The Dark Waters of Lake Santeetlah

By Nathan Standridge

As the sun begins to break the heavy haze that has covered the cold, blue water overnight, I cannot help but imagine creatures of the dark crawling away from the light…returning to hidden lairs among the trees that guard the dark waters of Lake Santeetlah.

Ancient trees.

Tall tales of the mysterious lake mermaid.

Floating among the stars with the woman I love…

If you know me, then you have at some point heard me talk about Lake Santeetlah. Over the last two years, camping there has become what I do, and the powerful experiences I’ve had there have helped shape part of who I am. So when I try to think about the beginning - when I try to remember how I first heard about a place that would one day have such a huge impact on my life - I remember it vividly, in bright, bold colors.

I remember the changing of a season and the budding of a new life and love in Asheville, but, mostly, I remember the color green.

Spring in the mountains

It was Spring. My North Carolina native partner had just begun to show me around the mountains surrounding Asheville. I had moved from Texas, so I was looking at the trees and moss and ferns and waterfalls like they were creatures from another world.

These mountains weren’t made up of the faded green of Summer that I knew year-long in Austin. They were vibrant, composed of a color that could only be found after heavy rain enticed new life to spring from the earth.

She had mentioned Joyce Kilmer and Lake Santeetlah then, two years ago, while we were hiking through the ruins of a mountain lodge that burnt down in the 30s, but it was a full year later before we actually went, before we actually packed up the car and drove two hours, into the Nantahala Forest

Now, we have just returned from our fourth trip in less than a year, and I feel like the lake has become an old friend. Even when I am far away, I still hear its voice, beckoning me to return.

The voice of Lake Santeetlah

It’s the sound of water lapping against shore - the sound of sand and rock and root in constant motion. It is the sound of peace, a sound that can easily fall to silence yet never fall far from memory.

And when I am in Asheville, it is a whisper on the wind.

Santeetlah… it whispers, carried a hundred miles through the Great Smokys on the back of a storm to reach my ear, and as soon as I hear it speak, I am transported. In an instant, I am back to the silence, back to a former self watching the sun rise from behind the mountains, back to the dark waters of Lake Santeetlah.

the dark waters of lake santeetlah

Lake Santeetlah lies in one of the last settled regions of the eastern United States. Formerly known as Cheoah River, the river was damned in 1928 to create a lake. Even though the lake itself is less than a hundred years old, the absence of human voices and the weight of deep water, make the winds that float against the surface of Lake Santeetlah feel ancient - full of stories that have been lost and dark spirits that have been broken.

Yet, despite the stories that my misbehaving mind has created about this place, I still look out at the eerie water and wild landscape with love and not fear.

This place has become my home. As soon as I return to its banks, I feel as if the lake has been holding my memories in trust, waiting for me to return.

In each curve of its coves and in each wave of its wake a reflection of a past self exists, dancing beneath the water, waiting to rise. And if I sit long enough in silence, the memories will begin float to the surface and play before my eyes.

Floating reflections

I watch as a heart begins to race, navigating the thick woods with a flashlight in hand, looking for the source of a monstrous sound in the darkness.

Then, I see happy faces smiling and laughing and holding each other. They lie against a wooden dock under the stars, then tell stories around fire and under canvas.

Last, I see a man waiting for an answer to a question that will change his life forever...

But just as quickly as the reflections appear and play, they begin to shift into one. Into the beginning. Into the defining moment that made me love and fear Lake Santeetlah.


"Get up," she said.

Our friend Alex was the one who came to our tent at 2 A.M., slowly convincing us to get up and get out onto the lake. Our other friends had been exploring the water for what seemed like hours, but Jess and I had been in our tent, listening to their sounds on the lake like entertainment, letting our minds run wild with what they were seeing and doing and experiencing.

In our hearts, we both knew we wanted to see what was out there for ourselves, so we took Alex’s advice and got up.

As we stepped into the canoe and pushed away from the safety of land, the world disappeared in our wake. On the water, The Milky Way greeted us, blanketing the sky in the new moon's absence. Quiet, almost silent, water carried us deeper into the darkness, placing us at the center of a reflective sea.

In the distance, dark silhouettes that were once mountains in the daylight sketched a barrier around the lake, clearly defining the curvature of the earth and making us feel like nothing else existed except that which was above and that which was below.

Above us, stars filled the sky. They seemed to connect and play, forming a web that hung only an arms-length away. Below us, a mirrored image filled the black, distorting and changing with the movement of oar and wind.

Questions IN THE DARK

I knew we were on water, sure, but In the face of such beauty, above, below, and beside me, I felt my mind shift. I could no longer tell where I was, because the truth is, even in the face of one of the most powerful sights of my life, never have I laid under the magic of a sky so bright with beauty and life and felt so insignificant.

Who am I?

What am I doing?

Who do I want to be?

Every question melted away, and I could see nothing, feel nothing, and be nothing but a speck in the universe, floating through the sky in a canoe and realizing that nothing else mattered at that moment but the person I was floating with.

The song of nature

At that moment, when the world around him melted away, when he stood alone like a star in the heavens, he was overwhelmed by a feeling of icy despair, but he was more firmly himself than ever before.

- Hermann Hesse, Siddartha

Ancient trees. Tall tales of the mysterious lake mermaid. Floating on my back and watching the clouds smile down on me. Staring into the eyes of the woman I love and telling her that I want to spend the rest of my life with her…

These are the moments of life worth remembering.

Now, I am back in a world full of voices and noise, but I want to remember everything that happened while I stood in communion with Nature. I want to remember every glance and every story and every feeling shared between us.

I want to remember every second spent curled up on a dock under a sky full enough to make even the greatest man feel small.

To leave the stress behind. To sit in the dirt beneath my feet. To sing the song of Nature with those around me. To feel the wind move through my hair, the water through my toes, and the sun on my skin. To feel the cool embrace of a canopy’s shade during a hot afternoon.

No work. No bullshit. Just life and truth.

Sometimes I can almost forget what it feels like to be where I belong. Sometimes I can almost forget the sound of peace whispering in my ears.

But I will never forget Lake Santeetlah.

Nathan Standridge is a journalist, author, and woodworker living in Asheville, NC. He’s been seen trekking through San Franciscan streets at 4 A.M., drinking whiskey during a tornado in the Ozarks, and sitting in silence among the temples of Thailand. His book Change was published in 2016, and he is currently working on a new novel.