After 20 years as a paranormal researcher and author, Chad Lewis still considers himself a skeptic.
The Eau Claire native has investigated hundreds of legends and written 17 books about gruesome hauntings, mysterious creatures and encounters with the unknown and the bizarre.
“I always go into these stories and legends not knowing what to believe,” he said. “I need to look at the evidence.”
An academic with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, Lewis over the years has adopted a 50-50 stance when attempting to explain the unexplainable: Half the time the stories are true, half the time they’re just stories.
But when it comes to the legend of the lake monster lurking in the depths of Lake Pepin, he’s a believer.
For those unfamiliar, Lake Pepin is supposedly home to a giant beast, affectionately known as Pepie, which resembles
a serpent or a long-necked swimming reptile, depending on who you ask. Sightings date back to the 1600s, said Lewis, who scoured old newspapers and historical archives for evidence of the creature and chronicled his research in a book, “Pepie: The Lake Monster of the Mississippi River.”
Lewis found evidence of sightings through the 1800s and 1900s describing a creature “between the size of an elephant and a rhinoceros” with smooth gray skin and the ability to snatch birds in midair. He interviewed locals who provided numerous convincing, eyewitness accounts of the beast.
“I left with more questions than answers,” Lewis said.
He and his crew went on two multi-day expeditions in 2010 and 2013 to search for the monster, using sonar imaging to scan the lake’s depths. They even jumped in the water and used themselves as bait.
But Pepie must be a shy vegetarian, because the expeditions found no evidence of the monster. Still, Lewis believes that the centuries of sightings go beyond hoax-mongering and that the river’s vast, murky depths could one day provide an answer to the mystery of Lake Pepin.
“Some authors might be a bit disappointed by that, but for me, it’s fascinating that this legend continues on,” Lewis said. “It may never be solved. But hopefully, 20 years from now, people will still take their families out on the Mississippi and say, ‘What if?’”
But the story of the lake monster has gone from local lore to international legend, thanks largely to an ingenious marketing strategy dreamed up by Larry Neilson, a businessman from Lake City, Minnesota.
Neilson owns several businesses on Lake Pepin, including the 125-passenger paddle wheeler Pearl of the Lake. He offered up a $50,000 reward to anyone who can provide conclusive evidence proving the monster — which he named Pepie — truly exists.
After watching a television documentary on Loch Ness, Neilson noticed similarities between the famous Scottish lake and his own Lake Pepin — both are about the same size (although Loch Ness is much deeper), both are surrounded by rocky bluffs and both have legendary monsters.
“They’re just a heckuva lot better at promoting theirs,” Neilson said of Nessie.
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He claims to have seen the monster twice — The first time, he was out on the lake in a speed boat with his wife. They were the only craft on the water and the lake was “smooth as glass,” when suddenly he saw an enormous wake churning in the middle of the lake, about two feet high and 200 feet long, Neilson recalled.
“I have no idea what it was, but whatever it was, it was very, very large,” he said.
The second time he was driving along the lake and noticed what looked like a log, 15-20 feet long, floating in the lake. He thought nothing of it, until he realized that the log was floating upstream against the river’s current. He pulled to the side of the road and grabbed his camera, but by that time whatever he saw had disappeared.
“Those two things are still unexplained, but it’s an intriguing mystery,” he said. “That’s part of the fun.
“It’s a large enough sum to pique people’s interest, and it’s small enough so that if someone really did find something, it won’t bankrupt me,” Neilson said.
Since offering up the reward, the legend of Pepie grew beyond local lore — Neilson received hundreds of emails from newspapers, television and radio programs from around the country and around the world.
“That’s the most interesting part of this whole story — how people are so interested in it,” Neilson said. “It’s really mushroomed.”
Crews from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and the Discovery Channel visited Lake Pepin last year to film segments for “Monster Destinations” and “Monsters and Mysteries in America,” respectively. Tourists scan for the beast at designated “Pepie watch stations” and several have even taken expeditions out onto the lake to search for the monster.
So far, Pepie hasn’t been very cooperative. People have sent in photos showing what appear to be partial views of what they believe to be Pepie, and just this week a fisherman brought in a sonar image of a 16- to 17-foot-long object spotted under his boat, but nobody has ever provided physical evidence of the monster to send to the University of Minnesota for DNA analysis.
“It’s pretty hard to collect the $50,000,” Neilson admitted. “But people are still having fun with it.”
What could Pepe be?
There are plenty of freaky fish in the Mississippi River – giant lake sturgeon, long-billed paddlefish, prehistoric-looking alligator gar, carnivorous flathead catfish. These are large species with ancient lineages, but they are definitely not monsters, said Ron Benjamin, Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor for the Upper Mississippi River.
“There really isn’t anything outrageously large or scary out there,” he said. “There’s nothing that would eat you.”
But how can he know for sure? Isn’t it possible that there’s something yet to be discovered in the river’s murky depths?
The rivers have surprised us before, Benjamin said. A species of mussles thought to be extinct since last century resurfaced in the St. Croix River. But the Mississippi is well traveled, heavily fished and extensively studied. Scientists have spent years identifying and monitoring the more than 100 species that have evolved in the channels and backwaters. Could the experts have missed something big?
“It’s possible that there are undiscovered species,” Benjamin said. “It’s not likely, but I would never say it’s impossible.”
“It may never be solved. But hopefully, 20 years from now, people will still take their families out on the Mississippi and say, ‘What if?’” Chad Lewis, author of “Pepie: The Lake Monster of the Mississippi River”