The Lake Iliamna cryptid saga

Many people do not realize that there has been thoughtful consideration taken of the presence of a creature(s) that needs explaining in the depths of Iliamna, Alaska’s largest lake, nearly 80 miles long, 20 miles wide and a thousand feet deep. Native oral histories, which have often proven accurate, have long told of a fearful creature — “monster” in the popular vernacular — residing in the lake. When aviation made its presence in the Lake Clark/Iliamna area in the 1940s, reliable reports from pilots, missionaries, state biologists and fishermen made it impossible to ignore. A $10,000 reward was once offered by a now-defunct Anchorage newspaper to get the creature documented and the nick-name “Illie” somehow became attached to it.

A cryptid is a speculative and unknown animal, leading to the quasi-science of cryptozoology. Unfortunately, many sources diverge from the needed hard scientific observations, entering the occult, supernatural or fantastic. Links to the Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, Yeti, Jurassic plesiosaurs and aliens often tarnish the Iliamna phenomenon. It does not deserve it. Amongst all the panoply of cryptids, Illie just might turn out to be the most credible.

Just what it is varies from incident to incident, as is often the case with cryptids. The circumstance, danger, length of observation, and weather conditions have brought in reasonable speculations that the lake hosts a known animal found in what would be an environment outside of its natural habitat: sturgeons, belugas, sleeper sharks, gray whales, and roaming pods of freshwater seals all make the list.

The seals deserve special mention. It is most unusual that what is normally a salt water animal flourishes in the lake. I saw numerous ones myself in my brief trip to Kokhanok, lurking around set-net sites. The idea, however, that a single seal could be mistaken for Illie, is absurd. A roaming pod, surfacing and submerging in unison, could account for some reports. It must remain part of a reasonable skeptic’s explanation.

Belugas travel hundreds of miles up the Yukon River, chasing salmon, but every one of the eye-witnesses are familiar with this small white whale. The colors do not match and belugas have never been reported in Iliamna.

What happened June 18-19, 2017, has moved the mystery onto a whole new level. The enormous size, the presence of multiple creatures of separate lengths, seen by nine adults under ideal conditions, the presence of binoculars and phone-camera glimpses, transcends many documented reports. Previous reports agreed upon an aluminum-colored creature, possibly 15 to 30 feet, and visible fins, which have given rise to many explanations of a white sturgeon, which reaches sizes approaching half a ton. Their habitat, however, lies in southeastern Alaska.

Recently, pilot Chris Palm and myself were lucky to have interviewed three of the nine adults, either on my radio show or in person after a recent trip to Kokhanok, located on the south shore of Iliamna. The article in the Alaska Dispatch News alerted me to the story, and I have found the witnesses common-sense, hard-working and experienced rural Alaskans, not prone to fabulous tales or likely to embellish details. They are themselves quite skeptical in the normal sense.

The nine adult witnesses (there were children as well of various ages) were Gary Nielson, and his wife Marlene, Jessie and Irene Wilson, Sassa Wassilie, Cherlyn Chockonuk, Nathan Hill, Janessa Woods, Nicholas Mihke. The reports of my interview come from Gary, Jessie and Irene. I tried hard to find Sassa, who had the longest looks at it, but she had left for Iliamna Village that day.

On June 18, Nathan Hill was at a fish camp located a few miles west of Kokhanok. He cell-phoned Gary Nielson at his home in the village that there were some strange reefs between the shore and what are known locally as “Fish Camp Islands”, a pair of flat islands about four miles away. Gary said there were no reefs there, something which Hill already knew, and was why he phoned Nielson. Whatever it was had disappeared by the time Nielson arrived.

But the next day, Cherlyn Chockonuk and Sassa Wassilie were at the camp checking the gill netting, and saw “strange waves” about a mile offshore between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m. They were soon joined by Irene Wilson, and they watched three separate creatures, repeatedly surfacing and submerging, and changing directions for about 40 minutes. They did not have a phone until Janessa Woods arrived with her own. They called Nielson, who raced down to the camp in his four-wheeler.

By then they had disappeared, and Nielson waited a half hour, figuring it was another wild goose chase. He noted that while the lake was dead calm, there was a slight swell, which often casts a shadow that can cause optical illusions. But suddenly, to his utter amazement, three whale-like backs emerged, clearly moving west to east and plowing up a considerable wake.

By this time, word had gone out and nine adults plus the children were watching. They were dark grey or black, had no dorsal fins, and spouted water ahead of their intended easterly direction. One of the three was larger than the other two, and was in between the smaller ones, which also spouted water. No one saw any heads, nor any tail fins. The only discrepancy I found in the accounts was that Jessie and Irene Wilson thought the creatures spouted water straight up, like a whale, but Gary had made it a point to say that they spouted ahead of their direction.

Nielson is an experienced commercial fisherman on Bristol Bay, and knows whales when he sees them, their characteristics and form. He also knows how to judge distances and sizes, and when he says that the larger of the two creatures was “about twice the size of a 32-foot drift netter,” I believe him. He has admitted that he was “flabbergasted.” That alone puts the Iliamna mystery into a size that exceeds anything previously reported.

The three simultaneously slipped beneath the water, without any tail fin sounding such as whales might exhibit. Scanning the lake for another forty-five minutes, they surfaced a second time, having changed direction 90 degrees to the north and now about 2 miles off, and again disappeared without anything other than their backs being visible.

Marlene Nielson suggested that someone go out in the boat and get closer. All the witnesses I interviewed said the same thing about her idea, with a touch of eye-rolling humor: Gary’s reply was a resounding, “No, they are too big!”

They have not reappeared since.

So … what have we got?

It is a complete mystery. Perhaps we are dealing with known animals, and more than one species for all these reports spanning generations. If they are large whales, breeding in the lake which normally freezes over, there would have to be some serious explaining to do. If they migrate, the Kvichak River is the lake’s outflow to the west. It is alternately shallow, braided, and deep, but creatures of such size making occasional or semi-regular migrations into and out of the lake would be hard to conceal in the river.

Then there is also the problem of fresh water. Yes, belugas can do it, but the ability of gray whales to do so would be a scientific first and itself a major news event. And it says reams that the smaller belugas have never been spotted in the lake, likely because the Kvichak is too shallow even for them.

But perhaps we have unknown ones. The African Okapi, looking like a rough cross between a zebra and a giraffe, was not discovered until 1901. Large animals unknown to science can still exist. In the last 15 years, 10 new species of mammals have been discovered. Deep lakes and the sea itself we all know hold unimagined secrets.

For right now, we must be content with the mystery, while science — reality — checks out all the angles. In the meantime, it is only fair and just that reports be taken seriously and respect be given to those who make their lives in the incredible environs of Lake Iliamna.

Bob Bird is a talk-show host for KSRM radio.

More in Life

Victoria Petersen / Peninsula Clarion
Chicken adobo simmers on the stove Monday in Anchorage.
Kalifornsky Kitchen: A dish all its own

Conjuring the Philippines with chicken adobo

Bunnell Street Arts Center Artist in Residence Nina Elder’s work is displayed on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, at the gallery in Homer, Alaska. At left are pieces from her series, “It Will Not Be the Same, But It Might Be Beautiful,” drawings of puzzle stones collected in the area near McCarthy, Alaska. At right is a drawing of frayed rope, part of her focus during her residency. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
Visiting artist acknowledges ‘the brokenness but not throwing it away when it’s broken’

For Bunnell residency, artist also will look at frayed, found objects like rope and nets

A typical pesto pasta night at our house, Dec. 26, 2020, in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Kalfironsky Kitchen: A fresh start with pesto

It’s bright. It’s green. It’s fresh. It’s cheesy. What’s not to love?

Virginia Walters (Courtesy photo)
Life in the Pedestrian Lane: Gone to the Dogs

Our first family dog was a shepherd sized mutt named Timber.

Image courtesy Clark Fair 
In 1920, two years after the killings in Kenai, William Dawson had a new business partner, Emil Berg. When they witnessed this bill of sale, both men signed their names to the document.
Exerting control in Old Kenai — Part 7

This is the seventh and final installment in a series about two killings that occurred in Kenai on April 8, 1918.

Minister’s Message: Finding peace outdoors in winter

I am a self-proclaimed “summer baby.”

Getting my ingredients ready for blueberry crumble, where the berries can be prepared right in the pan and the topping in a small bowl, on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Anchorage, Alaska (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Kalifornsky Kitchen: Something nice

It feels like the right time to make some of my grandma’s blueberry crumble.

Nick Varney
Unhinged Alaska: The Poe-etic potholes return

Well, 2021 has started off a bit shaky, especially weatherwise. Even though,… Continue reading

Part of the grave marker for Cleveland L. Magill. (Photo courtesy Clark Fair)
Exerting control in Old Kenai — Part 6

The sixth installment in a series about two killings that occurred in Kenai on April 8, 1918.

Minister’s Message: Love takes work

Love is more than a feeling or a one-day experience.

A Greek and Moroccan-inspired grain bowl made with elements of my favorite foods and flavors, photgraphed on Feb. 3, 2021, in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Kalifornsky Kitchen: Grain bowl goodness

I’m thinking about food as an expression of myself and an opportunity to experiment in the kitchen.

This headline about the killings in Kenai appeared in the Cordova Daily Times four days after the incident.
Exerting control in Old Kenai — Part 5

The fifth installment in a series about two killings that occurred in Kenai on April 8, 1918