On May 18, 1874, William Budge, a distinguished Mormon pioneer and wagon train captain, described one of Utah's singular wonders to Brigham Young. Budge and three other respected citizens of Rich County had been traveling home the previous Friday morning. Suddenly, about three miles north of Laketown, an object about twenty yards from the shores of Bear Lake caught the men's attention. "At first sight we thought it might be a very large duck," Budge wrote, but as the men got nearer they could tell it was a larger animal. "Its face and part of its head were distinctly seen, covered with fur, or short hair of a light snuff color."
The creature was flat-faced and had "very full large eyes, and prominent ears." The face resembled that of a fox, but the distance between its eyes was "that of a common cow." Budge thought the animal's neck was about four or five feet long, but he couldn't judge its overall size. "It did not look ferocious, and was in no hurry to go but kept moving slowly," he reported. It dived again and "came up and moved off into the Lake as fast as a man could walk."
That day, LDS Apostle Wilford Woodruff noted in his journal that Budge, Orlando Pratt and Brother Bankenhead saw what they called "The Bear Lake Monster." Woodruff thought they had actually seen a large otter, but other LDS Church authorities were not so skeptical. In August 1881, Apostle George Q. Cannon reported having seen the Bear Lake Monster or something of that kind while strolling along the shore of the lake. For years Mormon leaders showed a keen interest in the animal the American Indians called the devilfish. Skeptics who dismiss the creature as purely imaginary should consider this: Young not only believed in the beast, he actually invested in the Bear Lake Monster.
Shortly after Budge's report, Young entered into an arrangement with Phineas W. Cook of Swan Creek "to catch the serpent in the Lake at halves." In 1868, Cook had devised an ingenious plan to capture the elusive beast. He attached a barbed hook to a twenty-foot cable which he connected to 300 feet of one-inch rope. The rope was tied to a buoy marked with a large American flag. Another 300 feet of quarter-inch rope secured the buoy to a tree on shore.
Cook planned to bait the hook with a leg of mutton. When the monster took the bait, the buoy would mark its position no matter how hard it fought or how far it fled, thus assuring its capture. Young contributed the rope and Cook agreed to bait the hook and tend the rig during monster season. Always attentive to his business interests, Young wrote in August 1876 to ask what had happened to his rope. "I spent my time faithfully during the season," Cook replied, "but did not succeed." Dudley Merrill had then used the rope to ferry Young and his entourage across Bear River during one of the prophet's tours of the north country. "I shall expect you to square the account," Cook concluded. The monster repeatedly had stripped the intrepid fisherman's hook of its bait, indicating how close the enterprise came to success.
If the experience of Aquila Nebeker is any indication, Young and Cook could have saved the money they spent on bait. After the monster crawled ashore and ate twenty of Nebeker's sheep, the ravenous beast accidentally gulped down an entire roll of barbed wire. Clearly, like this historian and most Utahns, the Bear Lake Monster will swallow anything.
It may be April Fools' Day, but Utah historian Will Bagley swears every word of this report is true.