UNKNOWN MIDWEST

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On the Trail of Champ: Documentary Series Review

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Recently, I had the pleasure of reviewing one of Small Town Monsters’ productions covering the story of the West Virginia Flatwoods Monster. Today, I finished a five-episode documentary examining the topic of the Lake Champlain “monster” known as, Champ. Champ has been sighted by generations of New York, Vermont, and Canadian residents in the Lake Champlain region. Champ is a befitting cryptozoology topic to launch the new edition of Unknown Midwest that we call, Unknown Coast. Thank you to the Small Town Monsters crew for giving me a sneak peek of their latest work. I especially thank them for their demonstrated commitment to honoring all aspects of the creatures, communities, and researchers of the unknown and paranormal. 

With their newest documentary series, On the Trail of Champ, the crew of Small Town Monsters have outdone themselves! The serene, peaceful aquatic scenes were masterfully directed by Aleksandar Petakov. The series was coolly narrated by Mark Matzke and produced by Seth and Adrienne Breedlove. On the Trail of Champ will be available on DVD and will premiere on Vidi.space on 16 June 2018. I, for one, will be watching it, again! 

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Petakov wrote five well-outlined and focused episodes for this series about Champ. The series follows Champ researchers, showing their controls, methods, equipment, and evidence. Interweaved within each episode are interviews with eye-witnesses, area residents, area museum staff, and business owners. The series is dedicated to Sandra Mansi, who shot an iconic Champ photo depicting an unknown long-necked creature, purported to be a Plesiosaur, emerging from the water. Sandra passed away on 31 March 2018 at the age of 74. Her photographic evidence, which was first on display in 2014, in Burlington, Vermont at ECHO, Lake Aquarium and Science Center, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain (http://www.echovermont.org), remains the best evidence, but is sometimes disputed as the negatives and location were never produced. ECHO still has a popular diorama, featuring Champ and Mansi’s photo, used by staff to promote ecological and environmental awareness issues to visitors, and it is said to be an important part of Mansi’s legacy. Watching the footage and hearing the stories of the Lake Champlain researchers encouraged me to spend several hours researching and reading up on a topic that I thought I already understood. 

For most of my life I have followed and been intrigued by lake and river monster stories, including the famous Nessie of Loch Ness. One of the few televisions shows that I watched obsessively was River Monsters with Jeremy Wade. I appreciate scientists who honor folklore and can then establish methods for proving or disproving those tales! Many Lake Monsters around the world are reported and include: Ogopogo of Okanagan Lake, Bohzo of Lake Mendota, The Serpent of Seneca Lake, Old Greeny of Cayuga Lake, Bessie of Lake Erie, and hundreds more! Having grown up on the Missouri River, we heard stories of cryptids like Miniwashitu and Momo. As a child, I thought that the pumpkin-headed Momo, was swimming around in the middle of the fast-flowing river! Any time I was on the Missouri River’s banks, I would stare into the waves and currents, hoping to spot a creature. Still to this day I have nightmares about the rivers in the region. But, I loved hearing my dad tell stories of fisherman sighting strange undulating 7 to 15-foot unidentified creatures in the waters around my hometown of Sioux City, Iowa. Or to tell me how, as a boy, he saw 200-hundred-pound catfish and huge bass pulled out of the river. He recanted stories of the floods and how the Army Corp of Engineers rerouted the mile-wide river in hopes of controlling damage, trying to reassure me that anything in the river’s muddy depths would be explainable. His uncle, a policeman who founded a Missouri river rescue unit, told him stories of divers who refused to go back into the river, reporting fish bigger than men feeding there. Having seen some huge fish in a Missouri River reservoir, Lewis and Clark Lake, at Gavin Point by the dam in Yankton, South Dakota, I, too, would have refused to enter the waters! 

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Diving in to additional research about Champ was spurred on by comments at the end of On the Trail of Champ, Episode 5: Small Town Big Monsters, when one researcher stated that there is “much work to be done” and that too few researchers actually spend time ON the lake. This was the opinion of William Dranginis, a Bigfoot eye witness turned Champ researcher, who was interviewed for the documentary. As a Cryptozoology researcher, it makes perfect sense to find him performing land and sea excursions. He joined forces with Scott Mardis, who has been actively searching for Champ since 1992. Mardis offered several plausible explanations for how Champ and groups of similar creatures could exist in Lake Champlain. Years ago, I recall seeing a documentary about Nessie that mentioned Champ, and theories that these creatures may use a series of caves to travel the same latitude, but that particular theory was not discussed in this series. Instead, in Episode 1: Lake Champlain Americas’ Loch Ness, history of the lake, mention of Samuel de Champlain, and beginnings as the Champlain Sea were outlined. Mardis explained how other prehistoric sea creatures, which have adapted to being fresh water dwellers now, occupy the lake. Sturgeon and gar are shown as the narrator shares facts about the 90 plus species that live in the biodiverse waters. 

Additional history was shared about the generations of Native peoples who even left petroglyphs depicting sea serpents or horned snakes. Algonquian and Iroquoian nations living in the region, including the tribes of Abenaki and Mohawks, had oral histories about creatures similar to Champ. They are said to have told settlers about the creatures, warning them to avoid certain areas, not to throw things into the water, or how to leave offerings to appease the creatures. Since much of the region’s landscape was changed by glacier movement and receding waters, it makes sense that much of what these nation’s peoples documented would remain hidden or lost. The area is also known for caves, marshes, and swamps. Some say the Champ creature can be seen sunbathing on land or crossing roads in the marshlands, indicating that the creatures may be of amphibious origin. Others, like the Champ Search researcher, Katy Elizabeth, talked about the creatures having nocturnal reptilian characteristics, being spotted at night and people reporting their eye shine. Katy is featured more in Episode 4. She is a Vermont based researcher who is on the lake and in its surroundings year-round, including during winter months. Her efforts, described as a “way of life” and something she does at her own expense, also include writing, advocating for, and realizing laws to protect Champ!

Port Henry, New York stakes claim as the “Home of Champ” and the town has capitalized on this theme with a Champ Days celebrations and off limit water areas where many sightings have been reported. Burlington, Vermont and Plattsburg, New York were also shown throughout the series. One important aspect of the Champ lore that was discussed was related to tourism, marketing, and branding opportunities that the local communities have incorporated over the years. Hoaxes were attempted at points in the Lake region’s history, as well. One shop owner shared how people would open up about their Champ sighting stories, though afraid to share them with friends and neighbors for fear of being shamed. Hundreds of sightings of Champ are documented, still many residents don’t want to share their stories. Champ is a cultural icon, mascot, monster, and myth. One particularly evocative image that carried over in my mind was of the Mardis/Dranginis boat floating alone, appearing like a small island surrounded by water and edged by cliffs. The image anchors one mind to the final statement about how there are currently too few researchers. With the massive 2.5-mile expanse of water, 427 feet of depth, sporadic dangerous weather patterns, and the image of these two teams alone on the massive body of water, it implanted a sense of loneliness, but deep respect for the will of the folks who dedicate themselves to uncovering the truth. 

As Small Town Monsters and other investigative crews continue to produce quality films, articles, and testimonies, the more likely we are to find the biological evidence needed to satisfy thousands of years of lore and sightings. On the Trail of Champ, with its gorgeous underwater and environmentally diverse footage, it’s riveting narratives and serene background music, with consistent and credible featured researchers, showcasing both Champ and the region, will be a documentary that stands the test of time!

Andrew Peterson