November 20, 2008 — In the last article I posted, I detailed the flying monkeys of Burlington, Vermont. If these flying monkeys had a natural predator, I’d imagine it would be large, reptilian, and aquatic. But that’s because I’m being unduly influenced by Champ, the cryptozoologic wonder of Lake Champlain.
Lake Champlain is the defining feature of Burlington, although the body of water is large enough that it’s also the defining feature of quite a few other places, as well. While not quite the mini-ocean of one of the Great Lakes, it’s still pretty big...large enough, in fact, to be shared by two states and Canada, as well as to impeccably hide a giant lake monster within its placid depths.
The people around Lake Champlain call their hydrous denizen “Champ,” of course, and it’s depicted as being the usual water-dinosaur-looking creature with a serpentine neck, small head, long tail, humped back, and funny little flippers for feet. Plesiosaur, is the currently held theory for the identity of the beast. And by theory, I mean absolute guess-in-vacuum.
You see, at some point in the history of towns on large lakes, somebody realized how lucrative to the local economy it could be to claim to have a lake monster. As a result, there’s a long tradition of reports of reports of reports of lake monster sightings in the world. For Champ in Lake Champlain, this dubitably goes back to the lake’s French discoverer, Samuel de Champlain, in the 1600s. And by “dubitably” I mean patently false. The first report of a sighting was back in the 1800s, and you usually only need one to get the ball avalanching. One bit of trivia that is true, though, is that P.T. Barnum once offered a reward for the capture of Champ, dead or alive or in any possible third stage of being. That guy always seems to be popping up in my research, no matter what I’m writing about.
Perhaps more importantly to the legend of Champ than the “eye witness” reports, though, is that it has its one iconic, blurry photo. The picture was taken by Sandra Mansi in 1977 while vacationing with her family and shows a remarkably driftwood-like object with no sense of scale protruding from the lake’s surface. And that’s pretty much the formula you need for a lake monster: a history of sightings longer than the lifespan of any possible biological entity and a controvertible photo. Oh, and a lake, I guess.
If I were really looking for Champ, Burlington is probably the last place I would check. Standing on the Burlington shore and looking out at the lake, it’s difficult to imagine a monster rearing its terrifying head in all that crammed picturesqueness. At least, any self-respecting one. Mysterious water monsters go best with dank weed-strewn lagoons, murky pools, and isolated stretches of storm-colored water, not the layered mountains, bright sailboats, and charming lighthouse’d quay of Burlington. In fact, to get the semi-mysterious shot shown in this article, I had to time it just right and then painfully twist the camera to get as many boats out of the camera frame as possible, and then crop the finished image like a farmer.
However, if you’re a lake monster fan, there’s still a giant reason to go to Burlington, or at least a four-foot-square one. At the end of King Street, which leads right down to the harbor, is Perkins Pier. At the end of Perkins Pier, you’ll find a small, tombstone-like granite slab dedicated to Champ and “those people in Vermont who have sighted Champ and are in search of Champ.” That’s right. A Champ memorial.
It’s not the most memorable memorial you’ll come across in your life, but how often are you going to see a piece of stone dedicated to a figment, hoaxers, the gullible, the bad-sighted, the lovers, the dreamers, and me. Besides a cartoony depiction of the creature, it bears the monster’s pseudo-scientific name Belua Aquatica Champlainiensis. Because scientists get bored just like the rest of us. Near the monument on this park-like pier are a few benches, where you can sit, stare out at the water, and lazily search for your own driftwood dinosaur.
This lonely stone isn’t the only way that the city of Burlington has embraced its monster. In fact, it has firmly wrapped both its arms and legs around Champ’s sinuous neck for what it hopes to be a grand ride. Champ has been labeled as an officially protected species by the government of Vermont (as well as the government of New York, but this article isn’t about them) because politicians also get bored, and, like the flying monkeys, businesses often incorporate Champ into their trade-marking and decorations. The most notable example of this being Burlington’s Minor League baseball team. It’s been dubbed the Vermont Lake Monsters, which is a much more impressive name and looks better on a baseball cap than the Vermont Hermit Thrushes, which, incidentally, is the official Vermont state bird, in case you were wondering why I’d reference a random ornithoid.
Historically, my best ideas always come way too late to be of any use to me, and one such for this article would have been to find and take as many pictures of non-Champ objects in such a way that they look like great Champ pictures. I have the same idea for ghosts, too, and will get around to it the next time I’m just hanging around a cemetery in the dark. So, tomorrow. However, I did go back and electronically flip through all of our pictures from our day in Burlington, and discovered one that looked like it could be subjected to the Champ treatment. I’ve since Google Picasa’d this image into the indisputable proof of a lake monster you see in this article. Someone needs to interview me about it now.
Incidentally, I hope you understand the restraint I’ve exercised in this article by not once mentioning Loch Ness. Well, at least not twice. Oh, and if you want to see the original undoctored photo, it's on the other side of this link.