This is the second in a series of posts examining cryptids (“hidden” animals said to exist based on local testimony), namely lake monsters, in terms of the folklore, tradition, and native tales of these creatures.
The first part is here: Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports
What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?
As I noted in part one, Michel Meurger’s 1988 Lake Monster Traditions (LMT) supports the view that reliance on folklore and traditional stories as evidence of cryptids is problematic for many reasons. Chapter 1 of the book is called “The Enquiry” as Meurger and Claude Gagnon undertake field work to the lakes of Quebec in 1981. Many locations are mentioned but the main reports focus on ten lakes that have known lake creature lore.
The creatures reports can be categorized into six general types:
- big fish
- living log
At the end of the chapter, there is a handy table that shows either that many different kinds of monsters may live in the same lake, or that we can’t accurately pin down a solid description of several of the famous lake denizens. The latter is far more probable. Decades of attempts have been made to find biological evidence for the source of mystery animal reports in lakes around the world. No cryptid has been discovered.
As I was reading this chapter, the lake monster tropes became noticable. Tropes are commonly occurring storytelling devices and conventions. Most of us are used to hearing stories about Nessie and maybe Champ (of Lake Champlain) and the common themes of their sightings. But lake monster tropes show up all over the world. Many are exhibited by the stories collected here from eastern Canada.
Here are the tropes I identified and what they might mean in context of a real world discovery.
Lake Monster Tropes
Mysterious connections to another nearby lake are proposed that allow the beasts to travel between water bodies, and an unsuspecting diver or troubled swimmer to be drawn down into the current and turn up in another water body. Some drowning tragedies are attributed to this. Boaters note that they have difficulty controlling the boat in particular areas of the lake. There is said to be a tunnel between lakes Massawippi and Memphremagog that may account for the serpent-like animal observed in both locations.
This idea of underground “rivers” or caverns is SO common, it appears in all sorts of contexts unrelated to monsters. As any hydrogeologist will tell you (including me), there are really no such things. Groundwater doesn’t work that way. The only natural “caverns” underground transmitting water are in areas of “karst” (the rock has dissolved along preferential pathways giving us caverns and caves) or lava tubes. There are some water holes called cenotes that are the surface connections to underwater caverns. But these are not lake-sized and they don’t have monsters.
Bedrock is generally dense but shot through with fractures and faults as well as pore spaces. These small openings do transmit water but are so tiny that they more often serve to filter the water of all sediment instead of allowing any non-microscopic animal to pass through. There are simply not underground passages large enough for animals or people to traverse.
Unless engineers excavated a tunnel from one site to another underwater (quite the feat and not easily hidden), the passageway under the water is false and can be discarded.
There certainly are spectacular underwater caves and caverns. But again, as with the underwater passages, these will occur in areas of “karst” – limestone bedrock that has dissolved and left large openings.
Lake bottoms may be uneven and gouged out by erosion from incoming streams and prehistoric glacial activity that can create an unusual bathymetry. It’s common to hear that the local lake monster can’t be spotted by sonar because it hides in an underwater cavern. That assumes not only a cavern but a rather smart monster. Many lakes have been mapped (through remote sensing) so we know their bathymetry fairly well these days. But when it comes to stories about lake monsters lairs, no one will refer to bathymetric maps that confirm it. It’s just part of the story.
This one is pretty straightforward. There are no bottomless lakes – that is impossible. But people still love to use that term. Mike Dash writing for the Charles Fort Institute notes:
No one has ever taken a census of all the “bottomless lakes” there are in the world, but the number must run to hundreds, if not thousands.
He also explains that the idea of a bottomless lake comes from a time when people didn’t travel much. In the past, depths of water could be measured with no more than a weighted line. Bottomlessness is part of the “mythological landscape” the Meurger mentions that contributes to the fear and mystery. So does the monster story that often comes with every lake.
Stranded prehistoric creature
A very fun and media-grabbing way to interpret lake monsters is that it is a prehistoric creature that science had determined is extinct but somehow it survived just in this place. Plesiosaurs and marine mammals like primitive whales and giant seals are the most common idea. Champ is now plugged as Tanystropheus. All these ideas are ridiculous for many reasons. Foremost, the prehistoric survivor paradigm has no evidence to back it up and it’s unscientific.
To suggest that these mystery animals are not only real (with their descriptions taken at face value, a dangerous assumption to make), but surviving descendants of an extinct population is unjustifiable speculation. As a corollary, one must also conclude that the fossil record is unreliable. Though it IS imperfect, it’s really not as bad as people think it is…
[S]ome cryptozoology researchers not only assume some cryptids are prehistoric survivors but they speculate on how further evolution occurred to the present time—a marine animal adapts to fresh water, it might have grown spines, perhaps ancient whale lineages became more serpent-like (and account for sea serpent sightings), etc. Such speculation is fun and entertaining, but to suggest they are genuine is ludicrous to those who actually study the fossils of those animals.
~Dr. Darren Naish, palaeontologist
For more on this get The Cryptozoologicon (Naish, Conway and Koseman).
Besides the implausibility of a large extinct creature evading our detection all this time, this idea is ignorant of geology (again, just like with hydrogeology). Most of these northern latitudes lakes were once covered by glaciers. They were solid ice, nothing existed there. You can’t get a several million year old animal in a lake that is only a million years old. Math will also get you every time. It’s also a fallacy to assume geologic upheavals happen overnight stranding the animal in a land-locked lack when the connection to the sea was “just there yesterday!”.
The prehistoric survivor idea is a no-go.
Lake islands seem to be shrouded in superstition. The natives may place special significance on an island as sacred or dangerous, it was believed to be a lair of the monster or of gods and off limits to visit. In Pohenegamook, a creature, Ponik, was said to be encounted between two islands. In the case of Skinner’s Island, there is cavern that, legend has it, Uriah Skinner used to hide his smuggling boat especially during prohibition (p87). He would escape into the mist. Shades of “Scooby-Doo”, I thought. Islands in the “haunted” lake add to the mythical landscape.
Logs come to life
Log monsters don’t sound as exciting as horse-headed lake monsters. But in many lakes used for logging (transporting logs), log-like mystery animals are historically reported. The logs become alive. In a supernatural spin, at Lake Saint-Francois, dead trees transformed into fish before witnesses’ eyes. A black trunk comes to life when touched. But we see no head or tail.
This chapter mentions the “maskinonge” (muskellonge, muskie, pike) in the context of the enormous fish. In Lake Maskinonge, the locals were frightened at the monstrous size of some fish. The PA Fish and Boat Commission notes that muskies may bask at the surface. Could they be the logs come to life when touched? Sturgeon are also mentioned as looking like “floating logs”.
The famous Loch Ness Surgeon’s photo is said to depict a toy submarine with a head attached. But the idea of real submersibles being interpreted as monsters was far more common than I knew. Tim Dinsdale at Loch Ness promoted the idea that during WW2, submarines were tested in the loch, leading to some monster reports. In 1933, there was a media representation of a submarine as monster. This seemed to stick suggesting that such literary interpretations were influential in the public perception of lake mysteries.
In 1970, the movie Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was set at Loch Ness where the monster was a sub manned by little people. The sub theme occurred on the other side of the Atlantic too. People saw machines instead of flesh and blood creatures. They observed periscopes in the water instead of snakelike necks. Residents of Lake Aylmer described their creature as a “tiny submarine with a horse’s head”. Sound familiar?
Lake Megantic was the scene of a made up story of a German submarine found by a team of divers. It was based on rumors that submarines made it into the St Lawrence during WW2. The story reinforced an existing rumor and thus gained credence.
Sometimes connected to the idea that the “monster” is a machine is the reporting of lights associated with sightings. People report lights under or over the waters. The location of the monster is revealed by a “sudden luminosity” or iridescent waters or accompanied by a ball of fire. These luminous phenomena are reported for Lac-des-Piles but also the Saint-Maurice river where the creature is interpreted to be a UFO-alien aquatic monster. Lake Brompton was also associated with a dramatic luminous phenomenon: a flaming apparition frightened native Algonkin fishermen who were then overtaken by a sudden squall – sudden nasty storms also being a frequently mentioned characteristic of these lakes.
Strange lights are a key aspect of mystery spots the world over. It also gives a clear connection to UFOs.
In general, lake monsters the world over are in some aspect or another associated with other episodes of what Forteans call “high strangeness” – a series of bizarre and often absurd phenomena associated in time or with a place. So, we get lake monsters in context with ghosts (of people who have drowned), UFOs (sightings and occupants), and various unusual and questionable events. Unusual animals are just part of the suite of weirdness at some locations. Lake Brompton, for example, was referred to as having a “Bermuda Triangle” reputation. Coining such areas as mystery spots is not unusual; the bizarre tails naturally intertwine and meld together over history and with media help. The lake monster is just the star of the show.
All these tropes are handy go-to themes. We are used to hearing them in these contexts but that does not make them valid. As I described, they have little basis in reality and natural understanding. Therefore, is it reasonable to treat the monster reports differently?
Again, in the book, we are reminded that the monster reports collected and passed on are not a homogenous body of observations by zoologists. Far from it. They are heterogenous and can be understood in terms of different frameworks of culture and shifting meanings through time. Zoology-inclined researchers will interpret the stories as evidence for a breeding area of yet-to-be-discovered animals. Folklorists see it as an area of collective belief. People spread the belief and it lives on.
The chapter also mentions various mistakes that have propagated the belief, especially if the oral tale gets memorialized in the local paper. For example, an old map of Memphremagog showed an erroneous measure of the depth of over 600 feet. Later soundings showed this was inaccurate, reaching a maximum of only 351 feet. Yet, the map was used to reinforce the “deep” myth.
A joke article that seemingly confirmed the monster tales of Lake Aylmer resulted in some people trying to sell their lakeshore homes. This shows the power of reinforcement via the written word. Yet it doesn’t always work. With the “Horse Head” of Blue Sea Lake, the monster was said to have cleared an overland path through the earth. The local press noted this was a glacial trace. That was not nearly as good a story.
The monsters of the past either seem more dangerous (eating people, requiring blood sacrifice) or more domestic and social (accepting cream in bowls from the shore). The areas where they reside are no longer rural. As with Loch Ness, the inclusion of a transportation route resulted in an influx of tourism. The author notes that the lake monster image may be an expression of the local distaste for tourism and a modern society intruding on them.
None of the lake monsters described were subjected to the consumerization as much as Champ or Nessie have been but the effect is still evident. The author exclaims, “Oh tourism! What mysterious things are done in your name!” (p 93) He also chastises journalists for building “houses of cards, of guile and of puns, on the foundations of racism” in reporting these stories as news.
The bottom line may be that all lakes have their monster rumors (as noted by a an anthropologist specializing in pre-history Quebec). By selecting to focus on certain aspects of the legend, we can build up a creature that sounds coherent but it’s oversimplified. The media reports of the creatures miss the boat.
The next chapter will connect these traditions to European concepts.
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