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Lakeside in the High Sierra

Thick pine forests and crystal blue waters are all the frills that Huntington Lake needs

July 07, 2002|THOMAS CURWEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the first few days we were no more ambitious than this. Away from phones, computers and interruptions, we watched the shadows of trees clock from west to east, smelled sap warming in the sun and listened to the silence, a luxurious emptiness broken only by the distant slap of a screen door, children counting in a game of hide-and-seek or the splash of someone diving into the lake.

When we felt adventurous, we took beach chairs to a deserted cove, read in the sun and swam in the icy clear water. Later we explored the woods near our cabin, field guide in hand, identifying wolf lichen, manzanita, larkspur and penstemon, and in the evening, we barbecued steak or hamburgers and got to know another family who has been coming to Lakeview Cottages for years. Their ski boat was tied to the dock, and this year they had brought a sailboard with them. They welcomed us around their fires and passed along a few favorite activities: They recommended a drive into the back country over 9,175-foot Kaiser Pass and into the Vermilion Valley, where there are two other dammed lakes that feed into Huntington. Or we could take a dip at Mono Hot Springs, also in the Vermilion Valley.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 14, 2002 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 5 Features Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Huntington Lake--In "Lakeside in the High Sierra" (Travel section, July 7) the name of the owner of Lakeview Cottages in Lakeshore, Calif., was misspelled. His name is Walt Krukow.

We decided not to take that drive; smoke from a forest fire had drifted into this part of the Sierra, obscuring the views. Instead we explored the lake. Just around the corner from the cottages is a wonderful picnic spot: Dowville, as it's called, looks east across the long expanse of water toward China Peak and Kaiser Pass.

We drove by several picturesque campsites, some at the edge of the lake. Tall pines shaded tents and campers. Swimsuits and towels hung from impromptu clotheslines, and smoke rose from a few campfires. The sites book fast, especially on weekends, when Fresno residents escape the sweltering summer heat down below.

We stopped in the Forest Service's Eastwood Visitor Center, where a bulletin board was covered with photographs of the damage bears have inflicted on trash cans, ice chests and large late-model automobiles. It is an effective reminder that the California black bear is alive and well in the region. The ranger attributed the incursions to overpopulation and natural foraging. The bears, we were told, are shy and usually take to the hills when confronted with a clanging skillet and spoon.

We also spent an hour at the Billy Creek Guard Station Museum, learning about the lake and the fabled flight of a B-24 Liberator. The story of the 1943 crash of this World War II bomber is the stuff of campfire legends; its fuselage was found not far from the cove where we swam. Having developed hydraulic failure in a winter storm, the plane circled the mountains until its pilot found what he thought was a snow-covered meadow. It was instead the frozen lake.

Two crew members parachuted to safety; six others perished. In 1955, when the lake's water level was lowered for dam repairs, the tail of the plane rose above the water and a recovery was attempted. Because the lake is nearly freezing at the bottom, the bodies of the airmen in their leather flight suits were intact.

Later that afternoon we rented a 16-foot sailboat from the small marina just across the lake from our cabin. As the boat was being rigged for us, we poked around the general store, which was stocked with fishing gear: The lake is popular with anglers eager to hook rainbow trout, German brown trout or kokanee. The store also had a supply of candy, cheap paperbacks and--shades of the '50s--graham crackers, marshmallows and Hershey bars for s'mores.

It was a beautiful afternoon for a sail. Huntington has long been regarded as one of the finest sailing lakes in California. Not only are the afternoon winds brisk and challenging, but most power boaters avoid it. They find that the lake is too choppy.

Gliding across the water, we tacked downwind past one of the dams, the spillway and its gatehouse, past the dense forests on the southern shore and the posh cabins on the opposite side. The return trip was wet and cold.

One hundred years ago, our afternoon junket would have been impossible. Huntington Lake, once a cattle station in a long valley cut by a river called Big Creek, was the dream of John S. Eastwood.

An engineer with the Pacific Light & Power Co., Eastwood in 1902 started surveying the surrounding watershed of nearly 1,100 square miles and embarked on a technological feat that in its day was rivaled only by the Panama Canal.

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