The Secret Life of Lake Tahoe

1865 L&HCave Rock, the majestic guardian of Lake Tahoe, presides with regal silence over a shadowy and mysterious realm, harboring a hidden world full of secret beings who live in and around the lake. Hordes of people flock to Tahoe’s shores, single-mindedly absorbed in their pursuit of the perfect vacation, so busy enjoying the many outdoor activities available in the Tahoe basin that they remain oblivious to the invisible world that lurks just beneath the surface of the lake. There, out of sight, whole forests of trees and stumps stand silent, submerged within the sediments of earth and time at the bottom of the lake, ghostly witnesses to a medieval drought between the 9th and 12th centuries. In Fallen Leaf Lake, these haunting sentinels of the deep are up to one hundred feet tall and mingle with even older trees that drowned between 18 and 35 centuries ago, remnants of a series of climatic changes reaching ever further back in time. Strewn among the life-like roots of this underwater forest, fossilized remains of invertebrates and fish dating as far back as 11,000 years ago, now coated with a layer of sawdust from the Comstock timber industry, nestle comfortably among the many sunk and scuttled boats laid to rest beneath the waters, each adding its own layer of mute but tangible history.[i]

Not all beneath the water’s surface is from the past. Mysterious life forms flit through this underwater world full of monuments to earth’s history, and are occasionally glimpsed by us surface dwellers intent upon our recreation. The sheer breadth of the lake and the sweep of the horizon distort our vision and open our eyes to the beauty of this world, a world in which ordinary waves become the humps of serpents, and a female goose and her goslings reveal themselves as the head of a sea monster followed by a number of small, dark bumps, which appear to be the serpent-like tail.[ii] This is “Tahoe Tessie,” relative of the Loch Ness Monster, thought to be a strange Plesiosaur, Pliosaur, Icthyosaur or Mosasaur, or possibly a sturgeon or freshwater eel. Sightings go back to the mid19th century and continue to the present day.

John Calhoun “Cock Eye” Johnson was the first Anglo to lay eyes upon Cave Rock, and was so enthralled by its presence he rowed over from Meek’s Bay and discovered a “mysterious grotto 200 feet high with icicles and stalactites.” Curious to learn about its mysterious powers, he began to question the local Washo elders. He heard of ancient legends about a “water prison of demons” that explain the moaning when the water level of the lake rises.[iii]

caver It is beneath the watchful eye of Cave Rock, known to the Washo as Rock Standing Gray, that water babies romp in the waves. These are gray beings about 1 ½ feet tall, with long black hair that floats behind them when they walk. While they look like humans, they are damp and cold, and have no bones. Thousands of them inhabit the waters of the Sierra Nevada, including streams, lakes, marshes, and ponds. Their cries can be heard at night but are best ignored, as contact with them can lead to trouble. Only shamans dare enter Cave Rock to consult with them, bringing gifts and peace offerings. Perched above this hidden realm, Ang, a giant bird, preys on the humans who stumble unwittingly into his path, while a man-eating giant who lives in a nearby cave gets the people who neglect their duties. Frolicking along the beaches and rocks are the weasel brothers, Pewetseli and Damalali, who along with the water babies named all the places that dot the shore of Tahoe, names that still cling to the shores of this secret world.

Most people have forgotten this world. Folklorists and historians know of it because it lives on in archives and books. Next time you venture up to the lake, stop and look around. Listen. If you pay attention, it is all right there in front of you.


[i] Brendon Bosworth, An underwater forest reveals the story of a historic megadrought, High COuntry News, News, December 24, 2012.

[ii] Cherie Louise, Who is Tahoe Tessie? Reno News and Review, January 22, 2004.

[iii] Makley. Michael J. A Short History of Lake Tahoe. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2011

See Also:

Downs, James F. Washo Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961

Lankford, Scott. Tahoe Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Stories of America’s Largest Mountain Lake. Berkeley : Heyday Books, 2010

Pritchard, Evan T. Native American Stories of the Sacred: Annotated & Explained.

Wa She Shu: “The Washoe People” Past and Present