Camp Monsters

Colossal Claude

Episode Summary

In this episode, we're going to travel back in time. Into the middle of a black night in 1875. Aboard a sailing ship called the Olympus where you'll meet a creature who is determined to make this night your last.

Episode Notes

Imagine that you're huddled on the deck of a ship with the wind and rain beating down on you. The waves are crashing and it feels like the boat is going to vibrate apart beneath your feet. We're offshore of the Oregon territory a place called the graveyard of the Pacific, and for good reason. There is more than just crashing waves lurking in the dark waters below the ship. Tales of a creature have haunted this coastline for years, all sailors on the coast have heard of it... Claude. Colossal Claude,  a sea serpent, a massive monster, a legend and a harbinger of doom. 

Thanks to this season’s sponsor, YETI for supporting the podcast.

Artwork by Tyler Grobowsky (@g_r_o_b_o)

Episode Transcription

This is an REI Podcast Studios Production.

No matter how dark the night…

No matter how fast you run…

No matter what is chasing you…

You’ll be safe if only you can make it to the campfire.

There it is, up ahead, through the trees.

We’re waiting for you, but…

Will you make it?

This is the Camp Monsters Podcast.

In these first two-and-a-half seasons of the podcast we’ve gathered around campfires in dozens of beautiful places all over the country, and even a few locations around the world. But in this episode we’re going to take advantage of one of the lesser-known travel options that are available to us here on the Camp Monsters Podcast. We’re going to travel in time, back to the middle of a black night in 1875. And there’ll be no fire-- not only is it not allowed onboard, but it would be impossible to keep one lit here on the pitching decks of the sailing ship Olympus, with the rain pounding across the deck and the spray from the broken waves washing the length of the ship.

We are huddled in the lee of the forecastle-- the little spot behind the raised front deck of a sailing ship, where there is at least a little shelter from the worst of the rain and seawater that is blowing everywhere. The ropes of the rigging are moaning and howling as the wind rips past them, and the big wooden ship is working-- flexing so much as it slams over and through the waves that the groans of its timbers can be heard beneath all the other sounds, and we feel the vibrations in our boots.

Of course you can’t hear me telling this story, over all that noise. If I wanted to tell you what I was thinking, I’d have to cup my hand and shout into your ear, and even then you’d miss most of it. But that doesn’t matter, because you already know what I’m thinking. We’re all thinking the same thing: that somewhere out there in all that blackness downwind… somewhere in the direction we’re trying-- and failing-- to sail away from… is a dark and remorseless coast. The shore of the Oregon Territory: called the Graveyard of the Pacific, and for good reason.

How far away is the shore? None of us know. Part of what makes this coast so treacherous are the heavy clouds that hang for hundreds of miles offshore for weeks and months at a time, hiding the stars and sun that we’d normally use to fix our position. So we’ve been sailing by dead reckoning for a week, aiming for the Columbia River and hoping to hit it in daylight and fair weather, with a strong tide to lift us over and through the terrible shifting sand bars that guard that great river’s mouth.

But our hopes were misplaced, and now we huddle in this less-drenched spot in our soaking woolen clothes, waiting to be ordered to climb again-- by memory and feel, through total darkness-- up the pitching masts and out onto the madly swaying yards-- the horizontal pieces of timber that the sails are lashed to-- with only soaking footropes to support us, then lean over the yard and let go our grip completely, so that we can use both hands to wrestle the wet, wind-filled sails. If one nasty whim of the wind slackens the sail and fills it again, the force of the booming canvas is enough to blow any of us off our perch, and into the cold and lonely eternity of black ocean that races beneath us.

Suddenly a new noise appears, fainter than all the others but far more terrifying: it’s the lookout, Isaac, a seasoned man from Nantucket, steady as lead, who knows his business through the thickest weather. But now his voice screams down through the roar of the wind and waves, and rather than report what he’s seeing in the proper way he merely shouts one word over and over again: “Starboard! Starboard! Starboard! Starboard!”

Whether he means there’s a danger to starboard or the helmsman should turn that way becomes clear an instant later, when the sickening lurch of the starboard bow-- the right front part of the ship-- slamming into something throws all of us off of our feet. We struggle up in hasty silence, straining to hear the orders that are being shouted to us at the top of several voices.

And so begins a fight that from the beginning we all expect is doomed. We’ve grounded her-- we’ve grounded the ship, on a sandbar or a reef, it makes no difference which. When you ground on this coast, you stay grounded-- at least for the few hours it will take the surf to pound you into pieces.

We all split up, following the sound of several voices ordering various things to be done. But there is so little that can be done, now. The ship pivots on its grounded bow, slews around sideways to the surf, and begins to settle and heel to one side. You find yourself beside some others in the darkness, struggling to launch one of the boats that hang on davits-- little cranes-- beside the ship’s rail. You can barely hear someone cursing loudly beside you, and you can tell from the voice that it’s Isaac, come down from his lookout’s perch to help.

On an impulse you grab into the darkness in the direction of the sound, and you catch some sodden part of a man. Grappling with him until you find his head, you put your own near it and shout as loud as you can: “What is it, Isaac? What did you see?”

He shouts something in reply that you don’t quite catch, then tears himself out of your grip and moves away a few steps-- which in the darkness means he disappears from your world completely. And you try to figure out what he said. It was a single word, but nothing like “bar” or “reef” or “land”. It sounded like “cod” or “odd”, but those words wouldn’t make any sense.

And then you realize what he must have said, and your hands freeze on the knot you’re untying-- the word he said was “Claude”. And you know what that means.

It means that the ship will surely sink. All sailors on this coast know: Claude, Colossal Claude, Claude the Columbia River Creature… Claude is a sea serpent, a massive monster, a legend… and a harbinger of doom. Sailors say he has a head like a dragon in the old books, perched on the end of a long, curving neck that juts from the water. He lurks in the sea near the Columbia River’s treacherous mouth, devouring sea lions and dolphins… and sailors trying to swim away from dying vessels. And he’s only ever seen by those aboard ships that are destined for the bottom. Some say he lures ships to wreck, others that he merely appears when one is about to-- but all agree that once Claude is spotted, no vessel can escape its fate.

Just then a light erupts to one side of you, and you turn in time to see flames shoot from one of the portholes on the forecastle. A lamp knocked over, some flammable cargo smashed-- something jolted loose by the lurching heel of the ship has started a fire. In its dim light you see figures running toward it and figures running away from it. You see sailors wrestling with sails and others trying like you are to launch the boats. And while everyone else’s attention is drawn to the flames, you catch sight of something in the sea on the other side of the ship. 

At first you think it’s a long, thin piece of wreckage, but there is no part of the ship that’s shaped that way… that’s curved like that, that ends with… with a head. A head that reminds you more of a horse than anything else, but enormous-- and with vacant, sunken eyes, and a mouth that opens down the whole length of the bottom of its head. And you know without believing that you’re staring at that terrible legend: Colossal Claude.

The mouth is hanging open now, the huge jaw hanging hinged from near the neck… and you watch as the creature lunges with its open mouth and… and snatches up the figure of a sailor standing beside the far rail. If the sailor screams, you can’t hear it. But the vision is still fresh and horrible in your eyes when… suddenly you can’t hear or see anything.

The first wave has broken over the foundering ship, washing clear across it-- and washing you with it, across the deck and over the far rail into the same area where you just saw the creature. The silence and blindness underwater, the grave-like cold of the sea, and a sharp rap against the rail as you’re blown over it all combine to knock your mind away for a few moments… and only when you’ve floated to the surface does the chaos of wind and firelight and the distant shouts of panicked voices bring you back to yourself.


You have no idea what to do… a vague thought of trying to get back on the ship occurs to you, but before you can attempt it you feel something under the water bump and slide against your rapidly-numbing feet. Some piece of wreckage, maybe… a partially submerged barrel, or…

The fire on the ship has spread in spite of the rain, and by it’s light you see a movement in the water beside you that draws your eye-- and there is the head of the creature, of Colossal Claude, rising slowly from the sea beside you. Water gushes from between the long fangs of the mouth as it slowly hinges open. You see the gills on either side of the neck, lit red by the light of the burning ship. But you can’t see the eyes… the eyes are sunken so far into pits on either side of the head that the shadows hide them completely.

You are helpless, and your dazed brain resigns itself to this horrible sight being your last. The creature towers above you, its huge head and long dark neck floating effortlessly over the raging sea, staring at you as you’ve seen a cat stare at a mouse… waiting for the mouse to make a move. You don’t-- you stay perfectly still. But in the end it doesn’t matter. Claude tires of waiting, opens it’s horrible mouth a little wider, lunges-- and you feel a last blast of clammy breath, reeking of stale sea and rot. You close your eyes, you feel a blow… but from above rather than in front of you. You are underwater again, struggling with something huge and soft and heavy that you gradually realize is a fallen sail. A powerful wave has knocked the ship so far over that the end of one of the yards has come down into the water between you and the creature.

But as the heavy sail presses you down and holds you under, it seems your escape from Claude won’t matter much… you hold your breath and struggle blindly as long as you can, but you’re almost on the point of taking your last, fatal gasp of seawater when the surge of another lucky wave pushes you along the sinking fabric and you find yourself at the surface again, breathing rain-lashed air and feeling as happy as one can feel while lost overboard in a stormy, freezing sea.

Ropes and sails from the steeply-leaning mast trail in the water all around you, but your hands are too numb with cold to grip any of them. By wrapping your arms and legs around a wooden yard you are able to slowly heave yourself out of the water and away from that terrible beast Claude, that you know still lurks in the water nearby. You climb, slowly, up and up the drooping remains of the mast, which staggers and sways each time a wave breaks over the battered, burning hull. Many of the voices you heard before are silent now, and ropes that sag and wave in the wind don’t howl-- so the roar of the sea and the deadly crash of the waves are the supreme sounds… and when they’ve finished their work on the last of the dying vessel, they’ll be the only sounds at all in this horrible place. It won’t be long now, you know.

But your impossible luck holds, if you can call such torment luck. As dawn breaks and the surging tide shatters the last of what had been the sailing ship Olympus, driving the mast you are clinging to into the foaming water, you manage to take hold of a large piece of the wooden deck as it floats by. Some trick of the current sweeps you out of the breakers and back onto the heaving sea, and your cold-numbed consciousness comes and goes through a succession of days. The endless gray sea and the endless gray sky merge into one heaving, hostile thing, and it feels to you that time begins to slip somehow, so that it seems you’ve been clinging hopelessly to that freezing piece of flotsam for a hundred years or more.

Little do you know that is exactly what is happening.  Come on-- if we have the technology to turn you into a sailor in 1875, to bend space and time and reality itself, won’t we use it to save you?  We can’t afford to lose a good listener.  And you’ve drifted so far from any shipping lane in the age of sail, when vessels had to stay where the prevailing winds were... with steamers so rare on the west coast back then, you’d never be found.  But if our Engineer Nick just twists this knob here… then unbeknownst to you, your day dawns in a different century altogether.  And in the faint but growing light of morning, you think you see something.


At first you mistake it for a sea-stack-- a rock off the coast rising vertically out of the water. But as you drift closer you see that it is some kind of multi-colored steam ship, and the closer it comes the bigger it grows until it reaches truly unbelievable proportions. Your numbed mind is unfazed by any wonder, however, and with the last of your strength you wave weakly and croak out an “Ahoy!” It’s impossible that anyone could hear you from the towering deck of the massive vessel, but someone must have seen you because the ship gives a blast of its enormous horn and the next thing you know men in a small boat made of inflated, rubberized canvas and powered by a tiny, noisy engine have dragged you aboard and are speeding you back to the ship.

You are half-carried down endless hallways made of metal, lit by fixtures you’ve never seen the like of. You are given hot food and drink, and a warm bunk, and warm clothes when you awaken. You meet the crew-- a wide mix of nationalities, which you are used to as a sailor, but most speak some English and you find that a few of them can understand the bits of Malay you remember from your voyages in Batavia waters. They are amused by your tentative wonder at the size of their vessel, and tell you that it is quite small, for what they call a “container” ship. They tell you the date, and twice you ask them to repeat it-- the fact that it should be October is impossible, since the Olympus that you were aboard went down in March, and you know you could never survive so long… but the thing that truly gives you pause is the year: two thousand and twenty one, which the crew say as “twenty twenty one”. You grow quiet at that, and cautious. Something very unexpected is happening here, and you can’t quite decide whether the fault is in you or the world around.

Of course they want to know how you came to be adrift, but you pretend that you can’t remember-- you have no desire to tell your tale and be taken for a lunatic. The crew accept your amnesia and a few of them who have had the most success communicating with you offer a tour of the ship. As you are led down countless corridors and gangways and metal stairways, and shown the enormous engines and steering gear and crew accommodations, your ability to disguise your wonder as polite interest is increasingly strained.

It breaks altogether when you are standing at the rail on the towering deck-- higher than the top of the tallest mast you’ve ever climbed-- when a distant roll of thunder begins, but doesn’t end. You look around at your guides, but they seem unperturbed. A bird such as you’ve never see appears through the clouds and rain, a bird without wings, running just ahead of the thunder. The bird grows and grows until it turns into a machine, hovering and thundering over the ship’s deck, blowing spray in all directions. You stare in naked wonder as a figure is lowered from the roaring machine’s belly onto the ship, and the incredible craft thunders away. You catch the word “pilot” in something one of your guides shouts to you over the sound. So this is how they deliver pilots onto ships in the year two thousand and twenty one. Wonders never cease.

The pilot is an energetic woman in a bright orange jacket. She shakes a few hands, says a few words, and you follow as she is directed up many staircases and into a room you haven’t been to yet. One glance around tells you that this is the room that has replaced the quarterdeck of your era-- the place where the ship is steered and commanded. You reach to remove a hat you no longer have, and sidle over to one side to stay inconspicuous and out of the way. But one of your guides beckons you to the center of the room where the Captain and Pilot are speaking, and presents you to them. For a few moments you are the uncomfortable center of attention, but then the two commanders return to their business and another officer takes you to one side and begins to show you some of the instruments. Most of these mean nothing to you, but when he holds a pair of binoculars to his eyes and scans the horizon ahead, then hands them to you, their use is clear enough.

Through the eyepieces, the distant shoreline-- that is just a smudge through the mist ahead-- jumps into much clearer focus. You recognize it instantly-- the mouth of the Columbia River, the very spot your ill-fated ship was working toward. The sea outside is running heavy, far heavier than any weather you would choose to attempt to cross that river’s treacherous bar, but the enormous ship breasts the waves with barely a sway, and the Pilot and Captain don’t seem excited at all. Apparently this is all routine.

As you gaze ahead of you the weather closes in-- a sudden squall obscures the coast and limits visibility to a small stretch of sea around the ship. You are just about to hand the binoculars back to your host when you see it, barely glimpsed through the curtain of rain…

“Off the port bow!” you bark instinctively in your best lookout’s voice, forgetting for a moment that you’re in a small, warm, well-lighted room and not on a pitching, storm-tossed deck. When you lower the binoculars you feel all the eyes in the room turned to look at you, but you ignore them and point in the direction of what you saw as the officer beside you takes the binoculars and focuses them. After a moment he sees what you indicated, calls out to his fellow officers, and all begin to strain their eyes in that direction.

Most seem interested, rather than alarmed. Your own mouth has gone dry, your chest tightens, your neck heats with rising panic. It’s the second time in as many voyages that you’ve seen that long, curving neck, with that sinister head at the top. It seems impossible that a ship like this, a ship this large, a ship made of steel… it seems impossible that any danger in the world could sink it… but you know that the sea is more powerful than anything-- and you know that the appearance of Colossal Claude spells doom to any vessel, no matter how large.

The only other person who seems to share your alarm is the pilot. She stares through her binoculars at the creature, with her lips working silently and a look of disbelief on her face, until another rain squall blots everything from view-- even the bow of the ship. Then she springs into action. Shouting orders, demanding charts, calibrations, the latest readings from radar and transponders, whatever those are. She orders the engines slowed.

At first the crew seems bewildered, then slightly amused, but the pilot’s hunted look is unnerving, and when she grows silent after giving her last order, staring straight ahead through the rain-blinded windows, you notice the crew all share her silence-- and those who are not glued to glowing screens are staring out the window just as hard as she is.

The pilot strains her eyes ahead, checks her instruments, then orders the overhead lights dimmed to improve the visibility outside. The engines throb quietly, endlessly. Rain lashes the windows. A tinny voice crackles from somewhere, and a crew member silences it with the turn of a knob. The giant boat heaves imperceptibly over waves big enough to swamp a smaller craft. The pilot orders a slight turn, and the crewmember at the helm is in the process of repeating the order back to her when the squall suddenly lifts, visibility returns… and dread slams into every heart.

There is a ship, another massive freighter, close-- far too close in front of your vessel’s bow. Klaxons sound, bells buzz, positions and speeds are shouted by crewmembers shifting their gaze between glowing screens and the terrifying view out the windows. The pilot orders a hard turn, and the great ship begins to sway, barely perceptibly, to one side-- and just as imperceptibly, the catastrophe begins. You feel just the slightest lurch-- hardly noticeable if you hadn’t been keyed to the height of attention. Then ahead of you, at the ship’s bow-- and in total silence thanks to the thick windows-- unfolds a scene of chaos and destruction.

The “containers”-- great multi-colored steel boxes, each 40 feet long, that are stacked from the hold up to somewhat below where you stand-- these huge shapes begin to crush and tumble as the slow force of the two behemoth ship’s collision pushes the stacks back on each other. The ship shudders under your feet as it grinds past the other vessel, accompanied now by a low roar that is as much vibration to be felt as noise to be heard. You watch as great warped hunks of metal slowly peel up above the edge of the ship’s deck-- those are sheets of steel as thick as your palm, you know, but they look like the slightest slivers of tin can, the way they twist under the forces applied to them. Deck plates bulge and burst at their seams, and as the bridge of the other vessel grinds slowly past, you see that they are as busy over there as everyone around you is.

And you are busy, too: asking your guides how they go about launching boats when a ship of this size must be abandoned. Because you are certain how this will end. And sure enough, as soon as the two vessels part you feel the great ship begin to list under your feet-- she’s torn her side out below the waterline, she’s taking water in her hold.  In just a few more minutes the list has grown so great that containers begin sliding off the side into the raging sea. And way down there… amidst the whipping waves and foam… you spy a shape. A long, thin neck… a vicious head… dark, blank eyes… Claude. Colossal Claude. You are not looking forward to the reunion.

Lucky for you, nowadays the crews of stricken super-freighters are generally taken off by helicopter. You’re terrified by the idea of being winched up into one of the thundering craft-- but decide that anything is better than what is waiting for you down in the water. You aren’t called to the Board of Inquiry into the disaster-- you don’t hear the pilot being cleared of any wrongdoing, or the various experts debating how so many technologies and safeguards on both vessels and shore could have failed to allow such a collision. The instruments were clearly to blame, though no one can decide why they malfunctioned so completely. The remains of the stricken vessel are towed and sunk far enough offshore that an environmental disaster on the Oregon coast, like the New Carissa wreck back in 1999, are avoided.

As for you? In all the excitement, you walk out of the hospital you’re taken to and you disappear, essentially. You disappear into a quiet life in a little shack you build on borrowed land near the water, outside the town of Astoria, Oregon. You live by odd jobs, and making little things that any old sailor could-- ropework and scrimshaw, things like that. And you fish-- but only from the shore. Colossal Claude missed you twice… you know he won’t miss again.

Camp Monsters is part of the REI Podcast Network. Our Senior Producer, Chelsea Davis, is firmly in command of our Camp Monsters lifeboat, and steers us by the stars. Our engineer, Nick Patri, patches the hull with old cracker boxes to keep us afloat, all while creating incredible sound effects… and controlling space and time. Our Executive Producers, Paolo Mottola and Joe Crosby, spend each day on a high bluff overlooking the sea, watching for our sail and awaiting our safe return. This episode was written and performed by yours truly, Weston Davis, who is tolerated on the lifeboat because everyone knows he will be the first one eaten, if things come to that.

And a reminder that the stories we tell here are just that: stories. They’re based on things people claim to have seen and experienced, but it’s up to you to decide what you believe… and how to explain away what you don’t.

Thanks to all of you for listening, subscribing, rating, and spreading the word about this podcast.

And special thanks to this season’s sponsor, YETI. YETI makes products that stand up to your toughest adventures. Their hard coolers are surprisingly buoyant, and meet Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee standards for a bear-resistant container when used with extra-long-shanked Master locks. And if their coolers can stand up to grizzlies, they can stand up to Colossal Claude the Columbia River Creature. So your snacks stay cool and safe… even long after Claude has made a snack of you.

Next week we’re taking a long drive on a lonely road in Montana. If you drive long enough, on roads empty enough, you start to see things. The trouble comes when one of those things… may actually be there.  See you then.