Champ surfaces again
Zeuglodon, sauropod, coelacanth, or plesiosaur? Sturgeon or gar pike? Fortuitously sculpted chunk of driftwood, or flock of birds? Hallucination, perhaps induced by a binge at a lakeside tavern? Or flat-out hoax?
The story of Champ, the “Lake Champlain Monster,” has been one of near-religious zeal, unwavering certainty, firm doubts, controversy, bitter rivalries, at least one divorce, financial exhaustion, and shameless marketing spanning more than two hundred years. Robert Bartholomew presents this sometimes funny, sometimes sordid saga in his new book, The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America’s Loch Ness Monster.
What exactly is “untold” here, given that Champ has been written about in book, song, press, and blog, and even occasionally featured on national TV, for a very long time? As he explains in his introduction, Bartholomew sets out to “paint … a detailed picture of the serpent’s rich, colorful history,” giving us in more or less chronological order the “key sightings and events” in the legend of Champ. Here are the Champlain Valley’s major monster episodes in one volume.
Beyond this thoroughness, though, the real clue to the nature of this book is in its subtitle. It’s not simply a rewind of all the supposed sightings of whatever fantastic creature may be lurking in Lake Champlain, but more an analysis of how they may have come about, what prompted them, and what might have actually been seen. Beneath its surface, this book is more about the “why” than the “what” of Champ.
Bartholomew brings a refreshing touch of humor to a topic that many have taken too seriously, at one point calling Champ “a sea serpent with an identity crisis” since the creature has been described in so many ways, many not having much in common with serpents. He is generally respectful of most observers, the ones who’ve come up with even minimally plausible sightings given the tricks large surfaces of water can play on one’s eyes, and so on. He is frequently bemused, though, comparing one account to a Jules Verne novel. And he lets his admitted skepticism slither in from time to time. Nevertheless, Bartholomew favors discussing why folks might have thought they had seen Champ over outright declaring them nuts. At the same time, he makes clear that legitimate scientists have consistently rejected the validity of all reports in the absence of hard evidence, such as a corpse that can be studied.
The author is less charitable with those whose claims are more outlandish, and his descriptions of their farfetched fantasies, self-defenses, and thin skins make for entertaining reading. We learn, for example, of the individual who proposes that Champ, Scotland’s legendary “Nessie,” and the rest of the lot (Canada, China, Norway, and even the Congo River Basin are among other places said to host inscrutable underwater critters) perpetuate their kind by slipping out from time to time for frenzied trysts deep in the Atlantic Ocean.
Bartholomew adopts an even more critical voice in his accounts of how the stories have gotten circulated and in particular of what he considers shoddy journalism. Here he is on solid ground, for much of the periodic fervor over Champ sightings has been fueled by news reporting that cried out for fact checking.
He is particularly pointed in his dismay that in 1970 the popular, but amateur, local folklorist/historian Marjorie Lansing Porter unquestioningly perpetuated the myth that Samuel de Champlain himself was the first to record a “monster”
in the lake, when in truth he did no such thing. All she had to do, Bartholomew points out, was read Champlain’s journals. He posits, with strong justification, that this act of carelessness launched the modern sensationalism over Champ, a sensationalism that was to spiral out of control in the following decades.
Bartholomew goes into detail describing two examples of that spiral: the increasingly caustic battle between two self-appointed (but relatively credible) Champ experts, Plattsburgh State College media professor Philip Reines and Saratoga-area schoolteacher Joseph Zarzynski, and the numerous questions surrounding perhaps the most famous purported photograph of Champ, by Sandra Mansi in 1977. Suffice to say that neither of these long running episodes portrayed the highest qualities and aspirations of the human race; they are where the marital and financial messes mentioned in the second paragraph come into the picture.
The manuscript would have benefited from closer copy-editing. Commas appear where they shouldn’t and not where they should. Some question marks are misplaced, modifiers dangle—we read of “a ‘sea serpent’ that jostled (Joseph Barker’s) boat while fishing”—and verb tenses are not always right (“sunk” in a sentence that cries out for “sank”). “Less” appears where “fewer” is required, and several times “stationary” usurps “stationery.” Sandra Mansi’s nickname is spelled two different ways (Sandi, Sandy) in the same paragraph. Especially in the discussions of the Zarzynski-Reines conflict and Mansi’s motives, and in his criticism of Porter, Bartholomew repeats himself, almost like someone who
is determined to find Champ and so goes looking in the same places over and over.
Factual errors creep in, too. Bartholomew places the Bay of Fundy north of Lake Champlain, whereas it is due east, and gives the distance from Rouses Point to “near Whitehall” as fifty miles, when any good map will show that it is nearly twice that. He attacks the media for sloppy journalism, but his book suffers from sloppy editing.
The volume is illustrated with frequent drawings and photographs. For the most part, the sketches are amateurish and do not add much to the narrative, and the photos are of uneven quality. In the author’s defense, though, the photos’ quality and provenance, particularly concerning the Mansi image, are an important part of the story.
One strength of the book is that it’s thoroughly documented, with extensive footnotes that reveal a wide range of source material. Poor documentation has been the downfall of almost all Champ reports, and it is to Bartholomew’s credit that he not only points this out, but also avoids falling into that trap himself.
Perhaps the best chapter is the final one, wherein Bartholomew discourses on why we want to see Champ and how this impulse has inspired so many sightings. “Believing is seeing,” he comments. Here again, though, he often repeats himself, going over ground covered in an earlier chapter.
Ultimately, the book, like most, has its good points and bad. For anyone with an interest in the fabled lake that defines the eastern boundary of much of the Adirondacks, it’s an enjoyable and enlightening read. As Bartholomew himself says, while adopting the gender that most people ascribe to Whatever-it-is, “The history of Champ reveals more about us than it does about him.” ■