THAT DONNER PARTY-ING TIME
TOPIC: Super Summers in the Sierras
PROJECT: Family Ties And Magical Skies
When I come up for air I expect to have the beautiful silence broken by the sound of the world. But at sunrise in the middle of an alpine lake, the wind and the water are as quiet as my sleeping children back in the cabin. Of course it’s not going to stay this still. The world, and my kids, are going to wake up. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
My family has been coming to Donner Lake for almost 50 years. Before any of Ken and Ilene’s grandchildren were born and long before the great-grandchildren arrived. Every summer, without fail, we show up. It’s part summer vacation and part family reunion and it always feels like a homecoming. We’ve added a ton of family members along way too, both the kind you get when you marry someone and have kids with them and the kind you get when you just love spending time with somebody so damn much that you can’t help but show up again next year.
The Donner Lake State Park is tucked away nicely on Highway 80 in the Tahoe National Forest. It’s one of a hundred or so lakes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that will never be as famous as big brother up the road. Any time I tell someone I’m going to Donner Lake they inevitably respond, “Donner? Like, the Donner Party?” Yeah. An unfortunate namesake for sure but party isn’t far off the mark.
There are plenty of ways for the 70(ish) of us to spend our Summer vacation, but it always revolves around the park. Most days are spent sitting lakeside sunning and swimming and drinking and reading and drinking some more. The annual horseshoe tournament is a serious affair, complete with brackets, leather trophies and several jugs of Yucca Flats (basically just wonderful sugary tequila with some lemons and limes). The brave among us swim or bike or run in the annual triathlon, and you can count on the rest of us hanging out at the finish line, drinks in hand.
You can’t spend every day at the beach though, and that’s where the mountains come in handy. The lake itself sits at the bottom of a bowl made up of rocks and pine trees. Pick a direction and look up. That’s a good place for a hike. As kids we used to start at the bottom down by the lake and hike up to the railroad tracks but now that we can drive we aim higher. To the west is the Mt. Judah Loop. A five minute drive puts you at the trailhead and an hour later you’re overlooking the lake and all the way into Truckee. Of course if it’s a bigger adventure you’re after you can always jump on the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs right through here. The north and south summits also offer heartbreakingly beautiful views as well if you can get to them. And there is the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe and the ski resorts all within a very short drive if you’re up for it.
These places matter. Nature is not here for the benefit of my family but it certainly does bring us together. The park, and the sand and the water and the trees, have become home. For me, preserving and protecting our natural spaces is as much about preserving and protecting the family ties that bind. It’s hard to imagine my family without this place, and I’m not sure I want to. My boys will grow up here, even though they will never live here.
This lake and this park will remain long after I’m gone, but with a little luck, my family will always be there to live and laugh and love with the gentle waves of icy Sierra water lapping at their feet.