After five-plus years of meager winters with almost no meaningful rain or snowfall, parched California finally caught a break in the form of an el Niño year. Snowboarders went snowboarding, reservoirs swelled and trees everywhere got to gulp instead of sip. As if to put an exclamation point on the whole thing, Nature delivered a final (we think) punch to Northern California this past weekend. Nobody expects a serious snowstorm in late May, but that’s what happened at the first Tahoe Cup paddleboard race of the season.
I left the Monterey Bay on Friday afternoon headed for Truckee and the Donner Lake paddleboard race scheduled for Saturday morning, with a Bark Commander 12’ on top of the car. I knew that some precipitation was in the forecast, but I guess the fact that it was almost June made me less diligent about the conditions; I just figured there’d be some rain, somewhere, on the way up the hill. In the thirty minutes it takes to get from Stockton to Sacramento, the weather went from sunny and 72 degrees to dark skies, plummeting temps and pouring rain. The friend I stay with in Truckee (6200’ elevation) who was expecting me by 6pm, called and said “The summit is closed because of heavy snowfall. Better kill some time or you’ll be sitting in a parking lot on the I-80 freeway.”
Kill time, I did. I called my god-daughter in Sacramento, who I knew was just about to get off work. I suggested happy hour at the nearest cantina. Thirty minutes later we were sipping margaritas and eating chips and salsa, watching the downpour get heavier out the window. After getting word that CalTrans was slowly clearing the highway, I hit the road again at about 9pm, and didn’t get over the summit until after midnight. Cars ill-prepared for winter/snow travel struggled along at about 10 mph, preventing me from maximizing the awesomeness that is Subaru All Wheel Drive. So much for a full night’s sleep.
Saturday morning came too soon, and it featured 8-10 inches of new snow in Truckee. I looked out the window at pine trees loaded with fresh snow—it might as well have been January. Then I looked at my weather app… 30 degrees outside at 7am. I didn’t expect it to warm up much before 8am registration or the 9am start time, and a little bit of wind was already moving the trees. Question: How cold would this water be? Answer: Cold enough to regret it, if you went in.
The Tahoe Cup paddleboard race series is a few years old now, and Phil Segal has his events pretty dialed. I arrived early, and hunted a parking spot that would minimize walking in fresh snow in sneakers. Registration was a snap, and then it was a matter of drinking some water, pulling on the neoprene, and getting a bit of a stretch. The race started just a few minutes after 9am, and the prone guys and OCs went off first; SUPs got the green light a few minutes later. The first event of the Tahoe Cup is billed as a five mile loop, but it’s actually about 4.6 miles. Racers launch from the West end beach, go up the South shore of the lake, cross over to the North side, and return to the West end. Three left shoulder buoys, pretty simple. The water was nice and glassy heading down toward the East end—protected by the tall peaks of Donner Summit—but by the first buoy turn, the wind and chop were making things a bit sloppy. I tried to take in a bit of the stunning beauty that this particular region of Tahoe offers; white capped peaks, trees loaded with snow, granite monoliths towering over the pristine lake. I’ve paddled on this lake many times over the years, but usually in summer or fall, so this was a new perspective.
Racers settled into their form, and the fastest SUPers eventually overtook the front prone guy, which happened to be Monterey’s own Mike Jones and my racing/training partner. (I was strategically bringing up the back of the prone pack so that we would have the others surrounded.) As I was racing, and NOT winning, I wasn’t at the finish line to see who finished first in each division; the full race results are linked below. But I noticed a few things out on the water…
Santa Cruz’s Keith McConahay is damn fast. He went blasting past us prone guys much sooner than I expected. He landed first in the SUP/14’ division with a two minute margin over the second place finisher Ben Sarrazin. Tahoe’s Rand Carter was chasing Keith to win the SUP/Unlimited class. Also, there is a solid gang of Tahoe youths, one as young as ten years old, who are charging and in good race form already. I was very impressed by these young racers as they overtook me like the little champions they are quickly becoming. I learned at the awards ceremony afterward that a handful of them have the last names Quinn and Carter, the progeny of parents who also race paddleboards. Those two families went home with a lot of new decorations for the mantle.
If you have never paddled Donner Lake, or for that matter Lake Tahoe—the site of the net two events in the Tahoe Cup, in July and September—I can’t recommend it enthusiastically enough. Crystal clear waters surrounded by unreal and unique beauty won’t make you faster, but might ease the pain of a twenty two mile grind from South Lake Tahoe to North.
Thanks to Peter Spain Photography for graciously sharing some really beautiful images for this piece.
Full race results here: