Haunted Waters: America’s Scariest Places to Paddle

haunted paddles
Courtesy Nick Carlson

“Nothing in nature is that even; man is the inventor of straight edges.”

    — Stephen King

It’s only in the daylight when we see our waterway playgrounds with wonder and magic. Our favorite lakes offer us that nostalgic serenity we recall from our summers as youths. We look to the bends in wild rivers, leading us on to either the rumble of rapids or floating lazily in the sun. And who doesn’t love a day by the sea while watching those mighty waves crash against the shore?

Yes, yes, we will take ease near the water in light of day, where are our imaginations and our innermost fears are not exploited by the sun.

Yet it’s in the night when those comforting waters and whimsical shorelines can turn foreboding. With each whisper of sound or shadow in the moonlight, our perceptions of uncertainty, dread, and fear can bewitch us.

In Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows, a novella about an adventurous canoe trip down the River Danube, it’s the night that turns frightful when the mysterious forces emerge from within the forest creating disturbing sounds and bizarre shadows.

“I felt of dread was no ordinary ghostly fear,” the narrator tells us, “It was infinitely greater, stranger, and seemed to arise from some dim ancestral sense of terror more profoundly disturbing than anything I had known or dreamed of. We had “strayed,” as the Swede put it, into some region or some set of conditions where the risks were great, yet unintelligible to us; where the frontiers of some unknown world lay close about us.”

So what’s out there enshrouded in or along the watery brink? Is it a ghostly presence from the past? A spirit wandering lost or a phantom bent on destruction.

Or is it just a concoction of some old scary tales meant to make us cringe and look over shoulders in apprehension on a cool October night. What do you believe?

So whether you’re daring or doubtful here are few of our nation’s haunted waters you might want to paddle (if you’ve got the nerve), this Halloween or anytime, for your opportunity to see a ghost.

SequinIsland

Seguin Island Lighthouse, Maine

Coastal and Great Lakes lighthouses are filled with rich histories of triumph and tragedy. Stories from these desolated posts have shown both amazing courage as well as madness and murder. Due to the latter, it’s no wonder so many lighthouses are considered haunted.

The Seguin Island Lighthouse located off the southern coast of Georgetown, Maine is no exception.

Commissioned by George Washington in 1795, the lighthouse was rebuilt in 1819, replacing its original wooden tower with stone and then again in 1857 this time installing a bright powerful Fresnel lens into its tower on top of a rocky speck of land about two miles out to sea.

Considered one of the most haunted places in New England, scary tales abound about this lonely beacon.

Witnesses have reported having seen the ghost of a young girl who is said to be buried not far from the lighthouse grounds. They say, she has been seen running up and down the stairs of the tower, laughing and waving.

There are other accounts that the ghost of lighthouse’s first keeper John Polereczky, nicknamed the Old Captain is still seen about the outpost at sea.

The story says Polereczky died penniless on the island in 1804 and ever since has haunted the tower and the keepers who came after him.

In 1985, while in process of decommissioning the lighthouse and packing up the place, the apparition of the Old Captain appeared at the bed of the warrant officer warning him not to take the furniture and to leave his home alone.

The very next day, the boat that was to carry that cargo back to the mainland, was sunk in a freak accident while being loaded with that very same furniture.

But perhaps the most frightening story is that of the lighthouse keeper and his wife.

To stave off the loneliness and monotony for his wife, the keeper ordered a piano to their island outpost. She was delighted, but unfortunately, she couldn’t play without sheet music which she had only one.

Only able to play one song, she played it again and again and again, until eventually, it drove the lighthouse keeper insane. In a fit of madness, he took an ax and chopped the piano to bits. Then in his rage, he turned on his poor wife and killed her.

Realizing the ghoulish deed that he had just committed, he then took his own life too.

Ever since it’s been said, that on foggy nights you can still hear that ghostly piano playing across the waves while both mariners and former keepers have claimed to have seen the ghost of the lightkeeper walking toward the sound carrying an ax.

HessianLake

Hessian Lake, New York

The Knickerbocker state is a bastion for ghostly tales and haunted places. Following the Hudson River upstream from New York City, you will come across the town of Sleepy Hollow where Washington Irving penned his classic tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman.

Keeping following the river even farther and you will reach Bear Mountain State Park and Hessian Lake, perhaps the inspiration for the Hessian soldier looking for his head.

Hessian Lake is a peaceful crystalline body of water that sits at the base of the mountain. While no swimming is allowed, the lake is a perfect spot for kayaks and canoes. And because of the story of how the lake got its name, many folks wouldn’t care to take a dip in it anyway.

During the Revolutionary War, British Redcoats and German Hessian auxiliaries soldiers engaged American Patriots in a fierce battle along the lake and river. The Americans held the ground behind a stockade wall and detachment of Hessian chasseurs led the charge to capture the fort. Repulsed, again and again, the Hessians and Redcoats eventually overwhelmed the Patriots, but at a great cost.

According to local legend, some 250 Hessians fell during the battle and their bodies and body parts were then cast into the lake. It was said, it turned the water red with blood, prompting it soon to be called “Bloody Lake.”

Timothy Dwight who went on to become President of then Yale College revealed the horrors of the lake after visiting its battlefield, “We found, at a small distance from Fort Montgomery, a pond of moderate size in which we saw the bodies of several men who had been killed in the assault upon the fort. They were thrown into this pond, the preceding autumn, by the British when probably the water was sufficiently deep enough to cover them. Some were covered at this time but at a depth so small as to leave them distinctly visible. Others had an arm, a leg, a part of the body above the surface … Their faces were bloated and monstrous and their postures were uncouth and distorted.”

Years later, the name of the lake was eventually be changed to Hessian Lake, but the creepiness it seems has to have never left.

Ghost hunter Alexandria Holzer, told the local paper in 2016, “There are a lot of lost souls in that area.”

Many folks have claimed to see uniformed Hessian spirits roaming the lake’s shoreline at night. One even reported specter with missing limbs and glowing eyes.

Of course, that would rule out our Headless Horseman.

 

Beaver Lake & The French Broad River, North Carolina

While enjoying a leisurely paddle along the edge of Beaver Lake, don’t be surprised if you catch sight of beavers, turtles, osprey and maybe a ghost or two.

Man-made Beaver Lake near Asheville, N.C. is said to have a reputation for ghostly activity after a number of drownings and apparent suicides that have occurred there.

According to local folklore, the lakeshore is haunted by two spirits. One is believed to be that of a young man who drowned in the 1970s, while the other is that of a young woman who is thought to have committed suicide. She is said to be seen on the dam looking down over the water.

While the ghosts of Beaver Lake seem to be lost in sadness, the Siren of the French Broad River is bent on fiendishness.

Formed some 300 million years ago, the French Broad River is one of the oldest rivers in the world as it flows through Asheville, featuring great hiking and biking unlimited paddling opportunities, that is as long as you can avoid the siren.

Based on a Cherokee legend, the Siren of the French Broad River seems as old as the river itself. The story first appeared in 1845 and was later retold in Charles Montgomery Skinner’s 1896 Myths and Legends of Our Own Land.

The tale involves a beautiful dark-skinned and dark-haired woman who enchants her young lovers to the upper reaches of the river that are filled with rapids and whirlpools. Luring them ever closer and closer to the water, she appears to them in the nude at the water edge. When reaching for her, her warm skin suddenly becomes scaly and cold and her face turns into a grinning skull of death. A loud, devilish laugh rings through the forest as her victim is yanked under the water, never to be seen again.

Blackwater River, Florida

The Blackwater River is considered a favorite spot for canoeing, kayaking, and camping in Flordia’s panhandle. Streaming through undeveloped lands, paddling the river is said to be like going through beautiful tropical rainforest. But beware, for the Blackwater has two mysterious and sinister residents in its mist.

Locals will warn you to be careful when taking a dip. They say that there’s a deathly pale-looking woman with long jet-black hair smelling of rotting flesh who will drag you under the water attempting to drown you in the river. So far only a lucky few have escaped her vile clutches.

While in Blackwater River State Park, a woman wearing a long white gown covered with blood is said to appear near the oldest white Atlantic cedar tree in the park. Legend says she was sacrificed there in a bloody ritual.

Rumors now say, that people who visit the spot experience chills and have the feeling of being suffocated as results of all sacrificial rituals that took place there.

And one final warning. If you do see this ghostly woman is white, don’t look in her eyes and runway. Otherwise, you could be next.

 

Tombigbee River

Tombigbee River, Alabama

Tales of ghost ships and phantom vessels are common folklore along both coast and the Great Lakes. Fleeting images of ships disappearing into the fog have been reported by sailors and beachcombers alike.

Over the years, witnesses have reported seeing “The Phantom Steamboat of the Tombigbee” fully engulfed in flames along the shore of Alabama’s Tombigbee River near Pennington, Alabama.

Side-wheeled paddle steamer Eliza Battle, was the most luxurious riverboats on the river until disaster claimed her on a cold winter night.

On March 1, 1858, she was fully loaded with more than 1,200 bales of cotton and carrying 101 passengers and crew when a fire broke out on the main deck. Panic ensued as the blaze spread over the boat. Passengers mostly in their nightclothes could only escape the flames by leaping into the icy river waters.

In the end, what was left of the ship sank leaving somewhere between 26 to 33 people dead due to mostly exposure in the freezing water.

Soon after the disaster, ghost stories began to circulate of witnesses seeing the ill-fated “Eliza Battle” ablaze again near the place where she sank accompanied by screams of people begging to be rescued. The sightings of the burning steamers are to happen mostly on cold and windy nights.

 

Tower Rock

Mississippi River, Missouri & Illinois

From its source up in Minnesota all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico the Mississippi River is brimming with bigger-than-life stories and legends and of course, ghostly yarns.

And nowhere is the river most haunted than from Grand Tower, Illinois to just past Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

According to the local folklore, the paranormal activity likely stems from the two massive boat accidents and one spooky reunion at Tower Rock.

On an October night in 1869, the steamship Stonewall was traveling on the river when in caught fire in what became one of the worst disasters on the river.

It’s estimated that the death toll was somewhere between 200 to 300. But, nobody knows for sure because the passenger list was burned up with the steamboat.

Witnesses reported watching The Stonewall burn for nearly two hours before sinking into the river on that eerily dark and quiet.

Seventeen years later on another October night, the steamboat Mascotte’s boiler exploded in engulfing that ship in a fire. Eyewitnesses said, as the fire raged, the ship’s smokestack fell over the gangplank, trapping passengers attempting to escape. All in all, the river disaster claimed 35 lives.

Psychics say the spirits of the dead in these disasters still remain to this day. They have told of seeing the ghosts of these tragic ship fires making lonely pilgrimages back to the water from the local cemetery and of seeing unearthly hands and fingers reaching out of the dark river water.

And it’s also not uncommon for barge captains and crews to observe unexplainable lights bouncing across the water and hearing ghostly screams and cries for help while passing through the spooky stretch of river.

The nearby Tower Rock offers even more supernatural lore for the Big Muddy. The 60-foot rock formation has been a silent sentinel along the river throughout its history. Boatmen would celebrate passing by it with a drink of good cheer. River pirates used it as an ambush spot, and Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis & Clark Expedition would write about its peril: “strong currents thus meeting each other form an immense and dangerous whirlpool which no boat dare approach in that state of the water … ”

But the spookiest story of the rock happened in 1839 when an entire wedding party’s boat got caught in a giant whirlpool and sucked under the muddy waters. Only one slave survived.

On that very day, a baby niece to the groom was born and given the same name as the bride. And 20 years later to celebrate her birthday, she holds a party upon Tower Rock.

And as the story goes, the gathering was suddenly astonished when members of the wedding party arise out of the Mississippi River and present her with a mysterious parchment scroll forewarning her of the Civil War. After delivering the prophetic message the entire ghostly group once again disappeared into the murky waters of the river.

Yampa River

Yampa River, Colorado 

Stories of boaters encounter with La Llorona or The Weeping Woman have been told along river banks all the way from Montana to New Mexico. And, nowhere does legend live more than on the shores of Colorado’s Yampa River, where the folktale warns, that if you hear La Llorona crying, you must run away as fast as you can.

The legend of The Weeping Woman has been a part of Hispanic culture in the Southwest dating back to the conquistadores. It is said, that La Llorona was the most beautiful girl in the village with long flowing black hair. She was very poor until she married a rich man. She loved him very much and blesses him with many children. But she is heartbroken when she finds out he was unfaithful. In her despair or jealous rage, she takes her children to the river cast each one of them into the river.

It’s only then, when she sees her young children sinking into the current of the river, that she regrets her madness and rushes toward the water to save them. But, as the story goes, she either falls, striking her head or drowns suffering the same fate as her children.

And in death, her remorseful soul must now wander the shores of the river alone weeping for her children.

River boaters to this day, say they have heard her wailing along the river canyons. Wearing gown white, she is said to roam the rivers and creeks perpetually crying for her children.

It’s also been told, that she is to be feared because some believe she will drag an unsuspecting victim and drown them in a watery grave like she did to her children.

 

yellowstone lake
The abandoned steamship E.C. Waters – the largest ever to ply Yellowstone Lake – fell into disrepair in the early 1900s on the shore of Stevenson Island in Yellowstone National Park. The boiler was removed in 1926 and was used to heat the Lake Hotel for 46 years.

Yellowstone Lake & The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, Wyoming

It’s not surprising that the oldest and most famous national park abounds with legends, myths, and tall tales, but did you ever think that Yellowstone National Park was haunted too? And by the number of ghost stories reported in the park, bears aren’t the only to look out for.

Two of the park’s folklore favorites come from Yellowstone Lake and the Lower Falls.

Paddle out on to Yellowstone Lake, the park’s largest body of water and you may come across the small and uninhabited Stevenson Island which some folks say is haunted.

The skeletal remains of the wrecked E.C. Waters steamboat lay beached along the island’s shore, but if that not creepy enough there is a story about the body of a drowned frontiersman who appears lying facedown nearby.

As told in S.E. Schlosser’s Creepy Yellowstone, in 1929 a park worker checking out the island stumbled upon a body clan in buckskin looking like a fur trapper from the prior century.

“I turned the body over and stared into a pair of bulging brown eyes on a blue-white face,” said the worker in his account, “And then, in between one breath and the next, the body vanished. Suddenly my hand was gripping empty air instead of an old-fashioned jacket.

Spooked by the episode, The park worker quickly left the island on his boat saying, “No more ghosts for me!”

Yellowstone falls

And even older ghostly tale dates back to 1870s when a group of Native Americans being pursued militiamen for stealing horses was swept over the 70-foot falls of the Lower Yellowstone.

As S.E. Schlosser told it in Creepy Yellowstone, the small band of Native Americans was no match for the well-armed militia. They hastily constructed a raft to cross the river above the falls in an attempt to getaway.

In a hail of bullets, men and women of the tribes’ raft along with stolen horses swimming alongside were swept downstream in spite of their best paddling efforts.

The doomed craft moved closer and closer to the falls, “carrying the wailing women and the unmoving braves, who began chanting a soft death-song.”

In silence, the members of the militia watched as the raft and slipped over the edge of the falls disappearing into the roaring white foam with its human cargo.

And to this day, it’s said, that when you stand on the platform at the brink of the Lower Falls of Yellowstone, you can still hear the voices of the chanting warriors singing their death song over the roar of the falls. And sometimes, the river water flows with a red tinge, as if stained with blood.


The Great Salt Lake, Utah

The creepy tale of Jean Baptiste is a ghoulish one indeed. A gravedigger in Salt Lake City, Baptiste was discovered to have been stealing clothes and jewelry from the bodies he had buried.

Over three years, Baptiste was said to have robbed the graves of more than 300 people, stripping them of clothing and possessions, before dumping their naked bodies back in the caskets.

The public was outraged for such a loathsome crime, but the case didn’t call for his hanging. But even so, the local authorities devised an especially cruel punishment. First, his forehead was marked with the sentence, “Branded For Robbing The Dead.” Next, his ears were cut off, and then so no one would ever have to look at him again, he was banished to a remote island in the Great Salt Lake.

Baptiste was paddled out to Fremont Island, the lake’s third-largest island on its eastern side and pretty much left there to die.

Weeks past before authorities came to check up on Baptiste but found no sign of him anywhere.

There was speculation that he built a makeshift raft and drown in the lake while trying to escape, while another story says, vengeful citizens came island to exact their own justice. Years later, it was said, hunters found a skeleton believed to be Baptiste’s with leg irons.

All that matters is, he was never seen alive again. His ghost, however, still haunts the and the great lake.

It’s been reported that the ghastly apparition of Jean Baptiste has been spotted along the lakeshore carrying an armful of wet and rotting deadmen’s clothes before walking toward the water and then disappearing into thin air.

Cannon Beach, Oregon

At the northwest corner of Oregon, you’ll find the idyllic coastal town of Cannon Beach offering windswept beaches, stunning coastline views and of course its share of spine-tingling tales

The Argonauta Inn Beach House is said to be haunted by the spectral presence of Genghis Hansel.

No one seems to know anything about him except he was a guest of the hotel before he disappeared without a trace during a storm in 1952. Today’s hotel patrons have reported feeling his foreboding presence while staying there. Our guess is, he must have really liked the room service.

About the same time that Genghis Hansel’s ghost started spooking the beach house, The Bandage Man, began scaring the out of the area’s teenagers at the secluded makeout spot along the beach.

Apparently, the “The Bandage Man” completely kills the mood when he shows up in the rearview mirror completely wrapped in bandages and smelling of rotting flesh.

Said to be a victim of some terrible sawmill accident, the phantom shakes and pounds on the car or truck doors and windows causing the young couples to scream in terror.

In some stories, he quickly disappears, while in others, after the couples escape by driving back to town, it’s only then they discover the bloody fingerprints on their vehicle’s door and windows.

So what do you believe? Are these just creepy stories passed down over the years? Or are there really ghostly spirits out there. Whatever you believe, these tales have become intertwined with the history and lore of these waterways. They have captured our imaginations and provide us with an opportunity for a spooky paddling adventure to go see it for ourselves. But, only if you dare. 

Happy Halloween.

— Read more from Carlson’s Outside Adventure to the Max blog, plus previous work that’s appeared on C&K, including his op-ed reflecting on the 2018 kayaking tragedy on Lake Superior, and 6 Hollywood Movies with Thrilling Whitewater Scenes.

 

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