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Our Very Own Sea Monster

John Moe

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Fact? Or fiction?
(John Moe)
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Lake Pepin is not really a lake, just a widening in the Mississippi River. It's where water skiing was invented. There's great fishing--some of the fish weigh up to 200 pounds. There are majestic views of nearby cliffs. And, if you like spooky tales of creatures hitherto unexplained by science, they got one too.

Shelly Schimbeno manages the Chickadee Cottage Tea Room and Restaurant. This is how she describes her spooky encounter: "It was 25 years ago probably. My brother and some friends were out in a bay north of town water skiing. And I was in the water and I saw something surface near the boat. It was as long as the boat, it was a 16-foot boat. It was black, it was ugly, it was long, serpent-like, I would say. I saw something. I'm not going to tell you it's Pepie. But I'm not going to tell you it wasn't."

That's right, Pepie. Loch Ness has Nessie, Lake Pepin has Pepie. Or at least stories of Pepie. Here is Larry Neilson's account: "We were the only boat out there. The lake was smooth as glass. We saw a wake about a foot and a half, two feet high, and about two hundred feet long going down the lake."

Neilson is into Pepie lore. He says local Native American tribes refused to go out on the lake in thin canoes because of monsters that lurked in the water. And also, "On April 28, 1871, the Minnesota State Historical Society has an entry in their almanac book of days that says a lake monster was seen swimming on Lake Pepin."

And now, 137 years later, Neilson wants your help finding Pepie. The job pays well.

"The reward is a $50,000 reward. You have to have a picture of Pepie. Along with some sort of sample off of Pepie like a snippet of a fin or something like that so we can send it up to the University of Minnesota biology department." Neilson tells me.

It's an offer that's getting attention from all over the world, even though there's no evidence to suggest that there are sea monsters in Lake Pepin. To which Neilson says, "There's no evidence to suggest that there's not sea monsters either."

Neilson will even let you stay at his place while you try to collect the prize. Of course, his place is a hotel on the lake. That he owns. And he will charge you. He can also take you out on the lake a boat that he owns. He'll charge you for that, too.

"We know Pepie's never harmed anybody, so he must be a pretty nice creature. So he probably doesn't have big fangs or anything. He's probably got a grinning face and he's maybe a vegetarian," says Neilson.

"Sounds like he would lend himself well to the type of cartoons that might be printed on t-shirts that are for sale," I say to him.

"Well, you just never know what might happen here in the next couple of months," is his reply.

Some people in town believe in Pepie, but everyone believes in tourism. But Pepie isn't just a publicity stunt, he's a chance to have fun. Sea monsters! Fun!

Jil Garry runs Treats & Treasures, a little gift shop near the lake. "We have Pepie Chow. It's a delicious snack mix," she tells me when I drop in for a visit. "It's not intended for Pepie. It's intended for people to munch on while you're looking for Pepie."

"Have you ever seen Pepie?" I ask her.

"No, I haven't been fortunate enough to see Pepie." She says, "but there's a lot of things I haven't seen, so that doesn't mean he doesn't exist just because I haven't seen him."

Lake City is relying on the fact that you can't prove a negative. They're not banking on Pepie, they're banking on a lack of proof of no Pepie. And they're really banking on it. You can buy a scoop of Pepiemint ice cream or stop by the bar for a drink called the Pepie, which involves some sort of blue liqueur and which everyone says is disgusting. There's even a coloring contest at the gas station and bait shop, which is owned by this guy Steve who swears he's seen Pepie too. But wait a minute, is it possible that the Chickadee Cottage Tea Room and Restaurant's Schimbeno saw something else?

"There's apparently 200-pound fish out there. Could you have seen like a big fish, maybe two fish?" I ask her.

"Absolutely. Yeah." She agrees. "There's sturgeon? How big do they get?"

By the way, Shelly's parents own the cafe. If tourists flock to the lake based on her story, the Schimbeno family cashes in. Add her to the other two Pepie perpetrators, Steve at the gas station and Larry at the hotel, you have the ingredients of either a fun, town-wide, shared mythology or a very clever conspiracy. Schimbeno is quick to disavow this.

"I have not spoken to Steve or Larry directly about this, so conspiracy theory thwarted," she tells me.

"Which is exactly what you would say if this was a conspiracy," I respond.

"I know. But I'm sure Larry and Steve would collaborate on that. They will hold up the story."

"As conspirators often do."

"Yes, you're correct. You're correct."

  • Music Bridge:
    Grey Sunday
    Artist: D'arcangelo
    CD: Eksel (Rephlex)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Marie Denker

    From Rochester, MN, 07/07/2008

    Are you hiring anyone to fact check your web site? Even though all the facts on "Pepie" can't be checked the spelling of Larry Nielson's name could be verified.

    By Andru Peters

    From Lake City, MN, 07/06/2008

    The last documented sighting of a "sea monster" was noted in the, Wed, April 26, 1871 issue of Lake City paper WABASHA COUNTY SENTINEL, where two locals, a Giles Hayde and C. Page Bonney on a journey across the lake sighted a monster the size of an elephant and moving with great rapidity?

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