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Jack Smith

Checking out Lake Tahoe by stern-wheeler and tram: It wasn't exactly a whale of a time

September 17, 1986|Jack Smith

On the morning after we blew our quarters, dimes and nickels at Caesars Casino, we drove down to the shore of Lake Tahoe to take the Tahoe Queen excursion.

The Queen is a three-deck Mississippi stern-wheeler. She was shipshape. Her varnish shone. The cruise was $11 per person. When we left the ticket office and walked through a hut toward the boarding pier, two men offered to give us a $20 refund if we would agree to attend a land development "open house."

I was not interested in Tahoe land, and I didn't see how I could freeload on false pretenses. We passed them by.

Almost every enterprise in Tahoe seems to be tied in with something else. If you take the ski lift you get a coupon good for $1 off on the Tahoe Queen; our hotel offered free tickets to the show at Caesars; if you go to an open house you get your money back for the cruise.

The hustle is ubiquitous. On a car's rear window we saw this sticker: "Have you tipped your dealer today?"

The Queen paddled out onto the lake and soon we were surrounded by it. The water was dark blue. A stiff wind blew up whitecaps. Bright cumulus clouds drifted overhead, making indigo shadows on the water. Blue mountains circled us. The air was clean.

As promised in the leaflet, the captain enlightened us about the lake, its geography, history and wildlife, by loudspeaker. He told us the lake was 22 miles long, 11 miles wide, and 1,640 feet deep at its deepest.

He also told us there was a very rare species of white freshwater whale in the lake, about five to 10 feet long. They had all but been exterminated by fishermen, he said, but had been saved, and were now coming back.

"I've never heard of a freshwater whale five to 10 feet long," I told my wife.

She said there were stranger things.

The captain said there was enough water in the lake to cover the entire states of Nevada and California to a depth of eight feet. That seemed a lot, but I had no reason to doubt him.

We sailed west and went through a narrow neck into Emerald Bay, which was just the color of its name. Near the west end we circled a small island on which stood a small stone structure like a miniature medieval castle.

The captain said this had been the teahouse of the 11th-Century Norwegian castle that stood at the west end of the lake. This was Vikingsholm, built in 1929 by a Nabisco heiress who was homesick for the Norwegian fiords. Years ago vandals had camped in the teahouse and burned it out.

The wind was sharp and cold topside, so on the way back we went below to a lounge with a bar and a player piano. Two children were putting quarters in the player piano and trying to follow the keys with their fingers. It played "Constantinople" and "Collegiate" and some other old-timers I doubted that the children had ever heard.

As we headed for our dock the captain's voice came up in some excitement.

"Oh, ladies and gentlemen!" he cried. "There's a white whale following us! There's another! Two of them! Three! Three white whales, ladies and gentlemen, in our wake!"

There was a general exodus toward the stern. I got up. "I suppose I'd better see what it is," I told my wife. She didn't move.

I had taken about three steps when the captain said, "Careful, folks, they may bite your leg off--the way you've bitten on our whale story!"

I went back and sat down. I had been taken in by what was undoubtedly a hoary local joke. Freshwater whales indeed. I was embarrassed. As a newspaper reporter, I have almost never been taken in by a phony story.

"It must be the altitude," I told my wife.

So if you ever go to Lake Tahoe, don't believe any stories about short, white whales.

On our last morning we took the aerial tram up to Heavenly and the Top of the Tram Restaurant, one mile and 2,000 feet above the lake. I was worried about the altitude, but perhaps the freshness of the air made up for its thinness.

On the way up in the little red car a disembodied voice gave us the facts, as the captain had on the Tahoe Queen. He said there was enough water in the lake to cover California to a depth of four feet. That varied considerably from the captain's figure, but what the heck, it was a lot of water anyway.

As promised, we could see all 72 miles of the lake's shoreline, and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada around it. Mark Twain is supposed to have called it "the fairest view the whole Earth affords."

We sat on the deck to enjoy this panorama. Chipmunks scampered about, fattening on the debris from the tables. I am amazed that evolution could have produced anything as comic and appealing as these little creatures.

I had a beer and my wife had a pina colada--a concoction of coconut and rum with a wedge of pineapple stuck on the brim of the glass and a blob of whipped cream on top. It looked like a cockatoo.

That afternoon we caught our plane for San Jose and Burbank.

Los Angeles was smoggy, but the elevation was only 275 feet.

You can't have everything.

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