This eclipse story involves unconfirmed reports of a prehistoric water dragon menacing vacationers at a secluded, but popular vacation spot deep in the Smoky Mountains of far Western North Carolina.
It’s difficult to say what parts are real and what parts born of excess consumption of moonshine and rum punch. What is true includes an epic seven-and-a-half-hour battle between man and beast.
We took two days to drive the eight hours to the lake: my family, my brothers, and two friends from college with their assorted children, in-laws, brothers and significant others. We filled three separate lodgings and met on the dock where fate set into motion events of great import about and around the total solar eclipse.
It was on that dock that the fisherman decided to rig a deep line and angle for one of the big cats that thrive in these dramatic depths.
He left his line out deep overnight, and in the early hours of a Smoky Mountain dawn, all the line had been taken out into the deep green water.
Finished in 1928, the Santeetlah dam is 212 feet high. Great slopes rise thousands of feet, but deep in its murky greenness, the Santeetlah Monster had swallowed an infernal contraption and run until it could run no more. Then it waited as the sun changed the deep black into a deeper twilight green.
It was said it had bested other fishermen before. No one knows how many hooks, swivels and sinkers rusted away in its belly, but the iron it used to strengthen its malign intentions. For the surface dwellers, it bore cold contempt forged in multiple victories.
By 11:20 a.m., he knew it would be a battle of wills and endurance. Just before noon, the monster scored a reprieve as he opened his reel to adjust his position: a critical error. Within seconds, he lost all the line he’d dragged back up, but the monster still was not free.
Slowly he reeled it back in, hunched over his graphite rod.
It’s been said the monster has four rows of black, cast-iron teeth. Purest moonshine coursed through its blood, fueling its contempt for the light. Its time was near, when the moon would blot out the garish sun and the entire lake would belong to the beast.
No one knows how many missing swimmers remains rot in its belly, but the amber alerts sounded throughout the afternoon, even as the Yankee in the white hoodie dragged it out inch by painful inch. Whether it was the beast’s many victories over the years or its indignation at being snagged by a sun-loving northerner, the monster fought viciously, taking line almost as much as it gave.
Santie – or Santy-claws to those who’ve seen its freakish, crook’d fins with long barbed appendages like extra whiskers – fought on. Five hours in and the story of the fight had spread around the lake. Respectful anglers motored by in low idle to glean new details, and flotillas of neighbors paddled just outside of the casting area.
His companions sat vigil with him, or went inside to watch movie after movie as the fight dragged on. But for him, it was just the straining reel and bowed rod – faint line rasping and creaking into the deeps, the angle constant. Some brought him water, iced-tea, cookies, slathered sunblock on his lobster-red neck, bandaged his blistered fingers or lit cigarillos for him and sat in silence as he strained in the sun, back bent, focused on the deep green and the unseen monster beneath. He would not take a libation – to keep his mind clear for the battle.
By 4:20 p.m. he had to stand to continue the fight. It had rendered his crank to useless grinding metal. He was determined the monster must show its face at the very least, but there was no thought of giving up. A lesser fisherman might have cut the line when nobody was looking, even an hour or two in to the fight. But seven hours in, nobody could conceive of giving up.
The monster took less line now, as he twisted the reel manually, inches at a time.
But not all fish stories end with a hearty meal. After seven and a half hours of struggle, the line threw in the towel and the monster was free: beaten and bloodied, but free. The fisherman finally consented to moonshine punch, conceding defeat as his companions howled and talked trash at the still-hidden dragon of the depths. There would be another day, he vowed. The battle lost, but not the war!
The next morning, eclipse day, one of his companions set a shallow line with much less attention or drama to try her luck with simpler creatures nearer to the sunlight.
But that splash!
Like a small child cannonballing, an oblong, dark crescent shape two to three feet long breached the surface just beyond the dock. Had Santie come back to mock them?
The eclipse was just hours away. Companions paddled in a small flotilla, two canoe and too many rings chained together dragging their way towards the dock of battle to encounter the moon’s short victory over the sun. They miscalculated their speed towing tubes, and sat out totality off an uninhabited point, DNR parked nearby staring up in the sky as well.
Then, at 2:36 p.m. the sun set – not in the east as is habit, but right there mid-path, darkening like a sunset in 360 degrees. The beast knew its hour had come and ventured up from the murk to take one more swipe at these contemptuous surface-folk.
As they set off once more into the deep channel, maybe they got their rhythm wrong. Maybe the wake of speedboaters, awakened from their trance of totality, hit the boat sideways at the wrong time, or maybe Santie got one more parting shot in at those arrogant enough to think they could drag him from his sovereign domain.
They found a vacant dock, dumped the excess water and got underway again. Around one more point and home was in sight. The dock where the battle waged was a welcome refuge, it seemed. But the dragon of the depths was not finished with them. One more canoe full of revelers had to dunk into the water before they could reach safety. None would get out unscathed.
Let that be a lesson to those who would take on forces of nature beyond their comprehension. Don’t fish for catfish in Lake Santeetlah during, before or just after a total solar eclipse. You have no idea what you’ll tangle with in that deep, dark green.
Karl Hille lived and breathed local news beat reporting in Greenbelt and the Baltimore/Washington region for more than 12 years until the 2007 recession. While learning and improving the online side of the Baltimore Examiner operations, his platform dropped out from under his feet, then his rebound job at a regional business news magazine downsized him three months later. Now, working for the “dark side” – public communications work by day for the awesome government agency – he is going back to school to find the critical intersection of news, investigation, and the Internet – and re-learning how to be a student while he’s the only guy on campus sporting a fedora.