Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
The centuries-old legend of a lake creature is alive today thanks to a handful of folks who are driven by scholarship, obsession and the irresistible mystery.
There it … there it is! Over by that fishing boat. No, there! Omigosh, they don’t see it! They must think it’s a log.
Unless it is a log.
Or a catfish. Or an otter. Or a boat wake.
But it also could be a sea serpent. (It could be.)
For hundreds of years, people have glanced across the glistening waters of Lake Pepin, where the Mississippi River widens to a basin as long and wide as Scotland’s famous Loch Ness (the same size!), and seen … something.
Most often, the sight turns out to be a dead tree hung up on a sandbar, or a huge sturgeon breaking the surface, or the wake of a boat unfurling toward shore.
But not always. (Maybe.)
“I firmly believe there was something at one time,” said Jil Garry, who owns Treats and Treasures in Lake City, Minn., a town of 5,000 on Lake Pepin.
Garry sells T-shirts, bibs, mugs and candy depicting a friendly Pepie, which is what everyone calls the (possible) creature. “There were those accounts of French explorers and the newspaper stories,” she said, then shrugged. “But now?”
Larry Nielson, who plies the lake daily offering tourists excursions on his sparkling paddlewheeler, Pearl of the Lake, doesn’t know, either. A few years ago, he offered a $50,000 reward to anyone providing “undisputable evidence that proves the existence of the real live creature living in Lake Pepin,” according to www.pepie.net.
So far, there hasn’t been a single claim, although he added, half-laughing, that “my wife’s always worried.” No question, the reward is a publicity stunt (and has reeled in some national press) but Nielson also would like some proof because, well, he’s seen “things I can’t explain.”
Such as 11 years ago, on a calm lake, midweek with few boats out, he saw “this wake 200-some feet long and 2 feet high going upstream.” (Upstream!)
Then in 2009, he saw a log in the water — he knew it was a log; it looked just like a log — but then it began moving against the current (against the current!) before slipping out of sight.
Is Pepie real?
“I don’t know,” Nielson said, hands on the spokes of the Pearl’s big wheel. “That’s for you to make up your mind.”
From “Sacré bleu!” to “What the – ?!”
When Father Louis Hennepin explored this region for France in the late 1600s, he reported seeing “a huge serpent as big as a man’s leg and seven or eight feet long” where the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi. In those days, the river ran unimpeded from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico — and, in turn, was open from the ocean to Minnesota.
Indians used only strong dugout canoes on the lake, given legends of something large enough to swamp a birchbark boat. Ancient effigy mounds in the region appear to depict huge serpents. Still, we can’t know if they reflect sightings, creation myths or something else entirely, said Chad Lewis, a Minneapolis man who’s written “Pepie, the Lake Monster of the Mississippi River” and maintains www.chadlewisresearch.com.
The first known newspaper account in August 1867 was from river rafters from St. Louis, Mo., who reported seeing a large, unknown creature in the water. A more vivid account appeared four years later in the Wabasha County Sentinel, describing “a marine monster between the size of an elephant and rhinoceros,” moving “with great rapidity.”
Four years later, another newspaper described a “dark, strange-looking object” that rose 6 feet out of the water. Another newspaper noted that a huge eel later was caught.
Sightings have continued over the years, with Nielson, the Pearl’s captain, considering 15 to have some degree of credibility, in that they can’t easily be explained away.
Local lore even claims that one moonlit night in 1922, a young man named Ralph Samuelson saw a creature gliding across Lake Pepin and thought, “If a large aquatic creature can skim across the water’s surface, why can’t I?” A few months later, he invented the sport of water skiing.
Except for the fact that Samuelson did invent water skiing, and Lake City is known as “the birthplace of water skiing,” this is almost certainly not true.
Plans are being made for the first Pepie Festival in September, which promises to be the most family-friendly of events.
“When Larry Nielson brought Pepie back to life, some were afraid that people would think we’re dumb, or they’d be scared to go in the water,” said Garry, the shopkeeper. “But we see Pepie as a shy creature. Like we say, if you haven’t seen it, it’s not going to bite you.”
Wait a … wait a minute. Over there, by the far shore, do you think it … um, never mind.
Twenty years ago, Chad Lewis was pursuing a master’s degree in psychology, driven by two questions: What makes people believe in the weird and unusual? And what makes people not believe?
He had ample reason to ponder those questions, growing up near Elmwood, one of three Wisconsin towns (along with Campbellsport and Belleville) that claim to be the UFO capital of the world. But he also had ample reason to earn a living and so became a grant writer, pursuing folklore on the side, writing books and giving lectures.
Those books and lectures proved so popular, though, that he became a full-time folklorist, traveling the world collecting legends and accounts of curious experiences. (It may not hurt that he looks just like actor Sean Penn. Just. Like.)
So, what makes someone believe in the weird and unusual? “Personal experience,” he said, or knowing someone who had a personal experience.
But what intrigues Lewis even more is research suggesting that “the more educated people are, even while they may not believe in something, the more likely they are to believe in the possibility of these things,” he said. In other words, the more we know, the more aware we are of what we don’t know.
He’s always taken a 50-50 stance about the existence of legends, a position he calls “simple, safe and accurate.”
So he was a little stunned a few years ago when, to the usual question about Pepie, he blurted that he was tipping toward 75 percent that something unidentified is in Lake Pepin. What, he doesn’t know.
“But there’s something that’s big, and real.”
It’s a sturgeon. (It’s always a sturgeon.) Until it isn’t.
So what exactly is in the lake, apart from the large- and smallmouth bass, walleye, sauger, black crappie, sturgeon, northern pike, bluegill and yellow perch?
Does it migrate? What does it eat? Does it need to pop up and breathe, or is it a bottom-dweller?
Is it some form of ancient pleiosaur? A large eel?
Is it an alligator gar, which can be 8 to 10 feet long and weigh 300 pounds? Did we mention a gar’s broad snout and double row of sharp teeth? (Did we mention that whether or not such a fish accounts for Pepie, alligator gars really do live in the lake?)
Finally, sightings over centuries speak to reproduction, which means there has to be more than one.
“I love that we haven’t explained this,” Lewis said. “But it’s funny how we need to believe something is out there.” Today, Lewis said he has more questions than answers, which is OK with him.
“The legends, for me, provide the opportunity to have an adventure,” he said, a motivation that he urges others to adopt. While looking for Pepie, or Bigfoot, or a UFO or a ghost — or just an unfamiliar horizon — you may find yourself in a new place, learning new things and moving just far enough out of your comfort zone to discover a fresh context for your life.
Or, as Nielson said, at the very least, you can have a lovely day on a beautiful lake.