ContentsPutah and Cache: Clear Lake or Lypoyomi

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Blue Lakes to Paradise Cove

Pete Richerson and Scott Richerson

As you continue on Highway 20, you will pass the small town of Upper Lake and roads leading to Witter and Saratoga Springs, sites of major resorts in the 19th century. At mile 16.2, you will reach Lower Blue Lake. Though not far from Clear Lake, the Blue Lakes are of a different breed altogether. The two small lakes sit narrowly in the bottom of the steep and densely wooded Cold Creek Canyon. Considerably less eutrophic than Clear Lake, the Blue Lakes live up to their name much better than does Clear Lake. With only a few small resorts and no high-horsepower motorboats, the Blue Lakes are tranquil and serene.

At one time, before the Blue Lakes were formed, Clear Lake drained north through this valley to the Russian River. A few thousand years ago, a giant landslide from the west blocked off the valley, raising Clear Lake and forcing it to drain out of the Lower Arm into Cache Creek on the southern end, thus forming the Blue Lakes. Highway 20 climbs to the crest of the old landslide, and you can see the great scar on the hillside to the south-west that produced it. To get a closer look at these lakes, return on Blue Lakes Road.

The Blue Lakes slide tells part of the story of the Clear Lake and Russian River fish faunas. Many of Clear Lake's native fishes, such as the splittail, hitch and tule perch, came from the Sacramento River system at a time when the Coast Range was lower and Cache Creek a meandering lowland stream. These slow-water species could not ascend the steep torrent that the river has become today. Cache Creek is not exceptional in this regard. River systems are often more ancient than the mountains through which they flow, because down-cutting can often keep pace with the rising mountains. The Clear Lake Volcanics at some point in the last 100,000 years produced lava flows that dammed Cache Creek, causing Clear Lake to rise and flow through Cold Creek Canyon into the Russian River, where its Sacramento derived fishes colonized. The landslide later restored the outlet to Cache Creek by raising the lake level until it found its way across the lava flows. Clear Lake has thus left and rejoined our bioregion, rather recently on the geological time scale, a testimony to the dynamism of the earth.

Now turn around and head back on Highway 20 south and east. A mile or two past the turn-off to Nice, you will meet up with the lake again. Continue along the shore, passing Bartlett Springs Road. The Bartlett Springs Road leads to Bear Valley through some of the most remote country in our bioregion, a good trip for those that like a slow and potentially adventurous backroad drive. We are now in resort country. Thanks to vulcanism, Clear Lake early on earned a reputation as a premier mineral water destination. Starting in 1852, Victorian spas in the European style quickly sprang up around various mineral springs in the hills around the lake—Bartlett Springs, Witter springs, Saratoga Springs and others.

Guests traveled first by train and then on a long, bumpy carriage ride to reach the springs. Steamers plied the lake, taking stage riders, workers, and supplies from Lakeport to the landing of the various resorts. Once there, guests stayed for weeks or months in the huge gabled hotels and spent their days playing genteel lawn games and "taking the waters," which were reputed to cure diseases and ailments of all descriptions. We shouldn't think of the mineral spring spas as resort tourism in the modern sense. They were an important part of 19th century medicine. The Clear Lake establishments compared favorably to famous European springs, advertising the chemical composition and temperature of their water in great detail. Witter Springs somehow acquired a reputation for being an excellent cure for syphilis, and resulting jokes about the clientele were perhaps the downfall of the resort.

Weekend resorts became possible in mid 1920s when the state highway system began to take shape. The lake itself became the focus of recreation to a much greater degree than in the spa days. Depression and war slowed the growth of the industry, but resorts began popping up in numbers after WWII, especially along the northeastern shore of the lake. At first, Clear Lake was one of the most accessible large lakes to the Bay Area. However, by the late 1950s newly built Interstate 80 began siphoning off much of the tourist business to the suddenly more accessible Lake Tahoe, the newly created Lake Berryessa, and other reservoirs. The result is the funky, faded east shore motels with 35 year old Dr. Pepper machines and washed-out signs in 1950s diner style advertising COLOR TV! The style is retro, but rest assured that such resorts survive because the accommodations are pleasant and the service friendly.

Past Lucerne are a series of roadcuts showing good examples of Franciscan rock. Note that the shoreline here plunges steeply into the lake, quite unlike the gentle gradient of the Big Valley shore on the opposite side. The Upper Arm of the lake comprises a block of rock that is dropping along this section of the shore relative to the mountains to the northeast, and rising in Big Valley to the southwest. As the pull-apart motion in the vicinity opens a gap in the earth's crust, a large, deep block toppling sideways as it sinks relative to the rising mountains is creating a lake basin that is deep on the northeast and shallow on the southwest. In the absence of withering rates of erosion, Clear Lake would be much deeper and the surrounding mountains significantly higher. Clear Lake averages only about 25 feet deep, but the geological basin is about 600 feet deep.

The US Geological Survey cored the bottom of Clear Lake in 1973 and 1980. Their deepest core was 177 meters (590 feet) long, and they found lake and marsh sediments all the way to the bottom. The age of sediments at the bottom is about 480 thousand years, making Clear Lake the oldest securely dated lake in North America. Lakes are normally quite temporary features on the earth's surface because they are relatively small and quickly fill with sediment. Large, exceedingly deep lakes like Baikal and Tanganyika survive for millions of years, but they are rare. Clear Lake would completely fill at pre-European rates of erosion in about 15,000 years. It has lasted 30 times that long because its floor has been sinking about as fast as erosion has been filling the lake.

The perfectly manicured lawns and three-car garages of upscale Paradise Cove are strangely juxtaposed with the rustic and organic look of the rest of the shore. The canyon running north from Paradise Cove contained the first bald eagle nest in Lake County in recent times. A little over a mile later you will see Anderson Island and Buckingham Point to the right. Not much farther down the road the bare yellow waste dumps of the defunct Sulfur Bank Mercury Mine become visible on the shore at the far end of the lake. This is the next stop, after the resort communities of Glenhaven and Clearlake Oaks.

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