Travels with Ron: A visit to Bill Craven’s Fallen Leaf Lake
After being bombarded by the Olympics, political babble and the news that Brett Farve had suddenly gone over to the New York Jets, I was desperate for a change. Marilyn Shreve, a friend and benefactor, said her Fallen Leaf Lake cabin was available so I made a call to Bill Craven, long time resident to see if he was available for an interview. He was.
Fallen Leaf Lake is a dew drop just south of Lake Tahoe. While Tahoe is the darling of tourists, Fallen Leaf Lake is still a maid in waiting, especially the west side of the lake, where Marilyn’s vintage cabin is. I say vintage because the floors slant, a bear came through the living room window last winter and watching “Ugly Betty” isn’t an option. There’s no television.
The land on the east side of the lake is privately owned in contrast to the west side, which is predominantly forest service land. The prognosis for the east side is for more starter castles, a phrase Bill used when we last spoke.
At the appointed hour, Marilyn and I climb into a motorboat. The lake sparkles, the sky radiantly clear, monolithic mountains hover above us. I feel like Edward R. Murrow on assignment. We arrive, the boat nudges the dock, we disembark, the dock is deserted.
“I’ll see you as you cross the lake” he’d said. A notice attached on the post office door reads, “will re-open June 15th.”
My spirits sink until John, the marina manager, calls Bill and we practically skip our way along the edge of the lake to Bill’s lakeside home. Tiny stones carpet the lake bed beneath the crystalline water. Tree roots the size of water mains burst from the embankment on their way to the lake. Then at the top of a shady knoll, standing in a beam of sunlight is Bill.
Dressed in working man’s coveralls and denim shirt, Bill carries himself with the dignity of the skyscraper tall trees surrounding him. His demeanor is gentle and welcoming. The path to Bill’s olive colored home is thickly covered in pine needles; ferns and shade loving plants festoon the abbreviated flower beds. We learn that Bill and his wife Barbara live year round at Fallen Leaf Lake and he has spent the morning splitting some of the seven cords of firewood needed for winter.
“Would you like to stay inside or sit on the deck?” he asks. We select the dappled shade of the deck. The full length of the lake spreads before us, ruffled daintily by a gentle breeze. Marilyn and Barbara slip discreetly to another part of the deck and became enmeshed in a rich broth of memories of years spent at Fallen Leaf Lake.
I plunge headlong into the interview with freshman English 101 zeal. “How was the lake formed?” From there on I confine myself to scribbling down every word, every thought, I can glean from Bill’s encyclopedic discourse.
“Geologically, the Fallen Leaf Glacier and the Tahoe Basin Glacier were imposing their wills on this area and a 38 percent angle of repose moraine resulted on the east side of the lake (Angora Ridge). The glaciers dumped huge rocks at this end, scattering smaller debris at the far end which sealed off the lake. See that new construction over there?” pointing to the east side of the lake. “That entire house is sitting on a single boulder.”
Slipping seamlessly from geology to anthropology, “Carbon dating tells us this area has been inhabited for 4,000 years. The Washoe Indians considered this a paradise. Every summer families came up from the valley to hunt and fish.”
His voice softens as he speaks of the fecundity of the region and the harmonious relationship between man and nature.
“Deer were plentiful, fish were netted and dried, and medicinal herbs collected. Soon the men returned to Washoe Valley and the women and children remained for the summer. It was also a time to socialize, a chance for young braves and girls from different tribal groups to mix. This migration custom continued until WWII. In those days they would bring old trucks or horse drawn wagons and set up canvas tents. The women would sell pine nuts to tourists or work at the Fallen Leaf Lodge or our House Keeping Camp.”
Bill’s voice reverberating with an intimacy born of personal remembrances.
“In 1850 Nathan Gilmore and his brother arrived bringing angora and mohair goats. Hence Angora Lake, Gilmore lake, etc. Unlike the Donner Party, they started early in the year, used I bolts in the rock and single yoke oxen drawn wagons. After winching the wagons to the top, sleds were used to lower them down. They eventually crossed over to Hangtown(Placerville) and by 1863 Nathan built a barn in Meyers and pastured his cattle and goats on the rich grass lands around Fallen Leaf Lake. Business grew and it was became increasingly difficult to collect all the animals come fall, so Nathan and his wife set up camp at Glen Alpine Springs. The springs are a cold water spring that were of no interest to the Indians but has high mineral content. Being a frugal Scotsman, he bottled the water and sold it as far away as San Francisco. By 1872 Glen Alpine Springs was a primitive resort drawing the likes of John Muir and David Starr Jordon (first president of Stanford University).”
The husks of history were falling away; buckboards, black powder blasted roads, homesteads, land grabs, all manner of basic mountaineering happening right here where we were sitting. I take a gulp of water and continue writing.
“Lucky Baldwin was ravenous in his lust for Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake land, even buying through agents. Baldwin was a developer, Gilmore a conservationist. Lucky’s tour de force was a fancy hotel on Tahoe complete with casino and girls. Nathan’s hawkers met the steamer at the dock saying ‘You don’t want to be exposed to Lucky’s girls, so come to Glen Alpine Springs. The rivalry for guests was becoming a sticky wicket. One time Nathan complained that Lucky’s wagons were ruining a road he’d built using black powder. Lucky got miffed and moved the post office from its location on a Tahoe dock to his property and put a lock on the gate.
Along around 1898, Nathan dreamed up a clever scheme. He said that homesteading didn’t apply to the lands draining into Alpine Canyon, where his resort was and the land was his. Then, he struck a deal with the Tahoe Forest Preserve and the Desolation Primitive Area came into being and he was still able to forage his animals there.”
Side stepping history for a moment, “Did you know that in 1938 Lake Tahoe almost became a National Park? Efforts were made to hook the Grand Tetons and Lake Tahoe proposal onto the same bill to be put before Congress. Sadly, the Lake Tahoe faction hadn’t done enough preparatory work so the Tetons achieved National Park status and when World War II came along Lake Tahoe got left behind.
The year was now 1892 and W.W. Price, Bill’s grandfather appeared on the scene. “W.W.” was a graduate of Stanford’s second class. He built a boys camp upstream from Fallen Leaf Lake near Glen Alpine Springs, operated a fish hatchery and supervised trail building. Fallen Leaf Lodge(1904) came into being and had a proper dining room and hydroelectric plant. By 1907 cabins were put up at Camp Agazzi and in 1920 the Fallen Leaf Housekeep Camp was managed by grandfather and grandmother. John Steinbeck worked for my grandmother for a time.”
In quick order Bill spoke of the coming of the automobile and the impact of Hwy. 50, Stanford Camp’s evolution, a new subdivision in 1923, and later a state and federal law requiring extensive sewer construction.
“Bill, it’s 10 to twelve.”
Barbara was exercising her proprietary rights as wife. The interview was over. Soon our motorboat appeared at their dock. Skimming back over the lake, with spray hitting me in the face I felt invigorated but completely drained.
Bill Craven is the real thing, a man forged by nature and blessed by humility. When I first approached Bill about doing this article he jokingly said, “I just hope it doesn’t draw a whole lot of new people to Fallen Leaf Lake,” but true to his generous nature, he capitulated. The sign of a great human being is selfless generosity and that’s Bill Craven.
– Ron Walker lives in Smith Valley.