Trussst in me: the Flathead Lake monster

I love old maps. Maps used to be full of monster drawings, especially pre-17th century ones created for the upper class. Cartographers weren’t just trying to dazzle people–they were trying to educate them, and illustrated creatures based on real sailors’ reports. Why is it, then, that so many include a beast like this?

sea monster
You know, the one with the humps?

This full moon, let’s take a look at a specific example of one of these serpentine horrors: a Loch Nessian-style monster right here in the U.S.

Flathead Lake sits in northwestern Montana, and is the largest lake in the contiguous U.S. west of the Mississippi. It’s nearly 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, and can get up to 370 feet deep (over 34 stories). In short, it’s a lot of water. 75 million years ago, Flathead Lake was actually an inland sea, one full of sharks and the aquatic reptiles of the dinosaur era. Some people–lots of people: lawyers, doctors, policemen, engineers, biologists; locals and non-locals alike–say that not all of those monstrous species have left.

Take Julia and Jim Manley, who had considered themselves skeptics of the strange sightings. One beautiful, breezeless summer day in 2005, they went out on it in their boat to enjoy the water. When they tried to go home, their engine wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. They were stranded out in the open lake, with not a single other soul in sight.

Anxious, they called their daughter, hoping that she could come rescue them. She said she was on her way. But as the Manleys settled in for their wait, they heard a loud, heavy slap against the water. They heard the sound again–it was close, worryingly close. Then they looked over the side of their boat and saw it.

Per Julia: “The first feeling I had seeing it was just shock. I knew I was seeing it, but it’s so unbelievable to think about it–”

sea_serpent_cape_ann_1639
Like this, maybe, only the monster’s head wasn’t showing and also it was 2005.

There were black, sinuous humps slithering through the waves–a giant chain at least as long as their 24-foot boat. As they stood in horrified silence, they saw something else coming at them over the horizon: their daughter’s boat. The monster slipped away into the water before she could see it, and the Manleys realized that now they were the ones who would have to convince those skeptical of the monster of Flathead Lake.

Consider this combined with with the accounts people have shared of schools of fish jumping out of the water, as if fleeing a massive predator.  Or the account of a man’s fishing nets having enormous, unexplainable holes in them. The account of the fisherman whose boat was violently rocked by a “monstrous shadowy shape.”  The account of the 3-year old that fell in the lake, and when asked how he survived, said “the Flathead monster lifted me up.”

Flathead lake Monster
Legit.

The first Flathead monster sighting recorded in writing was in 1889, when 100 steamboat passengers saw the beast and someone freaked out and shot at her. Before that, there was a Kutenai legend that involves a giant monster breaking through the lake ice and drowning half the tribe. All accounts are surprisingly consistent, in spite of people not knowing each other and outsiders not knowing what might be in the lake. “Flessie” (as the locals call her, a play on the very similar “Nessie” of Loch Ness) is between 20 and 40 feet long, eel-like, with dark brown or blue-black skin and dark eyes. Sighting reports roll in at a rate of about 1 to 2 per year, with 92% occurring between April and September.

The only time this varied was in 1993, when there were a whopping 13 sightings, some within 20 minutes of each other. With how big the lake is, that temporal proximity leaves us with a few possibilities: a) someone is lying, b) someone saw a log, or c) there might not be one Flathead Lake monster, but two.

Some reports say that nearly all people local to Flathead Lake have seen Flessie at some point; others say that there are fisherman that have been out on the water for decades without catching so much as a ripple. Regardless, the monster has been around for a long time, and doesn’t seem to be going away. Skeptics blame sightings on everything from a dead monkey to an escaped buffalo, but belief persists. Many who come forward to share their stories have been reluctant to do so, not wanting to seem crazy, but needing to share their story with someone. Perhaps it is to all of our benefit that they do.

You never know when it might be important to know where there’s a monster on the map.

 

What’s your favorite water-based cryptid? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

 

All images are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. See map image here; old-timey illustration here, and glow-in-the-dark eyeballs here.

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The Bunyip: Swamp Monster of the Down Under

Let’s play a game. What is thirteen feet tall, bipedal, and with scales all over?

By Robertpeters9 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
No idea? Okay, what is snake-like, but with flippers, and black fur all over?

Via Wikimedia Commons

Not quite? What is essentially an enormous dog, only aquatic and possibly covered with feathers or featuring tusks?

By Macfarlane, J. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Still don’t get it? Surprise! This is the same creature, one and all. Regardless of how it’s appeared, this puppy has been terrifying Australians for some 50,000 years, ever since they first arrived on the continent. It lurks in the swamps, riverbeds, and billabongs;* howls in the night; and has a hunger for human flesh–especially that of women and children. Ladies and gentlemen, meet…the bunyip!

The stories surrounding this terror are only slightly more straightforward than its physical description. The bunyip was said not only to kill people by eating them, but to crush them to death with its arms. Indigenous Australians thought the bunyip to be a malevolent spirit from the Dreamtime, the realm in which earth itself was created.  As such, it was purported to have supernatural powers,  and on a continent full of things that can easily kill you, it scared some people so bad that they would actually avoid water sources for fear of falling in its clutches. Some have suggested that this might account for its varying descriptions–if a person was lucky enough to run into a bunyip and survive, she was likely too afraid to have taken careful stock of what the thing actually looked like.

When white settlers showed up, stories of the bunyip not only persisted, but proliferated. On July 2, 1845, the Geelong Advertiser provided the first written mention of the creature, interviewing indigenous Australians upon the discovery of a strange new bone:

“[T]hey one and all recognized the bone and picture as belonging to the “Bunyip,” repeating the name without variation. One declared he knew where the whole of the bones of one animal were to be found; another stated his mother was killed by one of them, at at Barwon Lakes, within a few miles of Geelong, and that another woman was killed on the very spot where the punt crosses the Barwon at South Geelong. The most direct evidence of all was that of Mumbowran, who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal.”

They weren’t the only ones talking about it. In 1852, escaped convict William Buckley returned from his adventures living with the Wathaurong people to write a memoir. He himself had seen the bunyip several times–but only a large back drifting through the water, never a tail or head. He, too, knew of a woman who had been killed by one.

But even as the settlers were infected by bunyip fever, descriptions–and interpretation of–the creature began to change. In a rash of sightings in the 1840’s and 50’s, the bunyip went from being a horrifying supernatural predator to a shaggy herbivore the size of a large dog. In March of 1846, the Port Phillip paper reported the sighting of a bunyip (or an immense platypus) sunning himself on the side of the river Yarra. A crowd gathered and a team went to investigate, but the creature disappeared when they came within a few feet away. In 1852, a pair of friends canoeing on Lake Tiberias actually bumped into a bunyip with their boat, whereupon it simply turned and swam out of sight. As the years passed, the bunyip got even smaller–on one occasion in 1886, a couple of horseman came across one near a river, and threw rocks at it to drive it away.

A lack of recent sightings has led some to believe that if the bunyip did exist, it’s gone extinct. But with such a long and complex history, it would be foolhardy to say that nothing could have existed at all.

Even if you disregard supernatural explanations, the bunyip still represents a cultural terror passed down over millennia–a terror that might have been carried over from something very real. It could have been from something as simple as the saltwater crocodile–a known aquatic mankiller–but there were other, bigger things around when humans first arrived on the continent. Take the Diprotodon, the largest known marsupial to have ever lived, who could have existed alongside humans for as much as 20,000 years and whose name means “two forward teeth.” This is the creature crytozoologists point to most often as the inspiration for the bunyip, but there is also the Nototherium, the Zygomaturus, and the “ancient leaper” Palorchestes to consider.

Then we have the theory that for later sightings, witnesses might actually have encountered escaped convicts skulking in the swamp. Nicknamed swaggies, these fellows would evade capture by hiding out in one of the more inhospitable environments of Australia, only to rise, dripping and covered with muck, when the coast was clear. If the observer were forced to choose between that and a supernatural man eater, in theory the former would win, but it’s difficult to say by what margin.

Regardless of what the bunyip is or where it came from, I’ll leave you today with the wise words of a children’s song from Dot and the Kangaroo:

“So you better come come quickly

You better hide very soon

Or the bunyip’s going to get you

In the bunyip

Moon…”

Thanks for reading.

Have you ever seen a bunyip? Perhaps in your local sewer drain, creek, or the quagmire of your neighbor’s overwatered yard? Share your story in the comments below.

*billabong = stagnant river backwaters