Transcript: Tahoe Tessie

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[Music]

When you go to Lake Tahoe, chances are you’ll see Tahoe Tessie.  She’s a sea monster. She varies in color and size-- everything from forty feet down to three inches long, depending on whether she’s printed on the side of a bus or a restaurant menu or something in-between.  She’s a sort of minor mascot for the whole region, a staple of the newspapers’ April Fools Day headlines, a gift-shop monster: playful, friendly, always smiling. And no one has ever, ever seen her in the lake-- except maybe on the side of a tour boat, of course.

People have seen something else, though.  Lake Tahoe is one of the clearest lakes in the world.  If you look carefully over the side of your kayak you may realize that the little rocks a few feet under you are actually boulders much, much deeper down.  And even deeper than the boulders, down where things get a little dim… what moves like that? A fish? A big fish, an eel, or… or something that looks nothing like the Tahoe Tessie from the gift shops.

Carefully, though. You’re looking over the side of a kayak, remember, and any sudden movement in a kayak can send you right into that icy water… right in with whatever it is that’s down there.

Welcome to the Camp Monsters Podcast.

[Music]

Every part of the country has its own legends to explain that big splash you heard behind you, when you turned and there wasn’t a ripple to be seen.  Or that strange wake that you noticed on the lake in the evening, when there weren’t any boats around. So every episode we’ll be travelling the country, sitting around a campfire-- or on a boat, in this case-- and trying scare each other with stories about the things that live... just beyond the firelight… or just below the surface.

While you listen, remember that these are just... stories.  Sure, some of them are based on the testimony of people who claim to have seen these creatures, but it’s up to you how much you believe… and how to explain away what you don’t.  So come closer. Let’s hear this week’s legend.

Sorry the light is a little dim.  This is a good old boat, but maybe a little more old than good.  We really ought to have LEDs in here. But a cabin cruiser like this really is the best way to see the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe.  You can’t camp on the beaches on this side: Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park rules. And some of the most beautiful views are from the water, peeking into these little coves or looking up at the mountains red in the sunset.  The nights can get chilly this time of year, it’s nice to sleep in a boat with a cabin and bunks and some of the amenities. Anyway, this one dim bulb sets kind of a cozy mood, doesn’t it? Here we are in the warm cabin of our boat, huddled around our little bulb-- have you been outside?  Perfect darkness except for the stars, not a light but our own for miles around. Perfect silence except for the little night sounds of the water.

Funny little sounds.  For minutes there’ll be nothing but the lap of gentle waves along the hull, maybe the call of a sleepy bird from its nest on the shore somewhere.  Then all at once you’ll hear a splash in the water close beside the boat. Impossible to tell just where, in the darkness it seems to come from wherever you aren’t looking.  And it sounds much bigger than it must have been-- just a fish or a beaver or something. Darkness has those effects on sound. Darkness or fog. But we don’t often get fog on Lake Tahoe, except on a particularly cold night.

Yes, a boat is the best way to really experience the Lake.  For a long time it was the only way to experience it. The railroad only came as far as Tahoe City, and the roads around the rest of the lake were rough where they existed at all.  But regular steamships called at all the little towns and resorts along the shore. Nice little steamers they were, too: the SS Tahoe had a smoking lounge, a dining saloon, a ladies’ cabin, steam heat, plenty to keep her passengers entertained aboard ship.

Yet there was always a lonely soul or two leaning against the ship’s rail, their backs to the laughter in the cabin and their eyes staring out over the water and the unspoiled shoreline, taking in the surrounding mountains.  They couldn’t help but be impressed by the beauty of the scenery. But every once in awhile a passenger would disembark with a more unsettling impression.

It always happened on the run up from the south lake toward the little old logging town of Glenbrook, on the eastern shore.  Someone looking out over the rail would nudge their neighbor, or stop a passing stranger and point out at the lake: “What is that?”  The second person would peer and squint and shake their heads and stop another passerby, and pretty soon Captain Jensen would notice that the ship was heeling distinctly to whatever side the crowd was gathered on.  About that time a steward would come onto the bridge and tell the Captain what he already knew, what he’d heard a hundred times before-- that someone had seen “something” in the water, but whatever it was had disappeared and didn’t seem to be a hazard to the ship.  

For his part, Captain Jensen sailed the SS Tahoe for thirty years and swore to his dying day that he’d never seen anything but a floating log or two, and that any other story was all bunk.

Well… bunk it might have been, but that doesn’t explain all the accidents on the old Lincoln Highway.  If it were regularly foggy out here you might expect-- But I’ve jumped ahead of myself, I’d better back up.  The Lincoln Highway was one of the first roads for automobiles across America, and part of it ran right along the lake here, right about where Highway 50 runs now.  By the nineteen-teens automobiles had begun to gain popularity and people started to rediscover and resurface the old wagon roads, or hack new roads out of the hillsides.  Ever wonder why old Model T’s were built with such big wheels? They needed the ground clearance to handle roads like the ones out here, rocky tracks just roughed out along the very edge of the lake.  In its early days, the Lincoln Highway was one of those. Dark nights, bad headlights, no guard rails: it was natural you’d lose a car or two from time to time over the side. If the driver were lucky they’d swim to safety, if the shore was gradual they might even be able to have the car winched out and repaired. 

But there was one place in particular where the shore was steep, and the waters deep, and drivers seemed to have a hard time swimming.  It was a little bridge they built around a big grey stone outcropping just a couple miles south of the town of Glenbrook. It had more than its fair share of cars going over the edge, but wasn’t that to be expected of such a narrow bridge, suspended roughly from a cliff on a blind corner out over the water?  The strange thing was how many of the accidents happened in broad daylight. No fog, nothing like that: bright, sunny daylight. In fact, night seemed to be the safest time to cross the bridge. People slowed down, took their time, concentrated on the narrow road in front of them.  

By day, though… well, most of the drivers who managed to swim free as their cars sank into the depths blamed distraction.  Just as they were rounding the curve out onto the bridge something in the water had caught their eye. Few of them would admit what they really thought they’d seen.  They didn’t want to be laughed at-- no one would believe them anyway, they couldn’t believe it themselves. They’d say that a strange trick of the light on the water caught their attention.  A trick of the light so strange it had held their attention while their cars splintered through the wooden barrier and plunged down the face of the cliff. So strange that the next car along the little-used road inevitably found the soaking, shivering driver standing by where their car had gone over and staring: not down toward the car but out across the peaceful blue water, like they were looking for something out there.  Quite a trick of the light.

There were so many accidents right at that spot that in 1931 it was deemed worthwhile to spend the money to carve a tunnel through the grey outcrop.  The local native people, the Washo, protested against the decision. They’d known the rock forever, and they knew it better than anyone. It was a place so powerful and dangerous that they had a special prayer to say before they’d even speak about that rock.  They knew stories, too, of powerful things that lived in the waters below the outcrop. They didn’t like to see the rock disturbed.

But the 1930s were a hard time for sacred places in the American landscape.  A lot of people were out of work, and any kind of building project that created jobs sounded like a good idea to them.  The tunnel was built, followed by a second tunnel in the 1950s, and once the road was routed away from the edge of the water the accidents ceased.  But the stories persisted. And as more and more people took to the water in boats in the boom years after World War Two, there were more and more sightings of something strange in the water near that pale gray outcrop.  Most of them were distant and momentary, just a quick glimpse of a long dark thing in the water that must have been an old log except wasn’t it moving too quickly? And where did it disappear to?  

Very occasionally, someone has an experience that isn’t so distant.  Not long ago, a young woman named Sally Welling was out on the lake with... 

Shhh!  Hear that?

That was a big one.  A big splash, I mean.  Is the window open just behind you?  I think it came from out there. Of course now it won’t happen again…

No, just the sound of the little waves.  That was big, whatever it was. A fish jumping, of course.  I once saw a little fish jump clear over the gunwale of our boat and into my grandfather’s lap.  I always wondered what had scared the poor little fish enough to do that.  

[Midroll]

I would love to go on an adventure in the backcountry seeking one of the nation’s notorious camp monsters but how would I know where to start? Whether you’re looking for a solo hike in the woods, or you’re headed out on an overnight trip, it’s essential to know the ins and outs of preparedness for your next adventure. REI’s Wilderness Safety Training course can teach you the necessary skills needed to courageously embrace the outdoors. From trip planning and navigation to decision making and emergency response, REI’s Wilderness Safety Training course will help you build skills to stay safe in the outdoors. Check out REI’s Wilderness Safety Training with NOLS on rei.com/events.

[End of midroll]

We were talking about that incident last summer, weren’t we?  With the kayakers out of Zephyr Cove? Sally Welling, yes, she was the one, she went out with them.  She was part of a kayaking summer camp that went out exploring all over the eastern shore. Learn about kayaking and kayak safety, take some food and have picnics at this or that little cove or beach.   It had been a great time, a great summer. It was just coming to an end when Sally had this… encounter.

They’d been out all day, a big group of them.  It was a beautiful day: sunny, warm but not too hot, the water calm and blue and clear.  There were twelve young kayakers in Sally’s group, all paddling quietly together in a loose formation.  Not talking much, pleasantly tired out by the day’s trip.

None of them could say for sure when or exactly how it happened.  As they were paddling past “that big grey rock with the tunnels through it” the air began to turn hazy-- they hardly noticed it at first, but it gradually thickened until they couldn’t see the shore clearly anymore.  They stopped as a group and decided to ease in closer to the rocks in order to keep the shore in sight until the fog cleared off. It was the strangest thing. None of them had seen fog on the lake all summer, certainly not at this time of the day.  Someone said it must be smoke from a forest fire somewhere, but it didn’t smell like smoke. They started paddling slowly toward the shore, with instructions to call out when they saw a rock or found themselves in shallow water.

It was a bright fog, one that seems to just barely cover the surface of the earth and that diffuses the light of the sun so brightly that it is almost painful to look in any direction.  Sally found herself looking down into the water, where the darkness beneath the bright reflective surface seemed cooler to her eyes. As they paddled closer to the shore the fog grew brighter and even thicker, until it formed a wall of unbearable sunlight that made it hard for Sally to see anything further than the ends of her paddle.  Her fellow kayakers started calling to one another, reminding everyone to stay close. But in the fog their voices came from everywhere, and it was hard to tell how near or far away everyone was.

“I’m here!”  Sally called out, more to add to the comfort of the groups’ loud voices all around then to inform anyone of where she was.  She didn’t know where she was. She must be near that big rock now, it seemed they’d paddled further than they should have needed to get there, but it was impossible to tell how fast or slow they were moving.  Sally held her paddle up over the water to block out some of the glare and peered down, trying to see the bottom if she could. Every time she moved her body in the kayak her window through the glare on the water shimmered and rippled, and it was hard to tell what she saw.  Was that a rock down there? She thought she could see-- no… that could be the bottom though.  Was that...? It was hard to make out what was down there.  She shifted her paddle and moved her head, squinting intently deep into the water.

A spiked mouth, black scales, and before she could think she was staring into an enormous white-rimmed eye just inches, inches from her own, just below the surface.  A cold, fixed, staring eye: like a pale-eyed eel but huge. The head she could see was at least a foot across. It had swum out from under her kayak. It was directly under her kayak.  She shouted and jerked away and the boat rolled and she was in the water, and the water was filled with scales: loops and coils of thick, round, scaled body. She tried to bend her own body back to the air but couldn’t reach it, panicked.  She saw the eye and the huge head and the sharp-toothed little mouth again, swinging slowly toward her now underwater.  

She looked away and grabbed her paddle, bent her body and flicked her hips and was back in the air, water streaming from her hair into her eyes, blinding her, water choking out from her nose and mouth.  The fog was filled with shouts now, people calling close and far but none visible. “I’m here!” she croaked out. “I’m here!”

More shouts.  More fog. Were the voices moving away from her now?  She tried to plunge her paddle into the water, tried to speed away from there, but the paddle made a faint >clack< as it struck something almost as hard as rock and she watched in frozen horror as a coil of the creature’s thick body slid slowly through the water beside her.  It slipped gradually back down beneath the surface but she could see it there, a scaly loop moving slowly beneath her. She could see it on the other side too, faintly through the glare of the fog. The water seemed filled with dark, round body moving slowly, silently in every direction.

She felt a bump against the bottom of her kayak.  A bump, and then heard and felt as something pushed her slightly up and slid against the thin skin of her craft.  Another coil of body spooled out of the water against the nose of her boat, down where her feet were, and hung motionless for a moment before sliding forward again and slipping slowly beneath the water’s bright cover.

Sally sat motionless.  She was still aware of the shouting in the fog but it seemed further away, remote.  She could hear her own breathing, feel the pulse in her hands where they gripped the paddle she held protective and useless against her chest.  She was aware of motion all around her below the water; the surface swirled and eddied against the bright fog with the movement of the powerful thing just beneath.

She forced herself to move her paddle, to move one blade down toward the water.  If she could dip it in just an inch, just two inches it would be enough for a little pull, enough to get her gliding away from here.  She could feel the coolness rising off the surface before her hand reached it, before the paddle dipped in. She could see the little whirlpools rising as the creature writhed beneath.

As her paddle broke the surface of the water, so did something else, just beyond the nose of her kayak.  Not a coil this time, as it kept rising she recognized the head of the creature, its open mouth filled with little spikes of sharp black bone.  She closed her eyes rather than see the terrible vacant round of white and black that was the creature’s eye, but she couldn’t stand the darkness for long.  When she opened her eyes the whole head was out, staring lifelessly back at her, and the neck continued to rise further and further from the surface.  

It was four feet, five feet above the water when it snapped its jaw at the fog, as if testing it.  It hung there for a moment as its mouth slowly opened; then it snapped again and began to sink back into the water.  But it sank toward Sally: its body brushing up the side of her kayak, its head coming closer and closer to her as it sank lower and lower.  It was about to brush against her hand, and she cringed away. The creature stopped sinking and lay its neck across the body of her kayak, right in her lap, and looked at her with its flat white circle of eye.  Its mouth opened a little and closed a little and opened, as if is was panting in the air. She could feel the rest of its body bumping and gliding along the underside of her kayak, first here, now there in no discernible pattern.  If there were any voices calling in the fog she didn’t hear them anymore.

Then the creature snapped its sharp jaws... and Sally smacked it as hard as she could with the blade of her paddle.

The whole world exploded into spray then.  Sally felt her chest struck with unbelievable strength and she was driven into what had been the water but was now a thrashing chaos of foam and force, ripped and twisted around by movement and blows from every direction.  Her paddle was gone, she was out of her kayak, she had no idea where the surface was or whether she was being pulled up or down. She struggled... though the struggle only mattered to herself-- she thought of the time she’d grabbed a rung on a slow-moving freight train and been yanked off her feet by the machine’s indifferent power.  That had happened last summer… no, two summers ago… she could feel the warmth of that evening, feel the wind and hear the whine of the insects in the trees… the rumble and scream of the big freight’s wheels…

She blinked and shivered, coughed and felt the warm water come out of her and the cold, cold water of Lake Tahoe press her all around.  Something jostled against her life jacket, something weaker and much warmer than the creature, and she felt hands clasping her and heard the voices of her friends.  The fog was lifting and the brightly-colored kayaks were crowding in, everyone eager to help and to find out what had happened to her. They’d all heard her scream, heard a thrashing in the water that seemed far too large for one person to make.  But they hadn’t seen anything else, in the fog.

What happened to Sally Welling that day?  Some sort of attack, clearly. An attack of seizure, with thrashing and hallucinations?  Possibly, though the doctors in Carson City who examined her didn’t find any sign of one.  She’d badly bruised her ribs, as if she’d struck her chest violently on something… or had something strike her.  Other than that she was fine, and to her credit she was back on the lake in a kayak less than a week later for the last day of camp.  But she made sure that the last day’s trip steered well clear of that big grey rock outcrop with the tunnels through it and… with something else in the waters beneath it.

One other strange thing that you may have noticed: Sally’s fellow group members all testified that during the attack they could hear but not find her, because of the fog.  Well as I’ve mentioned, fog is rare on Lake Tahoe, especially on the eastern shore, especially in the summer, especially during the day. No one else in the area reported so much as a mist.  There was no fog on Lake Tahoe that day.

Ahh, but look outside!  We’ve got some fog tonight.  It can happen, when the nights get cool enough, like this one.  Go ahead and close that window. We don’t want the chill getting in here while we sleep.  The chill… or anything else.

Camp Monsters podcast is a part of the REI podcast network.  It is written and performed by yours truly, Weston Davis, and recorded and edited by Nick Patri in the very cozy and campfire-like confines of Cloud Studios in Seattle, Washington.  

Be sure to listen to the next episode of Camp Monsters, when we’ll hear a story about the mines and ghost towns and railroads that were abandoned a century ago in the mountains of Southern Colorado… and why some places might be better left abandoned.

If you enjoy these stories, please subscribe, rate, listen and spread the word.  It is your support that keeps us recording. Thank you. Goodnight.

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