EMERALD BAY, Calif. - I was camped on the southwest edge of Emerald Bay, where a notch in the shoreline offers a decent sandy landing.
Earlier that day, I had paddled to the spot from Camp Richardson. I pulled my board up on the beach, unloaded my dry-bag and dined on freeze-dried beef stew on a flat rock by the water. The sunset flashed off a slight sizzle of pink. Seemingly all alone in Emerald Bay, I climbed into my hammock, watching the quiet ripples of rising trout. All was perfectly well, that is, until a large animal started breathing down my neck.
Though much of the local buzz has been about racing, stand-up paddling is a great way to explore Lake Tahoe. I like to think of it as hiking or backpacking on water, but you don't have to carry a pack. Touring boards can hold a load of gear in dry bags and can provide access to seldom-seen views and solitary beaches where wildlife may be your only living encounter.
On my way to Emerald Bay, I cruised along the shoreline. At Baldwin Beach, I portaged through the shallows and into the Taylor Creek lagoon. A school of Kokanee lingered in the deep water like a red and green cloud. I tooled upstream until the tiny rapids became too shallow to cross.
Out in the blue water, the strokes became rhythmic. I let my mind wander, tuning out the houses on the shoreline and the distant buzz of the helicopters and the highway. I looked down through the "dazzlingly, brilliantly" transparent water to the "perfectly distinct" bottom. Mark Twain would've loved stand-up paddling "balloon voyages" on Tahoe, I thought. It's like standing on air.
Paddling as an exercise is smooth and subtle, and as a mode of transportation is silent and efficient. Stand-up paddlers have now traveled the length of the Mississippi, hopped between the Hawaiian Islands and crossed the English Channel. Really, there's countless adventures to be had. It's just a matter of planning them, going for it and avoiding the bears.
The wind picked up when I rounded the point near the entrance to the bay. I pulled hard and made it to the sheltered water of the northern edge. I stopped on a long sandy beach, only accessible to those with shallow-draft vessels or hardy feet. A couple fishing boats trolled slowly near the channel. The shadows of Maggie's and Eagle Peak sneaked over the bay. I kept paddling.
Across the water, I passed Lake Tahoe's most popular SCUBA diving spot, marked by a "Divers only" buoy. The massive, ghostly square frame of a sunken barge rose out of the depths. The hull lay cockeyed on the sandy bottom, wooden beams and deck planks creating a grid filled with dark tunnels.
I found my campsite and brought the board ashore. I went about my set-up chores, hanging my hammock in a pair of trees closest to the water, blowing up my sleeping pad, boiling water and raising my food bag in a far-off tree. In the dim, I built a few rock towers and watched a beaver slip by on his nightly mission to gnaw willows on the bank.
The bay emptied of boats. The traffic on Highway 89 lulled to an intermittent drone and flash. The sky rolled over and the stars poked through the navy blanket. I might have fallen asleep, but that's about when I heard the snap of branches in the forest and a brute grunt. Why did I bring the blackberry jam?
Maybe I felt a little vulnerable wrapped up like an oversize hot dog in my hammock, but I'm not especially afraid of bear attacks. I'm just aware of the damage they can do when hungry. Under concern for my breakfast, I made a few loud coughs and laid vigilantly awake until early hours. Though I might of napped through part of my guard, my almond butter and jam was still swinging when the sun came up.
On my return trip, I passed a woman gliding along on her touring board near Fannette Island. She was fit and clean in her spandex paddling shorts and top. She didn't realize I'd spent a sleepless night on the shore in the company of bears.
"You're the first person I've seen. I thought this was my Lake Tahoe," she laughed.
My dirty fleece and rolled-up pants smelled like sweat. My hair was all messed up and my eyes were blurry from too little sleep.
"It's hard to get it all to yourself," I replied with a goofy smile.