• Otter Views: First Snow

    Lake Tahoe — The immense Pollock Pines fire cast a literal pall over a planned Tahoe trip, so it was touch and go until departure. Early reports had the fire threatening thousands of homes in its path and generating enough smoke to cancel a triathlon 30 miles away.

    Then, mirabile dictu! Flame retardant rain!

    Once rain was confirmed, the drive was back on. Loading up the truck with hiking gear and water toys, I set out at noon Saturday on a rare trip to California’s most storied lake. I’ve been up here a few times since I first visited in 1970, but not enough to know my way around.

    The first time I saw the lake was in early winter. I was in the Vietnam-era Navy, stationed at a communications base in Stockton. As a California newcomer, I thought then that the whole state must be hot, flat, dry and dusty, with a tang of ripe tomatoes on the wind.

    A Thanksgiving invitation from my brother turned that around. He and some Bay Area college friends had secured a parental ski condo in Heavenly Valley. I vaguely remember driving through falling snow to get there, and having the wrong clothes when I arrived.

    The Navy buzz cut also stood out amid a gathering of hirsute hipsters, musicians, downhill ski racers and braided mountain mamas. These were longtime Tahoe denizens who lived a robust Alpine adventure — hiking, skiing, rock climbing and sailing by day; bar tending, playing music and partying at night. As the token “flat-lander,” I was suitably intimidated.

    Forty years have passed since then, and I’m still intimidated. Maybe it’s a snow thing. Having spent most of my life where the only snow comes in a paper cone, I’m amazed people can actually survive in the snow. And not just survive, but live joyful, fearless, productive lives in sub-freezing weather high above the snow line.

    Not me. I was scared just driving up here. Before the rain even started
    I noticed some troubling place names on the map. “Tragedy Trail” was off in the dark forest to my left. “Desolation Wilderness” lay somewhere up ahead to the east. Would the area’s early settlers have bestowed these names without a reason?

    At about 4,000 feet, the sky turned iron gray, and a cold rain began to fall. Then lightning flashed. Soon the rain hammered down so hard I thought it was hail. Because the road was still warmer than the rain, a misty fog rose off the pavement, dropping a ghostly scrim over mountains and forests alike.

    At 6,000 feet, occasional rents in the clouds revealed thin capes of white on surrounding mountain tops. Could that be snow? I wondered, then laughed at myself. It’s still September, so that can’t be snow. Must be a trick of the failing light.

    At 7,000 feet, snow appeared along both sides of the road. The absence of bootprints, saucer tracks and melting snowmen suggested this was new snow; today’s snow; the very snow I had just driven through as rain down below. This was sobering. What if snow resumed falling before I reached the summit?

    At 8,000 feet, I stopped at Silver Lake. There a family vacation camp called Kit Carson Lodge served hot tea by fireside in its pine-paneled dining room. Afterwards I walked down to the twilit lake, where a shivering man and two shivering children were casting hopefully for trout. With mist rising off the water and storm clouds scudding over the peaks, the whole scene looked like Alaska. All that was missing were Inuits and eagles.

    At least one of the mountain gods must look after timid flatlanders, for the rain and snow lifted, no trees fell across the road, and the rest of the drive was uneventful.

    On Sunday morning, the lake looked as cold, gray and uninviting as a Scottish loch, so I changed my plan to swim in it. Instead I went to the dozen-course brunch buffet on the 18th floor of Harrah’s Casino. Between trips to the various cuisine stations, I watched through the picture windows as a pair of raptors performed a beautiful airborne ballet at eye level.

    In early afternoon, shortly before I fell into a food coma, I noticed ragged blue streaks appearing in the gray sky, and shadows moving over the hillsides. Soon the sun burned off the remaining storm clouds, the choppy gray lake turned sapphire blue, and Tahoe was its heavenly self once again.

    The season’s first snow, meanwhile, has stayed up on the high crags, crests and summits where it belongs, or where flatlanders like to think it belongs. It is a benign and picturesque snow, and a very considerate one. So far, it has caused no avalanches, closed no passes, required no tire chains.

    Please stay like that.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on October 3, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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