But is there a sinister side to this pristine mountain jewel? Could there be something not-so-nice lurking beneath Lake Tahoe’s sparkling azure surface? Some people seem to think so.
It has long been rumored that the icy waters of Lake Tahoe hide the well-preserved bodies of Mafia hit victims, supposedly dumped there from the 1920’s – 1950’s in a 900-foot-deep stretch of water dubbed The Graveyard, just off the South Shore.
In an unverified story from an unknown time, a fisherman was said to have snagged his line on something while fishing out on the lake one day. When he broke it free and reeled in, he discovered a man’s hand hanging from his fish hook. Two of the fingers had been lopped off in the style of Mafia gangsters.
Another version of the story says that the fisherman hooks a human ear. The popular version when I was living in Tahoe claims that the unfortunate fisherman reels in the body of a long-deceased Native American girl which immediately “turned to jelly” upon contact with the air. I was in third grade when I heard this one. I had nightmares for weeks.
As far as I can tell, no preserved gangsters have been recovered from Tahoe’s icy depths, but in 2011, a diver who had been missing for 17 years was found and recovered from the lake. His body was almost perfectly preserved, which does give a little credence to the old legends.
The remarkable state of preservation is attributed to the lake’s cold temperatures, around 36 degrees between 600 – 700 feet below the surface. At just above freezing, the bacteria that cause decomposition would be slowed to a rate of near inactivity.
As far back as the 19th century, the Washoe and Paiute tribes of the Tahoe Basin told white settlers stories of the great beast that lived in the depths of the lake. It was described as snake-like, anywhere from 10 to 60 feet long. Its color ranged from gray to turquoise, and it had a long, horse-like face.
There have been sightings ever since, and somewhere along the line, the enigmatic lake monster was named “Tessie.” How the monster was deemed to be female, however, is anyone’s guess.
According to legend, Tessie lives in an underground cave beneath Cave Rock, the core of an ancient volcano on Tahoe’s East Shore. Some claim that an underground river connects Lake Tahoe with Pyramid Lake, north of Reno, and Tessie travels between the two bodies of water at her leisure.
Tessie is said to appear in June of even-numbered years, although sightings have been reported year-round. Could it be that she hibernates? If she does, I don’t blame her. I lived through 20+ Tahoe winters before I made the mistake of moving away, and yeah, that’s some good hibernatin’ weather!
If this shy and elusive lake critter really does exist, then what is she? Theories include long extinct animals, such as plesiosaurs, pilosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and mosasaurs, as well as more modern creatures, like sturgeon and fresh-water eels. There are a few photos of what people claim to be Tessie, but they are rather inconclusive; they could be pictures of floating logs, big fish, waves, or boat wakes.
As for me, I do believe that something strange lurks in the chilly waters of Lake Tahoe, but in all my years of living there, I never once caught a glimpse of Tahoe Tessie.
And that makes me kinda sad.
Tessie is said to live in an underwater cave just below this landmark.
Waterlogged: Six Tales of the Aquatic Undead
Just as I rounded the last boulder, something broke the surface of the water. I only saw it for a few seconds, but it was definitely the head of some sort of creature. It looked like a horse’s head, but hairless. It was the color of mud. As I stood gaping at it, a chunk of its skin peeled away from the face, revealing the whiteness of its skull. A cloud of stink invaded my nose. The odor of decay made me gag.
Two eyes, slit-pupiled and murky green, goggled at me. Then milky-white membranes slid across their surfaces, and the ghastly thing sank beneath the surface in a froth of foul bubbles.
I don’t think my feet even touched the ground when I raced back to our campsite. I know how cliché that sounds, but it’s true. I couldn’t speak right at first. My mouth was sticky-dry, and my throat was clogged with fear. I stumbled the last few steps and almost wound up in Robert’s lap—not that he seemed to mind.
“Well, hey,” he said, his voice full of chuckle and beer, “what the hell’s wrong with you? Did you see Three-Fingered Tony or something?”
“No…” I managed to choke out a single word, then squeezed my eyes shut tight and focused on slowing my breathing. “I saw something…in the water…”
“A floating turd?”
PigPen glared at Robert. “Shut up, man. Don’t be a dick.” He helped me to my feet and walked me over to one of the logs we used for chairs. “You okay, Grace? What happened?”
I clenched my fists and tried again. “There’s something in the water. I don’t know what it was. I’ve never seen anything like it—”
Jackpot squinted through the gloom at the glass-flat water. “I knewthere was something out there. It chased me last night.”
“Cut it out, Jackpot,” I heard PigPen say, “she’s scared half to death. Don’t make it worse.” I felt his hands on my shoulders, patting, trying to comfort me. “Are you sure it wasn’t just a log or something, Grace?”
I shook my head so hard I almost strained my neck. “No. It wasn’t a log. It had eyes. It was alive, but it was…it looked like it was rotting. It smelled awful.”
“Probably just a rock or something,” Robert said, “and everything in this lake smells awful.” and he slid a beer into my hand. “Here. Drink this. You’ll feel better.”
I didn’t want it, but I drank some anyway. It was flat and warm, but it cut through the fear-taste in my mouth. I sat up straighter and looked at the guys one by one. “It wasn’t a rock,” I said. “It had eyes, and a head like a horse! It was looking at me!”
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