WESTBROOK, Maine — At Brazier’s Barbershop on Main Street, no one drones on about the dry summer weather these days. As stylists clip hair from customers’ heads, the creature in town is all anyone talks about.
It’s 10 feet long — with a noggin the size of a soccer ball, some in the community claim.
Officials in this old mill city, just west of Portland, believe the snake skulking along the banks of the Presumpscot River, feasting on mammals and waterfowl, could be an exotic pet, discarded by its owner and simply trying to survive.
Or maybe “Wessie,” as it has come to be known, is just a huge rat snake.
Whatever the truth may be, the reptile has become something of legend among those who live here, and beyond.
“It’s every day,” said Michelle Beaumier, a barber at Brazier’s, which is across the street from Riverbank Park, where a Wessie sighting has been documented at least four times this summer.
“The first thing they say: ‘What’s up with the snake? Have you guys seen the snake? What’s going on?’” said Beaumier, as she leaned back in a vinyl chair, taking a break from cutting hair. “They’re down there looking for him, and people have got their kids over there looking for him … It’s like a little Loch Ness monster type of story.”
The first alleged Wessie sighting — before the snake had a name, a Twitter account, its own beer, and a devout fan base — came in early June. Police said the reptile spooked a woman who had parked her car at Riverbank Park, close to the water’s edge.
Seeing a snake in the area would not have been a source of alarm or excitement in the city, where many seek relief from their busy work schedules by picnicking near the winding, lazy river. But the description the woman gave to police launched the tale of Wessie.
“She said it was as big as a truck,” said Westbrook Police Captain Sean Lally. “And had a head the size of a basketball.”
No one believed her, he said — at least at first.
Then, on June 29, a police officer said he witnessed a snake, possibly 10 feet long, feeding on a beaver in the Riverbank Park area around 3 a.m. A second officer arrived, police said, and they watched as the creature slithered across the water to the opposite bank.
Game wardens from the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife came to Westbrook to help search. After coming up short, and deciding the creature likely wasn’t a threat to the public, they left the mystery in the hands of the local authorities, Lally said.
Things went quiet for a while. Until Saturday, when a resident notified police he had found the skin of a large snake, roughly 12 feet in length, splayed along the riverbed.
Lally said officers collected the evidence, unfurled it at police headquarters to take its measurements, and snipped off a patch to send for DNA testing at the University of Texas Tyler. Results should come back within weeks.
Lally said it’s possible the skin was placed there as a joke, to keep the intrigue about Wessie (also nicknamed the “Presumpscot Python”) alive.
But more possible evidence of Wessie arrived again this week.
Earl White, a portly man with hair that matches his surname and a longtime employee of the city’s public services department, said he was startled by a noise while picking up trash in the park Tuesday, a few paces from where the snakeskin had appeared.
Suddenly, a large snake — Wessie, perhaps ? — made a daring escape across the river. White took out his phone and snapped a picture. It’s a bit grainy, and its accuracyhas been disputed, with some claiming the line in the image could be a log. But White knows what he saw.
“It was definitely a snake,” he said, his arms folded across his chest, as he gazed out at the brownish stream. “It was the biggest snake I’ve seen in here, and I’ve been here for 30-something years.”
All of the speculation has inspired local business owners and musicians.
At Hanging By a Thread, a clothing distributor just over the city line
“We only have three left,” said Jennifer Balzano, the store’s co-owner. “I think every grandparent in the town came in and got a T-shirt.”
Ian Dorsey, co-founder of Mast Landing Brewing Company, which resides in a nondescript warehouse in Westbrook, witnessed a similar reaction when his company produced T-shirts featuring Wessie and brewed a West Coast-style IPA in the snake’s name.
“It was sold out within two days,” he said of the hoppy concoction. “With all the buzz going around, I get dozens of e-mails every day and phone calls asking if we are doing it again.”
Kevin Beling, who plays guitar for a hard-rock band based in south Portland called Drivetrain, said the group wrote an ode to the snake.
“Maine is relatively boring in terms of news, but we love the macabre,” he said in an e-mail, noting that Stephen King is a Maine resident. “It’s a great story and has all the makings of a fun song: humor, mystery — and terror.”
Stories about Wessie have attracted those in search of Bigfoot and other “cryptids,” quasi-mythical creatures whose existence has not been scientifically documented.
On Wednesday, Bill Brock, a cryptozoologist who has scoured the country in search of mysterious beasts, was on the hunt for Wessie. For more than an hour, he walked through the thick green underbrush that masked the river banks, boldly sticking his hand in holes he believed the snake could be hiding in and examining tufts of feathers that may have been the remnants of Wessie’s most recent meal.
“It’s a really good opportunity for people to come out, enjoy nature, and look for Wessie,” he said. “That snake’s here. At the end of the day, that thing is here.”
Brock was joined on his search by Dominic Kane, a snake enthusiast who keeps boas at his home in Portland. The two met on Facebook as tales of Wessie circulated and started placing bets on who could find the snake first.
“I love reptiles,” said Kane, who was visibly excited about the prospect of finding the snake.
Like Brock and Kane, many others in Westbrook are believers in Wessie. After all, the idea of a 10-foot snake living in the underbrush that delicately dances with the breeze on the river’s surface isn’t the zaniest story they have ever heard in this region of New England.
“People do crazy things in Maine,” said Jade Wood, who came to the park area, undeterred, to toss bread into the river with her 11-month-old daughter. “A big tropical snake is just the cherry on top.”Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.