Contact UsStanford Sierra Conference Center
P.O. Box 10618
South Lake Tahoe, CA 96158 Physical Address:
130 Fallen Leaf Road
Fallen Leaf, CA 96150
Every fall Stanford Sierra Conference Center hosts a group of fifth and sixth graders from East Palo Alto. Briefly liberated from their urban environment and enthused by mountain air, water games and sugar--the children run wild. On one of my first days at camp I stood in the lobby watching a competitive game of tag. One boy running helter skelter, nearly collided with the Camp Director, Dave Bunnett. Tilting his head to look at Dave, the boy's jaw went slack. Dave looked down, smiling. After a moment of appraisal the boy broke the silence, “You're a giant!”And he was right. Dave is 6'5''. Bemused at the child's assessment, Dave watched the boy walk away. That was one of my first encounters with Dave and it encouraged me to subscribe to the general consensus here at camp: Dave is a nice guy. Dave has been the Camp Director here at SSC since 1995, but he began at the bottom. He was a Stanford University student and summer staffer here in the early 80s. Feeling at home on the lake, Dave stayed on and began working his way up through the ranks. “I can still remember the day I drove onto Fallen Leaf Road for the first time,” Dave told me as we sat and talked in the old lodge. “I was coming to work and I drove in on the road and I looked around and I just said, 'Wow, this is pretty incredible! I have to figure out how to stay around here.'” After Dave worked as a summer staffer responsible for supervising children, cleaning dishes and making beds, Dave was promoted to DOPO, department of plant operations, where he handled maintenance issues. Then Dave traded his work belt for a telephone when he assumed the position of assistant camp director. Seven years later he was made the camp director, a position which he has held for nearly two decades. The annual visits for the East Palo Alto youngsters is one of the accomplishments of his tenure for which Dave is most proud. It was not his idea. During a midseason interview with a summer staffer, Dave was informed that while happy, the student felt unfulfilled. His reasoning was that while he was having an excellent summer, it was a selfish pursuit--he hadn't helped anyone but himself. This sparked a long, involved conversation. The result of that conversation was the pro bono, annual visit of underprivileged children which continues to this day. It is fairly evident to most people who encounter Dave that he has an adventurous spirit. That spirit is imbued within Stanford Sierra Camp. After Dave graduated from Stanford, he joined the Peace Corp and worked in the Solomon Islands. He said of his experience, “At the time it was very, very third world with very little medical care. People were happy and well-fed because they had a good supply of natural resources, but it was very, very primitive where I was.” Some of Dave's best adventures were sailing.“At one point I sailed a boat from Spain to Venezuela,” he told me, his signature smile beaming across his face. “I'd done some Hawaii trips before. But Spain to Venezuela, we had some good times. We got caught in a big storm at one point, and that was sort of fun.” That's they type of guy Dave is, someone for whom storms are an adventure - not something to keep you from going out again. Dave keeps the sailing program going strong at Camp with a good fleet of boats and staff training every season. See Dave in our Stanford Sierra sailing overview video. Since assuming his position as Camp Director, Dave no longer backpacks across Europe, but he still partakes in the adventures that can be found around camp. He runs the Angora Loop nearly every day during the summer and often sails Lake Tahoe. Dave shares his camp experience now with his wife, Tamara, (they are about to celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary!) and his daughters Danica and Tatum. During the second to last week of the fall conference season, we had our first heavy snow. The clouds hung low, hiding the mountain peaks. Snow drifted serenely to the ground, as if each flake had all the time in the world to fall. Standing in front of the Main Lodge and looking out at the lake really felt mystical. The clouds and snow buffered all other sound, leaving camp a tranquil refuge seemingly all on its own. Dave believes that it is his responsibility to make this feeling of magic last, allow it to permeate everyone's experience here—from guests to staff. When I asked Dave about whether that initial feeling of magic has lasted his thirty-years at Stanford Sierra Conference Center, he said, “It's different in my position now. I have to worry and take care of stuff to keep it magical for you guys.”
In 2008, all purpose staff member Harrison Kass, asked his manager at Stanford Sierra Conference Center how deep Fallen Leaf Lake was. The response was “You don’t want to know.” Water can be terrifying, especially water as deep as Fallen Leaf Lake. At its deepest point the Lake is 418 feet in depth. A story of a building is roughly ten feet high. A forty story building could stand erect and hidden below the surface of Fallen Leaf.John Kleppe, a Professor Emeritis at the University of Nevada, lives on Fallen Leaf Lake. Fishing is his passion and many of his days are spent on the water, rod in hand. For years his lure would snag on solid objects below the surface. Certainly it was not the bottom of the lake… but what? Mysteries have a way of getting under our skin and festering, and the mystery of Fallen Leaf’s depths grated on Kleppe. Finally, after years of snagged lines, Kleppe hired a diver, Phil Caterino, to investigate. On a fall day in 1997, the diver slipped below the water line. When he eventually surfaced, he held the petrified branch of a Jeffery Pine in his hand. The branch was still redolent of ancient sap. Caterino discovered a forest below the lake. The forest below Fallen Leaf Lake dates back to the medieval era. From 850-1150 C.E. a prolonged drought ravaged the Sierra. A Millennium Drought drained the alpine lake, leaving a large portion of it barren long enough for one hundred foot trees to grow. Then after the water returned, with low oxygen levels in the lake and devoid of fungi and insects, the trees were left alone in their underwater crypt—preserved perfectly. In 2009 Graham Kent, director of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory, plumbed the depths of Fallen Leaf to observe this underwater forest. Professor Kleppe wasn’t the only one to snag a line on these submerged trees; miles of fishing wire dangled from the branches. There were also chains of gelatinous single celled protists hanging from the trees. As the organisms divide they clump together creating golf ball-sized plump, white balls. These were 'never before seen' organisms found only in Fallen Leaf Lake. Like little jelly fish they catch the refracted light and glow faintly. Kent described the scene, “It was a bizarre Christmas-tree effect… I was just waiting for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to fly in.” When you paddle out on Fallen Leaf Lake you assume that this landscape, this lake framed by dramatic, sheer peaks, is timeless. It is easy to forget that our earth, the water, is inconstant, that not very many years ago a forest grew in the space below your paddle. (For more information about the underwater forest, click here.)
The Chute is a noun specific to Stanford Sierra Conference Center. When staffers come into the staff lounge with Camelbaks and haggard expressions, declaring: “I just did the Chute,” the response is one of respect and approval. Beginning in spring, a perennial waterfall slides down the Chute between Cathedral and Mount Tallac. When the waterfall dries, it leaves a steep rocky path. Hiking the Chute reminds you that even water—fluid and malleable—has the power to erode and transform landscapes.Hiking the Chute is slightly dangerous. The scree can shift under your weight and there is a fair amount of free climbing. Through one section you have to pull yourself up using crevices your hands can feel, but your eyes can’t see. As you lift yourself higher with your arms, your feet push off against solid, smooth stone. Fortunately, my first time up the Chute I went with fall conference staffer Rebecca Duffy (she named this blog post). Rebecca is working her fifth season at Stanford Sierra and has spent many hour traversing the Fallen Leaf Lake area trails. Rebecca loves trail running and describes it as power walking the most direct route up a mountain, then running down it. Rebecca introduced her friend, Kali Kirkendall, to trail running in Montana, then Kali wrote a fun blog post about Rebecca's trail running prowess and fancy free ways in Trail Runner Magazine. When the view is just right and she has free time, Rebecca climbs to her perch halfway up the Chute and writes overlooking Fallen Leaf Lake. Hiking the Chute feels like climbing into an Escher painting—the angles are so steep and odd. At the top of the Chute the world falls open below you. Ahead is Fallen Leaf Lake, Lake Tahoe and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. To your back are Cathedral peak and Mount Tallac. The beauty of Fallen Leaf Lake alters with the time of day, so every photo is different, yet still breathtaking. Mornings over the lake are gradients of light blues, purples and faint pinks—soft and subdued. On a sunny day, the mountains across from Lake Tahoe are ochre and sap green while the lake is a vibrant and full blue. You can see the wind flicker in wisps of white across the lake—water giving the air shape. I used an app, Strava Run, to track the elevation I gained while climbing the Chute. There is no specific path to the top, so every climb is new with only one constant goal—move up. My route had a 2,107 foot elevation gain in under a mile. Michael Kleinman, Jake Wixon-Ganack, Emily Lohmeyer and Harrison Kass joined me for my second Chute ascent. Morgan Marshall, head of housekeeping (HOHO), holds the record for the fastest climb up the Chute with a time of thirty-two minutes. Michael almost beat him that day with a thirty-five minute ascent. Jake and Emily, both athletic and avid hikers moved quickly and were close behind. The Chute feels like a rite of passage here at Stanford Sierra Conference Center. For those who make the climb it becomes an addiction because of its views, intensity and strategy.
It only took one climb for me to experience the magic of the Chute. Already I am planning a day when I can beat my own personal time: 1 hour and 23 minutes. With less than a month left of the fall conference season, my days at Fallen Leaf lake are numbered. But you can bet on the next bright day, when I have a few hours to spare, I will head out on the trail towards Cathedral Peak and start to climb.
I have never considered myself a morning person, and yet one of the great mysteries of Fallen Leaf Lake is its ability to transform you. I now wake with the first light through the window - no alarm necessary. The morning of September 12th was still and cool—the light over the Sierra Nevada a deep indigo pink. At 6:30 I was out on the water for my first boat dock shift, bundled up and ready to watch the sun rise. The first group to arrive at Stanford Sierra Camp for our fall season was sponsored by Patagonia. I found the group to be altogether an adventurous bunch; so I was not surprised to see a few of them heading to the lake with the first light. The water was so still it was a perfect map of the sky and the mountains. Kayaking through water that glassy is dizzying—it is difficult to distinguish up from down when your paddle skims the ridge of Cathedral Peak as it parts through the water. Although I envied their early morning journeys, I was perfectly content to sit on the dock and observe. I heard one of the guests say that it was her first time in a kayak. In the little time I’ve spent here, I’ve decided that this haven on Fallen Leaf Lake is a place for firsts. Among my fellow fall staff members I have seen New Englanders who never hiked before head out in the early morning hours to new destinations, often several miles away. I never mountain biked before, and after my early morning boat dock shift a coworker lent me his bike. Together, we rode to Lily Lake, not far from camp, but with the altitude your lungs and esophagus burn as you exert yourself in the thin air. As I pedaled up the hill, the air still cool and tender, I felt the temperature of my chest rise as I struggled to find enough oxygen. Jake, a competitive mountain biker, was patient with me, and only poked a little fun. Not only is this a place for firsts, it is also a place where people welcome opportunities to teach. Already, Jonathan, who works on camp maintenance, is helping me build a desk for my cabin. The staff here have an infinite amount of patience and a genuine, palpable desire to help us improve and grow. Here at Fallen Leaf, I don't go a day without learning something new or seeking out more information. Morgan, head of housekeeping, is an expert when it comes to astronomy. He took a group of us for an astro-cruise on one of the clearest nights I have ever seen. As we floated out on the pontoon boat, I swear I could see the curve of the earth. I felt the fishbowl effect of the world. The Big Dipper was lying on its back on Cathedral Mountain. Morgan took out his laser pointer and showed us everything from Polaris to the Summer Triangle, with a regular parade of shooting stars as the backdrop. Morgan's passion for astronomy is not only tangible—he shares his excitement with every new staffer who wants to learn more about astronomy. I am excited for this season of firsts—for sunrises over the lake, the nightly mountain chill that rides into camp as the sun sets, and morning hikes when the air is still so cold and fresh it burns a little as you breathe.