You’ve heard of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, but have you heard of the monster of Wallowa Lake? According to Nez Perce legend, a giant sea creature — up to 20 feet long — inhabits the depths of this sparkling lake in the northeastern corner of Oregon, on the edge of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in an area nicknamed the Swiss Alps of Oregon.
There’s only one way you can see if the legend of Wally, as it’s nicknamed by locals, is true. JO Paddle (which stands for Joseph, Oregon), a family-run paddling outfitter that launched in fall 2018, offers a guided two-hour Wallowa Lake Monster Expedition that takes visitors out under the cloak of darkness, with just the lights of the glass-bottom kayak to illuminate the way.
“It’s pretty spooky out there, especially when you go over the legend,” says Robert Nichols, who opened the business with his wife, Tia, after moving to Oregon from Georgia in 2016. “It’s kind of like going on a Bigfoot hunt in the woods.”
While visitors can rent the glass-bottom kayaks as well as canoes and paddleboards to take out on their own in the daytime, the nighttime tours offer a one-of-a-kind experience, Nichols says, noting that he’s not aware of any other such tour in the Pacific Northwest.
Nighttime is when fish tend to be most active, and the boats are customized with 500 watts of lighting to allow paddlers to get a clear, brightly lit view of the bottom.
The tours leave from the north end of the lake, opposite the marina, and cover about a quarter of the lake at a slow and steady pace, allowing visitors to soak up the views above and below the crystal-clear surface.
Underwater, “they can see all the different beautiful rainbows of colors of granite from the mountain, and a dozen varieties of fish,” Nichols says. “Then they can lift their heads up and have an awesome view of the Wallowa Mountains,” as well as eagles and osprey overhead and deer often seen drinking from the lake.
A sunset picnic tour lets visitors enjoy local treats on their leisurely paddle at dusk, as the changing colors turn to a pitch-black sky ideal for stargazing.
On the monster tour, “whenever you get kids out, they’re screaming and oohing and aahing,” says Nichols, who knows kids well — he and Tia have six of their own, under age 12. They moved to Joseph to raise their children with adventures in both the mountains and the lake in close proximity. “It’s really rewarding to see how much joy they get out of it.”
If you go:
The family-friendly tours at JO Paddle are suitable for children 30 pounds and up, no experience necessary, and include personal flotation devices and all equipment. Nighttime tours run through early September; rentals continue through late November.
There’s lots more to explore around Wallowa Lake, from the Wallowa Lake Tramway to a stay at the Wallowa Lake Lodge. Joseph is most famous for its access to outdoor recreation — from rafting and hiking to the unique adventure of pedaling through scenic countryside with Joseph Branch Railriders, where Nichols worked for three years before launching JO Paddle. Joseph’s thriving arts community hosts an array of events, festivals, art walks and galleries. Stein Distillery is a visitor favorite, and in the town of Enterprise, 10 miles north, The Old OK Theatre celebrates its centennial in 2019.