Many of us in Northern California occasionally welcome friends and family from out of the region who want to experience Lake Tahoe. What is a simple and rewarding way to do that?
I’m on it.
Specifically, I am aboard the M.S. Dixie II, the lake’s largest cruising boat. The picturesque paddle-wheeler glides at least twice daily between Zephyr Cove, Nev., and Emerald Bay on the California side. I suspect it will provide an excellent overview of the lake and am about to find out.
I have opted for an 11 a.m. Saturday excursion in mid-June. Today’s other departure, at 2:30 p.m., looks as though it might encounter rain.
As people make their way up and down steep and narrow stairs, through two dining rooms, past red-painted railings and around three decks looking for the best place to sit, the ship’s not-too-loud speakers serenade us with baby boomer soft rock.
“Hands across the water,” instructs Paul McCartney. “Heads across the sky.”
Most of the hundred-plus passengers, dozens of them not boomers, opt for outdoor seating options at the front and on top of the boat, in armrest-equipped chairs but also on benches that underneath contain, probably, life vests or rafts.
The mostly sunny, 65-degree weather is warm enough to make sweaters or sweatshirts optional.
The boat ever-so-smoothly pulls away from the dock and the music gives way to a man’s voice on the P.A. system. His message is canned, but cordial.
“As we get underway on our westward crossing, there are a few nautical terms that we would like to acquaint you with,” the friendly man says. “The forward section, where you came aboard, is the bow. The rear of the boat, where the Dixie II has its paddle wheel, is the stern, and that’s why she may be called a stern-wheeler. When you’re facing the bow, the right side of the boat is the starboard side, and the left is the port side.”
Zephyr Cove recedes behind us. The resort there has a comparatively (for Lake Tahoe) deep and wide beach south of the dock. Volleyball players and other young people are gathering there for late-morning exercise and socializing.
“Here on the lake, we’re guests of Mother Nature,” the friendly man says, winding down his first announcement. “Ashore, in a backcountry area, you should leave nothing behind but your footprints. Out here on this beautifully clean lake, let’s leave nothing behind but our wake.”
He gives way to music again.
“There’s no need for argument,” Van Morrison intones. “There’s no argument at all.”
Out of the past
On this day, there is plenty of room to roam around the boat, which has a capacity of 500. For those wanting food, menus are set out to be perused in the first- and second-level dining rooms. Items cost $10 to $13, and run the gamut from cheeseburger to chicken salad, with coconut curry wrap representing the flair. A bartender also awaits orders (including $9 mixed drinks) in a covered area on the promenade (top) deck.
A powerboat goes by on the port side, sailboats can be seen off the starboard, and a few miles straight ahead hovers a parasail decorated with a smiley face. The Carson Range rises to the east, the Crystal to the west.
It is easy to get lost in the scenery from this 360-degree vantage from atop one of the planet’s prettiest bodies of water, but there is learning to do. We are “experiencing” Lake Tahoe, remember. The friendly man is back, giving us the basics, so take a deep blue breath and follow along.
“Before the last ice age, the lake was actually about 600 feet deeper and made its exit at the Brockway Summit, just east of Mount Pluto,” he begins. “During the last ice age, the Truckee River valley was carved out, and the lake now makes its exit at the Truckee River in Tahoe City.
“Today, snowmelt and rain collect in the lake to form a body of water 22 miles long by 12 miles wide. The lake is 70 miles around, and covers 193 square miles, making it the second-largest alpine lake in the world. Only Lake Titicaca, in South America, is a larger alpine lake.
“The deepest spot of the lake, which is located about 5 miles south of the north shore, is 1,645 feet deep, and for most of this cruise, we’ll have 12 to 13 hundred feet of water under our hull. Lake Tahoe is the third-deepest lake of any type in North America.”
In sharing specifics about water temperature (mid-60s in the summer, 42 to 48 in the winter) he points out that “a body of water this size” never freezes.
“And this is a sizable body of water,” he continues. “Because of its great depths, the volume of Lake Tahoe is staggering. If emptied, it would cover the state of California to a depth of 14 1/2 inches, or float the state of Texas under 8 1/2 inches of water. And if the lake were drained, it would take at the current average annual precipitation, at least 300 years to fill it back up.”
If the lake were drained, it would take at the current average annual precipitation, at least 300 years to fill it back up.
Narration aboard the M.S. Dixie II
We get our fill of great views during the next half-hour as the Dixie II approaches Emerald Bay. Every now and then the friendly man returns with more insights.
He describes how the Tahoe basin’s original tree, the Jeffrey pine, was severely depleted by the need for wood to support 19th-century silver mining operations of Nevada’s Comstock Lode. White firs, which are not as alpine-hardy as the pines, took advantage of their competitors’ decline and flourished. Today, after years of drought have killed off many firs, the pines are making a comeback.
Upon entering Emerald Bay, a quick look over Dixie II’s outer rails confirms that what had been deep water is now quite shallow – 4 to 5 feet in a few spots, according to the narrator. The looming Crystal Range, with its snow-topped mountains, tree-green lower regions and gray-granite outcroppings predominant throughout, is spectacular but to my eyes is outdone by Fannette Island, the lake’s only isle and one of the world’s most-photographed.
As we float around Fannette to begin our return, we are able to glimpse the grandeur of a shoreline castle built in 1929 for Lora Josephine Knight. Her nephew, a Swedish architect, designed the castle, which explains its Scandinavian name: Vikingsholm. Knight and her husband were Charles Lindbergh’s main sponsors for the aviator’s milestone 1927 trans-Atlantic flight.
(Vikingsholm can be toured, for $10 general and $8 for ages 7-17, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day. Parking is another $10, and a long walk from the small lot is involved. For more information, visit vikingsholm.com.)
Emerald Bay strikes me as the boat tour’s highlight, and as the Dixie II eases back onto the main body of the lake, most passengers seem to be settling in their deck chairs or disappearing to one of the lower decks for lunch. The friendly man wraps up the Tahoe primer by bringing us up to date.
Following the silver mining rush and arrival of the 20th century, he recounts, “the basin became a lightly used summer resort area that remained that way until the end of the Second World War. That marked the start of another boom, a commercial one, when real estate developers, promoters and casino operators discovered the lake.
“The resulting development of facilities and services catering to the varied recreational wants of the public has indeed made Lake Tahoe America’s all-year playground.”
Reviews are in
Boomer tunes resume and I decide to ask a few co-passengers what they think of the tour, handing each my Sacramento Bee business card. (Simon & Garfunkel egg me on: “We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files.”)
“It’s terrific,” responds Tim Jung of Lincoln, Neb. “We’ve gone a couple of other places. The Ozarks, that sort of thing. We’ve always kind of gone out on a paddleboat. … We love these old, beautiful boats.” His fiancée, Yvette Montes, agrees.
David Offenback and Linda Buscher, visiting from Anaheim, say they feel the boat tour’s $55 cost ($20 for children ages 11 and younger) is justifiable.
“If it was warmer, I’d like (the tour) more,” she says. “But the wind – we were sitting up front, and it was a little chilly up there. It’s nice, it’s a nice tour.”
David Yarc of Waukegan, Ill., and his cousin Mariellen Yarc of Orange County, are sitting at the bow on the promenade deck. It is his first trip to Lake Tahoe. “I really had no idea what to expect when I got here,” he says. “You don’t know how big everything is, and how it’s going to look. I mean, it’s really nice.”
Mariellen says she “really enjoyed” the tour: “I was surprised by how much you learn. … They gave you the depth, and the history, and some little anecdotes about people.”
I really enjoyed it. I was surprised by how much you learn.
Mariellen Yarc, mayor of Cypress, assessing the M.S. Dixie II tour
I thank them for their comments and prepare to walk away when David turns to Mariellen and asks: “So, should I give the additional information?”
“Oh,” she responds, smiling and facing me again. “I am the mayor of Cypress (in Orange County).”
“Nice to meet you, mayor,” I say, laughing despite the absence of wit.
“Thank you. Well, The Sacramento Bee, I read (it) all the time.” She says she comes to the capital every two months or so.
“How long have you been mayor?”
“Not quite a year yet. I’ve been on the City Council; this is my fourth year.”
“What do you think so far, of being mayor?”
“It’s a lot harder than I thought, dude. There are a lot of unhappy people out there.”
“Must be good to get away now and then.”
“Yes, yes it is.”
I think most passengers agree it has been good to get away for a few hours on the M.S. Dixie II. A little after 1 p.m. we dock at Zephyr Cove and slowly we disembark. As I wait near the back of the line, my face feeling mildly sunburned and knee joints a little weary as I think about the two-hour drive back to Sacramento, Christopher Cross croons one of his hits.
“And I’ve got such a long way to go. Such a long way to go.”
Call The Bee’s Reed Parsell, 916-321-1163.
The M.S. Dixie II
In addition to the two-hour daytime scenic tours at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. ($55 general, $20 ages 3-11), the paddle-wheeler offers dinner-and-dancing cruises most summer evenings from 6 to 9 p.m. ($85 general, $35 ages 3-11). For more information, visit www.zephyrcove.com.
To explore other Lake Tahoe boat tours, check out laketahoe.com/content/top-10-tahoe-boat-tours.