Yankee Classic: The Champ Believer
Joseph Zarzynski is convinced that something “definitely larger than a fish” really lives in Lake Champlain.
A Gargoyle rises from the waters of Lake Champlain — a head with hornlike protuberances on the end of a long snakelike neck that merges smoothly into the huge, humped body of the beast, just visible beneath the roiled surface of the lake. Joseph Zarzynski has been waiting and planning and hoping for this moment for ten years, for the opportunity to prove the existence of the animal he calls Champ, Belua aquatica champlainiensis, a living fossil. Now it is right in front of him, and he doesn’t have his camera. He turns to run to the cabin for the camera. He cannot move. He is suspended — between the camera and the creature, between science and myth, evidence and faith. He wakes up.
The lesson of the dream to Zarzynski, or Zarr as he signs his letters and is known to his friends, is never to be out of reach of a camera while in sight of Lake Champlain. He had one around his neck last summer when I drove up to the cabin in Vergennes, Vermont, that he and his wife of three months, Pat Meaney, rented. He kept it with him while we explored the rocky shore in front of the cabin and swam in the clean water of the lake, still cold in the last few days of July. He brought it with us in the car when we visited local people who claim to have seen the creature. It lay on the table on the front porch, overlooking the lake, while we ate our meals. We did not face each other while we ate. We watched the lake.
Zarr and Pat have grown comfortable with this man-woman-monster triangle. It may seem like odd behavior for newlyweds, but they are hardly strangers to one another. They met in 1974. Pat is the librarian at Saratoga Springs Junior High School, where Zarr teaches social studies. From time to time during the eight years they worked together before going out socially, Zarr asked Pat to look things up for him — historic sightings of strange beasts in Lake Champlain or Loch Ness in Scotland. “I figured he would never take an interest in me because he was so obsessed with Champ,” she recalls.
“Sometimes I become a little too obsessive about Champ,” Zarr admits, “but I think Pat understands that without this I’d be a . . . ” he pauses, searching for the word: ” . . . a crank.”
Zarzynski, 35 years old, a skeletal six-foot-five vegetarian and marathon runner (he has run the 28.5-mile road that goes the length of Loch Ness and is contemplating an attempt at the 109-mile length of Champlain), has become the leading authority on, investigator of, and recently, defender and spokesman for the large aquatic animals that may or may not live in Lake Champlain. He is the author of Champ: Beyond the Legend (Bannister Publications, 1984), founder of The Lake Champlain Phenomena Investigation, editor and publisher of Champ Channels, an irregular but entertaining newsletter detailing new sightings of Champ and such other lake monsters as Nessie in Scotland, Chessie in Chesapeake Bay, the skrimsl of Iceland, Shelly in Loch Sheldrake in New York, Ogopogo in Canada, and the mokele-mbembe in Africa.
In his book Zarzynski has cataloged more than 220 sightings of what he jokingly calls “USOs” (Unidentified Swimming Objects), dating back to a disputed reference to a 1609 encounter with the creature by Samuel de Champlain, for whom the lake is named. While some of the sightings are clearly whimsical (“About 50 feet long, flowing red mane, dinner-plate eyes, mooselike antlers, elephant ears”), a large majority seem to be describing the same sort of animal: a snakelike body 25 to 30 feet long with two or three humps showing above the waterline, black or dark brown, green or gray in color. The witnesses include sea captains, ministers, doctors, passengers aboard the Ticonderoga, a high school principal, a state trooper, and Walter Hard, the Vermont editor and historian who wrote that he and his wife “saw something out there that was definitely larger than any fish. It didn’t fit the description of anything I’d seen or heard of before.”
Then there were Anthony and Sandra Mansi, a Connecticut couple vacationing with Sandra’s children in the St. Albans area in 1977. What they saw didn’t vary much from the standard description — a beast that was 15 to 20 feet long with a head and neck sticking six to eight feet out of the water and smooth dark skin. What was remarkable about the Mansi sighting was that Sandra Mansi took a photograph of what they saw, a photograph that first appeared in The New York Times in 1981 and was subsequently tested by scientists for authenticity. Their conclusions: The photo was of a real object in the water with no doctoring of the picture. Whether the object was a living thing or some kind of construction could not be determined.
Once interested in schemes to net a living Champ, Zarzynski now encourages legislation to prevent harassment of the creatures. In 1980 he persuaded the Village of Port Henry, New York, to declare its adjoining waters off-limits to anyone seeking to harm or destroy lake monsters; by 1982 the State of New York had passed similar legislation, as had the Vermont House of Representatives. Zarr was looking for a sponsor in the Vermont Senate when we met (he’s since found several). “I spend most of my time behind a typewriter or licking stamps,” he explained, as we made ourselves comfortable in rocking chairs on the porch, facing the lake. “Last year I spent only 17 days on the lake. This year, I’m spending a month.”
He recognizes that spending a month watching the lake from the front porch is unlikely to provide compelling evidence of Champ’s existence. “What we’re doing is comparable to what was happening at Loch Ness in the 1960s,” he said. “Someday we’ll get a bigger effort going here.”
It was Loch Ness’s better-known mystery that got Zarr interested. After graduating from college and taking his teaching position in 1974, he started reading about the Loch Ness investigations. He visited Scotland in 1975, and enthralled by the history and romance of the legendary creature, became attentive to stories he was hearing about something big living in nearby Lake Champlain. He first visited the lake in 1975. By 1978 he was leading a week-long windjammer cruise in search of Champ. In 1979 he teamed up with engineer Jim Kennard, who was interested in underwater archaeology. Zarr swapped his historical research skills for Kennard’s expertise in diving and sonar. He became a certified SCUBA diver (Pat Meaney already was) and began accumulating bits and pieces of monster-detection gear: sonar fish-finders, movie cameras, an inflatable boat that he had to sell last year. But Zarr and Pat have never seen Champ or anything remotely resembling the creature. They’ve had some close calls.
During their stay at the cabin in 1983, they developed a hand-waving acquaintance with a fisherman who passed by every day in his boat. They went to a meeting in Burlington one night — the only night they didn’t spend on the porch — and the next day the fisherman stopped by to say he’d seen a disturbance in the water the previous evening and three great black humps rise from the surface.
Even worse was the near-miss a month before my arrival. Zarr and Pat had managed to squeeze in a week at the cabin at the end of June, but gale-force winds and driving rains ruined observations. On their last day — June 29th — Zarr packed up their gear and drove it back to Saratoga Springs, returning to Vermont that evening to give a speech at the Basin Harbor Club, a resort just south of the cabin. He found that his quarry had been seen there that afternoon.
“I was babysitting a dog and cat for Mr. and Mrs. Kerr while they were away for the afternoon,” said Peg McGeoch, a handsome lady in a black and white striped dress who was working at the gift shop at Basin Harbor when we caught up with her. “It was an overcast day. The lake was quiet, and there were no boats around.