Of Hippos and Submarines

When Lugne Mocumin decided to serve with St. Columba in his mission to spread Christianity to the Picts of Northeast Scotland in the middle of the sixth century, he may have gotten a little more than he bargained for. While on its way to visit with the leader of the Picts, a fellow by the name of Brude, the missionary party headed across Loch Ness.

During the trip, the missionaries spied a group of men on the shore engaged in burying a fallen friend, a victim of the ferocious beast that lived in the depths of the lake. Naturally Columba wanted to help in some way and so he ordered Lugne (who truthfully no one in the group really liked that much anyway) to swim out to retrieve the victim’s abandoned boat.

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Not surprisingly the monster of Loch Ness rose up to attack, but Columba was prepared for that. He calmly made the sign of the cross and said: “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” At these words, the monster shrugged and swam away with his serpentine tail between his flippers.

This is the earliest known record of the famed Loch Ness Monster and it comes from Adomnán, the 9th Abbot of Iona who wrote his account about a hundred years after the alleged event. That Adomnán’s distance from the event should be considered when determining the reliability of his account is something even most Nessie enthusiasts (sometimes known as “crazies”) will grudgingly admit.

But the same problem can’t be attributed to the next reported appearance of the monster. After Columba it seems no one heard a peep from the fearsome creature of Loch Ness until just eighty years ago on May 2, 1933 when the Inverness Courier broke the story that a couple of highly reliable witnesses driving a newly completed road along the lake edge had seen, well, something.

The report attracted a great deal of interest (mainly from “crazies”) and soon big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell was on the job. Hired by the London newspaper Daily Mail, Wetherell soon discovered a set of large footprints. Unfortunately for Wetherell and monster enthusiasts everywhere (still known up until 1959 as “crazies”), the prints belonged to a hippopotamus foot umbrella stand.

Shamed by the exposure of the hoax, Wetherall didn’t give up there and in April of 1934, Colonel Robert Wilson, a respected British surgeon, took a stunning picture of the beast, or perhaps of an otter, or maybe a log. The picture, though hardly conclusive evidence of the presence of a lake monster, appeared authentic and it wasn’t until 1994 that the photo was entirely exposed as a hoax perpetrated in part by Wetherell.

Christian Spurling - Loch Ness Monster (1934)
Christian Spurling – Loch Ness Monster (1934) (Photo credit: luvi)

With the exception of a few cryptozoologists (a term coined in 1959 because nobody could get “crazyologist” to stick) who don’t find this whole hoax theory at all credible, the world was shocked when it was revealed that instead of a genuine lake monster, the picture actually showed a plastic mold mounted on a toy submarine.

So, then, what do we make of the story of St. Columba’s redirection of the murderous beast and Lugne Mocumin’s narrow escape? First, I think we need realize that encounters with toy submarines sprouting plastic heads were most likely an uncommon and alarming sight in the sixth century. Second, from some perspectives a hundred-year-old tale of an encounter with an otter or perhaps a log, paired with an untimely death, can look an awful lot like a lake monster. That is if you happen to be a “crazyologist.”

LOOK!  THE LOCH NESS MONSTER!
LOOK! THE LOCH NESS MONSTER! (Photo credit: Extra Medium)

One big puddle

About 7,700 years ago Mt. Mazama blew its top. While I am no expert volcanologist, I’m reasonably sure that this was not your average eruption. Actual volcanologists tell us that the eruption was around 42 times greater than that of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, and since 42 isn’t a round number, I have to assume they aren’t just randomly guessing.

But the exciting thing (if an explosion of molten rock out of the top of a mountain isn’t enough for you) is that this volcano just kept going until the entire thing had collapsed in on itself forming an impressively large caldera where a mountain top once stood. Over the years the steam vents sealed themselves off and the deep caldera became a giant bowl for catching precipitation and snow melt. Since the area receives an average of 44 FEET of snow per year (along with a measly 66 inches of rain), well, let’s just say that’s one big puddle!

Today, nestled in 286 square miles of national park in the middle of Oregon, this former mountain peak is known as Crater Lake. At somewhere around 2000 feet deep, it is the deepest lake in the United States and ranks seventh in the world. Of course since geologists can tend to be a quarrelsome bunch, it should come as no surprise that some have argued for naming it the ninth deepest in the world. I’m sure there’s a strong case for that, but, frankly, I lost interest.

What really matters to me, is that with an approximate volume of 4.49 cubic miles of water, there’s more than enough room to comfortably support the Crater Lake Monster. It’s true that Crater Lake’s elusive pleisiosaur doesn’t have the vast following or pizzazz of its more publicity crazed Scottish cousin Nessie, but then given that the volume of Loch Ness is a mere 1.8 cubic miles, it makes sense that Nessie would be observed more frequently.

Actually there have been shockingly few sightings of the monster in Crater Lake. To some skeptics out there, that might seem like good evidence that there is no such thing as the Crater Lake Monster. From where would it come after all? With no way in or out of the lake and no naturally occurring fish, it doesn’t at first seem like the ideal habitat for a sea monster.

But at least one witness has come forward in the recent past with a compelling monster story. Mattie Fletcher of Albany, Georgia, recounted her terrifying tale in a May 2002 issue of her local newspaper. When the now adult Ms. Fletcher was a young child boating on Crater Lake, she recalls, she observed a shadowy something swimming beneath her rowboat. She says it resembled a dragon, which, if you’ve ever seen the 1977 B movie The Crater Lake Monster (and who hasn’t?) you recognize as a pretty accurate description, though she forgot to mention that it was slow moving and made of paper mache.

And Ms. Fletcher is not the only person ever to claim that Crater Lake is home to a monster. Though numerous Native American legends surround the unusual body of water, the most consistent version tells of a battle between Llao (the god of the underworld) and Skell (the god of the sky). The story explains the massive eruptions of Mt. Mazama and how a demon soldier of Llao may have come to dwell in the depths of the lake.

Regardless which version of the legend though, Native American tribes consistently viewed Crater Lake as ominous and guides generally led exploration parties around the area, avoiding the lake altogether. As a result it wasn’t discovered by pioneers until 1853 when a group of miners looking for gold stumbled upon it.

I can kind of see why the lake might be a little unsettling. I recently visited the national park for the first time and the impossibly blue, incredibly deep waters that are difficult to access even in the height of summer do inspire awe. It’s the kind of place one expects to find a monster and to snap a picture of a long slender neck peaking up to say hello. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time until this monster has a cult following and a catchy nickname of its own.