With or without desired snow, Tahoe communities forge ahead

Desperately needed rains left the lake a cold, dark blue in May. A glassy surface reflecting curtains of the Sierra range faced a gray shoreline of casinos, hotels and restaurants that would remain mostly dormant until summer.

The unexpected stillness of South Lake Tahoe in the shoulder season offers a sense of the raw beauty that once drew only the privileged of California and Nevada to their vacation homes. Now of course a host of year-rounders make their lives here, including small business owners and their employees whose lives depend on a healthy snowpack to make ends meet when the ski season and summer tourism die down.

For Chris Brackett, those rare days that get him back out on the water that became his passion and livelihood are a privilege of another kind. The 45-year-old former carpenter came to Tahoe in 1980. By 2009, the work had run out and he had a large family to care for.

“I had no plan, no money,” Brackett says. On a lark he decided to start South Lake Tahoe’s first standup paddle operation, and to his surprise the company blossomed. “It was like, total grassroots,” he says.

Today South Tahoe Standup Paddle has up to 120 people out on the water each day during summer, from athletes, to grandmothers and children, according to Brackett, admitting that the business keeps him so busy he rarely gets a chance to paddle himself.

“When you get out there…it’s just that peace and quiet,” he says, board in hand, walking across a near-empty beach to the water.

Debbie Brown opened Cold Water Brewery and Grill in drought-stricken 2014, designing the interior herself with restaurant tables built in her driveway (some, she says, hewn from wood charred in the 2007 Angora Fire), a handmade log wall, and lights over the bar crafted from beer growlers.

“We want to be South Shore community,” says Brown, a 5-foot-tall spitfire who often punctuates her sentences with a goading “Yeah?” “I wanted to have a place where locals and visitors unwind, connect, refuel and enjoy each others company.”

South Lake Tahoe — or any resort town, for that matter — is not necessarily the first place that might come to mind when one thinks of community. These shoulder seasons can feel a little grim.

On a Monday night, only stalwarts and a few curious visitors inhabited the casinos on Lake Tahoe Boulevard. In one, a dark-haired, heavy-set man stood puffing on a cigar by himself, surveying the room. A middle-aged woman wearing a black eye patch played electronic poker, and a man with one arm – mocking irony, perhaps — pulled stoically at a one-armed bandit. Across the room, a party of youths pierced the solemnity, cheering frantically over a mechanical horse racing game.

But Brown speaks of Lake Tahoe’s “red-headed stepchild” on the south side in hopeful terms, saying it has “the energy” and personality that the more serene and retiring North Shore lacks.

Jeff Cowen is cultivating a similar sense of community at his nearby Blue Angel Cafe, located on a tree-lined street off the main drag that in the mid-20th-century served as the area’s main ski run. Now it lies below the Heavenly ski resort. Cowen says most of his customers come by word of mouth.

“Up here people have to know about you,” he says.

Cowen, whose previous job was with the governmental agency that oversees environmental issues for the Lake Tahoe area, met his wife on the slopes. Now together they run the cafe, a “kind of après-ski spot” with an international menu, Cowen says, modeled after the chalets and family-style dining of Europe. Customers can also drop off fish they catch, and it will be cleaned and cooked for them by the time they return.

Entrepreneur Matt Levitt lays claim to helping create the first vodka that “captures the essence of Lake Tahoe.” His business acumen, combined with a 2011 inspiration for a spirit evoking the clear blue waters of the lake, and self-described lack of knowledge about both the alcohol industry and distilling resulted in the award-winning Tahoe Blue Vodka.

“Ignorance actually worked to my advantage in this case,” Levitt says, smiling. It’s a somewhat sweeter, blended spirit — distilled in Mountain View — that combines grape, sugar cane and corn vodkas. From a positive initial reception in 2012, Levitt has been slowly increasing sales from 400 to 1,800 cases per year in 2014. His company supports charities dedicated to preserving Lake Tahoe.

East of the lake, the wall of Sierra rock facing Nevada’s fertile Carson Valley attracts the circling of thin-winged gliders, towed up to 10,000 feet by pilots before their release, then silently drifting over the mountains and Tahoe’s blue waters, vast tracts of green farmland, the local airport and a giant Starbucks coffee bean roasting facility. Thermals of rising hot air buoy the engine-less planes, often sending them up hundreds of feet in seconds. It seems an unlikely place for lovers of this type of flying, amid weathered farmhouses, cattle ranches and the small towns of Minden, Gardnerville and Genoa, but the weather is perfect for it.

“There’s a pretty good community of folks out here that fly gliders on a regular basis,” says Reba Coombs of Soaring NV, which offers wondrous outings for novice and experienced fliers.

Beginning in the 19th century, the Carson Valley became a haven for Basque immigrants, mainly sheep herders. Marie Louise Lekumberry’s family bought the J.T. Basque Bar and Dining Room in Gardnerville as a hotel in 1960 and it has since become one of the most popular dining spots in the area. Lekumberry manages the front of the house, while her brother runs the kitchen.

Locals and visitors alike sidle up to the bar for a traditional, deliciously bitter-orange Picon Punch — a powerful apertif apparently concocted by the same Basque immigrants in the early 1900s — and then sit at communal tables for traditional meals of rustic soups, beef stew, beans, lamb chops with garlic, and sweet wine. Even Basques from Europe are pleasantly surprised by the tastes of the familiar when they come to J.T.’s, says Lekumberry.

A sliver of river water cuts through marshland in the valley, offering respite to migrating birds as the nearby hot springs do for human travelers at the historic David Walley’s Hot Springs Resort just outside Genoa. Though this winter in the Sierras may offer up a snowy respite, and more would surely be welcomed, there is, after all, far more to these communities than skiing.

Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at openskylight.blogspot.com

If You Go:
Camp Richardson Resort: A historic, family-friendly retreat of rustic cabins with modern amenities on the shores of Lake Tahoe, away from the bustle of downtown. A short distance away is the beautiful Fallen Leaf Lake and a trailhead into Desolation Wilderness. Rooms $99.75 to $262.50. 1900 Jameson Beach Road, South Lake Tahoe. www.camprichardson.com

South Tahoe Standup Paddle: A great way to experience the beauty of the lake up close and learn the sport of standup paddling, which originated in Hawaii and has since become popular worldwide. Rentals $20 to $30/hour. El Dorado Beach, South Lake Tahoe. www.southtahoesup.com

Getaway Cafe: Hearty breakfasts and more – many of the dishes Mexican-influenced and all made from scratch – await at this local favorite just south of Lake Tahoe. A friendly place for a pit stop on the way to or from the lake. 3140 Highway 50, Meyers, South Lake Tahoe. www.getawaycafetahoe.com
David Walley’s Hot Springs Resort: Country-style luxury in a glorious, peaceful setting, a spa and hot springs, and upscale dining, with rows of mountains on one side and the lush Carson Valley, river and marshland on the other. Rooms from $149-$389. 2001 Foothill Road, Genoa, Nevada. www.davidwalleys-resort.com

Soaring NV: A silently thrilling glider ride is the best way to see the Carson Valley, the eastern slopes of the Sierras and Lake Tahoe from the air. Trips range from 15 minutes to all day, and from gentle to white-knuckling. $119 to $600 per person. Pilot lessons are also available. 1138 Airport Road, Minden, Nevada. www.soaringnv.com

J.T. Basque Bar and Dining Room: The restaurant, equal parts food and family, serves a communal dinner that never stops coming, so loosen up your Basque big-boy belt. The bar also serves one of the finest Picon Punch cocktails in northern Nevada. Never mind if the first sip of the bitter orange elixir makes your tongue curl into the fetal position – give it a few minutes. 1426 Highway 395, Gardnerville, Nevada. www.jtbasquenv.com
Genoa Bar and Saloon: The oldest bar in Nevada, built in 1853, is still slinging drinks to locals, bikers and tourists, and still hanging its original diamond dust mirror. According to one bartender, whose day job is running a local ranch, closing time is when everyone’s done drinking. 2282 Main St., Genoa. www.genoabarandsaloon.com

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