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Even without a house, Lake Arrowhead remains her home

After her residence burned down, a woman sets out to show her siblings why her heart belongs to this town.

October 29, 2006|Sue Manning | Associated Press Writer

LAKE ARROWHEAD, CALIF. — Ever since my sister Connie Manning's house burned down three years ago, she has been talking about moving back to the mountain.

As concerned brothers and sisters, three of us keep asking why. On a postcard-perfect California Saturday, she set out to show us.

Highway 330 is closed, so the white-knuckle ride through the San Bernardino Mountains in her four-wheel drive takes us along the longer, more winding Highway 18.

For Connie, a real estate agent, the edge-of-the-earth drive is one of the attractions of Lake Arrowhead, about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. She revels in its switchback-rich appeal.

She points to the views: the vivid blue sky, the clear blue lake, people walking their dogs, blue jays, improved roads, new guardrails, chain nets to keep rocks from tumbling down the mountainsides.

It all appears green and lush until you look a little closer. Thousands of trees have been reduced to stumps, and many of those that remain have blackened branches.

Between Oct. 21 and Nov. 4, 2003, 15 fires in five Southern California counties killed 24 people, destroyed 3,673 homes and businesses, and blackened more than 750,000 acres. In Cedar Glen where Connie lived, just a few miles from the lake, it took mere minutes to destroy 313 of the little community's 590 homes. Connie salvaged a wheelbarrow and milk can. Only a few of her neighbors fared better.

But rebirth is all around, taking a sooty eyesore and turning it into a sight for sore eyes.

At Lake Arrowhead Village, business is booming. We make our way to the Wafflehouse, where we eat what Connie calls the best waffles in the West. The recipe is on the menu -- along with the calorie and carbohydrate count.

Feeding some very hungry ducks gets us close to the lake. The Arrowhead Queen gives us a personal ride.

During a one-hour cruise around the man-made, nature-fed 1.5-mile by 2.5-mile lake, Capt. Chad Burkitt unknowingly takes up Connie's cause with stories that keep us in stitches or in awe as we pass most of the lake's 14 miles of shoreline.

Some of the celebrities who at times have had houses on the lake, according to Burkitt, are Doris Day, June Lockhart, Brian Wilson, Dick Clark, the late gangster Bugsy Siegel, Liberace and John Candy.

On one side of the lake, homeowners must traverse as many as 170 steps down to their docks. On the other side, what appear to be steps are actually tracks; homeowners use little trams.

Another sight is Tombstone Point and its wall of crushed tombstones from San Bernardino. "Nobody is sure why they did that," Burkitt said.

There is one house with a heated driveway and another with electric blinds on the outside windows so they will stay clean when the family is away.

Van Nuys Point is named after the same family the town of Van Nuys is named for. They were the second owners of the lake and changed its name from Little Bear to Lake Arrowhead, the captain says.

Arrowhead averages 100 feet deep and requires lake rights to use. As a rule, Burkitt said, you have lake rights if you can see it from your home and you may or may not get a dock with your digs.

You don't need any rights to look at the lake, but there are use rules: You must pass a driver's test, there is a 35 mph speed limit and you must always travel counterclockwise.

There are slightly fewer than 2,000 docks on the lake and more than 2,500 boats registered to it. Dock prices run from $30,000 to $100,000, Burkitt said.

Liberace kept two boats on Arrowhead: Piano One and Piano Two. They were easy to spot because they had piano keys painted around them. Brian Wilson's boat had a telltale name: California Girls.

The captain also points out the first home on the lake to sell for $3 million -- its owner calls it "his little cabin in the mountains."

Two homeowners claim they have the largest homes on Arrowhead, both five stories high and more than 20,000 square feet. Burkitt said one of the houses is on the market for $13.5 million.

Lone Pine Island is common property for homeowners. It used to have a tall pine tree (its namesake), but it was hit by lightning twice and reduced to a stump. Homeowners can't cut it down because it's protected and a bald eagle calls it home every winter.

In the 1940s, Howard Hughes and other pilots would land their seaplanes on the lake. They were banned after a pilot came in, clipped that rather luckless lone pine, sheared off a wing and pitched into the lake, Burkitt said.

The village, originally built in the 1920s around places called Bourbon Gulch and Whiskey Flats, was rebuilt in the 1970s.

Back in the early days, Burkitt said, the Los Angeles Times ran a promotion: Buy a one-year subscription and get a quarter-acre of land in Orchard Bay. A lot of people took the paper up on it, but when the tax bills came due, many people returned the property.

Dozens of people are rebuilding at Lake Arrowhead even though there are huge stands of blackened trees that still have to be dealt with. The roads aren't paved -- they never have been. The only evidence of many homes is a foundation or a chimney.

At Connie's, there is also a stick with her address and a red ribbon. "You can smell the cedar again," she says.

Connie has been looking at manufactured homes, and we all know it's not going to be long before she's back where she wants to be.

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