Once more unto the lake

The pier at Sugar Pine Point State Park over astonishingly blue water. (Photo / Dick Schmidt)

It’s been two years since we traveled the couple of hours to the north shore of Lake Tahoe, which seems ridiculous since it’s one of our favorite places on earth—until you realize that we were stopped twice during that time by a pandemic shutdown and a major fire bearing down on the area.

So we finally took advantage this week of a two-year-old reservation at the Cottage Inn just south of Tahoe City as the whole area takes its final, mostly tourist-free breaths and prepares for the onslaught of summer visitors. They’ll flock here in droves over Memorial Day weekend, but in the quiet of the week before, we got to see the lake at its loveliest.

All this beach is typically under water at Sugar Pine Point State Park. (Photo / Jan Haag)

It’s also at one of its lowest points. While winter snows brought the lake level up from its historic lows last fall, it’s still not where it should be in May. This year is California’s driest on record. We could see that as we walked the shoreline at Sugar Pine Point State Park today, literally tracing a path along the rocky shore that’s typically underwater.

A byproduct of this, however, seems to be outstanding water clarity. Never have we seen Tahoe so clear, turquoise waters gleaming 100 yards from shore. You can count every rock on the shallow bottom—part of the result of the lake’s low water level. But with only a slight breeze, Tahoe’s surface was so still, marred only by the occasional passing motorboat, that we could imagine the lake as Samuel Clemens saw it and his alter ego Mark Twain wrote about it:

“As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”

Paddleboarders cruise by the old boat rails from the Ehrman mansion boathouse into the lake.
(Photo / Dick Schmidt)

We thought so, too, today on the opposite side of the lake from where Clemens first saw it, and we soaked up the peace of the place before the summer season begins.

All that’ll change by this weekend, of course, which is one reason we like to spend time at the lake in May. This is the time to drive into Sugar Pine Point State Park and stroll by the Hellman-Ehrman mansion (aka Pine Lodge, such a modest name for the the 1903 mansion left to Florence Hellman Ehrman).

In the summer of 1980, when I worked for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, I did a story about the Ehrman mansion, which had been sold to the state in 1965. But in 1980 it sat unfurnished and empty, though still glorious in its design by Walter Bliss. Now it’s been furnished as it was in the 1930s, and in the coming summer months the Sierra State Parks Foundation offers excellent tours.

I walk by the Ehrman Mansion at Sugar Pine Point State Park. (Photo / Dick Schmidt)
Such a modest name for a gorgeous mansion.
(Photo / Jan Haag)

It’s one of our favorite walks along the lakeshore, 2 miles long when the water is at its usual level—longer now. You can walk even farther thanks to the much-widened beach, an odd benefit to the drought. General Creek flows into Lake Tahoe, and because the water is so shallow now, it’s easy to wade across the sandbar and continue walking north.

Before it was Sugar Pine Point State Park, this area was the historic summer home of the Washoe Indians who came to the lake to hunt and fish. Some of their grinding rocks are now visible on the shoreline.

We went to the pier, which extends a good 150 feet from shore, riveted by the clear blue, the rocks placed seemingly by an artist’s hand. It was well known that the lake’s clarity had drastically declined in the 20th century. In 1968, when UC Davis researchers began measuring the lake’s clarity, they could see the circular white Secchi disc resembling a dinner plate submerged to 100 feet. In 1997 the marker could be seen only 67 feet down. Fine sediment and free-floating algae reduce water clarity, and as agencies have worked together to reduce pollutants from water runoff, the lake gets more clear every year.

This year when the UCD team lowered the Secchi disc into the lake, it was visible 138 feet down, the second deepest measurement since 1968. So it’s not our imagination: Tahoe is still the clearest lake in the United States, though efforts continue to increase its clarity.

The peace of the pier. (Photo / Dick Schmidt)

As we walked the long shoreline, admiring rocks that are typically underwater, we took in the quiet lapping of tiny waves into the shore, and, of course, stopped to take photos and breathe in the blue.

Twain called Lake Tahoe “a noble sheet of blue water” in 1871:

“As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”

Walking the rocky shore (Photo / Dick Schmidt)

We so agree.

Us once more unto the lake (selfie by Dickie)

About janishaag

Writer, writing coach, editor
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4 Responses to Once more unto the lake

  1. Dick Tracy says:

    These photos remind me of visiting the lake in the 1950’s, before gaming and tourism became rampant. Beautiful, and a tribute to lake clean-up efforts! . .

  2. janishaag says:

    Thanks, Mr. Tracy! That must have been a different lake in the 1950s… glad you got to enjoy it then!

  3. Kara says:

    So nice to see your beautiful faces! I would love to see them in person someday soon. In the meantime, sending much love from the Petris family to you and your wonderful photographer!

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