POLSON – Cindy Johnson was in her house, getting things ready for a boat ride on Flathead Lake, when she was surprised to see her sister there as well.
“She was supposed to be watching Andrew,” Johnson says.
Three-year-old Andrew, Johnson’s son, was outside. A quick peek out a window revealed no sign of the toddler. The women turned and raced outside.
And when they got to the yard that slopes toward the lake, there the little boy was: At the end of the dock, with no life jacket on, not knowing how to swim … and dripping wet.
“What happened?” his frantic mother asked him.
“I fell in,” the 3-year-old said.
But how in the world did he get out? Andrew had an answer for that, too.
“The Flathead monster lifted me up,” the boy said. “She had a baby, too.”
Young Andrew wasn’t the first person to report seeing a monster in the lake – although he may be the only one to claim making physical contact with the creature – and he hasn’t been the last.
The very first documented sighting came in 1889, the year Montana achieved statehood, and is noteworthy for the sheer number of witnesses.
James C. Kerr was at the wheel of the U.S. Grant, one of the steamboats that carried passengers and cargo between the south and north shores of Flathead, when he spied what he first thought was a log, or maybe another boat, in the distance.
The closer Kerr got, the more the object appeared to be very much alive, and more along the lines of a whale, perhaps 20 or more feet long, swimming at the surface.
Importantly, approximately 100 passengers and crew were witnessing the same thing. One of the passengers reportedly got out his rifle, so frightening was the sight, and took a shot that missed, but sent the creature diving for safety.
In the 127 years since there have been 104 more monster sightings on Flathead reported, including Andrew Johnson’s.
Laney Henzel of Kalispell, a retired fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, keeps track of them.
“What they’re seeing has not changed,” Henzel says. “Most, other than large fish sightings, describe it as long and eel-shaped, round, 30 to 40 feet in length with large black eyes. They say it undulates through the water like a snake.”
Discount 3-year-old Andrew Johnson’s tale of a monster’s tail lifting him to safety if you must, but Henzel says you should understand that those 105 sightings have also come from “mothers, doctors, lawyers, biologists, engineers, anglers and policemen.”
Even a sitting District Court judge, James Manley of Polson, has said he and his wife have seen the Flathead Lake monster.
Henzel, who has spent decades on the lake, both as a sailor and 30 years as a biologist, isn’t among the 105 – although he notes that during his career, there were a few times he pulled gill nets to the surface and discovered large, inexplicable holes in them.
He does not shrug off the reports of sightings.
“I have to believe what people are telling me,” he says. “They weren’t trying to make headlines. When I take a report, I don’t question what they saw. I don’t ask leading questions – I don’t ask, ‘Do you think it was …’ – I just let them describe what they saw.”
In fact, Henzel has said, many people who believe they’ve seen the Flathead Lake monster “hate to talk about it to anyone, for fear of being identified as a ‘weirdo’ or worse.”
Henzel got in the monster-report-taking business after meeting a self-proclaimed cryptozoologist from back East, Eugene Lepeschkin. (Cryptozoology, by the way is the study of evidence that tends to substantiate the existence of creatures, such as Sasquatch, but that has never been proven.)
Lepeschkin, interested in first-hand accounts of large-lake creatures such as the world’s most famous, Scotland’s Loch Ness monster, told Henzel “there should be a place people can relate their sightings” of Flathead’s alleged monster.
With the help of longtime Flathead newspaperman Paul Fugleberg, who had been reporting on monster sightings for years, Henzel put together a list of old sightings and started taking new ones.
Aside from 1993, when an astounding 13 separate reports, some by multiple people, came in, most years there are anywhere from 0 to 2 reports.
In 1996, people standing in grocery store checkout lines across America saw this headline on the cover of a supermarket tabloid, the National Examiner, near other headlines that read “Sleepwalkers who kill and get away with it” and “Virginia cops arrest real-life vampire”:
“Lake monster saves toddler from drowning.”
Beyond sharing the story with family and friends, Cindy Johnson hadn’t exactly broadcast her 3-year-old’s sighting of the Flathead Lake monster. But within a couple of weeks, other reports were coming in that other people, too, had seen the monster in the same area along the south shore of Polson Bay.
So Cindy passed on her story to the local weekly newspaper. It was three to four years later when the National Examiner called, and Andrew Johnson’s story went coast-to-coast.
Inside the tabloid, an artist’s rendition of a giant snake-like creature curling its way through water appears next to the headline, “LAKE CREATURE SAVES TOT’S LIFE.”
The story is bylined “Dr. Franklin Reuhl,” who, Internet research reveals, is a real person, with a doctorate in theoretical physics from UCLA, and an interest in UFOs and cryptozoology.
The article recounts Cindy Johnson’s story, includes comments from Henzel, and then quotes “noted cryptozoologist Brad Steiger.” Says Reuhl’s story:
“ ‘This is the first case of a lake monster rescuing a human,’ Steiger reveals. ‘It proves that the maternal force is powerful in all species.
‘The creature undoubtedly realized that a youngster was in dire straits and acted instinctively, even though it was not her own, nor even her own kind.’ “
Last year, in the column he writes for the Missoulian, Fugleberg recounted the story of attempts to catch the Flathead monster in the 1950s, when Big Fish Unlimited offered a cash reward for doing so.
A man named C. Leslie Griffth showed up with a 7 ½-foot long white sturgeon that weighed more than 181 pounds. Griffith said he hooked it off Cromwell Island on the night of May 28, 1955, and finally landed it about five hours later, at 2 a.m. and several miles away.
“I think they offered $1,000 for anyone who caught the monster,” Henzel says. “A biologist in Missoula looked in its stomach, and said it contained organisms not found in Flathead Lake, so there were questions as to where the fish had actually come from.”
Skeptics believed the sturgeon was trucked in from someplace else so it could be “caught” in Flathead. The case not only ended up in court, Fugleberg reported – with sworn testimony the fish had been hooked in Flathead – but went all the way to the Montana Supreme Court.
There, Fugleberg said, a District Court ruling that found that Big Fish Unlimited owned the fish but Griffith was entitled to a share of proceeds from it being displayed, was upheld.
“When I was editor of the Flathead Courier at Polson, author Dorothy M. Johnson, then secretary of the Montana Press Association, advised me not to treat sighting reports lightly in newspaper and magazine articles,” Fugleberg wrote. “She said, ‘I don’t think the monster should be done with tongue in cheek. You have eyewitness accounts by people who were scared and didn’t think it was funny.”
Henzel admits that in the right conditions, water can contribute to optical illusions.
“There are a lot of mirages in the water,” he says, “due to heat, reflection, waves and even debris.”
But … “Are there possibly prehistoric creatures that have survived?” he asks. “I have to believe people, I just can’t verify.”
After her son appeared out of nowhere, soaking wet, on the end of their dock with a monster of an explanation, Cindy Johnson says she did some research.
“It’s interesting,” he says. “There are a lot of lakes similar to Flathead that have their monster lore. They’re usually long, narrow lakes in mountainous terrain, and they’re all very deep lakes. I read some theories that they’re all connected through underground tunnels, and (the monsters) get all over the place.”
Andrew is in his 20s now, and “rolls his eyes” anytime the story is brought up, according to his mother.
“But he was serious when he was little,” she says.
So are virtually of the people who contact Laney Henzel. Seeing is believing.
And they believe.