Champ, the Lake Champlain "Monster"

Lake Champlain
Lake Champlain

Champ—An American Legend or a Real Live Lake Monster?

Champ is a member of the elite group of creatures who share a common bond classed as cryptozoological animals. These creatures include dragons, unicorns, Pegasus, Sasquatch, Yeti, and of course, Champ's "cousin", the Loch Ness Monster. The single trait they all have in common is that their existence on earth has never been satisfactorily proven or conclusively disproven.

Lake Champlain

Named for its discoverer, Samuel de Champlain, Lake Champlain is a spectacular hundred-mile-long lake that stretches down from Canada and runs north and south between Vermont and New York, forming a natural border between them1, 3. While in some spots the lake reaches a depth of 400 feet, extending 150 yards or more from the shore much of the lake is only 12 to 14 feet deep2.

A characteristic trait of long, narrow lakes with deep channels is the seiche. Both Loch Ness and Lake Champlain are endowed with this peculiar feature. A seiche is a perpetual wave in an enclosed body of water, which lies in a geographic area that undergoes severe winters. Changes in spring and autumn temperatures affect the shallow areas of these long lakes more rapidly than they affect the deep channels, causing the deep water to slosh back and forth, between the lake's boundaries, like a plucked guitar string. At the surface, the seiche in Lake Champlain may be barely a ripple while below the surface it is usually about 30 feet high and at times may grow to a height of 300 feet3.

Champ History

Samuel de Champlain is often quoted1, 2 as having written that he saw, "a 20-foot serpent thick as a barrel, and a head like a horse" in Lake Champlain during his explorations in the 17th Century. However, this misquote is believed to have first appeared in a 1970 Vermont Journal article by the late Marjorie Porter. In Champlain's true journal, he most likely described the gar fish2, 6 in an entry that reads (Muerger 1988):

"... there is one [fish] called by the natives 'Chaousarou', which is of various lengths; but the largest of them, as these tribes have told me, are from eight to ten feet long. I have seen some five feet long, which were as big as my thigh, and had a head as large as my two fists, with a snout two feet and a half long, and a double row of very sharp, dangerous teeth. Its body has a good deal the shape of the pike; but it is protected by scales of a silvery gray colour and so strong that a dagger could not pierce them."

The earliest genuine report of a Champ sighting is from 1819. A "Capt. Crum" aboard a scow on Bulwagga Bay saw "a black monster" about 187 feet long with a flat head that resembled a seahorse. According to the account, the monster reared its head more than fifteen feet out of the water. The creature was two hundred yards in the distance and traveled "with the utmost velocity" while being chased by "two large Sturgeon and a Bill-fish." With his remarkable vision, Crum noticed that it had three teeth, large eyes the color of a peeled onion, a white star on its forehead, and a red band about its neck2.

Champ was relatively quiet for the next 50 years until reports of the monster started resurfacing in newspapers around 1873. The news stories drew the attention of P.T. Barnum who offered a $50,000 reward for Champ, captured dead or alive. Although many sought the reward, no one was able to deliver the giant to Barnum1, 4, 5, 6.

Champ Sightings

From the varied description in reports over the years, Champ is chameleon-like and a master of disguise2, 3. Reports have compared him to a great snake, a large Newfoundland dog, a yacht, a horse, a manatee, a periscope, a lizard-like four-legged animal, and a whale.

What Does Champ Look Like?

From existing reports, Champ may be endowed with all or some of the following features:

The Mansi Photograph

The Mansi Photograph
The Mansi Photograph

The most famous photograph1 of Champ, the Mansi Photograph, was taken in 1977.

Sandra Mansi's account of her family's 1977 encounter with Champ is the most fully documented sighting of any lake monster sighting in history1.

Sandra, her two children, and her fiancé Anthony Mansi, along with Sandra's two children from her previous marriage, were driving on the north shore of Lake Champlain near the town of St. Albens. Around noon, they stopped at a small bluff that overlooked the lake.

As the children waded along the shore, Mansi saw what she first thought was a school of fish or a scuba diver about 150 yards out. Suddenly, "the head and neck broke the surface of the water." As her fiancé hurried the children out of the water, Mansi quickly grabbed her Instamatic camera and snapped a photo. Then she put the camera down and watched as the creature turned slightly and then disappeared again beneath the water's surface. The sighting lasted a remarkably long time; the Mansi's estimated from four to seven minutes1, 3, 6.

What is most remarkable about the photograph is that, although examined by several experts there is absolutely no evidence of tampering with the picture, making the Mansi Photograph the most credible evidence to date of a lake monster sighting.

Champ Video

ABC News Video

As reported by ABC news5, in the summer of 2006, video was taken by two fishermen with their digital camera. Before their sighting, they were Champ skeptics.

"It was as big around as my thigh," said fisherman Peter Bodette. "I'm 100 percent sure of what we saw. I'm not 100 percent sure of what it was."

His companion, fisherman Dick Affolter said they never saw the entire body. "What we saw always stayed at the surface and parts of it would come above the water, like the back of the nose or the head".

As in the Mansi photo it appears there was no tampering. Upon examination by two retired FBI analysts forensic image analyst Gerald Richards said, "I can't find anything in there that would suggest or indicate to me that this has been fabricated or manipulated in any way. However, there's no place in there that I can see actually see, an animal or any other object on the surface."

Proof of Champ's Existence

All theories aside, Champ's existence has never been either conclusively proven and the burden of proof does lie with those who claim that there is a monster in Lake Champlain.

While that it's all but impossible to disprove a creature's existence, several factors point on the side of the doubter.

  1. No single creature has been proven to have a life span that lasts longer than a millennium.
  2. With the exception of single-celled life forms, no living animal is able to consistently reproduce itself.

These two facts mean that if Champ exists, there would have to be more than one. Scientists say a herd of at least 500 creatures is necessary to maintain a healthy population over time6.

Last of all, no beached carcass or other biological trace of Champ or his predecessors has ever been found. Joseph Zarzynski, the author of Champ: Beyond the Legend searched for the lake monster for 20 years, ending his search in the '90s. At one point, he used side-scan sonar and an underwater robot. While some of the sonar recorded interesting blips, no trace of a lake monster was ever found. Zarzynski admitted, "The definitive thing to have is a carcass.3, 6"

Champ—Legend or Leviathan?

If the Lake Champlain Monster isn't really a living "monster", what is it that people have seen over the last centuries? Scientific theory, common sense, and some honest revelation offer a variety of alternatives.

Dinosaur or Endangered Species?

Some proponents of Champ believe he may be a type of dinosaur called a plesiosaur, the same type of creature also advocated by several Nessie proponents.

Cryptozoologist Roy Mackal visited Lake Champlain in 1981. He theorized that the creature might be a basilosaurus (also known as a zeuglodon), a primitive whale that had a long snake-like body. Some fossils of this extinct dinosaur were discovered near Charlotte, Vermont, a town near the lake6.

Basilosaurus (image courtesy of National Geographic)

Whether alive and well, extinct, or myth, Champ is one cryptozoologic creature that is protected by law. The Vermont House of Representatives passed H.R. 19 in April 1982, protecting Champ "from any willful act resulting in death, injury, or harassment." The next year, New York State legislators followed, protecting Champ against death, injury, or harassment, and encouraging report of sightings1, 3.

1. Benjamin Radford. “The measure of a Monster: investigating the Champ photo..” Skeptical Inquirer 1 Jul 2003. 6 Oct 2008 <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-104733235.html>.
2. Joe Nickell. “Legend of the Lake Champlain Monster. .” Skeptical Inquirer 1 Jul 2003. 6 Oct 2008 <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-104733234.html>.
3. Dick Teresi. “Monster of the tub.” Discover 1 Apr 1998. 6 Oct 2008 <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-20406332.html>.
4. “'Champy' Subject of Work at Brush Art Gallery of SLU .” US Fed News Service, Including US State News 25 Aug 2008. 6 Oct 2008 <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P3-1539123601.html>.
5. “Is There a Monster in Lake Champlain?.” 22 Feb 2006. 6 Oct 2008 <http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=1648547>.
6. Lee Krystek. “Champ of Lake Champlain.” The Unmuseum 2000. 6 Oct 2008 <http://www.unmuseum.org/champ.htm>.
7. Michel Meurger. 1988. Lake Monster Traditions. London: Fortean Tomes. 10 Oct 2008