Summers at the lake
"Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheese" sang the mountain chickadee, waking us in our sleeping bags as the sun peeked through the pine trees. My brother, sister, and I liked to camp out on our back deck, letting the bird's morning greeting serve as our alarm clock, signaling the start of another summer day on Lake Tahoe.
We grew up on the California side of the lake, in the big red house off State 89, just a 2-minute bike ride from Tahoe Park Beach. According to history, Lake Tahoe belonged to the Washoe tribe until 1844, when the area was "discovered" by John C. Frémont. But my great-grandparents discovered Tahoe in 1945, when they purchased what is now the iconic River Ranch Lodge ― and in my childhood mind, the lake was mine.
As soon as the snow started to melt, we'd bust out our banana-seat bikes, but it wasn't until school ended ― and the "cheeseburger bird" chirped ― that we knew summer had officially arrived.
Every morning, we'd race to the beach in our bathing suits and bare feet, toss our bikes on the rocky shore, and clamber up the pier. We'd sprint down the smooth wooden planks, our little legs gaining speed as we reached the end. We never stopped to catch our breath or brace ourselves for the bitter cold; instead, we threw our arms out in front of us and launched, unafraid, limbs flailing, into the frigid grip of the deep-blue water. The air rushed out of our lungs. We closed our eyes and dunked under, ignoring the brain freeze as we swam back to shore, eager to climb the pier and jump again. And again. And again.
In between, we'd fish for crawdads by hooking bits of raw bacon on a line. We'd play tag on the pilings and pool our money for Cokes and candy bars from the Tahoe Park store. I guess at some point we'd ride home for dinner, but what I remember most is heading back to the lake by flashlight, before bed. We'd resume our place on the pier, stare up at the thousands of diamonds dotting the dark sky, and do our best to make out any constellation beyond the Big Dipper.
Long live the lake
Some days, we'd kayak on the lake or raft down the Truckee River or ride horseback at Squaw Valley, occasionally sneaking horses back to our house to hang out in our yard. But leaping into the lake remained our morning ritual.
Since then, my lazy childhood summers have become weekend jaunts. Now I brave the bumper-to-bumper traffic; I see more boats buzzing about. I drive by the always-packed River Ranch parking lot and wish my parents hadn't passed it up as a wedding gift from my great-grandparents. (Believe me, they do too.)
At night, my family and I bring bottles of wine along with our flashlights down to the pier and stare up at the same starry sky. In the afternoon, we ride along a designated bike path instead of winding backroads.
As for the morning, I still have my ritual plunge into the lake. I do it daily. It just takes me a little longer to make that leap.
More: Lake Tahoe landmarks