I’m sitting on the guardrail at a scenic turnout on the eastern side of Flathead Lake at its widest point. The turnout commands an almost unbroken field of vision over several square miles of open water, the supreme postcard view, bookended by bright yellow sprays of turning larch. The lake is positively languorous in the October sunshine, yawning from the emerald fringe that skirts the shallows at the foot of this bluff to the slate blue wrinkles of a foreshortened horizon. If something prehistoric sticks its head up between me and the ducks-and-drakes row of islets on the other side, I’m going to see it. I’m monster-spotting.
Welcome to my first field exercise in cryptozoology, the study of animals that may or may not exist. A note on methodology: All straight-faced reportage of animals that may or may not exist owes a debt, whether acknowledged or not, to an American named Charles Fort (1874-1932). A systematic and exhaustive compiler of weird experiences, curiosities, and meteorological anomalies, Fort was one of the first researchers to lend credence to earnest reports of phenomena that were scarcely scientifically explicable, much less credible by the standards of square science. He gave legitimacy to reports of things like hundred-year old toads found alive in cornerstone time capsules and rains from cloudless skies—rains of blood and fish from cloudless skies, even—by plaiting them into his philosophy of Continuity: Everything is in an intermediate state between extremes. Fort also gave weird science its own dictum: “One measures a circle beginning anywhere.” In other words, he took earnest accounts of downpours of fish and blood at face value.
Fine with me. I just want to see the thing. Because until I do, the Flathead Lake Monster, like the hypothetical cat that Schroedinger famously used to demonstrate the principle of observer-created reality, continues to occupy two different states at once: is and isn’t, does and doesn’t exist. And that kind of thing can drive a fellow nuts. But if I don’t see the little dickens, well, that’s OK too. The worst day of monster-spotting is better than the best day working.
The Monster Routine
“I don’t know what’s out there,” Paul Fugleberg tells me. “I think it must be a fish of some kind. I don’t go for this monster routine, but who knows?”
Fugleberg, a freelance journalist based in Polson, is a tireless compiler of Flathead cryptozoological lore. He has catalogued every known sighting of the monster since the stories of weirdness around the lake first piqued his interest almost 40 years ago. He also admits that he didn’t always take the reports so seriously. In fact, it took a 1962 letter from the late Dorothy Johnson—historian, journalist, author, and former Montana Press Association secretary—to get him to lend a sympathetic ear.
“Dorothy wrote to me one time after I’d been kind of pooh-poohing the idea,” Fugleberg says. “And she said, ‘Don’t make fun of it. There’s too many people who have been startled by something in Flathead Lake.’”
In 1992, Fugleberg published a book about these unexplained Flathead encounters. The pocket-sized Montana Nessie of Flathead Lake is a breezy primer of notable sightings from 1889 to 1987, amply illustrated not with Nessie photos but with snapshots of waves, swimming elk, behemoth sturgeon and the like. With true Fortean mettle, Fugleberg takes down the particulars of eyewitness accounts but offers little in the way of his own opinions until the last few pages of the text. Even then, he mostly reiterates his steadfast belief in the credibility of his sources. Some of the accounts are sorted by possible explanation—floating log, outsized sturgeon, otters at play—and in most cases the interviewees are quick to explain away their encounters along the lines of “Oh, it must have been so-and-so.”
At no point in the book is there any intimation of, say, a time-stranded plesiosaur joyriding around the lake’s shallows and inlets. But Montana Nessie also contains just a few too many descriptions of “serpent-like objects” and significantly elliptical testaments (“I assumed they were sturgeon. If not, what were they?”) for either spotter or reader to rest easy on floating logs and hypertrophied fish.
Upon returning from my monster-spotting foray, I call Fugleberg at his home in Polson and run down a few of the other theories I’ve heard or read about: spring freshets from the Flathead and Swan rivers washing debris into the lake, freak convection currents scouring waterlogged wood off the bottom of the lake and taking it for a brief ride to the surface. It’s a big enough lake, I figure—there’s got to be some accordingly complex water movement. But even over the phone, Fugleberg—who has yet to encounter anything unusual on the lake himself— seems to shrug.
“I don’t know,” he repeats. “I just don’t know. I think probably ninety percent of all these sightings can be naturally explained. For instance, the time last summer when I was out on Indian Bay. Some boats had been then there and then gone, and I saw one single long line of a wave. And it was an odd thing—it was going up and down and it was bubbling at the front like possibly a head sticking up. But it wasn’t. It was just a natural wave. I followed it visually all the way into the shoreline, and it was just plain old water.”
There is the faintest hint of disappointment in his voice.
“I think that’s what some people have seen,” he concludes, reminding me that integrity of the eyewitnesses is not to be called into question. “But what about those other ten percent?”
From the Mists of the Past
Selected field notes from the monster-spotting command bluff:
11:45 a.m. Nothing
11:50 a.m. Nothing
12 noon: Nothing
12:35 p.m. Nada. Zip. Zippity-ding-dang-ol’-ding-dong-doo. Appear to be getting a tan.
1 p.m. Nothing. Saw a seagull swoop down to snag a fish, then think the better of it. Bird gone. Fish gone. Suddenly lonely.
1:15 p.m. Nothing.
The first sighting of the Flathead monster came in 1889, when the captain of a small lake steamer, the Ulysses S. Grant, spied an object in the distance that he took to be an approaching boat. As the shape drew nearer, passengers on the steamer were alarmed to find that it wasn’t a boat at all, but a whale-shaped creature that appeared to be charging the boat with terrifying speed. One passenger managed to squeeze off a rifle shot before the creature disappeared.
Flathead’s Nessie has since reappeared no fewer than 80 times. The individual reports that make up Fugleberg’s running list of documented sightings since the Ulysses S. Grant incident make for fascinating reading, in no small part because of the uncanny similarities from one account to the next.
Since 1993 alone—nine accounts that year, making it a banner one for Nessie sightings—almost all of the testimonies make some mention of an impressive wake left by a swimming object. As for the leaver of the wake, accounts describe it variously—but not as variously as you might like to think—as “snake-like” to “blob” in shape, “dark,” “black,” “shiny black,” “ebony black,” or “dark gray or black” in color, and with “shiny humps,” “bowling ball-sized head” “sturgeon-like head” and “textureless surface” in the way of additional distinguishing characteristics.
It’s significant to note that one eyewitness would make mention of a “surface,” rather than a skin, because “surface” makes one think that whatever she was seeing was pretty big. Size estimates in the reports from 1993 to range from 12 feet to 40 feet in length to (gulp!) something big enough to “miniaturize” a 25-foot sailboat. One woman indicated that a nearby full-grown pine tree was “definitely much less in circumference” than the creature she’d seen in Blue Bay, while another report by a Somers woman recounts the time she, a sister, a niece and a girlfriend looked aft on their boat and saw the head and neck of a Nessie “raised up behind [them] about 50 to 100 feet.” The last documented sighting came in August 1999—one of three that year. Thus far, Flathead’s Nessie has given public appearances a miss in 2000.
A Shy Beast
Back on the scenic turnout, my few hours of monster spotting have turned up exactly bupkus in the way of Flathead Nessies. Ditto for earlier pokings-around at Bigfork, the university biological station at Yellow Bay, and a couple of other spots along the east shore. Quite apart from Schroedinger’s cat and the principle of observer-created reality, monster spotting is probably also governed by an inversely proportional relationship between scenic views, good lighting, adequate camera equipment and the likelihood of the old gal surfacing in a 10-mile radius.
But like I say, that’s fine by me. I like the idea of an unsolved mystery, and so do most of the people I’ve talked to. If there is an honest-to-gosh lake monster, she (and I don’t know why I just assume it would be a she) is a shy and retiring one. It’s not as though Flathead’s Nessie were a vengeful Grendel crawling out of the muck at night to feast on the trembling inhabitants of some lakeside Hrothgar like Bigfork or Polson or Somers. Like the gentle ghosts that are said to inhabit quaint old country inns (almost always described as gentle, preferring quiet pastimes like descending staircases and carrying lanterns), Flathead’s Nessie is good for business, an unbeatable tourist attraction, and one hell of a conversation piece.
Supernatural Resources Hunting the things that go bump in the Bitterroot
By CARLOTTA GRANDSTAFF
The supernatural in the Bitterroot can be divided into two categories: the old age and the new.
First, the old age. There are, of course, several haunted houses in the Bitterroot Valley, chief among them, the Daly Mansion. It is here, in this spooky, 19th century, Western gothic relic that looms into view at the bottom of a long, winding, tree-lined drive, that generations of Bitterroot kids have come to get their middle-of-the-night thrills.
Those same kids, now well-respected members of the community looking at retirement, and who will go unnamed here, talk about the usual things one would expect to see and hear in an abandoned, three-story mansion built by an infamous robber baron who didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.
Unexplained noises. Bumps and bangs. Shadowy movements in unlit hallways and overlarge party rooms that saw their best times in 1910.
And, of course, there’s the photo on the wall. The large, heavy framed photo of Margaret Daly hangs on one particular wall of the mansion. It will not hang anywhere else. Move it to another wall, and it will soon end up on the floor. Without having made a sound.
Much more interesting than the Daly Mansion, however, is Sleeping Child Hot Springs, about 15 miles southeast of Hamilton. Every so often, the ghosts of the pioneers, those long-dead 19th and early 20th century settlers who eked a living from the rocky soil, gather for genteel parties at poolside. They socialize in the wee hours, after having raided the bar for English gin they never drank when they were alive; for the ice that was rare in their day; and for the limes they never even dreamed of a century ago.
They like the southeast corner of the pool, where the land slopes upward to reveal the recently charred landscape and the source of the hot springs themselves. They speak in low tones, laughing quietly, clinking the ice in their glasses. They think no one can hear them, but sound bounces off the narrow canyon walls and reverberates loud and clear to awaken the living, asleep in the rooms above the pool. There’s nothing to do but let them carry on. The dead just want to have fun, and they’re always gone by morning.
There are other haunted houses in the Bitterroot, including one about 20 miles southeast of Hamilton that sits abandoned and forlorn, waiting to be reclaimed by the earth. Murder was done here not too many years ago by a poor soul commanded by his inner demons, and it is rumored that the blood of his victims still stains the walls.
But aside from a few hauntings, and the occasional black helicopter sighting, the list of things that go bump in the night in the Bitterroot is a bit thin. Perhaps the Bitterroot Valley is a bit too down-to-earth, too American Gothic, too nose-to-the-grindstone-Puritan-work-ethic to indulge much in the supernatural. There are chores to do. There are tomatoes to can, gardens to put to bed, irrigation systems to drain, cows to feed, elk to hunt, and there’s a lot of hard drinking that needs to be done. There’s no time for the otherworldly when reality is always so insistent.
Still, there’s something not exactly … normal … about the Bitterroot. But the eccentricities that mark this place are more rooted in people than things.
This is where the New Age theory comes in. Dale Dye, who used to be the sheriff of Ravalli County back when the world was young and Bitterrooters didn’t know that cops had to have search warrants before they could come in, had his own theory about why the Bitterroot seemed to harbor more off-beat citizens than most places. Though Dale Dye (he’s the kind of person who goes by both first and last name) is a down-to-earth guy himself, he always liked to proffer “the magnet theory” to explain the shockingly high amount of local behavioral oddities. His theory goes that deep within the core of the earth, directly under the Bitterroot Valley, lies a magnet that exerts a powerful pull on corresponding magnets embedded into the soles of the planet’s odder individuals. Though these people may not have heard of the Bitterroot Valley, or have any interest in visiting the place, they are powerless to resist the pull. And so here they come, pulled westward by forces beyond their control.
He may be on to something. It seems that other decidedly New Age types share that theory—with one difference. Lately, the word has gone out within certain circles that the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness harbors not a powerful, underground magnet, but a portal that leads to—a parallel universe? Nirvana? Valhalla? A celestial place on the virtual map where cosmic lines transect and minds are simultaneously opened and blown?
Hard to say. If there is a portal somewhere in the Selway-Bitterroot, it’s likely that it only swings one way—and it doesn’t swing out. Probably Dale Dye was only partly right. It is true that there are a disproportionate number of people here in the Bitterroot who believe that the government inoculates people with computer chip identifiers cleverly disguised as flu shots. But they probably weren’t drawn here by underground magnets. That’s ridiculous. They probably came through the portal.
Death, Lies & Videotape Getting weird with Missoula’s mad scientist Dr. Willie Clots By CHAD HARDER
Missoula’s Dr. Willie Clots scares the bejesus out of viewers every Saturday night as the host of KTMF’s “Fright Night Theater.” Staged each week by Dr. Clots and producer/director/cameraman Cyborg Abe, the locally produced late-night movie slot presents classics and cheesy old-school sci-fi for weekend stay-at-homes.
As Missoula’s high-profile resident expert on the creepy and supernatural, the good doctor seemed like the most logical choice for providing us the lowdown on what’s scary, campy, hell-hot and corpse-cool in these parts. Dr. Clots shared his grave views with the Independent this week on the set of “Fright Night Theater.”
The Doctor’s Halloween plans: “I plan on visiting as many haunted houses as I can, but the Doctor can’t stretch himself too thin. I only weigh 145 pounds, and that’s naked.”
The Doctor, on the scariest thing ever: “Well, there was that drunken evening in 1974 with Richard Nixon—if you read the Bernstein/Woodward book you’ll know what I’m talking about.”
The Doctor, on “Fright Night”’s film selection: “It’s either deemed ‘fun and very bad’, or just ‘very good.’ We try to have three very good to every one very bad, but it’s pretty much classics, ’50’s sci-fi, and camp.” The Doctor, on spirituality: “You worship Satan once in a while and you get branded a Satan worshipper! It’s all really just good, clean fun.” The Doctor, on television: “The beautiful thing about television is it’s all lies.”
The Doctor, on what to do for Halloween: “After trick-or-treating, you should find your favorite penguin, get cozy, and spend the night with The Doctor. If you turn me on, the Doctor will be glad to return the favor.” The Doctor, on being interviewed by The Indy: “We did it. We finally influenced somebody.”
The Doctor, on the Flathead Lake Monster: “So you’ve met my ex-wife? I hear there’s other monsters in the lake, but none are as scary as her.”
The Doctor, on UFOs: “I see ‘em pretty much on a daily basis. We get along great. By the way, your antenna’s showing.”
The Doctor, on what’s scary in Missoula: “Scary in Missoula? Well, you got your station managers and the whole Hell’s Angels thing, with locals all hopped up on libations and brain sandwiches. I don’t eat brain sandwiches.”
The Doctor on Fright Night’s Halloween showing: “It’ll be the original Werewolf, and Cyborg Abe has promised to dance the jig.”
“Fright Night Theater” with Dr. Willie Clots will air a special Halloween showing on KTMF-TV at 11:35 Halloween night.