On a dark night in mid-June, the hot campfire burned bright, flames of bright oranges and reds licking and dancing and waving, shooting sparks into the boughs of the towering Ponderosa pines above. A container of stove-top popcorn was held over the cast iron grating until it the pop-pop faded away, and the weak foil top was sliced open with a pocket knife to let the steam breathe out from the buttery delicious white kernels inside. Marshmallows were roasted on sticks until they were burnt crispy, after which the sweet and gooey spongy confection was squished between two honey graham crackers and a Reese’s peanut butter cup for a tasty twist on the classic s’more. The warmth from the fire washed over the campers, myself included, as the smoke grasped and clung onto our sweatshirts, imbedding a nostalgia-inducing charcoal smell that would last for weeks, even after washing. It was a happy evening, because it was our first night at Lake Almanor.
Lake Almanor was something that has always been a part of Kierstin’s childhood, and after a few years of tagging along, it is now somewhere I cherish as well. The lake itself is owned by PG&E, and Kierstin’s dad, as a PG&E employee can rent cabins during the summer. A week at the lake is a true vacation, one where day after day becomes one, because vacation at the lake means doing nothing and doing a lot of it. You can spend less than two days there and experience just about everything that we do in our seven days there. Every day is a great day for lounging around on the lake, drinking beer and eating as much as we can, and playing sports and games. Every day ends with a beautiful lakeside sunset, sometimes highlighted by cotton candy clouds, a yellow glow against the blue sky and pink clouds, and other times the only thing to look at in the sky, a bright orb sinking behind Mt. Lassen in a sea of blue. In the evening, we can make the short walk across the street to the lake where sometimes the bright moon shines diffuse light through the clouds or peaks through a small opening in the trees. Every day at the lake is a painting, a generic nature scene that sucks you in for a week, a week that seems short and seems long at the same time.
My legs felt heavy, my breath felt heavy. The thin air of the high altitude felt like the pine needles on the forest floor poking my lungs on each inhale. Inside my mind, there was an urge to quit, to stop running, but I willed myself to keep going. The cold mountain lake was higher this year than it had been in previous years after a good season of rain and snowfall. My morning run along the lake shore was another way that I could discover the surrounding nature, but it was also a guilt-reducing calorie burn so that I could feel free to gorge and imbibe on our first full day floating on the lake.
We rented a paddleboard that day, and originally, we were going to hang out by the shore near our cabin, but plans changed, and we found a nice little beach around the other side of the lake. I thought it would be a fun challenge to try to paddleboard around to where the rest of the group was relocating but had a feeling I wouldn’t make it too far and told them to bring a boat my way when they were all set up. I sat on the board by the lake, rowing along the shore as more and more toothbrush tree bristles came into view but I still couldn’t spot the beach where everyone else was. I paddled as fast as I could, gliding across the popcorn water, white kernels forming in the wind. Sporadic strong gales made my efforts futile, pushing me sideways, and after about 45 minutes, I was not even halfway there. Eventually, my saviors came; Kierstin’s parents’ boat came zooming around the corner to rescue me. They dragged me in, and I saw the long way left that I still had. That day we floated around near the beach, a typical lake day’s agenda, and swam around, feeling the frigid mountain spring water wash over and leave us breathless.
I learned a lesson while at the lake that shouldn’t have to be learnt at my age, a critical one about the dangers of a lack of sunblock. I awoke later that week as tired and sore as I’ve ever been; I had spent the whole night tossing and turning, trying to get comfortable. My upper body, face, arms, were all okay. But the back of my legs were burnt red. I wasn’t sure if the soreness that I felt in my legs was due to my lakeside run, or due to my hill sprints and rock-lifting on another morning or due to the sunburn that crisped my legs as I laid on the paddleboard all afternoon. Whatever it was, I could barely hobble out of bed and out of the cabin. I went out to take a 6:00 AM walk to try to knock some of the soreness out. The cool air felt good on my sunburn. I took long breaths of fresh mountain air to relax and accelerate the cycle of muscle restoration. Dead sticks cracked loud beneath my feet like my bones cracking to ease the pain. I groggily descended back to camp poured a cup of hot chocolate, a warm tonic to heal. I opened my book on that early morning and sat out on the cabin deck while everyone slept.
If there is one day you can’t miss at the lake it is Taco Tuesday. Kierstin’s mom takes pride in making the best meal of the week, a day that everyone looks forward to and talks about year after year. Crispy white corn tortillas are fried in oil and layered with cheese and chicken; browned greasy bubbly tacos are slathered in sour cream, topped with fresh green lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and chopped red onion. Margaritas are aplenty; cups are refilled almost like magic. A night of overeating and drinking keeps everyone in bed the next morning, until nearly the afternoon. Breakfast is at the café, as no one is up to the task of making another meal after
The rest of the week feels like a blur now. Friends came to visit at different times of the week. There was time for swimming, basketball, horseshoes, ping-pong, baseball, beach games, singing, dancing, hiking, reading, movies. There was time for nothing. As I said, you could experience two days and get it all, but you would miss out on losing track of time as the seven days go by without a care in the world. Lake Almanor cabin trips are a time for relaxation, delicious food and drink, laughter, and memories. On the last night, I went out to the lake to watch the moon rise and take a few photos. I realized what is so great about going to the lake with the ones I love. It’s just like how you can capture the moon reflecting off the water with a nice camera setup and a well-timed photo. But you can’t quite capture the serenity and quietness, the adrenaline that rushes through you as your imagination considers what could be creeping through at the edge of the light in the darkness of the woods surrounding. And just by going to the lake, you can’t quite capture the entire feeling, all of the good times and thrills, unless you go on vacation at the lake with friends and family.