Paddling out into the quiet world before the dawn, to kayak Lake Tahoe, when even the tinkling splashes of water falling from your blades sound soft and remote, feels as if you’re stepping into space….
The stretches of water on Lake Tahoe are so vast, so deep, that even when shrouded in misty twilight, you can sense the immense stillness stretching out across twelve miles of water, to the opposite shore.
The air temperature is below freezing, but I know that in a few minutes, the burning globe of the sun will rise over the snowy mountains and set fire to the lake. There’s something about being out on the water that fully engages and calms your mind, especially when you know the light is coming…
There are some adventures that you don’t see coming. Very rarely, these are also the ones that become some of your best ever outdoor memories.
When travelling to California to report on two of the State’s standout snow resorts (at Squaw and Mammoth Mountain), I didn’t expect to also experience the sunrise at Lake Tahoe, from the best seat in the house; a single-person kayak.
This is supposed to be our rest day as we transfer between resorts (our Squaw hotel is 30 mins from here) but thanks to the quick thinking of Jacob Lewis (one my travel buddies) we’ve arranged to experience one of California’s great natural wonders.
In fact, in our guide and kayaking mentor this morning, Bart Peterson says today was the perfect day to paddle, because the spell of high atmospheric pressure over the area has combined with unusually low winds.
It’s true, the air is still enough for thick ridges of frost to have settled around the edges of indentations on the sand, turning them into miniature, snow-topped dunes. I can’t resist quickly setting up a tripod and shooting a 2-second exposure, using a glass Formatt Hittech Reverse Grad filter in front of my lens to bring up the stunning pre-dawn light that is being reflected off the 22-mile long, 1600ft deep lake. It’s really satisfying when you manage to capture the splendour of a sight that you know you’ll hold in your mind’s eye for years.
Lake Tahoe is internationally famous, and at the height of holiday season the road around is jammed with tourists trying to see the Lake at its most magnificent. Today is deep winter and getting up for the dawn means that we are completely on our own. No engines, no boats, nothing else on the lake at all.
The gently shelving Commons Beach is optimal for launching kayaks, and we push off easily, paddling far enough out into the twilight of the lake to feel that we’ve left the everyday, mundane world of the roadside far behind us.
As the sun breaks over the top of the distant mountains on the far shore, the perfect golden globe spills its warmth like liquid fire out over the water, and seems to draw mist up out of the depths to stir languidly over the flames.
Looking around, I see that we are in the centre of an astounding spectacle, and we have it all to ourselves. Four becalmed kayaks in a sea of brilliance. The light feels alive in a way that you don’t experience on land, as it cascades off the ripples in the water and sparkles in the drops falling from my paddle.
As stunning as the sunrise is, we’re not just here to spectate. As soon as the sun rises enough to warm us, Bart starts to paddle off, aiming at the snow-topped mountains on the far horizon of the Southern shore.
He’s using a narrow-bladed carbon paddle and I can tell he’s an expert in its use because his strokes are barely raising a ripple, as the paddle blades rise and descend into the water. Meanwhile, mine are splashing into the dark depths and making a horrible racket. So I ask him for some quick technique tips:
1. “Proper paddling starts with your arms – so if you put your paddle above your head then you want your arms to be bent at a 90° angle, which shows you where you ought to be holding the paddle,” he says.
2. “When you put the paddle into the water you are putting it in at your toes and pulling it out at your hips.”
3. “As you rotate to make the paddle stroke, rotate more with your core than with your arms – your arms should never get tired when kayaking, rather it’s a pivot from the core.”
As soon as I put Bart’s advice into practice, I can feel my paddle strokes evening out, becoming smoother but more powerful too. Now I have half a chance of keeping up with Bart as he effortlessly motors on.
Watch this clip to see how to paddle effectively:
We’re making good progress, and as the sun climbs higher in the sky it reveals the immaculate homes lining the shore, with their long jetties and boat sheds. You can see why these buildings are highly prized by LA vacationers. (According to Bart, Mark Zuckerberg has just bought two or three properties next to each other for $80 million).
After about 90 minutes, if we kept paddling we would eventually reach the lakeshore home used when filming The Godfather. But I haven’t had breakfast yet, so we turn the kayaks into Hurricane Bay and land at the beach there, so we can stop at West Shore Market & Deli for coffee and homemade cinnamon muffins, straight out of the oven!
Paddling back to Commons beach, I am struck at the crystal clarity of the Lake’s water. I can see down into the emerald green rock-covered bottom, broken occasionally by stretches of sand, makrelled with regular ridges, which are formed by waves when the wind blows.
The air temperature in direct sun is fairly high now, and I can understand how this Lake is simply too deep, and vast to ever freeze over. In fact, Bart tells us that there’s enough H2O contained in it to cover the entire LA basin in two feet of water!
I idly contemplate this as my paddle strokes fall into a calming rhythm and my mind empties, focusing down into the movement, and the endless moment of the Lake.
Finally, as I paddle up to the sand, beaching my kayak with a satisfyingly soft crunch, I realise it’s barely past 9am, but I’ve already crammed in as much adventure as you’d get in a regular whole day.
Despite this being an almost accidental adventure it will go on to be one of my favourites, which goes to prove that you should always be ready to change your plans on a whim, especially if Mother Nature is feeling benevolent…
You can experience the sunrise on Lake Tahoe for yourself, according to Bart:
“You should look for good conditions, with calm waters like we had today. When that exists you can rent a boat from Tahoe City Kayak or Tahoe Adventure Company, and they have guides who will go on the water with you,” recommends Bart, who adds that you will need a kayak and paddle that fits you properly.
“The Lake Tahoe Water Trail shows you all of the different launch points around the Lake shore.” Launching points like Commons Beach are ideal because of the gently shelving shoreline and easy access for vehicles.
Something to bear in mind when you kayak Lake Tahoe is that the water, while too deep to ever freeze over, is also always cold. So lifejackets or PPDs are essential and you need to be aware of cold water shock, which can make breathing difficult if you capsize, leading to panic. Don’t panic! Follow Bart’s advice and you will have an awesome experience.
Photos and videos © Matt Ray, all rights reserved. Check out North Lake Tahoe for more, and if you’re looking to kayak and snowboard, or ski, on the same day, then you should look into Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows and Ikon Pass too.
Want to head out on your own Lake Tahoe kayaking adventure? Then watch this clip of Bart Peterson talking through some things to know before heading out onto the Lake: