Minnesota's Mississippi Monster
by Curt Johnson
There's something in the Mississippi River near Lake City, Minnesota. "Something" that no one has been able to identify or fully document.
It was April 28, 1871 that the Minnesota State Historical Society recorded in The Minnesota Book of Days "a lake monster is seen swimming in Lake Pepin."
Pepie was born.
Taking that information, Lake City businessman Larry Nielson, promoter and founding member of the Lake City Tourism Bureau decided to offer a reward to anyone who could document Pepie's existence. As Larry described his venture, "over the years I have heard stories of Pepie, Minnesota State Historical Society data, Indian lore, etc. Recently I was watching a documentary about Loch Ness...In the documentary, they were searching for Nessie, but alas they were not able to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. I got to thinking. Loch Ness and Lake Pepin are almost identical in size and topography. We each have historical sightings of a lake monster, but positive proof seems hard to come by." So, Larry posted a fifty-thousand dollar reward for proof positive that Pepie exists.
Enter Heidi Freier.
It will be a while yet before we find out what an underwater dive crew discovered in the dark depths of the Mississippi River near Lake City. What they saw and experienced and possibly filmed, only they know at this time.
Heidi Freier is a documentary film director and led the expedition to Minnesota's Lake Pepin over the Labor Day weekend 2009. They were searching the legendary Pepie, known to locals as the Lake Pepin Monster. There are many stories about Pepie and the lore surrounding this creature continues to grow.
When I contacted Heidi, she and her seven-member documentary crew had just finished their exploratory dives. I asked Heidi how she came to hear of Pepie and what prompted her to do a documentary about the legendary Mississippi beast.
As Heidi recalled, "The story about recent Pepie sightings and the $50,000 reward offered by the Lake City Tourism Bureau surfaced as I was finishing my last documentary ("Running of the Llamas") and thinking about what to do next.
"I'm a bit of an armchair cryptozoologist and have always been intrigued by stories of the Loch Ness Monster. The opportunity to do something similar here in Minnesota was irresistible!"
She continued, "it's fair to say I am drawn to subjects that are quirky in some way. If all goes well, this could be the first in a series. I believe there are good reasons some legends persist over generations, and it's more fun to allow for the possibility that we don't know everything there is to know."
Heidi's crew came equipped with a scuba diver, underwater cameras and sonar gear. Heidi says the diver reportedly saw something so large that it literally scared him out of the water and he refused to go back in!
I asked her to describe for me what the diver reportedly saw -- how big, how close, how come it scared him so much? Has the sighting given him nightmares? Will he ever re-enter the waters of Lake Pepin?
Heidi was somewhat guarded as she explained, "I will say we saw some unexplained readings on the sonar equipment and sent our scuba diver down to try to get a look. He was under a long time and resurfaced in a panic. Whatever he saw scared him right out of the water. I don't know how it's affecting him now."
Having been scared to such a degree that he didn't want to re-enter the river, will this experience cause him to give up his underwater searching for unknown monsters? "Cory was reluctant to dive in Lake Pepin in the first place. I'm guessing his monster hunting days are over."
Heidi continued her recollection of her divers experience in the muddy Mississippi "...his (her diver) diving career was previously limited to tropical and coastal waters; while he'd encountered large creatures in the ocean, they were readily identifiable. I'd hoped he would become a regular collaborator, but he won't return my calls.
The crew also caught some "unexplained sightings" on their underwater camera but they were not able to definitively prove the existence of Pepie...at this time.
I pushed a bit further asking Heidi to tell me some of the sighting descriptions various crew members gave. Heidi was a bit more explicit in her descriptions, "everyone was excited by the unusual sonar readings and sounds. The sonar operator was reporting something 30-35 feet long in the vicinity of the dive site. The underwater footage is creepy but somewhat inconclusive. We're still analyzing all of the data we collected".
Larry Nielsen also related recent "sightings" in the Lake City area, "Resident Shelly Schimbeno saw something several years ago while water-skiing. Local home-owner Roger Garlitch saw something "very large" about two weeks ago in front of his dock that scared him pretty good. Many of us have seen large wakes, big "logs" floating upstream against the current, etc. A woman from Moline, Illinois and I saw a large shadowy something in the moonlight on a cruise this past Labor Day. Lot's of sightings like that. No proof."
Finally, I asked Heidi to give me her assessment of the teams experience on Lake Pepin. What would you tell the public about what may inhabit the waters? Will your story of Pepie drive people away from the lake, or draw them to the location in hopes of sighting the monster? Heidi's response was once again as mysterious as the legend of Pepie, "We had a very exciting and productive experience on Lake Pepin. I assembled a somewhat skeptical team of experts who ended up being unanimous in the opinion that we detected something in the water that day. I can't say it was a lake monster, and I can't say it wasn't."
As to whether or not the public will blanket the Mississippi River with boats at Lake Pepin because of Heidi's findings she replied, "People will have to draw their own conclusions, but I'd guess this could result in others wanting to take a look. People travel to Scotland from all over the world in hopes of spotting Nessie, and there isn't even a reward offered there as far as I know."
Nielsen also indicated that since the reward for Pepie has been posted and the legend grows, more people are discovering Minnesota's lower Mississippi River Valley; many of them remarking they are amazed at the beauty and wish they had visited before Pepie drew them to the shore.
I felt compelled to ask Heidi if she and her crew will return and would she enter the water at Lake Pepin, knowing what she knows today. "Everyone but the diver is on board to go out on the Lake again. I'm not done looking for Pepie!"
So, when might the Pepie documentary be available to the public? "The expedition received funding from a lake monster discovery and preservation society located in Great Britain. I imagine they'll be instrumental in getting the documentary out in the U.K. With any luck it will be picked up in the US by a cable TV network. Angular Features (my production company) will organize local screenings on both sides of Lake Pepin in the foreseeable future."
Nielsen says "whenever a TV feature is aired or newspaper article printed, our phone calls in Lake City the next day are usually two or three times normal volume. Many people will also stop by on their way through town or make a special trip to town to ask about Pepie. We know that this has made people interested in the area."
Larry added, "National Geographic Magazine called the Lake Pepin area one of the 10 most scenic drives in America. Last year two sisters from Minneapolis were down for the first time. One of them exclaimed to me; This (Lake Pepin) is so beautiful and I can't believe we didn't have to fly to get here."
When you visit, keep and eye on the water. You may meet Pepie!