Published: Thursday, August 18, 2005
By Matt Crawford
Burlington Free Press Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE -- It's a flat, dead-calm summer evening on Lake Champlain, the kind of night when the water's surface looks like a gigantic mirror. Vermonters Dick Affolter and Pete Bodette, Affolter's 34-year-old stepson, are fishing for salmon just west of the mouth of the Ausable River on the New York side of the lake.
They're in Bodette's boat -- a 21-foot Bayliner Trophy -- and as the two experienced fishermen begin putting their lines in the water, they notice something on the surface, out some distance from them.
It's Monday night, July 11, and no other boats are in the area. At first, Affolter, a retired Essex attorney, thinks he's looking at a floating railroad tie. No, he realizes, it's too long. Maybe it's a tree trunk.
Then it moves, in a serpentine manner, they say, leaving a sizable wake -- a series of patterned ripples like corduroy -- on the smooth surface. The two fishermen know they are not looking at a railroad tie. Or a tree trunk.
But they don't know what it is. Later, when they see it again and capture digital images of it -- they know no more than before.
In the days following, as they talk to others and show their videos, the question emerges: Was it Champ?
Any unexplained, unique or unidentified sighting on Lake Champlain, of course, brings to the fore the legend of Champ -- the mythical Lake Champlain creature that has been subject of debate and speculation for almost 400 years.
Some people have photographed what they claim to be Champ, and in 2003 a team of scientists recorded a series of high-frequency sounds similar to those made by sea mammals coming from the lake's depths. But the presence of a large marine animal unique to Lake Champlain is more folklore than fact.
Affolter and Bodette do not claim that they saw Champ.
"We saw something on that lake we've never seen before," Bodette said. "Is what we saw the same thing other people saw, and they called Champ? I don't know."
When the pair first noticed something on the lake's surface, Bodette and Affolter thought it was a fish.
"I said to Dick, 'Just troll over to that thing,'" said Bo- dette, a Charlotte resident. "As a joke I said, 'Watch that thing take off when we get close to it.' Sure enough, we got to about 20 or 30 yards and it just slowly submerged."
|Story 2: Quebecer Claims to Have Photos of Lake Monster
CTV.ca News Staff
A Quebec innkeeper claims to have picture proof that the legendary monster of Lake Massawippi exists.
Although it doesn't enjoy the status of Ogopogo -- the country's most famous water monster said to inhabit Lake Okanagan in the south central B.C. interior -- "Whippy" has been alive in local monster folklore.
Townspeople have been reporting sightings of the elusive creature for generations in the peaceful, picturesque lake nestled in Quebec's Eastern Townships, near Sherbrooke.
Jeff Stafford, owner of the Ripplecove Inn, showed photos of what he claimed are "Whippy" to CFCF News reporter Rob Lurie.
Stafford said he was given the photos last week by a tourist, along with a story of how the alligator-like creature surfaced from the depths of the Massawippi and treated him to an extended view.
The series of blurry photos show a far shot of an oddly-shaped protuberance sticking out of the water.
"This thing was floating on top like a large crocodile or large water snake," Stafford told CFCF. He said, according to the tourist, that Whippy was 10 feet long, and had its head stuck out of the water for several minutes.
"We were blown away," said Stafford, who didn't doubt the tourist's story for one second.
There are many stories of monster sightings in these parts, reports Lurie. Nearby Lake Mephremagog has "Memphre"; Lake Champlains' has "Champ."
But with this latest sighting on the Massawippi, the legend of Whippy has pulled ahead of the others. Florent Hebert, who's been guiding tours on the lake for 23 years, said he's seen a lot of strange things that he just can't explain.
He said he's been trying to convince people of Whippy's existence, and that these photos finally prove he's not crazy.
"I feel much better, because no one believes in the stories I've been telling about the lake," he told CFCF News.
Scientists have explained that these waters are inhabited by some very large fish. At almost 500 feet deep, Lake Massawippi is home to many monster sturgeons. Fishermen have spotted fish more than seven feet long in the lake.
Vancouver author John Kirk, whose specialty is investigating unknown animals, guesses the mystery creature in Stafford's photo "could be a form of catfish."
"But it doesn't have the profile to be a classical lake monster," he told CTV News.
Stafford said whatever it was, it didn't act very fish-like. "It was on the surface of the water for about 15 minutes -- that's not fish behavior," he said.
With a report from CTV's Rob Lurie
Bodette remembers telling Affolter, and maybe he dropped a cuss word in there: "That's a humongous fish. Humongous."
The two seasoned anglers could not identify what species of fish it might have been -- especially one they estimated to be 15 feet long that was breaking the surface where the lake is close to 200 feet deep.
They continued to fish for salmon. A half-hour later, maybe more, they saw activity on the surface again. This time Affolter piloted the Bayliner close enough for Bodette to use his Canon digital camera. Bodette snapped pictures and recorded several short movies. He saved the images on his home computer, naming the files various versions of "Pete's Serpent."
The digital recordings clearly show something of significant size moving just under the surface. It does not appear to be a boat wake or a school of fish or cormorants. In one frame it almost looks as if the head of an alligator-like animal breaks the surface, the setting sun reflecting off what could be an eye.
In the short digital movies, which were shown to a reporter and editor, the camera zooms in and out of focus at one point and Bodette can be heard asking Affolter: "What in hell is that thing?"
The modern legend of the lake creature known as Champ dates back to 1609 when French explorer Samuel de Champlain described a fish with "dangerous teeth" that the native peoples said grew to 10 feet in length. Champlain might have been describing a gar, but his shortcomings as a naturalist laid the foundation for hundreds of years of second-guessing.
Strange sightings on the lake can be written off as a number of unusual natural phenomena -- from large lake sturgeon basking on the surface, to a school of large fish chasing bait, to a family of otters swimming.
Yet throughout the years, hundreds of people -- boaters, picnickers, swimmers -- claim to have spotted Champ. Some snapped photographs of what they saw, some relayed their stories to the newspapers.
In the late 1800s, showman P.T. Barnum penned a letter to a small New York newspaper on the south end of the lake offering a $50,000 reward for hide of the "Great Champlain sea serpent." The Burlington Free Press has reported creature sightings throughout the years, often running the accounts in daily coverage.
One of the most famous sightings took place in 1977 when New Hampshire's Sandra Mansi, spending a day on the lakeshore with her family near St. Albans, snapped a photograph that seems to show something emerging from the water. In 1992, NBC television ran a Champ story on its then-popular television show "Unsolved Mysteries," using Mansi's photograph in the discussion.
Another sighting was reported this week: WCAX-TV aired a story about a 75-year old man near Vergennes who reportedly took a recent picture of a creature on the surface of Lake Champlain.
Steve Smith, director of facilities at ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, has seen Bodette's and Affolter's digital images.
"I don't know what it is," Smith said. "The majority of the video is very indiscernible. In one frame, he seems to feel there's an eye coming out of the water, but to me, I thought I was looking at an otter's nose. I've never seen anything that definitively proves the existence of Champ, and that video doesn't, either."
Affolter dismisses the otter theory: "It looks, maybe, like a big otter ... if an otter was 15 feet long."
Bodette's story made its way to Elizabeth von Muggenthaler, a former Charlotte resident living in Hillsborough, N.C., where she's president of Fauna Communication Institute, a firm that studies how animals communicate.
In 2003, von Muggenthaler spent nearly a week on Champlain for the Discovery Channel, searching for Champ with highly sensitive sonar equipment.
The crew of scientists recorded a series of rapid, high-frequency clicks and ticks that sounds whale- or dolphin-like to the trained ear. The pitch was seven times out of the range of the human ear, von Muggenthaller said, and cannot be attributed to any fish species in Champlain.
The equipment von Muggenthaler's crew used two summers ago determined the creature that emitted the high frequency sound was 15 feet long.
The 2003 recording of the sounds has been reviewed and scrutinized by other acoustic scientists, von Muggenthaler said. Von Muggenthaler, who arrived in Vermont last week, has seen Bodette's video and pictures.
She can't say with certainty that this is the creature she heard in 2003, but in her mind the sounds she recorded that summer and these images captured by a fisherman are linked.
"Clearly," von Muggenthaler said, "this deserves serious investigation."
Mary Watzin, director of the University of Vermont's Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory, said to her knowledge UVM researchers haven't seriously studied the Champ phenomenon. With the right hypothesis, Watzin said, perhaps Champ would be deserving of further inspection.
"I'm always open to the possibility of seeing something new on that lake," Watzin said. "I'm very skeptical of the theory there is some long-lost dinosaur swimming around, but I'm certainly open to the idea there's something we haven't seen out there."
In the past few weeks von Muggenthaler and Bodette have been approached by the Travel Channel for a show about sea monsters. A California-based production company offered money for the film, but Bodette turned it down after he saw where the television show was going.
"This just doesn't belong in the same category as crop circles or a Sasquatch sighting," von Muggenthaler said. "It needs to be treated as real. You don't want to minimize the scientific importance of this."
Contact Matt Crawford at 651-4852 or firstname.lastname@example.org Champ consortium