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Lake Tahoe in Winter

by John Muir

Published in Sierra Club Bulletin, May 1900, Reprint of a letter published in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1878.


The winter glory of the Sierra ! How little is known of it! Californians admire descriptions of the Swiss Alps, reading with breathless interest how ice and snow load their sublime heights, and booming avalanches sweep in glorious array through their crowded forests, while our own icy, snow-laden mountains, with their unrivaled forests, loom unnoticed along our eastern horizon. True, only mountaineers may penetrate their snow-blocked fastnesses to behold them in all their white wild grandeur, but to every healthy man and woman, and even to children, many of the subalpine valleys and lake-basins, six or seven thousand feet above the sea, remain invitingly open and approachable all winter. With a friend and his two little sons I have just returned from a week of bracing weathering around Lake Tahoe, in which we enjoyed glorious views of winter, fine rolling and sliding in the snow, swimming in the icy lake, and lusty reviving exercise on snow-shoes that kept our pulses dancing right merrily. All the weather was hearty and exhilarating, though varying almost from hour to hour: snowing, blowing, clear and cloudy, but never rigorously cold.

This winter has been remarkably mild, the mercury having seldom made a very near approach to zero, even during the coldest nights around the lake, while the average noonday temperature was considerably above the freezing- point. The snow lies deep on the surrounding mountains and about the shores, solid white contrasting with the dark-blue water of the lake, while the forests and canons and the upper glacial fountain hollows are well filled, assuring abundance of summer water for the lakes and streams.

According to the record kept by Mr. McKinney, on the west shore of the lake, eight miles above Tahoe City, at an elevation of 6,500 feet above sea-level, the amount of snow, measured as it fell, was twenty-two feet and four inches for the season up to March 20th, with four inches of rain, while an inch or two more of rain and two or three feet of snow will probably fall before the full opening of spring. Last season the snowfall, measured by the same observer, at the same station, was only nine feet and seven inches, while the season before last it was no less than forty seven feet and six inches. The fall about Yosemite Valley, according to my own observations, usually considerably exceeded this. The greater portion of the snow that loads the main summits of the range falls in small crisp flakes and broken crystals; or when accompanied by strong winds at a low temperature, the crystals, instead of being locked together in tufted flakes, are driven against each other and broken into meal and fine dust which darkens the sky like night But down in the forested region, at about the elevation of Lake Tahoe, the greater portion comes gently to the ground, light and feathery, some of the flakes in mild weather being nearly an inch in diameter, and is evenly distributed and kept from drifting to any great extent by Lake Tahoe in Winter. 121 the shelter of the woods. Every tree is loaded with the fairy bloom, bending down the branches, and hushing the singing of the elastic needles. When the storm is over and the sun shines, the dazzling snow at once begins to settle and shift and fall off the trees in miniature avalanches; then the relieved branches spring up and shake themselves dry, and the whole green forest, fed and refreshed, waves and sings again rejoicing. The snow on the ground settles also, and thaws and freezes until it becomes coarsely granulated ice, with all trace of its crystalline snow structure destroyed. This is the present condition of most of the snow on the range. From towards midnight until midday at this time of year a man may walk firmly over the surface, as if on ice, provided the preceding day has been warm and the night frosty.

The forested region up to an elevation of about eight thousand feet is generally clear of snow towards the end of May or middle of June; but now (March 28th) the higher canons are still heavily blocked, and the head tributaries of the rivers flow in dark tunnels beneath the icy mass. As warm summer advances, the roof of compacted snow falls in here and there, leaving magnificent arching bridges where it is strongest, over which one may safely ride a horse. All the upper streams are thus buried and bridged every winter, and are seldom completely opened to the light before the end of June or middle of July.

Notwithstanding twenty-two feet of snow has fallen here this season, so greatly has it been melted and compacted, the present average depth at a height of 7,500 feet does not exceed seven feet. The drifts in exposed lake hollows and along the lee sides of bald ridges above the timberline are often fifty feet or more in depth, and many of the latter are grandly adorned with overcurling cornices, beneath which pale blue light shimmers with ineffable beauty. But it is in the fountain cirques of the ancient glaciers, beneath the shadows of the highest peaks, that the heaviest and most enduring deposits are stored up. For there the lavish snowfall on the steep converging slopes is shot down in avalanches during or after' every storm, heaping snow on snow to a depth of a hundred feet, or even more at times. These treasured banks are never wholly melted, however hot the summer, but with the few lingering glaciers form perennial fountains for the highest tributaries of the rivers.

Few even among Californians have any fair conception of the marvelous abundance of glacier lakes hidden in the fastnesses of our mountains. The snow and some of the glaciers make a telling show, even from the distant lowlands; but not a single stream is visible, nor a hollow where one might hope to find a lake. Nevertheless, wild rivers are falling and sounding in every canon, and all their upper branches are fairly laden with lakes like orchard-trees with fruit. They nestle in rocky nooks and hollows about all the high peaks and in the larger canons, reflecting their stern, rugged beauty and giving charming animation to the bleakest and most forbidding landscapes. From the summit of Red Mountain, a day's journey to the east of Yosemite Valley, forty-two may be seen within a radius of eight or ten miles. The whole number in the Sierra can hardly be less than fifteen hundred, exclusive of the smaller gems, which are innumerable. Perhaps two-thirds of them lie on the west flank of the range, and all are restricted to the alpine and subalpine regions, those which once brightened the lower regions having long since vanished by the filling in of their basins. Lake Tahoe is king of them all, not only in size, but in the surpassing beauty of its shores and waters. It seems a kind of heaven to which the dead lakes of the lowlands had come with their best beauty spiritualized. It lies embosomed in mountains of moderate height near the northern extremity of the high portion of the Lake Tahoe in Winter. 123 range, between the main axis and a spur that puts out on the east side from near the head of the Carson River. Though it is twenty-one miles long by ten wide, and from about five hundred to sixteen hundred feet deep, its basin was once occupied by a glacier which filled it from the bottom to a point high above the present water-level, and being lavishly fed by the snows of the encompassing mountains, crawled slowly, like a mighty river, over the north rim of the basin, crushing and grinding the lower mountains that lay in its way, and it was only at the end of the ice period that this noble lake, at least in anything like its present form, came into existence.

Excepting the forests that have sprung up around its shores, the post-glacial changes that have taken place are scarcely appreciable. The sediments carried forward by the inflowing streams at the head of the lake have made a few square miles of meadow-land, and the breaking through of a moraine dam in the canon of the outlet has lowered the lake considerably, leaving shore benches and lines on the rocky promontories to mark the original level. With these comparatively unimportant exceptions, the lake itself and all its grandly sculptured, ice-scored, and moraine-streaked basin exist to-day in just about the condition they presented when first they came to the light towards the close of the Glacial Period.

The destructive action of man in clearing away the forests has not as yet effected any very marked change in general views. Perhaps about 150,000,000 feet of lumber for the Comstock mines has thus far been cut from the lake shores. But the business is being pushed so fervently from year to year, almost the entire basin must be stripped ere long of one of its most attractive features. One of the lumber companies at work here has contracted with mine owners to supply 36,000,000 feet of lumber and 60,000 cords of wood this season. It is estimated that the Tahoe basin still contains about 600,000,000 feet of lumber available for the mines.

In summer the woods resound with the outlandish noise of loggers and choppers and screaming mills; skiffs and steamboats skim the lovely blue water in work and play; and ever and anon as you thread the groves along shore you come upon groups of gay tourists sauntering about, gathering flowers, or resting luxuriously in the rosiny shade of the pines, some in easy picnic attire, others all ribbons and colors, glaring wildly amid the green leaves and frightening the wondering squirrels and birds. But winter brings rest. At sight of the first snowflake pleasure-seekers flee as from a plague, the ax leaves the woods, and the kind snow heals every scar. Contemplating the basin from any commanding hilltop, only pale curls of smoke seen at wide intervals betoken the existence of human dwellings. Like the bears, the few settlers that remain here are silently "holed up." The snow covers their cabins as if they were bowlders, and when approached only a narrow shoveled-out passage, or tunnel, is found leading to the door. Some of the more enterprising winter dwellers drift about in boats in calm weather, catching trout for the Carson market,—for the lake, on account of its great depth, never freezes. They thus earn from thirty to forty dollars a month, and at the same time get rid of lonely dullness. A trapper may also be seen now and then shuffling along the shore on long Norwegian snow-shoes in pursuit of minks, fishers, and otters.

In this letter I intended only to say a good word for winter in the mountains, hoping to incite others to come and enjoy it, sketching our excursion to illustrate the ease and comfort with which such snowy winter rambles may be made; but I have written too much I fear about the snow to leave room for more than a thin outline. We went by rail to Lake Tahoe in Winter. 125 Carson, and from there set out by stage for Glenbrook. After ascending on wheels until we reached the snow-line, the driver attached his four horses to a sled, hoping thus to cross the summit, which is less than eight thousand feet high, without much difficulty. But mild weather had softened the snow, and the unfortunate animals, after floundering and wallowing through a mile of it, lay down exhausted with their heels in the air. Then we made our way on foot over to the lake. Next day, on a small steam-tug, we crossed the lake to McKinney's, on the west shore, where we were at home. Here we spent a few health-giving, delightful days, rowing, bathing, racing at lightning speed on snow-shoes down a mountain-side back of the house, and slipping about through the solemn, silent woods. Only the eldest of my companions ventured with me on the steep slopes. This was his first experience on snowshoes, and the several descents he made were the most remarkable specimens of falling locomotion that I ever had the fortune to witness. In shooting down steep declivities the long sled-runner-like shoes have to be kept parallel with firmly braced limbs. My friend, however, heedless of advice, launched himself in wild abandon, bouncing and diving, his limbs and shoes in chaotic entanglement, now in the snow, now in the air, whirling over and over in giddy rolls and somersaults that would shame the most extravagant performances of a circus acrobat. How original and inimitable he was! Wonderfully refreshing and exhilarating his queer capers must have been; for on coming to rest, with his runaway members divorced and lost, he would quietly gather himself, pick out the snow from his neck and ears, and say with preternatural solemnity, "This, Muir, is the very poetry of motion."

We also spent some rare evenings by the huge fire in McKinney's old cabin. The log walls are covered with trophies of the chase, for our host has been a great hunter in his day. Two live pet coons were frolicking on the floor while our grand old host smiled benignly and played with them, the firelight gleaming on his weathered face. How big he seems, thus brought into relief, and what a shadow he casts! The fragrant rosiny fire is the very god of the home. No wonder the old nations, with their fresher instincts, had their fireside gods. At last, when a mild snow-storm was blowing, we rowed to the lower end of the lake and completed our excursion by slipping on snow-shoes down the Truckee canon to the railroad.


Source: "Lake Tahoe in Winter" by John Muir.
Published in Sierra Club Bulletin,Vol. 3, No. 2, May, 1900, pp. 119 -
126.



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