Well, maybe. Martin Kasindorf saw something unusual in the reservoir while he was sitting near the water’s edge Friday at about 2:30 pm. Kasindorf’s dogs reacted to the sight first. When they started barking, he followed their intent gaze out beyond the shoreline, less than 100 yards away from where he was sitting. In the water he saw six distinct “humps” in a curved line. “Each hump was about six inches to a foot apart,” he recalls. “It was a nice sunny afternoon, and the surface of the lake was calm. I could see the water lapping against them. My first thought was that they were rocks. But the dogs thought there was something alive out there.”
Kasindorf and his wife Irma Hawkins own the only house with frontage on Harriman Reservoir. The house, a former schoolhouse, served local schoolchildren years before Harriman Dam was built and the reservoir flooded. The house has been in Hawkins’ family since the 1950s, and the couple have been spending summers at the place since 1995.
Although the level of the lake varies, Kasindorf said he knew there should be no rocks in the spot where the humps appeared. He called out to Hawkins, who came out of the house to see the spectacle.
“At that point, the humps started moving and submerged,” Kasindorf says. “Then a few yards (to the right) I saw something straight, like a log, and brown moving quickly through the water. If it was a log, it was a log with a motor on it.”
Kasindorf and Hawkins both say they couldn’t come up with an explanation for what they saw.
As deputy chief of the New York Times’ Los Angeles bureau, Kasindorf traveled to Loch Ness in 1972 to report on Nessie tourism and even joined in the search for the legendary beast as part of the experience. He didn’t see the monster during his trip, but notes that the most popular theory is that the Loch Ness monster is the descendent of prehistoric plesiosaurs trapped in the deep loch by receding oceans before the last ice age. “Of course, that’s not possible here, since the lake is less than a hundred years old,” he laughs.
Initially Kasindorf speculated that it might have been a water snake – a very large water snake. There are water snakes in Vermont, and there’s even a dubious report of a “giant” water snake appearing in the May 15, 1857, edition of the Orleans Independent Standard. The story, told by an anonymous “Canadian settler,” appears to have taken place on Lake Memphremagog. The author of the fanciful front-page story claimed that a 10-foot water snake snatched his freshly-killed duck out of the water. When the hunter went to retrieve the duck, the snake retaliated by coiling around him and squeezing until the man almost passed out. He would have died if it wasn’t for the trusty pocket knife torn from his pocket at the last minute.
But Vermont Fish and Wildlife biologist Ken Cox says that, although the northern water snake can be found in parts of Vermont, they’re pretty small. And they’re not likely to be found in the Deerfield Valley. “I’m not aware of any occurrences of water snakes in Harriman Reservoir,” he says. “The only other snake near the lake shoreline would be a common garter, and they’re so small you’re not going to see them offshore.”
Kasindorf’s second thought was that he might have seen an eel coiled at the surface. Nearly every large lake in Vermont has a monster legend. In “The Vermont Monster Guide,” author Joseph Citro and artist Stephen Bissette document several of the legends. Most Vermonters are already familiar with Lake Champlain’s “Champ,” which was photographed in the 1970s, but the book also recounts tales of Memphremagog’s “Memphre,” the Woodbury Lake water-witch, and a handful of other water-dwelling beasts of local legend.
One of the stories includes Lake Willoughby’s “Willy,” speculating that Willy may be a giant eel. According to the story, US Navy divers searching for a sailor who drowned while on leave, found and photographed giant eels in the lake six- to eight-feet long and “as thick as a telephone pole.” The photos were reportedly kept by the Westmore Town Clerk but, in the book, Citro says his efforts to uncover the photographs were unsuccessful.
In another giant eel sighting documented by Citro, a SUNY Plattsburgh professor spotted what he thought were plastic pipes lying on the bottom of Lake Champlain while he was diving. “I swam over to it and saw the biggest eel I ever saw. It was about 12 feet long.”
But the story alludes to one of the reasons it’s unlikely Kasindorf’s lake beast was an eel – eels are bottom dwellers according to Cox. The largest giant eels officially documented in Lake Champlain are about 4 feet long with a diameter of about half that of a person’s wrist. Also, there are no eels in Harriman Reservoir.
“I’ve never seen anything in the data or encountered any eels in my sampling activities,” Cox says. “They’re found in the lower Deerfield River (in Massachusetts), but to be in Harriman Reservoir they would have to get above several dams on the river.”
Citro says he doesn’t believe or disbelieve the lake monster sightings that come in from around the state’s larges bodies of water. “The ones that are best known are, of course, Champ in Lake Champlain, and Memphre in Mephremagog. Memphre is one that has been spotted by hundreds of people going way back. And so many people report things that don’t seem to be identical. There’s no consistency. I don’t know what to make of that.”
But Citro says it’s easy to mistake natural phenomena for the supernatural when your perception is challenged. He recalls walking his dog along the shore of Lake Champlain when he saw something unusual. “I saw this 20-foot serpentine thing with a head moving beside me,” he says. “As it got closer, I realized I was seeing the head of a beaver. The wake it was creating gave the illusion of an elongated body. If I had run off before it got close enough, I might have been making my own monster report.”
Although Kasindorf says he saw a “lake monster” mainly in jest, he expects there’s a logical explanation for what he and his wife saw in front of their house last week.
Tom Rogers, of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, thinks he knows what it was, and Ken Cox agrees. “River otters are the first thing that come to mind,” Rogers says. “I’ve seen them in groups on reservoirs.”
Rogers thinks Kasindorf, Hawkins, and their two dogs saw six river otters bobbing in the water off the shore. The otters’ heads were the “monster’s humps.” The dogs’ barking likely startled them away, and the “motorized log” was probably an adult otter with one or two juveniles following closely behind. “They establish family groups,” Cox says. “And this time of year the juveniles are close to the size of an adult, but they’re still tied to the family.”
Kasindorf says otters were one of his first suspects, too, but when he looked for videos of otters, he didn’t find anything that looked like what he had seen. “When I looked at YouTube footage of river otters swimming, they swim like porpoises, diving up and down gracefully and playfully,” he says. “This creature swam straight out on the surface, like a fast-propelled log. When it submerged, the whole body sank down at once, rather than the head diving down and a tail sticking up. And I didn’t see any feet, just a snakelike body.”
Nonetheless, he says the otter theory is one not to be discounted. “I think it would be cute if it turned out to be river otters. In principle, I’m very fond of them. But I’ve never seen any around here.”