The Lucky Peak Sea Monster, 2016 Judge’s Choice

By Pete McQuade

Marine biologist Dr. Dmitri Alexeivich Volgarov was a patriot. He detested himself for having ever thought he could be anything else.

Especially a defector.

Surely by now, the secret police, the KGB, would have ransacked his apartment in Moscow and hauled away his beloved wife and bright, promising young son, who should have someday become his protégé. The two CIA agents managing their escape had been gunned down in a cafe in Leningrad. Volgarov shuddered; there would be nothing to go back to but torture and death. Paradoxically, he’d also come to realize that he could never betray his country. Nor could he ever serve the imperialist Americans, whose spies had preyed on his resentment over his brother’s imprisonment and death in a Soviet “re-education” camp.

The Americans had spirited him away to Finland three nights before, along with two heavy wooden casks falsely labeled as containing pungent cheese. He was now a traitor. The only honorable way out was to destroy himself and the hideous creatures he had begotten in his military laboratory to render enemy lakes and rivers unusable without poisoning them.

It was now or never, as the unpressurized, four-propeller U.S. Navy R5D transport plane droned and bounced its way above a solid layer of angry clouds over the desert of the northwestern United States. He snatched the sleeping guard’s sidearm and pumped a single bullet into the man’s heart. Seconds later, he burst into the cockpit and dispatched the four-man flight crew. As the airplane began its plunge into the clouds, Dmitri Volgarov hailed his motherland and cast a final, disdainful glance back into the cargo hold, at the Americans’ massive, pressurized metal aquarium tank that held the fruits of the past ten years of his life. Closing his eyes, he envisioned his wife and son. Then he fired the gun into his temple.

The sudden hellish whine of the straining propellers startled a logging-truck driver threading a rain-soaked Idaho mountain road. He gasped as a silver hulk burst out of the rainy overcast. A gigantic geyser erupted when the airplane smashed into the frigid water of a reservoir ironically named “Lucky Peak.”

The driver’s eyewitness report to the sheriff’s office was dated April 3, 1958. The Navy’s top-secret investigation was completed three months later—and almost immediately forgotten amid America’s hysteria over the Soviet Union’s development of Sputnik satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

****

Since 2013, Ida the Lucky Peak Sea Monster had become the darling of the media, overshadowing even Scotland’s Nessie. So I wasn’t surprised by the article at the bottom of page 3 of The Washington Post as I endured the jolting, screeching, elbow-to-elbow DC Metro ride to the Pentagon that rainy Monday. Just the latest Ida sighting—the eighth in two years, the article noted—this time by a retired schoolteacher out for a sailboat ride. Earlier “eyewitness” accounts had variously described a ponderous, horse-headed creature with glowing red eyes, a green space alien, and a writhing, ten-foot-long brown serpent. But the latest sighting was even more fanciful—long, disembodied octopus tentacles floating on the surface. An octopus? Even I knew there are no freshwater octopuses. I snickered and folded the newspaper. What won’t people stoop to, for fifteen minutes of fame?

A week later, over a dry tuna sandwich in my cubicle inside a secure vault, I fought off a wave of drowsiness by grabbing a folder of tattered papers that had been palmed off on me by my officemate, Captain Fred Stockton, when he retired. The folder had once been stamped “Top Secret” in bold red letters. Now, almost six decades later, the contents were “Unclassified.” Bored and curious, I decided to glance at the papers just once before surrendering them for shredding, the usual fate of unnecessary documents in our office.

Halfway through the first yellowed report, my jaw dropped and my mind whirled. The Lucky Peak Sea Monster might be real, after all. If so, it was dangerous, perhaps deadly. My uneasy gut told me it would soon become my responsibility.

A mid-level civilian in the Office of Naval Systems Analysis, I enjoyed the comfortable routine of a government mathematician. But after I told my supervisor about the Lucky Peak Incident of 1958, the skeptical hierarchy quickly concluded that I was the least urgently-needed analyst and assigned me to investigate the sea monster matter and ensure a quick, quiet conclusion to it. Apparently, my one college course in marine biology qualified me as an expert. Fortunately, I’d be assisted by Chief Petty Officer Brueton “Bart” Randolph, a square-jawed, barrel-chested master diver experienced in deep-sea salvage. We had met only once, at an office Christmas party, where his impressive capacity at the rum-punch bowl rivaled his booming command of Shakespearian scripts. Bart’s diving-safety buddy would be Petty Officer Natalie “Red” Herring, a soft-spoken, wiry Alabama woman who’d grown up diving in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the flight to Boise, I thumbed through the old papers and pored over the U.S. Geological Survey’s topographic maps of Lucky Peak Lake, memorizing the depth charts’ sinuous patterns.

We drove straight from the airport to the reservoir, several miles southeast of town, to reconnoiter the place. The stately earth-and-gravel dam was nestled among rolling hills carpeted with brown desert grass and dotted with gray-green sagebrush. The few scattered pines were stragglers from the forested mountain ridges miles upstream. To my big-city eyes, the summer sky was impossibly blue, from horizon to horizon. The silence was broken only by the soft lapping of the lake water and the occasional shriek of a hawk protesting our intrusion.

The next day, we set about locating the wreckage of the R5D. According to the old reports, the Navy’s recovery effort had been hampered because the mangled airplane was strewn about the bottom, 200 feet down. They had barely been able to retrieve the bodies. Chillingly, the pilots and four others had been shot at close range. The Soviet scientist-defector had apparently been a double agent. The pressurized cylindrical stainless-steel aquarium tank—the real focus of the search—was never found. With their time and budget evaporating, the searchers gave up, concluding that the tank’s contents, hundreds of hatchlings from a grotesque Soviet military experiment to develop a deadly strain of squid that could live in fresh water, could never have survived the shock of impact. Thus, the missing tank was no danger to the community. Now, nearly 60 years later, I was hell-bent on finding it, desperately hoping it hadn’t been breached and the baby cephalopods had all died within. Then we could go back home and forget the sea monster silliness.

We departed the Spring Shores Marina in a rented motorboat that we jury-rigged with a Navy side-scan sonar. GPS directed us to the coordinates listed in the 1958 search report. Even if the wreckage had drifted, it couldn’t have gone far in the modest, four-square-mile lake. And our sonar and laptop computer were light-years beyond the capabilities of the original search team.

Two hours later, we were anchored above the airplane’s remains. My spine tingled at the laptop’s first sonar image of the R5D’s contorted, dismembered metal carcass lying in the silt. In mid-afternoon, Bart and Red donned their dry suits and trimix tanks and jumped into the water. Floating there, Bart verified the radio connections by bellowing out a line from Hamlet. Then they slipped beneath the surface.

Thirty minutes later, Bart’s head bobbed out of the water, followed by Red’s. As we huddled around the laptop, they pointed to various features they’d seen on the bottom with the aid of their powerful flashlights, a necessity in the gloomy murk. They went under three more times that day.

At 11:10 the next morning, Bart and Red surfaced from the second dive of the day, and we uploaded their photos to the computer. My heart sank to the bottom of the reservoir. There was the aquarium tank—crushed on one end and split open in the middle. We wouldn’t be going home anytime soon.

That evening, over smoky chorizo sausages in a Basque pub, we debated whether it was conceivable that any of the “squidlings” had survived the crash, adapted to the reservoir’s environment, found food, grown to maturity, and reproduced through many generations of 3-5 year life spans, so that these freaks would inhabit Lucky Peak Lake today. After our third round of beer, we boisterously agreed it was impossible.

That night, I awoke in a sweat, having dreamed I was in the clutches of a giant squid.

We dedicated the next day to gleaning every scrap of information about the eight Ida sightings. No east-coast bureaucracy, the sheriff’s office was impressively cooperative. They had recently chalked up the four reports of a large horse-headed creature to a fraternity prank, in which a carousel horse “liberated” from the Western Idaho Fair was towed on oversized water skis behind a motorboat on a moonlit, alcohol-boosted night. The rope snapped and the horse was hastily abandoned. It drifted for months, bobbing just under the surface and making occasional brief appearances.

The green space-alien monster was the fabrication of a local eccentric who also claimed intimate knowledge of an impending invasion of southern Idaho by galactic troopers from Saturn’s moon Titan.

The two sightings of a long brown sea serpent were possibly a sturgeon rumored to have been illegally transplanted from the nearby Snake River, where the harmless giants can top 600 pounds. Authorities were on the lookout for the supposed culprit. Sturgeon had never lived in the reservoir, and the potential effects on the ecosystem were disturbingly unknown.

Naturally, the tabloid media and reality shows were skeptical of all these explanations, preferring instead to feed the myth of Ida, a name coined by one of their own.

Nevertheless, the sheriff’s investigators still couldn’t explain the schoolteacher’s report of octopus-like tentacles, and were inclined to attribute it to an optical illusion, poor eyesight, or simply buoyant debris. But they listened open-mouthed to my story of Dmitri Volgarov’s creation. Certainly, someone could mistake squid tentacles for an octopus’s. A deputy cursed when I added that Volgarov’s squid had been cross-bred with the venomous, ten-foot long, red-ringed Kamchatka variety.

“Something else bothers me,” I said. “If there are squid, we don’t know what tore the tentacles off this one. There could be something else out there.”

We agreed to meet on the lake the next day, at the scene of the tentacle sighting. The sheriff and several deputies, including two local divers, would accompany Bart, Red, and me. The sheriff stressed that the schoolteacher had drifted into a part of the reservoir that was off-limits to boating, swimming, and scuba diving, because of its proximity to the dam’s underwater discharge tunnel.   As if that weren’t hazardous enough, if we did encounter squid, the deep bottom-dwellers wouldn’t be accustomed to humans. I didn’t sleep well that night.

The small cove on the southwestern shore would be perfect for a picnic. There were a few small shade trees and the water was a turbid green that matched the sagebrush on the hillsides. The sheriff’s boat was anchored a few feet from ours, and within minutes, Bart and Deputy Tasha Thomas were treading water. Each carried a harpoon gun and a flashlight. After conversing for a moment, the two nodded and checked their radio connection to both boats. Satisfied, Bart gave a thumbs-up, and they disappeared, their presence indicated only by their breathing bubbles breaking the surface. Red and I anxiously followed their progress via the sonar images projected on my laptop screen.

When they’d descended to about 100 feet, a cloud of green sparkles suddenly appeared on the screen. A school of large fish was swimming upwards to join them.

Tasha Thomas’s voice on the radio shattered the silence. “Good Lord, look at that! Time to surface, Bart. We’ve seen what we came for.”

“Yeah, we’re outta…” He never finished the sentence. The radio was filled with groaning and labored breathing. Then silence.

“They’re attacking him!” Thomas shouted.

“Surface now!” the sheriff bellowed, hunched over his own sonar screen. “What are they?”

“Squid! A whole school of ‘em. Maybe fifty. Big. Eight…maybe ten feet long. I’ve got to help him!”

“No, Deputy. Surface now! That’s an order.”

Red Herring, crouching next to me in her diving gear, would have jumped in had I not grabbed her arm. I called to Bart at the top of my lungs. I could see him on the screen, a hundred feet down, engulfed by the cloud of Dmitri Volgarov’s monsters, but the radio remained silent.

I almost didn’t notice the large green dot rushing toward the cloud.

The sheriff’s voice became steady and calm. “Surface now, Tasha. You can’t help him.” Suddenly he jabbed a finger at the screen. “What’s this thing? Moving like a bat outta hell. Surface, Tasha!”

The green dot slashed through the cloud, splitting it in half.   Within seconds, the dot circled back and plunged in again. The cloud evaporated into scores of single dots, all heading in different directions, back toward the bottom.

A deputy on the boat gasped. “Jeez, what is that thing? Fast as a torpedo! And huge!”

Deputy Thomas’s voice crackled over the radio, “There’s a lot of squid ink here, but I can see Bart now. I’m going back after him.”

“Wait,” the sheriff said. “That big fish is circling him. Like a shark. This is crazy.”

“I see it, boss. Yeah it’s circling Bart. Getting closer to him.”

“Is it attacking?”

“No. It seems to be…I dunno. Kind of protecting him.”

“What kind of fish is it, Tasha?”

“It’s a sturgeon. I caught one once. They’re gigantic but harmless, at least to humans. Obviously not so friendly to squid. I think it’s rammed a couple of them. They look dead.”

“So it’s true,” the sheriff mumbled. “Some idiot transplanted a sturgeon in here.” He spoke softly into the radio, “Go ahead…but be careful. Who knows what it’ll do outside its natural environment?” He nodded to Red and a deputy in scuba gear and they splashed into the water.

I last saw Bart in the Navy hospital in Bremerton, Washington. He’d lost an arm, but had survived the excruciating skin lesions and venom-induced shock. In a raspy voice, he pledged we’d meet at the next office party in DC.

The Idaho Fish and Game Department transplanted three more sturgeon to Lucky Peak, to eradicate the colony of squid. The giant fish, all neutered, carry small tracking radios. There’s no plan to re-capture them for return to the Snake River. Instead, they’ll live out their lives and die in about fifty years—returning Lucky Peak to its original, sea monster-less splendor. The strategy was the brainchild of the “culprit” who’d transplanted the sturgeon that saved Bart’s life. A middle-aged marine biologist from Hungary: Yuri Volgarov. Dmitri’s son.