Fishing for Truth - Iliamna, AK TAP TO GET PODCAST
We have all experienced things we can’t explain. Whether we try to rationalize these experiences or chalk them up to happenstance, we just don’t have all the answers. No matter how much and energy time we dedicate to research, there are still greater mysteries to be solved. For many Alaskan fishermen, tall tales of underwater cryptids such as the Iliamna Lake Monster may be one of the greatest mysteries of all.
Whether it’s vacationing at your family’s lake house for the 4th of July weekend or enjoying a simple afternoon’s kayak trip with friends, the lake is where many people call home for Summer. Waterskiing, brim fishing, and paddling are just a couple of the fun activities many look forward to once the final school bell rings for the season. If you’re driving down the interstate, you’ll likely see floods of motorhomes and camper trailers hauling canoes and various fishing equipment.
For Alaskan natives, there are plenty of lakes to go around. In fact, with over 3 million lakes across the entire state, it’s no wonder people travel from all over to try their hand at fly fishing or ice fishing. In 2021, Alaska was even titled the best “fishcation destination” because of its extensive species list and vast waters.
Given that much water, though, it’s hard to fathom all that lies beneath the surface. We can’t possibly know every aquatic creature that swims about, but that hasn’t stopped Alaskan fishermen from trying. While lakes can be the perfect place to relax and catch a few fish, one lake in particular, though, might just be the perfect place to catch a monster.
I’m Cody, and I’m Elaine, and you’re touring cryptids across the atlas.
Historic Sightings of the Iliamna Lake Monster
It was a brisk, late Summer afternoon. With a few weeks left of breezy weather right before Autumn’s transitory cooler temperatures, it was the perfect day for Bruce to watch some wildlife. He and a few of the local moose hunters found themselves sitting on the waters of Iliamna Lake on the Alaska Peninsula in their skiff, a small, flat-bottomed, open boat. But while they were watching a family of moose grazing nearby and observing a flock of swans floating along the water’s surface, what they didn’t expect were the monsters swimming beneath them.
Bruce Wright, a marine ecologist and apex predator specialist, was deeply fascinated with all things nature and its inhabitants. From studying nature’s largest predators like bears, orcas, and sharks to the smaller, yet equally fierce bald eagle, Bruce always found wildlife enthralling. Moreover, Bruce wasn’t just an observer among moose hunters but an active participant in conserving nature’s finest creations. From studying the cause and effects of life-threatening paralytic shellfish poisoning to documenting oil spill damage and researching ways to restore our oceans, Bruce was no stranger to exploring deep waters. But no matter how much we study and try to get to the bottom of life’s greatest mysteries, it seems there are always greater mysteries to be solved.
As Bruce and his men had their sights on the wildlife, one swan suddenly vanished in what seemed plain sight. Curious about what caused the swan to disappear, Bruce and the moose hunters quickly began scanning the lake to see what could cause such a commotion. That’s when they saw it. One by one, the entire flock of swans disappeared under the water.
They wanted to explain it away. It would be far easier to tell their families back home the story of how a giant pike consumed an entire flock of waterfowl, but that simply wasn’t the truth. Because what they saw left them struck with horror. With eyes the size of soccer balls and easily spanning the length of their 18-foot skiff, this was no pike. No, this was something far more terrifying and far less explainable. But this wasn’t the first time something like this had been spotted deep in the waters of Iliamna Lake.
Traditional Native Beliefs and Understandings of the Iliamna Lake Monster
Many Alaskan natives have dubbed these supposed giant northern pike to that of the “The Iliamna Lake Monster” or “Illie” for short. In fact, some of the earliest reports of this lake monster come from the Tlingit people, who call this creature by a different name, “Gonakedet.” This “fish-god” was described as a “large, water-dwelling animal with a head and tail similar to that of a wolf, and a body like an orca, very similar to the Akhlut, another northern aquatic cryptid.” The Aleutian people, however, had their own name for the lake monster: Jig-ik-nak. The Aleutians feared these creatures because they believed these fish-like monsters traveled in groups, attacking and killing warriors straight from their canoes. Instead of hunting the Jig-ik-nak, they often felt they were being hunted themselves and stayed far away from the monster’s home.
Regardless of what name you give this creature, Alaskan natives have described this giant beast as having a square-like head and spanning 10-30 feet in length. It is said to roam Alaska’s deepest waterways. If you ask Bruce Wright his thoughts on this creature, while he “is not a big fan of crypto biology,” he is, in fact, interested in the tellings of this underwater monster that have been passed down for centuries. Though, what possibly interests him more than unidentified beasts underwater is the lake itself. Whether or not you believe in these tall tales, Iliamna Lake is legendary in other ways.
History of Iliamna Lake
With up to 8 million adult Sockeye Salmon roaming its waters each year, this speaks to the vastness of its uncharted territory. Iliamna Lake is the third-largest lake in the United States. 77 miles long, 22 miles wide, and up to 1,000 feet deep, Iliamna is Alaska’s largest body of freshwater and takes place as the 24th largest lake in all of North America. With up to 800lb Sleeper Sharks, 300lb Halibut, and over 400 rare freshwater seals, it’s easy to dismiss folkloric tales of lake creatures causing boat wreckages and unfortunate deaths.
But these fishers have explored this water for decades. They know a seal or a Halibut when they see one. And what these people have documented over dozens of years just doesn’t match up. With this in mind, it’s no surprise legends have been passed down from generation to generation of unknown aquatic creatures. Even the most skilled fishermen and marina ecologists can’t begin to fathom all that lives in Illiamna’s deepest waters – but that doesn’t stop them from trying.
There’s a great deal of debate about the exact meaning of Iliamna and how the lake got its name. Lakes normally inherit names from surrounding places, but this is one of those chicken and egg scenarios. You see, the word Iliamna is the Alaskan Native’s name of a mythical great blackfish supposed to inhabit this lake, which bites holes in the bidarkas (kayaks) of bad Natives.” This name was given to the lake from the Yup’ik village of Igiugig, which sits at its western edge. Could this be a cautionary tale of what happens when we’re not kind and honest with our fellow man? Or is there something much darker lurking in the deep?
For centuries, humans have had a knack for passing down warnings through cautionary tales. Whether it’s a warning of what happens to disobedient children, the vengeance of crossed boundaries in relationships, or the repercussions of not conforming to the rules of a specific society, these tales often are told to keep communities out of harm and danger. So is the “Iliamna Lake Monster” just a massive fish we haven’t yet documented, or is it a harbinger of trouble to those who disrupt social norms?
Call it a Sleeper Shark, a gargantuan Northern Pike, or a giant Sturgeon; The name isn’t so much important as is the story. There’s always something more significant if we dig a little deeper into what these tales are saying.
If you ask wildlife researchers, marine biologists, or ichthyologists their thoughts, many of them would rationalize with documented large aquatic mammals as the sole reason behind misfortune on the water. Though, if you ask Alaskan Natives, you might get an entirely different answer. One that leans towards an open mind and acknowledges we don’t have all the answers.
For some, these tales are nothing more than simple stories passed down from generations for fun. For many, these aquatic creatures can easily be boiled down to giant fish rather than mythical monsters. However, that hasn’t stopped the numerous reported sightings of massive fish-like creatures, regardless of their genesis. Whether it’s the 10-30 feet long, square-shaped monster that terrorizes fishermen or the more widely recognized Sleeper Shark, Bruce White believes there might be a bit of truth to either belief.
Scientific Research into the Iliamna Lake Monster
According to Wright, herding seals into shallows to hunt them and preying upon schools of Sockeye Salmon doesn’t sound like any average big fish. In fact, Wright is more open to the idea of the unknown than others. In his words, “I was skeptical. I’m not skeptical anymore. Every time I talk to someone who has spent time out there, they’ve seen it or know someone who has,”. So what changed Wright’s mind about the possibility of something more significant? An experience he couldn’t quite explain.
During his time on Iliamna Lake, Bruce befriended Mark Stiger, a retired colonel and former chief aviation officer for the Alaska Army National Guard. Like Bruce, Mark was also deeply fascinated by wildlife. Holding a Master’s in wildlife biology, Mark never believed in the tall tales of monstrous sea creatures that live in the depths of Iliamna Lake or put too much stock into the folklore. Though, that all changed a few summers ago. After hearing tales of other fishermen trying to reach these underwater monsters to no avail, Mark decided he would give it a try. With his cabin on Iliamna Lake, Mark set off to use some commercial halibut long-line gear Bruce had previously given him. With each of the 14 hooks baited with the heads of sockeye salmon and cast to the bottom of the 100-foot deep lake, Mark patiently awaited to find the answers we’ve all been searching for. Unfortunately, Mark kept waiting – but nothing ever took the bait. That is, until 2017.
After checking his long-line set, something changed Mark’s understanding of the “Illiamna Lake Monster” forever. As Mark went out to check his 38-pound fishing anchor, he was shocked to see that it had been dragged 50 yards away. According to Mark, “The line was going the opposite direction and was all tangled. Gangens were gone, severed. Metal snaps were bent in different directions and piled on top of each other”.
While skeptics and scientists alike believe that a seal or sleeper shark could have moved this anchor, Mark disagrees. Since the long-line can hold steady halibut well over 300 pounds, whatever moved this equipment had more strength and power than some of Alaska’s most extraordinary aquatic animals.
After this failed attempt, both Bruce and Mark attempted a new approach: Simply observing to understand. Lake monster or not, I think most of us can agree that maybe this is a creature worth, not disturbing.
A Final Visit from the Iliamna Lake Monster
One breezy summer day in 2019, Bruce and Mark decided to launch their newly developed underwater camera system to see what they could find. And a year later, the “Illiamna Lake Monster” seemed to pay them a visit one last time. After baiting with more sockeye salmon carcasses, When they pulled out the metal fishing contraption to examine it, it was completely obliterated. But that was the least of their problems because not only did they lose their fishing rig, their camera had unexpectedly run out of battery and was unable to catch the creature right before it struck.
Stories like this happen all too often. Proclamations are made only to have little-to-no evidence when asked to see the “proof.” It’s one of those you had to have been there stories, the one’s that nobody else believes. But often, those are the stories that will forever stick with you forever.
Over the years, the Iliamna Lake monster has taken on legendary status. Pilots started flying low over the lake to see if they could catch even the slightest glimpse of this unnamed beast. The fishermen took to the waters to catch a glimpse of something beyond our understanding. And as more people joined the hunt, more and more sightings flooded the news. But when asked for evidence, hardly anyone could offer hard proof as to what they saw. But one thing these stories all have in common, whether it’s the claims offered up from Alaskan Natives, pilots, or fishermen, is the common description of what they saw. 20-30 foot, larger than life-size fish with a dull, dark grey aluminum colored body, shaped like a mini-submarine, a 10-foot long tail, making massive waves, but always just out of reach.
We have all experienced things we can’t explain. Whether we try to rationalize our experiences with documented animals or chalk it up to happenstance, we just don’t have all the answers. Even the most hardcore skeptics would agree that we just don’t yet know everything that’s out there. And as long as there’s something to explain, there will be those of us out there trying to find the answers.
Maybe that’s you! Maybe you’re a firm believer in the “Illiamna Lake Monster.” Or maybe you just love a good story. Either way, if you hang tight, we have one more Alaskan legend that I’m sure will wet your pallet.
FINAL STORY: Kodiak Island Dinosaur
One chilling, mid-spring day in 1969, M.V. Mylark, a 65-foot fishing vessel, set sail to drag for shrimp off the coast of Raspberry Island. M.V. Mylark was fitted with a Simrad EH2A, a top-notch, state-of-the-art sonar detection for its time. This sonar surveillance was used by commercial fishing vessels to locate and track schools of fish, or in this case, shrimp.
While the fishers cast out their trawling nets, nothing could have prepared them for what they saw. When one of the boat operators happened to glance down at the sonar screen, he noticed not shrimp but an almost 200-foot-long object swimming below them. After quickly capturing a photo of the screen, he rushed to show his fellow cremates what he saw. The fishermen were stunned to see a massive, underwater dinosaur-shaped creature. Many skeptics believe this can be easily traced back to a giant whale. However, the men on the shrimp boat denied the possibility of this creature being anything other than an anomaly. After bringing this sonar detection to the attention of the Paranormal Investigator and one of the forefathers of cryptozoology, Ivan T. Sanderson, he had reason to believe this may have been one of the best evidence-based images for the time being.
But even the most esteemed paranormal investigators still have a keen eye for skepticism. Ivan decided to take this sonar image to the Simrad manufacturers themselves to get a third opinion. According to the representatives of Supervisors Incorporated (the U.S. subsidiary of the Norwegian Simrad company), this still didn’t qualify as solid proof of the Kodiak Island Dinosaur.
One manufacturer said, “You certainly got hold of a very exciting echogram there, but I’m afraid that I will have to disappoint you regarding the credibility of what you see on it. (This Unit) has a couple of defects which make its genuineness questionable.”
One of their reasonings for the possible disqualification happened to be the speed at which the M.V. Mylark was going. According to one of Simrad’s spokespeople, the boat speed could have modified the image, concluding that this sonar image contains misleading information. However, they weren’t entirely against the claims of the dinosaur-like body; They just didn’t believe there was objective evidence to make such a profound statement. They did acknowledge that whatever was down below, there was a massive-sized creature lurking in the depths of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Kodiak.
Without taking no for an answer, Ivan sought the advice of 14 other experts: including lawyers, Naval operations, oceanographers, geographers, and biologists. After asking all of these individuals for their opinion, Everyone agreed that it was accurate evidence of something, though they may have not all agreed on what that something was. Hell-bent on proving the existence of this modern underwater dinosaur, Ivan felt as if Simrad chose to look the other way and blame faulty equipment versus leaning into curiosity and simply acknowledging the possibility of the unknown.
So, could this be a giant whale or an undocumented type of shark? Or perhaps could this be one of the last living aquatic dinosaurs? Or was this something from another world entirely? Dr. Roy P. Mackal, Cryptozoologist, scientist, and Loch Ness monster investigator, believes that the Pacific coastline is still home to ancient cetaceans. Dr. Mackal, though not entirely dismissing the probability of a faulty radar system, suggested that these sonar readings could be something more altogether. In his words, “There were often skeptics who claimed sonar readings in Loch Ness were the result of the sounds waves bouncing back from the loch sides. Not all readings can be attributed to this, but some possibly could. Could the same thing have occurred here [at Kodiak Island] but with the waves bouncing back from the ocean floor? I am no sonar expert, so I don’t know if it is possible. The other explanation is that it was a huge, strange, unknown creature, which is always a possibility.”
Although Ivan’s steadfastness for all things cryptid, creepy, and supernatural kept him going after the unknown, Ivan sadly passed away just a few years after this initial sonar discovery. Before he passed away, Ivan left us with these last few thoughts. “Well, I, for one, am convinced that (1) Simrad is not faulty, (2) the echogram is perfectly authentic, and (3) somewhere in the icy waters of the southern coast of Alaska, there’s at least one monstrous marine long neck swimming around — and who knows how many more?”
I’d love to ask your opinion, though, on what you believe to be true. I’d love to ask if you believe the sonar image makes out a dinosaur-shape-like creature under the depths of the Pacific Ocean or if you think the imaging was indeed faulty. The only problem is that the Simrad sonar image has since seemingly vanished into thin air, leaving the question: Is there really a Kodiak Island Dinosaur roaming the earth? And could this be related to the Illiamna Lake Monster? That, my friends, is something you’ll have to fish out for yourself.
“Effort Seeks to Uncover Iliamna Lake’s Purported Monster” https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/northwest/effort-seeks-to-uncover-iliamna-lakes-purported-monster/
“The 5 Best States for Fishing (and the 5 Worst)” https://www.newsweek.com/best-states-fishing-worst-alaska-maine-florida-nevada-1638053
“Iliamna Lake Monster” https://cryptidz.fandom.com/wiki/Iliamna_Lake_Monster
“KODIAK DINOSAUR (ALASKA, USA)” https://www.cryptopia.us/site/2010/03/kodiak-dinosaur-alaska-usa/
“Pride of Bristol Bay: Catching the Iliamna Lake Monster” https://www.juneauempire.com/news/pride-of-bristol-bay-catching-the-iliamna-lake-monster/
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Thanks for touring Cryptids Across the Atlas. Until next time, keep your eyes open. You never know what you might see just on the edge of the road.