The changing soundscapes of Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe holds a special place in my heart.  As a teenager, I swam in its frigid waters, cross-country skied on it’s slopes, spent a night or two sleeping on its beaches, backpacked it’s wilderness, and even spent a couple of summers working in a state park on its northern shores.  I’ve marveled at its endless shades of blue on calm days, and watched fierce winter storms whip up whitecaps over leaden waters.  It’s crystalline waters and pine-scented air still take my breath away.

And I’m not alone.  About 3 million people visit Tahoe each year, to swim, fish, hike, boat, ski, gamble, or just take in the scenery.  A highway circles the lake, and the traffic creates a background hum through much of the lake basin, while boats of many sizes ply its water, and small and large aircraft drone through the basin.

In early September I took a hike with Shadow and my sister-in-law, Sue, to a remote cove on Tahoe’s north shore.   The beach was nearly deserted when we arrived, but we were soon joined by other hikers and their dogs.  Not long after, a steady stream of motor boats, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, and jet skis found their way to the cove.   It was a beautiful late summer day, unusually warm as much of the year has been, but it made sitting on the lake shore even more pleasant.  The lake lapped gently on the shore as a Common Merganser floated by and an Osprey sailed overhead.  Stellar’s Jays and chickadees called from the forest.  All accompanied by an incessant backdrop of engine sounds – planes, boats, cars.

Sometimes I like to ponder what the world must have sounded like before the combustion engine came along.  What was Tahoe’s soundscape like when Mark Twain first stepped upon its shores?

The famous writer Mark Twain visited Lake Tahoe in the summer of 1861.  Actually he was still known as Samuel Clemens then, as he had not taken his nom de plume yet, but would over the course of the years he spent in the west.  He walked with a buddy from Carson City, over the crest of the Sierras, and landed near the north shore of the lake, not too far from the cove that Sue, Shadow and I occupied:

…at last the lake burst upon us – a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still!  It was a vast oval, and one would have to use up eighty or one hundred good miles in traveling around it.  As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it mush surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.

His intent was to establish a timber claim, and make a fortune by cutting logs for the burgeoning mines in Virginia City.  But finding that cutting trees was a little more strenuous than they had bargained for, Sam Clemens and his buddy, Johnny, made the most of enjoying the lake itself.

We did not see a human being but ourselves during the time, or hear any sounds but those that were made by the wind and the waves, the sighing of the pines, and now and then the far-off thunder of an avalanche.  The forest about us was dense and cool, the sky above us was cloudless and brilliant with sunshine, the broad lake before us was glassy and clear, or rippled and breezy, or black and storm-tossed, according to Nature’s mood; and its circling border of mountain domes, clothed with forests, scarred with landslides, cloven by canyons and valleys, and helmeted with glittering snow, fitly framed and finished the noble picture.  The view was always fascinating, bewitching, entrancing.  The eye was never tired of gazing, night or day, in calm or storm; it suffered but one grief, and that was that it could not look always, but must close sometimes in sleep.

Cooking was done, as you can imagine, over a campfire.  One morning while preparing the coffee, the unattended campfire became a little unruly, causing a major forest fire:

    The ground was deeply carpeted with dry pine needles, and the fire touched them off as if they were gunpowder.  It was wonderful to see with what fierce speed the tall sheet of flame traveled!  My coffeepot was gone, and everything with it.  In a minute and a half the fire seized upon a dense growth of dry manzanita chaparral six or eight feet high, and then the roaring and popping and crackling was something terrific.  We were driven to the boat by the intense heat, and there we remained, spellbound.

Within half an hour all before us was a tossing, blinding tempest of flame!  It went surging up adjacent ridges – surmounted them and disappeared into the canyons beyond – burst into view upon higher and further ridges, presently – shed a grander illumination abroad, and dove again – flamed out again, directly, higher and still higher up the mountainside – threw out skirmishing parties of fire here and there and sent them trailing their crimson spirals away among remote ramparts and ribs and gorges, till as far as the eye could reach the lofty mountain fronts were webbed as if were with a tangled network of red lava streams.  Away across the water the crags and domes were lit with a ruddy glare, and the firmament above was a reflected hell!

Every feature of the spectacle was repeated in the glowing mirror of the lake!  Both pictures were sublime, both were beautiful; but that in the lake had a bewildering richness about it that enchanted the eye and held it with the stronger fascination.

We sat absorbed and motionless through four long hours.  We never thought of supper, and never felt fatigue.  But at eleven o’clock the conflagration had traveled beyond our range of vision, and the darkness stole down upon the landscape again.

Samuel and Johnny quickly abandoned their claim and headed back down the mountain.  The fire marked the beginning of a major change in the soundscape of the basin, as while the slopes above their north shore camp were recovering from the fire, logging the basin began in earnest.   The “sighing of pines” was replaced with the sound of sawyers axes (chainsaws were not used for lumbering before 1900), trees crashing to the ground, and horse and mule teams used to move logs to the lake, where they would be floated to  sawmills.  Timbers were loaded onto trains and transported to flumes where they were floated down to Carson City.  Up to 70 million board feet of lumber was cut in the basin each year; by 1900, there were few trees left.  I can only imagine the eerie silence that followed.

Sign at Sand Harbor State Park describing the heavy logging in the Lake Tahoe basin.
Sign at Sand Harbor State Park describing the heavy logging in the Lake Tahoe basin.

In 1899, President McKinley set aside 69,000 acres of remnant forest in the basin for protection, and in 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt created the Tahoe National Preserve under the auspices of the new U.S. Forest Service.  I grew up with the rumor that Roosevelt would have added Lake Tahoe to the growing list of national parks, but the denuded slopes and impact of many years of logging had left the basin in a very sorry state.

Today a rich secondary forest covers the slopes of the basin, although ragged and omnipresent stumps remain as reminders of the lake’s sad history.   On the slopes south of the casinos on the Lake’s southern shore, I once came across a stand of old growth fir and spruce.  Huge trees, more than 5 feet in diameter, and much larger than the trees that cover most of the basin.  How they survived the logger’s axes, I don’t know, but it was sure a pleasant surprise to run across them.

It’s taken constant pressure from federal agencies and environmental groups to slow the tide of development in the basin – now home to almost 100,000 residents and at least 200,000 tourists on any given day.  Some huge residential and camping areas are planned, with concerns of further degradation of the lakes infamous clarity and increase in risk of catastrophic fire.  There is a new move to create a Lake Tahoe National Park to stem development in the basin and control visitor impacts.

Yes, soundscapes are ever changing, for natural and human-caused reasons.   Personally, I hope that a move away from combustion engines translates into a quieter environment, where nature’s voices can be heard clearly again.

The slopes of the Lake Tahoe basin are again covered with forest.
The slopes of the Lake Tahoe basin are again covered with forest.


Twain, M. 1872.  Roughing it. American Publishing Company, NY.  Quotes above apply to 1962 version published by Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.

Antonucci, D.C. 2011.  Fairest picture – Mark Twain at Lake Tahoe.  CreateSpace Publishing.  (accessed Dec. 14, 2015).

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