Illie – the mysterious Alaskan monster of lake Iliamna

Illie – the mysterious Alaskan monster of lake Iliamna 1
Lake Iliamna monster illustration

In the waters of Lake Iliamna in Alaska, there is a mysterious cryptid whose legend has endured to this day. The monster, nicknamed “Illie”, has been seen for decades and is credited with several mysterious deaths and accidents.

It has attracted the attention not only of the curious and the media, but of professional fishermen and television figures like Jeremy Wade, who tried to catch Illie during an episode of his show “River Monsters.” It is said to be over ten meters tall and strong enough to overturn boats and capsize them. And although there is no conclusive physical evidence for their existence, the reports continue to pile up to this day.

Iliamna: A Lake In The Frozen North

Lake Iliamna Monster
Lake Iliamna © Nila Vena

Lake Iliamna in Alaska is the largest in the North American state and the second largest in the entire United States. Its area exceeds 2500 square kilometres, with about 125 kilometres wide by 35 kilometres long. It is located in the extreme south-west of Alaska and has an average depth of around 44 metres, with a maximum point of 300. Interestingly, despite being only 15 metres above sea level, its waters are not salty, although it does have contact with the sea through the Kvichak River.

The stories of the Lake Iliamna monster have a long history. The first references are well before the Russian colonization and come from the Tlingit natives of the region, who spoke of an underwater demon called “Gunakadeit”. The creature, they claimed, was aquatic, with a wolf-like head and tail and a body larger than that of an orca. And remember that these aquatic hunters can sometimes exceed 11 metres in length!

“Gunakadeit” was considered a fish-god and as such was worshiped by the Tlingit. Pictograms of the creature appear along the coasts of Alaska and even British Columbia. But the historical sightings of the creature don’t end here.

The History Of Lake Iliamna Monster

The Aleut peoples, also native to the region, told the explorers of creatures known as the “Jig-ik-nak”, fish-like monsters ― but giants ― who travelled in groups and attacked the canoes to devour the indigenous warriors. The Aleut feared and respected these creatures and never organized fishing expeditions in search of one of them.

Reports from the natives began to pique fishermen’s interest in the creature, but it would not be until the 1940s that the new occupants of the region would encounter the monster. The first major event occurred in 1942 when a fisherman with two investigators, Bill Hammersley and Babe Aylesworth, were flying over the lake. At more than 300 meters high, they saw some silver figures that, they calculated, would be about 4 meters long, but they decided to go down to get better visibility.

Lake Iliamna monster
Lake Iliamna monster illustration

As they circled around with their hydrofoil and descended below 60 meters, they realized the serious miscalculation they had made. The creatures ― more than a dozen ― easily exceeded 10 meters in length. Hammersley would later say that more than fish they looked like “little submarines”, and this without taking into account the depth at which they were. They followed them for a long time until they disappeared, debating its nature and the impossibility that it was a whale ― as indicated by the movement of the tail and the fact that they never rose to take the air.

Will The Monster Appear Again?

From this testimony, interest in the lake increased and attempts to prove the existence of the mysterious creatures gained momentum. One particular case caught the public’s attention: In 1967, one of the missionary’s friends from the region declared that his airplane had been overturned in the lake and he had had to swim a long distance to reach the shore. The man would have put several steel cables with a bait tied to the base of the plane, and when they recovered the aircraft three of the cables were no longer there and the holes in which they remained were more than 30 cm deep.

Most of the sightings occurred in the 50s and 60s; the creature seems to be becoming more reserved ― or perhaps, disappearing due to human intervention. Despite a $100,000 reward offered by the Anchorage Daily News in 1979, no one has been able to provide conclusive evidence of the monster’s existence. Although of course, the remoteness of the place and the difficulties to get there, hand in hand with the gigantic size of the lake, do not facilitate the work.

What Creature Could It Be?

There are several theories as to what the mysterious creature that haunts the depths of the Iliamna could be. Some point to various giant animals that occasionally roam the depths: for example, in the case of the overturned plane that we mentioned above, there is talk of the possibility that it was a group of belugas, whales around 6 meters long that occasionally rise from the ocean in search of food.

Another theory points to the sleepy shark, an inhabitant of the northern seas, who would also ascend to the lake from time to time. However, this shark does not move in groups or show such active behaviours as witnessed by the witnesses ― as its name implies, it is a rather calm animal.

Finally, after the appearance of the mystery on the Animal Planet channel’s “River Monsters” program, the theory that it is a giant subspecies of the white sturgeon is gaining strength. The animal is not only silver and can easily exceed 6 metres in length, but its behaviour perfectly matches that of the stories. It has a serrated back with which it could seriously damage boats (pretending a bite), inhabits the depths and rarely rises to the surface, which would explain the rare sightings.

Biologists stipulate that in an environment free from predators and with plenty of food, sturgeons ― which can live for more than 100 years ― they could reach the gigantic sizes described by witnesses of up to 13 metres in length. So far, this seems to be the theory that best fits the reality of the sightings. However, nobody knows for sure what lives in Lake Iliamna, but if it was a sturgeon it would be the largest known so far. For now, the mystery remains unexplained.

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