The tranquility of camping at Emerald Bay

Tim Hauserman in “Sheila” at the entrance to Emerald Bay

It was a long time coming. Over the past 30 years, I’ve strolled through the Emerald Bay Boat Campground dozens of times while walking along the shore of Emerald Bay. Many times, I pondered Eagle Falls from the camp’s quiet dock while telling myself, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to spend a night here?” Of course, first you need a boat and that finally arrived in the form of my parents’ old wood canoe, recently restored in time for our summer adventure. We just spent one night at the camp, but it felt like a week’s vacation.

A night at the boat camp is a special experience, but this is certainly one of those situations where the journey and the destination are equally important. First, it begins with the boat. “Sheila,” is a 35-year-old Old Town wood canoe. She spent most of those years at my parents’ summer home in Canada getting sun baked in between sessions of bouncing against rocks and piers under the helm of the kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. It was even used by my nephew, Ben, as the place where he asked his girlfriend to marry him.

When my parents left the summer home, I acquired the canoe and discovered that while its bones were solid, it needed some tender loving care, which was taken care of by Matthew Osgood in Truckee. After the work was completed Matthew and I took a quick paddle on Donner Lake inspecting her nervously for seaworthiness and found her water tight. It was time for the big test: the long paddle from D.L. Bliss State Park to Emerald Bay.

Joyce Chambers in “Sheila” in Bonnie Bay.

Joyce Chambers and I arrived early at Bliss to avoid the crowds and, equally importantly, the afternoon winds. Those winds can make the trip to Emerald Bay in a canoe loaded with all the necessities a hairy experience. Several different park personnel told me that someone died last year in an unsuccessful kayak trip to the boat camp on a windy afternoon.

If you have a reservation at the boat camp, you can unload your boat at the shoreline and leave your car overnight at the overflow parking lot about 1 mile away. We were paddling by 8:30 a.m. over the still, glassy surface of a very quiet Lake Tahoe. We leisurely made our way south just off shore of the rocky cliffs, cruising through the beautiful zone where the green and blue water meet. We stopped to marvel at two bald eagles roosting in high trees and an osprey, which flew toward us just 20 feet over our heads.

As we looked down into the crystal-clear water, we often saw what appeared to be millions of minnows darting swiftly underneath our boat and in and out of rocky crevasses. Occasionally little waves of the fish would flutter the surface of the water. We stopped for a break at lovely Bonnie Bay just a half mile short of the entrance to Emerald Bay, then pressed on to enter Emerald Bay itself, paddling along the lakeshore to Vikingsholm Castle for lunch before returning to the camp.

Early morning at Fannette Island.

The arrival process at the camp was quite painless. We brought the boat on shore on a nice patch of grass, carried our dry sacks about 100 yards to our campsite and in a half hour we were off on a hike to Eagle Falls. Afterwards we returned to the dock, where the warm sun and steady breeze lulled us to sleep.

As the sun slowly retreated from the face of Mount Tallac, the crowds of bay visitors who were not spending the night disappeared and we wandered along quiet trails in the twilight and spent hours doing nothing except pondering the waves and the incredible mountains surrounding us.

What makes this place special is you have to arrive by boat, which means when you climb into your tent there are no car doors slamming or the beeping noise of locks being engaged. Cars were just a distant noise from the road 1 mile away. Some folks arrive by motorboat or sailboat, but on our evening, the majority of folks arrived by canoe or kayak.

“Sheila” near Vikingsholm looking back toward Fannette Island.

The next morning, we rose with the sun and were on the water by 8 a.m. Before heading back to D.L. Bliss, we did a quick loop around Fannette Island, which sat blissfully quiet surrounded by glassy water. Then we slowly paddled north to Bliss. But guess what? There was still more fun to be had. When you arrive at one of Tahoe’s best beaches at 10 a.m., you don’t rush to pack up the boat. You swim, eat lunch, relax some more and finally head home when you get those first warning signs of sunburn.

It was an amazingly relaxing adventure and we are already planning a return visit. The campground sites are reserved via reservecalifornia.com and it’s a busy place in July and August. If you travel by canoe or kayak, be sure to put all your gear in dry bags and get going early in the morning.