Ice Fishing at Saddlebag Lake
Depending on the previous winter’s storms, the snow depth, the weather, (maybe the phase of the moon), and a host other local political issues, Tioga – a pass between Crane Flats and Lee Vining – the old silver mining road, aka California Highway 120, re-opens every year sometime between April and June. Starting at snowline, lumbering snow-blowing machines gnaw ravenously through mountainous snowdrifts, insatiability burrowing; the evidence of their gorging, towering white plumes of spindrift spouted high as they work their way through frigid layers of annual veneer. Like the spume of a giant “Cal Trans” whale, (obviously a local species), these mega-machines climb out of their dormant summer caves, awaken, then inch forward – barely visible – subsurface, rabid. Moving at crawling speed, their true silhouettes clouded, hidden beneath white drifting clouds of their own making, they carve their way through a 20-foot high diet of verglas, pine needles, and Sierra cement. These mammoths start at opposite ends and meet somewhere in the middle, slicing out a well-manicured snow trough - mechanized moles – in their wake an ice channel – smooth sides - high walls: The road opening. It is always a welcome event - the highlight, a thin black exposed ribbon – wet asphalt marked by faded yellow stripes, a traverse across miles of raw granite, vividly depicted today in muted whites and various shades of gray. Tioga Pass is the only conduit, the only motor link available into the verdant depths of the Tuolumne.
This day, late April I think – maybe early May - found me hitchhiking, adventuring solo, thumb out, backpack and tuned mountaineering skis, standing huddled across the intersection occupied today by the Whoa Nellie Deli. The roads here below, dry… above, there the snow-lined road allowing the access still thawing out, calling out – one day freshly re-opened. Making a right off 395, he pulled over immediately, driving an old Chevy panel truck, dents, dings, rust, bondo, ski rack, clutter, more dents… and an engaging smile, “Where to?” he asked. I peered inside, noticing the x-country skis, Atomics and another pair too, Karhus I think, both sets obviously well used, newly waxed, freshly tuned too. Another loaded backpack beckoned there too, thrown in among the ubiquitous clutter, I grinned then quickly, no make that enthusiastically, threw my equipment into the back, sliding eagerly into an empty passenger seat. “Tuolumne I guess,” I replied, “but I am open… what’s going on?”
He continued talking, smiling broader now, rambling faster in choppy half sentences. “Road just opened… yesterday late…got freeze-dried food for a few days…how ‘bout you…nice pack… I am heading up far as Saddlebag… ever been there…wouldn’t mind company…you are more than…snow touring the area…real fine neighborhood…you got a good warm bag, how about a tent?” He drove and I looked down the canyon on the left, just nodding; he continued,” Have to ski in though…few maybe two - three miles…I see you got excellent x-country skis…tried those…edges…hmmmmm…you any good? Ever heard about ice fishing, great… the dam might be open…some friends there last year…slayed a mess of them…got any fishing gear?”
Just past TPR, the Tioga Pass Resort, two miles before the high Yosemite portal, we pulled over and parked – well off road, sliding noisily into the wet crunchy slush beneath a sign - an arrow pointing north: Saddlebag Lake 3 miles. I waxed up my Kazamas – it was either a red or purple klister day if I remember correctly - laced up my gaiters, threw on my pack, and followed his freshly laid ankle-deep tracks. X-country skiing on untracked but consolidated Sierra snow is part ecstasy, part work, mostly technique, part stupidity, and a lot of dedication - (all fun in my book – my kind of sport, cerebral, not totally unlike the sport of fishing). I was skiing on 210’s, mountaineering skis – metal edges, 3-pin bindings with heel locaters… sometimes slapping loudly on the snow, silently sliding at others, we both skied hard, panting – proceeding quietly, ever deeper into a white and deafening silence.
If you ever ski the Sierra, you know that the snow there is at best - variable: heavy, thick, mashed potatoes, muck, - often wet, soft, and deep in the sun, (the stuff that induces headplants), but icy-fast, razor-sharp, and rock-hard in the shade. The road up to Saddlebag is mostly uphill; well, it is up and down, the road itself actually unseen, hidden - still frozen 10 feet below. We made our way up the trail, or what we best figured was the trail, up into the tranquil stillness, heading upwards toward the dam. Rounding the last curve, relieved, tired, and elated, we finally saw it, Saddlebag Lake, narrow and long, mountains behind, huge, completely iced over, the dam itself on the left, the closest visible structure… wide, protruding about 15 feet above the snowline. See:http://www.topozone.com/map.asp?lat=37. ... -119.27167
At the base of the dam, just offshore on the right, an ancient faded green building sat decaying; the signage says Edison. Snow covered the first story completely but we could not help noticing a third story tower, jutting obliquely, high up against a dark blue azure sky; there a small trap door left open, slightly ajar, tracks below – the only conceivable entrance down into the snowline. A snow cat bearing the same faded Edison logo passed us by noisily, clattering along, following down the canyon. The driver gestured – waved and smiled – his breath visible; whatever his tasked mission, he was now heading jerkingly (and loudly I might add) back down again, leaving behind remembrances – a myriad of packed tracks and (after rounding the far curve) a return to welcome silence. We were alone; home in the quiet of the lake.
My newfound companion arrived at the dam a good 5 minutes ahead of me – perhaps a somewhat better conditioned skier, or maybe it had something to do with the fact that he had waxless skis - better on the uphill sections. Throwing his balaclava down and unpacking his backpack – a McHale (can you say ca-ching?) -I could see for the first time that he was bald, or rather he was a skinhead, obviously recently and carefully smooth-shaven, a small tribal tattoo also present near the base of his neck. He was about 6 feet tall, burley, 30-ish – maybe a bit older… now pleasantly imbibing on some expensive scotch – Oban, (smooth as a baby’s butt) - taking a well-deserved sojourn while warming himself under the dazzling afternoon sun. I skied over next to him, panting, dropped my Gregory, then joined him triumphantly on a dry exposed granite slab; I wondered aloud where best we should set up our tents – (hopefully out of the snow). I was eager also to test the subtle attributes of the single malt that he so fortuitously brought along with him - style. There was obviously no shortage of available camping sites; everywhere was flat, white, clean, frozen, and wide open.
No, I stand corrected, not everywhere was frozen. Inside of the broad wooden structure, the dam, down below, inside the weathered weir appeared an exposed gap of open water– maybe 15 feet across - surrounded by the omnipresent freeze – serendipitous, an ideal hole made for ice fishing. On further site inspection, on the far left end of the dam, the sun’s vivacity had uncovered some of the dam structure – grey, open gravel, flat, dry and even though a bit wind exposed, there was enough room to pitch two tents easily.
Atop the dam, skis abandoned, backpacks opened, tents erected, thermarests inflated, down bags fluffed, and at last, fishing gear assembled. Soon we sat on ensolite pads perched atop the pack ice, just below us, we danged lures into icy water. Dropping gold Panther Martins deep and slowly bringing them back up – jerking - faint tugs and patience produced fat but sluggish Goldens, the fight disappointing but the meat pink and sweet. Hungry, they would hit on anything, Kastmasters, Mepps, and Z-Rays, anything sparkling. I even tried a piece of foil wrapped around a small treble, and they even hit that. CAR was the order of the day, but we managed to save a few fat beauties for our dinner that night, frying them in olive oil with a bit of pasta – the typical Sierra backpacker’s fare.
The next morning, the sky broke crisp turquoise; I decided to explore more of the surrounding terrain – never seen before, skating across the frozen lake surface – long gliding strides making fast work on the icy flats. My partner, instead decided instead to stay put, fishing the dam again while I went off, his decision not bothering me at all, because it is always wise to have someone trustworthy watching over the exposed gear and warding off the small furry creatures. (Well, I did not worry about the gear…maybe the rodents though, as other than the CAT driver, we saw nary a soul while we were there – if someone came, they would be easy to spot them immediately against the white stillness.) I came back – early afternoon – only to discover my amigo was nowhere in evidence. His skis, backpack, and fishing gear were there still untouched, exactly as he left them, but he himself was not at all visible – he would turn up. At last, he called out; I looked up, only to discover him climbing out of the aforementioned third-story trapdoor, exiting high out of the Edison building, over a ways away next to the dam.
Calling me over, he said that he discovered the perfect place to crash tonight – warm – sheltered, and even with comfortable bunks to sleep on. We both climbed up the ladder and into the small third-story trap door, descending deep under the snow, dark but surprisingly warm inside due to the fire in the potbelly stove that he had going there, and, of course, the snow’s insulation qualities. We left our tents set up - outside, our skis remaining stuck upright, crossed in the snow next to the tents, but we carried our sleeping bags, food, and gear inside, making ourselves right at home on the rolled-up mattresses left bundled on the bunks inside. We were careful not to touch any food – there was ample though – we did not want to tempt fate or bring on any bad Karma upon us for any future Sierra endeavors; we even supplied all our own firewood.
We stayed there for three days more, fishing the heck out of that hole in the ice, catching numerous more Goldens – their flesh sweet and pink, their bodies plump, but the meat soft from lack of any arduous winter activity. We cooked the Goldens…steaming them… loosely wrapping them in aluminum foil, flavored with garlic, extra virgin, and lemon, until the eyes clouded over –all done over the black potbelly stove. We also spent a fair amount of time tearing up the bowls below Mt. Conness, practicing linking smooth turns, carving raw teles on untracked virgin snow… generally enjoying the spectacular corn conditions - spring skiing at Saddlebag Lake. Three days later we both skied out, he going left, returning down the hill, I opting right, continuing further into the meadows of Tuolumne.
I have returned to Saddlebag many time since, (it is located over 10,000 feet high in the Eastern Sierra spectacular), always taking notice of that small Edison cabin and the dam itself, remembering the spring skiing and the great ice fishing we had that one week. It all happened right after the road opened, this opening allowing us easy access to the ice fishing at Saddlebag Lake.
Another solo backpacking adventure…by markskor