This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 21, Issue 2, from 2008.
Crescent lake is a picturesque body of water in northeastern Newfoundland, Canada, near the small town of Robert’s Arm. Settlement of the area dates back to the 1870s, though other native peoples, including the Beothuk Indians, were early visitors. Robert’s Arm (formerly Rabbit’s Arm) has a population of about a thousand. The scenery is gorgeous, with walking trails snaking over lush green hills and around the placid lake. Though the region’s natural beauty is the main attraction, it is the huge, dragon-like creature with fearsome teeth by the side of the road that draws visitors’ stares. Next to it a sign welcomes visitors to “The ‘Loch Ness’ of Newfoundland!” Crescent Lake, deep and cold, is allegedly home to a local lake monster affectionately known as Cressie.
Along with colleague Joe Nickell, I’ve previously investigated other Canadian lakes in search of the reputed denizens in their depths (Radford & Nickell, 2006). Ontario beasties Champ (of Lake Champlain; Nickell, 2003; Radford, 2003), Igopogo (of Lake Simcoe), and Quebec’s Memphre (of Lac Memphremagog) were no-shows despite our best efforts. I arrived at the lake on a crisp spring day last year hoping that Newfoundland’s famous hospitality extended to their local monster.
But it was not to be. I scanned the horizon and quickly determined that Cressie was not on hand to greet me, so I headed a short distance into Robert’s Arm and inquired about it at the town hall. I got a few curious looks from the pleasant, raven-haired woman behind the desk. Finally her face lit up and she said, “Oh, you need to talk to Fred Parsons, he’s your monster man.”
I’d been traveling in Newfoundland for less than a week and hadn’t quite acclimated to the local accents and cadence. Because of that, I sort of missed the first name and just made a mental note to ask for a man named Parsons; in a town as small as Robert’s Arm, I thought, surely there’s only one. Little did I know that half the town was named Parsons.
I finally did find Fred, a former teacher (and “Citizen of the Year”) with an easy smile and warm handshake. We sat on the town hall steps while he told me about his Cressie sighting: On July 9, 1991, Fred and his wife left Robert’s Arm at around noon for a doctor’s appointment in Corner Brook. As he drove along the lake, he saw something in the water perhaps 100 yards out. “What I saw was like a long, snake-like creature on the water,” he told me. “It was about fifteen or twenty feet long and a dark brownish colour – It was a long, sleek body without any significantly large head, basically right on the water.” He glimpsed it only briefly, and by the time he realized he might have seen Cressie he had passed it by. In the years following his sighting, Fred became the area’s resident collector of lake monster reports, clipping local newspaper items and interviewing witnesses.
Local Aboriginal myths and lore are often cited as evidence for the existence of mysterious creatures. Cressie is no exception: Aboriginal legends are said to tell of two entities supposedly related to Cressie, the woodum haoot (“pond devil”) and the haoot tuwedyee (“swimming demon”). Several sources make this claim, and it is tempting to marshal old native stories and legends into modern evidence. However, one must be careful: just because native peoples have a name for a non-human entity does not necessarily mean that it actually refers to a real creature. Our own Western folklore tradition includes fantastic creatures from long ago (such as English fairies and Irish leprechauns); these are stories and not meant to be taken literally. The references to the woodum haoot and the haoot tuwedyee seem to have been simply copied from one source to another without having been verified as having any actual connection to Cressie. (A similar phenomenon occurred at Lake Okaganan, with native stories of the supernatural entity N’ha-a-itk being cited as evidence for Ogopogo; see Radford, 2006.)
While there has been no organized, sustained effort to verify the creature’s existence, no hard evidence – bones, live specimens, or carcasses – has been found. Unlike the monsters in Loch Ness and Lake Champlain, Cressie has never been photographed; virtually all of the evidence for Cressie’s existence comes from eyewitness sightings. There have been about a dozen Cressie sightings since the 1940s. According to an information plaque on Cressie at “Cressie’s Castle,” a tourist lookout on the lake:
In the local oral tradition, sightings of Cressie go back to the turn of the century when one of Robert’s Arm’s first residents, remembered today as ‘Grandmother Anthony,’ was startled from her berry picking by a giant serpent out on the lake. In another daylight sighting of the early 1950s, two local woodsmen on the shores of the lake noticed what they thought was a boom log just off shore. Puzzled that it was drifting into the wind, the men motored hurriedly out in time to witness the upturned ‘log,’ now huge, black, and rounded, slip beneath the waters of the lake. One of the gentlemen, Mr. Andrew Burton, long since retired, recalls that they wasted no time in regaining the shore.
Burton described the object as about 25 feet long and a foot in diameter. Though it was at first thought to be a log, Burton said it didn’t act like one: “A boom log would not have sunk suddenly out of sight or travelled against the wind.” The sign continues,
On Thursday afternoon, September 5th, 1991, at approximately 4:30 PM, Mr. Pierce Rideout, a resident of Robert’s Arm, was driving his pickup truck at the approach to that town when he noticed a disturbance on the surface of Crescent Lake. He observed through the open window of his truck what seemed to be the bow wave of a small boat about 150 yards off shore, or three-quarters the way from the small beach near Warr’s Service Station and the forested point of land across the lake. It appeared to Mr. Rideout that a slowly moving object had just dropped below the surface, but as he watched, it rose to sight again: a black, fifteen foot long shape pitching forward in a rolling motion much as a whale does but with no sign of a fin, ‘sail,’ paddle, or fluke. Nor did it show a head or a neck. It then sank out of sight and did not reappear.
In recent years other sightings (all essentially describing the same long, snake-like shape) have occasionally been reported. With very few exceptions, eyewitness credibility is not in doubt. “There’s several locals who have spotted it and the fact of the matter is they’ve got nothing to lie about, they’re honest people,” Fred told me. Often lake monster reports will take a wide variety of forms; anything strange, odd, or mysterious seen in the lake is likely to be interpreted as the creature. People tend to see what they wish or hope to see, and once locals and tourists become aware of the monster, they will likely see monsters even when there are none.
One thing that virtually all witnesses agree on is that Cressie is dark and eel-like in appearance. George Eberhart (2002), in his encyclopedia Mysterious Creatures, suggests that Cressie might be an oversized American eel (Anguilla rostrata). Indeed, “the lake and surrounding ponds are famous for their population of abnormally large eels”.
Though the eels typically grow to less than five feet, Robert’s Arm writer Russell Bragg notes that “RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) divers may have accidentally discovered related ‘monsters’ while investigating an unfortunate drowning accident in another similar-sized lake in the area, South Pond. They returned to the surface with descriptions of giant eels as thick as a man’s thigh. Many believe Cressie to be such a creature” (Bragg, 1995). Fred Parsons says he believes it is “quite possible” that Cressie is a giant eel. “What I saw indicated it was an eel-like creature. No question about that – but still we have a lake monster.”
The eel hypothesis is by far the most likely, and the most popular explanation among longtime residents and eyewitnesses. Robert’s Arm senior citizen Hughie Ryan says, “I think it’s all nonsense. But there are some big fish in the lake, and I think there may be a giant eel in there.” Says seventy-year-old, lifelong resident Ray Hewlett, “Some of the old fellers used to see it, they say. A giant
eel they used to say, years ago” (Power, n.d.). As Fred told me, “It was only recently that a couple of trappers/fisher-men were granted permission to set out eel traps in the lake. They successfully secured a high number of them”. Thus is it such a stretch then to think that Cressie, the “eel-like” lake monster, might actually be eel?
Locals offer several other explanations, including floating or drifting trees and logs. There is no question that countless sunken logs lay in the lake’s murky depths. After all, Crescent was used for decades for the specific purpose of floating logs through it: Well over a half million cords of pulpwood were harvested from the area and shipped overseas to large paper mills in Europe. The Crescent Lake/Tommy’s Arm River network became a major center for this export pulpwood operation.
As with other reported lake monsters, it is a mistake to look for only one specific explanation for all the sightings. In truth there are many things in the lake – living and other wise – that might double as large lake creatures. The sightings are probably a mixture of misidentifications, floating logs, large fish, otters, and perhaps even giant eel. It is also possible, of course, that Cressie is a prehistoric survivor or fantastic creature unknown to science and zoology. Yet if a group of unknown creatures has existed in the lake for centuries (thus being reported by Aboriginal legends), it’s difficult to explain why they are so rarely seen. Crescent is a relatively small lake along a highway next to a small town, yet sightings only date back about sixty years, averaging one sighting every five years.
Cressie and Tourism
Whether Cressie lurks in the waters of Crescent Lake or not, it certainly exists in the local folklore and imaginations. The tourism potential of their local monster has not been lost on the officials and citizens of Robert’s Arm and the Beothuk Trail Tourism Committee. The town has tried to publicize itself as a lake monster tourism destination. In an area (in fact, an entire province) that has suffered economically from a dying timber industry and depletion of cod fisheries, tourism is being promoted like never before. The main effort began in the early 1990s, when local resident Russell Bragg created the Cressie sign along the highway.
A quarter mile or so down the road is the Lake Crescent Inn, run by Evelyn and Bruce Warr. As their brochure says, “Bring your camera! You just might see Cressie, our lake monster.” If you don’t see the beastie from the hotel, a twenty-minute walk along the lake will bring you to Cressie’s Castle, a scenic area created especially for lake monster watching. It is outfitted with wooden benches, a boardwalk, and an information plaque. floats, and so on.
I left Robert’s Arm and Crescent Lake without my monster, but that was okay. Whether fish, logs, giant eel, or unknown monster, Cressie’s true identity is mostly irrelevant to the residents of Robert’s Arm. And whether or not Cressie is in the lake, it is active in the hearts and minds of this small Newfoundland community.
Bragg, R. A. (1991). Beothuk Times: Newsletter of the Beothuk Trail Tourism Committee, 2(2).Bragg, R. A. (1992). Beothuk Times: Newsletter of the Beothuk Trail Tourism Committee, 3(1).Bragg, R. A. (1995). Have you seen Cressie? In W. Jackman, B. Warr, & R. A. Bragg (Eds.), Remembrances of Robert’s Arm: Come Home Year 1995 (pp. 14-16). Corner Brook, Newfoundland: Western Star Publishers.Eberhart, G. (2002). Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.Nickell, J. (2003). Legend of the Lake Champlain Monster. Skeptical Inquirer, 27(4), 18-23.Power, Jennifer. N.D. What Lurkes in Crescent Lake? Norwester newspaper.Radford, B. (2003). The measure of a monster: Investigating the Champ photo. Skeptical Inquirer, 27(4), 24-28.Radford, B. (2006). Ogopogo the chameleon. Skeptical Inquirer, 30(1), 41-46.Radford, B., & Nickell, J. (2006). Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky.
From the archives, Benjamin Radford recounts the story of his search for Cressie, a monster that never was
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