Mar 10, 2023 I Brent Swancer

Harrowing Cases of Attacks by Mysterious Lake Monsters at Lake Superior

Sprawled out over a large portion of Canada and the northern United States is the magnificent Lake Superior, which being the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area is more like an inland sea and more than earns it its name. The native Ojibwe tribe called it gichi-gami, meaning “Great Sea,” and besides its immense size, the lake holds its share of mysteries, and one of these is an enigmatic lake monster that supposedly has long called this place home, and if some reports are to be believed, it is not particularly friendly. 

The Native tribes of the area spoke in their legends of a giant and ferocious serpent inhabiting the lake that they called Mishipishu, meaning “underwater panther,” or also spelled as Michibeichu, represented in lore and in tribal pictographs as a fierce looking aquatic snake with spikes and spines, sometimes with a lion-like body. It was not known as being particularly friendly, dragging deer or whatever else came too close into the lake to never be seen again, and there were some areas that the tribesmen refused to go at all. If it became necessary to cross an area where it was said to lurk, then tobacco was apparently offered to it for safe passage, and there are even tales from missionaries of natives offering sacrifices to the creatures. However, far from an inhabitant of mere myth there have been sightings of something very bizarre and very large prowling these waters ever since, mostly describing the beast as being up to 75 feet or more long, with a whale-like tail, a reptilian, horse-like head, a long neck, and of a dark green or black color. Reports over the years have run the range from sea serpents, to something more like Nessie, to merely black masses below the surface, and no matter what these may represent there is no denying that there are a few reports that describe the beast as being very agggressive, indeed. 

Lake Superior

On September 9, 1987, a J.R. Sandvik was with a friend, Matthew Bruin, out swimming at the mouth of the Presque Isle River, which flows through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and empties into Lake Superior. It was a clear day, the water conditions were fine, with no choppy waves or currents. Indeed, the surface at the time was glassy and calm, yet at some point Bruin suddenly shouted out and was pulled under the water. Sandvik would report that he could see a large mass underwater that quickly descended, and when he went to where his friend had been there was nothing there. He waited and desperately swam around, but Bruin would never surface and was indeed never seen again. Authorities would deem it to be an accidental drowning, saying that he had been pulled under by a current and lost to the lake, but Sandvik insisted that this was not the case, saying, “I’m telling you he was pulled under by a large animal… I miss him… I miss you buddy.” It would fit in with the numerous sightings of the Lake Superior monster near or in the Presque Isle River, but an official statement would say of Bruin’s death:

This is not the first drowning victim of the Presque Isle River. It’s important to remember while splashing around in this shallow area by the mouth, that the seabed quickly descends to a couple hundred feet. The warm river water flows over top of the colder lake water, but it’s a conveyor belt to the deep. As the river water cools it sinks, pulling people down. Sadly I think the victim’s body will never be recovered. People say, ‘It’s the Presque Isle monster’ or ‘it’s a sea serpent’, but it is the lake itself, a force of nature that does not care if we live or die.

What was going on here? Was this a monster attack or soemthing else? An account that came to me personally was given by a witness who claims that he was out swimming with a friend at Miners Beach, a popular sandy beach located in Michigan's Alger County along the picturesque Rocks National Lakeshore. In the summer of 1998, the two were frolicking about in shallow water not far from shore. It was a clear day and there were many other swimmers out enjoying the lake that day. As the two waded and swam, the witness’s friend suddenly let out a cry of pain and was yanked partially under the water, before making his way to shore in a frenzied panic. He would claim that something very large had swum by his leg and then bit him, and there was physical evidence in the form of a large bite mark on his leg. He was immediately taken to the hospital and the witness would say:

My friend just started shouting and screaming ‘something’s got me!’ He kind of got yanked a short way and then was free and waded to the shore as fast as he could. His leg was bleeding all over the place and you could see that something had taken a bite out of him. I thought it might have been a large northern pike, as they have been known to get territorial and bite people, but at the hospital they said that considering the bite circumference and tooth marks it looked more like a bite from a shark. They had a hard time believing that this had happened in the lake. I still don’t know exactly what it was, but it put me off swimming there for a while let me tell you!

It is true that the Northern pike, which is a large carnivorous fish that can reach up to 5 feet in length, have been known to bite people, so is that what this was? It is important to note that there have also been unconfirmed reports of bull sharks in Lake Superior, which are sharks that are infamous for their ability to survive in fresh water and have been known to travel up rivers into lakes. They are also very aggressive and are responsible for many shark attacks, so is that what this was? In August of 2020 there was an alleged video of a bull shark swimming around in the lake that went viral, and local writer Jim Richardson (aka Lake Superior Aquaman), would claim to have even hunted it down. He would say on the site PerfectDuluthDay:

We had a good idea where to find it. I witnessed the encounter that went viral and we plotted an intercept course from that. We launched on Monday, and by Thursday that shark had a trident in its guts. I lost two good GoPros while doing battle with that thing, and it if weren’t for those cameras getting all bit up, I wouldn’t be here today. That shark lies belly-up on the bottom of the sea in the muck. You’re welcome.

The UMD Biology Department issued a press release about the shark, stating, “Lake Superior cannot support a breeding shark population. This was a lonely, hungry, tired shark,” to which Richardson responded “I can assure you, that shark may have been lonely and hungry, but it was not tired.” There have over the years been persistent reports of sightings of sharks in Lake Superior and even of finding dead bodies of the animals washed up on shore, but is there anything to this and could it even possibly be behind sightings of the Lake Superior monster? Others have voiced skepticism at the idea of bull sharks in Lake Superior, citing the fact that there has never been a confirmed sighting of one here and that it is highly unlikely one would get into the lake in the first place, nor be able to survive the cold temperatures here. Mike Schoonveld would say of the possibility of sharks in the Great Lakes in an article titled Bull Sharks in the Great Lakes, or Just Plain Bull?:

No shark reports have been officially, “scientifically” documented in Lake Michigan. There have been “fin” sightings as was the case in Frankfort. There have been reports of dead sharks apparently washed up on the beaches in Lake Huron, Erie and Ontario, but there’s no way to tell whether they came on their own or were planted there as pranks. I couldn’t find any reports for Lake Superior. Of course, the lack of saltwater and appropriate food, and the colder temperatures in the water are hardly the only obstacles keeping a shark from reaching the Upper Great Lakes. Actually, the prevalence of Asian carp in the Mississippi and other Midwestern waterways could provide a never- before abundant food source for the bull sharks. However, even one venturing up the Mississippi River Basin would have to get through the electric barrier at Chicago that’s designed to keep invasive species out of Lake Michigan. One venturing from the Atlantic Coast into the St. Lawrence River would have to negotiate that seaway’s lock system and then make it through the locks in the Welland Canal or swim up and over Niagara Falls to access the Upper Great Lakes. Most likely, shark fin “sightings” on the Great Lakes are either an apparition brought on by the sun, waves, fantasies or alcohol—or they could just be lake sturgeon. A big sturgeon does have a healthy, shark-like dorsal fin and tail, and they have been known to swim near the surface. All in all, I’ll continue worrying about errant meteorites about as much as I will with bull sharks in the big lake.

Bull Shark

Could a shark have been responsible for this account or even the one from the Presque Isle River or is it something else? Another account of an attack from some sort of monster in the lake supposedly happened in 2005 at the mouth of the Duluth Ship Canal. On August 22 of that year, a Todd Ely was Scuba diving across the mouth of the forty-foot-deep Duluth Ship Canal, where the St. Louis River discharges into the big lake. Knowing that is was a dangerous dive due to currents, they put down spikes to anchor themselves, and Ely says of what happened next:

We swam up to the edge of it and hammered a four-foot rebar spike into the sand, attaching the ends of our spools of guide line. So if we got swept out to sea — or sucked into the harbor — we wouldn’t get lost. We should be able to pull our way back to that point just off the edge of the mouth. It would be wild. We were going to push ourselves into the torrent of the St. Louis River and ride it as best we could, and whoever reached the other side of the canal owed the other one a case of beer. Crazy stupid idea. Outside the great wall of the canal, we swam over the sand through perfect visibility forty feet deep, lacy light bands on our bodies from the day above. But at the canal’s mouth, a wall of brown silt pushed miles out into the open water, an underwater river within the lake. Whorls and eddies sprouted along its length into the distance. To swim across the breadth of it, we’d have to enter zero-visibility like a zone of night. We readied our nerve and kicked into the gloom.

In addition to the clicking sound of our guide line reels unwinding, I heard a thrumming sound, a guttural vibration I associated with an outboard motor sputtering on its way to starting up. We had timed our stunt to miss any cargo ship traffic. This sound was more like a pick of bone strumming thick tendons. It was biological and contained menace. Something heavy and fast bumped against me, at first I thought maybe it was a dead tree pushed by the current. Whatever it was grabbed my buddy and ran with him. I heard his guide reel spinning fast before it silenced. Our stake was dislodged, jerked from the lake bottom like a rod from the hands of an angler. My skin had been pierced, stabbed leaving a searing puncture wound. We had cast ourselves into the stream like bait. Fuck I miss you man, I feel terrible.

What in the world happened here? Was this the Lake Superior monster, a shark, or what? One report that definitely was not a shark is just as mysterious, in that it supposedly concerns an enormous man-eating catfish in the lake far larger than any known species. On May 12, 2012, Drake Monroe was diving with friends three miles offshore of Duluth, Minnesota, investigating a field of the huge toxic waste barrels dumped in the WWII era. They were at a depth of 125 feet at the time, trying their best not to stir up the sediment but largely failing, and then something bizarre emerged from the dim, foggy gloom. Monroe says of the terrifying series of events that transpired next:

I was astonished and became petrified as an 18-foot catfish — the thing looked big as a limousine — emerged from the silt cloud behind Johnson. Its dorsal spines erected with a low thrum as the tendons snapped the bones into place, a subsonic designed as if by a demiurge to terrify prey into inaction. It opened its wide flat mouth, and the act of its opening violently sucked in a large volume of water. Johnson’s legs were sucked in up to his waist, like a frog held fast by the creature’s incurving teeth. Our eyes locked wide in shock and terror. The fish gulped and Johnson disappeared into its belly, only his hand sticking out between the pale rubbery lips, dropping his clipboard which fell among the barrels like an autumn leaf fluttering into a graveyard. The last thing he’d written: ‘Almost done.’ With a little slurp Johnson’s hand disappeared into the gullet like the end of a piece of spaghetti.

The mottled green, scaleless fish flexed its fins to turn and come about, their spiny tips secreting venom. Its mucusy flesh was a sense organ tasting its environment. It must have developed a taste for the prey around the barrels, chemicals altering its endocrine system and growth rate. Now it homed in on me. Its four-foot whiskers trailed through the muck of the barrel field like it was licking a battery, leaving a wake of twisting contrails. The fish had a six-foot lamprey on its side with the diameter of a rolled-up carpet. I skyrocketed to the surface and I am recovering from the bends in this barometric chamber, although it is likely I will suffer lifelong health effects. A team went back with spearguns but all they found were Johnson’s scuba tanks and regurgitated like indigestible bones. This Lake Superior specimen must be related to the goonch of India which eats grown men. There is also the lore of man-eating catfish from the days of Medieval Europe. I have been contacted by a prominent nature documentary series to tell my story. The producers settled on calling it the Gitchee Gumee Goonch.”

Monroe would reportedly die later, and the autopsy report is rather bizarre as well. A portion of it reads:

Patient died of cerebral edema related to decompression sickness. The water on his brain affected his mental stability and he died ranting and raving about sea monsters. He confided in me in his final moments that he believes Johnson’s dry-suit and air tanks may have enabled him to survive constricted in the creature’s stomach like an ersatz womb. From lips to stomach would have been a tight squeeze and so may have torn his mask and airtanks off and so forth. In which case he would have been unconscious and dead within two or three minutes. But it’s possible he was swallowed with his scuba rig intact. Unable to move an inch, and bombarded by rows of gastric glands in the mucosal folds of the muscular stomach walls, Johnson could have lived for up to two hours. Finally his air ran out. Hours after that in the belly of the beast, through the bite wounds, the space age materials of the dry-suit were compromised by the acids, and ground apart by the chewing action of rocky gastroliths. This allowed digestion of the fetal corpse.

How much of this spectacular report is true and just what was going on here? The largest species of catfish in the world is the Mekong giant catfish, with the largest specimen ever recorded being a 9-foot-long individual caught in northern Thailand in 2005 weighing an astounding 646 pounds. Although this is massive, it is nowhere near what Monroe is reporting here, and so we are left to wonder just what happened here. In the end, we are left to wonder what is going on with any of it. Is there a monster in Lake Superior, and if so what is it? Could it possibly be what is behind these strange and harrowing stories of attacks in the lake? For now it is unknown. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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