Newsday has supplied a crucial piece of information in the emerging "Viking Funeral" theory of the Montauk Monster's origin, and we've spent all day going over historical weather records to better assess its credibility. Answer: Maybe! But we're dubious.
Yesterday, ASSME's Drew Grant contended that the Montauk Monster was a dead raccoon that some weirdo friend of hers had set on fire and launched on an inflatable raft from Shelter Island two weeks before Monty was discovered. She had pictures to prove it. But we were dubious, citing the circuitous route through Shelter Island sound that the raccoon would have to take to reach its destination at Ditch Plains Beach on Montauk. Crucially, we didn't know where, precisely, on Shelter Island the "viking funeral" took place.
Now we do. According to Newsday, which spoke to the still-anonymous varmint-burner, the revelers were on Shell Beach, on Shelter Island's southwest side, when they launched the raccoon on its trip to destiny. As you can see by the accompanying map, for the raccoon to eventually reach Montauk, it would need to either wend its way to the east through a narrow channel and around the southern tip of Shelter Island (the red line), or head northward through an equally narrow and longer channel (the yellow line). Then it would have to jog either to the north of Gardener's Island (the green line) or the south (the red line again), and do a U-turn around the tip of Montauk to arrive at Ditch Plains Beach by July 12, two weeks after the burial took place.
We were skeptical yesterday, when we gave Grant's story the benefit of the doubt and assumed that the raccoon was launched from the eastern side of Shelter Island. Knowing now that the journey started on the far side of the island, and that Ranger Rick would have had to thread the needle to get to Montauk, made us moreso. But we called an expert to find out for sure.
"Is it possible?" said Jay Tanski, a specialist with New York Sea Grant, a NOAA-affiliated research organization that monitors the Long Island coast. "Yes. It could happen. But whether or not it would be normal, or had a high probability—I'd be hesitant to say. It probably would have washed up somewhere else first."
But! The available data on currents in the area actually do support the Flaming Raccoon Hypothesis. This map of surface currents around Long Island shows that—contrary to our earlier scoffing—a drifting object could easily be swept out of Shelter Island Sound, around the tip of the south fork, and southwest to Ditch Plains Beach. But no similar data could be found for surface currents inside the sound and around Shelter Island, so we can't know for sure the likelihood that such an object could be carried around to the north or south of the island from Shell Beach. Tanski told us that wind would be the prevailing factor in such a scenario—if the winds weren't right, we can rest assured that Grant's hypothesis is wrong.
But the winds were right! According to historical weather data from a National Weather Service station in nearby Bridgehampton, on 12 of the 14 or so days last year between the launching of the raccoon and Monty's discovery on July 12, the winds were blowing out of the southwest, west, or northwest—which would have pushed our plucky and singed friend roughly in the necessary direction to get him to Montauk.
What other evidence is there to assess the likelihood of Grant's theory? Well, her friend told Newsday that the raccoon-burning was part of an ancient Indian ritual called Nanapaushat:
There's a yearly custom we do called Nanapaushat that a lot of people in Shelter Island do. It's like an Indian custom around July 4th, where you do a lot of games and celebrate," the 32-year-old man said by phone Thursday. "At some point you gather all the dead on your property and surrounding area and you cremate them, to celebrate the cycle of birth and death."
That sounds highly implausible, and Newsday basically called bullshit on it, quoting a long-time Shelter Island resident saying they'd never heard of it. And it also conflicts rather strikingly with the explanation Grant's friend gave to her yesterday:
Now, my friend isn't the type to take dead animals and set them on fire and float them off in the sea (he's vegan), but, in his words, "this creature was honored with a viking funeral, not merely exploited for crass entertainment." Basically, though, they were just being dumb. "In the interest of full disclosure," he admits, "this did happen shortly after a waterboarding endurance competition, and just before a clothespins-on-your-genitals challenge."
So in the course of the day we've gone from Viking hijinks to an ancient Indian ritual. The only reference to Nanapaushat—or any spelling variant we could think of—that we could find was in "Watcheer, Or Roger Williams in Banishment," an epic poem written in 1843 by Job Durfee, the former chief justice of Rhode Island's supreme court. Durfee's poem refers to Nanapaushat as moon-god worshiped by the Naragansett Indians, whose territory included Rhode Island and parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts. But not Shelter Island so far as we can tell.
So what does it all add up to? We don't know. Grant's theory is certainly plausible if not likely, and shouldn't be discounted out of hand. But the narrow channels the raccoon would have to negotiate without washing ashore, not to mention the shifting and preposterous-sounding explanations for the raccoon-burning, give us pause. We'll follow Grant's lead on this one: Yesterday she was sure that she'd found the answer to the enduring mystery of the Montauk Monster, writing "now we know: It wasn't a viral marketing stunt at all, but just some kids setting fire to a dead animal and then pushing it off to sea with a watermelon and some floatie wings." Today, quoted in Newsday, she wasn't so sure:
"I'm dubious but it's almost so outrageous to not to be true," said Grant, 25, of Brooklyn. "If they went out of their way to make this up, they really went out of their way, and they held onto the photos for a very long time."
So we'll stay dubious, too.