Sunday, June 30, 2013

In Tahoe, The Whole Point Is Exercise

A friend was visiting from out of town. After a couple of days of exploring, we were driving up the switchbacks south of Emerald Bay, and the bicyclists racing up the steep inclines were ubiquitous. Our friend said, “It's like we're in Barbie and Ken Doll land. Everybody is so fit.”
Team Bicycle Trip

It's true. Sometimes Tahoe feels like the place where people come to achieve physical perfection, or maybe just show it off.
Yet, I always notice what I call the Parking Lot/Exercise Paradox.
At the Tahoe supermarket, people drive around looking for the space closest to the door.
Worse, at Tahoe fitness clubs, people jockey for the parking spaces near the entrance. What?! I thought the whole point of going to the fitness center was to get exercise. In fact, for many, or even most, visitors, part of the point of coming to Tahoe is to get in shape.
Emerald Bay Physical Therapy

Of course, some might say that the lake and hiking trails and ski slopes are where the beauty is, not the parking lots. So they focus their fitness energies in those places. But exercise is good regardless of how we get it, right? 
Weekend Sherpa .com

Yet, in every parking lot, I can see mountains, some views of which are very beautiful. Well, actually, there are a few places where I can't see the mountains. And those are the parking places near the door.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Tahoe's Shoe Index? Not Your Mother's High Heels

The day before the opening of the L.A. Times Book Festival on the campus of USC, I was setting up my books for exhibit. It was a quiet day with postcard-sunny SoCal weather, perfect for the young woman leading a tour group of prospective students and their parents. She stayed at the head of about 30 people, and she gave her entire monologue at high volume so that everyone could hear. It was an impressive performance that she repeated a couple of hours later with a second group. But what really caught my attention was that she did the entire campus circuit walking backward and wearing high heels. I was reminded of the line about how Ginger Rogers could dance every step as well as Fred Astaire, yet she did it backward and in high heels.
MindBodyGreen .com

When you watch such a performance, you can't help but wonder about the dichotomy between esthetic and function. Whatever one thinks about the merits of high heels, they are clearly a world away from the merits of foot gear designed for support and warmth and the ability to be worn for miles without producing blisters.
For a Tahoe local, that USC performance brought to mind the rarity of high heels in the Tahoe Basin. Such shoes no doubt exist in Tahoe. But outside of the casino showrooms, they are mostly hiding in the back of closets.

It made me wonder if there might be a useful shoe index that psychologists or sociologists could apply to locales and then cross-reference to people. People looking to find their ideal living environment could take a short self-assessment test regarding their shoe interests and then check it against a location's shoe index. It would save one a lot of wasted time moving to Tahoe for the beauty only to discover that your high-heel score of 9.5 is on the wrong end of the spectrum from Tahoe's high-heel index of 1. Likewise, the young person with a hiking boot score of 9 or 10 might realize that their unhappiness living in Manhattan can be solved simply by finding a region with hiking boot index of 10. A place like Tahoe, for example.
HikingLady .com

When I thought I'd figured out a new index by which people could find the perfect location – or even the perfect mate – I thought back to those high school kids who were considering applying to USC. Judging by the passive, almost-blank looks on the students' faces – especially the boy's – when they looked at the buildings and expansive lawns and gardens, it appeared that extolling the advantages of life at USC was an extremely difficult way to get the attention of those kids.
As I glanced up now and then while stacking my books, I came to think that perhaps the young woman in high heels was really perceptive about her job. When the kids turned back from looking at the campus and watched their tour guide, they looked more interested. It could be that the tour leader actually preferred hiking boots. But walking backward in high heels was probably her best trick for getting kids to listen up.
Would any of those kids come to Tahoe to visit or even live someday? Sure, once their high heel score drops to a 1 or 2 and their hiking boot score climbs to 8 or 10. In the meantime, the tour guide's heels might have helped convince another kid to give college a try.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Are There Rattlesnakes In Tahoe?

The high-altitude living of Tahoe offers many benefits if you like to spend time outdoors. Perfect summer weather. Dry enough in the summer to prevent nearly all bugs from taking up residence. Nights that are cold enough to stop the few remaining pesky bugs in their flight paths. Hot sunshine on even the coldest winter days. A high proportion of sunny days. And glorious recreation including uncountable spectacular hiking trails.
But what about rattlesnakes on those trails?
Some time back, we were hiking a couple of hundred miles north of - and 4000 feet lower than - Tahoe, when we came upon a rattler. We later identified it by his beautiful pattern as a Pacific Coast Rattlesnake. He lay coiled on the trail, his head up in the air, his tail up, too, but held a little lower.
He wasn't shaking his rattle. We hadn't gotten close enough for him to go into alarm mode. But he was aware of us. Very aware. Except for the snaking, serpent tongue – stuff of legends and bad dreams alike – he was still. We watched and we stayed as still as possible. But not like this guy. He could do still better than your average rock.
In the end, he won the staring contest. We gave him wide berth and went on our way. For the rest of our hiking trip, every step took on a new weight. We weren't just exploring the Northern California wilderness, we were running the timeless gauntlet, man against nature. And the serpents were out there, ready to take us down.
How can you prepare against something that might slither right up your pant leg? (It would probably never happen, but I'm a writer. My job is to imagine, right?) Add in curved, needle teeth and you can barely stand to visualize what body part into which that guy might decide to inject his venom.
All of which made us glad to come back to Tahoe because, to our knowledge, we don't have rattlesnakes anywhere in the Tahoe Basin.
But is that really true? There are several varieties of rattlesnake to be found throughout the foothills to the west. And to the east of Lake Tahoe – Carson Valley, Washoe Valley and Reno's Truckee Meadows – there are a good supply of legless reptiles with very sharp venom-delivery tools.
A little Google research will turn up a few fish-and-wildlife officials who say snakes could be in Tahoe. But none of them definitively say that rattlesnakes live in the basin. I did find one credible personal account of hikers encountering a rattlesnake near Margaret Lake, which is near Kirkwood but out of the Tahoe Basin.  Margaret Lake is at 7000 feet and, like Kirkwood, it gets a ton of snow, and the territory is similar to Tahoe, so it makes you think...  
It seems as if we should have lots of snakes in Tahoe. On our warmest days, the gophers and other small rodents are numerous enough to feed an army of snakes. Certainly, they feed an army of coyotes.
But even if we allow for the possibility of rattlesnakes in the basin, the fact is that few-to-no sightings means there are very, very few, if any. 
No one posits any thoughtful explanation of why this should be. Maybe our weather is just too cool for too long. Maybe we have enough aggressive hawks and eagles to make it impossible for any snakes to ply their trade here. Death from the sky is a snake's worst nightmare. Any snakes thinking of slithering over one of the passes into the basin might decide that it's too much work only to have to make a return trip before the snow comes back in the fall. 

I asked him if he'd ever seen a rattlesnake in Tahoe, and he said he hadn't. So I asked him, "If Great Basin Rattlesnakes can be found up to ten thousand feet, why don't we have rattlers on our hiking trails?" He said, "Too many tourists?"
If Jim is right, then book your trip to Tahoe now! We need you to keep the rattlers away.

Here is a Great Basin Rattlesnake that Jim photographed on Anaho Island on Pyramid Lake.(Tahoe's water flows down the Truckee River to Reno and then on to Pyramid Lake. Pyramid Lake has no outlet. Its water simply evaporates over time.)

So snake lovers beware. Tahoe ain't your territory. We have lots of bear and coyote. And there have been two mountain lion sightings on the South Shore this year. But there is a disappointing, depressing, deficiency of rattlesnakes in these mountains. Sad as that is, so far we're coping just fine!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Best Hikes In Tahoe - Crystal Bay Fire Lookout

Category – Easy
View rating: 9 out of 10
A little over 1 mile round trip, 400 feet elevation gain

This hike is often overlooked, especially by Tahoe locals who celebrate the big hikes. But this hike shouldn't be dismissed, because it has spectacular views. (And it holds the record for the highest angle you can easily get to above the shoreline - note the word “easily.” That fact, along with what I'm going to tell you at the bottom of this post, will allow you to win more bets at the bar than at the gaming tables.)
Not too shabby, these Tahoe views!

To get to this short, beautiful hike, drive to Crystal Bay on the north shore. (The state line between California and Nevada runs through the middle of town. In fact, it runs through the middle of the lobby of the Cal Neva hotel – the one that Sinatra used to own.)
Northeast of the state line (just northeast of the Tahoe Biltmore Hotel), turn west on Reservoir Rd. Drive two short blocks to Lakeview Ave and turn right. About 1/2 mile up, you will see a gate on the left. That is the beginning of your hike. Park along Lakeview, before you get to the gate. (Don't block the gate, and remember to stay back from the fire hydrant.)
The hike is an old road that makes a comfortable climb of a bit more than 1/2 mile one way.
A wide path makes it easy to talk while you walk

You'll find an open area at the top with views nearly 360 degrees around, including amazing lake views stretching past the South Shore mountains to 10,400-foot Round Top over 30 miles away.
The narrow building that sticks up in the center near the shore is the Cal Neva Hotel. This is also the only building tall enough on the North Shore that can be seen from the South Shore. See my post on why that is.

To the east below you is Crystal Bay and Incline Village, named for the incline railway that hauled wood from the lake back in the 19th century.
Note the ski runs at Diamond Peak
To the west below is Agate Bay with the town of Kings Beach. In the distance to the west are the mountains of Northstar, Alpine Meadows, and Squaw Valley. 
The dark rounded mountain is an ancient volcano named Mt. Pluto, and Northstar ski resort
covers its back side. In the far distance, center, is Squaw Valley. The far distance on the left is Alpine Meadows.

To the south, you can see the ski runs of Heavenly 25 miles distant.
At the rear of the photo, what looks like a gray smoke plume going across
 Heavenly mountain from the right side back to the upper left is actually
the path of the Gondola forest fire from several years ago. The gray tone
is all the dead trees left over. According to the Fire Marshal, the fire was
started when someone tossed a cigarette butt out of the gondola.
This is one of several benches to enjoy the view. Bring your lunch!
Be sure to find the “circle” path that takes you in a complete loop around the area. It is paved and dotted with benches for taking in the views as well as informational signs about the area and Tahoe history.

Here's a zoom photo to see the color of the water near shore. Wow.

Zooming in on Crystal Bay, you see a sail boat out in front of
Incline Village's Hyatt Hotel, which is well hidden in the trees

Now comes the information to win those bets about Tahoe hiking trails. 
Warning: pesky minutia follows.
When you talk to locals about hikes with great views, they will often tell you about the high peaks, especially those that require real effort to “bag.” If you stress that you want views of the lake, they will mention a range of prominent points on the Tahoe Rim Trail as well as mountains like Maggies Peaks (the south one is best to climb) and, of course, Mt. Tallac, which is considered the best of the bigger climbs because it is closer to the lake than the highest peaks like Freel Peak, Jobs, Jobs Sister, and Mt. Rose.
But let's talk “angle above the water.”
The Stateline Fire Lookout above Crystal Bay will get you to a touch over 7000 feet of elevation just 1/3 of a mile from the shores of Crystal Bay (Incline Village) and Agate Bay (Kings Beach). That puts you 800 feet above the lake just 1760 feet from the shore. This is an angle of 41 degrees. No other easily accessible spot around the lake gets you close to 41 degrees above the shoreline.
What are the comparison points?
In order of ascending angles...
Mt. Tallac is an impressive 9735 feet high, and it is often spoken of as the highest peak right on the lake. But its summit is actually set back 3 miles from the shore. (Although, it is only 1.5 miles from the shore of Fallen Leaf Lake, so one's enthusiasm for Tallac's lake views can be forgiven.) At 3500 feet above Lake Tahoe, it has amazing views, but its angle above the water is only 20 degrees.
East Peak is at Heavenly, and it's an easy hike from the top of the gondola. It doesn't get much attention because it doesn't look like much, but it is a respectable 9500 feet high and only 2.3 miles from the shore. That puts it at 24 degrees above the lake shore, a greater angle than Mt. Tallac.
On the West Shore, Blackwood Ridge up above Homewood and Tahoe Pines will get you up at 7300 feet within 3/4 miles of the lake for an angle of 25 degrees.
West Shore peaks such as Rubicon Peak and Jakes Peak are both an impressive 9200 feet, but they are almost two miles from the shore, or 26 degrees above the shore.
Above Sand Harbor is Herlan Peak at 8840, otherwise known as the Sand Harbor Lookout. At slightly less than 1 mile from the shore, it is 45 degrees above the water, a greater angle than the Crystal Bay Fire Lookout, but much harder to get to.
There is an unnamed peak at 9200 south of Jakes Peak, and it is only 1 mile from Emerald Bay putting it 51 degrees above the shore.
3/4 miles from the Vikingsholm Castle on the shore at Emerald Bay can get you to 8500 feet at North Maggies Peaks and also to 8500 feet along the shoulder of Jakes Peak on the north side of Emerald Bay for an angle of 52 degrees, the highest angle above the shore in all of Tahoe.
But good luck getting to either of those places!
In fact, all but one of the places that can get you at a higher angle above the water than the Crystal Bay Fire Lookout have no hiking trails and are nearly inaccessible.
There is, however, one solid trail that will get you to a higher point within 1/3 mile of the lake, and that is the Bay View trail above Emerald Bay. It goes up Maggie's Peaks (but not directly to North Maggies). Along it, you come to a spot where you can step out to the top of the big rock slide at 7250 feet. It is as grand a view as you can get in Tahoe. (More on that wonderful hike in a future post.) But beautiful as the Bay View vistas are, the trail is steep and somewhat arduous to climb. Thus the Crystal Bay Fire Lookout trail is still the highest angle above Lake Tahoe that one can easily get to.
View from the Crystal Bay Fire Lookout

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sneak Preview: TAHOE CHASE - The 11th Owen McKenna Mystery!

The next Owen McKenna mystery is TAHOE CHASE, and it will be out in August!

Here's the front cover:

What's TAHOE CHASE about?
Here's the back cover copy:
(Note: If you have a hard time reading the fine print, the copy is reprinted below the image.)

A Ski Racer's Wife Falls From A High Deck

92-year-old, former Olympic ski racer Joe Rorvik is devastated when he finds his wife Cynthia down below their deck, still alive but comatose after a fall. While the fall looks like an accident, Joe Rorvik hires Tahoe Detective Owen McKenna to investigate.

The Woman's Friends Start Dying

McKenna can't find anything suspicious until people close to Joe's wife start dying in other “accidents.”

The Dead Were Against A New Tahoe Ski Resort

McKenna finds motive when he discovers that the victims all opposed a new ski resort development.

There Is One Friend Who Is Still Alive

Joe's wife had made friends with a young French woman named Simone Bonnaire. While Simone is in danger from her abusive boyfriend, she hasn't taken a position against the ski resort. She doesn't appear to be a target of the killer.

The Chase Has Begun

McKenna encourages Simone to escape her boyfriend by pursuing her dream, a solo ski trek through the Desolation Wilderness. After she leaves, McKenna learns that he's made a terrible mistake and that Simone is the next to die. But he can't save her because she is out of touch and unreachable except by the killer who has already begun his final chase...