The Iliamna Lake Monster, also known as Illie to many locals, Gonakadet in Tlingit, or Jig-ik-nak in Aleutian, is an aquatic cryptid reported to dwell in the small Alaskan fishing village of Iliamna. The native’s tales describe a large beast that roams the waters. The monster has many reported sightings along with a few reported to have caused deaths. Over the years, it has gained enough attention to lure the Animal Planet show “River Monsters” in attempt to find out what may be hiding beneath the lake's waters. The monster is a reported 10–30 feet in length with a square-like head that is used to place blunt force onto things such as small boats. Although there is no physical evidence to conclude the monster's existence, many reports beg to differ.
Iliamna Lake is a large natural lake but described by Ivan T. Sanderson as not a lake at all but really an inland sea,located in the southwestern portion of the U.S. state of Alaska. At approximately 1,012.5 sq mi (2,622 km) or 640,000 acres (260,000 ha) in total surface area, it is the largest lake in Alaska, and one of the largest lakes in the country. The lake is 77 miles (124 km) at its longest, and has a maximum width of approximately 22 miles (35 km). Its deepest point is 988 feet (301 m), with an average depth of 144 feet (44 m). Iliamna is located about 50 feet (15 m) above sea level.
Like most of Alaska, due to its remote location, access to Iliamna Lake is restricted almost exclusively to the use of airplanes. Travel by floatplanes is the most common, as they can land directly onto the lake. No roads currently connect communities on the lake to the surrounding areas. However, during summer months, it is possible to travel up the Kvichak River using small boats. The region surrounding the lake is very sparsely populated, with subsistence fishing and hunting being the main economy of the area. However, the lake and surrounding rivers have been inhabited for centuries, with the earliest reports of settlement in the region coming from Russian fur traders in the 1790s. The lake itself was claimed by the Dena'ina people as their own territory until contact with the Russians.
The earliest reports of a monster living in the lake came from the native Tlingit people, who tell stories of a creature referred to as the Gonakadet. It was described as a large, water-dwelling animal with a head and tail similar to that of a wolf, and a body like an orca, very similar to the Akhlut. The Gonakadet was depicted as a "fish god", and was recorded in pictographs along the Alaskan and British Columbian coasts. Other early reports of the monster came from the native Aleut people, who tell stories of creatures they call the Jig-ik-nak. The fish-like monsters were reported to travel in groups and attack canoes and kill warriors. The creatures were feared and not hunted by the Aleut.
This sparked interest in others as pilots and fishermen began to wonder what the creatures were. Many more sightings were reported as people began to fly low over the lake for the purpose of seeing these monster fish. Consistent reports of large, dull, aluminum-colored fish were coming in by the late 50’s. Soon, enough attention was brought to the subject that in 1979 the Anchorage Daily News, the state's primary newspaper, offered a sum of $100,000 to anyone who could provide conclusive evidence proving the fish’s existence. The evidence is yet to be provided, as sightings have slowed in recent years.
- 1942, Babe Alyesworth and Bill Hammersleywere on a direct flight over the lake traveling to the village of Iliamna. Bush pilot Alsworth, flying his Stinson ferry plane, was crossing over the deep, blue black water when he noticed some unusual specks in the water near an unnamed island in the middle of the lake. As the craft moved closer to the specs, Alsworth was able to see that these where actually giant fish, and he swirled the plane around for a closer look. Both Hammersley and Alsworth where able to get a good look on the second pass and described what they saw as dull aluminum in color with heads that were broad and blunt. The width of their long tapered bodies was the same as that of their heads, and the vertical tails slowly waved side to side, this aspect of the description is important as whale tails go up and down, while fish and reptile tails go side to side. Spiraling the plane down from one thousand feet down to three hundred feet to get a better look, they soon saw that Alsworth’s original estimate of the creature’s length, 10 feet, was low. The several dozen giant fish were easily longer than the plan’s pontoon and according to the men looked more like minisubmarines than fish. They circled the area until the creatures disappeared in a surge of water, as the men continued on their journey they discussed and debated over what they saw, pointing out that it could not have been a whale, due to the tail movement and the fact that the creatures never surfaced for air.
- 1947, after leaving his defense job, Hammersley published a short piece on the mystery fish in an attempt to get others to investigate the matter or to come forward with reports. Larry Rost, a U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Pilot, was one of those who came forward. Flying across Lake Iliamna in the fall of 1945, at a height of 100 feet, Rost reportedly saw what he claimed to be a giant fish, more than twenty feet long, the color of dull aluminum.
- 1963, Biologist reported seeing a 25–30 foot fish from overhead; it did not come up for air.
- 1967, Alaska missionary Chuck Crapuchettes has seen the monster twice. Once, he was flying over in a float plane and he saw a large animal in the water. He got on the radio and tried to call some other people around and try to see and verify it, but nobody got there in time. One of his friends went trolling for it. He took a 5/16 stainless steel cable, put #2 tuna hooks on it, baited them with caribou and tied it off on the struts of his floatplane. He was drifting and sitting out on the floats when the plane gave a big jerk and knocked him off the floats. The plane was towed off and he barely made it to shore. He walked for miles while the plane was towed around the lake. When he finally recovered his airplane, three of the cables were gone. The hooks on the ones that remained were straightened out and these hooks were eight or nine inches long! There have been Beluga whales that have gone up the Kvichak River into the lake and it was possible that's what it was.
- 1977, A veteran pilot named Tim LaPorte while flying over Pedro Bay, he spots a 12–14 foot fish on the surface as it dove down, revealing vertical tail. LaPorte and his two passengers, one a visiting Michigan fish and game official, witnessed the beast make a big arching splash and dive straight down as the plane got closer. Laporte remembers watching the animal’s large vertical tail moving as the animal sounded. LaPorte and his two passengers estimated the creature to be roughly 12 to 14 feet in length with dark grey or dark brown skin.
- 1987, Resident Verna Kolyaha reported seeing a large black fish with white stripe down its fin.
- 1988, Several locals report the same sighting from water and land, a large black fish with a fin swimming near the surface.
These are just a few of the sightings that have occurred since the outbreak in the 40’s and 50’s. Most of the sightings in recent times take place near Pedro Bay and the fishing village of Iliamna, like the events of 1977 and 1988. With the lack of recent sightings, many have begun to doubt the monster's existence although TV networks such as the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet have managed to feature the monster on episodes of popular series.
Many theories have been proposed to explain what might lie beneath the waters of Lake Iliamna, biologist Jeremy Wade determined that the monster may be no monster at all, but a White sturgeon which is indigenous to areas of Alaska and the Pacific States.
Marine Fisheries Commission says, “White sturgeon are the largest freshwater fish in North America and can weigh over 1,500 pounds, be 20 feet in length, and live for over 100 years.”
The sturgeon, being a bottom dwelling fish, would explain why sightings are rare. Additionally, catching them is considered a tough sport by many fishermen. Both of these ideas validate the theory. Although the white sturgeon is found in Alaska and much of the Pacific Northwest, there is no evidence of the white sturgeon residing in Lake Iliamna. Some see this as disproving Jeremy Wade’s theory although based on eye witnesses description of a 20-30 foot, aluminum colored fish seem to fit perfectly.
Many people have reported their propellers are damaged by what look like teeth marks but might actually be caused by a boat's running over the back of a sturgeon at the surface because the backs have teeth-like armor plating which can easily make a propeller appear as if it has been chewed or attacked.
There have also been stories of people being knocked out of their boats as it is rammed and their never surfacing. This can be attributed to a sturgeon's tendency to jump out of the water, accidentally hitting small boats in the process and dying as a result of the harsh freezing conditions in the lake itself.
Sturgeon are bottom feeders and dwell at the bottom of lakes, rivers and oceans. Lake lliamna has a maximum depth of 988 feet, which could easily explain why they are never seen by fisherman (when they rarely are, people assume them to be lake monsters).
- Urayuli, another cryptid that lives in the same area.