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An elegy for summertime

At a small resort in the Sierra, the cabins are boarded up for winter. It's a ritual of time and memory.

November 09, 2009|Thomas Curwen

HUNTINGTON LAKE, CALIF. — The lake is deserted, and the forest is quiet at the far end of Huntington Lodge Road. A breeze combs through the pines and the firs. It strips a ready leaf or two from the willows that grow by the water.

Fall has come to the Sierra Nevada, this third weekend in October, and the cabins on the cul-de-sac are vacant. Most are boarded up for winter, cenotaphs to a time just weeks ago when they were open and alive to the coming and going of vacationing families.

Summer is a short season in the mountains -- over, some say, before it begins -- and for the owners of these cabins, a small resort known as Lakeview Cottages, the clock is running down.

"George, you got any antifreeze?"

"No. It's down by the shed. You got any screws?"

George Harper and Mark and Cindy Wiens have been working since Friday afternoon, completing chores begun more than a month ago, and now, late Sunday morning, with clouds pouring in from the north, they need to be done.

Cindy walks around a cabin with a power drill, removing screens from the windows. Mark is about to plunge the toilet and pour in a cup of Prestone, and George is looking to fasten a sheet of plywood over a front door.

No one knows what the months ahead will bring, an uncertainty that applies as much to these cabins as to their lives. Saying goodbye, even to a place, is a rehearsal for loss, and these final days have a bittersweet, even melancholy cast.

Sproink. Sproink. Sproink. Sproink.

George staples a piece of black plastic over the hole where the aluminum heater vent once jutted out.

Whizzzzzz.

He screws a small square of plywood over the plastic.

He has been coming to the lake since he was a seventh-grader. He's 51 now. He met his wife here almost 30 years ago. They practically raised their two daughters on the water. Today he is alone. Sue is back home, fighting a cold and recovering from a stem-cell transplant she received over the summer. The last few months have been tough going.

George and his friends move methodically and steadily, packing up the remaining three cabins, a routine passed down through the years from owner to owner. A staple gun, a cordless power drill, plunger, crescent and pipe wrenches and a Phillips-head screwdriver are all that they need.

Visitors to Lakeview, 12 cabins set on four acres in the Sierra National Forest, arrive the first week of June and book through mid-September. The brief before-and-after is for the owners to enjoy the place while opening and closing it.

The rest of the year, this tiny enclave with its horseshoe pit, stone-lined paths and dirt drive covered with wood chips is deserted. The cabins, green-roofed and redwood-sided, almost 100 years old, are locked up tight, and except for occasional snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and snowshoers, the forest becomes wild again.

Memories recede -- pancake breakfasts, dawn and twilight fishing runs, s'mores and the slam of screen doors as children hurry down to the lake. Now is the time of the wandering deer, perhaps a bear or two.

The pace of work this weekend has hardly been breakneck. Saturday's perfect weather didn't help, the warm midday sun a perfect narcotic to draw out idle conversations among a handful of owners who had come up just for the day.

The resort is owned by nine families from the Fresno area, Mennonites, their faith related to the Amish but older and in some instances more liberal. In the mountains, though, their beliefs seem less important than the community they have formed with one another.

The previous owner, living in Southern California, grew tired of the responsibilities and the long drive. When it came on the market, George saw a dream come true. He invited friends out for pizza, presented the idea, and they formed Lakeview Assn. Inc., a corporation and an excuse, any chance to spend more time by the lake they love.

To get a head start on this weekend's work, George and the Wienses gathered on Friday, and the three friends stayed up late that night, bundled beneath the pines and stars, a fire burning in the stone ring beside the Wienses' cabin. They reminisced about summer, the guest who set up a screen so they could watch "Cars" outdoors, the Space Shuttle in orbit for four long minutes over the lake.

We were lucky to have purchased Lakeview four years ago, they said, and we've done OK in spite of the recession. But George, an attorney who runs a property management firm, doesn't take anything for granted.

"You know," he said, "when it comes down to it, life is fragile."

His words stopped them. Philosophy comes easy in fire-lit moments like this, and George is a thoughtful man. Ask him to explain his attachment to this place, and he will cite E.B. White's nostalgic essay "Once More to the Lake" -- "Summertime, oh, summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable. . . . "

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