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Champ Sighting | Lake Champlain's Mysterious Photo

Champ Sighting | Lake Champlain’s Mysterious Photo
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Sandra (“Sandi”) Mansi lives in Bristol, Vermont, up a long drive away from the two-lane road, past mounds of timber waiting for her husband’s chainsaw and splitter. Lake Champlain lies some 20 miles west, but she rarely goes to the lake anymore–cataracts have stolen her pleasure of sitting by the water and looking out. “I just don’t get around like I used to,” she says. She’s 67 now, her voice cheerful, tobacco-husky, easy to laughter. Her sister lives down the road, her daughter and grandchildren even closer. She grew up nearby, and after living in Connecticut and New Hampshire, she’s been home for 11 years now and is here, she says, to stay. She spends her time “puttering” and painting folk-art scenes on wooden boxes made by her husband, Richard Racine.

“I never picked up a paintbrush until I was 60,” she says proudly. “It’s my time. It’s my turn. I brought up my family. I helped bring up grandchildren.” From time to time she visits local schools to show a photograph and talk about “Champ,” the legendary creature that has riled the imaginations of Vermonters for centuries. The photo she shows is the one she took of a dark, leathery-looking something that rose out of the water about 150 feet from where she was sitting on the shore of Lake Champlain.

“The kids always ask was I scared, if I think it’s a dinosaur,” Mansi says. She doesn’t really know what she saw; she has never claimed to be an authority. But this much is certain: All serious discussion of whether something unexplainable lives in the depths of this deep, cold, 120-mile-long lake starts with the single image Sandi Mansi captured in the early afternoon of July 5, 1977.

Her Kodak Instamatic photo was scrutinized by scientists using technology that would detect whether the image had been doctored. It hadn’t been. “[She] could no more construct a hoax than put a satellite in orbit,” Mansi’s lawyer told a reporter. Even the staunchest doubters of the existence of a 15- to 30-foot prehistoric-looking creature living in Lake Champlain can’t claim that Sandi Mansi didn’t see whatever it was that showed up in her lens. (“Don’t call it ‘monster,’ she says. “I hate the word ‘monster.'”) Discover magazine called her photo the “Rosetta Stone of Champology.”

I went to see her last summer, on the last day of July. I wasn’t there to prove or disprove anything. The people who over the years say they’ve seen an enormous, dark, humped, serpentine creature number roughly 300; among them are dozens of locals who have spent their lives fishing the lake and who tell skeptics they know what sturgeons, otters, swimming deer, and driftwood look like. In 2003 a scientific expedition detected echolocation in Lake Champlain; the only aquatic animals we know of that make those sounds are dolphins, porpoises, and whales. “What we can say for sure,” noted researcher Elizabeth von Muggenthaler, “is that there’s a creature in the lake that produces biosonar. We have no idea what it is.” However, the research done by a team of Middlebury College geologists made an argument that what people observe may be the result of a huge standing wave beneath the surface, called a seiche, which may propel long sunken trees twisting to the surface, startling onlookers. But I wasn’t here now for any of that debate. I wanted to know what had happened to Sandi Mansi.

She sat in her pretty yard, bordered by blueberry bushes and apple trees; she relaxed with a can of Pepsi by her side, a story on her lips. Her hair is the color of straw, and behind her glasses her gaze is clear and direct–as is her story. She tells it without drama, pausing only to answer questions. “You know,” she says, “nobody has ever asked me how what I saw changed me. Nobody.”

On that summer day in 1977, she was showing Anthony Mansi, her then-fiancé and coworker at General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut, her Vermont roots. Her two children from a previous marriage were with them.

“We [started off] on St. Albans Bay with my children, Heidi and Larry [ages 11 and 12], and we were just exploring,” she explains. “We meandered [north], and then the kids started fighting over who was breathing whose air. We were on a dirt road, and we pulled over and walked across a field and down an embankment. It was around noon.

“The kids took their shoes off [and waded in]. We were sitting there by the water. And Anthony decided to get the camera. So he went back to the car. And I was sitting down the embankment. I was looking out at the lake. And I could see a turbulence, like how a school of fish look.

“I went, ‘Wow, that’s a big school of fish! Wouldn’t my grandfather like to look at this!’ Then pretty soon the head and the neck broke the surface. And I thought, Whoa–that’s one heck of a sturgeon. I knew what a sturgeon was; they’re absolutely huge. But they’re not that big. And then the head came up, and then the neck came up, and then I could see the back.

“And then Anthony came to the top of the embankment and he saw it, and he was screaming for the kids to get out of the water. They got out, and he got them back in the car.

“And the whole time I was thinking, What is that?! Anthony came to the edge to help me up. And he handed me the camera so he could pull me up the bank.

“I was on my knees getting up, and I picked the camera up, and [the creature] looked over its back, and I took the picture, and Anthony was like, ‘C’mon, c’mon.’ I said, ‘Wait, wait,’ and then we watched it. It never gave any indication it knew we were there. I watched it maybe five minutes. You could see the water coming off it.

“Then the back went down, the neck went down, the head went down. And only then was I caught up in a panic. I heard a boat way off in the distance. He knew a boat was coming. I wasn’t afraid; it was more Oh, my God.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Thursday, February 17th, 2011

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3 Responses to Champ Sighting | Lake Champlain’s Mysterious Photo

  1. John Dough August 31, 2015 at 9:05 am #

    The Mansi photo is a hoax and their story a lie. Sandra Mansi’s story changed more than once during interviews. She claims they kept the photo hid away in an album somewhere, but told another interviewer it was kept tacked up on a bulletin board in their kitchen, where their kids often brought friends in to see it. She has also told two different stories about the location. One is that they couldn’t remember the exact location and looked but couldn’t find it again. But when questioned by another source, pointing out that it wouldn’t be that hard to locate the site again, she claims they knew where it was but she didn’t want to tell because she “was afraid some nut would go there with a gun and shoot it”. The biggest red flag however is that they destroyed the negative because she knew people wouldn’t believe her. So, you keep and show the photo, but you supposedly destroy the negative because you didn’t want to be ridiculed? The whole thing is a hoax, and a poorly perpetrated one at that.

    • Gay Ludington September 9, 2015 at 12:44 am #

      Just curious, but what is your interest or expertise here? Are you an authority in sonar, any kind of marine science, photography? What you’ve set out above is nothing more than your bare opinion, based on third-party hearsay from which you conclude that Mansi is lying; in fact, your accusations come rather close to actionable slander.

      I am myself a diehard skeptic, and it would take a lot more than a photograph – professionally analyzed though it has been – to convince me of the existence of Champ; on the other hand, I try very hard to keep an open mind about things like this. It’s very possible something extra-ordinary is in the Lake; your opinion doesn’t change that.

  2. Donald Fingers May 23, 2016 at 2:23 pm #

    I am not in the position to prove or disprove a person’s claim on any such event, but I keep wondering, If you watched the creature for a full five minutes, why is there only one picture taken? If the answer is “We ran out of film”, my second question is, who goes to the lake on vacation without a supply of film?

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