Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press
A pontoon boat in the shape of a sea monster ferries tourists across Bear Lake, north of Garden City.

GARDEN CITY — Nothing can boost a slow tourist season like claims that the Bear Lake Monster has resurfaced.

Its very existence has been debated at coffee shops and campfires since the first published report of its existence in 1868. The only thing is, people can't seem to agree on the details. Some say it looks like a walrus minus the tusks; others are adamant it's a dinosaur or a big alligator that swims really fast.

The only thing not in question is the monster's ability to make cash registers sing at stores ringing the lake on the Idaho-Utah border.

"Yes, it's good for business," said Vic Tilt, who along with his wife owns Gladys' Place combination convenience and liquor store, deli, post office and gift shop in nearby Fish Haven, Idaho.

The Tilts have no firsthand sightings to confirm the creature's existence but are quick to say anything is possible.

"I believe in the tooth fairy," said Gladys. "I love having these things to think about."

The 168-year-old tale got new fins when Bear Lake business owner Brian Hirschi recently announced that he had seen the creature. But skeptics were quick to point out that his recounting of the 2-year-old sighting appeared in a Salt Lake newspaper on Memorial Day weekend — the start of the summer tourist season.

It happened, he insists, one night in June 2002 as he was anchoring his large pontoon boat — shaped like a sea monster — after a day of ferrying tourists around the 20-mile long, 8-mile wide and 208-foot deep crystal blue lake.

After throwing the anchor, he saw "these two humps in the water" about 100 yards from the boat. At first he thought they were lost water skis, but they disappeared. Then, his boat lifted up.

"I started to get scared," said Hirschi, who owns five watercraft rental locations around the lake. "The next thing I know, a serpent-like creature shot up out of the water."

He said it had "really dark, slimy green skin and deep beet-red eyes." It went back under water and made a sound like a roaring bull before taking off.

Hirschi said he debated whether to tell anyone about his experience, fearing they would "think I was crazy or on the lake too much." But a year later, he decided to break his silence.

To scoffers who claim this is nothing more than a publicity stunt to boost tourist trade, he replies: "Once you've seen the monster, you really don't care what other people say."

Others won't take the bait.

"They way I interpret it, it's got more to do with tourism than belief," said Steve Siporin, a professor of English and history at Utah State University in nearby Logan. "It seems like an awful lot of vacation lakes have their own monster, a local symbol of pride. What self-respecting lake can there be without its own monster?"

The origins of the Bear Lake Monster go back to a series of articles written by Joseph C. Rich, a Mormon colonizer at Bear Lake. His articles in the Deseret Evening News claimed several upstanding citizens, but not Rich himself, had seen the creature. However, in 1888 he recanted the stories, saying he had made up the monster.

Like any good ad campaign, the creature may have been created to boost tourism. Rich owned the first general store in Bear Lake County, Idaho.

One person who hopes that the yarn is true is tourism director Judy Holbrook, who invites people to come look for the monster themselves.

"But you will need to stay at least a week," she says, coyly.

Besides, Holbrook notes, there are other things to enjoy when you're scouting for the Bear Lake Monster: famous raspberries, the natural resources of the lake, mountain scenery and clean fresh air.

Vic Tilt is quick to agree.

"The lake is nice," he said, "with or without a monster."