Monday, February 20, 2017

Champ- Vermont

Lake Champlain is a long, narrow body of water situated primarily in Vermont, though sizeable portions of it extend into New York and the Canadian province of Quebec. The lake is named after Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer who mapped much of the area along the Saint Lawrence Seaway and founded the colony of New France.

Like many large bodies of water across the world, Lake Champlain is believed to be the home of a mysterious aquatic monster. Nicknamed Champ, or affectionately “Champy” by locals, the creature is said to be a dark gray or black serpentine beast with a long, swan-like neck and several humps on its back. Fairly typical for lake beasties, really.

According to some sources, legends of a monster living in the lake go back to the original Abenaki peoples who called it Tatoskok. The first known account by a European was in 1819 when a scow captain claimed to have seen a bizarre looking “black monster” that had a head like a “sea horse”, three teeth, onion-colored eyes, a white star on its forehead and a belt of red around its neck. True or not, this incident marked the start of a string of sightings throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Champ quickly became a popular legend around the Champlain Valley, to the point that in 1873 famous showman P.T. Barnum offered a substantial reward for the beast’s capture.

Perhaps the most famous piece of evidence for Champ was a photo taken in 1977 by Sandra Mansi. According to Mansi, she was at the lake with her fiancée and two children when what appeared to be an animal with a long, swan-like neck suddenly emerged from the water only about 150 feet away. As Sandra and her fiancée scrambled to get the children out of the water, the object appeared to move as if peering around. Sandra snapped a single photo of the thing before it sank back below the waves once more.

The photo very clearly depicts what appears to be the humped back and snake-like head of some sort of creature. While many have claimed that the object in the photo is clearly a living animal, science writer Darren Naish, along with other skeptics, believes it is only a submerged log that briefly bobbed to the surface before sinking again. His Tetrapod Zoology blog has some pretty interesting model images to back up his claim.

Champ, like Nessie and many other lake monsters, is popularly thought to be a surviving plesiosaur. However as a cold-blooded reptile, a plesiosaur would likely not have been able to tolerate the frigid waters of the lake. There is also the fact that plesiosaurs had stiff necks held out straight in front of them, whereas Champ and its cousins often have flexible, swan-like necks. While it’s certainly possible that over millions of years plesiosaurs developed flexible necks and a warm-blooded metabolism, there is actually a more plausible candidate for the monster’s identity (assuming it is a real animal): a long-necked seal.

In his 1968 book “In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents”, cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans postulated that aquatic cryptids could be grouped into nine categories, one of which was a long-necked seal. But even before Heuvelmans, C.A. Oudemans wrote in his 1892 book The Great Sea Serpent” of his theory that sea and lake monsters were actually a kind of swan-necked pinniped (the group of animals to which seals belong along with sea lions and walruses). Even earlier than this, though, comes a description of a long-necked seal in James Parsons 1751 “A dissertation upon the Class of the Phocae Marinae” in which he apparently makes a scientific description based on what appears to be an actual specimen in his possession (a specimen which has, naturally, disappeared).

There is actual fossil evidence for long-necked seals. Acrophoca longirostris is a pinniped from the Miocene and Pliocene coast of Argentina and Chile that has a remarkably elongated neck. Although its length is nowhere near the plesiosaur-level length of reported lake monsters, it does provide a tentative clue to the existence of  long-necked seals.

It’s worth noting that one of the closest living relatives of Acrophoca is believed to be the leopard seal, Hydrurga leptonyx, an Antarctic predator that has an eerie, almost reptilian appearance. If a possible Acrophoca descendant bore a similar appearance to its southern cousin, one could see how it might be mistaken for a plesiosaur.

Some sightings of Champ may actually be explained by an unusual property of the lake itself. When wind blows for long periods across the surface of a long, narrow body of water such as Champlain, the force actually pushes the water and causes it to pile up to one side. When the wind stops, this water flows back and begins to slosh back and forth across the lake, creating an oscillating wave called a seiche. You can see a similar phenomenon by sloshing around in a bathtub full of water. This long, low wave may account for the frequent sightings of a wake or broad hump moving across the lake’s surface.

Lake Champlain has a second, unseen oscillating seiche beneath the surface. As with many lakes, Champlain is stratified into an upper layer of warm water lying over a layer of deeper, colder water. The layers are separated by a distinct boundary called a thermocline. When the wind pushes on the lake’s surface, it piles up the top warm layer, subsequently causing the colder lower layer to be pushed to the opposite side. When the wind stops and the surface begins to oscillate back and forth, the cold water rushes back, setting up its own wave below the surface. Here’s where monster sightings come in. The underwater seiche can be from 30 to 300 feet high! Some researchers speculate that these huge oscillations could stir up sunken logs and other debris that pop up to the surface briefly before sinking back down again, creating the illusion of a monster bobbing to the surface.

Whatever the true nature of Champ- living plesiosaur, swan-necked seal or merely  waterlogged flotsam- the beast has become a much-beloved legend among the locals who live around the lake, and has even received several festivals held in its honor.


In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents by Bernard Heuvelmans

The Great Sea-Serpent: An Historical and Critical Treatise by C.A. Oudemans

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Stego-Squid Festival Flyer

Here's part of a cross-over between my state cryptids blog and my "found object" fiction project, The Astarapomp Dossier

This is a flyer for a fictional festival in Grenhaven, Connecticut (my answer to H. P. Lovecraft's Arkham) celebrating the mysterious (and also fictional) Stego-squids that inhabit the estuary at the mouth of the Connecticut River.

Considering how big the Connecticut River is, and how important it has been to maritime history and trade in New England, it's rather sad that the river has no famous monsters to call its own. So I made some! See if you can guess what sort of creature the Stego-squid actually is. (Hint: it's not actually a cephalopod)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Alien Meccano-Mummy- North Dakota

Late at night on August 26th, 1975, Sandra Larson, her boyfriend and her daughter, Jackie, were driving to Bismarck, North Dakota when a collection of rumbling, orange orbs descended from the sky and approached their car. Suddenly all three reported a strange feeling of being "stuck", as if frozen in ice. Suddenly Sandra, who had been driving, was sitting in the backseat while her daughter had moved to the front. Feeling disoriented, the group pulled over at a gas station only to discover that they were missing a whole hour of time.

Later Sandra and Jackie would undergo hypnosis by psychologist R. Leo Sprinkle of the University of Wyoming. Sandra would recall being levitated towards one of the UFOs, where she was given a medical exam by a bizarre being. According to her, the creature had large, bulging eyes that stared out of a head covered in wrappings "like a mummy". It's arms were made out of jointed strips of metal like a Meccano set (a metal toy-building kit similar to an Erector set). It's body was covered in what she described as "brown vinyl".

The being performed several strange experiments on her, such as rubbing a clear liquid on her body and taking a painful scrapping of the inside of her nose with an instrument. At one point Sandra even felt as if her brain had been removed from her skull.

In later hypnosis sessions with Sprinkle, Sandra would recall being visited by this being and its fellows earlier in her life, including several instances where she was levitated through solid walls.

This bizarre case occupies a unique point in the history of UFO research. Since its inception, the field of ufology has been divided into two camps- those who try to examine the phenomenon of UFOs and alleged alien encounters from a scientific perspective, and those who approach it from a more spiritual or psychological angle. Scientific investigators tried to study these cases as either genuine visitations by extraterrestrial entities or as hallucinations caused by sleep paralysis, hypnogogia or misidentification of natural phenomena. Those looking at the phenomenon spiritually and psychologically focus on the perceptions and feelings of the abductees themselves. Some perceive the encounters as a sort of New Age communion with higher beings. Others see them as mental constructs that the abductees have created to deal with trauma and other emotionally-charged experiences.  The Sandra Larson case was one of the first to be examined by both camps and would eventually lead to a partial melding of the two groups which has continued into the modern era of UFO investigations.


The Big Book of UFOS by Chris A. Rutkowksi.

An article from Week in Weird on Abductions and Hypnosis

A chronology of UFO incidents

HowStuffWorks article on the encounter

The Curse of the Space Mummies

Sunday, December 11, 2016

New Cryptid Culture article

The newest issue of Cryptid Culture came out, well, about a month ago. But I haven't had time to post about it until now...

Anyway, I wrote another article for this issue. This time I discuss the enigmatic deep-sea organism called Paleodictyon. This critter builds hexagonal structures on the sea bed made of numerous interconnected burrows. Although these burrows are well-documented- and are even known from fossils going all the way back to the Precambrian!- the actual creature itself has never been observed.

Some researchers believe it is a kind of giant amoeba called a xenophyophore. Others think it may be a burrowing sponge. Whatever it is, you can read all about it in the latest issue, which you can order here.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Gray Aliens- New Hampshire

On the night of September 19, 1961 Betty and Barney Hill were driving to their home in New Hampshire after a trip to Quebec when they noticed a strange light following them in the sky. They stopped to watch the object for a bit then continued to drive. When they rounded a corner, they found the strange glowing object hovering over the highway in front of them. Barney got out to have a closer look and described the craft as being disk-shaped with a row of windows around its edge through which he could see several silhouetted figures. As he watched, a pair of fins or wings unfolded from the sides of the craft.

Terrified, the Hills  quickly got back into their car and sped home with the ship following close behind. For days afterwards Betty and Barney experienced anxiety and strange fragmented dreams about being led through the woods by odd, gray-skinned men.  Eventually they phoned the local air force base to relate their story, and Betty shared her experience with a couple close friends. Soon their tale began to circulate among UFO enthusiasts who eventually invited them to speak at a conference in 1963.  Enthusiastic members of the audience encouraged the Hills to see a clinical hypnotist to recall more of their story. They met with Dr. Benjamin Simon, a psychiatrist specializing in trauma-induced amnesia.

Betty and Barney Hill.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Simon’s hypnosis sessions slowly drew out a complete abduction narrative. Betty described the two of them being led aboard the craft by the aliens. Inside, the they were given medical examinations which involved the beings taking samples of their hair, skin and fingernails and examining their mouths, ears and genitals. Betty further described having a conversation with the apparent leader of the beings. When she asked him where he came from, he pulled down a star-chart to show her his home planet. Betty would later reproduce this map from memory and publish it in a number of UFO-related magazines. Amateur astronomer Marjorie Fish would eventually identify the stars in the map as Zeta 1 and Zeta 2 Reticuli, a binary system in the southern constellation of Reticulum (thus leading to another name for this type of alien, Zeta Reticulans).

The Hill’s descriptions of the beings that abducted them varied somewhat. Both described them as being short with gray skin and large heads that tapered to narrow chins. Outfit-wise, they were dressed in trousers and jackets without buttons or zippers.  Betty initially claimed the aliens had black hair and bulbous noses like Jimmy Durante, though she would later describe them as looking a bit like Tibetans or Amerindians from Patagonia. Barney recalled them having no noses, with only slits for nostrils, and another slit for a mouth.  Their leader, he claimed, wore a black scarf and a billed cap or hat. Under hypnosis, Barney would often become terrified by their eyes, which he claimed were so large and long that they wrapped partway around their heads.

Prior to the Hill’s abduction, the majority of reported alien encounters involved beings that looked like tall, blond beautiful humans. These benevolent “Nordics” often claimed to be from Venus, and said they had initiated contact with humans to bring offers of peace or warnings about the dangers mankind posed to the Earth. Barney and Betty’s tale marked a shift towards more nightmarish abductions where hypnotized humans were subjected to strange, painful and frightening medical procedures by large-eyed, gray-skinned beings.  While reports of encounters with such creatures had occurred before the Hill case, this was the incident that brought the imagery into popular culture.

The Hill case was dramatized in the 1975 TV movie The UFO Incident with James Earl Jones as Barney and Estelle Parsons as Betty.

Skeptics have come up with various theories to explain what happened to the Hills. Some have suggested that a combination of fatigue and stress caused Betty and Barney to experience hypnogogic hallucinations (hallucinations experienced when one is halfway between being asleep and awake) that were later elaborated on by their unconscious minds through nightmare and false memories.

As to the appearance of the beings, it is worth mentioning that extraterrestrials with bulbous heads and large eyes are not unprecedented. They have been a staple of science fiction tales going all the way back to the 19th century. If one takes a skeptical view of the Hill case, it’s not too difficult to imagine that Betty and Barney had encountered these depictions before and ended up weaving this image of an “alien” into their recollections of their abduction.

On an additional note, while the Hill case first brought the image of the Gray Alien into popular culture, the aliens’ current, much more stylized appearance- black, oval eyes, triangular faces, thin, wispy bodies- did not fully coalesce until the publication of the book Communion by Whitley Strieber in 1987. Like the Hills, Strieber described multiple frightening encounters with large-headed and large-eyed beings. His experiences, though, eventually developed a more spiritual undertone harkening back to the older encounters with peaceful Nordics bringing enlightenment to mankind.


The Big Book of UFOs by Chris A. Rutkowski

The Field Guide to Extraterrestrials by Patrick Huyghe

Communion: A True Story by Whitley Strieber

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Zwaanendael Mermaid- Delaware

For a brief period in 1631, Dutch colonists in North America tried to establish a small settlement named Zwaanendael along the Delaware River. Unfortunately, the colony did not last more than a year before it was destroyed in a skirmish with local Native Americans.

Despite its brief existence, Zwaanendael is credited as the first known European settlement in the region that would become Delaware, and the 300th anniversary of its founding was commemorated with the creation of the Zwaanendael Museum. Despite its name, the Museum focuses not on the ill-fated colony, but on the entire history of southeastern Delaware as a whole. There are exhibits on the ecology of the river estuary, local history- particularly the British attack on the city of Lewes in the War of 1812- and the lighthouses of the region.

The Zwaanendael Museum, Modeled after the town hall in Hoorn, the Netherlands. Photo from WIkimedia Commons, uploaded by user Smallbones.

The Museum also houses a strange little curiosity: a mummified “mermaid” in its own blue velvet-lined glass case. The mermaid was given to the prominent Martin family in the city of Lewes (built on the site of the vanished Dutch colony) by a sea captain. In 1941, the mummy was permanently lent to the Museum until 1985 when locals bought the creature from the Martin’s estate to ensure that it remained a permanent fixture of the museum.

The Zwaanendael mermaid bears little resemble to the classic image of these aquatic beings as attractive women with fish tails. A wide toothy mouth and large, ridged eye sockets dominate its simian face. Its hands are clawed like a reptile’s. It’s torso is covered in bony ridges. Its skin and scales are an ashy gray-black  On top of all that, the creature is small- no more than a foot or so in length. It bears a much closer resemblance to its “cousin”, the Fiji Mermaid, made famous by P.T. Barnum. Both creatures are, of course, clever taxidermy specimens akin to jackalopes, jenny hanivers, or fur-bearing trouts. They are also part of a larger tradition of taxidermied monsters that have their roots in 18th century Japan.

Misemono were a popular type of carnival in Old Edo (modern-day Tokyo). They featured all manner of entertainments- actors, storytellers, exotic animals, local craftsmen- which were believed to bring good luck and fortune to attendees. One of the more unusual sights at the misemono were the bodies of mermaids or ningyo. Unlike the beautiful mermaids of Europe and the Mediterranean, ningyo were more monstrous and fish-like. In Japanese legends, eating the flesh of one of these creatures was said to grant renewed youth and immortality, though obtaining this delicacy often leads to dire consequences since ningyo could curse those who killed their kin. They could even destroy entire towns with hurricanes and tsunami.

Despite the risks, it was still popular to display mummified “ningyo” at carnivals in the hopes that at least a little of that coveted youth and longevity would rub off on attendees without requiring them to actually eat the creature’s flesh.  And if a mermaid was too hard to come by, a taxidermied substitute certainly wouldn’t hurt. Thus there developed a cottage industry of fishermen constructing ningyo out of the bodies of fish and small monkeys dressed up with paper-maché, wood and lacquer.
The ubiquity of fake ningyo meant that inevitably more than a few of them would make their way overseas, brought home as curiosities by sailors from America and Europe, where the folklore behind the creatures was lost, leaving them blank slants upon which others could write their own mythologies.

Ningyo are actually only one category of manufactured Japanese monsters. Mummified oni, kappa, tengu and other yokai were also common created as carnival attractions. Some of them even ended up at Buddhist temples, perhaps to add a bit of tangibility to the unseen supernatural world.


The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons: A Field Guide to Japanese Yokai, written and illustrated by Matthew Meyer

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Fresno Nightcrawlers Variant 3: Enzymes of the Leviathan

I’m fascinated by the concept of beings existing in higher dimensions beyond the four that we know. Beings that we see only fleetingly as they move through our plane of existence. In order to get a better handle on this idea, imagine a two-dimensional being living on a flat surface that has length and width but no depth. A three-dimensional creature passing into this 2-D universe would only be visible as the part of them that is immediately passing through the plane. Thus, they would appear as “slices” of the whole. As a shifting 2-D blob, seeming to expand and contract and twist. If you’ve ever read the book Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott, you’ll have a good idea of what I’m talking about.
Now, imagine that one of these higher-dimensional beings is so immense that even the parts that do pass into our dimension- parts which seem large to us- are actually just the tiniest cell components to this leviathan.

This is what I’ve imagined for this version of the Fresno Nightcrawlers. Here, the “walking wishbones” are actually gigantic versions of microscopic proteins known as kinesins. Within every cell is a network of strands called microtubules which act as a sort of “railway” for the transport of important molecules and cellular building blocks. Kinesins are proteins that transport these molecular cargos along the microtubules via a long chain attached to them. To move, kinesins use a “hand-over-hand” (or, more accurately, “protein head over protein head”) motion which looks remarkably like walking.

Here’s an awesome animation of kinesin at work:

In this scenario, the Nightcrawlers are the only visible part of the cellular structure with the cargo, attachment chain and microtubule pathway the “creature” is moving on existing in a dimension we can’t see. 

Why, though, is this one component visible in our dimension? Perhaps there is something about the physical structure of our universe that makes them more stable or efficient, much like how many enzymes work best in a warmer environment.

Or perhaps the appearance of these beings in our dimension was only a fleeting accident that just happened to be caught on film.

Extrapolating from the idea of the Nightcrawlers as giant kinesin proteins, I also created a few more giant molecules from this unfathomably huge beast that might accidentally drift into our plane of existence for a few moments.

Ribosomes are bundles of RNA and proteins that read the cell’s DNA to build new proteins.

Molecular Chaperones are containers that guide freshly-formed protein chains into the proper shapes to create functional enzymes.

ATP Synthase is a large molecule embedded in the cell membrane that is used to generate ATP (adenosine triphosphate) an essential molecule that is used as an energy source in the cell.

Proteosomes and Ubiquitin are enzymes designed to break down other enzymes and proteins that are no longer needed.  Ubiquitin attaches a tag to proteins, and proteosome attacks these marked molecules, breaking them down into its constituent amino acids.

There would, of course, be billions of molecules in this higher-dimensional titan that would have no equivalent to Earthly structures. Thus the inclusion of an “Unkown Organelle”

On a final note, here’s another fun little animation explaining the role of kinesin in the body:


Our Molecular Nature: The Body's Motors, Machines and Messages by David S. Goodsell