Lake Tahoe facts, myths & legends, Part I: Preserved corpses in Tahoe?

As a joke, Dr. Charles Goldman feigns concern about an “ocean shark” caught at Lake Tahoe, circa 2016. | Mark McLaughlin

The Tahoe Sierra is an awe-inspiring physical world of geographic superlatives. But like the region’s fascinating human history, sometimes reality is not enough; existing authenticity fails to stop the embellishment and enhancement of facts.

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” is an adage attributed to American humorist Mark Twain (Sam Clemens), who cut his teeth on foolish Comstock journalism at the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise newspaper in the 1860s. As my friend and colleague Guy Rocha, a former Nevada archivist, observes, “People are adrift in a sea of misinformation.”

There is a persistent rumor that human corpses can last for decades suspended in Big Blue’s perpetually chilly water. It’s a fabricated tale that is decades old, but never seems to die. The recovery of a drowned scuba diver from the depths of the lake in 2011 again stirred up the falsehood. The fact that the recreational diver drowned nearly 20 years before and his body was recovered intact, reinvigorated this Tahoe legend.

The Tahoe Sierra is the ancestral homeland of Indigenous Native Americans who call themselves The Washo, which means the people. Big Blue is the tribe’s spiritual center and integral to its origin story. An old Washo legend claimed that Lake Tahoe’s water was so clear and cold that it would not support someone trying to swim or float on the surface. Perhaps the cautionary lore served as a warning to each generation about the dangers inherent in its liquid beauty. In a lake as cold as Tahoe, sudden immersion in its frigid water from, say, falling out of a canoe, couldcause instantaneous death when the nervous system stops the heart. (Learn more about cold water shock in this edition.)

There is solid science for why the body of a Lake Tahoe drowning victim can last a long time and is sometimes not recovered promptly, if ever. The chilling nature of the lake’s deep, icycoldwater refrigerates the human body and inhibits the production of gases that would normally form to bloat and float a corpse back to the surface. Eerily, a slow process known as adipocere transforms submerged skin into a soap-like material that preserves flesh. Strong currents can carry objects away from the point of immersion, which complicates a search.

A missing diver
On July 10, 1994, Donald “Chris” Windecker was reported missing while scuba diving off Rubicon Point with a friend. The underwater Rubicon Wall near D. L. Bliss State Park is a popular spot among technical divers and is also near California’s first underwater shipwreck park, 2 miles south at Emerald Bay. According to a police report released at the time:“Windecker experienced an unknown complication while diving” and he sank to the depths before his partner could get him to the surface.

Seventeen years later, Windecker’ body was spotted on July 23, 2011, at a depth of 265 feet by a deep-water diver. The corpse was lodged in a rock crevice. Authorities located the body using a self-powered remote operated vehicle (ROV) that searched the pitch-black water using a small light and camera. It took the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department most of a day to find Windecker’s body and get it back to the surface using a mechanical claw mounted on the ROV.

Sheriff Lt. Bryan Golmitz said that the water temperature at 265 feet is less than 40 degrees and helped to preserve the corpse. But finding Windecker intact and preserved after 17 years doesn’t confirm that human bodies can remain suspended in time in Lake Tahoe.

Scientists estimate that there are more than 220 million crayfish crawling around the lake’s basin in a constant search for food. Crayfish were introduced to the lake in the late 1800s and the voracious non-native species would make short work of any unusual snacks that came their way.

If Windecker’s body was wedged into the Rubicon Wall or similar feature, it’s possible that it was harder for scavengers to access. It’s likely that the insulated wetsuit that Windecker wore (including booties, gloves and hood) offered significant protection from crayfish and other flesh-eating critters like fish.

Myths of bodies in Tahoe
Today, a quick Internet search will turn up stories about bodies fully clothed in period attire submerged in Lake Tahoe. As macabre or intriguing as it may sound, there appears to be no truth or logic to the idea that there are various bodies dressed in period attire floating in the depths.Some people believe that Chinese workers building the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s were thrown into Donner Lake instead of being paid and that Mafia murder victims were dumped into Tahoe water to sink and never be found. There is a scene in the movie Godfather Part II,”filmed on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore, where one guy gets whacked and dumped into the lake to swim with the fishes.

Cousteau never visited Tahoe
This urban myth is based on Jacques Cousteau, a famous underwater explorer who is alleged to have plumbed Tahoe’s depths in a submersible watercraft during the 1960s or 70s. When he returned to the surface ashen faced, Cousteau allegedly said, “The world isn’t ready for the horrors I have seen,” referring to floating bodies dressed in period clothes. But there is no evidence that Jacques Cousteau ever visited Lake Tahoe.

In the 1960s, Dr. Charles Goldman, a renowned UC Davis limnologist (a scientist who studies inland bodies of water), initiated the first modern, methodical studies of the Lake Tahoeecosystem. Dr. Goldman also formed what is now U.C. Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center. Goldman knew Jacques Cousteau. He told me that because Cousteau raised his own funds for international research, he would have taken the shocking Tahoe footage and made it into a National Geographic TV special to bring awareness and financial support for his work.

No, the legend of submerged and drifting corpses in Lake Tahoe belongs with the other tall tales about sea serpent monsters, such as Tahoe Tessie, or the plug at the bottom of the lake.

Stay tuned for Part II in the edition and at YourTahoeGuide.com/history.


Note: Tahoe Guide uses the spelling “Washo,” the preferred spelling of the tribe.