Camp Monsters


Episode Summary

Iris was ice fishing on Payette Lake in McCall Idaho when suddenly, with an impact she could feel through her feet, something struck the ice beneath her...

Episode Notes

Iris was ice fishing on Payette Lake in McCall Idaho when suddenly, with an impact she could feel through her feet, something struck the ice beneath her...something greenish gray, and dark…and tipped with snapping teeth.

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Episode Transcription

You can’t see anything.

No. That’s not quite true. You can see the bottom of your thick wool hat, and the top of your frozen scarf, bundled up to your eyes. You can see little flakes of snow, white against a white-grey background, driven past your face by the wind that roars all around you.

But that’s all you can see. Until… up ahead… you see something black.

A little smudge of perfect darkness, hovering in horizonless white space. As your steps crunch closer, the darkness rounds out into a little circle-- a jagged little circle, a hole crudely chopped in the thick lake ice… a window from the white nothingness of this world into the black emptiness under your feet.

You beat your hands against your thighs to get some feeling in your mittened fingers, then you knock away the thin ice that’s formed over the hole. You grab hold of the fishing line and begin to pull it up…

And then you stop. And you stare down into the darkness. Five inches of snow, two inches of white ice, four inches of clear ice, then cold, cold water straight down to the bottom. And maybe a trout or two. There’s nothing else down there. There can’t be. There can’t be anything as large as what you just imagined… what you must have imagined… that you saw… moving down there in the world under your feet.

And it isn’t until the thing actually starts to come up through the hole that you realize how far you are from shore… how slowly you run in the snow… and how thin this ice must seem… to something so large…

This is the Camp Monsters podcast.

And the next time you’re out ice fishing, or snow-shoeing, or just looking out at the falling snow while sitting beside a nice roaring fire, make sure you have your YETI Rambler mug or tumbler beside you.  YETI Rambler drinkware is designed with double-wall vacuum insulation, to keep your drink nice and hot on even your coldest adventures.  And its rugged steel construction means it doesn’t mind being knocked over when you hook the big one.  And if the “big one” turns out to be an ancient monster much, much bigger than you’d bargained for?  Well, nothing makes a better monster-decoy than a brightly-colored YETI Rambler mug or tumbler.  Try Alpine Yellow, or Bimini Pink.  And buying a replacement for the mug the monster stole is as easy as going to your local REI, or checking out all the great YETI products at  Thanks, YETI!

Welcome to Payette Lake, in west-central Idaho. It’s a hot vacation spot these days-- forested shore dotted with cabins, docks jutting out into the wide waters… the constant mosquito-song of distant surging engines as folks bounce their boats across the lake’s quiet surface. But in a different time… in a different season… beneath that placid surface… lurks the story of a creature. A creature unnamed until years after its last confirmed sighting, when people around here decided to call it “Sharlie.” A creature we’re going to talk about now.

Careful-- careful, don’t crowd-- there’s plenty of room for everyone on this floating dock. I thought we’d tell this story out here, over the water. Pleasant place to be on a fall evening, with the last of the day’s boaters coming in to tie up, and the quiet and the sunset settling on the lake.

Quiet. You want to hear quiet, come up here in the dead of winter sometime, when the lake freezes over. Like the day we’re going to talk about, back in February of 1944-- up until the moment it happened, that day was as quiet as any day’s ever been up here. Cold, snowing, the lake completely frozen-- and Iris was out on the ice.

The only sounds were the squeak of her boots in the snow and the wind roaring in her ears. The light was starting to fade-- there was going to be a storm that night, she could tell. The flakes were falling thick and fast, blowing in sideways, closing the world down around her until it was hard for Iris to tell how far she could see. She paused and looked back toward shore. The glowing light from her cabin’s window was gone, so things were getting really thick. If she hadn’t known the path to the ice-fishing holes so well, she’d have turned back. But she only had one hole left to check, and the others had all come up empty-- the fish had turned shy in her part of the lake the last few days.

Nowadays folks ice fish in Payette Lake for sport, but back in those times-- on the heels of the Great Depression-- a lot of people in this part of the country counted on the lake and the woods to put meat on their table. Iris sure did, growing up with her aunt and uncle in their little cabin on the edge of the shore, always scratching for food and work and money. So a few days in deep winter with no fish, well-- it made for boring dinners, that was sure.

Iris stamped on the thick ice as she walked, keeping the blood flowing to her numbing feet. Later on she’d wonder about that stamping… wonder if it could have had something to do with what happened next. Anyway, she didn’t mean anything by it-- she was just stamping to keep warm. And at the same time she tried that old trick of thinking her warmest thoughts-- and that was easy. The hottest days of her life so far had been the summer before, the summer of ‘43, which they’d all spent down at the south end of Payette Lake, in the town of McCall.

Iris and her aunt and uncle had moved down the lake to McCall that summer for work-- the Second World War kept the lumber mills booming at the same time it robbed the whole area of working men, so at the age of seventeen Iris had her pick of jobs. She chose one sorting the logs that floated in the log boom outside one of the big lumber mills, while her uncle was across town helping blast foundations for the dam they were building where the lake drained out into the north fork of the Payette River.

Oh, that blasting. It echoed off the hills all around that end of the lake. In the middle of a long, hot day sorting logs in the sun, Iris would feel the lake quiver beneath her, an instant before the <> of another explosion reached her ears. Iris’s aunt hated it-- she said the blasting was so loud it was sure to “wake the lake,” whatever that meant. Iris’s aunt was always saying funny things like that-- she was a small, sharp old woman, descended from people who had lived in the area for generations. The things she said didn’t always seem to make sense at first-- but when you looked back at them later, more often than not she was right.

And later that summer, Iris had an experience that gave her reason to reconsider what her aunt had meant.

It happened after work one day, when the setting sun was heating the western mountains with its fiery descent. Iris was swimming off the far end of the log boom, letting the lake wash away the sweat and grit of another long day working in the heat. Suddenly she felt the lake seize up around her, then relax, then seize again. So she waited, treading water, until the muffled report of two quick explosions echoed out from the dam site. Big ones, too-- they must have hit some stubborn rock over that way.

She’d just made up her mind to ask her uncle about it later... when she felt something brush against her bare feet. Now Payette Lake is clean and clear, but it’s still a lake: there are plenty of things living in it. What Iris felt might have been a bit of lake weed, or a little fish. Maybe a half-sodden strip of bark from the logs in the boom behind her.

But… what her foot brushed against…. hadn’t felt so little. It wasn’t flimsy, fleeting, soft-- the way those things would be. No, it seemed… large and solid. The lake was much too deep where she was swimming for her to touch bottom. Iris looked down into the depths around her, but the glare of the sunny day bounced back and made the surface of the lake opaque-- she couldn’t see anything. So she took a deep breath, and plunged under the water.

It took a moment to blink her eyes open down there. The bubbles she’d carried with her from the surface roared up past her ears. And then the lake quieted down to that familiar deep cacophony of haunting underwater sound. There were the groans and clunks of logs bumping into one another inside the boom… the sound of her own body moving through the water… and more distant, indistinct sounds that might have been anything-- the echoes of animals or people moving on and in the lake. Iris looked directly below her, toward whatever she had kicked… and saw nothing there at all. Nothing but water down to where the light failed in a wash of deep blue. Hm. Strange. She was about to head back up to the surface for air, when--

What was it? There was movement, way down there beneath her… like glimpsing a cloud of ink poured into a glass of clear water… something that billowed and… uncoiled… just for a moment… and then faded back down, away into the deep… and then Iris needed air…

She came back to the hot, sunny surface for two quick breaths-- and it struck her how different, how foreign this world of light and air and heat was from the world beneath her. How surely she belonged in this one… and what a stranger she was below. But whatever she’d seen down there… it didn’t make sense, and she wanted to figure it out-- she wanted to solve it, to answer her own question of what it could be. Silt billowing up from the bottom, disturbed by something? A swirling school of fish? Or…

Iris dove back down again… waited a moment while the bubbles of the surface roared away. And when she blinked her eyes clear and looked down… the answer seemed clear. It was a log, down there. Just one end of an old log, rising out of the depths. A dark old snag, a big one, maybe jostled off the bottom by the shockwave from the explosions at the dam site. She could see one end of it clearly now: floating, looming up-- twisted and gnarled by time and damp, with a knothole kind of like an eye and an old root jutting like the jaw of a gaping mouth. Startling, but harmless. The other end of the log sagged away into the blurry blue.

Mystery solved. She was about to give a kick to propel herself back up to the surface when… she saw it again: that swirling, boiling, uncoiling darkness… in the depths below where the log was jutting up. And as she stared it began to look… it looked just like the body of a snake, coiling over and over, gliding slowly upon itself.

Iris was repelled by the strange vision, but fixated, too: she held herself there underwater, staring, while her mind struggled and failed to explain what she was seeing. And as she watched the coils swirl in the cold blue beneath her, the log that rose out of the depths suddenly began to move, as if it had broken free from the bottom and was floating up toward her. Except-- no, it wasn’t just floating up, it was… moving from side to side, it was… swimming, like an eel… slowly at first but gaining in power and speed. And as it came, the dark mass of coils below was unspooling after it. The eye she had first seen as a knothole seemed to blink, and the jutting root that had looked like a hanging lower jaw seemed to close against the thing’s slimy, lake-bottom snout...

Then a burst of bubbles obscured Iris’s vision, and by the time she realized that the bubbles were from the last astonished air leaving her lungs, she was already scrambling up onto one of the big logs at the edge of the boom. She turned and looked back into the water-- and pulled her feet up higher as, through the glare of the early evening sun, she glimpsed a long dark shape rising toward her, rising… and then fading away again under the dazzling ripples of sunlit glare.

She walked slowly… carefully back to shore along the logs of the boom, keeping well out of the water, thinking. Replaying those panicked moments over and over in her mind, trying to decide… what she had seen?… Had she just been startled by a strange-looking old log, rising from the bottom? Or…? She couldn’t be sure.

And she wasn’t alone. It seemed like no one was quite sure of what they saw, that summer of 1943. The local sheriff was newly elected, and at first he didn’t know what to make of the reports-- which began as a trickle, but then began to pour in-- of some strange and frightening creature in the lake. Eventually he decided the whole thing was an elaborate practical joke cooked up by his political opponents-- and he congratulated himself on never taking the bait, never making himself look foolish by mounting a search or anything like that. But outside the offices of the self-satisfied sheriff, the streets and taverns and churches and meeting halls of the town of McCall were abuzz with stories-- who’d seen that low, dark shape sliding across the surface of the lake? What was it? What should they do?

For her part, Iris knew what she was going to do. The day after she saw… whatever it was she’d seen, she asked for and got a promotion off the log boom-- started working in the mill itself, grading lumber. And as that summer spent the last of its heat over the next few weeks, she often spent her time off gazing out across the bright, bright blue of the lake… wondering…

She didn’t see anything strange the rest of that year… but then, she did all of her gazing from the shallows. She didn’t go out into the deep water again until the lake froze over, thick. She never dreamed there was anything to worry about then.

Back in the biting cold of the following February, 1944, Iris gave her bundled head a slight shake to clear her head. Seemed like she could never think of summertime anymore without the currents of her thoughts carrying her back to that day. And the whole “think warm thoughts” thing wasn’t working at all. Her hands and feet were numb-- there were crystals on the ends of her lashes where the wind snapped at her eyes and tried to freeze them open. The wind could have saved its breath. Her eyes were about to be frozen open-- wide open-- by terror.

It started with a little smudge of red in front of her-- so small and dim she could hardly be sure she saw it, at first.  It was the battered little flag on the “tip-up”-- the arrangement of sticks and fishing line she’d set over the fishing hole in the ice, designed so that the flag popped up when a fish tugged the line that hung below. On a clear day she could see it from the shore-- today it was the only flag she’d found flying over any of the holes, and she was hopeful that she wouldn’t have to trudge back across the ice empty-handed.

She carried a walking stick tipped with pointed iron, handy for knocking away the thin ice that had formed over the hole. She struck the ice– heard it crack– reached down to begin hauling in the fishing line. And then things began to happen very fast. Faster than her mind could follow them. As she bent toward the hole, she saw a flash of movement in the water… close to the surface… just under the ice… bursting up through the hole– right toward her!  She was struck by something heavy and slimy and… she fell back onto the ice in surprise…

… and gave a startled laugh. In all her years ice fishing, since she was a little kid, she’d never once seen a fish do something like that. Jump clear out of the hole-- not a small fish, either: this was a big one… the kind that usually hung out down near the bottom in winter, hardly moving, waiting for the spring to wake them up again. Stranger still, the fish had barely hit the ice before it was followed by another, and another, and another. Large and small, different species of fish began to pour from the hole onto the ice like a flood.

The smile faded from Iris’s face. This was beyond her experience. She’d never heard of fish acting this way. They writhed and slid across the ice around her, flapping their bodies and working their mouths and gills, with big round eyes showing that fishy expression that always seems fixed in pure panic and fear.

Iris scrambled up from the ice-- it was growing dangerously slick around the hole, as the leaping fish spread fresh water that promptly froze into a slippery sheet. But she couldn’t help her curiosity… before she grabbed a few fish and left, she couldn’t help sidling carefully back up to the hole in the ice, and peering down into the darkness from which fish continued to scramble.

She didn’t know what she expected to see. It was already dim in the storm around her-- under the ice it was pure black. As she leaned over the hole, another fish jumped… and then the dark water was still. For a moment. And suddenly, with an impact she could feel through her feet, something struck the ice beneath her. At the same instant, the tip of it burst a few inches out of the hole and stopped. Something too big to quite get through. Something greenish gray, and dark… and tipped with snapping teeth.

Long, sharp, white, teeth. They would have been needle-like if they were smaller, but each of these was as long as a pocketknife blade. Beneath her, just inches from her feet they snapped, one-two-three times in rapid succession, and she could feel the ice tremble under the force of those jaws.

Iris backed up, turned to run-- slipped and fell, hard, among the fish of all colors that were writhing their way to frozen stillness. As she struggled to regain her feet, some quirk of the icy surface slowly slid her around until she was facing the hole again, and from her knees she saw the same teeth, the same dark jaws as before, snapping in the air as whatever was beneath struggled fiercely toward the surface. And it wouldn’t be long now before it was through. The ice around the hole was heaving and cracking, the teeth and jaws slipping higher and higher above the surface as the open water widened.

Iris didn’t wait to see what it was-- if it was the same creature she’d seen that summer. She didn’t want to see anything that was forcing its way through six or more inches of ice. She jammed the sharp iron tip of her stick into the slick ice and pulled herself across it until she regained the rougher snow. Then she was up and away, running. In the blindness of shock and storming snow she wasn’t quite sure which way she was going, but she knew it was in the general direction of shore.

She wasn’t thinking of anything as she ran. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation that wrings your whole adrenal gland into your bloodstream all at once, you find your mind so overridden that it has a hard time even remembering what your body did in those moments. It wasn’t until much later that Iris wondered about the words of her aunt: about explosions “waking the lake,” and the possibility that whatever it was, down there in the dark depths of Payette Lake-- maybe it was sensitive to noises. Woken by them or… attracted to them. Noises like… well, like footsteps, pounding hard against a silent waste of windswept ice.

No, Iris wasn’t thinking that or anything as she ran-- hoping every second to see the light of the cabin window, or the dark patterns of pine limbs under snow-- anything, any glimpse of shore-- shore, and safety. But instead, something appeared just a few steps in front of her through the blinding storm. Something small-- un-threatening, at first. Nothing large and dark with sharp teeth, punching through the ice. Just a little square of color out here in all this white, just a… just another little tin tip-up flag, painted battered red, marking another of her fishing holes in the ice. And just as her momentum carried her another charging stride or two closer… she watched that little red flag… tip up. Suddenly. Like there was big one on the end of that line… a big one, just out of sight in the darkness under the ice…

Maybe if Iris had had her skates, she could have done one of those hockey stops she was so proud of-- throwing her blades at an angle, scraping a cloud of ice dust up over that little flag, and then powering away in another direction with strong graceful glides. But no-- she wouldn’t have been able to scrape dust over the flag anyway, because as she slid and stumbled closer in her heavy boots, the flag disappeared entirely. The sticks snapped as line and flag and all were torn away and ripped under the ice– but they only stayed down there a moment. Then they erupted back up through the hole, balanced on the snout of that thing-- that creature, that nightmare like muddy-dark driftwood with knobbly swirls of bone and flesh for a face, split open with teeth like pocketknives and a throat like oblivion, gaping wide and lunging toward her…

Out on the ice closer to the cabin, Iris’s uncle was trailing wearily behind her aunt and trying, in a tired, patient voice, to get her to be reasonable. Iris’s aunt was… a little eccentric, and her uncle was used to that, but sometimes she just took it too far. Iris hadn’t been gone for long, and she knew the lake from birth-- even if she got a little turned around out here she could find the shore and know her way back to the cabin. The ice was at least six-inch solid straight across, there was no danger of falling through. So there was no call for Iris’s aunt to drag them both out here away from a warm stove just because of some wild feeling that she got, and… and…

And there he trailed off, and stopped walking-- stood up straight, and listened. Listened to the sound that came to them over the steady roar of the wind. It was a sound like… it was a long, low, booming sound-- it was like thunder that rose and fell and never stopped. It was the sound of ice breaking up-- a sound they’d only heard in the most dramatic spring thaws. And never this early, never in February, never with ice this thick on the lake and… and… Iris still out there.

Without another word, Iris’s uncle ran to catch up to his wife, who was running as fast as she could toward the fishing holes… toward the roar of shattering ice.

They got there just in time. Iris was struggling with failing strength at the shattered edge of an enormous gaping hole-- pulling herself half on to the jagged verge and then sliding back into the open water, over and over again. They threw Iris the knotted end of the rope her aunt had felt she should bring-- but Iris’s hands were too numb to grasp it. Quickly, quickly, her uncle knotted a loop at the end, and thrown out to her again Iris was able to slide an arm through the loop and hang on while uncle and aunt together pulled her to safety.

As they dragged Iris back to the cabin, her uncle had enough sense to ignore the slurred, hypothermic words she was rambling-- but with Iris’s icy arm clinging around her neck, Iris’s aunt heard it all. Heard about the creature, and about that last, despairing instinct that had brought Iris’s iron-tipped stick up, just as the thing struck. She heard how its massive, wounded body thrashed the thick ice to pieces as it sank beneath the water. Iris’s aunt heard… and she believed.

I’m not sure other folks did. Anyway, after Iris’s encounter the sightings stopped... at least for awhile. Iris’s aunt hoped she’d killed the beast, but Iris was sure it had just gone back to its lair, back to sleep. The dam was finished that year, and gas rationing kept power boats off the water for the rest of the war. Things got pretty quiet out here on Payette Lake. Later on folks still talked about the thing in the lake, and every few years someone would claim-- with their tongue half in their cheek-- that they had seen it. But you can tell from that name they eventually picked for the creature that the fear and confusion of the early sightings was gone. They chose the name “Sharlie” in 1954, inspired by a well-known radio comedian, Jack Pearl, who got laughs telling ridiculous tall tales in a thick German accent, and responding to his sidekick Charlie’s expressions of doubt with his catch phrase: “Vas you dere, Sharlie?”

Iris thought that was a silly way to name something so mysterious and frightening. Something that she knew was more serious. Not that she has anything against radio personalities. Even at the ripe old age of 96, at home in Boise, Idaho, she still enjoys listening to radio dramas. Well, nowadays we call them podcasts. Hi Iris. Thanks for the story.

And thank you all for listening. I notice those of you at the edges of the dock have found your way closer to the center, away from the water… just to hear the story better, I’m sure. But you know, in recent years sightings of “Sharlie” have increased. The lake grows more popular every year, which means more boats, which means more noise. And if Iris is right… if whatever lives in the depths of Payette Lake is awoken and attracted to noise, then… <> maybe we should all just step as softly as we can, leaving this dock.

Oh, and don’t leave your YETI Rambler 14-ounce mug behind.  Of course, even if you did, the double-wall vacuum insulation and handy MagSlider lid would keep your drink of choice nice and warm– or good and cold– until you remembered and came back to retrieve it later tonight.  Later tonight… by yourself… on this cold dock… over these dark, deep waters… woof– the things you’ll do for your YETI Rambler mug.  But then– just think of all those cozy warm mornings when it kept your coffee hot, or those sweltering summer days when the crisp lemonade in your YETI mug was the only relief.  There’s just something about a YETI…  To find out more, check out all the YETI products at, or at your local REI location.  And tell them that Camp Monsters sent you.  Thanks, YETI!

YETI is constantly working on new features for their products.  Have you heard about the latest one?  Monster repellent.  It’s true– the new customized “Camp Monsters Podcast” 14-ounce Rambler mugs available on are guaranteed to keep you safe from all manner of monsters, creatures, cryptids, ghouls, etcetera.  Of course, everybody wants to keep monsters at bay– and we sold out of our merch so quickly last year that REI has decided to give their members the first crack at these special “Camp Monsters” mugs. So if you aren’t an REI member already, check out all the benefits of joining, at REI dot com slash membership. And if you already ARE a member, then come and buy a mug at REI dot com slash Camp dash Monsters. Don’t forget that dash!

Camp Monsters is part of the REI podcast network.  Doing cannonballs off the log boom are our Executive Producers, Paolo Mottola and Joe Crosby.  Yesyes we are watching, Paolo– good splash, Joe!  Behind them, wearing caulk boots and using a pike pole to sort logs for the green chain while reading up on lumber and ice-fishing terminology is our Senior Producer, Chelsea Davis.  Down at the dam site, our Associate Producer Jenny Barber is gleefully setting off the next charge, while back at the cabin our Engineer Nick Patri worries that the chest-rattling of the explosion… –very nice– will awaken the beast that sleeps at the bottom of the lake: the unspeakable, the unthinkable yours truly, Weston Davis, writer and host of the Camp Monsters podcast.  

Next week will find us beside another lake… a very different lake.  Far from the mountains, out on the open plains, the wind ruffles the surface of little Walgren Lake– which people used to call Alkali Lake.  Yeah, in the old days people used to talk about a monster that lived at the bottom of the lake, waiting to snatch unsuspecting livestock and people from the shore and drag them in.  Good thing those days are gone… or… are they?  Join us around the fire next week to find out.

Of course the stories we tell here on Camp Monsters are just stories. Some of them are based on things people claim to have seen and heard-- right Iris?-- but it’s up to you to decide what you believe… and how to explain away what you don’t. Please subscribe if you haven’t already-- and remember to like, share, and review the Camp Monsters podcast. Great reviews and word-of-mouth keep expanding our Camp Monsters story circle-- and that’s what keeps us recording. Thank you. And see you again, around the campfire.