GARDEN CITY, Utah -- There's no photographic proof, but some say it looks like a walrus minus the tusks.
Others are adamant it's a dinosaur. Or a big alligator that swims really fast.
But while the existence of the Bear Lake Monster has been debated at coffee shops and campfires since the first published report in 1868, this much is undisputed: Stories about the monster can make cash registers sing at stores ringing the lake on the Idaho-Utah border.
"Yes, it's good for business," said Vic Tilt, who along with his wife owns Gladys' Place, a combination convenience and liquor store, deli, post office and gift shop in nearby Fish Haven, Idaho.
The Tilts have no firsthand sightings to confirm the creature's existence, but are quick to say anything is possible.
"I believe in the tooth fairy," said Gladys. "I love having these things to think about."
The 136-year-old tale got new fins when Bear Lake business owner Brian Hirschi recently announced that he had seen the creature. Skeptics were quick to point out that his recounting of the sighting appeared in a Salt Lake newspaper on Memorial Day weekend - the start of the summer tourist season.
It happened, he insists, one night two years ago as he was anchoring his large pontoon boat - shaped like a sea monster - after a day of ferrying tourists around the 20-mile long, 8-mile wide and 208-foot deep crystal blue lake.
After throwing the anchor, he saw "these two humps in the water" about 100 yards from the boat. At first he thought they were lost water skis, but they disappeared. Then, his boat lifted up.
"I started to get scared," said Hirschi, who owns five watercraft rental locations around the lake. "The next thing I know, a serpent-like creature shot up out of the water."
He said it had "really dark, slimy green skin and deep beet-red eyes." It went back under water and made a sound like a roaring bull before taking off.
Hirschi said he hesitated before telling anyone about his experience, fearing they would "think I was crazy or on the lake too much." But eventually he broke his silence.
To those who say it's obviously a publicity stunt, Hirschi responds: "Once you've seen the monster, you really don't care what other people say."
Steve Siporin, a professor of English and history at Utah State University in nearby Logan, says stories about the monster have "more to do with tourism than belief. It seems like an awful lot of vacation lakes have their own monster, a local symbol of pride. What self-respecting lake can there be without its own monster?"
The origins of the Bear Lake Monster go back to a series of articles written by Joseph C. Rich, a Mormon colonizer at Bear Lake. His articles in the Deseret Evening News claimed several upstanding citizens, but not Rich himself, had seen the creature. However, in 1888 he recanted the stories, saying he had made up the monster.
Coincidentally, Rich owned the first general store in Bear Lake County, Idaho.
Local tourism director Judy Holbrook invites people to come look for the monster themselves. "But you will need to stay at least a week," she says coyly.
Besides, Holbrook notes, there are other things to enjoy when you're scouting for the Bear Lake Monster: famous raspberries, the natural resources of the lake, mountain scenery and clean fresh air.
Vic Tilt is quick to agree.
"The lake is nice," he said, "with or without a monster."
If You Go ...
GETTING THERE: From Salt Lake City, take Interstate 15 north 54 miles to the Logan exit. Take U.S. 91 north 27 miles, then U.S. 89 north for 40 miles to Bear Lake.
Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge: Located on the north end of Bear Lake; pacific.fws.gov/refuges/field/ID-Bearlk.htm or (208) 847-1757. The refuge is 17 acres of marsh, open water and grassland that is home to large numbers of waterfowl.
Minnetonka Cave: Located nine miles up St. Charles Canyon in Idaho. Open daily through Labor Day; www.bearlake.org/cavexplore.html or (435) 245-4422.
Highland Trail: The 55-mile long National Recreation trail is accessible from many points within the Bear Lake area.
Oregon Trail: The Oregon Trail crosses Bear Lake County. Although much of it is paved over, parts of the original trail are visible parallel to U.S. 30 north of Georgetown, Idaho.
Paris Tabernacle: Located in Paris, Idaho, north of Garden City on Highway 89. Built by Mormon pioneers over a century ago, the tabernacle is open for tours.
LODGING: Motels, cabins, bed and breakfasts and campgrounds are available in and near surrounding towns. For help with accommodations and other information (including information on visiting the Paris Tabernacle), visit www.bearlake.org or call (800) 448-BEAR.
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