Sam McManis

Pinecrest Lake: A summer draw that slows down in fall

Anglers try their luck from a boat on Pinecrest Lake earlier this month. In the central Sierra at 5,600 feet, the lake long has given Central Valley residents a respite from the heat.
Anglers try their luck from a boat on Pinecrest Lake earlier this month. In the central Sierra at 5,600 feet, the lake long has given Central Valley residents a respite from the heat. rpench@sacbee.com

Dusk couldn’t come soon enough. Kids, amped by anticipation and probably more than a little processed sugar, pranced and dashed around the amphitheater, their frazzled parents looking longingly at the sky and almost willing the last rays of sun to duck behind the pine-dotted granite mountain beyond the placid lake.

Any minute now – really, settle down, it’ll come soon – twilight and the screen would descend on the shores of Pinecrest Lake for the nightly summer first-run movie showing, $6.50 a ticket, popcorn not included. It’s always a family-oriented flick meant to draw those staying at the campgrounds or in cabins ringing the water, or those Central Valleyites who just can’t bring themselves to return to the September swelter until beyond nightfall.

Movie night is an 80-year tradition at Pinecrest, almost as much a part of the setting in this Stanislaus National Forest resort town as the olfactory overload of pine (Jeffrey, Western White, Sugar, Ponderosa) mingled with wood smoke. Showing this night was “Inside Out,” the animated Pixar gem in which the knotted psyche of an 11-year-old girl is personified by five emotions vying for regulatory control of the ’tween’s capricious mood.

The rapt kids, mostly overcome by the film’s dominant emotion (joy) throughout, laughed at the onscreen antics, their squeals rippling like tiny waves on the lake’s surface. At evening’s end, as the vivid stars in the sky reclaimed top billing at the lake shore, other emotions seemed to emerge from these Roger Eberts-in-training: sadness that the movie was over and bedtime neared; fear of walking back in the darkness, save those shimmering stars, to the campsite; anger, as expressed by the throaty squalls of little ones who just couldn’t accept that they must call it a day.

What of disgust, the film’s fifth emotion? No, that wasn’t evident. Not at all on a two-day trip to this high-elevation, temperate spot popular among day visitors from Modesto and second-home dwellers from the Bay Area. (OK, to come clean, maybe disgust did briefly raise its bile when you watched someone gut a fish at the marina.)

But, really, when you visit Pinecrest, either as a kid or overgrown kid-at-heart, your senses and feelings bend toward joy. The joy of being immersed in nature. Joy of splashing your sister on the beach. Joy of casting a line in the lake and recumbently waiting for a bite. Joy of scaling granite slabs on a 4-mile hike around the lake or a longer trek in the nearby Emigrant Wilderness. Joy of just kicking back and doing nothing but stare at the puffy, cauliflower, Magritte clouds against an impossibly blue sky.

As with any place, though, other emotions can creep in. Conga-line-type traffic on Highway 108, and the parking squeeze once you hit town on a weekend, can lead to a Lewis Black-like anger response. Such mass of humanity has led some part-time Pinecrest residents to fear that the simple way of life lakeside – endless summer days on the water; quiet winters snowshoeing and skiing at nearby Dodge Ridge – might be altered. Sadness, too, has been expressed from a few of the original cabin owners, who pine for the old days, after PG&E first dammed the valley in 1916 for the water and power needs of residents along the Highway 108 corridor and made the area available as a nature area and resort.

“I’m concerned that Pinecrest is getting loved to death,” said Nancy Fouquet, 81, whose father built a cabin on the lake in the late 1920s. “It’s just become too popular.”

A late-summer, early fall sojourn to Pinecrest elicits a gamut of emotions, whether you’re a day-use visitor escaping the heat, a camper putting down stakes for a few days, or someone whose memories go back generations.

Joy

Mossy’s tail wasn’t just wagging. His entire backside twerked as he rested his paws on the bow of Steve Mobley’s small fishing boat as it puttered back to the dock. Would this lively German shorthaired pointer take the plunge? Mossy has been known to do that before. Loves to swim. Loves Pinecrest’s warm water, about 67 degrees on this day. Mobley and wife Raelyn commanded Mossy to stay, and he did, but only long enough to leap onto the gangplank, with leash-bearing Steve closely behind.

Steve’s other hand was empty. No fish.

“I’ve never really caught anything here,” said Mobley, who lives in Rancho Murieta. “People say, try near the dam. I’ve tried that. It’s never worked for me. Basically, we just come out and tool around the lake with the dogs. We got a Chihuahua in there, too. We come here clear into mid-October. That’s the best time. You still have water but not as many crowds.”

Sadness

From the annals of “You Shoulda Seen the One That Got Away”:

Mary Jean St. Claire swears this actually happened. She had caught a trout as long as your forearm, a beautiful specimen, more than enough to feed all three in the boat.

And then …

“My friend was putting (the trout) on the what-do-you-call-it, the stringer that holds the fish on it after you catch them,” said St. Claire, camping with her husband, Dr. Donald St. Claire, and a friend. “And she lost it. The fish, I mean. Well, it was floating away. And we are maneuvering around it, going in crazy circles, trying to get it. We had the net out. It was big. All of a sudden, two ospreys start flying over. So we are in a race for the fish. I mean, it was absolutely hysterical, we are racing these ospreys. We came, at one point, this close to catching it.

“The bottom line is, the osprey got it. We weren’t too happy. At least I got a picture of it.”

Joy

A lazy summer mid-morning – too early for lunch, too late for breakfast – and Kathy Nish and John Bartlett planted their beach chairs close enough to the waterline to feel the breeze off the lake but not so close as to get their feet wet. They both wore straw hats and had colorful towels draped over the back of their chairs. Neither spoke. Kathy had a paperback resting on her lap, but both just seemed zoned out, staring at the water, where a motorboat would putt past occasionally and a lone stand-up paddler glided by.

From behind, with the sun glinting off the water and pine trees stitched across the rock face, they looked like an advertisement for a timeshare. Or maybe a blood-pressure-control drug.

The two said they came from Modesto and, judging by their contented expressions, you didn’t need to ask why.

“The beauty always brings me back,” Kathy said. “And in the fall, it’s not as crowded. There’s room to breathe.”

And room to kayak. Debra and John Jones, of Turlock, emerged from the water at that moment and, arms dripping, grabbed each end of their kayak and trudged along the beach to their campsite.

“It was pretty nice, except the wind picked up a little bit, but definitely worth it,” Debra said. “We were the only ones out there this morning. It felt like we had the lake to ourselves. This is great. Our local lake (New Melones Lake) hardly has any water in it. Did you see it driving in? That’s why we’re here.”

Fear

Back in the 1940s, when she was a pre-teen, Fouquet would hop on her horse and circle the lake, weaving in and out of pines, often encountering nary a soul. Those days were bliss, she said. Now, she knows change is inevitable – and she welcomes it, to a certain extent.

But she frets about the fate of a lake that’s served as a second home to her family for nearly a century. Once the domain of a few cabin owners (under U.S. Forest Service rules, homeowners lease the land from the government, yet own the structure itself), Pinecrest now attracts 350,000 visitors a year, according to Stanislaus National Forest figures. There is no entry fee and no parking fee for day use, and campsites run about $23 a night. People do not even pay to launch their boats in the lake. Such affordability, plus Pinecrest’s relative closeness to civilization (30 miles east of Sonora, 75 from Modesto), leads to crowds.

“There’s no place to park and you can’t make any more (parking) or you’d have no forest left, just a parking lot,” Fouquet said. “People now park so far away they bring wagons or carry-on things on wheels to take stuff to the beach. The difference between today and yesteryear was, during the ’40s and ’50s, people came five or six to a car and just had a tire tube or something tied to the top and that was all. Holy cow, now they bring everything like they’re staying for ages. This year, I have seen families coming in numerous cars, everybody carrying stuff down to the beach, including a 4-burner gas grill. You’d think they were staying forever.”

To Allen Green, a cabin owner since the 1970s and a community organizer for Friends of Pinecrest, the only thing to save Pinecrest would be tighter Forest Service regulation, in the form of user fees.

“The problem is, right now, the lake is free to everybody,” he said. “We’ve become like a Modesto city park. It’s a free area, and it suffers from that. When you give things away for free, people don’t use it properly. Other (Forest Service-run) places get around that by charging fees ... .

“We have three levels of people: Day-use people who pay absolutely nothing for all the Forest Service provides and, quite frankly, they don’t take very good care of the uses provided; then we have the people who rent spaces on the three campgrounds and take up a lot of parking; and then we have 360-some cabin (owners) who pay regular fees to the Forest Service for rental of the land. The cabin owners would like to see some changes.”

Molly Fuller, head ranger for the Summit District of the Stanislaus National Forest, defends the no-fee policy for entrance and parking at Pinecrest.

“Everybody who’s a U.S. citizen owns this land – it’s federal,” she said. “You pay for it when you pay your taxes. You also pay for it when you pay your electric bill, because PG&E has had to mitigate the effects of the hydropower project.”

Yet, Fuller has acknowledged the fears and, yes, anger, of longtime Pinecrestans. She said a new “traffic, parking and circulation” plan is being finalized. It will include more marked spaces, more rules prohibiting long-term parking in day-use areas by people at the campsites and other, yet to be released, traffic easements.

“It is overcrowded and, Nancy’s right, we’re loving this place to death,” Fuller said. “We’ve worked with all the stakeholders – PG&E, Friends of Pinecrest, the Pinecrest Lake Resort and Dodge Ridge – to work on it. We want people to keep enjoying the lake for years to come.”

Joy and sadness

Nostalgia often evokes bittersweet feelings, a comfort and longing both. You want the past preserved, yet know progress is inexorable.

Pinecrest has done better than most (see Lake Tahoe) at keeping its rural Sierra charm – the lone payphone outside the six-room lodge (cell service is nil); the man at the general store who tells the cashier to “put it on my tab” in all seriousness; the snack bar at the marina whose vibe is downright Rockwellian; the free “Take or Add” bookstore – even as the day trippers descend like locusts.

Green, for all his concern about crowds and quality of life, said there is no place else he’d rather spend his time. He reminisced about his introduction to the lake, back in 1971, when he drove his daughter there for a Sierra Club backpack trip.

“I drove up in the morning, couldn’t see the lake from the parking lot, so I walked down just to take a look,” he recalled. “I sat down on a rock and just stayed there. Didn’t get home until late that evening. There’s a certain spot, a beautiful view from the lake, sort of a ‘V’ shaped view that goes to the northeast, that is pretty special. I sit out on my deck and I know I’m lucky to be seeing the lake.”

Soon, winter will descend and the lake will be drawn down by PG&E until late spring, when the trout gets restocked and Highway 108 heading east gets busy again.

Though Pinecrest Resort still does 20 percent of its business in winter, the crowds diminish greatly. People rent rooms and cabins mostly as a base camp for skiing at Dodge Ridge, about 3 miles away. The cabin owners find a return to tranquility nothing short of a joy. But the drought has severely foreshortened ski season. Last year, Dodge Ridge opened in mid-December and closed on Jan. 20, due to lack of snow.

“There used to be lots of snow,” Green said. “One winter, one of my daughters skied over the top of cabins, there was that much snow. We used to get over 200 inches of snow. Now ... we haven’t had that in a long, long time.”

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Pinecrest Lake

Directions from Sacramento (approximately 125 miles): Take Highway 99 to the Liberty Road exit just past Galt. Go east 14 miles and turn right onto Highway 88. After 4 miles, turn left onto Highway 12 east. After 26 miles, Highway 12 merges with Highway 49 south. Go 23 miles and turn right onto Rawhide Road for 4 miles. Turn left on Highway 108 east and go 31 miles. Make a right turn at Pinecrest Lake Road and follow it 2 miles to the lake.

Lodging: The Pinecrest Lake Resort offers motels rooms, townhouses and cabins. Rates (depending on season): $85-$165 (rooms); $125-$240 (cabins); $190-$295 (townhouses). Contact: 209-965-3411; www.pinecrestlakeresort.com.

Camping: 196 sites in three campgrounds, all within walking distance to the lake. Rate: From $23 a night, depending on season. Contact: 877-444-6777 ; www.recreation.gov. Note: A maximum of two licensed vehicles (autos, travel trailers, boat, utility trailers, etc.) may be parked at all campsites.

Activities: Spring, summer, fall: Motor boat rental ($40, per two hours); Paddleboat, kayak ($15, per hour); sailboats ($40, per two hours), party boats ($235-$270, half-day). Winter: Dodge Ridge Ski Area: www.dodgeridge.com.

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