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Is Lake Champlain Home to a Sea Serpent?

What's 10,000 years old, is 12 to 20 meters from head to tail, swims like a sea serpent, and may or may not exist? The answer is "Champ," the legendary denizen of Lake Champlain, a narrow, 200 kilometer-long freshwater lake straddling New York State and Burlington Vermont in the northeastern U.S.

This lake has been famous for its beauty ever since 1609, when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain first discovered it, and noted in his journal that he'd seen a long, serpent-like creature surfacing near his ship. There have been over 300 reported sightings since then.

Despite all those eyewitness accounts, and the grainy photos, Dick Affolter, a local trial lawyer and avid fisherman, remained skeptical. That is, until the late afternoon of July 11, 2005, when he was out fishing on the lake with his son-in-law,  Pete Bodette.

"Now I'm a believer!" says Affolter. "When we stopped to put our fishing lines in the lake, Pete saw what we both thought was a log or a railroad tie."

"We just kept looking at it," adds Bodette, "but something just didn't look right about it - whether it was the shine on it,  or whether it was the subtle movement of it. We slowly trolled over to it." Affolter says "It turns out it was a living thing with a back that was a good three or four meters long. It had what seemed to be a serpent body. The head seemed to have the shape of a sledgehammer to me, but bigger. When I saw the head I couldn't see whether it had eyes or gills,  or anything."

The two men thought the creature might be a giant sturgeon - the delicious, prehistoric fish species that inhabits Lake Champlain. Soon, whatever-it-was dropped straight down, out of sight, like a submarine. This in itself was unique in the two men's wide experience.

They continued to fish, and speculate. When the creature reappeared, close up, about an hour later, Bodette picked up his video camera and began to film the animal from the ship's bow, briefly eclipsing Affolter's view.

"Although you must have seen it at one point because you shouted out 'It's going to ram us!' laughs Bodette. "Right!" agrees Affolter. "It was moving at a pretty low speed, but it was coming right toward us." When asked whether they were frightened, Bodette shakes his head. "Not at all. We were just intrigued." "Overall [it was] not frightening," says Affolter, "just very confusing to the perception."

The Champ legend is a big draw for tourists to Burlington, Vermont, and environs. At the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, a large multidisciplinary facility devoted to the region, two teens work their way through "The Legend of Champ," an exhibit devoted to the Champ debate. When asked whether he believes Champ really exists, the first boy quickly responds: "Sure! Why not? As long as he's friendly!" The other boy takes a more contemplative approach: "I guess so. We haven't found out if all the dinosaurs are really extinct. So my theory is it could be that."

J. Ellen Marsden, a fisheries professor of at the Rubinstein School of the Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, rejects the Champ-as-dinosaur theory. She says that in order for a single dinosaur like Champ to exist, there'd have to be one animal "… that came into the Champlain Sea  when it was open to the Atlantic Ocean 10,000 years ago and has been there ever since." The existence of a 10,000 year old animal boggles our scientific comprehension. It's way off the map as far as anything we know is possible so far."

Marsden also dismisses the idea that there is a breeding population of Champs. She says that in order for a species to sustain itself over 10,000 years, there would have to be at least 30 or so animals alive at the same time and actively reproducing, and that that many animals, that large, would mean many more sightings. Yet there is one theory Marsden does find scientifically plausible.

"Many of the sea serpent legends are hypothesized to be surrounding an animal that is known as an 'Oar Fish' that can readily grow to ten meters or more," she says. "It's sinuous. It has a very big head. It has a beard-like growth on its underside. It would look really, really strange even to somebody who is used to seeing fish. She adds that it is extremely unlikely, but it could have wandered into Lake Champlain's freshwater system. "It might not live long," she says "but even one sighting would create lots of legends of Champ."

Since science seems unable, for now, to explain the Champ phenomenon, famed Vermont storyteller Joe Citro says there are some compelling metaphysical theories to consider. As one example, he suggests that portions of Lake Champlain may be unstuck in time, and that Champ sightings are really glimpses through a window onto the lake's distant past. And there are other tantalizing possibilities. "Still," he says, "I think we do need mysteries. We need something to keep the child in us alive. I see the surface of the lake as a veil that shrouds a mystery. We don't know what's underwater. We don't know what's under that lake. Anything could be there. And Champ is an excellent candidate!"

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