Now that the ice has melted off of Lake Pepin, Larry Nielson wants to remind people there’s something lurking in the blue-green waters – and he’s willing to pay you to prove it exists.
Located on the Mississippi River, Lake Pepin is bordered by Wisconsin on one side and Minnesota on the other. In the town of Lake City, Minnesota (population 5,261 as of 2019) on Lake Pepin’s shores, tales of a monster in the lake have been floating around since the 1870s.
Supposedly a large, serpent-like creature, the monster – or Pepie, as the locals call it – has been seen by everyone from the Dakota Indians to local vacationers.
Now Nielson, the owner of the 125-passenger paddle wheel boat Pearl of the Lake, and president of the Lake City Tourism Bureau, is reminding people that there’s a $50,000 reward for anyone who can prove Pepie exists.
Nielson said he didn’t know the water serpent existed until he saw the creature a few years back.
“One night, my wife and I were out on Lake Pepin and there were no other boats out there with us,” he said. “All of a sudden I saw a big wake out there against the current. It was about 100-feet long and foot and a half high. So I started doing some research and that’s when I heard about Pepie.”
According to Chad Lewis, a cryptozoologist, researcher and author of “Pepie: The Lake Monster of the Mississippi River”, reports of Pepie stretch back to the Dakota Indians. When the Dakota lived in the Minnesota area, they decided to trade in their birch bark canoes for thicker dugout canoes when traveling Lake Pepin in order to protect themselves from the creatures living in the lake that punctured their thinner birch canoes.
While stories of the lake monster died off in the 1930s and 1940s, since the beginning of the 2000s, more people have reported seeing Pepie, Lewis said.
Lewis said he’s not surprised that a monster could live in the lake given its similarity to another, allegedly monster-inhabited body of water – Loch Ness.
“In terms of actual physical description, it’s almost identical to Loch Ness,” Lewis said. “Where Loch Ness is about 23 miles long and about a mile and a half wide, Lake Pepin is 22 miles long and about two miles wide. But both are surrounded by the beautiful hills. Even though Loch Ness is much, much deeper than Lake Pepin, I always state that if you were dropped out of an airplane into one or the other, you wouldn’t know which one you were in right away.”
Some believe Pepie could be a sturgeon – a long, pre-historic looking fish that can live for as long as 100 years and weigh up to 200 pounds. But others, like Nielson, believe it’s a sea monster trapped inland.
Every year, Nielson said, people say they’ve seen it lurking in the water.
“We’ve had about seven or eight formal expeditions to try and find it,” he said. “And I get a ton of calls from about now throughout the summer from people who say they’ve seen it.”
It was Nielson’s idea to offer the reward – in part to find out if the stories are true, but in part to boost tourism a little.
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“When I first brought this up, one lady was concerned that talking about Pepie publicly would scare all the kids and that no one would want to go in the water,” he said. “But then I went down to the lake and there were kids yelling into the water for Pepie to come out and play.”
Collecting the reward takes a bit of doing – whoever wins it would have to produce a good photograph and a piece of the creature’s fin or skin for DNA testing. Once researchers at the University of Minnesota biology department confirm the DNA came from an unknown species in the lake, and the photo can be authenticated, Nielson will gladly hand over the cash.
Nielson said several people have sent him pictures of the monster. One fisherman even brought in a sonar image of something 16- to 17-feet-long under his boat. But no one has grabbed a bit of fin or skin.
But Nielson said he knows it’s out there.
“I know there’s more things in the universe that we don’t know about than we do,” he said. “When we find out something and we think we know it all, we find out we don’t.”
Lewis, who conducted his own investigation into Pepie back in 2013, said he thinks the reward has awakened something in people.
“It has been seven years since the reward for Pepie was first issued, and I never could have imagined that such a novel idea would all but resurrect an almost forgotten legend,” Lewis wrote in his book.
“I take comfort in knowing that after hundreds of years of sightings, the Lake Pepin water serpent remains just as intriguing and puzzling as it did when the first Native people encountered it. I sincerely hope that no matter what happens, Pepie continues to keep the people on the shores of Lake Pepin on their toes.”