I grew up in what is essentially the “lake district” of New Jersey. Located in the northwestern corner of the state, it consists of tiny lakes, medium-size lakes, and one large lake: Lake Hopatcong. I’m pretty sure that Lake Hopatcong was originally a smaller lake that was expanded at some point to make it the lake it is today: big and deep enough for boats with gas-powered engines, yet still small enough that you can easily see from one side to another. This is no “Great Lake,” but it has its moments.
The lake community I belonged to, Lake Shawnee, is a feeder lake to Lake Hopatcong. There’s a waterway that connects the two, though in times of drought the connection dries up. It was in Lake Shawnee that I learned how to swim, and how to row and paddle a boat (even sail, though not extensively). It’s where I spent my childhood summers: long, lazy days that involved riding my bike to “First Beach” with a towel draped over my shoulders, extended dips in the water that left my fingers pickled, and damper bike rides home to dinners of chicken nuggets and spaghetti.
There were times in the water that I’d feel the curious poke of a fish or two on my skin, or the touch of weeds if I went deep enough, and other times where water snakes would break the surface, traveling frantically through the midst of splashing bathers. Their appearances always resulted in lifeguard whistles blowing and people making a hasty exit for the beach.
Lake Shawnee was very shallow in spots, which made boating excursions on it an interesting experience because you could easily see what lay under the water. Like Lake Hopatcong, it was originally a much smaller lake that had been dug out to increase the size, and some of the trees that were in the way had simply been felled and left to slowly rot into the muck. The remaining tree trunks resembled, to my overactive imagination, the slumbering bodies of lake monsters, like Garden State Nessies. I would pass over these in a slight terror, just waiting for the moment that one of them would rise up and reveal itself to be a very angry variety of New Jersey plesiosaur. That’s what I got for watching In Search Of.
In the summer of 1981, I joined the swim team. I was fantastic at the butterfly but also horrible at showing up for practices, so my record was spotty. My time there was mostly noted by one day, while at a practice, when I felt movement across my legs and looked down, only to see a long, thin reptile swimming over me.
“Water snake!” I screamed, and I dragged myself up onto the dock in record time, followed by about 40 other slightly freaked swim-team members.
The snake was long gone by that point, probably terrified by the team’s collective exodus. But for the rest of the afternoon, it had me paranoid that every floating bit of wood or grass was a return performance, and my practice was shot for the day.
But larger monsters lurked in the local waters, l learned, especially the bigger lake to the west of my own. I heard of snapping turtles the size of Volkswagen Bugs that lurked in the depths, waiting to eat up flocks of unknowing ducks and geese floating above. And centuries before, a creature seen by the Lenape Indians and early European settlers: something with a horse-like head, huge antlers, and a body like an elephant (sounds like a moose gone far south to me). The Lenape told the newer arrivals that this creature fell under the ice one winter and froze to death.
Today, stories of a real-life lake monster abound from Lake Hopatcong. It was identified earlier today as a Green Anaconda, which is most definitely NOT native to the area. The creature makes my water snake experience look like an encounter with a puppy, though the stories I’ve heard so far bring back so many of the memories I’ve detailed above.
I’m currently working on a story for Weird NJ about the lake’s newest and truest “monster.” I hope to speak with the zoologist who is currently working with my hometown police department and animal control to capture the snake, or at the very least put together a fun story from news clippings I can find. It’s been a long time since I was truly excited by a potential story, and this one brings nostalgia along with a sense of danger to it. I’m looking forward to the results!