DEEP IN LAKE TAHOE - From the deck of his charter fishing boat Big Mack II, Mickey Daniels pierces minnows baited with cat food onto hooks and plunges them 400 feet into the dark water of Lake Tahoe. It's 7:47 a.m. on a day when mist slices distant mountaintops and gray clouds swallow the sun.
Daniels, a 67-year-old former Placer County law enforcement officer with wind-chapped cheeks, knows every ripple of the lake he's fished since 1959. But aside from his reputation for landing mackinaws and 30-pound trout, he believes that something else, something larger and more ominous, dwells in Tahoe's depths.
Two decades ago, he rumbled his 43-foot boat a half-mile offshore and pointed toward the casinos in Nevada on the lake's south side.
"What's that?" a passenger suddenly yelled.
"It's not a wake from the boat," Daniels said, staring. The two peered into the water and watched a wave split into a huge V, as if an enormous head were clearing a path for an enormous tail. And then ... nothing.
These days when Daniels paddles his rowboat out to Big Mack II and dawn blurs sky and shore into Monet-like smudges, he sometimes peers into the dark water, searching for what he saw on that morning long ago. It makes him nervous.
At 1,645 feet deep, Lake Tahoe ranks as the world's 10th deepest lake. Twenty-two miles long and 12 miles wide, it harbors many legends. But perhaps most persistent is the myth of a humped-backed, scaly serpentine the locals call Tessie.
"I keep looking," Daniels says. "In case there is something, I want to see it."
With scant evidence that such creatures exist, our forests and waterways still teem with man-made monsters, and Tessie is just that kind of beast - quick to spin off into popular culture, provide good copy for the Weekly World News and compel perfectly reasonable men, like Daniels, to believe she's out there, lurking.
As early mapmakers struggled to decipher the shape of the world, they scrawled notes where they ran out of information: Beyond here lie monsters.
Children use this reasoning when they accept the inexplicable, sometimes in the guise of flying reindeer or molar-swiping fairies. Believing in something untrue or unproven does not render the believing itself false. To children, shadows are the edge of the world, and there may be monsters beyond.
Perhaps the same logic explains why some have seen Bigfoot, Chupacabra, Yeti and all the other so-called beasts who are tracked by cryptozoologists, the name given to those who study these hidden creatures.
"Nature is neither as kind as we want it, nor as evil as we fear," says Stephen Curley, who teaches literature at Texas A&M University at Galveston. "We like to believe we have tamed nature but cannot deny chronic reminders that nature is red in tooth and claw."
In a lake renowned for its clarity, Tessie seems to emerge from the murk of uncertainty. Her story likely begins several thousand years ago when Washoe Indians summered on the lake's shores. Shamans believed water babies swam in the glassy green water under sacred Cave Rock. To speak of small, powerful creatures was considered taboo: a water baby could blind a man or kill him.
The fear was enough to keep the tribe silent. These were, after all, dangerous times: A prehistoric bird, Ong, nested at the center of the lake, and tribe members warned children against wandering from camp, lest the winged creature kidnap them.
George M. Eberhart's 723-page dictionary of the undocumented, "Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology," lists at least three major sightings of the freshwater monster in the 1980s. One hiker told The San Francisco Chronicle that she spotted something "as big as a rowboat - with little whitecaps coming from where its mouth would be. It surfaced the way a whale does, just kind of pushing up through the water. It seemed very lethargic."
Mike Conway says he saw Tessie too. Conway, who once owned a local TV station and now sells DVDs such as "The Great Brothels of Nevada," stabs his icy driveway with a shovel, a little man with a shrub of gray curls and heavy eyelids.
Tessie, he says, appeared in the mid-'80s during a commercial shoot at Zephyr Cove on the Nevada side of the lake. Conway, now 58, was the location manager, and his crew was filming actors on a romantic stroll. A half-dozen kids lazed on a boat dock, and an 18-foot skiff boat suddenly rocked from a wake. That's when he saw a brown, humped beast. The kids screeched: "It's Tessie!"
"I believe I yelled 'cut' and told them to swing the camera around," Conway says.
So it was filmed?
"I heard they destroyed the footage."
"You know. Them."
When news got out, Conway returned home to a message on his answering machine that taunted: "Hey, Mike, you better drive over to Echo Summit. There's a pterodactyl flying here."
Charles R. Goldman, a leading expert on Lake Tahoe, scheduled a panel on the health of the lake at the University of Nevada, Reno in 1984 - about the same time Conway says he encountered Tessie. Rain pounded the student union's windows that night but didn't deter hundreds from packing the auditorium. Perhaps it was the flier that read:
Special added attraction:
Unidentified Swimming Objects:
Is There a Tahoe Monster?
More interested in Lake Tahoe's clarity than its underwater oddballs, Goldman crafted the term USO because he can't investigate lakes without bumping into one. (An e-mail from 2000 is tacked to his wall that describes how Loch Ness investigators failed to find a single Nessie dropping, which the sender presumes is like elephant dung.)
Goldman, 74, has taken a submarine into a narrow canyon 1,000 feet down into Tahoe and hunted for Nessie remains in Scotland. He flips open his laptop in a cramped University of California, Davis office lined with faded green binders that chronicle a half-century of Tahoe data and peers over his glasses.
Goldman debunks the sightings, click by click.
See that Tessie egg? A floating baseball. Tessie eyes? Reflected sun. Tessie trail? A paddling beaver.
In waves, he says, human eyes see spots of black. Then the mind fills in the blanks. The same thing happens with sudden wakes, which some mistake for a beastly swell.
Goldman has a hunch as to Tessie's pedigree: He thinks it's a type of fish that records show has grown as big as 1,500 pounds and that crept into Tahoe during trout and mackinaw plantings - an explanation often repeated in shoreline cafes and bait shops.
In a book printed in 1612 that Goldman owns, a man cataloged all the sea creatures that he knew to exist. One ghastly sucker is named, in Latin, "Acipenser." That monster is the same fish Goldman thinks wriggles below Tahoe: the rather common sturgeon.
His explanation is logical. But it doesn't electrify like the myth of some scaly monster skulking under waves.
The creation of monsters like Tessie, Champy, Nessie, Besse or Ogopogo can easily be explained as a bridge between what we know and what we don't.
Few people have dived deep into Tahoe, whose water temperature remains at a constant 39 at depths of 600 feet to 700 feet. The uncharted lake is a canvas for the imagination, and modern-day fishers and divers already have the indigenous stories of Ong and the water babies to build upon.
Similar tales abound in other uncharted places. Ukrainian researchers claimed that Yeti holes up in their rugged mountains, and something called the Hairy Man tromps the Alaska backcountry. And even well-documented hoaxes haven't buried Bigfoot, the most illustrious cryptid who embodies another trait that explains Tessie's longevity: He is shy.
"If he walked around at high noon every day and there were hundreds of him, he wouldn't be interesting," says Robert Baker, a University of Kentucky professor emeritus who researches paranormal psychology.
Curley, the literature professor, and others also reason that cryptids are a way to cope with the uncertainty of the growling, slobbering natural world - a cosmos city folk don't inhabit and may find menacing. In fiction, the monsters that tried to lure Odysseus off course - the Sirens - represent the sea's fierceness.
Sometimes, however, mythologized monsters turn out not to be creatures of fiction. Giant squid were once imagined to be either merman or myth. The sea animal was proven real only after fishermen hooked a dead one, and a reverend stowed it in a bathtub and displayed it as a freak of nature.
At Wholesale Resort Accessories, a warehouse at the airport in Tahoe, Tessie finally appears. She's just beyond the snow shovels hawked by the broad-shouldered and hairy Bigfoot.
This Tessie is about as menacing as Barney - and just as huggable. The green-stuffed beast costs $4.99 for a 3 1/2-inch version or $9.99 for the 10-inch model. On a neighboring shelf, a postcard shows Tessie playing poker with beer-swilling wildlife. The back reads: "She has never eaten a tourist."
The same year Goldman introduced audiences to USOs, Tessie went commercial. It's no coincidence that sightings also flourished.
"It was like 'Jaws' where people didn't want to go in the water," says Bob McCormick, a real-estate investor, tourism brochure publisher and watsu massage therapist. "I didn't want kids afraid to swim in the lake." So he created the kid-friendly Tessie and trademarked "The Original Tahoe Lake Monster" before anyone else could.
In "The Story of Tahoe Tessie," his smiley creature is crafty, fashioning tires onto a log and floating it near unsuspecting fishermen, and outwitting a big-game hunter named Whiplash McMean. She has an agenda too.
"For years she had left the men alone, as they had cut down the trees, polluted her lake, and put up buildings on many of her favorite spots. Why couldn't they leave her alone in her own home?" McCormick writes. The lake snake, who's drawn as part kewpie doll, part "Creature From the Black Lagoon," rescues Tahoe from a broken dam.
Over the years, McCormick purchased four 8-foot-tall Tessie suits, one of which lost a tail. The Tahoe tenant was plucked to light the Christmas tree in a nearby town and appeared in a cameo on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
But McCormick has shuttered his Tessie museum and the phone number some callers used as a Tessie hotline.
Still, Tessie persists. "CBS This Morning" ran a short Tessie segment in 1990, claiming that at least 50 people had glimpsed her. The phone sometimes jangled at Sand Harbor, a swath of beach with 400,000 visitors a year, with panicked mothers asking if Tessie would gobble their small children.
The calls intensified in 1992, when local paper Tahoe Bonanza printed its annual April Fool's edition. Its lead story described how a 75-foot monster, which had eaten four people, 16 dogs and a horse, crashed an aluminum boat and swallowed the pit bull on board.
"Even if I tell (callers) the sturgeon story," says Sand Harbor supervisor Rick Keller, "they want to believe in the sea monster."
Recently, two beachgoers noticed a dark shape with three to five humps floating in placid water near Tahoe Park Beach. "I thought, 'Whoa, this sucker's real,' " a man from Rocklin, Calif., told the local Tahoe World newspaper.
Is Tessie real? Maybe only Mickey Daniels knows. The angler is so intertwined with Tahoe's waters that this year's April Fool's gag was to report that he caught the beast after an eight-hour struggle and was debating whether to sell her to a hamburger joint.
Today as the Big Mack II whirs, Daniels talks about the time he was driving to Tahoe City and a strong wind kicked up. He noticed something on the lake snaking south to north. A hump. A 15-foot-long hump.
He skidded his Jeep to the road's shoulder, hopped out and pressed binoculars to his face. He lowered them, raised them again - if it was Tessie, he had better see her - and saw only this: a row of ducklings bobbing on blue.