Champ, North America’s answer to the Loch Ness monster, has long been a legend around Lake Champlain. He (or she) has spawned Indian legends, a baseball team mascot, offers of reward money, paranormal investigations, keychains, mugs, T-shirts and even seafood patties on sesame-seed buns called ‘Champburgers.’
More than 300 sightings have been reported over the years and attracted the attention of serious people. In 1827, the eminent Yale scientist Benjamin Silliman said he was open to the possibility that a lake monster existed.
P.T. Barnum recognized the commercial potential of Champ. In 1873 and 1887, he offered the enormous sum of $20,000 to anyone who could capture the monster dead or alive.
But Barnum never had to pay up, and Silliman never had to put his reputation on the line. Though many believe in Champ’s existence, it’s unlikely the lake monster exists outside of the collective imagination.
Notes on Champ
Samuel de Champlain was said to have seen Champ in 1609, but that story came from a made-up quote in Vermont Life magazine in 1970.
There was an early sighting in 1819, when a captain aboard a scow near Port Henry, N.Y., saw a 'black monster' in the water. He thought it was more than 180 feet long and had eyes like peeled onions.
In 1870, passengers aboard a steamboat said they saw Champ. That led to more sightings by steamboat passengers. In 1871, they said they saw a head and long neck in Horseshoe Bay. Two years later, he was spotted by steamboat passengers in Dresden, N.Y.
Sightings continued into the 20th century. In 1945, passengers aboard the SS Ticonderoga saw Champ swimming in the middle of the lake.
What Could It Be?
Some think Champ, like the Loch Ness monster, is a relative of the plesiosaur, an extinct marine reptile with a small head, long neck, turtle-like body, short tail and two pairs of paddles.
Others think it could be a zeuglodon (or Basilosaurus), an extinct prehistoric whale. Champ’s ancestors may have lurked in the Iapetus Ocean 500 million years before the Atlantic Ocean was formed.
In 1977, a woman named Sandra Mansi took a photo verified as authentic of something that looked very much like Champ. A professional debunker named Joe Nickell pointed out the photo was taken of something in 14 feet of water, unlikely to contain a giant lake monster.
In 2005, two upstate New York fishermen named Dick Affolter and his stepson Pete Bodette took video of something strange in Lake Champlain. Bodette said, “What we saw always stayed right on the surface, and parts of it would come above the water, the back or the nose or the head.” The video only showed something under the surface, but it appeared on ABC News. (To see the video, click here.)
Joe Nickel had already investigated the monster’s existence in 2003. He concluded that Champ believers were arguing from ignorance: “We don't know what these people saw; therefore, it must have been Champ.”
“One cannot draw a conclusion from a lack of knowledge,” wrote Nickell. “And so, until an actual specimen presents itself, the possibility that any large, unknown animal inhabits Lake Champlain remains somewhere between extraordinarily slim and none.”
Mansi image represenatation: By BRad06 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43763274. This story was updated in 2019.