Life at Fallen Leaf Lake: It’s pretty fun
The battle lines are drawn across the banks of Glen Alpine Creek. Cap guns loaded and camouflage readied as a group of 9-year-olds prepares to sack each other’s forts in a typical boys-against-girls fashion.
The first to return with treasure wins, all who are captured lose, and we have until dinnertime to complete our mission.
That was almost a decade ago. The majority of those armies have gone off to college and our younger cousins and siblings have picked up where we left off. But we will always carry the irreplaceable memories of growing up at Fallen Leaf Lake.
As youngsters, my cousins, neighbor’s children and I spent most of the summer waterlogged. Just after sunrise with a water-skier in tow, we would head off to catch the glassy water before it was lost to the wind and numerous boaters.
Afternoons were often spent swimming. At times we would dive for buried treasure – quarters, dimes and fishing lures and maybe a plastic bottle or two dropped by a careless visitor.
Winter was another matter. When Fallen Leaf Lake is closed off from the rest of the world, my grandparents, Bill and Barbara Craven, still live there. Visiting them required bundling up beyond mobility, packing everything into waterproof garbage bags and waiting in the snow for our reward – a chilly snowmobile or snowcat ride on Fallen Leaf Road.
Fallen Leaf Lake has been a special place to grow up for generations.
“My grandfather Price started Camp Agassiz for boys around 1895 or ’96 as an appendix to the Agassiz Preparatory School,” Bill Craven said. “The parents were so enamored, they encouraged him to start a resort. He began with a tent camp, but by 1909 the Fallen Leaf Lodge was up and running.”
Born in 1928, Bill Craven, spent his childhood summers at the lodge.
Although the family often drove to Fallen Leaf, he recalls a particularly historical trip: “I remember coming up on the train once (from San Francisco) when I was about 5 or 6. We got on the train … and woke up at the Tahoe Tavern the next morning. We then took the steamer S.S. Tahoe to Camp Richardson.”
As a toddler, his playpen wasn’t ordered from a catalog or purchased in a department store, it was a large basket – 3 feet in diameter – woven by a Washoe woman.
The Washoe weaved baskets and prepared pine nuts for sale during the summer months when they journeyed from the Carson Valley to their summer camp, located near St. Francis of the Mountains chapel at Fallen Leaf. The women worked as domestic employees at the lodge, while many of the men returned to the valley to work on ranches.
“(The Washoe) were always having wonderful campfires,” he said. However, the Washoe camp was later destroyed by floods due to failure of dams built by the Montana flattail beavers, a species not native, but introduced, to the Lake Tahoe environment.
“The clarity of Fallen Leaf water and the variety of small animals stand out in my memory,” Bill said.
However, the lake visibility has been reduced from 100 to 90 feet. Animals such as skunk, pine martin, wolverine, fox, bobcat and sucker fish are no longer present in the ecosystem.
“There used to be large schools of Tahoe suckers in Fallen Leaf. Another little boy and I caught one by rolling a hook into a ball of cheese and floating it down (Glen Alpine) creek,” Bill said. “We were walking along the road with the fish, when a Washoe man stopped us and asked how we caught it. He said we shouldn’t catch them because they kept the lake clean. The suckers are now gone and the lake is no longer clean.”
Celio’s Blacksmith shop and sawmill were also fascinating to a small boy. “As you rode by on Tahoe Mountain Road, you could look into the end of the mill building and see the carriage traveling back and forth, cutting logs into boards, Bill said.
“There was nothing at the ‘Y’ in those days. We got all our supplies at Celio’s in Meyers.” The Celios are one of Lake Tahoe’s original founding families, owning Meyers, which included a general store, hotel, post office and many other necessities.
Medical care for my grandfather was also a challenge. “I had my first cavity filled with a foot-powered drill in a makeshift dentist’s office near the (Glen Alpine) falls.”
My grandfather fondly remembers playing in Fallen Leaf Lodge’s ice house located near what is now Stanford Sierra Camp. “It was great on a hot summer day,” he said. “Ice from Witch’s Pool was cut into blocks using handsaws, separated with sawdust and stored within the thick, wooden walls.”
Another favorite children’s spot at the lodge was the blanket and pillow room. “We made the most wonderful forts on rainy days, using blankets and clothespins,” Bill said.
He and his wife still live at Fallen Leaf year-round, giving historical lectures and entertaining grandchildren for months at a time during the summer.
Memories of Fallen Leaf, which have changed between my grandfather’s childhood and mine, may differ even more for future generations. However, the spirit of growing up at the lake will always remain the same.
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