Day Two: Exploring South Lake Tahoe

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I awoke a few times during the night and early in the morning from the sounds of my tent rattling from the strong winds. I was glad to have some shelter from it. Dave, on the other hand, had decided to just throw his sleeping bag out under the stars and managed to sleep well. By the time I got up he was already working his way around the lake catching fish. After a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we took a break atop a large, rocky outcrop with a spectacular view of the Upper Truckee watershed, looking north toward the town of South Lake Tahoe and the large, bright blue waters of Lake Tahoe itself. As far as I could see there was nothing but forests, lakes, rock and snow.

Although the area is not designated as "wilderness" under the 1964 Federal Wilderness Management Act, it definitely has a primitive, wilderness feel to it--a pristine watershed sustaining not only Lahontan cutthroats, but black bears, mule deer, Columbia blacktail deer and other wildlife. In other words: a healthy, intact watershed that makes for clear, clean water headed for Lake Tahoe. As Dave pointed out, with numerous efforts to keep Lake Tahoe clean (or, "Keep Lake Tahoe Blue," as I read on several bumper stickers during my visit to the area) it only makes sense to protect the watershed for the biggest source of clean water flowing into the lake. Unfortunately, there is no official protection for the Meiss Meadows roadless area--which means it could someday be opened up to logging, mining, road building, and off-road-vehicle use, potentially degrading the quality of the watershed and adversely affecting the threatened Lahontan cutthroat.

"Ideally, I would like to see this area designated as wilderness," Dave said. "But that is unlikely to happen." Instead, Dave--along with numerous hunters and anglers, businesses, county commissioners, local land owners and chambers of commerce--are working to get 32 miles of the Upper Truckee designated as a "wild and scenic river," which would offer adequate and needed protection for this unique area.

After enjoying a tremendous view and good conversation, we headed out and spent the next few hours bushwhacking through forests and meadows past Meiss Lake (which is closed to fishing as part of an effort to help restore Lahontans) and onward to Round Lake. You can really get lost in this big country, and along the way, we hiked through one of the largest meadows I have ever seen--perhaps several miles long-- which reminded me of the high country in Yellowstone National Park.

We fished our way around Round Lake, which has a mostly rocky shoreline. The wind had finally subsided, making the casting easy, but the fishing was a slow. Regardless, it was a beautiful day and an amazing place to be. After working our way along the north shore of the lake--a bit tricky in places, picking our way around rock outcrops--we came to the inlet on the south side. Here, a small creek cascades over a few small waterfalls into a marshy area of deep pools formed by beaver dams. In one of these pools, we could see about 50 cutthroats ranging 12 to 20 inches. It was like looking into a fish hatchery. Dave climbed through the thick brush surrounding the pool, stood on a beaver dam, and--at least for a while--caught fish on every cast with a caddis. Again, they were Lahontans, and Dave reminded me that this was the last place left where you can catch wild Lahontans in their native stream habitat in the Tahoe Basin.

Lahontan's were originally listed as endangered in 1970 but then changed to threatened in 1975--a listing not reflective of any trend in recovery, but to allow for recreational angling for the species in places like Pyramid Lake. Dave reminded me that Lahontan are not doing well. "They currently occupy only 8.6 percent of historical stream habitat," he said. "The remaining isolated populations that exist in small, scattered stream systems are low in numbers. Self-sustaining native populations remain in less than one percent of historic lake habitat. In fact, only Independence and Summit Lakes currently support wild populations of Lahontan."

After fishing a few hours, it was time to head back to the trailhead. On the way out, we ran into a couple from Pennsylvania, named Mark and Sue Lee, who were on their way toward Round Lake. It turns out that Mark serves on the board of directors for Trout Unlimited in Pennsylvania, so we had lots to talk about. Meeting them was a pleasant reminder that people from all over the country often travel far to spend time in pristine, wild parts of our public lands to hike, fish, hunt, camp and enjoy the feeling of adventure and solitude. These same people spend money in the rural economies that adjoin these public lands during their pursuits, a large consideration that should be factored when deciding the future of these special places.

We reached the trailhead by late afternoon. Unfortunately, for Dave, he had to get back to work and so we parted ways. I decided to drive just a few miles west, to the Caples Lake Resort, spend the night and then explore some of the Caples Creek area the next day.