As the Lake Champlain Ferry pulls into the dock on the Vermont side, you can see how the shady waters could conjure images of an enormous, aquatic serpent. James Taft / Getty Images
Champy, the legendary lake monster of Lake Champlain, boasts a vibrant history filled with intriguing sightings and folklore. For centuries, Vermont locals and visitors alike have claimed to catch glimpses of this mysterious creature, describing it as a massive, serpentlike being gliding gracefully through the dark waters.
From ancient tales to modern-day accounts, Champy’s ambiguous presence continues to leave a trail of wonder and excitement along the shores of the large freshwater lake that straddles the border between Vermont and New York.
A Legend Emerges
Tales surrounding this water-based creature have been around for centuries. The Abenaki and Iroquois tribes, indigenous to the region, hold rich cultural histories intertwined with the enigmatic lake. The tribes revered the sprawling body of water as a sacred place with its own legends.
Among these tales is that of Gitaskog, a large creature resembling a horned serpent or giant snake. It was believed to be a guardian of the waters, both a benevolent protector and a formidable force to be respected.
Early Sightings at Lake Champlain
There are claims that French cartographer Samuel de Champlain, the lake’s namesake, was the first European to have an encounter with the creature back in the 1600s, but historical records have sparked doubts about his account.
Some believe he was likely describing a garpike shown to him by his Indigenous guides. These garpike, particularly the Longnose gar species, have silver-grey scales and long snouts filled with teeth — similar to some descriptions of ol’ Champy.
Is the Longnose gar a needle-nosed fish or a miniature sea monster? You decide.
Galina Savina / Shutterstock
The initial documented sighting of a sea serpent in Lake Champlain occurred on July 22, 1819, near Port Henry, New York. The Plattsburgh Republican newspaper featured a famous account on Saturday, July 24, 1819, where Captain Crum reported spotting a remarkable black serpentine monster in Bulwagga Bay.
According to Crum, the creature was approximately 187 feet long, had a head resembling a seahorse and reared more than 15 feet out of the water. From 200 yards away, he was able to observe some pretty distinct features. He described the creature as having three teeth, eyes the color of a “peeled onion,” a white star on its forehead and a “belt of red” around its neck.
A Tantalizing Offer from P.T. Barnum
The myth gained wider attention in 1873 when showman P.T. Barnum, famous for his spectacles and hoaxes, offered a whopping $50,000 (equivalent to a little over $1 million today) to anyone who could provide evidence of the “great Champlain serpent.” And to no one’s surprise, this fueled public interest, attracting adventurous souls to search for the elusive creature.
However, that same year, a railroad crew reported seeing the head of an enormous serpent with glistening, silvery scales in Lake Champlain. However, the creature and the witnesses went their separate ways after the sighting.
Barnum’s reward remained unclaimed.
The Mansi Photo
The spotlight returned to Champy in 1977, when Sandra Mansi captured the most renowned photograph purportedly depicting the Champ. While on vacation with her fiancé, Mansi claimed to have taken the photo after spotting the mysterious creature in the lake.
Although evaluations in 1981 detected no signs of tampering, skeptics have since highlighted inconsistencies surrounding the circumstances of the photo and the absence of negatives for verification. Critics also noted its resemblance to the infamous hoax photograph of the Loch Ness Monster, known as the “surgeon’s photo.”
Similar to Scotland’s iconic Nessie, Champy has long held the interest of cryptozoology enthusiasts. Some theories propose that Champy could be a zeuglodon (an early ancestor of modern whales) or a plesiosaur (an ancient aquatic reptile). Descriptions of Champy vary, with eyewitnesses reporting lengths ranging from 10 to 200 feet and appearances ranging from serpentine to having a doglike head.
Several explanations have been suggested for Champy sightings, including misidentifications of large fish such as sturgeon or garpike, as well as atmospheric phenomena like temperature inversions that can cause visual distortions.
This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.