The meadow called Bass Lake
By Brian David
sierra star correspondent
Summer at Bass Lake has been a thrill for generations of vacationers.
BASS LAKE - Summer images at Bass Lake are fading into warm memories on cooler fall days for thousands of people.
The young father pulling a wooden wagon packed with his two toddlers sandwiched between lawn chairs, beach towels and balls will remember his morning treks down to the beach.
Another dad will feel lighthearted reflecting back about a discussion with his 9-year-old son when they were walking out of The Forks grocery story.
"Dad, why were those beans moving in that store, the son asked. "Those were Mexican Jumping Beans, began the father, unlocking the jumping-bean mystery to another generation.
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Bass Lake, within 20 miles of California's geographic center, like a natural magnet connecting generations with a past not yet lost. The area has been drawing people back for more than 1,000 years. Below Bass Lake lies a meadow submerged for 99 years. In the meadow are records of Bass Lake's early history.
Streams caressing the meadow watered the lush grass and flowers. Frogs, salamanders, snakes and other small wetland animals were plentiful. The meadow abounding with miner's lettuce, wild cabbage, onions, and berries was surrounded by dense green forest climbing mountain slopes.
Rabbits, raccoons, skunks, deer, bears and a choir of birds, including geese and ducks, visited the meadow. Ancient tools and utensils found around the meadow suggest people were living at today's Bass Lake at least 1,200 years ago.
Twelve campsites, now underwater, silently testify of people in the meadow. North Fork Mono people lived in the meadow's camps. North Fork Monos, from the meadow, traded with Chukchansi Yokut and the Pononichi Miwok peoples of the Western Sierras. The Owens Valley Piute people (who spoke a similar language to Mono) were trade partners with the Monos from the Eastern Sierras. The North Fork Mono people were at the center of the Sierra trade route.
While the Mono occasionally skirmished with other peoples living in the Western Sierras, the meadow was a peaceful place. In 1806, Gabriel Moraga, a Spanish explorer who named many of the rivers and creeks in the Sierra Nevada, heard from the Mono and Yokuts of a run-in with Spaniards in the Western Sierra around 1774. In 1823, California was under Mexico's rule but the Mexican ranchers in the foothills were not a threat to the lifestyle of the Mono peoples. In fact, the Monos liked the horses that came in from the Spanish and Mexicans.
Jedediah Strong Smith, a mountain-man trapping in Mono territory in the late 1820s, was the first English-speaking person to interact with the Monos before the gold rush into the Sierras in the 1850s. In 1851, a militia group - the Mariposa Battalion - descended on the meadow where huge long-necked birds, several feet tall, took flight, signaling not only a new name for the meadow - "Crane Valley - but the beginning of a new era of change for the meadow.
California was the trophy for the United States and its war with Mexico in 1848. The flood of people rushing for gold hit the hills around Crane Valley in 1849, sending a wave of wandering miners and early settlers washing into the Crane Valley area in the 1850s. As the Monos either moved out - often under duress - or intermingled with the new arrivals to the meadow, Crane Valley began transforming.
Shepherds saw Crane Valley as ideal pastureland for their growing flocks of sheep. Wool was in high demand by the Union engaged in the Civil War from 1861 into 1865. The Daltons ran the largest number of livestock around Crane Valley. The area was known to Basque shepherds who ran sheep into the High Country to graze in the summer.
A few settlers set up ranches or farms in Crane Valley. Most homesteaders there grew wheat, raised hogs or cattle and nearly everyone kept a vegetable garden.
Tom Beasore, whose father ran the general store in Fresno Flats (now Oakhurst), said most all the families in these parts were nearly self-sufficient at raising their own food.
Homesteaders, naturalists, and finally a drought in 1877, all put pressure on the shepherds to move their huge flocks out of the Crane Valley area.
As the shepherds and livestock owners were moving out, loggers were rolling in.
Near the turn of the century, lumbermen saw "green gold surrounding Crane Valley. Flumes, suspended above ground, were man–made flumes sailing logs and timber more than 40 miles down to market at Madera. Sawmills went up and trees came down around Crane Valley.
George McCullough ran the Dunlap Mill at Crane Valley, one of the small local logging operations. By the Roaring '20s, operations like the Sugar Pine Mill (10.8 miles up the mountain from Crane Valley), employed hundreds of people and was felling up to 100,000 trees a year.
The waters flowing into Crane Valley that propel logs down the mountain were also harnessed to create electricity. In 1897, the Scientific American published an article about J.S. Eastwood's Crane Valley Project. Mr. Eastwood was helping the San Joaquin Electric Company convert the energy from a 1,410-foot Willow Creek waterfall into 11,200 volts of electricity and wiring it 36 miles down to Fresno.
By 1901, Crane Valley was dammed up, ensuring a consistent level of water to generate electricity. Crane Valley became Crane Valley Reservoir. In 1910, the Sugar Pine Logging Company laid tracks across the dam and started running the Sugar Pine Logging Railroad into the Central Valley.
The first ecological disaster at the reservoir occurred when one logging company spewed industrial wastes into the reservoir, killing most of the fish.
The federal government ordered the logging company responsible to replace the dead fish. The company did so, using the species bass and then the reservoir was renamed Bass Lake.
The government had set up what is now known as the Sierra National Forest in 1893 to protect 4,057,470 acres, some bordering Bass Lake, from such unrestrained exploitation. The U.S. Forest Service remains a key player in the preservation of Bass Lake and its future.
The logging industry, electricity industry, government employees and vacationers on their way to see Yosemite National Park were among the people who helped establish Bass Lake as a choice resort area. The Pacific Gas and Electric Company purchased the Crane Valley Reservoir after World War I.
Al Pete lived at Bass Lake in the late '30s and early '40s when life around the lake still had some rough edges. "I remember as many as 50 guys from the logging camps stepping out of ‘The Falls' [tavern] one [weekend] night to fight, says Mr. Pete. "They would always step outside to fight, back then.
"The really tough guys would never pick a fight, it was always the bullies, but the tough guys never turned down the challenge, Mr. Pete remembers. "After the fight, it was all over and things went back to normal.
As Mr. Pete also remembers, "Half [the loggers] would come down to The Falls to fight, the other half to watch.
The Falls opened in 1907 and was one of the several early little resorts around the lake.
You could buy bait, bread and milk at The Falls and on weekends you could go there for a drink and dancing. "I had to kick a few of the C.C.C. guys out after they climbed the flagpole, trying to get into the dance hall through the roof. Poor guys - they only made $20 a month back then and most of 'em would send $15 of it home, Mr. Pete recalls of the young men who were in the post-Depression Civilian Conservation Corps.
The Falls was torn down in 1969 after a lease with the U.S. Forest Service expired.
There are several other Bass Lake resorts, all with colorful histories dating back to the early 1900s, including The Pines, The Forks and Miller's Landing.
"Up until the '60s, Bass Lake was a poor man's resort, Mr. Pete remembers. "You could see campfires all around the lake at night. People would stretch out a piece of canvas under a tall tree and make a camp - they would go fishing and swimming during the day, then sit around the camps and visit in the evenings.
It seemed like "most of the folks came up from Fresno, Mr. Pete adds.
Later, "Lots of people came up from L.A. to go boating and water skiing, Mr. Peter adds. "Seemed like everyone was at Bass Lake … it is not so much now.
Most of the visitors to Bass Lake have this as their final destination. Once they arrive, they do not always want to go anywhere else. For many of the visitors, it is like the sign on the north side of the lake reads: "Parcel of Paradise.
Jim and Gloria Center are two of the 1,500 people who live year-round at Bass Lake. Jim was one of the Fresno visitors who came up to Bass Lake in the summer for a good time in the 1950s. When Jim retired, he returned to the place he had great memories of as a child.
"I think the majority of retired people living at Bass Lake first came here when they were kids on a family vacation, says Brian Wilkinson, director of marketing for The Pines Resort. " most retired people now living here are are from down south.
Mr. Wilkinson sees people in California tending to go north for their holidays. Most of the in-state guests at The Pines come from Southern California. People in the northern part of the state, such as San Francisco, seem to go farther north for their holidays, not south.
"FIOs - Foreign Individual Travelers - make up about 15% of the nearly 500,000 people who pass through Bass Lake every year. "There were a lot of Germans coming to Bass Lake in rented recreational vehicles, Elisabeth Berile of California Land Management noted. CLM, in conduction with the USFS, maintains seven campsites and eight picnic grounds along the shores of Bass Lake.
John Youngquist, grocer and leader of the Bass Lake Chamber of Commerce, estimates the population swells by 20,000 people at the height of the tourist season, which is now lasting into October - well beyond the traditional Labor Day cutoff. While Mr. Youngquist is confident about the development of Bass Lake, he feels the Sierra National Forest boundary and the seasonal tourist economy create a "natural ceiling for the community's growth.
"Bass Lake is ideal for water skiing and boating, says Mr. Youngquist. "The lake does not create big wakes because of its shape (four miles long and a mile and a half wide). People can enjoy water sports on a mountain lake (at 3,400 feet), without enduring freezing water.
About half of the businesses around Bass Lake are like most people who come to Bass Lake: seasonal. Some of the storeowners work other jobs that they will return to full-time after the tourist season. Nearly half of the shops at Bass Lake will close at the end of October and reopen in the spring.
But Bass Lake is not a sleeper.
Many people will continue to think about the lake and work to establish their interests or the concerns of their organization throughout the year.
Madera County government sees Bass Lake as an important contributor to tax revenues.
Sierra Telephone Company will take care of the phone lines which are part of an underground cable at the lake.
The USFS will watch over the national forest, and California Land Management will maintain the campsites and picnic areas.
The Bass Lake Homeowners Association will press for a 10-year-old ban on building boat docks to be lifted, and for the water level of the lake to be kept high.
These issues come on the wake of a court victory by the homeowners association. This year, residents of Bass Lake's Pine Block earned the right to own the land their homes were built on. They no longer think of their property leases expiring in 2012 - they now own their land.
PG&E will work to ensure their generating plant at the dam runs efficiently into next year. PG&E will continue to work with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a continuing effort toward water level, water flow, wildlife habitat conservation and cultural resource protection.
But for most visitors to Bass Lake during the summer that has just ended, they will warm their winter with reflections of their days at the lake. A mother will recall peacefully reading under the shade of a beachside tree. Her two boys will laugh about new dance steps a slippery log taught them on the lake.
The locals gathering every morning at 7 in front of the Bass Lake Bakery for coffee and chats will be watching the weather that will signal a move indoors. Residents and people working year-round at Bass Lake will again turn attention to the American Bald Eagle mother from Southern California that moved to Bass Lake six years ago, and they will keep an eye out for her young eagle born just before Memorial Day.
Both the eagles and the people of Bass Lake are making comebacks, restoring a great American way to live at Bass Lake.
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