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The Mysterious Giant Salamanders of Northern California

The field of cryptozoology, which deals with the search for undiscovered, or hidden, animals, encompasses a rather vast menagerie of mystery creatures of all shapes and sizes found in all types of habitats in every far-flung corner of the globe, from the most secluded jungles to the deepest seas. While many people know of the “rock stars” of cryptozoology, such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, there are also countless lesser known mysterious creatures that allegedly prowl, slither, jump, and swim through the wilds of our planet beyond our efforts to capture or classify them. One such creature is a purported gigantic salamander that lurks within the remote rivers and lakes of the Trinity Alps of Northern California, and has managed to remain frustratingly elusive and fairly little known by the general public.

The Trinity Alps are located within the Klamath Mountains System, between the California Coast Ranges to the west and the Cascade Range to the east. The surrounding Trinity Alps Wilderness area is vast, encompassing three national forests and covering a staggering 517,000 acres (2,090 km2), making it the second largest designated wilderness area in California. Within its sweeping vistas of pristine mountain wilderness lives a flourishing variety of wildlife, including large species such as bears, deer, mountain lions, and wolverines, as well as numerous smaller species of mammals, reptiles, and birds. Among this plethora of thriving biodiversity there may also exist another large species; a mysterious giant salamander up to 10 feet in length that has been reported from the region for decades.

The Trinity Alps

The Trinity Alps

The modern mystery of the Trinity Alps Giant Salamander started back in the 1920s, when a hunter by the name of Frank L. Griffith was out hunting deer in a remote area near the head of the New River when he came across a rather bizarre sight. At the bottom of a lake he reported seeing 5 enormous salamanders that he described as ranging in size from 2-3 metres (5 to 9 feet) long. The fascinated hunter went about trying to catch one of the strange creatures with a hook on a line and allegedly was successful, but the massive creature proved to be too strong for him and he was forced to give up and let it swim back down to the bottom to join the others. The frustrated Griffith would leave the scene empty handed but would never forget what he saw that day. It was with this story that a long, weird history of giant salamander sightings in the Trinity Alps region would begin, with numerous eyewitness accounts coming in that all similarly described very large salamanders ranging from 5 to 10 feet in length and with dark brown to black coloration. These sightings would in turn launch various expeditions into the Trinity Alps wilderness in order to try and find these enigmatic monsters.

One of the first serious attempts to find a specimen of the Trinity Alps Giant Salamander was made by a biologist named Thomas L. Rodgers.  Inspired by the 1920s Griffith account and scattered sightings that had been made since, Rodgers would end up mounting a total of 4 separate expeditions into the Trinity Alps over the years to scour the region for any sign of such a beast. Rodgers was unable to locate neither any specimens nor any evidence of them. However, his team was able to find numerous specimens of Pacific giant salamander of the family (Dicamptodontidae), a known species which can attain a length of around 30 cm (12 in). Although none of these specimens was more than a foot long, Rodgers came up with the theory that the cryptid Trinity Alps Giant Salamander could be a type of Dicamptodontidae that somehow, perhaps through geographic isolation, had developed some sort of gigantism. He also theorized that the mystery salamanders could be a new type of giant salamander related to the Asian giant salamander, truly huge creatures that inhabit the streams and rivers of Japan and China. The Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicas) can reach sizes of to 1.44 m (4.7 ft) in length, whereas the Chinese variety (Andrias davidianus) can get even larger, at a maximum size of 1.8 m (5.9 ft) long. Both are what are known as Cryptobranchids, from the family Cryptobranchidae, a group of giant salamanders known for their large sizes and the prominent folds that cover their bodies in order to create more surface area to absorb oxygen from the water.

The Chinese giant salamander

The Chinese giant salamander

This theory was bolstered by a paper in a scientific journal written by a herpetologist named George S. Myers in 1951, who agreed that the Trinity Alps Giant Salamander could be a type of Asian giant salamander of the genus Andrias, also called Megalobatrachus, and provided his own bizarre first hand sighting to prove it. Myers allegedly came across a specimen of Asian giant salamander that was captured in the Sacramento River in 1939 by a fisherman. The fisherman claimed that the creature had been tangled in one of his catfish nets, and Meyers went to investigate. What he saw was a giant salamander that resembled the Asian giant salamanders except for the coloring, which was dark brown instead of the usual slate grey, and dull yellow spots which are not found on the Asian varieties. Meyers was allow to examine the specimen up close, and wrote of the discovery:

The animal was a fine Megalobatrachus, in perfect condition… It was between 25 and 30 inches in length…The source of the specimen is, of course, unknown. Its strange coloration even suggested the possibility of a native Californian Megalobatrachus, which would not be surprising, but no other captures have been reported.

It is not known what happened to the specimen after that. A few years after Meyers published his report, an animal handler by the name of Vern Harden reported seeing a dozen giant salamanders in the remote Hubbard Lake of the Trinity Alps, which he described as being up to 8 feet in length. Harden also claimed to have hooked one on a line, but just as had happened with Griffith in the 1920s, the monstrous salamander proved too formidable to bring up to the surface and it was turned loose. This report was heard by none other than the man the lake was named after, Jesuit scholar Father Hubbard, who was also an avid explorer and naturalist. Hubbard at first was highly skeptical of the reports of giant salamanders in the Trinity Alps, but upon analyzing other similar sightings in the region he had a change of heart and started to think there might be something to the stories. In fact, Hubbard eventually became so convinced that there could really be giant salamanders in the Trinity Alps region that he put together several expeditions in search of them, along with his brother Captain John D. Hubbard, between the years of 1958 and 1959. Hubbard later claimed to have seen the creatures himself during his excursions and to have actually established their existence, but since no evidence has ever been put forward to support these claims it is unknown just what they found, and in fact there have been some who doubt these expeditions ever took place at all.

A Trinity Alps lake

A Trinity Alps lake

Nevertheless, the tale of Hubbard’s expeditions in search of the Trinity Alps Giant Salamanders was intriguing enough that it caught the attention of the legendary oil tycoon, millionaire, and cryptid hunter Tom Slick, who had scoured the wilds of the world searching for cryptids such as Bigfoot and the Yeti. Slick was fascinated by the stories of the Trinity Alps Giant Salamanders, especially the accounts given by Hubbard, and so in 1960 he took some of the people who had been working in the Pacific Northwest on an expedition to find Bigfoot and had them try and locate a specimen of the mysterious giant salamanders. The team members grudgingly went along with the plan even though the thought it was a distraction from their main purpose and a waste of time. After an exhaustive search of several promising areas, the expedition failed to find any evidence of the Trinity Alps Giant Salamander, and did not even manage to spot one. Nevertheless it is said that Tom Slick especially enjoyed this expedition as it was close to home and so he was able to bring along his sons. A more detailed and entertaining account of the Tom Slick Trinity Alps expedition, as well as many of his other adventures, can be found in cryptozoologist Loren Coleman’s book Tom Slick: True Life Encounters in Cryptozoology.

In September of 1960, the same year that Tom Slick had gone off searching for the salamanders, three zoology professors, Robert C. Stebbins of the University of California Berkeley, Tom Rodgers of Chico State College and Nathan Cohen of Modesto Junior College, mounted their own expedition in search of the creatures. This was not Tom Rodgers’ first foray into the Trinity Alps in search of the salamanders, as he had already made several unsuccessful expeditions to find them in 1948, and was the very same Thomas L. Rodgers who had concocted the theory that they were outsized Cryptobranchids or out of place Asian giant salamanders. Although the pedigree of the team leaders was impressive, they were accompanied by 10 laymen who had little scientific training or expedition experience. The expedition was able to locate at least a dozen of the known Pacific giant salamanders (Dicamptodontidae), but none were over a foot long; impressive, but nowhere near the 8 foot plus lengths reported for the mystery salamanders. This was the very same sort of result Rodgers had previously had, and he grew skeptical of the existence of anything larger in the area. Things were made worse by the continued misidentifications by the less experienced team members of sunken logs for giant salamanders, and Rodgers came to the conclusion that the Trinity Alps Giant Salamanders were merely the product of misidentification and tall tales. He treated the failure of this final expedition of his as more or less a debunking of the mystery creatures, and he would write a paper outlining his skepticism in 1962.

Japanese giant salamander

Japanese giant salamander

Although taking the lack of results as proof that the creature didn’t exist seems a bit extreme, it nevertheless dampened any scientific curiosity there was for the Trinity Alps Giant Salamanders, and they became a rather obscure cryptozoological footnote and a mere curiosity. One of the last major mainstream expeditions undertaken to find the Trinity Alps Giant Salamander was by a Japanese American writer and researcher of Native American legends named Kyle Mizogami in 1997. Mizogami mounted a thorough, scientific expedition to hunt for the creatures, but like those before him was unable to locate any specimens nor indeed any sign of the creatures at all.

The lack of any evidence of the Trinity Alps Giant Salamander besides scattered sightings reports does not make a strong case for its alleged existence, but the idea of giant salamanders living in the area undiscovered is not completely far-fetched and is in fact scientifically plausible in theory. We know that the Japanese and Chinese giant salamanders can reach huge sizes, nearly 6 feet for the Chinese variety, possibly even larger, and in fact there is a relative of these beasts living in the United States. The hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) is a Cryptobrachnid that lives in the northeastern United States and can reach sizes of up to 30 to 74 cm (12 to 29 in) in length. Of course this is a far cry from the sizes reported for the Trinity Alps Giant Salamander, but one wonders if perhaps a similar but larger species exists in the west as well. The conditions and habitat of the Trinity Alps are virtually the same as the hellbender and the Asian giant salamanders, so perhaps it is possible something larger could exist here. Discoveries are still made of such creatures within the United States, most notable the discovery of a whole new genus of lungless salamander, called Urspelerpes brucei, in the Appalachian foothills. It seems that at least the idea of a new species of giant salamander existing in the remote wilds of Northern California is not a completely far out notion.

The hellbender

The hellbender

So are the Trinity Alps of Northern California the home of monstrous species of giant salamander, or is this all merely misidentification, tall tales, and folklore? With so little evidence and no major expeditions to search for them in recent years it’s hard to say for sure. The lack of any good recent sightings also does not bode well, and it seems this could also mean that even if the Trinity Alps Giant Salamander did in fact exist, it could have already gone extinct. Whatever the case may be, if you ever find yourself out for a spot of hiking or camping out in the wilderness of the Trinity Alps, you may just want to keep your eye on the water just in case. More information on some of the sightings mentioned here and about these salamanders in general can be found in Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark’s mesmerizing cryptozoological tome, Cryptozoology A To Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature.