Eagle Lake in northeastern California is the second largest natural body of water in the state. With an extra high level of alkalinity (pH-9, during summer), the lake is home to a very unique fishery, consisting of the infamous Eagle Lake rainbow trout; a large minnow known as the Tui chub; the Tahoe sucker, a fish that can grow to immense proportions; along with two diminutive species of minnow—the Lahontan redside, and the speckled dace. All of these fish have evolved to tolerate conditions that would spell instant death to other fish.
This natural body of water that supports the fishery, also subject the trout to an unnatural manner of spawning, as the only major inlet, Pine Creek, is a victim to heavy agricultural use upstream, and peters out to a rock-strewn bed by early summer. As a consequence, the trout is artificially spawned at a DFG station near the Spaulding tract on the west side of the lake, the progeny raised in hatcheries, where at the weight of a half pound+, they are sent off in tanker trucks for planting. In Eagle Lake, stocking takes place in the spring and fall. Between January 1st, and the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend, the fish are off-limits, left to their devices to rest and eat and grow as they winter-over.
I have been going to Eagle Lake for roughly forty-nine years, give or take a year or two, when I didn’t have the means or time to make the six to seven hour drive. In 1986, I introduced my husband, Clifford, to the area, and we subsequently made Lassen County our yearly vacation spot. By 2005, we’d purchased a modest property about six miles out of town, and eleven miles from the lake, and were making our pilgrimage to Susanville, sun or snow. When the weather is good, we rake pine needles, the way that Easterners rake leaves, and when it snows, we’re raking snow off the roof, to prevent a cave-in or ice damming. Whatever the excuse, we don’t really need a reason to go to Susanville. It’s the one place where we’re truly alone together, surrounded by over a half-acre of trees, and double-paned windows.
This past weekend was the Memorial Day holiday, and Clifford and I drove up to Susanville on Friday evening, excited about the fishing opener at the crack of dawn on Saturday, May 26th. We keep a sixteen foot aluminum boat in Susanville, all set up and ready for the day. We’d even installed a hitch on our Toyota Corolla, as gas prices were nudging up from $4.27 per gallon in the Bay Area, and prices wouldn’t be expected to improve in mountain towns where gas tankers have to travel uphill and on winding roads to deliver their loads. There’s a certain smugness in driving a vehicle that’s expected to get forty-one mpg, rather than ten, which is what our one-ton Chevy truck manages to eke out of a gallon of gas with its giant fuel-sucking eight-liter engine.
Although the Corolla is rated to pull a 1,500 pounds, we knew that if the car couldn’t cut it pulling the boat to and from the lake, we had the option to use our 1977 Dodge Maxivan, which we keep in the garage alongside the boat.
The van was running rough, though we prepared to solve this issue by purchasing parts—rotor, distributor cap, ignition wires, spark plugs, coil and ballast resistor. Clifford determined that if we replaced these items, the van would no longer have problems related to hard starting, and poor performance.
On Saturday, it was blustery, though we went fishing anyway, using the car to pull the boat to the lake, and launch it for fishing. The Corolla was a champ, though the load definitely was telling on a five-speed manual transmission. All we could smell after we were done fishing (with limits, by the way), and were pulling the boat out of lake on the trailer, was burning clutch all the way up to the top of the launch ramp.
We decided to replace the parts in the Dodge van that afternoon. If the van ran reasonably well, we would use it on Sunday not only to pull the boat back to the lake, but later we’d transport our dirt bikes to our favorite haunts around Pegleg Mountain, and go off-roading.
Launching the boat went smoothly on Sunday morning. By noon, we’d caught three fish, and headed back to the harbor. The launch ramp was busy with boaters heading either in from fishing, or out to the hazards of a windy lake. We tied off the boat to the dock, and I waited while Clifford retrieved the van and trailer. He backed the rig down the launch, and submerged the trailer just so, putting the van in park and setting the parking brake, before joining me at the boat. While we were bringing the boat around the dock, our backs turned to the launch ramp, we heard somebody nearby shout, “Hey! Your van!”
We turned around just in time to see our beloved 1977 Dodge van—the van in which we had our first date, that we used to carry our children to vacation, to haul pine needles to the Susanville dump, to carry dirt bikes and mountain bikes for rendezvous with mountain roads and mountain trails—our ugly, beautifully-running vintage van, slipping slowly backward into the water.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I yelled an expletive, and then, I sobbed, down on my knees in disbelief. We were absolutely unable to save it, simply watching as the van slid slowly past us. It would have continued to deeper water—as long as there was a decline in the lake bottom—but thankfully it came to a rest because the empty trailer was still attached to the hitch, and had jackknifed to the right, lodging the entire rig against the dock.
Next, in a blur, I remembered calling Triple A, the Lassen County Sheriff’s Department, and State Farm. Triple A sent a tow truck, but refused to pay for “deep water recovery.” The rep at State Farm assured they’d pay for what Triple A refused to cover. And the dispatcher at the LCSD asked me to carefully repeat my sentence. I imagine it’s not every day you hear somebody announce that their vehicle is submerged in eight feet of water.
Several government agencies came to the site—U.S. Department of Forestry, who has jurisdiction over the launch ramp and surrounding USFS land; the Department of Fish and Game, because of the hazardous materials spill (gasoline and engine oil); Cal Fire, who photographed the gasoline sheen, rainbow-pretty on the water’s surface; and the Lassen County Sheriff’s Department. It wasn’t for crowd control, that’s for sure, because they let everyone who was standing around that harbor area come right down to the launch ramp to see what those fools had done with their vehicle. I do have to commend law enforcement for their kindness—at least in our presence. I don’t care what they said about us behind our back.
Scott and Grace, the husband and wife team who run the boat harbor, store and seven campgrounds, helped us in such a way that we are deeply in their debt (though I know they’d dispute that). Grace and a rep from USFS brought an absorbent boom. Grace referred to it as an “elephant tampon”, which was used to surround the spilled gasoline. Grace allowed us to put our boat up for the night in the harbor slip, until we could return with the Corolla the next day. And Scott showed us how to clear out the impeller of the boat’s 60 horse Merc, which had becomed clogged with silt as we made our way through the shallows of the Marina in order to slip the boat so the tow truck could recover the van and trailer.
Susanville Tow had sent a rig with a driver, Ty, who is their water recovery specialist. Hailing from Tuolumne County, Ty, a former Marine and current Marine reservist, has handled these types of accidents before. As soon as he arrived at the harbor, we approached him to identify ourselves, and he first asked if anyone was hurt. Later, he told us that it was the most important thing to him, as often he gets to a remote site before ground ambulance, so never immediately knows if there has been a fatality.
After several attempts of diving beneath gasoline-laden 55 degree water, Ty attached chains and a tow cable to the van, and along with his supervisor, Brian, they inched the water-filled van out of the water and up the ramp, trailer stubbornly attached.
I’ve run other scenarios through my head in the form of ‘what ifs’. What if, the boat had been on the trailer when the van slid backward? Or, what if I had been standing behind the van, hooking up the bow of the boat to the trailer winch, when it took its trip down the ramp? Or, what if we’d been in the back country, unloading motorcycles, and the van began to roll down a slope? All in all, this failure was the easiest to accept, with the least collateral.
The van now sits alongside our garage in Lake Forest, soaked and sad, its engine seized when it was hot and running and dipped into the fifty-seven degree water. We know it’s junk, but so difficult to discard, a repository of lovely, heartfelt memories.