Lake Tahoe, California

…at last the Lake burst upon us — a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still! It was a vast oval, and one would have to use up eighty or a hundred good miles in traveling around it. As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords. – Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872)


Mark Twain may not have liked the name “Lake Tahoe” – preferring its then-official, patronimic designation as “Lake Bigler.” However, he was clearly overwhelmed by its beauty, and surely no person who has ever seen this place can find fault with the words he so eloquently penned almost a century and a half ago. The view above of Emerald Bay, on the south side of the lake, may not be where Twain first viewed Lake Tahoe, but for me it is the most iconic place from which to view it. I first fell in love with Lake Tahoe almost 18 years ago, when my then fiancée and I first moved to Sacramento. We married up there, and for the 5 years we lived in California we spent many a weekend enjoying Tahoe’s 4-season charm. It has been 12 years since we moved back to St. Louis, and I hadn’t been back — until this past weekend. The reasons for the delay are many, but returning to this place reminded me why I consider it the most beautiful place in the world. I shall not let so long a time pass before my next visit.

Lake Tahoe is a relatively young lake, forming within the last several million years (in contrast, the block of granite that was to become the Sierra Nevada mountains – and in which Lake Tahoe lies – began forming during the Paleozoic Era and was then exposed by erosion beginning about 130 million years ago). The basin in which the lake lies was formed by fault-induced block slippage between two uplifted blocks, with the lake itself forming after magma upwellings dammed the northern part of the basin. Glacial action in more recent years (2 million to 20,000 years ago) caused additional damming, causing drastic fluctuations in the lake level — maximum levels reached nearly 800 feet higher than present. The most recent glaciations (~10,000 years ago) carved out Donner Lake (just east of Lake Tahoe), Emerald Bay (above), and nearby Fallen Leaf Lake (below — the frozen lake surface can just be seen above the trees in the foreground).


Emerald Bay is actually part of a glacial “staircase” featuring intermittent flat stretches containing lakes and meadows before ultimately ending at Emerald Bay. Eagle Lake lies immediately above Emerald Bay on one of these “steps,” and the 1-mile trail to it is one of the most popular hikes in the area — below is a view towards Eagle Lake from Emerald Bay:


On the day we arrived (Sat 3/15), a late winter storm was dumping new snow on the surrounding mountains, as seen in this view across the south end of the lake towards the city of South Lake Tahoe. Heavenly Ski Resort was shrouded from view on this day, but the fresh powder being dumped there would provide for some delightful spring skiing over the next few days.


In the meantime, there would be plenty of activities to keep ourselves occupied. With the amount of snow on the ground, one might think there would be little opportunity for botanizing. However, I favor the woody flora, and I was excited about the chance to begin reacquainting myself with some of the western conifers for a change. Of these, one of my favorites is incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) — mature trees develop thick, deeply furrowed, brick red bark that stands out in beautiful contrast from the other trees. Even dead trees maintain a rustic and majestic beauty, and this large dead snag is as stately as any I’ve seen:


On Monday we rented snowshoes and hiked the cross-country ski trails at Camp Richardson. None of us had ever snowshoed before, but the girls quickly got the hang of it (note the live incense-cedar in the background):


We encountered a few cross-country skiers during our hike, but for the most part we spent the day in solitude. Shortly after beginning our hike, however, we came upon this impression in the snow. At first we thought someone had attempted to make a “snow angel,” but after studying it more carefully we realized it was made by a cross-country skier who had fallen and then struggled to get back up:


At this altitude, conifers dominate the flora. I was a little rusty on my knowledge of western U.S. plants, but I think I have things figured out (please let me know if you see any needed corrections to my identifications). The aforementioned incense-cedar was a conspicuous component of this lake-level forest, and its foliage – arranged in flattened, elongated, rumpled sprays – makes this tree easily identifiable amongst the other coniferous genera with which it grows:


Huge pine trees also dominanted the forest in this area. At first I thought they were ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa) due to their large size, irregular crown, and large plate-like patterns on the trunk caused by deep cross-checked fissuring of the bark. Eventually, however, I decided they must instead be Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi), a closely related species (that was once considered a variety of ponderosa pine), since the bark was more orange than yellow.


A closeup of the needles, which are in bundles of three and measure around 6-8 inches in length:


Another dominant coniferous component of this forest, also reaching massive size, was white fir (Abies concolor). The first photo below shows a large, mature tree in the distance, while the second shows a closeup of the foliage. At first I thought this might be Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), as the needles appeared to be irregularly 2-ranked; however, I asked Prof. Ronald Lanner to take a look, and he confirmed it is white fir. He said Douglas-fir needles are shorter, thinner, darker green, and have a skinny stalk, while fir needles have a fat round base and are wider and flatter. The latter also have a citrusy smell when crushed, which he describes as one of the best smells in the woods! Too bad I did not try it.



This decaying stump also represents white fir based on the scaly gray bark. I suspect the outer layers of the lower portion of the trunk (core still standing) were ripped off over time by animals looking for grubs and insects as decay progressed, eventually weakening it to the point that the upper portion (laying on the ground) finally broke off and fell:


As we hiked, I realized what an important part fire plays in the ecology of these forests. During the drive up from Sacramento, we passed several areas along Hwy 50 that had suffered severe damage due to the wildfires that swept through Lake Tahoe recently. One such area was even seen in the far eastern slopes of Heavenly Ski Resort itself. The forests around Camp Richardson had largely escaped these fires, and I wondered if fire management had contributed to this. Along the trail, evidence of fire was common on the trunks of trees, but few trees – even small ones – had been killed. I presumed the charring was evidence of fires that had been intentionally set and managed by the Forest Service with the objective of preventing fuel accumulation that could lead to the larger conflagrations that caused so much damage in other parts of the basin. These small incense-cedars trunks show obvious fire charring but otherwise looked healthy:


In a few areas it appears even these “cool” fires burned a little hot, killing some of the smaller trees but still avoiding the “torched-earth” damage seen in areas affected by uncontrolled burns:


I’m not much of a birder, but I do love woodpeckers. I got a glimpse of one during our hike, but I didn’t see it well enough to identify it. We did find this woodpecker hole in the trunk of a large, dead Jeffrey pine — a feather can even be seen clinging to the upper rim of the hole. The Lake Tahoe basin is home to several species of woodpeckers — whether this hole belongs to the black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), white-headed woodpecker (P. albolarvatus), or (more likely) hairy woodpecker (P. villosus) I can’t say for sure:


At the beginning of our hike, signs warning of bears and pleading not to feed them caught the girls attention. I told them it was winter and that they would be hibernating, but I wondered if at this late stage they might actually be starting to become active. It wasn’t long before we encountered these unmistakably bear tracks, made fresh in the new-fallen snow, and the more we looked the more abundant the tracks were to be found. I secretly (and the girls outwardly!) hoped we would see a live bear, but I don’t think the girls would have handled such an encounter very calmly:


I had intended to photograph some of the conifers seen at higher elevations while skiing at Heavenly Ski Resort, but I decided not to bring my camera. Pity, as I not only saw nearly pure stands of what I presume to be red fir (Abies magnifica), but also beautifully twisted and wind-gnarled pines at the highest elevations (+10,000 ft) that probably represent whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), judging by their highly forked trunks and upswept limbs. These magically grotesque trees were made even more beautiful by the previous day’s storms, which had deposited thick cakes of ice on their windward sides.

We coudn’t leave Lake Tahoe without one final visit to Emerald Bay. Below is a close up photograph of Fannette Island, the only island to be found in all of Lake Tahoe, and its famed “Tea House”:


We concluded our visit to Lake Tahoe by driving up Hwy 89 to Tahoe City for dinner at the Bridgetender Cafe before heading back to Sacramento. Next up — Muir Woods!

About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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