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The Gift: Lake Champlain's Mysterious Photo

The Gift: 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.

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