Carved by glaciers, filled by snow melt and cool creeks of clear water, the crystal lake is bluer than the sky itself. Ensconced by a ring of rugged ridges, some softened by blankets of snow, the lake seems separated from the rest of the world. It gazes at the heavens like an unblinking but shimmering, sparkling eye. From a distance, the bristling conifers on the surrounding slopes—Jeffrey pine, lodgepole pine, western white pine, incense cedar, and white fir—seem as gentle as eyelashes, the crestline of the mountains becomes the ridge of the eyebrow, and the folded ranges rolling away into the grey-blue distance become a forehead, furrowed in thought. On the skyward face of the Sierra Nevada, alongside more than 25,000 hectares of forest, alpine meadows, and granitic rocks in the Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe shines in the sun.
On Memorial Day weekend, the metaphor can only go so far. What do I make of the white wakes of boats, the stream of cars, the sibilant rush of tyres on steely tarmac, and the pressing throng of several thousand people, bikers, dogs, and ourselves? All spattered over Tahoe’s eye, like scratches and smoke and pieces of grit? At the edge of the wilderness and the lake, I now stand, perplexed for a moment, reflecting on my own metaphor.
From the branches of a nearby pine, a Steller’s jay with its dark wedge of a head laughs—a staccato, rasping laugh—before his feathery blue shape plunges into the woods.
It is a bright, clear day over Lake Tahoe, as we head out from the rented house where we stayed the night, and the tops of the trees are touched gold by rays of morning sun. High above everyone, a lone osprey wings his way with purpose—across the open sky towards the lake.
At a trailhead near South Lake Tahoe, my brother and I enter Desolation Wilderness. I am astonished at the crowd of weekend visitors on foot, although there seems to be fewer people here than by the lake itself. Unlike around the lake, there are no roads in the wilderness reserve, and none are permitted to be established, so one can only enter on foot for hiking or camping. Yet, as a board placed at the trailhead declares, Desolation Wilderness receives more visitors on a per acre basis than any other American wilderness. A sheaf of entry permits hangs on the same board—voluntary permit forms that we fill out with our details, drop into an attached box, before going on.
We take a short, slow walk on the trail winding through scattered shrubbery, punctuated by taller conifers, and threaded by dense vegetation along the streams. From a shrub, a western wood pewee, a brown flycatcher-like bird, flits out after an insect and loops back to his perch. A Wilson’s warbler, smaller than my fist, his face a heart-stopping flash of gold, energetically gleans insects off the leaves. On the trail, sprightly and shrill squirrels dart aside for us while, overhead, sleek and handsome violet-green swallows scythe through the air. Further ahead, at a little creek, in shimmering sun-flecks under the quivering leaves of an aspen, I bend to the stream, cup cold, clear water in my hands, drink deep, and stand up, refreshed.
In its high glacier-scoured valley, Lake Tahoe sits at the edge of myriad lines. Fault lines form a great ‘V’, whose arms open to the north encompassing the lake, and are flanked by mountain ranges—the Sierra Nevada to the west and the Carson range to the east. Other invisible lines, too, slice the landscape: climatic lines-in-the-air, edaphic lines-in-the-earth, the lines defined only on maps and in human perception, where bristly conifers yield to sparse sagebrush, where California becomes Nevada, and valleys of silicon give way to basins of sand. Beneath all runs a deeper line, impressed in the human mind, which many visitors imagine they cross, when they leave the city and suburbs behind, for a spell outdoors in nature, for a trip into the wilderness.
Lake Tahoe, with a surface area of 50,000 hectares, is the largest of the Sierra lakes, 35 kilometres long, about 16 kilometres wide, and upto half a kilometre deep. More than a hundred years ago in The Mountains of California, John Muir—writer, naturalist, and an early proponent of wilderness preservation whom Bill McKibben has called an “American mystic”—evocatively described the landscape and waters of Lake Tahoe.
Its forested shores go curving in and out and around many an emerald bay and pine-crowned promontory, and its waters are everywhere as keenly pure as any to be found among the highest mountains.John Muir
On the map, Lake Tahoe nestles alongside the great tract, lying to the southwest, of over 25,000 hectares of sub-alpine and alpine forest, lakes, and meadows, and high peaks in the Desolation Wilderness. The wilderness areas in the United States were created following the enactment of the landmark legislation in 1964, the Wilderness Act. The Act defined a wilderness as an
…area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…
Under the Act, a wilderness was also envisaged as an area
…which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation…
Desolation itself was designated by the US Congress in 1969, from an area that was part of Lake Tahoe Forest Reserve established seventy years earlier. Not long after John Muir’s book was published, tourists were already visiting the area, which became part of the Eldorado National Forest in 1910, and later notified as Desolation Valley Primitive Area in 1931 before it was inducted into the National Wilderness Preservation System. Despite its rather forbidding name, or, perhaps, because of it, Desolation Wilderness now manages to entice well over a hundred thousand visitors every year. As a place for more routine recreation rather than wilderness tourism in the same landscape, Lake Tahoe receives, every year, around three million.
Like elsewhere, the history of human presence and use in the Tahoe Basin landscape is longer than the history of preservation efforts. The Washoe lived, hunted, and fished here for over 8000 years, leaving a smaller imprint on the land than what came later. A little over a century before the wilderness legislation, human impact on the landscape escalated with the discovery, in 1859, of silver ore in the famous Comstock Lode. In the ensuing ‘silver-rush’ and mining boom, ground was broken for trails, railroads, and roads through the mountains, and the demand for timber spurred logging in the Tahoe Basin.
Old-growth forest area in the basin soon declined by two-thirds and, as logging continued into the twentieth century, plummeted further, until less than two percent remained. The legacy of logging is still marked on the land, and the forests—now with fewer large trees, more pines, and an altered fire regime—are still changing.
And yet, it is possible to imagine something different. Ascending the grand Sierra, one feels a certain exhilaration, like finding beauty untempered by loss. Scaling a high pass down to South Lake Tahoe, turning off the road into Pioneer Trail, one can imagine a frontier landscape that early visitors, forerunners of others to come, came to explore. One imagines miners prospecting for ore, riders seeking land, timber, or game, or even thieving raiders of the wild west escaping the law—outlaws riding into the outback with rangers on their tail. One imagines a time when people left the urban and the suburban, the ranch and the farm—all of it—behind, and set out on expeditions into uncharted territory. Into wilderness. Desolation.
The map of Lake Tahoe and its encircling forests bespeaks a different reality that is neither desolation nor wilderness. Everywhere, trails squiggle from trailhead to viewpoint, to alpine lakes and waterfalls, through logged coniferous forests and upland meadows, up rocky slopes to smooth ski-trails, or down ravines, past aspen-lined creeks, back to the lake. The tourist map carries a smattering of points to visit—to ratchet-up your been-there-done-that list—emerald bays, white beaches, silvery cascades—promising vistas that inspire, places that are heavenly. You can even reach Heavenly by gondola lift, ascending to the mountain-top ski resort on cable-car. There is a peppering of private property in the landscape—wood cabins with verandahs overlooking the lake, log houses tacked to wooden jetties where boats with oars and outboard motors are tied, homes fronted by the inevitable garage, the ubiquitous lawn.
On the Sunday before Memorial Day at Lake Tahoe, people are out in numbers. My brother, sister-in-law, a cousin and her husband, and myself are joined by my younger cousin sister and her fiancé, who have driven down from the university at Reno for the weekend. Together, we thread our way through walkers, cyclists, and vehicles to the lake. Everywhere, small plastic American flags flutter on windshields and bonnets, or taped to the spokes of bicycles, go spinning and spinning. Some of the people have cycled up, but most have carried cycles perched on bike racks on their cars and trucks. A few motorcyclists ride past, from bikers on humble, purring Yamahas, to the men mounted on growling Harley Davidsons—faceless people in helmets marked with fearsome stickers and logos, wearing black gloves and leather jackets, sometimes sleeveless, often tattooed. The walkers on steady march, in hiking boots and walking shoes, are outfitted in casuals, shorts, jackets, or outdoor clothes, their heads bare or covered by hats or baseball caps, their clothes of every colour from white to black to flourescent yellow and orange. On many shoulders are slung backpacks with rehydrating tubes leading to water bottles, from many ears emerge the wires of earphones connected to music players.
Then, seeming to outnumber and outpace the bikers and walkers, come the vehicles bearing names strangely reminscent of the pioneer years: cars. The roads thrum to the traffic of the Explorers, the 4Runners, the Outback riders, the Escapes, the Ascenders and Uplanders, the Rangers and Raiders, the Suburban Expedition adventurers. Cars. Cars in steely grey and flaming red. Cars in lake blue and sky blue and meadow green and moss green. Cars in brown and bronze and beige. Cars in passionate pink and pollen yellow. Cars in white and ivory and pitch black. Cars small enough to tuck in your legs and squat into, cars so large that you must haul yourself up like ascending a mountain with handrails. Cars that are trendy hybrids or gas guzzlers. Cars called trucks, called sedans, called SUVs, called cars. Cars with roofs open, retractable, convertible, closed. Cars with people, cars with attitude, cars with unassailable confidence. Cars. Cars. Cars.
Like a giant, colourful, wheeled millipede, the traffic crawls on the road along the lake. In favoured tourist spots, the rarest find is a space to park the car. We drive more than a mile, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, past the stationary millipede of parked vehicles, to find a space to park our own.
Yet, the few hours spent in casual birding in Lake Tahoe are enjoyable, yielding familiar birds and new species, some imprinted on memory. On the fens and fenceposts, flocks of red-winged blackbirds chatter and screech, their epaulets flaming on feathers black as an oil slick. In the trees, a male yellow-headed blackbird gleams, black mask and dagger beak on a sunflower yellow head and neck. On the lake, California gulls bob white and placid, alongside a couple of cantankerous mallard drakes. A tree swallow sweeps overhead, as a skein of Canada geese whips past, and flying even higher, a dark, slow raven rends the air with raucous cries. Later in the afternoon, as we head back to the car park, after seeing the sights, after the photos with lake and landscape as background, we see the osprey in the skies again—is it the same one?—carrying a glistening fish in its talons. Wings held wide, the bird bends its head to its feet to tear at the fish, apparently for a mid-air meal.
Our bird list hovers at around fifteen species, representing a dozen bird families. But the marques of cars seen exceeds twenty: Subaru, GMC, Dodge, Toyota, Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, BMW, Lexus, Acura, Hummer, Volkswagen, Audi, JEEP, Opel, Mitsubishi, Chrysler, Land Rover, Datsun, Scion, Chevrolet, Hyundai, and Volvo. And the species and shades of cars—from the tiny two doors to the hunkering Hummers, the Oldsmobiles to newsmobiles, the Corollas and Sequoias, the Jaguars and Mustangs—there was no way to keep count. One SUV is even named Tahoe.
Perhaps, in our birding today, lost in our own distractions as we were, it is safer to assume that we missed many species. It is safer and more reassuring, because the alternative explanation—that on a pleasant weekend spent outdoors the species and races of cars outnumber the species and races of birds—is truly frightening.
Fifty years on, the legacy of the Wilderness Act still raises questions that deserve attention. Why does the Wilderness Act talk about opportunities for solitude or recreation when, in many areas, a person seeking the former in all likelihood will be interrupted by others pursuing the latter? What does it portend for recreation that is primitive and unconfined, when the ability to immerse oneself into such an experience, untrammeled as the wilderness, eludes most of us, benumbed passengers of a world careening in the opposite direction? Why does the Act insist that man must himself merely be a visitor who does not remain, when all land, forest, and air bears telling evidence to the contrary? Ultimately, too, whose standards of recreation are we to consider? Those of the Washoe Indians who lived here for millenia before the white man, those of the visionaries of the American wilderness system, or those of the ever-shifting throng of tourists at the entry gates among whom a form of recreation may be discovered by each person anew? And what of the other kind of tourism, hovering at the edge of the wilderness, in places like Lake Tahoe: when the desired experience of landscape is something that can be purchased, how does one value one’s place in nature?
As the day wears on and we walk the trails skirting the lakeshore and adjoining slopes, I realise our time in Tahoe brings more than just rest or recreation. My younger cousin, tall and effervescent, describes her doctoral research on the ecology of birds in the high mountains of California, while her fiancé, a hydrologist, talks about the Tahoe basin and the mile-high cluster of sub-alpine lakes. From them, I learn that Lake Tahoe is among the most pellucid lakes, partly due to the low-nutrient soils on the surrounding slopes and consequent low nutrient loading into the lake. In the 1960s, one could see clearly up to a depth of nearly a hundred feet, but with pollution and sediment load from the surrounding developed areas and roads, water clarity and visibility declined to about sixty feet in recent years. They tell me that concerned citizens are now working to restore the lake and the surrounding watershed. The lake appears to be responding, too, and is slowly recovering the clearness of the past. On the roadside, they point to a stormwater drain installed to trap and filter the run-off that may otherwise find its way into the lake. My eyes follow the drain down the slope to the lake, seeing it, again, with renewed clarity. Among human efforts, ecological restoration appears to be that rare endeavour where the past can become a measure of progress.
We turn back to the house where we will stay the night. It might be the last night we will all get to spend together for a long while yet.
In the evening, the cars stream back to city and town, as people leave the wilderness behind for the urban and suburban, leave nature for office and home. Yet, the wilderness they leave behind will not sink into great desolation, and the home that lies ahead will not be disconnected from nature. The people have touched Tahoe and, perhaps, some have been touched by Tahoe, in return. Who knows how many found their solitude, or a primitive and unconfined recreation, or forged new connections with nature, or among themselves? And what, finally, is the real catalyst of it all, if not the landscape itself? For it is the lake and the wilderness, by their presence, accessibility, and grandeur, that drew each of us briefly outside the busy, self-contained cocoons of our lives. And yet, watching the departing vehicles and recalling the milling crowds, I cannot help thinking: catalysts are supposed to remain unchanged by the reactions they facilitate.
The envelope of night slips over the lake. The slithering roar of the highway subsides to muted shush of tyres. One can now stand on the slopes above the lake and the city of South Lake Tahoe, and look—look down at the sprinkling of lights in the landscape, glowing in boats and houses, beaming from streetlights and cars. To the sighing of wind in the pines, one can look at the lake and imagine the unflinching eye reflecting the light of stars.
This article first appeared on my blog on the Coyotes Network on 7 June 2016.