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Hunt continues for elusive, fabled 'Lake Kampeska Monster'

Either a tourist booster or a honest-to-goodness prairie leviathan, tales of a plesiosaur-like giant fish swimming near Watertown, S.D., are increasingly elusive.

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Lake Kampeska, seen here on Saturday, June 5, 2021, can be a wide-open waterway with plenty of boat traffic. But kayaking and canoeing is certainly possible, even for beginner's, closer to shore or away from peek-use hours. Be sure to wear a flotation device. Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service
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LAKE KAMPESKA, S.D. — What good is a monster story if no one knows it?

Just ask the fluke-tailed, rumored sea creature of Lake Kampeska.

"A what?" asked Conda Williams. The longtime proprietor of The Prop, a tavern on the shores of the glacial lake just outside Watertown, talked to this pesky reporter as if he'd asked about vegan cheese curds. "There's no lake monster."

The same pish-posh dismissal came from Mike Lawrence, a developer on the lake, who assumed a Mayor Larry Vaughn from "Jaws"-style response to questions from a Forum News Service reporter on a purported "monster" of the lake.

"An actual monster?" asked Lawrence, who first thought the "monster" referred to one of the new multi-million dollar condos going up on the lake. "As a developer, I don't want to hear a story about a monster because ... I'm just now going there."

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Contrary to the memory of many modern-day Watertowners, a lake monster -- neither a contemporaneous swimmer-eating lunker nor a real estate gem -- did once exist. Sort of .

Yellowed local newspaper clippings from the 1880s claim local, reputable citizens had their picnic interrupted by a 20-foot-long monster with "long, scale-covered tail" and head as "large as a yearling calf" prowling the crystalline lake depths. Later press reports suggested the "snake-like" creature may've been the tourism-boosting chimera of some local businessmen.

Regardless, in a nation wracked with how to teach its children history, the absence of this folklore is unsettling to some Watertown-area folks.

That'll change next month, when the Codington County Heritage Museum will host a talk on the Lake Kampeska Monster. The receptionist, Claudia Brunick-Spieker, said she'd heard of the monster, but that's it.

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"No, I haven't seen him."

Weirdly, though, the most salient legend might not be a Prairie Loch Ness Monster at all.

"There used to be the legend of the Indians and that rock pile?" offered Williams. She said the collection of rocks on Stony Point -- a jutted-out peninsula memorialized in many a Terry Redlin painting -- was formed from a rock-throwing contest and that an indigenous woman sat exiled upon the rocks as punishment for refusing the farthest rock-thrower. Eventually, fed fish by sympathetic seagulls and a brave suitor swam out to save her.

"Lake Kampeska means 'lake of shining shells,'" concluded Williams.

But no leviathan. So the creature lives on, if mysteriously. Maybe it's migrated with the state's meandering waters.

Just last week a Facebook post by a profile called "Pickerel Lake" drew 133 responses, telling about two jet-skiers witnessing a "an eel-like creature" with "serpent-like head." Some say a monster surfaces occasionally on Lake Traverse. Others say it's on Roy Lake.

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Donus Roberts, the proprietor of DDR Books in downtown Watertown, said he's got exactly zero books on his shelf about the fabled glacial lakes cryptozoological Nessie.

"There's not enough of a story to write a book on it. You'd have to engage in fiction," said Roberts, then correcting himself, "Beyond the regular amount of fiction."

Which is probably just how the Lake Kampeska Monster would prefer its legacy -- shrouded in the unknown, with only but the smallest bit of a laced dorsal fin above the waves.

Related Topics: SOUTH DAKOTATRUE CRIME
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