The cold, rugged expanses of the northernmost U.S. state of Alaska naturally invite wonder and awe. Here is one of the last truly great wildernesses of North America; a relatively unexplored expanse of unspoiled mountains and ancient forests unfamiliar with the touch of humankind. Tucked within the sweeping vistas of pristine wild expanses is the magnificent Lake Illiamna. Here we are the strangers, merely existing in small settlements, eking out a living on the giant lake’s shores. Extending beyond those shores are the deep waters of one of the largest lakes in the United States and under those waters lurk hulking, dark shapes that cruise below the waves. For here in the far north, in this frigid lake ensconced by boundless wilderness far from modern civilization is the supposed watery domain of one of the most enigmatic and little understood lake monsters in the world.
Lake Illiamna lies in the southwestern portion of the U.S. state of Alaska, in a remote wilderness region far from any heavily populated areas. At 77 miles (124 km) long and approximately 22 miles (35 km) wide, possessing a surface area of 1,012.5 sq mi (2,622 km2), and with depths going down to 988 feet (301 m) into the cold darkness, Lake Illiamna is the largest and deepest lake in Alaska, and indeed one of the largest lakes in the country. The lake is largely unpopulated, with only sparse settlements along its shores which rely mostly on a sustenance fishing and hunting economy, the largest of these being the village of Kakhonak with only 200 permanent residents. Due to the lake’s extremely remote location and lack of any roads leading to it, access is very limited. One of the only ways of reaching Lake Illiamna from the outside world is to use small aircraft, mostly floatplanes which can land upon the surface of the water.
This vast, far-flung, and little explored lake has long been known as the domain of some sort of enormous, fleetingly glimpsed mystery beast that locals sometimes affectionately refer to as “Illies.” Although size estimates for the creatures vary from 10 to around 30 feet long, most modern descriptions tend to be remarkably similar. The Illiamna monsters are said to have elongated, slender bodies that are of a grayish coloration, often likened to that of aluminum, that are topped off with a prominent dorsal fin regularly described as sporting a white stripe. The tail is frequently described as being vertically aligned like that of a fish rather than horizontal like that of a whale or dolphin. An interesting characteristic of the creatures is that they are always spotted lurking under the surface, alone or in groups, and are hardly known to break the surface like their more dramatic cousins such as the Loch Ness Monster.
The idea of mysterious water monsters inhabiting Lake Illiamna has a long history going back to folklore and stories passed around by the native peoples of the region. The Tlingit people spoke of a creature they called the Gonakadet; a huge aquatic animal with a body like that of an orca and a fanged, wolf-like head, that silently prowled the lake’s frigid waters. The Aleut people knew it as the jig-ik-nak, and they were said to be ferocious and highly feared monsters that attacked canoes or snatched people from shore. Early settlers to the region such as Russian fur traders as early as the 1790s also spoke of seeing such creatures.
Modern eyewitness accounts of the Illiamna lake monsters can be traced back to the 1940s, when pilots flying over the remote lake began reporting unusual, gigantic dark shapes under the placid surface. One notable such account which can arguably be credited as being the origin of the modern Lake Illiamna monster craze was a sighting made in 1942 by bush pilot and fishing guide Babe Alyesworth, along with companion Bill Hammersley, who were flying over the lake in a small aircraft when they spotted several dozen mysterious, fish-like shapes over 10 feet long with vertical tails and looking like “mini submarines” swimming along under the surface in shallow water around 40 feet deep. Alyesworth gave many of these details in a personal interview with cryptozoologist Loren Coleman in 1988, which is mentioned in Coleman and Jerome Clark’s comprehensive cryptozoology tome Cryptozoology A to Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature. It is also mentioned in their book that in 1959, Alyesworth claimed he was hired by wealthy oil tycoon and cryptozoology aficionado Tom Slick for the purpose of carrying out an aerial survey of the lake in search of the creatures, even going so far as to put out buoys with lines on them, but nothing was found. The book also describes how the other witness aboard the flight, Hammersley, went on to write an article in 1947 on his experience in an effort to drum up interest and get people to come forward with their own accounts. A similar sighting mentioned in the book was made by a survey pilot named Larry Rost in 1945, when he saw a large, elongated animal reportedly 20 feet long in the lake as he flew at very low altitude. Rost reportedly came forward with this account after hearing of Hammersley’s own sighting.
Such stories of giant creatures lurking within this remote, wilderness lake fired up people’s imaginations, and by the 1950s it became commonplace for curious thrill seekers to fly low over the lake in the hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the lake monsters. Sightings of the strange creatures started to come in from a variety of eyewitnesses, all describing the same sort of long, grayish, fish-like beast. Some of the reports were from seemingly highly reliable witnesses, such as an account given by a state wildlife biologist from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who saw something weird in the lake in 1963. The witness claimed to have observed a large fish-like creature measuring an estimated 25 to 30 feet long swimming under the surface for 10 full minutes before it sank out of sight into the cold depths. Another seemingly reliable sighting was made in 1977 by veteran pilot Tim LaPorte, who had logged many hours flying over the lake and its vicinity and was well versed in what kind of wildlife one could expect to see, as well as a state game official who happened to be a passenger at the time. They did not expect what they saw on that day. LaPorte reported that he was flying at very low altitude in clear weather with calm water conditions near Pedro Bay, which is located at the northeast corner of the lake, when both he and his passenger observed a large, dark object around 12 to 14 feet long basking near the lake’s surface with its back just barely breaking the surface. The sound of the plane must have startled it, because LaPorte explained that whatever it was, it suddenly dove underwater with a huge splash as the plane approached, revealing a large and unmistakable vertically aligned tail. Pedro Bay has incidentally often been seen as a favored haunt for the beast, and it is the area with the largest concentration of reported sightings.
By the 1970s, sightings of the Lake Illiamna monster had become so numerous that in 1979 the Anchorage Daily News offered up a $100,000 bounty for any physical evidence of the creatures. The reward brought in people from all walks of life, who fished, trawled, and tried all manner of methods, including apparently one man’s effort to lure the monster in with classical music, in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to catch one. To this day the bounty has never been claimed.
Nevertheless, there have been more visceral and up close encounters from people claiming to have actually hooked into one of the creatures. One particularly harrowing account comes from an Alaskan missionary by the name of Chuck Crapuchettes, who himself had seen the creatures twice. Crapuchettes recounted how a friend of his had tried to bag the monster by trawling for it off of his floatplane with steel cable topped by huge, outsized steel tuna hooks baited with chunks of raw caribou meat. The man claimed that something suddenly jerked so hard on one of the cables that it knocked him off of the plane into the water. The startled man was unable to get back to his plane as it was quickly dragged away across the water by whatever had taken the bait. He swam to shore in a panic, undoubtedly not pleased to be in the water with the thing, and watched as his plane got literally towed around the lake for some time before the unseen, incredibly powerful beast broke free. When the plane was recovered, it was discovered that three of the cables had been snapped clean off and some of the heavy duty steel hooks had been totally straightened out.
A similar situation was described in Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark’s book Cryptozoology A to Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature, when sportsman Gil Paust and three of his friends tried to fish for the creature using high grade steel cable, an oil drum bobber, and moose meat for bait. Again, something very large yanked on the bait and reportedly snapped the cable easily. Another such close encounter occurred when in 2009 the Discovery Channel sent Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand, from the hit series Deadliest Catch, to Lake Illiamna with the goal of trying to catch one of the elusive creatures. The brothers found a suitable location to fish by studying an intriguing piece of footage of the alleged monster taken in Nushagak Bay by fisherman Kelly Nash. The Hillstrands alleged that they had put out lines with fishing poles when one of the poles was violently jerked and the line snapped by a creature they described as being a huge fish with a white stripe down its back that was around 12 to 15 feet in length.
Other violent encounters with the mysterious creatures have been reported from time to time as well. Various accounts describe boats ramming into something large beneath the surface or being mauled by something that leaves large teeth marks. Other, more sinister and spooky accounts make mention of people being physically knocked off of boats by an unseen creature and never surfacing. Several deaths of people falling into and drowning in the lake have been blamed on the lake monsters.
There has been a good amount of discussion and speculation on what the monsters of Lake Illiamna could possibly be. A point that is typically agreed upon in that the creatures are most likely some type of fish rather than mammal or reptile, due to the fact that they don’t seem to ever surface and the frequent mention of vertical tails, a specifically fish trait. By far the most popular theory is that the culprit is some sort of very large sturgeon. Although sturgeon are not known to inhabit Lake Illiamna, there are a lot of things that make sense with this explanation. Some species of sturgeon can get impressively large, such as the white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus), a beast of a fish that is the largest fish in North America and is capable of reaching reported lengths of up to 7 meters (23 feet), and quite feasibly even more. While not known to be in Lake Illiamna, white sturgeon do inhabit other lakes in Alaska, as well as coastal waters, so it is within the realm of possibility that they live here as well, or have travelled through waterways to end up in the lake from time to time.
The descriptions of the creatures also in some ways match the appearance of a sturgeon, with some reports being pretty much a dead on match. One eyewitness who saw a 20 foot long specimen of the creature from her fishing boat in 1989 even flat out said that it was probably a sturgeon that she had seen. The white stripe often reported could be from the sturgeon's natural coloration and even the teeth marks allegedly left on boats have been explained as coming from forceful contact with a sturgeon's bony armored plates. Any differences in details of descriptions of the mystery creatures compared to sturgeons, as well as the enormous sizes reported, could be explained by morphological differences stemming from an isolated population independently evolving within the lake in solitude. Sturgeon are also elusive, shy creatures that tend to live at the bottom, which would explain why they have managed to remain hidden for so long. The lake has been deemed a suitable habitat for sturgeon by biologists, so it is not completely out of the realm of possibility for them to be quite at home there.
Another theory is that the monsters are some type of whale, but it seems that the air-breathing whales would be spotted more frequently near the surface, especially since they need to come up to breathe. Whales and other aquatic mammals also have horizontally aligned tails rather than the vertical ones most commonly described for the mystery creatures. Whales are also not known in Lake Illiamna and it is often seen as more unlikely for a cetacean of some kind to have made its way from the coast into the lake via river. A theory that has gained some amount of popularity in recent years is that the creatures are actually sleeper sharks that have somehow found their way into the lake. Sleeper sharks are very large, bottom dwelling sharks, with some species such as the Pacific sleeper shark (Somniosus pacificus) able to reach sizes of over 20 feet in length. It is unclear whether such sharks could survive the fresh water of the lake, but sleeper sharks are very hardy, adaptable sharks and have on occasion shown a very high tolerance for low salinity, brackish water. They have been known to boldly make forays into areas of very low salinity bordering on freshwater, and have been reported from places such as the St. Lawrence River, near Quebec's Baie-Comeau.
Sightings of the elusive creatures are rare, partly due to their apparently shy nature and partly due to the remote, relatively unpopulated locale. The same factors have made obtaining any physical evidence of such animals difficult, and none has been produced yet. It seems if we are ever to come to some understanding of what these creatures are, or indeed if they even exist at all, it is going to be necessary for a well-equipped expedition to go to the lake and do extensive investigations with high tech tools such as sonar and underwater cameras, something that has not been done to any considerable degree at this point in time. Until then, all we can do is look out over Lake Illiamna’s surface and wonder what sort of giants may be cruising through the frigid depths below.