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Finding a crowd-free Tahoe: Emerald Bay

Nicholas L. Miley
Special to the Tribune
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At 4 a.m. I was forcing down oatmeal and a banana and asking myself why I have chosen recreational pursuits that require predawn departures. When the alarm rang its dreadful tone I made excuses to stay in bed. But sitting here now in this canoe, bridging the gap between Kiva Beach and Eagle Point, I look over the inky waters and have no regrets.

My partner and I are a long way from shore. For a time we seem stationary, though we keep a steady rhythm paddling. Finally the land creeps forward and shows our progress. Eventually we reach the boulder-strewn shore that makes up the lake side of the point. We hug the bank and make the corner into Emerald Bay. We have come here to see the sunrise from the premier location of Mrs. Knight’s old tea house atop Fannette Island.

Having gained the protection of the bay, the water becomes glassy and unbroken. I mention to my partner that this bay was glacially carved. Amazingly, one little hunk of granite stood up to the awesome forces that cleared everything else out of its path. Rising 150 feet above the water, Fannette Island sets a stellar example for the hardheaded and strong-willed.

Emerald Bay claims a few natural features unique to Lake Tahoe. For example, Fannette is the lake’s only island and Eagle Falls, at the head of the bay, is the only water fall that flows directly into Tahoe’s waters. Although the bay has an intriguing natural history, its beauty has drawn a host of characters that have created a rich human history as well.

As we reach the craggy shore of the island I can not help but think about the Hermit of Emerald Bay: Captain Richard Barter. Dick Barter made Emerald Bay home for 10 winters between 1863 and 1873 when the lake claimed his life. Barter had built his grave on Fannette Island and intended it to be his final resting place, but the lake never gave up his body for an earthen burial.

Hauling up the boat and securing it on a rocky perch, it is hard to imagine having this place all to oneself. But, in the predawn hours, while all the campers on the shore are still sleeping and motor-boaters have yet to disturb the waters, I glean some of the experience that was commonplace to Barter.

In 1863, Ben Holiday, Jr. was the first to preempt the land around the bay. It was his land and summer home that Barter care-took all those winters. In 1884, Holiday sold 500 acres to Dr. Kirby, who later opened a resort on the northwest shore. Kirby later sold the head of the bay, including Fannette Island, to the Armstrong family in 1895. The Armstrongs later sold out their holdings to Mrs. Knight in 1928.

Emerald Bay reminded Mrs. Knight of the fjords in northern Europe. As a result, she was inspired to build a Scandinavian-style mansion on her property and make it her summer home. Vikingsholm is the magnificent result of Mrs. Knight’s vision. The tea house was conceived at the same time as the residence on shore, and like the mansion, it blends into it’s environment without detracting from the natural beauty.

There is a large window on every wall of the tea house except the southern wall which accommodates the entrance. Looking out the eastern window, the bay and Lake Tahoe are revealed to us in a panoramic frame. Silently we take in the view.

We are lucky because today this land is no longer privately owned. In 1945, Mrs. Knight passed away and her property was sold to Lawrence Holland. Holland in turn resold it to Harvey West. It was Mr. West who offered to reduce the value of the land by 50 percent and make it available for the state of California to purchase. In 1953, Emerald Bay State Park was established.

All this history slips from my mind as I take in the light display on the mountains and waters all around. In thinking of ways to describe the growing, blending and fading of one color to the next, it occurs to me that words cannot do the scene justice. The reader must witness the spectacle herself. After absorbing all that we can from the experience, we make our way home content and grateful for the efforts of Mr. West and the state of California in opening, protecting and maintaining this beautiful bay for all to enjoy.

– Nicholas L. Miley is a South Lake Tahoe resident.


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