Reader - Cover
As published on page 12 on July 23, 2005
One monster's Utopia
Norma Stewart says there are too many coincidences and sightings to deny that a serpent-like creature keeps returning to the lake
Museum, Saint John, N.B.)
By Chuck Brown
It's a perfect summer scene at Lake Utopia's Canal Beach on the outskirts of St. George.
Kids splash away the heat while sun lovers bake on beds of white sand. Down the beach, a party barge and a speedboat break the calm surface of one of the world's great, natural deep-water canals, which links the lake to the Magaguadavic River. From there it flows on through St. George to Passamaquoddy Bay and the sea beyond.
Dipping a toe in the cool water, Norma Stewart easily conjures images of a deep secret in the lake's darkest waters. Somewhere down there a creature stirs, its huge, serpent body glides in rhythmic ripples like a living wave. After five years at sea, the Lake Utopia sea monster is on the move. It is coming home.
Stewart, a cryptozoologist, or student of unknown creatures, is the leading authority on the Lake Utopia sea monster.
"If you look at the pattern, you're looking at about every three to five years there will be a sighting," Stewart said.
The last sighting reported to the papers was in 1996. The last one reported to Stewart was in 2000.
Most people who have seen
Utopia's mysterious creature keep their stories quiet for fear that naysayers
will chalk up strange tales to demon rum or an otherwise addled mind, Stewart
"I have people that have contacted me with their stories and they don't go to the papers," Stewart said.
"People often times won't go public but they will contact someone like me."
They do it for peace of mind. They want to tell Stewart what they saw and they want her to tell them they aren't crazy.
"They've remembered every detail. It might have happened when they were a kid or it might have happened when they were an adult but they didn't tell anybody for 10 years," Stewart said.
One of her favourite reports, which she's keeping anonymous, came via a long-distance phone call from a businessman who tracked Stewart down to share his story. He used to fish at Lake Utopia every year, she said, and the last time he was there he was canoeing near dusk when he bumped a log. He pushed off and the log rolled. A few paddles later, he hit the log again. He pushed himself off again and learned he wasn't pushing a log.
"It didn't just roll. It moved upward and got one of the humps coming up. It almost swamped his canoe and then it just swam away," Stewart said.
He told his wife about it but they agreed not to tell anyone else, until they learned about Stewart and her studies.
"People might think he was a loony tune so they didn't tell anyone," Stewart said.
She gets a lot of that.
"I've had enough credible people,
in my own lifetime, come to me and tell me their experiences that I really don't
doubt that there is some creature," Stewart said.
"And it's not new to the area."
Stewart has never seen the monster but she doesn't waiver from her belief it exists. She's heard too many stories (including one from her own son), noted too many coincidences and connections to write it off as folklore. Sceptics say they'll believe it when they see it. Stewart has a different take.
"You see it when you believe it," she said.
She's been studying the monster for a quarter century and has firm ideas about what the creature is, and isn't.
The monster is not a dinosaur with flippers, Stewart said.
"It is more serpentine and it is amphibious. It has lungs, it takes in air and can stay underwater for long periods of time."
Other than a native legend about a monster chasing a canoe with jaws snapping and a stranger tale about a creature busting up through the lake's ice, most reports describe a docile beast lazing and lolling in the late summer sun or floating in the evening calm water.
"It loves to bask. It loves to come up on a day like this and just roll in the water," Stewart said.
"It's never vicious either. It doesn't attack people. I think it's one of those 'It's more afraid of you than you are of it.' "
She doesn't hunt for the monster
and says she isn't trying to prove or disprove its existence.
"I'm just a collector of information," she said.
"If you don't want to believe it, don't believe it."
Stewart's research into the Utopia monster started with a basic question: Was the legend simply brought to the New World from Europe? Is the creature a local adaptation of the Loch Ness story? She investigated Passamaquoddy native history and in it she found monster legends that pre-date the arrival of Europeans in the region.
She also learned that Lake Utopia is traditionally a mystical and magical place considered sacred to the Passamaquoddy. Its Porcupine Mountain was an ancient place of worship and there is a burial ground at the lake's northern end.
"It's a very sacred place and it was on their migratory path," Stewart said.
Stewart grew up in St. George surrounded by sea monster tales.
"There was always talk around the kitchen table, especially in the summer time or in the fall and especially if someone did see it - didn't tell the press maybe but saw it - and word got around," she said.
After living in Hong Kong,
Stewart came home and looked with new eyes at the monster stories and symbols
around her, including the town's crest - St. George slaying a dragon. She
started seeing connections.
"From there, I just got curious," she said.
As she gathered stories and examined legend, folklore, geography and biology, Stewart became increasingly convinced the Utopia monster is a real creature - or species. The chain of evidence connects in too many ways to be coincidence, she said.
The connections begin with the lake itself and the deep-water canal that carries its water to the Atlantic Ocean. In St. George, fresh water meets salt water. A sea serpent meets a lake. But why?
Stewart finds that answer in the river's name. Magaguadavic River - a native word meaning River of Eels. Eels spawn at sea but return to their native lake, sort of like how salmon migrate but in reverse. The monster in Stewart's mind is like an eel.
"I think it's a species of animal and it migrates in the Atlantic just like the eels and it has its feeding grounds," Stewart said. "It does its circle and every so-many years it comes back to Lake Utopia."
Joe Nickell, a professional sceptic, investigated the monster in 1999 and wrote about it in Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He dismissed the legend and said so-called sightings are most likely logs, fish, eels or otters. He argued the lake couldn't provide the food a monster, or herd of monsters, would require.
The migration theory eliminates the sceptic's argument.
"It's not at all possible that this creature lives in the lake for hundreds of years," Stewart said.
That's why she's careful to call it the Lake Utopia sea monster, and not just a monster.
Another theory offered by sceptics is that people who claim to have seen the monster are actually seeing eels gathered into large balls for hibernation. There's a belief these eel balls float to the lake's surface in spring before they disperse.
"That's true, that's factual, but there aren't very many sightings, if any, at that time of year," Stewart said.
One of the most important sites in St. George is a postcard-perfect spot known as The Gorge. The water flowing over the falls here has powered industry throughout the town's history - from sawmills and shipbuilding to a paper mill to a current hydroelectric station.
"The Gorge has always been the source of power," Stewart said. "It's interesting how it's shaped this community."
Carved out by the receding glaciers, The Gorge and its roaring falls deliver Lake Utopia's fresh water into the estuary waters of the Magaguadavic Basin. But this water too has a secret that's widely known to locals but hidden by the beauty of the rock and the waterfalls.
looks out on the falls she describes a subterranean world of rocky tunnels that
snake out from The Gorge through the town itself. There are legends the tunnels
were escape routes used by natives and also by lovers fleeing religious
This network could also be a throughway for a sea serpent, a giant eel, returning to Lake Utopia from the Atlantic, Stewart said.
And, as if on cue to help Stewart connect the dots, a motorboat glides up into The Gorge from the basin. Two fishermen stop at a rocky outcrop. They're emptying eel traps.
Stewart said she believes the famed Loch Ness Monster may travel in a similar pattern from ocean to lake. The two areas share similar geographical features and both lie between 45th and 50th parallels - an area around the globe that appears to be a beltway of sea creature sightings. There are 17 documented monsters sighted between those latitudes, including Ogopogo in British Columbia's Lake Okanagan.
Another theory suggests the monster travels overland, most likely in the Breadalbane area of St. George, which is the flattest overland route between the sea and the lake. There is even a report from 1840 of a slimy trail.
A third possible migration route is through the Letang River.
But Stewart believes the most viable link is The Gorge, the tunnels and the canal.
"Like an eel or a salmon, it's got a purpose. It knows where it's going and it's got a way to get there."
Lake monsters are the stuff of legend and folklore from British Columbia to Newfoundland and all around the world. Perhaps it's the love of a good mystery or a love for the unknown or unknowable that keeps these stories alive.
Asked if she'd like to see the monster mystery solved, Stewart said, "I'd love it."
In 1997 she even offered a $1,000 reward for anyone who could produce video or photographic evidence of the monster. No one claimed the prize.
Or perhaps the stories remain alive because there really is an ancient species lurking out there in the depths, keeping its secrets for all but the lucky few who catch a glimpse of something they just can't quite explain.
Lake Utopia monster sightings
While leading Lake Utopia Monster researcher Norma Stewart said most sightings are kept quiet, there have been several documented reports over the last century and a half.
1867 - Sawmill workers on the north shore of the lake say they saw something 30 feet (nine metres) long and 10 feet (three metres) wide thrashing in the lake. Similar reports are made in the following days.
1868 - A Saint Croix Courier reporter said he and other witnesses saw the monster.
1872 - A Dominion Gazette article on the monster said "dwellers of the lake, without exception, believe that a huge fish or serpent has a home in Utopia" and they've seen it basking like a pine log on the surface of the water.
1872 - Natives describe a fearful monster with a large head following their canoes, snapping its bloody jaws.
1872 - The Canadian Illustrated News reports on a hunting party setting out to catch the monster. They didn't.
1891 - William Francis Ganong, the famous naturalist, records in his notebook a description of the monster provided by a lumberman who said he saw it 20 years prior. "It was dark red in colour, the part showing above the water was 20 feet long (about) and as big around as a small hogshead; it was much like a large eel."
1969 - The Saint John Evening Times Globe reports on an interview with Mrs. Fred McKillop, of St. George, who said she saw a huge creature 18 years earlier. "It looked like a huge black rock . . . It moved up and down the lake, boiling and churning the water, making great waves," she's quoted as saying.
1982 - Sherman Hatt says he and family members saw a large creature that looked like a submarine with spray coming from both sides and a hump out of the water about 10 feet long.
"It was huge-huge," he said. "Maybe there is an explanation but I cannot understand what it was."
1996 - There are wide-spread reports about Roger and Lois Wilcox who were canoeing on the lake when they saw ripples break the mirror-like surface 100 metres from them. It was heading toward Cannonball Island - a common monster sighting spot, said Stewart. Wilcox, a retired military airman from St. George, describes it as 40 to 50 feet (12 to 15 metres) long, undulating upward, not sideways. He said he saw a hump come five feet out of the water. He questioned if it was a porpoise, eel or otter but, simply put, said, "I just don't know what it was."
If you don't want to believe it, don't believe it.
©Charlene Beney 2005