ESCONDIDO — Even some longtime San Diego residents may be unaware of the possibility that a monstrous lizard-like creature lives in the depths of Lake Hodges, a 115-foot deep reservoir just south of Escondido in a quaint little town called Del Dios.
The mystery surrounding the legendary lake monster — nicknamed “Hodgee” by locals — is rooted so deep in Del Dios folklore, that the town decided to bring him to life in its own unique way.
On the evening of Jan. 6, nearly 100 showed up in festive spirit to witness the historic unveiling of the monster hand carved by a local artist.
“It’s like the Loch Ness monster, but for Lake Hodges,” said Ewing Mitchell IV, known as “Mitch,” who spent more than 1,800 hours carving the creature from a giant red eucalyptus tree stump.
The scaly sculpture towered over spectators at 16 feet tall with bright yellow and green eyes and large white teeth.
It can be seen from the road where Date Lane meets Lake Drive at the north edge of Del Dios Community Park.
After dark, it’s rumored Hodgee’s glass-blown eyes change colors and glow purple in the night.
This is because the monster is equipped with an LED solar-powered unit inside its head, explained 72-year-old Gary Cohen, the local glassblower who was responsible for creating Hodgee’s eyes.
A real crowd pleaser
Much to the excitement of an eager crowd, the 62-year-old wood carver and local hero arrived to the community event donning cowboy boots and riding on an electric red scooter.
Hodgee and Mitchell’s big turnout revealed the eclectic mix of friends, families and dogs that make up the close-knit community of Del Dios and nearby Mount Israel.
Decades-old friends hugged each other and exchanged warm conversation as kids ran and played near the monster adding to an atmosphere of excitement akin to the Fourth of July.
Locals will tell you Del Dios is a special place.
“It’s a little community, and it’s just a world of its own,” said local resident Leona Matthews, 68. “Everybody knows everybody.”
With a huge grin across his face, another resident said before parading off into the celebration: “it’s where all the hippies have gone to die.”
While there was a majority of graying, good-timing and long-haired folks in their 60s and 70s, it could be argued to the contrary… it’s where hippies go to thrive.
A lake monster in the making
Sometime over a year ago, a decaying eucalyptus tree estimated to be 20 feet tall and 100 years old, was scheduled for removal.
That was before it caught the eye of Stacey McCline, president of the Del Dios Habitat Protection League, a nonprofit organization focused on restoring the ecological function in and around Lake Hodges.
McCline convinced the folks removing the dead tree from Del Dios Community Park to leave the very tall stump because perhaps someone might like to transform it into a piece of art.
She said the 7.5-mile long Coast to Crest Trail that winds around the park and lake is a popular place for people to come walk, hike and ride their bikes.
The idea floated around Del Dios and Mount Israel Town Council until it was soon determined that the best man for the job was a local wood carver: Mitchell.
A sound engineer and carpenter by trade, the San Diego native had already completed several wood carvings.
They run the gamut from owls to mermaids and sharks to a fight-foot-shy flying dragon that earned Mitchell a first-place award in the design and wood category at San Diego’s Del Mar Fair.
From stump to monster visions
Mitchell admitted the lake monster would be a challenge to carve due to the tree stump’s sheer stature and location. He started out by studying the stump before he sketched out a design.
With the help of his good friend, Stan Smith, the two used chainsaws to cut out the rough shape of the monster.
After that, Mitchell said he began whittling away at it “with just about anything that would do the job,” like grinders, sanders, and a good old fashioned hammer and chisel.
He learned that red eucalyptus isn’t as reliable to work with as say, an oak.
“It inevitably cracks a lot,” the artist said. “I exposed wood that hadn’t been exposed in over 100 years.”
He shrugged off the cracks and filled them with Bondo putty or whatever he found appropriate.
Mitchell said it is what you take away — in this case hunks of wood — that creates the vision (of the monster).
Sometimes he spent up to six hours a day working on the sculpture for the better part of a year.
“I loved every minute of it,” he said.
Legend of Lake Hodge’s monster lives on
Most locals will tell you they believe in Hodgee the lake monster, though few have actually seen the beast.
The legend of the lake serpent dates back to Indian lore of a “river creature” said to be lurking in the San Dieguito River before it was damned. In 1918 it was then turned into the scenic 1,234-acre Lake Hodges Reservoir. According to a website dedicated to the monster, Hodgee.com, formal requests (in 1929) to have San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography look into the matter ended with researchers finding “no conclusive evidence of any sort of creature in the lake … ”
Alleged later attempts to actually catch the monster using a cage-like trap and a sea lion as bait also proved futile.
Still, a long history of supposed sightings and word about town has been enough to keep the mystery alive and well.
“Everybody’s been talking about it for years,” said Smith, who has lived by the Del Dios lake for 30 of them.
The Texas native has been on the lake “hundreds of times,” but said he’s never personally seen the monster.
However, when Smith lived on top of the hill overlooking the lake, he said, “I would see things — currents — moving in the water … it could have been schools of fish or the wind.”
Community left glowing with support, gratitude
Many of those who live in the community have watched Hodgee’s creation and progress since his stump beginnings, so his completion was reason to celebrate this past weekend.
Local philosopher Dr. Tobin Barrazo, 76, likened Mitchell’s artistic ability to one of history’s greatest sculptors.
“It’s always been amazing that someone can look at a piece of granite, like Michelangelo, and see a figure,” Barrazo said. “And Mitch did the same thing. He looked at a huge tree stump and he saw — Hodgee.”
At the Saturday unveiling, the wood carver thanked the community for its support throughout the long process.
He said he hoped Hodgee would remain a landmark in Del Dios for a long time, and help keep the legend alive for generations to come.
“I hope everyone enjoys Hodgee as much as I do — and look at him — he’s beautiful!”
McCline, who can be credited with saving the tree stump, said Mitchell’s vision was nothing she could have imagined. “The dedication he’s put into making such a breathtaking piece of art — I just had no idea that would happen.”
When asked if she’s ever seen the creature, the local resident of 20 years said, “I have yet to see the lake monster, though I always keep an eye.”