Story by Nick Carlson
“Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air.” — Washington Irving
By the light of the day, all lakes both large and small provide a vision of tranquility. They are the most peaceful and serene places we have come to know. We take comfort in their beautiful views, bathe in their relaxing waters, and find solitude paddling along their wild and whimsical shorelines.
But beware; after the sun falls behind the horizon, the darkness and the lake will conjugate their mystical powers and cast a bewitching spell of uncertainty, dread and fear. It’s on that rim of darkness we will venture, seeking that surreptitious boundary between the water and the night, and real and imaginary.
“Some places speak distinctly,” American author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “Certain dark gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck.”
So what’s lurking out there in the lake? Is it a spirit from beyond? Or a blend of frightening folklore that exposes our innermost fears and sparks our imaginations? Whether you’re spooked or skeptical, here are few haunted lakes and ponds you just might want to paddle (if you dare), this Halloween or anytime.
1. Gardner Lake, Connecticut
You will find more humor than horror in Connecticut’s Gardner Lake. In 1895, the area grocer decided to move from the south side of Gardner Lake to the east side. While many would simply build another house at their new location, the grocer wanted to keep the two-story house he already owned. His solution was to wait till the lake was frozen over and sled his house and contents, including a piano, over the ice.
All went well until the ice cracked and the house slowly sank into the water. Not being able to pull it free from the lake’s icy grip the home sat there till the spring thaw when it plunged the rest of the way into the bottom of the lake
But while that particular tale involved no deaths, it’s said the ghosts of the people who drowned in the lake can be seen and heard around the lake. But while that’s no big deal for a lot of places, some say that on quiet nights, the piano that went down with the house can be heard playing from the spot on the lake where the home met its watery fate. Cue spooky piano music…
2. Haunted Lake, New Hampshire
The local real estate listings say Haunted Lake is a peaceful and tranquil place featuring shallow pond rimmed birches, pines, and summer cottages. The lake offers fishing, scenery, delightful shade, and unexplained weird noises.
According to the area’s folklore, centuries ago a massive forest fire swept through, killing everything and everyone living around the lake. The Native Americans and Europeans settlers in the fire’s aftermath were more than a little spooked by the charred trees and burned out landscape. After that, the little pond was called Haunted Lake.
In 1753, surveyor Matthew Patten only added to the little pond’s lore when he wrote this in his diary while camping near the pond’s outlet: “Soon after darkness set in, there commenced groaning and shrieks as of human being in distress, and these continued, most plaintive and affecting, till nearly morning.”
The pond took on the identity of Scoby Lake when a family by the same name built a mill there. Of course, that didn’t end the spookiness surrounding the pond, especially after they uncovered some skeletal remains on the lake shore. Its pseudonym as Haunted Lake would only endure.
3. Lake Ronkonkoma, New York
The creepy tales told of Lake Ronkonkoma, Long Island’s largest lake, say that it’s a deep dark abyss with no bottom. It’s so cold that spirits of ice skaters have been seen skating across it when it wasn’t even frozen.
However, the most prominent legend has all the ingredients of a Shakespeare tragedy. Two young star-crossed lovers; a beautiful Native American princess and her steadfast colonist pledging undying love for one another on the banks of the lake. Forbidden to see each other, they use the lake to float love notes written on birch bark back and forth to one another, proclaiming their enduring devotion.
Finally, they agree to marry and run away together. But they were found out. A fight ensues and our brave young colonist is killed. Overcome by grief, our young maiden paddles her canoe to the deepest part of the lake. Tying a rock to her body, she then casts herself into the water, but not before casting a sinister curse over the entire lake, saying because her love was unfulfilled, one young man will drown in the lake every year from then on.
Now here is where it gets bizarre. Folks around the lake say at least one person has drowned every year over the past 200 years, with most of them being young men.
4. Lake Lanier, Georgia
Is there something sinister happening at Georgia’s Lake Lanier?
The 38,000-acre lake 40 miles north of downtown Atlanta is one of the state’s most popular getaway destinations. However, grim stats show that for many, it was also their final destination.
Constructed over 50 years ago, the lake is cursed with a ghoulish legacy. In making way for the water, workers unearthed and relocated the remains of nearly 20 cemeteries before flooding the valley. Those empty graves and scores of ghost towns were then entombed under fathoms of lake water, bestowing a fair share of strange mysteries to the area.
By far the best ghost story is the spine-chilling tale of Susie Roberts and Delia Mae Parker Young. Driving home in 1958, they missed the bridge and met their fate in the murky water. For over a year, it was a mystery of what had happened to them, until the lake released Delia’s body from the deep. It must have been a terrible sight; wearing a blue dress, her body was missing both hands and her left foot was minus two toes. Ever since the accident, there had been rumors circulating about the Lady of the Lake. A ghost with no hands wandering on the bridge in her blue dress trying to find her hands.
It took 32 more years to recover Susie’s body. In November 1990 a construction crew working on the bridge discovered a car with Susie’s remains inside. The mystery was solved, but tales of the Lady of the Lake appearing near the bridge still persist.
Add that to the fact that over the years there have been a disproportionate amount of deaths associated with the lake, ranging from boating accidents, drownings and drivers careening into the water, as well as several unsolved murders, giving the lake a menacing and spooky reputation. According to 2017 article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, since 1994 at least 160 people have died in or around the lake. It’s not hard to see why the local population thinks the lake is cursed.
The stories from accident survivors and near-drowning victims concur that the waters seem to be damned. There are accounts of boats hitting something where there is nothing, watercraft capsizing for no apparent reason and sudden waves without warning. In drowning incidents, the survivors have described the sensation of being pulled under by unseen hands.
Could they be the missing hands of the Lady of the Lake, or could it be the Angel of Death come calling?
For many, the lake’s latest ghost story may be its most frightening. Several eyewitnesses have seen a mysterious ghostly raft piloted by a shadowy specter in the dead of the night. Similar to the boatman on the mythological River Styx, the phantom is holding a lantern and guiding the craft with a pole. The apparition appears out of nowhere before disappearing into the darkness.
5. Manchac Swamp, Louisiana
Nothing is creepier than a swamp. Adrift in the murky water, be on the lookout for snakes, gators and in the Manchac Swamp, the spectral spirit of a voodoo priestess who left behind a death wish that still plagues the swamp to this day.
Located near New Orleans, the Manchac Swamp is a web of waterways through a forest of bald cypress, water tupelo, and freshwater marshes. Its resident ghost is said to be Julia Brown, who before dropping dead in 1915 made a terrifying prediction to the townsfolk, singing, “One day I’m gonna die, and I’m gonna take all of you with me.”
She was true to her word. The day of her funeral a devastating hurricane ripped through the entire village, killing hundreds. So many in fact, that locals claim it’s still common for skeletons to resurface today drifting in the muggy swamp.
“The water was washin’ in the front door,” said Louis Barbier, recounted his experience. “We thought we were gone. All the camps down there are gone. On the big lake, that had big timber, big cypress timber, it was just like a big boar went along there.”
Today, the only thing that remains on the island where Brown’s village once stood is a mass grave where the dead were buried. Over the years, hundreds of people have experienced the sound of a ghostly voice singing Bown’s infamous song.
Both the 2009 A&E special Extreme Paranormal and 2013 SyFy series Haunted Highway believe they caught substantial evidence of the unexplained paranormal activity on camera while filming an episode in the swamp.
6. White Rock Lake, Texas
One of Dallas’s best-known ghost stories is the Lady of the Lake, who haunts White Rock Lake Park. It starts like any late night campfire tale, a young couple on a romantic moonlit drive around the lake encounter a young, beautiful girl dressed in a sheer white dress along the road, dripping wet and soaked from head to foot.
That first account was published in the Texas Folklore Society’s publication, Backwoods to Border, in 1943. Ever since then, the legend of the Lady of the Lake has grown. One account has the apparition as a drowning victim from a boating accident in the 1930s, while another has the lost soul being a distraught bride — a victim of a tragic suicide.
Dallas-area newspapers published reports of ghostly encounters in the 1960s, while on Halloween night in 1985, several psychics held a candlelight vigil trying to contact the Lady without much luck. But if you want to take a drive along the lake, we recommend waterproof seat covers just to be safe.
7. Veterans Lake, Oklahoma
The stories related to Veterans Lake read more like a script from a low-budget Hollywood horror film. A pair of vengeful phantasms wreak havoc by luring unsuspecting people into the water and drowning them after sundown.
As the story goes, back the 1950s a woman was watching her son play in the small man-made lake in what is now the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. The mother, distracted for only a moment, looked up to see that her son had disappeared under the water. Being a good mother she rushed into the lake to save her son, only to be pulled under herself, resulting in them both drowning.
But the story doesn’t end there. A few years later, it was said that another girl drowned in the lake as a result of a boating accident. Nowadays, once the night nears the two apparitions can be seen hovering over the lake searching for their next victims.
Considered one of the most haunted places in all of Oklahoma, the lake often induces a feeling of unease and panic in visitors after the sun sets. Linked to a 2015 murder and kidnapping and a 2009 incident where a man drowned while trying the save the life of a young child that had difficulty swimming, the lake’s reputation for creepiness has only increased.
8. Lake Superior, Minnesota, Michigan & Wisconsin
Mariners say Lake Superior seldom gives up her dead. Icy and cold, it’s called the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes” with harrowing tales of shipwrecks, spooky lighthouses and ghost ships.
While not as famous as the Edmund Fitzgerald, the freighter Canada Steamship Lines SS Kamloops disappeared in 1927 with 22 people onboard while steaming towards Isle Royale. The search continued for the next 50 years before divers found the vessel in 1977. While exploring the engine room, they reported a preserved body that appeared to follow them around the room.
The lake’s lonely lighthouses also produce a wide variety of ghosts. Witnesses at the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse have described the ghostly figure of a girl, seen staring out the upper floor window, peering out at the horizon towards the big lake.
At the Big Bay Point Lighthouse B&B, guests are awakened by the ghost of an elderly groundskeeper wearing Coast Guard attire standing at the foot of their bed in the middle of the night. According to accounts, he is mourning the loss of his son, before then vanishing back into the walls.
Meanwhile at Split Rock Lighthouse, local legend says a visitor in the mid-1980s saw a man in a lightkeeper’s uniform on the catwalk long after the museum had closed for the evening. When he returned the next day, he was told no one was in the tower after hours.
The sight of ghost ships has circulated throughout the big lake’s history. The latest account happened in October of 2016 when Jason Asselin and a friend were taking in the fall foliage in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When they stopped to photograph a gorgeous rainbow over the lake, things got spooky.
“We were looking at it [the rainbow] and noticed the object,” Asselin told CBS News, “I zoomed in and still couldn’t understand what I was seeing. I’ve been there before and never saw it before. It really just didn’t belong there, I’ve seen ships before and it looked nothing like that.”
They watched it for a while before it just disappeared.
9. Spirit Lake, Idaho
Near the Coeur d’Alene, nestled in a scenic mountain valley, Spirit Lake paints a dreamlike view of Shangri-La. Often a veil of mist floats over the lake, intermingling with the dark silhouetted pines standing guard at the water’s edge. It’s a virtual happily-ever-after with the lake’s crystal clear waters and gleaming mountain views.
However, the legend of Spirit Lake doesn’t have a romantic fairytale ending for our two forlorn lovers. They are united only in death, where their spirits now haunt the lake making it one of the spookiest places in Idaho.
The saga has been told for generations of Hya-Pam, the beautiful and faithful girl whose name means Fearless Running Water. She was the daughter of the tribe’s chief and madly in love with one of the tribe’s handsome braves.
But a villainous chieftain from another tribe threatened war if he could not have the lovely Hya-Pam for his very own. Wanting peace for his people, Hya-Pam’s father could only agree.
Now the story from here on has several endings, so pick your favorite.
One says, on the day of the marriage ceremony. Hya-Pam’s true love kills the evil chieftain and rescues her in a canoe. But in their escape across the lake, a rain of arrows fall upon them, killing them both. In another version, Hya-Pam’s true love is killed in the battle as she escapes in a canoe. But seeing he has been killed, she paddles to the middle of the lake and throws her body overboard. Meanwhile, the last story has the two lovers tying themselves together and leaping from Suicide Cliff into the lake, never to be found again.
All the endings of course resulted in the same tragic conclusion, so don’t plan on there being a Disney movie anytime soon. So sad in fact, that the Native Americans changed the name of the lake from “Clear Water” to “Lake of the Spirits” because in the spring they hear mournful and haunting sounds emanating from its shores.
To this day, people often report seeing the two young lovers’ ghostly silhouettes on moonlit nights, paddling the lake in their phantom canoe until it disappears into the mist.
10. Lake Tahoe, California
Rising 150 feet out the water, Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe’s only rocky isle, is found in scenic Emerald Bay on the west shore of the lake. It’s been called many things over the past 100 years; Coquette, Baranoff, Hermit’s, but by far its creepiest name was Dead Man’s Island.
Captain Dick Barter lived on the island in the 1870s. A retired British sea captain, he looked after a railroad tycoon’s five-room summer villa. A recluse who enjoyed the company of drink, he would pilot his dinghy he called The Nancy to Tahoe City or the South Shore to visit the local saloons, often coming back sozzled.
In January 1870, Captain Dick capsized his boat in the chilly waters of the lake.
“The night was of inky blackness, the weather intensely cold, the mercury being many degrees below zero,” Captain Dick told a local reporter, “I knew it was useless to call for help. I also knew if I got in my boat and attempted to reach the shore, I should certainly freeze to death.”
He made it back but ended up amputating his own toes after the harrowing experience.
Fearing the lake had his number, he chiseled a tomb in the island’s granite and erected a wooden chapel and mounted a wooden cross on top. He let it be known to his bar buddies that if it ever happens again and his body washes ashore, he would like to buried on the island.
The lake did in fact have his number and claimed Captain Dick’s life on October 18, 1873, as he was returning from Tom Rowland’s Lake House Saloon. His boat was found smashed to bits against the rocks at Rubicon Point.
They never found his body. His tomb on Dead Man’s Island remains empty to this day. But it is said, on chilly evenings in October when the mist provides an eerie bridge to the isle, the ghost of Captain Dick can be seen rising from the lake’s icy grip and climbing up the steep weathered rock in search of his final resting place on Fannette Island.
11. Stow Lake, California
Of all the sights to see in San Francisco, Golden Gate Park’s Stow Lake is understandably not necessarily at the top of the list. Surprisingly, however, it’s the site of the City by the Bay’s favorite ghost story.
Created in 1893, the 12-acre doughnut-shaped pond is a perfect spot in the daytime for a stroll, a picnic, or pedal boat ride around Strawberry Hill Island. However, for those brave enough to visit after dark, you just might encounter “The White Lady.” Not a shy ghost like most, she will rise out of the lake as a glowing white apparition and in a haunting yet terrified voice, she will ask you only one question, “Have you seen my baby?”
The story is as old as the lake itself. A young mother had brought her baby to the park in a stroller to enjoy the day. Stopping briefly to talk with another woman sitting on a bench, she does not notice that stroller and baby have rolled away from her and into the lake. When she realizes her baby is gone, the scene turns into every parent’s nightmare as she frantically rushes around the lake, searching for the lost child and asking everyone she sees if they have seen her baby. Her horror is only magnified when she comprehends that stroller and baby must be in the lake. She goes into the lake herself and never resurfaces.
The grief-stricken mother is never identified and the only clue that the story could be possibly true comes from a newspaper account. On July 10, 1906, The San Francisco Call reported that two girls living in a nearby camp, set up after the Great Earthquake, said they saw “the naked body of a baby floating” in nearby Lloyd Lake. According to the newspaper, police investigated and even dragged the lake but could find no trace of the body.
Over the past century, the narrative has only grown. A popular urban legend says you can even summon the lady by chanting “White lady, white lady, I have your baby” three times at the water’s edge. Of course, answering her question will lead to either a lifetime of haunting or instant death, so it’s probably not a good idea when you visit.
Although that pedal boat ride sounds fun. But in the daytime of course.
So do you believe in ghosts? Or are they just creepy stories passed down over the years? Whatever the answer is, these tales have become intertwined with the history and lore of the lakes. They have captured our imaginations and provide us an opportunity for a spooky paddling adventure to go see for ourselves.
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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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