Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lake Tahoe - Emerald Bay

Summary - Paddle into Boat Camp in Emerald Bay from Meeks Bay and back. See Osprey, Bald Eagles, Western Tanagers, and Canada Geese. Hike into Desolation Wilderness to Middle Velma Lake.

June 16, 2008, Tuesday – I hit the road at 7:30am. From Vallejo, CA, I took Highway 80 to 50 to 89. I drove directly to Sugar Pine Point State Park, but found that things have changed since my guide book was written ten years ago. I didn't find any location to park at Sugar Pine that would be a reasonable haul to the water. Also, the website says, “Beach access is restricted to foot traffic only.” By the way, Sugar Pine Point is a beautiful park with a historic museum, and is definitely worth checking out arriving by car or water. You simply can't tell how nice it is from the road. So, I decided to put in at the Meeks Resort beach. I paid $7 a day times three for parking over the three days that I'd be gone. I later learned from the camp host at Boat Camp that parking at D.L. Bliss State Park is included in the price of your campsite. Although that is a shorter paddle, I would recommend doing it, because you can add miles by following the coast, or exploring after you make camp.

Getting all of my camping gear into the kayak took a little shoving, but I knew it would fit because I had done a dry run packing before I left the house. Everything fit inside the holds. The tent and Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad fit into the bow compartment, followed by the sleeping bag. In the stern, in the pointy end, I shoved a duffel bag with my clothes, then the bear canister went in and pivoted and was shoved up against the bulkhead behind my seat. Finally, a gear bag with the stove, water filter, and other gear. Everything was packed inside thick plastic garbage bags to protect them from splashes or minor leakage. Though not water tight, the closed garbage bags would add buoyancy in the event that the cargo holds became flooded.

With the car parked, a note on the dash telling where I was camped along with the parking pass, all my gear stowed, I pushed off into the serene blues of Lake Tahoe between Canada Geese, children building sandcastles and sun worshipers. It sure felt good to be under way! At first, the water was a turquoise, and you could see the bottom, but the lake gets deep fast and the light color is replaced by a very deep blue. The wind was very mild at 1pm, and midweek, there was very little boat traffic to be concerned about. At one point, a speedboat approached, and I put my whistle in my mouth. I mentally rehearsed the deliberate capsize (roll away from the oncoming vessel and swim down) to prepare for an impact, but the boat changed course long before there was any real danger. It was daylight, on flat water, and my kayak and life vest are red. The blades on my paddle are orange, and I'm very easy to see. If you're choosing a kayak, choose one that is a bright color!

Directly south of Meeks Bay is Rubicon Bay, and I chose to paddle from headland to headland. The coast of Rubicon Bay is lined with private residences with their own docks. There is a fair amount of boat traffic, construction, and little scenery following the coast of this bay. The southernmost headland of Rubicon Bay is a rocky cliff rising out of the lake. I saw an Osprey soaring overhead, with its distinctive markings on its underside. Rounding the rocky shore I spotted a nest high up in a snag (dead tree). As I approached the nest, I kept my eyes on it, and I could hear something in it squawking. Then I saw a Bald Eagle sitting at the edge of the nest. This is a first for me, and already the trip is a huge success. Next time, I'm bringing my binoculars. Although they are not waterproof, I'd much rather have them with me until I can afford a waterproof set.

The next big bay follows the coast of D.L. Bliss, and there is a beautiful trail along this coast. You can see the hikers high up on the cliffs behind a cable railing, then the trail follows the coast closer to the water and links up with Boat Camp. This is the Calawee Trail. I followed the coastline very closely, and this makes the trip longer, and harder to predict which point Emerald Bay is hiding behind. When you finally see a tree covered spit blending into another point directly behind, and boats disappear into the trees, there you have the entrance to Emerald Bay. The approach is beautiful with sunken boulders and logs. I glided over submerged boulders for the fun of it, and because you're well out of the way of boat traffic. Then I spotted the dock at Boat Camp, and made my way for it. Now you might think that the bay would be protected from winds as I did, but you would be wrong. In the late afternoon, the wind comes down off of the mountains to the west. The wind was refreshing, and didn't interfere with paddling, though it did blow my baseball cap off and into the water. I had to backpaddle to retrieve it, then wore it backwards from that point on.

At Boat Camp (BC) there are signs on the beach not to moor, beach, or tie up boats with a picture of a bear. I checked with the camp host, and this policy doesn't apply to kayaks. I left my hatches open, so that bears wouldn't have to damage my kayak to discover that there is no food in there. Not only did I pull my kayak well up onto the beach, but I dragged it behind a large log, and tied it up. I was worried that my skeg might catch someone's shin unless it was well out of the way.

BC is very developed. It is the same as car camping, except that cars are not allowed. However, the rangers drive around in cars, and the first thing I noticed was the large RV that the camp host lives in. BC has a few spigots to get drinking water, and pit toilets with no lighting. Each campsite has a large capacity bear box, a BBQ, a fire pit, a picnic table, and room for a tent. I had campsite 18, and though I liked it very much, there is a shed very close to it. The shed has power lines going to it, and every few minutes a noisy pump fires up inside the shed, for what purpose I don't know. This noise interfered with my enjoyment of the site, especially when it came time to sleep. Next time, I would choose a site as far from the shed as possible. Also, BC suffers from the same problem that car camp sites do, that is people come in on powered boats and bring everything from home. Well after 10pm there was noise from unrestrained kids. I resisted the urge to wake them up when I got up at sunrise.

After getting the tent up, the Therm-a-Rest inflating, the stove set up, water bottles refilled, and into clean clothes. I took some time just sitting on a big boulder next to my camp to take in the quiet of the late afternoon. A Steller's Jay was hanging around looking for a handout, I witnessed him taking winged insects in flight. Suddenly, a bright yellow bird with an orange head swooped in to chase off the Jay, followed by a mostly all yellow companion who stayed nearby in the trees. I later described this bird to my friend who identified it to me as a, "Wasted Teenager," but of course, he was kidding. It was a Western Tanager. This bird is quite a sight, and looks like a parrot in its colorfulness.

I was ready to go for a little hike. So, I headed out on the Calawee Trail that heads north along the shoreline toward D.L. Bliss. About a mile north on the trail I checked my cell phone, and discovered that I had five bars. At BC there is no reception, but from the shore of the lake, directly across, and in line of sight, from some tall buildings on the Nevada side of the lake there is perfect reception. So, I was able to call family to let them know that I was safe and sound. For me, this was an important part of my boat plan, to be able to check in and let monitors know that I was OK, since I was on a solo paddle and camping trip. I want to emphasize that there was very little risk on the trip, but there is always some danger of injury, and it is good to be able to check in and let concerned parties know you are well and having a good trip.

Back at camp I had my dinner, and as it had become dark I was surprised to see a very bright light shining up through the trees from the direction of the lake. Suddenly I remembered that this was the night before the full moon, and the moon had risen over the rim of Eagle Point. I ran down to the water to enjoy the moonrise from the beach and the dock. I finally went to bed, tired and happy, and slept very well through the night. Even in June, it gets quite cold at night, almost to freezing, so I was prepared with long underwear, fleece pajamas, wool socks, and a wool hat. My sleeping bag is good down to 20F, and I was in a Eureka Spitfire solo tent with the fly, and I was not too hot, and was never cold.

June 17, 2008, Wednesday – When I could tell the sun was up, I climbed out of bed. After coffee and oatmeal, I jumped into the wetsuit and got my kayak gear and went down to the water. I wore booties, which aren't great for trails, so in the future I'd prefer to take water shoes. When I put in, it must have been about 6:30am, and I was the only boat moving on the water. It was still as glass, and my wake was the only disturbance on the water. Also, there were Canada Geese on the water at the beach when I put in, and they were completely calm around me. It was dreamlike. I set my bearing right to Fannette Island. Now, I had been told that the best place to land the kayak on Fannette was on the north shore, but I didn't see the trail after circling the island twice. I landed and tied up on the north side when a man on a surf ski with a rowing rig passed by, and told me of a better landing spot. The landing spot and trailhead are at the southeast tip of the island. It is marked by a brown sign that forbids landing during the months while birds are nesting there (Feb. 1 - June 15). I pulled the kayak up onto the rocks and tied a line to a large piece of driftwood that I used as a toggle between two stones to prevent a large wake from taking the kayak adrift. I hike up the short trail to the teahouse and enjoyed the exclusive view.

Eagle Falls spills into Emerald Bay, and I couldn't resist paddling upstream as far as possible. It gets quite shallow, but it is well worth exploring for the cool temperatures, and serenity. I paddled right up to the lowest rapids, then rode the fast flow back out to the lake. I followed the shore very quietly, and came around a bend to catch an Osprey about two boat lengths ahead. He was perched on a rock drinking from the lake. I held still, but he took flight as my boat drifted by. I continued to paddle over submerged boulders and sunken logs with long branches that reach out to the surface of the water. As I approached the mouth of Emerald Bay, a group of 10 jet skis entered. So, the dream ends. However, as jet skiers go, they were well behaved and observed the law to slow to 15mph in the bay. I exited the bay, and explored further down the shore to the south, but not too far. I decided to get in a hike into Desolation Wilderness, and so turned back to BC.

On my way back to BC, I heard something that sounded like an Eagle calling out from the treetops on the north shore of Emerald Bay. So, I paddled closer to find a Bald Eagle high in a tree, and he was being harassed by a Steller's Jay. At one point the Jay came close enough to the Eagle that the Eagle flapped his wings and tried to bite the Jay, but missed. Finally, the Bald Eagle took flight, and I watched him disappear to the north, white tail and all.

I changed into hiking clothes, and packed a bag with plenty of food and water, map, compass, whistle, rain poncho, cell phone, jacket, and headed out to my chosen destination, Middle Velma Lake. I let the camp host know where I was heading, so that if I wasn't back by 9pm to send a search party, as I only intended a day hike. She assured me that if I wasn't back by morning, she would send one. So, er, it would be a cold night if I sprained my ankle. Actually, these trails are well traveled, even midweek, and if I need help, I could send any of dozens of trailgoers that I saw for help. I saw a lot of dogs, by the way. From BC, this hike is 6.5 miles, one way, and has an elevation gain of over 1,700 feet. I thought I was in good shape when I started, but the hike proved to be challenging, steep, but very gratifying. I took many wonderful pictures, and met many wonderful people along the route. I was stiff and tired upon returning to my camp, and very grateful for my hot dinner. Both nights, I ate Mountain House dinners for two. Oh yeah, I ate both servings, and still I lost a little weight. They sure filled me up, though. The first night I had Mountain House Pasta Primavera For Two and the second night I ate Mountain House Vegetable Lasagna For Two. You just open the pouches, pour in the right amount of hot water, stir, then seal up the resealable top. I eat right out of the pouch, so there are no dishes except your eating utensil. Then I use the empty pouch as a trash bag because it seals so tightly.

At sunset, I set out to hike to the cell phone spot to make calls after 9pm, and wound up hiking back to camp in the dark. The imagination starts to work against you when you have to hike a mile in total darkness. At one point, I heard a large animal crashing through the bushes to my left in a wooded area, and I'm sure it was a bear. Didn't sound like a deer, so I made little extra noise, “Hey, hey, I'm hiking here.”

June 18, 2008, Thursday – Time to paddle out and head home. I had breakfast, packed up, checked out, and put in. On my way back I accidentally overshot Meeks Resort, because I failed to spot the headland between Meets Bay and Rubicon Bay. I knew when I reached Sugar Pine Point that I had gone too far, but I landed anyway to talk to a ranger to find out about the park. There was almost no one there. Perhaps because it was so early (10:20am), but I had made the 7 mile run in two hours which means my speed was an average of 3.5 mph. Not too shabby! I backtracked to Meeks, which wasn't far, and I was very grateful to find my car still there. I packed up and very happily hit the road home.

Please feel free to comment if you have any questions.

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