Cat Flag: Lake Tahoe Edition

Hey Cat Flaggers! Yes, I just got back from a trip to Lake Tahoe, the giant, deep, high-altitude lake on the California-Nevada border. I had a great time exploring an area I had never been to before, and wanted to share some of what I saw and learned with all of you!

By volume of water, Lake Tahoe is the largest U.S. lake that isn’t one of the Great Lakes. It is also the second-deepest lake in the United States after Crater Lake in Oregon. Its name comes from the Washoe Indian word for “lake”, so technically its name means “Lake lake”. I personally think that’s pretty funny.

It was once a major stop-over point for miners on their way to the silver mines of Nevada, with loggers in the area supplying the timber that the mines needed to build safety support structures to reduce the risk of cave-ins. In the early 20th century, as tourism in the region grew, several unsuccessful attempts were made to designate Tahoe as a national park; today, most of the region is covered by national forests and several state parks. Interestingly, the 1960 Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, California, very near the lake.

What struck me the most about the lake, though, was just how clear the water was! I mean, I’m used to the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean, which are clouded with salt, sand, and algae. Tahoe’s water, meanwhile, was so clear you could see down to the bottom.

This was just the tip of the natural beauty of the area, though. The pine forests were stunning, especially in the early morning sunlight.

Just look at that view!

The most fascinating thing about the lake, though, was that it was a place of contrasts. Allow me to explain a bit.

You are driving up from Sacramento toward the lake. The landscape is typical California: rolling, golden hills of dried-up grass and the odd tree here and there. Gradually, the trees start to grow more numerous, and more and more of them are pine trees instead of deciduous trees. Then, as you drive through Placerville, the landscape starts to change. All the deciduous trees disappear, as do the rolling grass-covered hills. In their places are steep, rocky slopes covered in pine trees. You keep driving up the mountainside, leaving Placerville behind, watching the road signs marking the increasing altitude as you climb and climb. Gone are the big cities and even medium-sized towns; in their place are small road stops, some of which have a sense of humor about how small they are:

Then you reach South Lake Tahoe, and suddenly you are back in civilization, sort of. Sure, it’s still pine trees and nature’s beauty everywhere you look, and most buildings are built with a rustic, log cabin theme. But there’s also a T.J. Maxx, a Ross, a KFC, and a Safeway.

The mountain pine forests seem at first to dominate the Tahoe area, but as you make your way around the Nevada side of the lake toward Carson City, the pines start to fall away, and over the course of a dozen curves in the road they disappear completely, replaced by high desert sands and scrub. By the time you reach Nevada’s state capital, you are clearly in a completely different environment than you were in South Lake Tahoe. It can seem jarring, moving through so many different ecosystems so quickly.

But nothing is more jarring than what greets you as you cross the border from California to Nevada. There is just a single street separating the California city of South Lake Tahoe from the (appropriately named) Nevada town of Stateline. On the California side of the street, you see a collection of boutiques, art galleries, and tourist traps, very much in keeping with the sort of thing you find in many California tourist towns. Then, you cross the street, and BAM! Massive, 18-story casino, located literally feet inside the Nevada border.

The entrance to Stateline is lined with several monstrously-huge, Vegas-style casino-resorts, each smushed-up as close to the border as they can possibly fit. I found the whole thing rather amusing, a physical manifestation of how man-made boundaries and limits can have as much, if not more, impact on the world and the people in it as natural ones. Indeed, by comparison, the “sudden” shifts in the natural environments from grasslands to mountain pine forests to high desert were all comparatively gradual and smooth. It was a reminder that the real world is one where there are plenty of grey areas, and only humans insist on absolutes. “On this side of the line, gambling is legal, and on this side, it’s illegal. That’s all there is to it.”

Speaking of Nevada, I spent some of the trip exploring Carson City and Reno, and had a good time seeing the sights there. In Carson City, I got to see the Artsy Fartsy Art Gallery, a really cool art collective featuring amazing works from Nevada artists, and the Nevada State Museum, a fascinating showcase of the natural and human history of the Silver State. I highly recommend anybody staying in the Tahoe area pay these places a visit.

In Reno, meanwhile, I managed to snag a snap of the Reno Arch:

Downtown Reno, of course, is most famous for its casinos, and some local sculptors decided to celebrate this fact with some interesting public artworks:

The original plan for my trip was that the first day would be spent in Carson City and Reno, and the second would be spent enjoying the natural beauty of the lake. Then, mother nature decided to throw a monkey wrench into those plans.

That haze you see in the background? Blocking the view of the other side of the lake? That’s not fog.

See, a massive forest fire more than a hundred miles away was pumping the area full of smoke from all the burning trees. A health advisory was imposed on the whole region, urging people to stay indoors to avoid breathing in all the smoke. I was experiencing some itching and burning in my eyes and throat that day, like a really bad case of allergies. I felt really bad for anyone with asthma or emphysema in the area that day.

That got me wondering, though. Surely this is far from the first time such a smoke dump has happened in the Tahoe area, right? I would imagine, since forest fires are such a common occurrence in California, that this would be something that happened fairly regularly. How do the animals and wildlife, who can’t hide indoors, handle these things when they happen? They must have some way of surviving the clouds of ash blowing in, right? After all, in the long run, the ash might actually be good for the forest, helping to fertilize the soil. At least, those were my initial thoughts on the matter.

Smoke aside, I really enjoyed visiting the Tahoe area, and I may go back someday. Hopefully, next time I’ll be able to hike through the piney woods and see some more of the natural sights. As it stands, though, I am very glad I made this trip, and I would encourage any Cat Flaggers who are interested to check the Tahoe area out.

Until next time!

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