Arts » Culture

Travels with Sharlie

Idaho’s most enduring monster

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“Along the beaches and on the streets of McCall there is a topic that has taken the number one spot away from the invasion of Europe,” begins an August 6, 1944 column in the Idaho Statesman. It’s an ominous introduction, leading to uneasy questions. What momentous debacle, what horrific catastrophe could possibly overshadow the raging heights of WWII just two months after D-Day? The answer is the emergence of Idaho’s most resilient leviathan; our folkloric (or is it?) gem amongst a treasure trove of mythical history. We can regale visitors with our 500-year-old Spanish miners in Rocky Bar, our ghostly bellmen in the Idanha Hotel and Bigfoots galore in the northern panhandle, but none of these stories are as fervently clung to as that of a Payette Lake “sea” creature by the name of Sharlie.

“We have always known, at least that is what was drumed [sic] into our feeble brain when real small, that sea monsters were supposed to be large overgrown, horrible nightmares,” declared the Payette Lakes Star three days before the Statesman column, “But the talk about town tops all that we have even dreamed of.”

Dreams weren’t the half of it. In July and August of 1944, according to a short article in Time magazine of that year, at least 30 people, “including Republicans and teetotalers,” spotted a scaly cylindrical body attached to a stumpy cow-like head hurtling through the frigid waters of Payette Lake. Loggers had warned of the phenomenon since the 1920s and Native Americans were said to have avoided the lake for fear of an evil spirit, but no one was prepared for the oddity surfacing before them. “Slimy Slim,” as he (alert the Freudians; the wriggling beast is usually cast as male) was labeled outside of McCall, was between 10 and 50 feet long, either brownish-green or “peculiar yellowish” and—here’s the unifying factor—always rose out of the water in a series of humps which every witness could immediately, and decisively, identify as that of a creature generally thought not to exist. “He said it would go down and come up out of the water—really, just like a sea serpent,” knowingly recalls 86-year-old Milford Faylor of Nampa, whose late father, Milford Sr., was one of nine Nampans to witness Slimy on a fateful summer day at a lakeside cabin in 1946. The Faylor’s brush with myth made headlines in Nampa’s Idaho Free Press and the Statesman, but to McCall’s residents such events had become so common as to hardly draw alarm. “It certainly didn’t scare him away from the lake,” Faylor says. “He was really just fascinated by it.”

Milford Sr. wasn’t alone in his rapture. All talk of overgrown nightmares aside, the citizens of McCall exhibited little but affection for their mysterious neighbor—despite rumors that he fed on the unfortunates who drunkenly fell into the lake. As a token of their appreciation—especially for the tourist boon that the beast temporarily provided—the Star held a contest in 1954, complete with a $40 grand prize, to slap a permanent name on Slimy. They received entries from Virginia, Rhode Island and Kuna, and visionary suggestions ranging from “Watzit” to “Nobby Dick,” to “Pleistocene Remnaticus.” The winner, chosen by a panel of eight judges including then-governor Len Jordan, was “Sharlie”—so chosen because of the overwhelming popularity of radio comedian Jack Pearl’s catch phrase as Detective Baron Munchausen, “Vas you dere, Sharlie?” Looking back, it seems an impulsive choice—a modern equivalent would be to name an alien visitor “Bada Bing”—but the moniker has stuck.

What has also stuck, probably beyond the wild hopes of even the most optimistic McCall old-timer, is Sharlie’s ability to slither out of all attempts to be explained away. From the first time his name appeared in print, the word “sturgeon” appeared right after, but the suggestion petered away as inconsistent witness accounts of the familiar scaly humps popped up throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Landlocked whales, elephant seals, families of moose, wave formations and even mutant trout have also been offered up, but usually half-heartedly (although for a bizarre period in 1947, McCall’s town leaders were convinced enough to consider crossbreeding Sharlie with Kamloops trout and seeding lakes statewide with the offspring). A 1980 report by a biologist at Bloomsberg State College in Bloomsberg, Pennsylvania, concluded outright (and without eyewitness) that Sharlie was indeed an as-of-yet unheralded species—albeit one at the brink of extinction. But McCall residents needed, and still need, no report to tell them how special their unofficial mascot is. “We believe in Sharlie because no one has ever been able to prove she does not exist,” explains Tom Grote, editor of the Star News in McCall and writer of the few Sharlie-sighting stories to pop up throughout the 1980s and ’90s (as well as a believer in the serpent’s femininity). “Until that time, we will assume she is real. That is only fair.” Grote reports seeing Sharlie’s dexterous spine surface “numerous times” from calm water during his tenure at the paper, but more than that, he claims to “love” her to this day—to the point of creating a “Vote Sharlie in 2004” snow sculpture in the last McCall Winter Carnival. Blame the seductive power of legend, blame naiveté or whatever you want; people, amazingly, are still not afraid of Sharlie.

“Of course I didn’t have any fear. I was just fascinated,” recalls Kate Wolf of Boise, who made local news in 1996 for spotting humps “with peaks like the back of a dinosaur” and chasing them across the lake in a pontoon boat to get a better view. The verdict: “I knew I saw Sharlie. There was no doubt. Nobody could tell me this is a log, a moose or a giant sturgeon. It was something incredible—and why not?”

It remains as appropriate a sentiment as it was in 1944. No good monster history can have an official end, and likewise, every monster historian must feature a streak of gonzo journalist, and I am no exception. So on a late October afternoon, in the middle of winter’s waking flurry, I purchased a growler of Secesh Scottish Ale from McCall Brewing Company (in honor of Sharlie’s Loch Ness heritage) and wound a single lonely orbit around Payette Lake. I passed anti-littering signs with drawings of a grinning, bucktoothed Sharlie and multimillion-dollar cabins along “Old Sharlie Lane.” I passed Sylvan Beach on the Payette’s western shore, Sharlie’s early hangout, and ended up on another beach along the northern shore—the exact location of Wolf’s encounter. Half-drunk, half-frozen, all scared of the impending snowstorm, I saw nothing—though each whitecap leapt with the promise to pierce my soulless cynicism. Maybe the water was too rough, too cold, too watched. In any case, while the humps escaped prying lenses once again, I knew I could find legions of sympathetic ears in local watering holes, and that is probably the point. “It’s really remarkable,” Wolf says. “Those people up there—they really believe. They have no doubt.”

For scads of information about Sharlie visit the McCall Public Library or the Central Idaho Historical Museum.

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