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My story is set in a small Idaho town called Serpent's Yard, named after the cryptid they believe lives in the lake up in the mountains above the town. The town is built around a river, known as Serpent's Road, that flows out of this lake, which then goes into a waterfall just past the town limits on the other side. An important plot point of the story is that this river has a notoriously strong current that has a penchant for drowning people who fall into it and, crucially, the bodies are very rarely ever seen again.

I heard this characteristic about other rivers somewhere, but I don't know what aspects of the river might have allowed for that, or if it's even possible for my specific river as I understand it. So I thought I'd check here to see if there are any changes to my setting's geography I need to make in order for this deadly river to be possible.

What needs to be true about my river that makes it difficult to impossible to find the bodies of those who drown in it?

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    $\begingroup$ Might want to read up The Strid... $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Oct 18, 2022 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ I heard this characteristic about other rivers somewhere, but it occurs to me that I can't remember exactly where and I guess Googling "rivers where drown bodies could never been found" is not really a good idea... $\endgroup$
    – Josh Part
    Oct 18, 2022 at 23:21
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    $\begingroup$ My first thought was piranas. $\endgroup$
    – RedSonja
    Oct 19, 2022 at 6:56
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    $\begingroup$ @RedSonja Piranha don't generally eat bones, so there'd still be skeletal remains. (One of the most commonly quoted statistics about piranha is how quickly they can skeletonize a cow... Not sure why it's always a cow, but whatever.) $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2022 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon The Strid is deadly, but I thought that the bodies eventually turned up. $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2022 at 14:30

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Be very cold.

Cold lakes are said to "rarely give up their dead". The body initially sinks and then the bacterial processes necessary to create the gas that causes the body to float never happens because the water is too cold. Perhaps the river itself is actually something of a deep chasm (essentially a narrow, winding lake), shallow on each side but very deep in the middle. Bodies fall into the chasm, where the water is very cold, and this keeps them down.

Could also spice it up and add some deep-water monsters in this chasm. They avoid the surface and normally just eat fish but if a body sinks down, hey, free food.

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    $\begingroup$ Or it could even be a scavenger that lives on sinking bodies. Normally it would be just dead fish and animals, but it wouldn't care if it ate a person. $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2022 at 1:56
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    $\begingroup$ Many good answers here. OP specifically mentioned "lake up in the mountains" from which the river flows, so with mountains high enough (glacial?) and the town sufficiently close to it, the very cold water can be explained. $\endgroup$
    – Jim Klimov
    Oct 20, 2022 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ @CyrusDrake I should think so. I know the Great Lakes are known for this and Idaho is about the same latitude so then I think it's just a question of depth. Cold water always sinks so the coldest winter water sinks to the bottom and stays there even throughout the summer, warming very little. The more water in the lake (and the deeper it is) the more this effect happens. AFAIK, anyway. I'm not a scientist but I did stay at a Holiday Inn one time. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Oct 20, 2022 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ I grew up in North Idaho. Mostly natural (glacial formed) Lakes Couer d'Alene, Chatcolet and Pend Oreille, in my experience, are all deep enough and cold enough to "never give up their dead." Some other artificial lakes are not so deep, hence don't stay as cold. Temperature of deep water changes very little with the season, BTW. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Oct 20, 2022 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon Pend Oreille is a fluke in it's depth at 1100 feet, while CDA is only 220 feet or so. The smaller lakes often are upper tens to lower one hundreds. However, you're right, I can confirm. When I hear of a drowning, which is often enough considering the number of lakes, finding the body very often requires divers and dredging. I knew a man who worked for the sheriff's department primarily as a diver for this purpose. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Oct 20, 2022 at 21:36
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Start with what bodies do when a person drowns and dies.

Most importantly:

A cadaver in the water starts to sink as soon as the air in its lungs is replaced with water. Once submerged, the body stays underwater until the bacteria in the gut and chest cavity produce enough gas—methane, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide—to float it to the surface like a balloon.

This is important because the sinking process is where bodies get lost. In lakes where bodies are lost, it's almost always because of underwater debris.

Here's an example from Round Valley in NJ

Over the years, there have been numerous drownings. Storms come up quick and can catch you by surprise. There are still unrecovered bodies in the water. Once in awhile, one will surface, surprisingly, still clothed, as I have seen. When a person drowns in the reservoir, the body will get caught in the underwater trees, brush and structures not leveled when the reservoir was built. Just before I left to a promotion at another park, a victim’s body surfaced after approximately four years. He still had his pants, boots, shirt, ballcap and glasses on!

People being lost forever or very nearly, in a body of water is common enough that there are volunteer teams who specifically search for bodies to give loved ones closure.

All you really need is a bottom of the river geography that traps the bodies, and you can do that with nearly anything.

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    $\begingroup$ These examples are all lakes/reservoirs, and the conclusion seems much less applicable to a river: On the one hand, flow prevents so much useful debris from building up; but on the other hand, the flow itself can carry bodies away. $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2022 at 6:16
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine Yes and no. Useful debris can and does happen on the bottom of a river. The Mississippi is a prime example of this.The flow itself can be a mechanism to trap things. If there's flooding, especially, as things end up in the water. (Entire houses and whatnot). I don't know if this is a closed system or open system river, but if the current is quick enough, bodies might never surface until they are swept out to sea. $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2022 at 14:22
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If I remember correctly, not too long ago a man slipped into a thermal pond in Yellowstone.

He died because of the high temperature of the water, and before the rescue team was able to reach the place, the body was dissolved by the acidic water.

Colin Nathaniel Scott, 23, was with his sister, Sable Scott, when he slipped and tumbled into the acidic boiling waters of the Norris Geyser basin on June 7, according to a report released Monday by Yellowstone officials.

The brother and sister illegally ventured off the boardwalk near the Pork Chop Geyser when Colin Scott fell in, according to the report.

Later that day, rescuers could see portions of Colin Scott’s head with a cross necklace resting on the face and an upper torso in a V-neck shirt, according to the Park Ranger Phil Strehle’s written account.

Officials judged Scott to be dead by his severe burns and lack of movement. They were unable to recover the body at the time due to lightning storms and approaching darkness. By the time they returned the next day, the body had dissolved in the boiling waters, according to the report. The only traces were Scott’s wallet and melted flip-flops.

Therefore highly acidic waters is one option. The other is that the current is so strong that the bodies are trapped in turbulence underwater and, by hitting the rocks, are slowly chopped to pieces to small to be recognizable.

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    $\begingroup$ I guess this would raise the question: why on Earth would anyone live next to a river so acidic that it dissolves bodies? It kind of defeats the primary purposes of building your town next to a river. $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2022 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ @JordiVermeulen It's a heat source if you're in a cold climate. And there are ways of neutralizing the acid to get usable water from it. But in this case, it's in the middle of Yellowstone National Park - nobody lives there except wildlife and maybe park rangers. $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2022 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think it was just the acidic water - it was boiling. And after a few hours, he was cooked into bits. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Oct 19, 2022 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ One plausible explanation: Two rivers meet and neutralise each other. Not as silly as it sounds. In geothermal areas you can have rivers with very high or very low pH. You could also have an acidic river that runs through a limestone area. Finally, man sometimes makes rivers highly acidic, particularly downstream of mining operations. So the town may have predated the acidity. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Oct 19, 2022 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ Since OP specified Idaho (though not specifically SE Idaho), the acidity could even be explained by the proximity of the Yellowstone Caldera. As for @JordiVermeulen's question of "why here?", just assume there are other less foul rivers nearby. $\endgroup$
    – Theodore
    Oct 19, 2022 at 21:44
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Try googling “sinkhole in river”. Depending on the size of the river and the size of the hole, it might go unnoticed. Bodies sink after they drown. They could get washed down the hole to underground caves or an underground river that surfaces somewhere unexpected depending on what your plot requires.

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    $\begingroup$ Deep caves was my first thought, having grown up near an area riddled with natural caves and abandoned mine works. Some of the rivers follow odd routes. $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2022 at 9:06
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    $\begingroup$ Inmagine miners accidentally digging into a cave one day, only to stumble upon an underground river cavern filled with hundreds of years worth of bones and drowned corpses. $\endgroup$
    – vinzzz001
    Oct 19, 2022 at 10:44
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    $\begingroup$ @vinzzz001 Yes. You could have parallel stories where the Serpent’s Yarders are all freaked out about the vanishing bodies and some other group of people horrified by a mysterious influx of corpses. $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2022 at 21:06
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Trapped at the base of dams or even relatively low waterfalls.

It is very hard to perform water rescue for even small dams or water falls, and the bodies are often trapped. This also is risky for natural water. From dam safety.org

Many of the most dangerous dams are not the massive concrete structures people often first think of when thinking of dams. Many are low-head dams, also called run-of-the-river dams or "drowning machines". Low-head dams are dams characterized by their low height - usually with a one foot to fifteen foot drop off - that allows water to flow over the top of the dam. Below the surface, the water falling over the dam creates highly aerated, circulating currents that trap people and objects underwater against the face of the dam. These forces are a practically inescapable trap for even the strongest, life jacket clad swimmer or often boats and kayak too.

So the circulating currents can keep the bodies trapped long times. Also the tops of waterfalls and dams are slippery...

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    $\begingroup$ I've actually witnessed a wooden rowboat (luckily without occupants) being knocked to matchwood in a matter of minutes at the foot of such a small dam, so if you add enough sharp rocks, I would imagine a corpse to be ground to a pulp, too. This could then be digested by the usual river fish. You don't even need high currents for this type of thing. $\endgroup$
    – arne
    Oct 21, 2022 at 14:07
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The corpse eating part of your river could be a narrow stretch with several underwater caves and features like the Strid in Yorkshire.

“Rather than carving a stately way through silt, [The Strid] twists and turns through flat and overhanging rocks falling over the edge of a limestone formation,” she said.

“Vortices in the flow will trap bodies under the water close to the bed or the sides, whilst the turbulence will render someone unconscious very quickly. It’s not a good place to play.”

Source.

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    $\begingroup$ You might want to expand your answer with more detail from the article and especially the YT video embedded in it(where the guy measures the depth), because the mechanism isn't clear from just reading the answer. e.g. he measured it's depth as 65m where its width is 2m, which is bonkers, but also explains a lot. $\endgroup$
    – Eugene
    Oct 19, 2022 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ This was my first thought, and I’m surprised it isn’t higher. A fast-flowing, deep, and cold river, is extremely simple and effective — optionally with sinkholes and underground channels for extra body-removal, but even that is just icing on the cake. One constraint here is geology; hard limestone/karst is what most typically supports this, and according to this USGS 2014 survey Karst in the United States (map on p.5), Idaho has suitable surface limestone areas on the eastern mountain slopes, near the border with the Dakotas. $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2022 at 6:34
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Fish

catfish image showing teeth

source

They are down there. Locals don't fish, but visitors catch some big ones. Visitors hook some bigger things that break the lines. The rumor is that the biggest one only comes up for bodies. The locals call it Angie, because the French missionaries who were the first Europeans in the area called it Anguille; the eel. There are stories about Angie from the Indian times before the French came.

Toward the end of the story divers catch sight of Angie. She comes out of a hole in the bottom. But not all the way out. She is not an eel. She is part of something larger.

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    $\begingroup$ The goonch of the Upper Ganges are notorious for this. $\endgroup$
    – Spencer
    Oct 19, 2022 at 21:53
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You could have a river that nobody wants to look in. If there is raw sewage or industrial waste being dumped into the river on a regular basis, nobody will find anything in there, because they don't want to look.

Whoever is dumping the harmful waste into the river might not even be breaking the law, depending on the time period and circumstances, but even if it is illegal, it can still happen.

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There are rivers in South America with fish so deadly that pen sized fish actually burrow into the living humans after about one minute and they drown almost immediately. Add to that a feeding frenzy of pirahnas, some crocodiles, and shark-like river fish, all that is left of those that wonder into beyond the safe zone are bones.

Also a strange mutant creature might like to drag bodies to the bottom and heap them up under the stones and silt as a kind of hobby.

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There are a couple ways you can approach this in my opinion: are the bodies gone via wildlife or via environment? If it's wildlife - they're eaten by various sized animals. There are places in India where larger fish will eat human remains that have been put into the rivers. You also have territorial animals such as hippos that will attack things that threaten their space.

From an environmental standpoint, there can be shifts of currents, underwater currents and whirlpools that will pull folks in without warning. This can, and has happened in various rivers in America (check out the Red River for example). Bodies will get sent way downstream, or get caught on underwater rocks / debris and not come up for months at a time.

Other than these two, for world building purposes of course, the bodies disappearing could also be a cover up for a much bigger plot. How convenient would it be to have a river that is notorious for removing bodies, when there is someone (or something) that is actually the one doing the removing? Hope this helps!

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Strong currents

Bodies rise because of the gas build up in the body. However if the body has been smashed into small bits then you cant get a gas build up. So there are strong underwater currents, and lots of rocks that break up a human body into smaller pieces. Possibly there could also be lots of metal waste dumped in the river as well, things like steel pipes, sharp bits of metal etc. These act as additional sources of piercing damage to prevent pockets of gas from forming.

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You could make it so that a specific type of bacteria lives in the lake that

  1. prevents anyone from swimming in it and
  2. Rapidly consumes and reproduces on the nutrients found in dead bodies. there could also be a a mountain range or higher elevation surrounding it in a humid environment so a permanent layer of fog appears, causing any bodies that do rise to the surface to become hidden by a thick layer of toxic vapor.
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