Open water swimmers are accustomed to interacting with wildlife from time to time. Jellyfish, birds, seals, whales, and on occasion, sharks, may drop in to see what all the fuss is about as a human attempts to cross a body of water. What most of us don’t expect to encounter is a cryptid, a pseudoscientific term for creatures that are presumed extinct or imaginary. But that’s exactly what happened to Billy Connor when he made the first crossing of the 25-mile length of Lake Memphremagog between the northern corner of the US state of Vermont and southern Quebec in Canada.
The Magog, Quebec, native was a month shy of his twentieth birthday when, while on home leave from the Canadian Navy, he accepted the challenge of his townsmen to swim the length of the lake. He launched from the sleepy town of Newport, Vermont, at 4:30 pm on 21 August 1955, and arrived to much fanfare on the shores of Magog 18 hours and 35 minutes later. Along the way, he endured a fierce storm, nearly lost consciousness and encountered the lake’s legendary creature, Memphre.
A monster-sized challenge
Most every large lake is said to have a resident lake monster, and Memphre is the local version thereof. Typically described as a dark hump in the water or a dinosaur-like creature, Memphre bears a strong resemblance to her cryptid cousin, the Loch Ness Monster. But she’s got a folklore all her own that’s been painstakingly documented and lovingly preserved by Barbara Malloy, Vermont’s First Lady Draconologist and historian of the lake creature Memphre.
Connor, now 81 and living in New Brunswick, Canada, has a theory about what’s behind many of the sightings that Malloy has recorded, and it’s
not alcohol. “I firmly believe it’s boat wake. About 20 minutes after a boat goes by, the wake comes back from the other side of the lake. If the sun is at the right angle, it looks like the coils of a creature,” he explains.
Nevertheless, Connor remembers clearly his encounter with something that looked nothing like a boat wake or a wave. “It was at Bryant’s Landing that I had my alleged encounter with Memphre,” he says. Connor describes being in a somnambulant state, and says he can’t be sure exactly what happened, but he felt a calming presence and saw a face in the water a few hours after sunrise. As terrifying as such an experience could be, Connor says he was not afraid.
“As a matter of fact, my first impression of Memphre was that of a guardian angel. I was – believe you me – close to hallucinating. I’m darn sure I did because I did the arithmetic on the amount of fish it would require to support an animal that big. But my encounter was,” he pauses. “I was tired. A little discouraged. I was crying. I pulled back my hand – and this part is real. I thought I’d touched something. I looked up through the green water and there, right ahead of me was a pair of brilliant eyes. It was probably the eyelashes that caught my attention the most – they were like pasted on eyelashes. And a lovely pair of lips. I saw the lips and felt warm. It was as if it was encouraging me, telling me, ‘Come on, Billy!’ I heard the words coming through the water,” Connor recounts. “People say I’m crazy or a mental case. I will not argue one darn bit, but that’s the way I felt it. It’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!” he laughs.
No matter what sort of mythical creature Connor may have encountered in the lake, his achievement certainly earned him legendary swimmer status – traversing the length of this formidable and highly changeable glacial lake is no joke. It’s shallow at the ends but over 100 metres deep near Owl’s Head, which some monster hunters and cryptozoology enthusiasts say is the perfect place for a massive, ancient reptile to hide.
Whether because of or despite Connor’s encounter with Memphre, Lake Memphremagog became a place for swimmers to congregate. Beginning in 1979, elite swimmers from around the globe began descending on tiny Magog to test their mettle against the lake and the creature therein as part of the annual La Traversee International du lac Memphrémagog. The event became a stop on the FINA Grand Prix circuit that attracted the likes of Shelly Taylor-Smith, who still holds a speed record of 8 hours, 35 minutes.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the years of La Traversee as a marquee, international swimming event came to an end. Travel across the American border became problematic, so the race organisers altered the swim course to eliminate the border crossing. Only five miles of the lake sits in American territory, so it wasn’t terribly difficult to rework the course to keep north of the border. For the next decade, no swimmers traversed the entire length of the lake. That all changed on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 when a scrappy, rag-tag band of marathon swimmers quietly resurrected the cross-border swim with the help of local race organiser, Phil White.
In Search of Memphre
Phil White could be described as something of a cryptid himself. An uncanny doppelgänger for Christopher Lloyd in his role as eccentric Doc Brown in the film Back to the Future, White has led an unordinary life. Once appointed and twice elected state’s attorney for Orleans County,Vermont, White retired from his law practice in Montpelier to the shores of Memphremagog, where he’s done anything but go quietly into that good night. Instead, he began organising running, biking and swimming events in and along the lake and eventually founded Kingdom Games LLC to continue offering these events in the rural and economically depressed North East Kingdom of Vermont. He’s also the founder of the Northeast Kingdom Open Water Swimming Association (NEKOWSA).
White had always been a recreational swimmer and intuitively understood the value of bringing swimmers to the region, both for their much-needed tourism dollars and to brighten the town. As his flagship 10-Mile Kingdom Swim event grew, it didn’t take long for White to begin sniffing around the idea of resurrecting the swim the length of Lake Memphremagog. He read of Billy Connor’s encounter with Memphre and decided to dub his new swim “In Search of Memphre,” with the stated goals of seeking the lake creature, promoting a more open border, and raising funds for local charities. The first swimmers to sign up were me and my training partner Greg O’Connor.
Within a few days of announcing the event, White had expanded the field for that initial expedition to nine solo swimmers and one, two-person relay team. The swim launched at midnight on 10 September 2011, into sustained, 25-mile-per-hour headwinds. White insists that “after reading Billy’s statement, I knew Memphre was a swimmer-friendly creature,” but she apparently has a mischievous streak, given the conditions she conjured for us. And that’s part of the appeal of the event – the water is different every time reflecting “the personality of this beast,” White says. That first year, four soloists finished and the border was reopened.
“The swim was about promoting a more open border. While we respect the hard work of border folks to protect us, Canadians are our friends and we want a more open border with our friends,” White says. To open the border for swimmers – who obviously don’t have a pocket in which to carry a passport and cross the watery border in the middle of the night – White must make special arrangements with customs and immigration officials on both sides of the border each time. So far, it’s never been an issue, but as I’m writing this piece, America’s new president has just handed down more restrictions on the free travel of people across borders.
Despite this, White says he expects In Search of Memphre to continue its resolute support of more open borders. “I think we quietly go about doing what we do and set an example. I hope that it’s a quiet example that you can have a more open border and still protect your country from terrorists. I think everybody swimming has that understanding, that that’s something that this swim is about,” he says.
White’s event also appeals to the monster hunters out there; swimmers with a sense of whimsy and a love for lake critters are invited to help prove the stories about Memphre true. “Searching for Memphre is a wonderful, magical part of the swim, and it gives it a spirit of its own that resonates with people. It’s what drew Sarah Thomas to the swim,” White says of the record-setting marathon swimmer’s astonishing 50- mile double crossing of the lake in 2013.
This sense of having fun while just getting on with it, no matter what challenge may arise, connects current swimmers with Connor’s first trek up the lake. As he struggled along exhausted but undaunted, Connor channelled the name of the ship he served on, the HMCS Resolute, for inspiration. “I told myself, ‘no complaints, no excuses, no second try.’ I very consciously decided to adopt that one-word motto.”
That resolute tenacity is evidenced in the faces of many of the swimmers who have since traversed the length of the lake. And, regardless of whether you believe in lake monsters or not, “there’s something more to the swim,” White says – an undeniable element of seeking and finding the strength to continue the search. Whether that search includes a negotiation with one’s own inner demons or an encounter with a flesh-and-blood animal rarely glimpsed beneath the azure depths is up to each swimmer who braves the cool waters of Lake Memphremagog.
Historical photos courtesy of William Connor. Modern images by Phil White.