Champ Sighting | Lake Champlain’s Mysterious Photo

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 […]

By Mel Allen

Feb 17 2011

Photo Credit : Hendrickson, Corey

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.

“When I was little, my grandfather would tell us that if we didn’t sit down in the boat, he’d throw us in the lake and Champ would get us. But nobody believed it. Now my mind said, This must be Champ. But being a Vermonter, my mind also said, There must be a reasonable explanation for this. There has to be. This doesn’t happen to people like me.

“We got into the car, and it was like, ‘Okay, what just happened? What did we see?’ And my children were like, ‘Mom what was that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ My son said, ‘I know. It was a 2,000-pound duck.’ Anthony said we should tell someone. I said, ‘Who are you going to tell? Are you going to a state trooper and say we just saw something in the lake?'”

Mansi looks at me and shrugs. She says there have been doubters ever since, because she has never been able to say with certainty where she took the photo. “I know we were north of St. Albans,” she recalls. “It was very rural. I’m not sure where we were. I know I was on the Vermont side, close to Missisquoi Bay.” But all she has is a single frame–no negative, no roll of continuous shots.

“You know what?” she says, and her voice rises just a bit. “People say, ‘Why didn’t you take more?’ It wasn’t a conscious thing. And I’ve never kept negatives. What good are negatives? I never had any use for them. We just sent it to the Fotomat. I mean, that’s how insignificant we thought it was. And I wouldn’t even have thought about saving it.

“[I know] people thought I was lying. But this is what happened. We didn’t know what it was. And when [the photo] came back, it was like Oh, my God. There’s no more rationalizing, or trying to figure out what it is. But what do we do with the information? I knew people would say we were crazy. I said, ‘Let’s not tell anyone.’ And Anthony agreed. So we decided [to] just put it away. Soon we got married, and we slid it behind our wedding photos. And then we hardly mentioned it.”

Richard joins us. He’s sturdy, with a trim beard; he’s handy with tools, at home in the woods. “I’ve heard her tell this for 30 years,” he says. “It’s never changed.”

Mansi picks up the story after she and Anthony divorced in 1980. (He died a few years later.) Her coworkers were going to Scotland to do submarine overhaul; some said they hoped to go to Loch Ness, see Nessie. “Big-mouth me,” she says with a hoarse laugh. “I said, ‘You don’t have to go to Scotland. We have something like that a lot closer.’ And I brought the picture in. I asked them not to say anything–but next thing you know, I was getting calls. It was like opening Pandora’s box.”

Her photo and her story made its way to cryptozoology experts–people who study “hidden” animals–including Joseph Zarzynski, who would later write Champ: Beyond the Legend, but whose mission at the time was to persuade Vermont and New York to pass protective legislation against anyone harming the mysterious lake creature. It was only a matter of time before the media pounced. Mansi had the photo copyrighted and gave it to her lawyer for safekeeping.

“I was in fear of its getting exploited,” Mansi says. “I wasn’t looking to gain financially from it. National Enquirer offered a lot of money. I said no. I wanted to keep its integrity. I wanted credibility.”

In June 1981, the New York Times published the photograph, and Sandi Mansi braced for the response: “I knew I had to have the conviction to say, ‘Okay, this is what I saw. You tell me what it was.'”

Dr. George Zug of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History told the New York Times in a follow-up story that “evidence was mounting that some creature inhabited the cold lakes of the Northern Hemisphere.”

Mansi says that at first the sudden burst of attention drew her in. “I learned that it’s so easy to get caught up in one thing and let that dictate your life,” she says. “I lost track of my priorities. This was all new. I went on The Merv Griffin Show. A limousine picked me up.

“Then reality settled in when I got home. I was living in Winchester, New Hampshire, then; a single mom bringing up two children. I had my children stay with friends for four days. What kind of mother is that? That bothered me terribly. So I said, ‘This is my priority–my family. This is something that happened to me, and I will deal with it,’ but I never left my children again. I felt God gave us a gift. I’ve never told anybody that. What we do with the gift will make a difference in our lives.”

I ask her, “What was the gift?”

“The gift of witnessing something not everyone has seen,” she replies. “And then the gift of weighing it out. I asked, ‘What do you want me to do with it, God?’ And He wouldn’t answer me. So I tried to follow what I thought was right.

“I’ve learned patience. I’ve learned humor through it. And I’ve learned tolerance. If you want to ridicule me, that’s okay. It’s fine. But I think I opened the door for others to come through and tell. To me that was the biggest success: that people were now comfortable enough to say, ‘I don’t care if you believe me or not. I’m telling you I saw something.’ And that’s why we have so many eyewitnesses now. And I’m not taking all the credit. I’m just saying that it takes only one person sometimes to open the door. And it takes guts to follow through that door.”

I ask whether she’s had one moment of doubt since that day. “The doubts are that if I hadn’t taken that photograph, would it be as big as I remember?” she tells me. “Would it be as prominent? Would I have dismissed it as just something else? The photograph is what grounds me to the fact that this is what I saw, period, the end. Nothing else. This is what I saw.”

I ask whether she loves the photo. She laughs: “I don’t even have it hanging in my house. I’m not emotionally attached to it. What I have is here,” and she touches her eyes and her heart. “That I love. I love that a lot. I know it’s there. I will go to God and stand before Him and say, ‘God, why me? Now tell me what it was.’ The photograph keeps it there. So I know I saw that.

“I know this: Lake Champlain has something–a secret, a hidden treasure. And it’s wonderful and it’s magnificent, even if you don’t believe it’s there. Someday I’ll be vindicated. And people will say, ‘Remember that old lady from Vermont?'”