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Exploring American Monsters: Montana

Montana is big. The kind of big reserved for entire countries. To give a sense of scale, it’s roughly the same size as, but still bigger than Japan, and it’s only America’s fourth largest state. In its 147,040 square miles Montana brushes four states, and three Canadian provinces. Known as “Big Sky Country,” Montana is split by the Continental Divide, and consists of the Great Plains in the east that stretch to the Dakotas, and numerous mountain ranges in the west, the most notable of which is the Rocky Mountains. The state boasts Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (named for the 1876 battle when the Lakota tribes annihilated a force lead by General George Armstrong Custer). Famous residents include my boyhood hero daredevil motorcyclist Evel Knievel, “Twin Peaks” creator director David Lynch, Pearl Jam guitarist Jeff Ament, actors Gary Cooper (“High Noon”), and Dirk Benedict (duh, “Battlestar Galactica”), and the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Montana may be enormous, but it’s 48th in population density. That’s plenty of room for monsters to roam free.

Jack Kirby, grandson of Rancher Israel Ammon Hutchins who shot the Shunka Warak’in in 1886. (Courtesy of  The Bozeman Daily Chronicle.)

Jack Kirby, grandson of Rancher Israel Ammon Hutchins who shot the Shunka Warak’in in 1886. (Photo by The Bozeman Daily Chronicle.)

Shunka Warak’in

Most evidence of cryptids involves fuzzy pictures, footprints in plaster, and in some cases blood and hair samples, but with Montana’s cryptid the Shunka Warak’in there’s actually a body. The mounted creature measures 48 inches long, not including the tail, and stands 28 inches tall at the shoulder, according to the Bozeman (Montana) Daily Chronicle.

Rancher Israel Ammon Hutchins shot the animal on his property in 1886. Although the beast was unknown to white settlers, the local American Indians knew what it was, naming it Shunka Warak’in, which means “carries off dogs.” According to the book, “Trails to Nature’s Mysteries: The Life of a Working Naturalist,” written by Ross Hutchins, his grandfather Israel saw the “wolf like beast of dark colour was chasing my grandmother’s geese.” He shot at it, but missed. Others saw the creature. “Those who got a good look at the beast describe it as being nearly black and having high shoulders and a back that sloped downward like a hyena,” Hutchins wrote.

One morning, Israel heard his dogs barking in alarm and got another shot at the hyena-like beast. “This time he was able to kill it,” Hutchins wrote. “Just what the animal was is still an open question. After being killed, it was donated to a man named (Joseph) Sherwood who kept a combination grocery and museum at Henry Lake in Idaho. It was mounted and displayed there for many years. He called it ringdocus.” The mounted creature is now back in the hands of the Hutchins family; Jack Kirby, Israel Hutchins’ grandson, purchased the mounted Shunka Warak’in in 2007.

Although the Shunka Warak’in has not undergone DNA testing (Kirby is resistant to the idea), some have speculated it to be a Borophagus, a hyena-like dog once found in North America. Unfortunately for that theory, the Borophagus existed during the Pleistocene and has been extinct since the last Ice Age. What the Shunka Warak’in was remains a mystery.

Okay, so maybe not the 4 November 1892 Brooklyn Eagle, but close enough.

Okay, so maybe not the 4 November 1892 Brooklyn Eagle, but close enough.

A Hairy, Bear-Eating Monster

Newspapers in the 1800s were a bit more exciting than the newspapers of today. With stories of elections, wars, and Kardashians, today’s headlines (even those of monsters) can’t compare with headlines of monsters of more than 100 years ago. Like the story “A Montana Monster” that appeared in New York’s Brooklyn Eagle on 4 November 1892.

An unnamed mountain man apparently saw a large, hairy creature with a “habit of rising on its haunches and walking on its hind legs after the manner of a gorilla.” The witness claimed this man-like monster killed and ate “several large bears” and “one mountain sheep,” after he discovered half-eaten carcasses near what he described as a “headquarters” of the beast. Although this was the only reported sighting of such a monster at the time, the mountains of southern Montana near the Wyoming border would be ripe territory for Bigfoot.

News of the Flathead Lake Monster.

News of the Flathead Lake Monster.

The Flathead Lake Monster

At twenty-eight miles long, sixteen miles wide, and 370 feet deep, Montana’s Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, and similar in size to Scotland’s Loch Ness (although larger in surface area, but only half as deep). It also shares something with the loch – the legend of a monster.

The first reported encounter with this creature was by steamboat Captain James C. Kerr in 1889. Kerr and a number of passengers saw what they first thought to be a log, but as the boat got closer, witnesses claimed the object in the water was a whale. Numerous reports of the creature have surface over the decades. Witnesses have said the monster is everything from a giant eel, to a sturgeon, to a forty-foot-long plesiosaur.

A number of sightings occurred in 1993, including large and small humped creatures witnesses thought may be a mother and child in Big Arm Bay. Another by bankers from Seattle, Washington, describes a dark, twelve-foot-long, eel-like shape beneath the water.

There have been at least 97 reported sightings of the Flathead Lake Monster over the years, according to a story on KECI, the NBC affiliate in Missoula, Montana. Former fisheries biologist Laney Hanzel told the station the sightings are all similar – a dark serpent with black eyes. “(Witnesses) have been doctors, they have been lawyers, very sincere people,” Hanzel told KECI. “With the evidence that I’ve seen, I would say they have been telling me the truth.”

The California Condor – a Teratorn Mini-Me.

The California Condor – a Teratorn Mini-Me.

Thunderbirds

The Thunderbird is an American Indian legend that stretches across North America. It is an enormous bird that’s name comes from the beating of its wings that sound like thunder. The thunderbird closely resembles a family of bird called the Teratorn that existed between the Miocene and Pleistocene periods and had wingspans that stretch to twenty feet in length. These beasts from another age have been seen in Montana.

According to reports filed with the Montana cryptozoologist Thomas Marcum, a man and his father driving on Interstate 90 witnessed the “largest bird I have ever seen, bigger than an eagle or turkey vulture,” the anonymous witness claimed. The report said the bird, that was “shaped like a bird of prey,” had a wingspan of 15 to 20 feet. It was overhead for about fifteen seconds before it flew out of sight.

Up next: Nebraska.