LAKE TAHOE Not 50 yards into our full-moon snowshoeing slog over the frozen tundra of Sugar Pine Point State Park, only the crunch of our collective steps breaking the utter stillness of the scene, guide Dave Krizman stopped and looked back.
"If you have any questions, please, ask," he said.
A man near the back, John Kittock, raised one of his trekking poles.
"Uh, yeah. Where do you keep the rum?"
Krizman, a state parks naturalist, didn't miss a beat.
"The sled dogs will be along any time," he said.
The group erupted in laughter, thought bubbles of frosted breath dissolving in the evening chill.
Yes, it was cold, mid-20s at 7 p.m. Yes, we were a collection of tentative first-time snowshoers tramping through an icy, hard-packed base illuminated only by the moon and other lustrous specks of the galaxy. And, yes, some of us had already come close to doing a Jennifer Lawrence-at-the-Oscars-type pratfall.
But it's not like we were competing in the Iditarod or something. No macho test of stamina, though maybe a measure of one's balance.
This, rather, was the second of three full-moon snowshoeing tours, designed by the state parks staff for neophytes who also harbor a love of history, so it was a leisurely, mile-long stroll around one of Tahoe's less-celebrated attractions.
Besides, the rum could wait. Lake Tahoe, in all its nocturnal splendor and repose, was intoxicating enough.
In daylight and in summer, this tree-dotted promontory with a sloping lawn leading to a beach and docks affords such a bucolic locale that TV admen use it as the setting for gauzy, soft-focus pharmaceutical commercials (e.g., Sally Field and her dog shilling for Boniva, the osteoporosis drug, on the dock).
But at night and in winter, Sugar Pine Point takes on almost an otherworldly calm. Moonlight reflected off the rippling waves clear across the lake to the tinkling lights of the south shore.
"It's just gorgeous," said Jean Kittock, who moved recently to the Tahoe area from Stockton with husband John, who had inquired about the rum. "I'd never really known how beautiful this place is under snow."
Her friend Sheilagh Elliott of Stockton replied, in almost a whisper, so as not to break the spell.
"It's so different from being in town, with all the hustle and bustle, all the ski lift lines and the people everywhere," she said. "It's good to get away from that."
But before the women, as well as the rest of the novice snowshoers, could make it to that peaceful moment at the very edge of the park, they had to clomp along in a slow and steady pace, learning to get their "snow legs," as one participant put it.
Nearly all found that any pre-hike trepidation was unfounded. Snowshoeing is as natural as walking, mainly because that's what it is. Of course, there's the added component of the slippery stuff under one's feet, but that's what those oversized, traction-reinforced shoes are for.
Just getting the binding attached to hiking boots proved the most difficult part for many. Vivian Euzent, who lives both in Sunnyvale and Truckee, is a veteran cross-country skier but had never donned the awkward, waffle-ironed snowshoes before. State parks ranger Jennifer McCallan and helper Jordan Aydelatt had her strapped in and ready to go in no time.
"When I cross-country ski, I see people snowshoe all the time, and it looks fun," said Euzent, alongside husband Bruce. "I've always wanted to try it."
"Well, if you cross-country ski, this should be easy," McCallan said. "You might find it slightly more (of a) cardio (workout), but as for difficulty, no problem. If you're going along flat in cross-country skiing, you're basically cruising. Here, you're putting in more effort."
Some of that effort comes from the initial awkwardness of walking shod with what amounts to a tennis racket on each foot. Though the shoes are made of lightweight material, you still must maneuver with something 9-by-30-inches affixed to your soles.
"The thing with snowshoes is, with your normal gait in normal shoes, your feet are closer together," Krizman said. "When you put on the snowshoes, you've got to start widening out (your stance and gait). Otherwise, you can trip over your snowshoes. You clomp along."
His only other advice before the group embarked was simple: "Go slow.
"When you walk, you're usually doing between 14 and 20 minutes a mile. You can add another 10 minutes on snow shoes, depending on conditions. It's not unusual for people to fall, including the tour guide."
On this night, conditions proved ideal clear sky, no wind except that there was little new powder to soften the footing. Which meant a lot of crunching over iced-over hillocks.
But Krizman kept the pace leisurely, mostly because he regaled the group with the history of Sugar Pine Point. That meant lots of stops to give newcomers chances to regain their bearings and also learn about the history of what's officially called the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion but what everyone calls Pine Lodge.
"Not many people know about it," Krizman said. "A lot of people know about Emerald Bay and Vikings-holm (touted by the parks department as 'one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the Western Hemisphere'), but they just don't know Pine Lodge."
As Euzent quipped, "Let's keep it that way. Don't tell anybody."
Krizman, in fact, may have been underselling Sugar Pine Point a bit. The lodge and its surroundings are a sold-out wedding site every summer, and tours of the nearly 12,000-square-foot, Queen Anne-style house, from Memorial Day to late September, are popular.
But it is surprising, Krizman added, that many folks are unaware of the site's history, especially given that one of the state's most towering financial figures built it.
Banker Isaias W. Hellman, the first president of Wells Fargo, purchased 2,000 acres at Sugar Pine Point and set about building accommodations marble fireplaces, chandeliers and all that would be suitable for the magnates, celebrities and socialites that he and his wife, Esther, liked to entertain.
When the mansion opened in 1903, the west shore of Lake Tahoe was barely developed, but the house had electricity, indoor plumbing and hot water, "simply unheard of at that time," Krizman said.
The grounds, including a garden, dock and boat houses, sprouted under the auspices of their daughter Florence Ehrman, who inherited the lodge upon her father's death in 1920 and kept it as a social nexus in summertime until her death in 1964, when the property was sold to the state.
"Florence loved to entertain," Krizman said. "Each summer, they had 35 people working for them, which they called 'the help,' for about eight to 10 guests. Every week, in the summer, there'd be new wealthy people visiting."
In the winter?
Not so much.
The lodge, under Florence, was put in hibernation well before the first snowfall each year.
"You can see why," said Krizman, with a sweep of his trekking poles. "It gets pretty cold out here."
Which is why the group was happy to keep crunching the hard-packed snow to the next historically significant site. Staying mobile kept the cold at bay.
But when the group reached the dock and gawked at the gorgeous view from the tip of the point, Krizman stopped and said, "I'm going to shut up for a few minutes.
"Please, enjoy this."
Really, how could we not?
FULL-MOON SNOWSHOEING AT LAKE TAHOE
The third and final full-moon snowshoeing tour at Sugar Pine Point, on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, will be on March 23. The trek starts at 7 p.m., preceded by a newcomers clinic at 6:30. Cost, which includes the equipment, is $20 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under. Reservations can be made by calling West Shore Sports at (530) 525-9920.
Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 80 to Truckee. Take the Highway 89 exit and travel 13 miles to Tahoe City. Make a right to stay on Highway 89 and travel about six miles to Sugar Pine Point State Park. Turn left at the sign for the day-use area (not the campground).
Note: Getting to Highway 89 via Highway 50 in the winter is risky because Caltrans often closes Highway 89 at Emerald Bay because of hazardous conditions.
Photos by Randall Benton