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Bales Of Hay, A Hippo Foot And Some True Believers


Letter From Loch Ness

BALES OF HAY, A HIPPO FOOT--AND SOME TRUE BELIEVERS

We were silent in the car as we twisted and turned our way down through the mountains. My husband, Phil, myself, and our 10-year-old son, Jack, were headed toward A82, the main road. As we took a sharp left at Invermoriston, we held our breath: There it was--23 miles long, a mile wide, and 700 scary feet deep. The road runs high above the waterline, and tall trees line the shore, so we pulled over at the next clearing to gaze a long while at whitecap-flecked Loch Ness.

Once we had decided to vacation in Scotland, we knew we'd have to stop at the home of the legendary monster. Anyone with children would understand. They've learned in science classes about the 60-year search for Nessie and the international debate over whether such a critter really exists. And adults are just kids at heart when it comes to monsters. Some 4 million tourists will visit this region of mist-shrouded mountains, rolling glens, waterfalls, and ruined castles this year. Cable-TV's Discovery Channel just filmed a series on Loch Ness. And tabloids thrive on features in which eyewitnesses swear to have seen a triple-humped Nessie, complete with a tartan scarf around its neck.

Ever since the Inverness Courier reported the sighting of a monster in May, 1933, Loch Ness has been inundated by the curious. Tourism now rivals sheep-raising as the largest Highlands industry. But for such a busy tourist trap, the area is largely unspoiled: There are no high rises and just a handful of restaurants. The only honky-tonk feel comes from curio shops that have sprouted on street corners and a pair of museums that compete cheek by jowl for tourist money in the village of Drumnadrochit.

BREAKFAST TIME. Hundreds of local residents also get their hands on visitors' purses. Many have turned their homes into bed-and-breakfasts. The Van Loon family, our hosts for the evening we spent in Drumnadrochit, bought their seven-bedroom B&B as a retirement haven in April and haven't had a vacancy since they opened. Others, such as longtime resident George Edwards, hire themselves out as tour guides. "Let's get going while the creature is having breakfast," he jokes as we pile into his boat, Nessie Hunter II. For the next hour, he tells us his version of the Loch Ness story.

"First thing I want to make clear," his Gaelic-tinged spiel begins, "I don't care if you believe. That's totally up to you. I'm not going to twist your arms." But like most locals, George is a true believer. For hundreds of years, folks hereabouts have been seeing what they now think may be a family of prehistoric beasties that escaped extinction, possibly because of the loch's cold, dark, and deep environment. Highlanders have their own name for the animal--Eioch Uisge (ecch SHOE-shkuh), Gaelic for water-horse. The fishermen who cast their nets in the loch every day have had many encounters. George says he last saw one of the beasts on July 5. "I saw something very similar to an upturned boat," he says with a straight face. "But I've yet to see a head and neck."

He dismisses skeptics who say the monster is the invention of local boosters. The first newspaper reports appeared after the 1933 opening of road A82, which parallels the loch's north shore. Perhaps locals made up stories to drum up business? If so, they're industrious: Since '33, some 10,000 sightings have been recorded, including several by the Benedictine monks living near Fort Augustus, at the foot of the loch. George says that everyone's great-grandparents tell stories about sightings. Today, locals see something inexplicable in the loch at least once a week, but most sightings go unreported because nobody wants to suffer the abuse and ridicule of the outside world.

There are photos. At the "official" Loch Ness exhibit, where the controversy is examined dispassionately, a print of an instantly recognizable photo hangs on the wall. Taken in 1934 by London physician Robert K. Wilson, it shows a graceful, long-necked animal poking its head out of the water. The body can't be seen. Wilson later moved to Australia, where he died in 1969, refusing ever to discuss the photo with the press. More recent snapshots also exist, almost all taken by amateurs and all too grainy or obscure to prove anything. Some experts have pronounced them shots of otters, seals, or tree trunks. Others throw up their hands and say they can't tell what they are.

UMBRELLA STAND. To be sure, many of the sightings and photos have been hoaxes perpetrated by local pranksters on the monster-crazed media, who will pay large sums for anything resembling a Nessie portrait. The most famous hoax is the three-humped creature snapped by local farmer Lachlan Stuart in 1951. That "monster" turned out to be bales of hay covered with a tarpaulin. Then there are the huge footprints discovered on the shore by an eminent zoologist in 1934. They were made with the mounted foot of a hippopotamus, the base of a local resident's umbrella stand.

We wondered why divers didn't just explore the fathomed depths and solve the mystery once and for all. But divers don't like the loch. A normal scuba tank doesn't hold enough air to get to the bottom and back safely. About 20 yards from shore, the lake bottom drops precipitously to a depth of 300 feet. And just five feet below the surface, visibility drops to zero. The opacity is caused by peat particles washed down from the mountains that encircle the loch. In such murk, divers become disoriented and can't tell which way is up. They can't even see their hands in front of their faces. Underwater photography is impossible here, and the water is cold, dark, and forbidding.

Despite the almost total lack of vegetation in the loch, fisheries experts have determined that schools of salmon, trout, eel, char, and pike are abundant enough to sustain several large creatures. I couldn't resist ordering Loch Ness salmon that evening, imagining that my meal could have been the one that got away--from Nessie. The fish swim into Loch Ness from the eight rivers and lakes that feed it, leading some people to speculate that a large pelagic creature could roam far and wide, to and from the loch, perhaps through deep caves hidden beneath the thousands of feet of silt that cover the lake bottom.

DEEP SCAN. Have scientists found any evidence that Nessie really exists? The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau, a group of curious Scots and amateur naturalists that began its probes in 1962, found none. For 10 years the group manned a fleet of mobile camera stations and at various times employed listening devices, infrared night cameras, hot-air balloons, and submarines in its quest. Probably the most publicized and expensive search was 1987's Operation Deep Scan, in which 19 cabin cruisers equipped with Lowrance Electronics X16 echo-sounders moved in tandem down the loch. The sonar curtain picked up unusual contacts from depths of 250 feet, yet the expedition's leader in the end pronounced Nessie nonexistent. But the high-tech sonars were nothing more than basic fish-finders, George says. "They wouldn't find a beer can at 10 feet," he sneers. "Operation Deep Scam," as he calls it, "put so many sound waves into the water, it was like driving a tank around the woods in search of a deer."

To date, science hasn't been able to verify what hundreds, from elderly women to schoolboys to fishermen to vacationing families, claim to have seen: a fast-moving, low-humped animal about 20 feet in length swimming just under the lake surface. The stories make a believer out of our son. Phil and I try to stay skeptical but in the end agree with Jack's sixth sense of "I don't know what it is, but there's something in there." So even if the experts can't prove a strange beast haunts Loch Ness, I now know three people who have been bitten.PAULA DWYER


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