Wah-wahs in the Woods

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Nellie and Shiloh needed a vacation.

At some point last winter I went to a snowshoeing class at the REI in Marina.  I was the only person there, and Sierra, the instructor from REI, bless her heart, gave the talk anyway.  I was still holding out hope for some real snow, and a chance at snowshoeing, but as it turned out, it didn’t snow enough last winter to make it worthwhile.

But Sierra did mention a few good places to go if it did snow.  Dinky Creek, Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake and the nearby snow parks would all have trails that would suit a beginner.

We never made it up there last winter, but last weekend Susie and I decided to grab the two chihuahuas (a.k.a. wha-wha’s) (a.k.a. Nellie and Shiloh) and drive across the San Joaquin valley to Shaver Lake.

There are two ways for us to get from the ranch in Carmel Valley to Shaver Lake.  We went out by way of Carmel Valley Road to King City, where we made our obligatory short detour for burritos.  Then it was Hwy 198 across the Diablo Range and into Coalinga.

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The well-maintained 198 gives you a great geology show as you transect this last coastal range before you drop down into the vast San Joaquin valley.

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I’ve always been fascinated by the scale of agriculture in the great valley.  Cultivated things growing in every direction for as far as you can see.  But now there’s a new feature to the landscape. As you drive a bolt-straight line across the valley floor, row after row of stoic orchards suddenly give way to a landscape of nothing but brown dirt, neatly combed into uninterrupted lines that converge on a horizon miles away.  A vista of drought.

After driving through Fresno, we headed out Hwy 168 and up to Shaver Lake, where we camped out at the pet-tolerant Shaver Lake Hotel, during what I have to assume is the off season.

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The big marina on Shaver Lake tells me there must be a big summer swimming/boating crowd, and the ‘Chains Required at All Times’ signs on Hwy 168 signs clearly give a clue (and a warning) that there’s a real winter up here.

And ‘up here’ it is.  We drove through Fresno, which is at something like 336 feet above sea level, and up to, at one point, 7,100 feet near China Lake Resort.

We checked into a lovely corner room in the ‘hotel’ building (they have cabins, too) and then set out for a short walk along the drought-stricken Shaver Lake.

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Walking along the shoreline was easy because there’s 50 yards of exposed sand that would normally be under water. Statistically, the lake is at 76% capacity, but looked much worse.

Nellie and Shiloh led the way, first along the beach, then returning on the trails that surround the lake.  After this warm-up hike our troupe headed back to the hotel where we indulged ourselves with the burritos that we picked up on the way here (shout out to Taco Bravo, King City) and the novelty of cable TV.  There’s no TV back home at the ranch.  Well, we have a TV, but each time we watch TV in a hotel room we’re easily reminded why we won’t pay to put anything on the one at the ranch:  Just cannot justify spending cash for the likes of ‘Duck Dynasty’ and ‘Real Housewives’.

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On Saturday morning we packed up Nellie and Shiloh and stopped at the trails around Mount Ely, which are just a few minutes outside the village of Shaver Lake.  Once again, the wah-wahs led the way, stopping to sniff and pee every seven feet or so, for about a mile down the wide logging road.  Walking among the tall canopy of trees is peaceful and easy.  The breeze in the pines is just about as soothing as it comes, and in spite of the drought there was a hundred shades of green in every direction.

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Sure, there’s evidence of selective logging with the occasional dozer-sized access path cut into the hillsides. But what we observed was also a healthy amount of new growth everywhere the sunlight broke through to the forest floor.

Meanwhile, Shiloh had started to tire of the sniff-n-hike routine, so I picked him up, which is easy with a Chihuahua, and we headed back to the car continued our drive up to Huntington Lake.  We ended up taking the ‘back’ road through the village of Big Creek, which has a vintage power generating station that has been generating electricity for Los Angeles for over 100 years.

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The road got a little narrow and steep at times, but was paved the whole way.  Not quite sure what we would do if a logging truck came the other way, but one didn’t, so we got away clean.

You end up at Huntington Lake, which has cabins and camping, most of which were closed down for the season.  This lake was even worse off, only filled to 48% of its normal capacity. We passed China Lake ski area and the snow parks on the round trip back down to Shaver Lake, with two tired chihuahuas sacked out in the back of the Element.

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If there’s any snow this winter, we’ll come back and try out some snowshoes.  Not sure if the wah-wahs are ready for snow drifts.  We’ll just have to pack them in and out. Pack animals.

We followed Saturday’s road trip with some beers and a nice dinner on at the Wahtoke Grill and Bar in Shaver Lake village, and had a nice home cooked breakfast both mornings at the Shaver Coffee and Deli across from the hardware store.

For the return trip, we avoided Fresno and and cut a little north to Millerton Lake, then, once again, drove at high speeds across long stretches of straight highway through Madera, Los Banos and Hollister.

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I’d call it a successful first foray into the Shaver Lake area.  I imagine it’s a much different scene when the real snow falls (crowds?) but we’ll pack up some Chihuahua snow suits and set of tire chains and see what happens.  We’ll keep you posted, which is a perfect excuse for going back :)

Kid Factor: + Can’t hardly go wrong, especially in the Summer swimming and Winter snow seasons.

Fitness Factor: + Something for every fitness level. The logging trails we went on were practically flat, but there were trails that climbed up Mt. Ely and trails all around Shaver Lake.  If we ever get some snow we’ll try snowshoeing for sure.

Photo Factor:  Plenty of roadside vistas.  Forests are a funny thing to shoot, however.  The big forest landscape shot could be a problem because the understory growth is so thick.  A lot of eastern forest have a canopy of trees, and ground cover that’s only maybe knee high, so you can see into the forest and frame up a meaningful picture.  So I mainly ended up looking for ‘hints’ of the forest to tell the story: small new growth, huge cut stumps, shafts of light breaking through to the forest floor.  With a fresh snow, however, you could have endless possibilities.

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