Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

BioFortean Review, (January 2007, No. 7)

Mugwump of the Lake

Craig Heinselman


You know of Ogopogo, Memphre, Nessie, and Champ, you’ve heard of the monster from Flathead Lake, Bear Lake, and Lake Erie. But, have you heard of “Mugwump” or “Old Tessie” from Lake Temiskaming? 

The lake is mentioned in a few books. John Kirk has Lake Temiskaming listed as a lake with a reported creature (within the appendix to In the Domain of the Lake Monsters), similarly Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe list it again as a lake with a reported creature in their appendix to The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents, and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep.  Even encyclopedic entries barely touch this creature; George Eberhart’s Mysterious Creatures lists it, as well as a single source, within a final listing on Lake and Sea Creatures. Internet resources glide over it, often listing it strictly as a lake with a creature, or applying more subtle tones to it.

The Nestle Water Institute website lists the lake and a short history on it and its “monster.” They attribute the reference to this section to a book entitled La Memoire du Lac by Joel Champetier. However, this La Memoire du Lac is a fictional work from 2001. An extract of the book is readily available online, and outlines that this is a work of fiction and not a historical record. It is based on stories and accounts, but with creative license to it. Various other internet resources, primarily in French, also delve into the mystery, but just skimming it. 

So, what of Old Tessie the Mugwump of Lake Temiskaming? Is there actually an unknown denizen of the lake, or is it all fiction? The answer appears to be a mix, and needs to be viewed with tongue-firmly-in-cheek…..

Figure 1: Artistic Rendition by Dennis Mehlenbacher from The Temiskaming Speaker - May 1979

The Lake and Its History, in Brief:

Lake Temiskaming (Lac Temiscamingue in Quebec) is in fact a deep lake, achieving maximum depths of around 720 feet (averaging around 120 feet) across its 73 square mile surface area. Geographically it is situated at 46’ 52” in latitude and 79’ 15” in longitude at an altitude of 585 feet above sea level. Sitting in a seismically active area, and is structured with clay and other mineral rich surfaces, which have made the region popular for mining operations for gold, silver, quartz and other minerals over the years. Lake Temiskaming lies in Ontario and borders on Quebec, being part of the head waters of the Ottawa River system, it is a remnant Lake Barlow-Ojibway.

The Lake was the main transportation route in northeastern Ontario until the railway and roads were constructed. Aside from mining it was also a minor fur trade route. The history of the lake, named by the Algonquins for “deep water,” is mixed by loggers, missionaries, prospectors and more. Today it is popular for outdoor activities, both in the colder and warmer months with shorelines speckled with cliffs rising 200-300 feet above the surface, and various small islands scattering its water ways.

While the Algonquins named the lake, they were not the only native people in the region. The Cree were present to the northwest, and the Ojibway to the south, with the Algonquins primarily in the northeast portion. Although these native people were more modern in time, the occupation of the land does date back several thousand years to the Shield Archaic People.

The biology of the region is rich. Consisting of parts of the Lauentian Highlands , the wooded forests offer shelter for the earth-bound animals. While the deep water of the lake, and adjoining waterways of the Ottowa River, are home to numerous species of fish, including bass, carp, pike and sturgeon.


The Creature of the Lake:

Starting in the late 1970’s, word of the denizen crept out. Perhaps first to make mention of it was the then mayor of New Liskeard Jack Dent. In an April 20, 1979 article in The North Bay Nugget he outlines the creature that is Mugwump and makes a hint towards tourism. Mike Pearson in a May 2, 1979 article in The Temiskaming Speaker continues the story, and further fleshes it out in a May 9, 1979 entry in the same newspaper.

According to Mayor Dent:

“… the Indian word, “mugwump” means fearless sturgeon and is all part of a very old Indian legend from an old Indian…”a direct descendant of Chief Wabi” who told him the mugwump was reputed to be the length of four Indian braves. Putting the average height of a brave at about five feet… concluded the mugwump was probably over 20 feet long…”

Although Mayor Dent only heard of the animal 10 years prior (circa 1969), he was not alone. Chuck Coull outlined his encounter to journalist Mike Pearson in 1979 that occurred in the early 1960’s:

 “…We were cruising around in the boat, about a third of the way back from Burnt Island, when we saw what looked like a deadhead. We pulled up to it. It rolled over and swam away…. It was the biggest sturgeon you’ve ever seen… I’d been hearing about the thing all my life….”

Chuck Coull was with his father at the time and estimates the animal sighted was around 8 feet in length.

But the accounts go further back still. According to A February 2, 1982 write up by Alice Peeper in The Temiskaming Speaker, a Mrs. Kate Ardtree recalls her father telling stories about the animal as a child. Mrs. Ardtree was living in 1982 in a nursing home, so by connection her memory predates the Coull account. Although Mrs. Ardtree had never seen the animal herself, she had quite the story to tell reporter Alice Peeper:

“…Sure I know about it, or should I say them?” she smiled. “I well remember my daddy talking about the monster.” Mrs. Ardtree also remembers her Dad bringing home one of its scales when she was just a girl. The scale was as big as a saucer and the family had it around the house for years….”

Mrs. Ardtree would most likely have been talking about events in the 1920’s or 1930’s, putting her account as one of the oldest. But, there is more, one from the 1940’s. Dariene Wroe writes in the August 9, 1995 issue of The Temiskaming Speaker about the story of John Cobb. Cobb , then 83 years old, recalled an event from the early 1940’s when he worked on the tugboats moving logs along the lake, from the White River and Qunize River enter all the way to the southern tip of the lake in Temiscaming, Quebec.           

“…One night I was coming up just about dark and I seen the darn thing in the lake.” He describes a creature about 20 feet long with a round head and nose like an animal’s. “I didn’t know what it was. When we come up close it disappeared…”  

A smattering of stories appear in between all these events, including the 1978 account by Ernie Chartrand and his wife as they sat at a table with a view of the lake:

“…Their attention was drawn to “something” moving shoreward at a fast clip. As “it” neared shore, it did a suddent and complete turn about and headed back to deep water. Both Mr. & Mrs. Chartrand noticed the large huped back, with no fin, as it swam away, and according to Ernie “the darn thing must have been 15 feet long.” (The Temiskaming Speaker of February 3, 1982)

Figure 2: Dean Dubois, The Temiskaming Speaker, 5-24-2000
Figure 3: AD O'Reilly, The Temiskaming Speaker, 2-24-1982

In 1982 more accounts appeared, once more reporter Alice Peeper of the The Temiskaming Speaker presented them to the reader, this time on February 17, 1982. The first is the story of Roger Lapointe and Dan Arney who were ice fishing at the time in a borrowed hut.

“…Resetting the line, they settled back with a brew and were wondering what was stirring in the depths below the fish –hut, when in about 20 minutes, or perhaps half an hour, their tackle flew right up in the air and then vanished down the hole. The men were dumb founded!... “To h--- with this,” Lapointe relates, “Let’s pack it in”, and Arney agreed. They were donning their parkas, when Arney said he could feel the small hairs on the back of his neck stiffen (this sixth sense had served him well in the RCMP back a dozen years), so Arney said he just knew that something was watching them… Looking downward they saw a black, glistening head with protruding eyeballs, and one of these yes was staring fixedly at the men “like it was sizing us up for a snack”, Lapointe remarked….”

John Sheur reported as well of an ice-bound sighting to Alice Peeper, once more published in the same edition as Lapointe and Arney’s account:

“… Mr. Sheur says he was locking up his hut for the night, when he heard a crunching noise. Knowing he was the only fisherman still out on the lake, he decided to see what it was about. Thinking it was probably a dog, he almost walked into a long, dark animal, that seemed to be wrapped about several of the huts and was chewing something, said Sheur. “What did its head look like?” this reporter asked. “Something like a dinosaur,” said Sheur,” but I didn’t stay for a second look….”

John Sheur left the area and went to a local hotel to try and get someone to investigate. According to Alice Peeper’s accounting two men did investigate, and uncovered a “…rather snakelike trail in the snow…”

So what should we make of the Mugwump? Is this a true mystery animal, a true “cryptid”? Before, answering this further though, let us take a peak at the “behind the scenes” events, and some of the news accounts, terms and even names used.


Behind the Scenes:

The primary reporter who brought out such a rush of information in the early 1980’s was Alice Peeper. She was a roving reporter on assignment with the The Temiskaming Speaker. But, was she really? Alice Peeper is actually a pseudonym for an Ada Arney. Alice Peeper is even a character in one of Ada Arney’s books Northern Ontario Graffiti (Cobalt, Ont.: Highway Book Shop, c1981). Ada Arney even appears in some of the same stories written by Alice Peeper in the The Temiskaming Speaker dealing with the creature of the lake:

“And I must thank Ada Arney for her efforts in trying to get the monster accorded freedom and safety of the streets in Haileybury….” (The Temiskaming Speaker, March 3, 1982)

There are even times when two articles appear together, one by Ada Arney, the other by Alice Peeper. In the March 31, 1982 issue of The Temiskaming Speaker, a story entitled “Diabetic branch organized in area” is done by Ada Arney, and “Ice rules not for fools” by Alice Peeper.

Now what of the word Mugwump? A rather catchy namesake for a lake monster, but does the term actually mean what Mayor Jack Dent said in 1979 regarding a sturgeon? The actual word does have a Native American etymology coming from the Algonquian mugquomp or mukquomp, meaning essential “important person.” The term Mugwump though has much more definition in slang and American. In 1884 the term was applied to the Republicans who would not support James Blaine’s presidential quest, rather they flipped and supported Grover Cleveland. The New York Sun quickly used the term little mugwumps and applied a new meaning, TURNCOAT. The word was used though into the 1600’s, when John Eliot translated the Bible into Algonquian and used the term to imply important people. It continued to be used as a jovial term towards a boss or one who thought themselves to be “High and Mighty.”  So a Mugwump doesn’t derive from a name for a fish, but does derive from political and jovial connotation to people in power.

Things turn even longer in the tooth in an article by Pablo von McDonell entitled “Tessie the monster stirs scientific world” that appeared in the February 24, 1982 issue of the Temiskaming Speaker. Dr. McDonell (as there is a doctoral ascribed in the byline) outlines the thoughts of three prominent parazoology researchers. Dr. Johannes Liebig von Brusthalter, Dr. Boris Illych Rubiconskubaranov and I. Haggis Campbell are these prominent researchers who outline details on the “creature” for the reader.

Dr. Johannes Liebig von Brusthalter was a professor of macrobiology at the Max Planck Institute in Eseldorf, West Germany and outlines the tale of “Tessie” as:

“…there is really nothing unusual about your Tessie at all. Lake Temiskaming has very deep crevices that can allow many aquatic forms to live undetected by man. You can compare Lake Temiskaming’s inhabitants with the bioforms in the ocean depths….”

Dr. Boris Illych Rubicskubaranov was a professor of psychobiology at the Karl Marx College in Bolshetisk, Russie and agreed with Dr. Brusthalter, but added:

“What is generally not known outside the Soviet Union…is that our lakes are teeming with Beluga sturgeon, which can weigh up to 2,900 pounds or more. Your Lake Temiskaming must have similar fish…No Russian noble could do without his caviar. American archaeologists have found traces of roe, positively identified as those of Beluga sturgeon, at several Russian fort sites in both states. It was only a matter of time for some to hatch and the fish to migrate and eventually settle in lakes large enough to accommodate them. Lake Temiskaming is one.”

I. Haggis Campbell was the Director of the Institute for Psychic Studies near Edinburgh, Scotland, and had this to say:

“First off…let me say that there is a Lock Ness Monster – several of them, in fact. We have carried out an intensive study of their eggs, which they deposit on the shoreline. We have hatched several, with satisfactory results…simply because they are microscopic, nor can you see them with the naked eye…they are nocturnal; they come out only at night, too. So it is no surprise that they are rarely seen; and their eggs, unknown… As your own historians will tell you, there was a great Scottish migration to North America, especially after the Highland Clearances. It was, and is, a custom among Scots whenever they expect to leave their homelands for a very long time, to take a handful of their home’s earth with them. You can bet that much of the auld sod – and little Nessies, too – came from the shores of Loch Ness.”

So, we have three experts outlining their ideas by way of a Dr. McDonell. Now, Dr. McDonell, at the close of this same February 1982 article, has his mask pulled aside as well.

“Dr. von McDonell is Mary Wollstonescraft Sheltey, Scientists-in-Residence at the famed Inch Block in Cobalt, Ontario. While experimenting with a new strain of mung beans one day last week, he inadvertently sprouted something else, which he immediately flushed down the drain. It was then that the idea for this article occurred to him – with a little help from Ms. Peeper.”

Well, supposition can then lead to analyzing the names and locations of the experts even further. Slight of word, acronyms and the like are all possible. In the end the article “Tessie the monster stirs scientific world” is a fun and tabloidish entry, but based on little or no hard data. Yet, within this same February 1982 newspaper occurs another article entitled “Temiskaming monster early amphibian?” Again, our roving report Alice Peeper reports on an anonymous biologist who met her and proposed another biologic explanation for the “creature”:

“Well…it’s quite possible that your Lake Temiskaming monster is an early amphibian called Ichthyostega, they lived in lakes and rivers, had four stubby feet and resembled a giant salamander. Their skin was tough and smooth…and yes, they did have a long, bony tail with a ribbed fin…”

This same mystery biologist appears again in a few days and proposes another prospect for the “creature.” As outlined by Alice Peeper once more in “Of monsters and things” from the Temiskaming Speaker of March 3, 1982:

“My biologist friend called me the other day to add to his speculation on the Lake Temiskaming monster, he now claims that it could be from the reptiles, one named Elasmosaurus, which had a fishlike tail, four long flippers and a neck about twenty-five feet long and a heavy low slung body.”

Figure 5: Gary Peddie, The Temiskaming Speaker3-31-1982
Figure 4: Brad Dafresne, The Temiskaming Speaker, 3-31-1982
Figure 4 and 5 are from a “Name That Monster” contest,
and were among the artistic works of regional children in 1982

What do we make of the Mugwump?

 The history of Lake Temiskaming’s lake creature, the Mugwump or Old Tessie is a mixed bag. There are clear overtones of newspaper and regional in-jokes, but there are also overtones of something more. The first glance at the stories suggest a fabrication of accounts, particularly when Alice Peeper and Dr. Pablo von McDonell are in connection, however the descriptions by the witnesses lead to a more natural occurrence that was carried over for commercial and tourism aspects.

Most accounts seem to indicate a sturgeon like creature. Sturgeons are ancient fish and can reach lengths of 20 feet or more, and weights of over 2000 pounds. Present through different regions, these fish are typically classified as near shore species that spend their time in the mid-depth areas of around 30 plus feet in depth. They feed on a variety of invertebrates, and have been associated to other aquatic lake creatures including Lake Iliamna in Alaska, Lake Tahoe in California / Nevada, and Lake Washington in Washington State.

While the unknown biologist presented two additional potential explanations for Mugwump in 1982, a Elasmosaurus and Ichthyostega, neither of which correspond to the mean of the reports. In the accounts, known at this time, there is no mention of a long necked animal. Likewise, aside from the John Sheur account there is no mention of the animal being seen out of the water.  Both the Elasmosaurus and Ichthyostega were real animals at one point. Ichthyostega was the classic archaic ground hugging amphibian creature from the Devonian Period (although it may not have been an amphibian at all) , while Elasmosaurus was a Cretaceous style plesiosaur with a long neck and side fins. This is further coupled with the freeze over points of the lake, which make air breathing animals a less likely candidate, of which both Elasmosaurus and Ichthyostega would have required.

This leaves us then back to the most likely candidate for the Mugwump as a sturgeon. Sturgeon are present in the lake, and do rise to the surface with their archaic appearance. They have also bee caught in the past in the lake, and are known to exist there. According to a Gregory Trent Lebreton’s 1999 thesis, the nominal size for the sturgeon in the lake was 1072 millimeters (3.5 feet) at 25 years of age. While this is a far under cry to the 8-20 feet descriptions, it is simply a starting point of reference as sturgeon are long-lifers and continue to grow. We know they can reach extremes over 20 feet, this is known, and is not a severe grasp to suspect some have in Lake Temiskaming. The question of John Sheur’s account is not answered, and still is open. But, perhaps it is just another phantom of the area, a wisp of the night.


What does it all mean?

Lake Temiskaming is home to a monster. This monster is, in all rational likelihood, a series of large sturgeon. While the romantic naturalist would love to attribute the lake to the home of another Nessie or Champ, it simply does not stack up over time. Mugwump, Old Tessie, they are the Temiski Sturgeon, ruler of the deeper, forever part of the lake's history.

We should not hold Mayor Jack Dent from the 1970’s to blame for extending the story of the lake, nor the roving reporter Alice Peeper. They were simply playing off the events from that time period. Lake Champlain and Loch Ness were popular in the media due to their denizens of the deep, and tourism can always use a boost by presenting a more dramatic creature as documented for Lake George (New York) and Bear Lake (Utah). The people of the region tapped this, and carried it forth in a well presented and entertaining method. Over the years the Mugwump has reared its head, even in the 1990’s when it was proposed as a waterfront attraction, but has sat for the most part as a forgotten piece of history outside the region and neglected in the tomes of Lake Monsters and their kin.

Cryptozoology isn’t always about finding the creature reported, often times it is piecing together the story and the events, the characters and the times. Sociology, psychology, history and media interpretation are all key factors and at times they can be used to pull out the missing pieces.

Alice Peeper signed off as the roving reporter on March 31, 1982 (Temaskaming Speaker), in her final entry “Of monsters and things,” she shared a story and a farewell:

“So if you follow the path of the flowers to Devil’s Rock, chances are you may well see the monster as she swims by, forever seeking for her beloved.”


Monstre du lac,

Nestle Water Institute; Water Legends; The Monster of Lake Temiskaming ;

Brock, Gordon, The Story of the Lake Temiskaming Monster, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, May 24, 2000

Champetier , Joël, LA MÉMOIRE DU LAC, Beauport, Éditions Alire, 2001 (Ed.Or. Québec Amérique, 1994

Clark, Jennifer A., 2006, Ichthyostega, Version o9 February 2006, in The Tree of Life Web Project

Costello, Peter, In Search of Lake Monsters, Berkkey Medallion Books, New York, New York, 1975

Coleman, Loren and Huyghe, Patrick, The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep,

Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin, New York, New York, 2003

Eberhart, George, Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, ABC-CLIO, Inc., Santa Barbara, California, 2002

Frey, David G. (editor), Limnology in North America, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin, 1963

Fry, Bert and Colton, Phyllis, Museums over Mugwump, Letter to Editor, Temiskaming Speaker, , March 28, 1990

Kirk, John, In The Domain of the Lake Monsters, Key Porter Books, Toronto, Ontario, 1998

Lebreton, Gregory Trent Owen, Lake Sturgeon Growth Chronologies, Doctoral Thesis for the Univeristy of Guelph, December 1999

McDonell, Pablo von, Tessie the monster stirs scientific world, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, February 24, 1982

Pearson, Mike, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, May 2, 1979

Pearson, Mike, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, May 9, 1979

Peeper, Alice, Monster sighting, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, February 3, 1982

Peeper, Alice, Lake Temiskaming monster sighted again, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, February 17, 1982

Peeper, Alice, Of monsters and things, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, February 10, 1982

Peeper, Alice, Temiskaming monster early amphibian?, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, February 24, 1982

Peeper, Alice, Of monsters and things, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, February 24, 1982

Peeper, Alice, Of monsters and things, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, March 3, 1982

Peeper, Alice, Of monsters and things, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, March 31, 1982

Sallenave, R.M., Barton, D.R., The distribution of benthic invertebrates along a natural turbidity gradient in Lake Temiskaming, Ontario-  Quebec, Hydrobiologia, Volume 206, Number 3, October 1990

Wroe, Dariene, Mugwump witness recalls sighting, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, August 9, 1995 (repeated again 8-18-1997)

A Background Study for Nomination of the Ottawa River Under the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, QLF Canada, 2005

A monster called Mugwump, in North Bay Nugget, newspaper story, April 20, 1979

The Lake Temiskaming Monster. Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, April 5, 2000

Monsters and more, Temiskaming Speaker, newspaper article, March 31, 1982

Cryptozoology Bigfoot Stories Giant Snakes Blue Tiger Missionaries and Monsters Lake Champlain Monster
BioFortean Review Articles: