Amongst the Sierra
Amongst the Sierra
a Wakebabes’ mountain adventure
by Jen Gilan-Farr
photography by Mahallia Budds
It wasn’t until moving back to my hometown in Lake Tahoe after eight years in Florida that I really began to fully appreciate and admire the mountains that I was so lucky to grow up in. There’s something magical about the region. My horizons were expanded as I was introduced to the Eastern Sierra earlier this year, a span of the Sierra Nevada range with peaks reaching over 14,000 feet and full of geological wonder. From jagged, snow-capped peaks, to towering evergreen trees, to lush alpine valleys and pristine lakes; the spine of mountains that run the divide between California and Nevada are full of wonder and opportunity. The rugged mountains of the Eastern Sierra are a gold mine to the outdoor enthusiast; offering world class backcountry skiing, rock climbing, backpacking, and fishing – as it is filled with pristine alpine lakes, which I have become infatuated with and eager to explore.
Nearly two years ago my friend Ricky and I bought a barebones 14’ aluminum boat for $500 in hopes of making it into the perfect wakeskating machine. With no floor, no transom, and no motor this craft was a blank canvas to the open imagination. After returning home from a dream trip traveling through the south island of New Zealand with Flick Blackmore and her little wakeskate boat, I was determined to finish The Shark project so we could start planning another trip – this time in my backyard. It all started with a mermaid green paint swatch and from there “The Shark” slowly came to life through countless hours of sweat and sawdust – complete with a cheesy grin on the front. After several months of rehab and a new motor, the 1962 Alumacraft Maracaibo was ready for adventure and Flick’s tickets were booked.
As prime spring skiing season was coming to an end in the Eastern Sierra, I was after something else: desolate alpine lakes, crystal clear glassy water, and rugged mountain landscapes – a wakeskater’s dream. The girls slowly rolled into town and we packed up to head into the mountains with this lightweight, custom craft. I rallied as many of The Wakebabes as I could fit in my tiny little boat. The crew consisted of myself and Flick, Cassandra Scott, Tynna Rosero and Mahallia Budds. As we pulled out of the driveway the worst possible outcomes naturally ran through my mind, from wrecking the truck, to the boat breaking, to freak spring snowstorms, and more. The opportunity for challenges were endless, but that was all part of the adventure. Regardless, we were all excited to explore and experience these mountains, with our wakeskates and the Shark. Everyone was in awe as we drove out of the Tahoe basin, through the valley and into the Eastern Sierra as the sun set.
Knowing the early season ice cold water temps would be one of our biggest challenges, especially with Tynna’s Filipino blood and Cassie being a Florida native, I wanted to start the trip off on a warmer note. Our first stop was a private hot spring campground in the historic mining town of Benton. We fell asleep to an exceptional view of the Milky Way spanning across the open sky and woke up the next morning to the sunrise and surprisingly warm temperatures. Our first day on the East Side would be about exploring a few of the lakes I couldn’t find much information on and setting ourselves up with easy early morning lake access for the next few days.
When I started planning this trip I couldn’t believe how many stunning small alpine lakes there were to explore. More and more research had led me to discover many of these alpine gems have speed regulations as they are prime fishing destinations stocked by the marinas that own the boat ramps. Once fishing season started I got shut-down one phone call at a time researching the lakes that I had already been dreaming of riding. The list quickly dropped from well over ten lakes to four.
Our first stop sent us high into Mammoth Mountain to see if we could get a set in on Lake Mary. The air temps dropped as we climbed in elevation and I tried to call the marina several times with no answer. The only red flag I could find in my research was a small note about no swimming or wading in the ice cold water as the lake sat at 8,900 feet with snow capped peaks. I jumped out of the truck to ask the nice fellow at the marina if there was a speed limit. 15mph – “Perfect!” I said, “That’s exactly how fast we want to go.” Okay, well maybe 18mph, but who would know the difference?!
I suited up and we tried to set ourselves up for the least intrusive line that wouldn’t send the fishermen over shaking fists. I jumped in and tested out a few passes, falling instead of turning around and trying to be as low key as possible. The only reaction was a few cheers from one of the pontoon boats. I stuck my first kickflip of the season, inspired by the euphoria of riding in one of the most beautiful places in the world with the snowy monolith Crystal Crag as the backdrop.
Flick jumped in next and made it about halfway through her set before the boys from the marina zipped over in their skiff to regretfully shut us down. While we could drive 15mph in circles all day, towed watersports were not allowed on Lake Mary. With a campground on the lake, boat rentals and the snowy Mammoth Crest on the horizon we knew it was all too good to be true. We packed up the Shark, ate lunch on the tailgate, and headed to Grant Lake.
We drove through the stunning June Lakes Loop admiring the three other lakes we weren’t allowed to ride on. By the time we made it through the loop the wind was howling and the guy at the marina highly suggested we didn’t drop the little 14-foot Shark in. We could see a decent line across the way, decided not to heed the ranger’s advice, and set sail. Cassie, Tynna and Flick battled the wind gusts and got acquainted with the reconstructed Alumacraft.
Unfortunately the wind never ceased to die down so we pulled the boat out and went to explore the mysterious Mono Lake for the sunset. Due to its salinity and shallow depths, there are a lot of aspects unique to Mono Lake, especially its tufa columns. We drove in just as the sun was dropping below the mountains, making this surreal sight even more amazing as the pink, purple and orange hues painted the entire sky behind the limestone formations leaving us in awe.
Given the cold temps and unknown water conditions, we debated exploring one more day on the east side and then heading back to the Tahoe basin where there were a few beautiful lakes we could ride behind with no speed limits or time constraints. Making decisions on the fly, we decided to accept the challenge of the Eastern Sierra and continue on our mission. That night we set-up camp at Lake Crowley, the only lake in the Eastern Sierra that allowed watersports at all hours. I admit I was the least excited for this reservoir as the scenery didn’t appear to measure up with the epic landscapes of the high alpine lakes, but it quickly proved me wrong. Crowley offered its own unique features from glassy narrow canyons to chalk cliffs and columns. We explored Crowley all day until the wind finally kicked us off mid-afternoon. The glassy canyon was so good to us we paid for another night at the lakeside campground and rented a boat slip for easy morning access.
On our way back into town that afternoon we passed the sign for Lake Convict, named after a group of wild west convicts that escaped to the lake from prison nearly 150 years ago. I couldn’t resist driving the few extra miles to show the ladies one of the most picturesque lakes in the area, another gem we couldn’t touch. However, I’m not sure why this one ever made my ‘no-go’ list. There weren’t any speed limit signs posted so I inquired with the gentleman that worked the marina. He couldn’t give me a straight answer about wakeskating, but he assured me there are no rules on the lake and wished us luck.
The backdrop was dramatic and breathtaking with geologically timed peaks, aspen trees and aquamarine water that lights up like a crystal when the sun shines through. Change of plans, we had to take the chance. We reserved a campsite next to the lake and went back to get the boat from Crowley after dinner with just enough light before sundown. With the boat in tow we pulled off at Hilltop Hot Springs for a quick soak on our way back to our new campsite, taking advantage of all the elements the East Side has to offer.
We arrived at camp in the dark and quickly set up our sleeping arrangements, crashing hard with high hopes for the morning. Krista Bre road tripped up that night in her camper van to join us for part of the adventure. The early morning weather was overcast and questionable. The wind was already picking up, but we were committed. There was smooth-enough water on the far side of the lake, the biggest battle would be the random gusts of strong winds. At 7,850 feet in elevation this was the coldest lake and the lack of sunshine wasn’t helping.
While trying to avoid hypothermia and also keep peace with the local fishermen, we made our best attempts to shoot some photos in the epic scenery. After thawing out my numb hands and feet I went back out on The Shark to pull Flick. No amount of wind or bad weather would stop her from missing a lake on the tour. Lucky for her the sun came back out, illuminating the landscape in golden light and she had one of her most memorable sets of the trip. As she finished the sun again hid behind clouds and no one else was keen to fight the elements. We packed up camp, dropped the boat at a marina and trekked into Yosemite for the afternoon.
The drive in was breathtaking, winding up and down Tioga pass, watching the elevation climb up over 9,000 feet and back down to 4,000. We parked and wandered the valley floor by foot. With endless options and limited time we settled on checking out the waterfalls that are in their peak runoff this time of year. Flick and I hustled up to Upper Yosemite Falls for a quick sunset hike while the rest of the crew went bouldering. We watched the sunset on half dome with the waterfall in the forefront and scrambled back down in the dark to find the rest of the crew.
Everyone was exhausted but we rallied the three hour winding road out of Yosemite to camp closer to the boat so we could get a head start for our last day on the East Side. Our last stop was the beautiful Upper Twin Lake that lies beneath the jagged peaks of Sawtooth Ridge. This was the only lake that I had been to before and a guarantee for good riding during the mid-day watersports hours. A few of us got a set in before the weather turned and as it started to lightly rain there were rumors of snow falling in Mammoth – a sign we’d timed things just right.
We packed it up for one last dip at Buckeye Hot Springs, just around the corner from our last stop. After thawing out we parted ways with Krista to head back home. As we drove over the pass and into Tahoe the sun was setting over the lake. Mother Nature may have brought in gale force winds, but she didn’t hold back in any other manner from painting the sky at sunset to these glacier cut landscapes that will forever be engrained in our memories. After our week on the road made it home in one piece with no tickets, crashes or lake battles. Most of the fishermen we encountered admired our little tinny full of character. Before we even left the Eastern Sierra Flick was already planning next year’s road trip back in New Zealand. One dream trip leads to another. In the end we found exactly what we were looking for. If you trek into the mountains with wide eyes and a shark grin, chances are you will find it too.
“From the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light.”
— John Muir / The Yosemite (1912)