In its ability to increase tourism and raise pseudo-scientific research funds, cryptozoology, the study of creatures not yet proven to exist, is a gift that just keeps giving. Within that realm, sightings of elusive lake monsters have been reported worldwide-most frequently in the case of Scotland's legendary Loch Ness monster.
But in resurrecting tales of "Hodgee," the Monster of Lake Hodges, during a hike along that lake's south "shore," San Dieguito River Park (SDRP) volunteer Ron Hall had slightly different intentions. Among SDRP's stated goals are two issues that have particular impact on the region: the preservation of open space and protection of water resources.
As about 30 hikers followed Hall down the sandy Piedras Pintadas Trail, the first question wasn't so much where Hodgee was, but where the water was.
Making a sweeping arm gesture across a wide, brush-filled canyon, Hall said, "This is all water when the lake is full." He added that the last time the lake had overflowed was in 1998 and that ongoing drought conditions account for the lake's currently diminished size.
However, the hikers did eventually reach a waterfall that flows year-round. There, they learned some of Hodgee's sketchy history-much of which, Hall warned, had already been discounted by experts.
It all began in 1916 when, as part of the Lake Hodges project, construction of a dam commenced-to the great consternation of long-time area residents, members of the Kumeyaay tribe. They maintained that building the dam would disturb a monster that lived in the river that fed the lake. Blowing that off as sour grapes, a group of businessmen known as the San Dieguito Mutual Water Company built the dam anyway.
The first sign of trouble occurred in 1921 when two different companies, both contracted to remove rocks from the lake, found pieces of their excavation equipment knocked down on the shoreline. The fact that neither company could successfully prove the other was to blame for the damage led to a suggestion that some unknown creature had come out of the water to wreak havoc. In 1929, Hall said, the mayors of Escondido and San Diego joined forces to investigate the existence of some kind of a monster in Lake Hodges.
Hall mentioned allegations that three years later, Scripps Institute of Oceanography built a cage to capture Hodgee. The cage was baited with living sea lion pups and then submerged, equipped with a camera, into the lake. A subsequent re-inspection of the cage revealed that the cage had been disturbed and the baby sea lions had vanished. A purported photo of Hodgee, while extremely open to interpretation, had been obtained.
Further investigation into the Hodgee phenomenon was quashed when the local citizenry's outrage over the use of sea lion pups pressured the experiment's participants into scrapping their monster hunt.
Hall held up a laminated 8-by-10. In the black-and-white, slightly out-of-focus image, several men wearing old-fashioned clothing stood around and on a house-shaped construction of metal bars. "Scripps disowns [this photo]. They say this didn't happen," Hall said. "You can believe what you want."
Hall explained that, in another drastic move, several tons of poison was dumped into Lake Hodges in 1956. The official motive: to kill off all carp in the lake. But since the poison just as effectively killed off most of the lake's other aquatic life, suspicion arose that the real target may have been any monster that might also be lurking in the waters.
During a 19-year period that started in 1958, claims of Hodgee sightings by lake picnickers and reservoir employees escalated. In the 1970s, an SDSU professor reportedly announced the discovery of an earthquake fault under the lake, which hatched the theory that Hodgee had emerged through a watery abyss within that fault.
But it appears that any doubt concerning the nonexistence of a lake cryptid in San Diego should have been cleared up by now. Two years ago, a local reporter revealed that the "Hodgee" legend was little more than a spoof initiated by a village newsletter and perpetuated by a retired Lake Hodges dam keeper.
To Hall, however, all of that came secondary to getting the message out about SDRP's conservation efforts, as well as the San Diego County Water Authority's Emergency Storage Project. By 2010 the project would replenish the water in Lake Hodges to full capacity. It would also provide for enough emergency storage water to meet San Diego's needs for about four months in the event of a natural disaster.
"This will hold us until 2030," Hall said. After that, "we'll have to do something else."
He then confessed, "I thought by doing a hike on the monster, it would get a good crowd out." Contemplating the idea again, he added, "Hey-there could be a monster there. It's never been proven one way or another."