snare the creature via a dragging operation through the tiny lake (measuring 100 yards by 80 yards), they met a local man, Thomas Connelly, who saw the same or a similar creature in September as it plunged into the water from the banks. They also heard reports from other lakes in this remote area of western Ireland.

In cases like these, misperception or misdentification seems nearly as unlikely as the creature the Coynes claimed to have seen. Reports of lake monsters abound even in the modern world, and many sightings are vague, unconvincing, and plausibly explained without recourse to the fantastic. Some of the most detailed reports (and accompanying photographs) are known or suspected fabrications. Not, however, all of them.

Monsters in the magical universe and consensus reality

Traditions of giant freshwater "monsters" are ancient, ubiquitous, and generally unhelpful to any modern inquirer who seeks to extract zoological signals from the deafening noise of mythology and folklore. Our ancestors inhabited a magical universe in which the most fantastic and grotesque creatures were possible, and even "seen," if we are to credit contemporary accounts, which only the foolhardy would do without good cause. Lake monsters of the Middle Ages and earlier go by various namesgreat serpents, dragons, water horses, and innumerable others-and they share water and land with a bewildering array of supernatural entities.

If lake monsters are seen today, presumably they were seen then, too. But unless one is willing to lapse into medieval supernaturalism, as twentiethcentury Loch Ness monster hunter and chronicler F. W. Holiday eventually did (declaring before his death that these creatures are indeed dragons in the most traditional sense, a force of profound evil in the universe), one is forced to confine his or her attention to relatively recent sightings-the last two centuries, more or less.

Modern writers on the issue usually, however, cannot resist the temptation to link modern reports, especially those from the monster-haunted lochs and loughs of Scotland and Ireland, with earlier traditions of "water horses." As the argument goes, these supernatural beliefs, nonsensical if read literally, cloak the existence of real if unusual aquatic animals. But such a link is far from certain.

Lake-monster reports and water-horse traditions intersect, with rare exception (see the Loch Duvat story below), at only two points: both are associated with fresh water, and the former creatures are frequently said to have heads reminiscent of those of horses. Beyond these, the water horse (known as the "kelpie" in the Scottish Highlands) is another order of entity entirely: a dangerous shapechanger which can appear either as a shaggy man, who would leap out of the dark onto the back of a solitary traveler and frighten or-if in an especially foul humor-crush him to death, or as a young horse which after tricking an unwary soul onto its back would plunge to the bottom of the nearest lake, with predictably fatal consequences for the rider.

Though water horses are widely remarked on in folklore texts, one is hard-pressed to find "sighings" of them as opposed to rumors and folktales concerning their appearance and habits. A rare "sighting" is attributed to Mary Falconer of Achlyness, West Sutherland, Scotland. One afternoon in the summer of 1938, while walking with a companion near Loch Garget Beag, she noticed a herd of 13 ponies grazing near the water. Mrs. Falconer, who was carrying a sack full of venison, thought one of the horses, a white one, looked like a neighbor's, and decided to borrow it to carry her burden for the rest of her trip to Rhiconich.

But as she approached the animal, she found that it was too big to be her friend's horse. When she saw that it had water weeds entangled in its mane, she knew immediately that it was a water horse. At that moment it and its 12 companions bolted for the lake and disappeared below the surface. "Her companion corroborated her story in every particular," according to folklorist R. Macdonald Robertson.

Were beliefs in water horses based on "sightings" like this one? Since, as this book attests, people 11 see- all kinds of unlikely things, the question is not a trivial one, and not irrelevant to another question: the relationship of modern, more "scientific" (as opposed to "superstitious") images of lake monsters to current "sightings." In this regard another folklorist, Michel Meurger, writes of the cultural evolution of lake monsters, "The original mythical monster has been progressively covered over with an ideological crust of pretended facticity. This hardened layer will resist any critical investigation, because the new monsters are adapted to the European [rationalist] mind."

The scientific investigation of anomalies such as lake monsters has a short history (though sporadic efforts were mounted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) and even now, as a not quite respectable enterprise, is plagued by the traditional anomalists' problem of inadequate resources. Few scientists are willing to risk reputation and career associating themselves with "monster hunts," and the funding sources on which scientific research depends are typically unavailable to heretics, however well-credentialed. Thus little about lake monsters is certain. The information that would provide certain answers is unavailable to us because the question itself is deemed illegitimate.

Thus virtually all we know about early popular beliefs concerning such creatures comes from folklorists, who had no obligation to document reports by collecting evidence and assessing their credibility. Folklorists recorded the stories, even the supposed first-person testimonies, simply as stories and, that accomplished, snapped their notebooks shut. Most also implicitly rejected supernatural, or even merely extraordinary, testimony. As David J. Hufford, a scholarly critic of such "traditions of disbelief," has written, "supernatural beliefs arise from and are supported by various kinds of error.... The research design begins with the question 'Why and how do some people manage to believe things which are so patently falseT . .. Such a perspective has its usefulness but ... it is ethnocentric in the most fundamental sense. It takes a body of knowledge and considers it to be simply 'the way things are' rather than a product of culture. It says over and over again: 'What I know I know, what you know you only believe'...."

In the account of Mrs. Falconer's alleged experience, which comes to us from a folklorist, not an investigator (either of cryptozoological animals or of anomalistic psychology), we are told only that she was accompanied by a companion, unnamed, who "corroborated her story in every particular." To someone who wants to know what, if anything, happened that afternoon, this bland statement hardly suffices. And when Robertson goes on to remark, "Mary Falconer is well known locally as a 'Seer,"' we would like to know whether that means she could lay claim to amazing paranormal insight or simply that she exhibited remarkable powers of imagination.

One would like to know more about a story collected on June 5,1897, by Father Allan McDonald, a turn-of-the-century folklorist, from a Highlander. McDonald wrote:

Ewen MacMillan, Bunavullin, Eriskay, of Skye descent, aged about 50 tells me that four years ago at the end of May or beginning of June he had gone to

look after a mare and foal that he had at about nine or ten o'clock P.m. He went up to Loch Duvat (Eriskay) to see them. There was a foggy haze. He passed at the west end a horse belonging to John Campbell, Bunavillin, and a horse belonging to Duncan Beag Mac1nnes ditto. He saw an animal in front of him on the North side of the lake which he took to be his own mare and was making up to it. He got to within twenty yards of it but he could not distinguish the color on account of the haze, but in size it appeared to be no larger than a common Eriskay pony. When he came to within twenty yards of it the creature gave a hideous or unearthly scream ... that terrified not only MacMillan but the horses that were grazing at the West end of the lake, which immediately took to flight. MacMillan ran the whole way home and the horses did not stop till they reached home. These horses were not in the habit of coming home though they might come home of their own accord occasionally.

Probably this "monster" was a wayward seal, but the tantalizing ambiguity of an unsettling image of a strange creature glimpsed darkly through nocturnal haze resonates richly in the imagination. Surely events of this sort had something to do with waterhorse traditions and at least some lake-monster 11 sightings." MacMillan's tale is one of the relative few that lend themselves to either reading. Here water horses and lake monsters do become one, even if the true object of the sighting may have been neither.

Lake Monsters in Transition

Given credible sightings and suggestive instrumented and photographic evidence, the proposition that large unknown animals may reside in freshwater bodies around the world is a defensible one. But the popular twentieth-century image of the lake monster as a long-necked, plesiosaurlike animal seems just that. The handful of nineteenthcentury reports of such creatures exist only in the retrospective testimony, typically decades later, of aging witnesses. (Interestingly, in the nineteenth century some participants in the great debate about sea serpents championed plesiosaursas the animals most likely responsible for the sightings. Bemard Heuvelmans, the leading modern historian of the subject, points, however, to significant discrepancies: the plesiosaur's neck is shorter and its tail longer than those associated with the animals described in sea-serpent reports.)

The pre-modern freshwater monster is usually a great serpent, not entirely aquatic in its habits, and often dangerous. In 1636, for example, according to a Norwegian cleric named Nicolas Grarnius, "In the last flood, a great serpent from the waters came to the sea; he had lived up to that point in the Mjos and Branz rivers. From the shores of the latter river, he crossed the fields. People saw him moving like a long ship's mast, overturning all that he met on his path, even trees and huts."

Norwegians believed that monsters grew in the lakes until they were too big to live there any longer; then they migrated to the sea. It is not entirely impossible that these creatures were large eels, which have been known to migrate as much as 20 miles overland.

Aside from accounts (nearly all of them sketchy) which describe more or less biologically plausible, and even more or less recognizable, lake monsters, most of the early stories seem purely fabulous, and no more believable than tales (of which there were not a few) of dragons in the sky.

In relatively more recent times, as in sightings alleged to have taken place in central Wisconsin in the 1890s, the creature is described as 10 to 20 feet long, snake-shaped, but moving with an undulating motion of which snakes are incapable but which has been remarked on in many reports since then. These reports, which survive in sketchy accounts from local newspapers of the period, have a certain aura of authenticity (probably they inspired the much less believable Lake Geneva yarn that opens this entry), and are consistent with a hypothesis favored by Mackal and other scientifically trained practitioners of cryptozoology: that many lake monsters are a form of primitive, snakelike whale known as the zeuglodon.

The fabulous freshwater dragon, on the other hand, surfaced as late as October 18, 1946, in the Clearwater River near Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Farmer Robert Forbes claimed to have seen a huge, scaly-skinned monster with fiery eyes, long, flashing teeth, and a horn dart its head out of the water long enough to swallow whole a calf which happened to be eating on the banks.

The twentieth century

Still, on the whole Canada's lake and river monsters-the best known is Ogopogo, in British Columbia's Lake Okanagan-are strikingly uniform and amazingly like zeuglodons. The occasional scientific inquiries directed toward monster reports at specific lakes typically conclude with positive assessments of the eyewitness testimony. The evidence is soft, but it is not always easy to dismiss. Great chains of rivers ultimately linked to the oceans on the Canadian coasts provide places of entrance and egress for these hypothetical large marine mammals.

Mirages, oversized fish, big turtles, seals and sea lions, logs, and tall tales provide plausible explanations for other sightings in North America. The most documented and convincing of the United States lake monsters of our time is Lake Champlain's Champ, the subject both of a continuing serious investigation and of a relatively clear and (according to scientists who have analyzed it) possibly authentic photograph of a creature that looks rather more like a plesiosaur than a zeuglodon.

Yet Champ as plesiosaur is a distinctly twentieth-century concept. Nineteenth-century newspaper accounts, often cited as evidence that Champ is nothing new, suggest quite the opposite; many have a fabulous quality, and all describe monstrous snakelike beasts, sometimes with some mammalian features. It seems clear that Champ is some sort of fiction, in the sense either that it is wholly imaginary or that it is a misguided attempt to compress a number of different animals, some known, some unknown, into a single Loch Ness-style plesiosaur. Champlain, on the Vermont-New York border, empties into the Saint Lawrence River and thus is linked with the Atlantic Ocean. It is at least conceivable that oversized marine animals come in and out of Champlain, and this traffic has created the Champ legend.

Lake-monster reports are worldwide in scope but only spottily documented. A list of the earth's allegedly creature-haunted lakes-about 300-appears in the Spring 1979 issue of Pursuit (Haas). Conceivably the real number is a little larger than that. A number of the listed lakes owe their presence solely to dubious nineteenth-century newspaper stories and frontier tall tales. Consequently the number should be viewed with suspicion.

Outside North America and the British Isles, most of the serious investigation has focused on Scandinavian lakes, especially in Norway, with inconclusive results, though some of the eyewitness reports seem credible and impressive. Where instrumented evidence is concerned, the bulk comes from the investigations that began at Loch Ness in the 1930s and continue today. Films, photographs, and sonar trackings have given Nessie a deservedly high profile and established that something unusual is surely going on in Scotland's most famous lake. Nonetheless, like Champ, Nessie blurs under intense focus. Some reports are utterly bizarre and zoologically senseless, more like manifestations of the Goblin Universe than of consensus reality. This is particularly true of the rare land sightings, which seem neither more nor less credible than water sightings but which sometimes involve manifestations that border on the surreal.

Fact, fantasy, and points Between

If at least a few lakes harbor real, large, and so far uncatalogued animals-mammal, reptile, amphibian, or fish-they will eventually be found. They probably would have been found by now were it not for the ridicule that surrounds the subject and discourages most qualified inquirers. In other words, the fact that no lake monster has yet been caught does not necessarily tell us that no lake monster exists to be caught. It may mean only that the proper resources have not been brought to bear, including funding for the sophisticated, expensive equipment needed to document or even capture such creatures. If a breakthrough comes, it will likely be at Loch Ness.

It is hard to believe that all eyewitnesses are mistaken and that all of their testimony is without meaning. At the same time one would be reassured if the histories of Nessie, Champ, and others could be traced more certainly past this century. Nothing in the geological and ecological histories of Ness and Champlain explains how long-necked plesiosaurs could have found their way there only in our time.

This curious issue, unremarked on or fuzzed over in the writings of even the most thoughtful cryptozoological writers, leaves an opening for both hardened skeptics and unrestrained believers. The skeptics can argue that the monsters' changing image means that it is a cultural construct, not a biological animal. The believers can speculate that it is, like the water horse of supernatural folklore, a shapechanging entity, not a biological animal. Cautious good sense compels us to favor the skeptics, of course. Still, in a world in which apparently sane and sincere persons can "see" all sorts of wildly improbable things, we cannot help wondering how far we really are from our ancestors' magical universe, in whose lakes and rivers great serpents and dragons roamed freely.

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