Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017

Family Vacation
August 17, 2017

I am safely home from a family vacation in the Wild West. It began with a flight to Denver where my daughter Sara and my twelve year old grand-daughter Nora met me and drove me to their home in Fort Collins. The big excitement there was the appearance of Nora’s siblings, fifteen year old Ian and nine year old Claire in four performances of “Fiddler on the Roof”.

Ian was cast as Lazar Wolf, the village butcher whose arranged marriage to Tevya’s daughter Zeitel is scuttled. Adorned with a long gray beard he was a very credible sorehead once the wedding was called off. Claire performed as “Man number two”, a very active villager who was a significant participant in many of the group scenes. The entire production was quite impressive for a group of very young actors and actresses.

They took me to the airport for my flight on to Reno, then returned home to pack their van and begin the same trip in it (fifteen hours on the road!). My flight into Reno was about an hour ahead of one that my daughter Beth, her husband Mike, and thirteen year old daughter Rachael were on from Chicago. Once they arrived they rented a car and we drove to our destination, a “ski house” on Donner Lake, about forty five minutes away.

When our son John was living in San Francisco he was part of a group of young people who regularly rented a ski house so they could ski at Squaw Valley. Eventually he and another young man decided it would be better to build a house than to continue renting.

The house is on a narrow steep lot on the south side of Donner Lake and actually is within the jurisdiction of the community of Truckee, California. It contains six large bedrooms and can easily accommodate a dozen or fifteen people at a time. Its location on the lake makes it as attractive as a summer recreational spot as it is for winter sports.

Sara and Jim and their three children arrived right after lunch the next day. John was fifteen minutes behind them, having flown from China, via San Francisco. Unfortunately Victoria and Lai An were unable to accompany him.

The ski house has a captive fleet of three paddle boards and two kayaks, sufficient for everyone to get out on the water several times a day. Donner Lake is almost three miles long and three quarters of a mile wide at its maximum. It is a classic montane glacial lake. During the last ice age a glacier cut a narrow valley between two steep ridges and deposited a moraine at one end when it receded. The moraine created a dam that in turn created the lake. Its water is crystal clear and warm enough to permit swimming.

On several occasions we supplemented the paddle boards and kayaks by renting a powerboat and a three person tube that it can tow. Jim is a master skipper and was able to maneuver the boat skillfully so that the thrill (and challenge) of hanging onto the tube as it crisscrossed the boat’s wake was just right for the people on the tube at that specific time. We all concluded that he couldn’t go slow enough for me to venture onto the tube.

One day the family humored the feeble octogenarian railfan by taking a train ride on Amtrak. Sara drove John, Beth, me, and the four grandchildren west to Colfax, a delightful little town about fifty miles west of Truckee. The Colfax Chamber of Commerce boasts that their town is in a perfect location, “above the fog and below the snow”. We had lunch at Café Luna and then went to the train station to await the eastbound California Zephyr.

A major feature in the station is an excellent museum and gift shop, operated by volunteers from the local historical society. Lots of interesting exhibits related to building the Central Pacific Railroad and to supporting gold mining and timbering in Sierra Nevadas.

Once the train arrived we immediately made our way to the Observation Car where we found two adjacent tables with excellent views in both directions. The current railroad follows the alignment the Central Pacific built one hundred and fifty years ago, an alignment later paralleled by the Lincoln Highway and eventually I-80. Leaving Colfax it takes an “S curve” to gain altitude at a practical grade, then runs along a ridge line just north of the north fork of the American River.

The canyon of the American River is spectacular and apparently is a popular destination for fishermen as well as for white water rafting and kayaking. It certainly is an area I’d like to explore in the future. Eventually the railroad goes through Emigrant Gap, the summit between the American River watershed and the Feather River watershed to the north. Before long it passes Soda Springs and approaches Donner Summit.

Originally the Central Pacific went through Number Six (also called Summit) Tunnel; the current alignment goes through a new tunnel to the south. Two summers ago we hiked through Number Six and located a letterbox at its eastern end. When the current route exits the tunnel it is high on the ridge above Donner Lake. It passes through a snow shed directly above the ski house.

Because the railroad is so much higher than Truckee village, it must negotiate a long horseshoe curve to descend. The curve actually begins inside a tunnel and extends several miles down one side of a valley before crossing it and returning on the other side. It comes into the village right on Main Street. Sara was there to retrieve us when we arrived. A wonderful trip – next time we will take Amtrak from Truckee to Reno.

The highest point visible from the ski house is Castle Peak, so named because from the south it does resemble towers on a castle. From our vantage point, south south east of the peak, however, it looks remarkably like Snoopy asleep on top of his dog house. We named it Snoopy Rock long before finding out its official name. I am waging a campaign to have the name changed.

Family vacations always involve board games. This time it was Risk, the Game of Life, and Sheriff of Nottingham. Risk and Life are well known games; Sheriff deserves equivalent popularity. It mimics a group of smugglers trying to get contraband goods through a customs inspector. Each player gets a chance at being inspector of the other four players’ goods. Consequently it depends heavily on bluffing. Age and wisdom are no advantage – Claire was better at it than I was.

Dinner on the upper deck of the ski house, in the summer, is always a treat. The chefs bring the meal up from the kitchen on an elevator. Beth commented that the deck was one of her personal favorite places for a family meal. We also have a couple of favorite family restaurants in Truckee village. One is “Jax at the Tracks”. It began as an authentic diner, one that was transported from Pennsylvania to California, and has been expanded. A meal there is never complete unless a long freight train goes by while we are eating.

Smokey’s Kitchen is another favorite, a local barbeque venue. We had our farewell supper there on Sunday, after which Sara’s family left for their long drive home. The next morning the rest of us got up at 3:00 am and drove to the Reno airport. John and I were on the same flight to Denver and enjoyed sitting together. Beth’s family left a few minutes later on a flight to Chicago. John and I separated in Denver. He went on to New York, while I came home.

It was wonderful to be able to spend so much time with my family. It was our first trip to the ski house since my wife died; we all miss her terribly. Travelling is always a treat, but I still endorse the sentiment on a sampler Nan’s Aunt Gladys made as a child – “East, West, Home’s Best”.

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

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