The glistening waters of ancient Clear Lake beckoned one chilly, late spring morning as some friends and I boarded the Eyes of the Wild pontoon boat piloted by Faith Rigolosi for a lake tour. Although the shores were already growing a tangle of weeds not often seen this early in the season, Faith was able to tour the lake with ease. This popular destination lake is around seventy square miles, and is the largest lake within California’s borders. More importantly, Clear Lake is scientifically proven to be one of, if not the oldest lake in North America, at about a half-million years in age. Archaeologists have determined that Indigenous people have lived nearby for around 14,000 years. Clear Lake drapes itself across the landscape in a diagonal formation, with its two arms at the narrows pointing southeast. Sacred and stately Mount Konocti, our dormant volcano rises across the narrows at over 4,000 feet. Both the lake and the volcano hold rich secrets and mythologies, along with their distinctive histories and exquisite beauty. Our lake offers something for everyone with boating, swimming, fishing, kayaking, hiking its shores and bird watching.
Faith was super knowledgeable as to the whereabouts of the numerous avian species on the lake. We were enthralled by the mating dances of Clark’s and Western grebes when they ‘rushed’ or ran across the water in a love frenzy. The grebes were displaying other pairing-up activities as the male offered a bill-full of wet weeds to his true love to prove that he is acquainted with nest-building and would make a superlative mate. We watched in awe as a huge double-crested cormorant rookery with dozens of nests came into view, high up in a dead tree snag, as we rounded a bend in the quiet lake shores. We also enjoyed viewing yellow-headed blackbirds calling and flitting about in the tule reeds. Great blue herons put on their avian shows and posed along the lake shore as still as statues, while magnificent osprey tended their young in massive twiggy nests.
According to limnologists, or those who study lakes, dead lakes are clear. Clear Lake is a shallow and eutrophic lake which is neither dead nor clear. It has never been clear. Minerals and nutrients like phosphorus, nitrogen and iron produce food for the lake allowing an abundance of aquatic plants to thrive. The prolific plant life feeds insects and fish, adding to the lake food chain with large fish consuming small fish, linking up a food source to mammals and many avian species on the lake such as pelicans, egrets, osprey, river otters and more. Scientists believe the lake may have once been more clear than it is in present times. Problems with Clear Lake’s clarity were instigated by European settlers when they cleared the lands for farming. As time passed, sediments were allowed to wash into the lake which brought up the nutrient levels in the lake. Over time the removal of wetlands and the plants that thrive there such as tule reeds have added to lake problems. At one time there were around 9,000 acres of wetlands affiliated with the lake, but then those numbers decreased to about 2,000 acres. Today, thanks to the Lake County Land Trust, wetlands areas are slowly being restored and recovered. Also helping the lake today are forward-thinking farmers and vintners who are mindful in rehabilitating biomes that are so critical for the health of Clear Lake.
Miles of blue lake waters expanded around us as the boat drifted. Birds performed, dragonflies danced and a few cottony clouds were mirrored in the waters. Smiles played on our faces as we “blissed-out” at our surroundings. The private world of Clear Lake had been revealed to us in its many forms.