Another Cross on a Hill…

During our recent vacation to Lake Tahoe, hubby and I took a DUKW tour of the Lake…both on land and in water. You see, “duck” vehicles are the refurbished amphibious vehicles used on D-Day now used as tourist transport on major waterways.

Interestingly, the acronym isn’t any military jargon at all. “D” indicates a vehicle designed in 1942. “U” means utility, “K” indicates all-wheel drive, and “W” stands for two powered rear axles.  Since we’ve already taken road/water rides around Boston and into the Charles River, and throughout the hills of San Francisco with a drive straight into the bay, we couldn’t wait.

Well, Lake Tahoe fascinates just about everybody, from Ponderosa fans to skiers, hikers, boaters, photographers, residents and tourists of all ages. It’s one of my favorite places on earth. But the first folks to love this place were the Washoe Indians.

The tribe lent its term “tahlah-act” meaning “great mountain” to the tallest peak at the lake, today’s Mt. Tallac at 9,735 feet. Some say the pronunciation is “tayak.”

The Washoe considered the mountain to be sacred, and their legends live on today. Particularly about the cross.


The cross on Mt. Tallac’s northeastern face is visible when the snow begins to melt in the spring. Well, it was a warm summer day when we saw it, but the mountains were still clumped with snow. Folks skied at the surrounding resorts on the Fourth of July. That’s because the winter just past was Tahoe’s fourth-snowiest on record.

The minute I saw the cross on August 9, I knew I needed to post here about it. But the subject mirrors the topic of my filly sister Winnie Griggs’s post of August 22. I didn’t want her to think I was “biting off her” (This was a term my kids always used when one of them copied the other LOL). Should I wait and post my cross blog later on? Then I realized: it’s sacred, marvelous, symbolic, magnificent to know that there are two such hallowed crosses in the West. I decided not to postpone this post.

So. When you check out the cross, it’s actually a “couloir” or series of deep gorges just to the left of the summit.

Many legends abound about the cross. One Washoe belief held that if all the snow melted away, the world would end. Others forecast a season of drought. Still another said the cross disappearing meant the lake would dry up. The tale our DUCK guide shared was if the cross melted, Tahoe would experience a record winter of snow. And was he ever right! After the “cross” melted last year, the winter of 2010-2011 saw 643 inches of  snow. Annual expectation is 300-500. The deepest June snowpack on record was this year’s 71.25 inches on the 13th.

As a tribute to Mt. Tallac and the cross, the opening sequence of the seventh through eleventh and final season of the classic Western TV show Bonanza was filmed from the north section of Nevada Beach (across the lake on the east shore) so that Mount Tallac and its snow cross appeared prominently in the background. As the Ponderosa map burned, you could see the Cartwright men riding up to the cameras with the mountain and cross in the back ground.
This beautiful site draws you in no matter where you are in the area. The next day after the DUCK tour, we rode the Heavenly Valley ski gondola and saw Tallac’s breathtaking beauty from the observation deck at an elevation of 9,123. The 360 degree views, of the Lake, the mountains, Desolation Wilderness and Carson Valley are beyond breathtaking.

Has anybody else seen Mt. Tallac and the snow cross?





Tanya Hanson: “I measure all lakes by Tahoe…” -Mark Twain



“I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords,” said Mark Twain upon his first sight of the “big water” on a summer day in 1863. Although he lived in Virginia City, Nevada and wrote for the Territorial Enterprise, he’d decided to try harvesting timber from the lake’s luxuriant wooded shores for the Comstock Lode mines. mark-twain

“It was a vast oval,” he later wrote in Innocents Abroad,  “…80 or 100 miles in traveling around it.”  

Actually, the drive around the Tahoe shoreline  is 71 miles, 42 belonging to California, 29 to Nevada. and so spectacular it should be on everybody’s Bucket List. The breathtaking clarity of the lake water exceeds depth of 75 feet! Although this is down from 100 feet in the late 1960’s, it has held stable since 2001. In fact, Mark Twain blamed the clear water for his failures at fishing, saying if he could see fish 80 feet down, they surely could see him as well and refuse to be caught.

The lake holds enough water , 39 trillion gallons, to cover entire California fourteen inches deep. The amount of water evaporating every 24 hours could supply Los Angeles with its daily demand for water!

And some people get to live here! Today Lake Tahoe is a mix of residents and tourists, but the first humans here were the Washoe. For centuries, the tribe migrated here from Nevada’s Carson Valley every summer  to seek cooler temperatures and abundant fish and game, and hold religious ceremonies at the  lake sacred to them.  They named the lake, Da-ow-a-ga, meaning “edge of the lake.” The basketry of the Washoe women is especially famed today.  

In 1844,  John C. Fremont and Kit Carson recorded the first non-native “sightings.” Mispronouncing the Washoe name, they called the lake “Tahoe.” It was officially named Tahoe in 1945 after names such as Lake Bonpland and Bigler (after California’s third governor) failed to stick. Although Kit Carson went on in 1848 to carve the nearby Carson Pass known then as the Mormon-Emigrant Trail, the Tahoe area was virtually ignored until the discovery of silver in Virginia City in 1859.

tahoe-loggingThus began the heartbreaking deforestation of this lush land from 1860-1880’s, as timber was relentlessly cut to build the mines of the Comstock and the boomtowns, trestles and snowsheds of the Central Pacific Railroad. A logging empire established on the east shore clear-cut the entire shoreline, and the natural resources are still recovering. I’m happy that Twain only spent a few half-hearted weeks working a timber claim.

In 1860, the lake had its first permanent resident. General William Phipps claimed 160 acres in today’s Sugar Pine Point and built a humble cabin.  general-phipps-cabinDuring his twelve years at the lake, he built a second cabin, a pier and a boathouse while successfully protecting his homestead from loggers. His homestead is preserved today, and does it ever have a room with a view.


On this same plot at Sugar Pine in 1903, banker Isias Hellman built a vacation cabin, ahem—a spectacular three-story mansion with Phipps’s same view. Sadly, sugar pines are scarce in the basin today, still recovering from the deforestation of more than a century ago. Florence Ehrman inherited her father’s estate in 1920, her heirs selling it to the State of California in 1965, which offers daily tours. tahoe-ehrman-mansion-2

Not far away at Emerald Bay sits Fannette Island, the lake’s only island, overlooked by Vikingsholm Castle. A castle?  Vikings?  taho-vikingsholmIndeed. In 1928, the bay so reminded Mrs. Lora J. Knight of Norwegian fjords that she instructed a Scandinavian architect to build her a vacation home without chopping down or injuring any of her land’s natural trees.  The resulting structure was built with the same methods and details of a Norse fortress circa 800 A.D. and includes sod roofs,  tahoe-grass-rooflike those in Scandinavia which fed livestock in the wintertime. For her guests, Mrs. Knight built a special “tea house” on Fannette Island.  Look to the top of the island in the photo to see it.tahoe-fannette-islane-emerald-bay

Now, I’ve seen such historic, iconic waters as Lake Champlain, Walden Pond, the Mississippi, the big Muddy, the Columbia, and others, but nothing, nowhere, does it for me the way Lake Tahoe does.  Since it’s one of my favorite places ever, and Twain is one of my favorite authors, I can’t help but quote him again because he said it best. “I have such a high admiration for it (Tahoe) and such a world of pleasant recollections of it, that it is very nearly impossible for me to speak of lakes and not mention it.”

How lucky were Ben Cartwright and the boys to live around here. Sadly, the ranch at the Incline area was closed to tourists in 2004 after a 37-year ride. ponderosa_ranch_incline_002

How about you? Have you ever visited Lake Tahoe? What other bodies of water are special to you? Do you fish? Have a mountain home? Go river rafting?

(P.s. All the travel brochures warn that it can snow any time at Lake Tahoe. Believe it. Here’s me in late May. )