Bodies of water always seem to attract their share of “fish stories” and other folklore—but Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake may hold a record for tall tales.
Although explorer John C. Fremont is often called the “discoverer” of both landmarks in 1844, the lakes were home to the continent’s original inhabitants since the dawn of history, with the Washoe Tribe at Tahoe and the Northern Paiutes at Pyramid Lake. Indigenous Nevadans have their own traditions and legends, evolving over millennia. But over the last 170-plus years, European Americans have added more soggy fables to the folklore of the giant lakes. Some of those stories have a few drops of truth; others are drowning in silliness.
Here are some of the most common claims you might hear—along with some fact-checks:
Tahoe is a Washoe name: There’s some truth to that, but the early explorers weren’t great linguists. In her University of Nevada, Reno, doctoral thesis in 2019, anthropologist Natalie Davenport confirmed the Washoe name for the lake was “Da ow.” Fremont and other pioneers mispronounced it as “Tahoe,” and the name stuck after the lake had a brief stint on early maps as “Lake Bigler.”
Lobsters, shrimp and prehistoric fish swim in both lakes’ waters: Yes, Virginia, there are lobsters in Lake Tahoe! OK, not really. The small freshwater creatures are crayfish, commonly called crawdads. Turn over any rock at Sand Harbor, and you’ll probably see one or two of these small crustaceans scurrying away.
The salinity of Pyramid Lake supports a small population of nearly microscopic brine shrimp. Pyramid also hosts two rare and ancient fish, the cutthroat trout and the cui-ui. Both are survivors from an ancient inland sea known as Lake Lahontan. An agricultural diversion of the Truckee River’s water to Fallon led to the apparent extinction of Pyramid’s cutthroats. But court rulings eventually restored Truckee water flows. Then, in the 1970s, a biologist found some tiny fish in a creek near Wendover, Nev., 300 miles east of Pyramid Lake. DNA tests showed these were the ancient cutthroats. The species were re-introduced to the lake and again thrive there. The Pyramid Lake cui-ui also survived extinction. The sucker fish was a staple food of the Paiutes, and the tribe’s traditional name, Cui-ui Ticutta (alternate spelling: Kuyuidikado) means “Cui-ui eaters.” The species is found nowhere else in the world.
Both lakes have “sea monsters”: “Tahoe Tessie” is a well-known but never photographed denizen of the Sierra lake. Some speculate that a giant sturgeon may have been the basis for the tale, but none have been found … yet. Others theorize that numerous eyewitness sightings may be related to libations consumed on Tahoe’s beaches. Children’s book author Bob McCormick penned The Story of Tahoe Tessie in 1985 and sold thousands of books about the friendly aquatic dinosaur. Sightings of a serpentine sea creature at Pyramid Lake can be explained by algae blooms clumping on the lake’s surface. Walker Lake also hosts a monster, legend has it, and for years, the serpent named “Cecil” was a float in the annual Nevada Day Parade in Carson City.
While the monsters are myths, there are large fish in Nevada’s lakes. In 1925, a 41-pound cutthroat was reeled in at Pyramid. An angler named Gene St. Denis caught a 29-pound mackinaw trout near Tahoe’s Cave Rock. The record for that species is a 37 pound, 6 ounce “Mac” that was 44 inches long, caught by Robert Aronsen on June 21, 1974. The rainbow trout record is 11.67 pounds and 30 inches long, by Chuck McMeecham in 2001. Tahoe also is a great place for fish to thrive; a goldfish released in the lake grew to 18 inches and 4.2 pounds before an angler landed it in February 2013.
Drowning victims at Lake Tahoe remain submerged and perfectly preserved, but a few bob up decades after their demise. Some hapless swimmers drown in Lake Tahoe and are found in Pyramid Lake, more than 70 miles away: There is a bit of truth about Tahoe’s vanishing bodies. Legend has it that the lake was once a favorite dumping ground for casino mob hits, since corpses dropped there never came up again. At certain depths, the constant cold temperatures around 39 degrees (like in a morgue) slow or stop bacterial decomposition. Dead bodies in warmer lakes float to the surface when they get bloated with gases produced by decomposition, but Tahoe is a deep freeze that may not give up its dead.
Nonetheless, fish and other marine life eventually consume all parts of any human body. There is a verified account of a scuba diver found mostly preserved at depth 17 years after his drowning. His preservation was due to the cold water and, most importantly, his protective wet suit, not any magical property of the water.
Tahoe and Pyramid are connected—by the Truckee River, not via an underground tunnel, as legend would have it. The deepest part of Tahoe, near Crystal Bay on the lake’s north shore, is 1,644 feet. That would make the elevation of the bottom of Tahoe around 4,581 feet. The surface of Pyramid Lake is at 3,796 feet. If there were an open tunnel at the bottom of the lake, the entire 39 trillion gallons of Tahoe water would quickly drain. It would overflow Pyramid Lake and fill the neighboring (and usually dry) Lake Winnemucca. For a while, the flood waters would probably restore a portion of the ancient Pleistocene-era Lake Lahontan.
There are the remains of forests preserved in the depths of Lake Tahoe: There are some big tree stumps below the surface of Tahoe, and there’s a complete 2,000-year-old underwater forest at nearby Fallen Leaf Lake, with 80-foot pines. The latter came from an ancient, prolonged drought. The scattered trees in Tahoe are either left over from 19th century logging, or date from when the lake’s outlet at Tahoe City was slightly lower. Geologists think earthquake activity may have tumbled debris into the lake in ancient times, which slightly raised its natural rim. If so, trees growing along Tahoe’s lower shoreline would have been submerged.
The formation that gave Pyramid Lake its modern name is manmade, like the ones in Egypt: Nope, that’s silly. The natural formation made of tufa, a type of limestone. Tufa is created from carbonate minerals that precipitated out of mineralized water. Anaho Island, near the pyramid, is a large tufa formation that is now a National Wildlife Refuge for freshwater pelicans. The “Great Stone Mother” at Pyramid is another large tufa formation that resembles a hooded Indian woman weaving a basket. The pyramid that caught Fremont’s eye in 1844 is just a quirk of geology, formed between 26,000 and 13,000 years ago. To protect the historic sites on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, the island, the pyramid and the Stone Mother are now in restricted areas.
Pyramid and Tahoe never freeze: Neither lake has ever been completely covered in known human history, but this year, for the first time in seven decades, Emerald Bay did ice over. Record snowfalls and extended periods of low temperatures did the trick. The huge volume of water in Lake Tahoe, along with wave action, make a complete freeze-over nearly impossible. But with climate change, who knows what the future holds?
A scuba diver in Tahoe was later found hanging high in a tree many miles away: The story goes that on Aug. 5, 1999, a businessman from Sacramento was diving in Lake Tahoe near Sand Harbor when a huge water bucket suspended from a helicopter scooped him up and then dropped the water—and its human cargo—on a nearby forest fire. The diver was impaled high on a burning pine tree. Lake Tahoe is a popular training and certification area for scuba divers, and choppers do dip huge buckets into the lake when fighting wildfires, so the tale seems to have the ring of truth. But it’s complete BS, and the myth has been told about lakes from Southern California to France. A segment on the Mythbusters TV series in 2004 debunked the legend, but “true” accounts of the mishap keep circulating on the Web.
Some tall tales are just too cool to die.
Buddy Frank is a retired Reno journalist and casino executive.
Nice writing. Concise. Historic. In some cases myth busting.
My thanks to Buddy for clearing away much of the debris of mythology about our two famous lakes. Even though I grew up here, I still learned a great deal.
I have lived here in Reno since 1968 and used to swim in Pyramid lake for years until I was with my two girlfriends who’s mom used to take cloths to the piutes at the church .We were swimming on our rafts and all of the sudden we saw a cui uie fish it was prehistoric.It scared my friends so bad they both lost their rafts.I haven’t s in that lake since then.
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