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Whiners' paradise

Kids and friends moaned about the hike until they saw Sword Lake.

June 14, 2005|John Fleming | Special to The Times

Sword Lake, Calif. — Eleven years ago, my wife and I escaped the stifling throb and bustle of the Bay Area one weekend to a place called Sword Lake in the high, still coolness of Stanislaus National Forest.

We loaded our bird dog puppy, Zack, into a beat up Volkswagen Jetta and drove into the mountains a couple of hours past a place named Strawberry on California 108, then up a steep dusty road to the far corner of the forest called the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. At the end of a trail we found our lake.

It was so stunningly placid and possessed by the deepest shade of blue that it practically made your heart ache to leave it behind. The perfect place, I thought: a tear-dropped shaped blue, embraced by rock cliffs that crept to the edge of the gin-clear water. We had it all to ourselves that weekend -- the lake and the terrain nestled in a valley where quiet reigned supreme.

But time -- and kids -- change things. After a decade's hiatus from Northern California that took us to the East Coast and abroad, I longed to return to that magical place. But this time the whole crew would come: my 10- and 6-year-olds plus a cluster of cousins and friends who were all scheduled to visit during the midsummer vacation.

In preparation for the hike to the lake, an old friend handed me a topo map with the latitude and longitude marked: Sword Lake; 382428N 1195559W; altitude, 6,859 feet; trail length, 4.5 miles.

Well, that was a little higher and a little longer hike than I remembered. But it was sure to be an easy walk.

We were nine in all, ranging in age from 6 to 42. At first, everyone carried something, but as that short walk grew long and steep, as the sun beat down and the dust got thick, I, the one responsible for the torture, began to suffer abuse. Complaints abounded. More and more baggage began finding its way into my overloaded backpack.

A clearly annoyed cousin, Kala, from near the rear hurled verbal darts. There was a constant hum of barely intelligible protests from 6-year-old Carson about everything. Persistent demands began to bubble up for an estimated time of arrival from 7-year-old Carl. The 10-year-olds, Alex and Anna, good sports for the most part, threatened to fall into open rebellion. My wife looked pale. My friend Jennifer's recollection of the scenery was limited to the rocks and dirt around her boots. Our friend Lise, over from Normandy for a visit, reverted to speaking French. Even our new dog, a mixed-breed named Lucy, gave up and had to be carried.

I was absorbing all this -- while battling a thunderous headache and growing back pain -- and was coming to the conclusion that we were hurtling toward disaster when we topped the ridge and stepped into a meadow. Before us was a deliciously welcome sight of blooming blue flowers and a downward sloping trail that pointed toward the promised land and Sword Lake.

A short time later, as life grew buoyant and optimistic, chatter replaced grumbling. We topped a small rise and came upon the lake. It was unchanged after 11 years, just as beautiful, just as peaceful.

No, the experience wasn't like before, but it was just as sweet in a different way. We had a big campfire, we indulged in a large and elaborate meal and lots of drink, we told stories and we laughed through the night. The next morning, we went swimming, diving off the sheer rock walls into the clear cold water and lay out on the smooth granite to dry in the warm and forgiving sunlight. We led the 10-and-unders on a hike around the lake, skirting fallen trees, navigating over big rocks and finally walking on a big fallen pine across the stream that feeds the lake.

The magic of hanging with the family had nudged up beside the romance of the early '90s. We had an excellent time, and I knew the kids would be thinking about this place for at least the next decade.

It was that collective thought that sustained us on our way back to the trailhead, exhausted. After we had recovered, after we had a giant dinner and after we had gotten cleaned up, some of us started to feel a little heartache for Sword Lake.

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