Contact UsStanford Sierra Conference Center
P.O. Box 10618
South Lake Tahoe, CA 96158 Physical Address:
130 Fallen Leaf Road
Fallen Leaf, CA 96150
On a calm autumn morning, Fallen Leaf Lake has an almost mirror-like tranquility to it. But as beautiful as it is on the surface, it may be what lies far beneath its gentle ripples that truly sets it apart from other alpine lakes. At over 400 feet deep, the waters of Fallen Leaf have kept a secret for thousands of years: An underwater forest, perfectly preserved. Only in the last decade have researchers begun to explore the frigid depths of Fallen Leaf. John Kleppe, Professor Emeritus at University of Nevada Reno, is credited with discovery of the forest...and that's not all. Kleppe found a green jelly-like organism living among the still-standing trees. Researchers have yet to determine what exactly these things are. A brief report ran on NPR a year or so back. What has attracted the most attention lately, however, is what we can learn from these forests. According to Graham Kent, Director of the Nevada Seismological Lab at UNR, the underwater forest can teach us a lot about megadroughts that hit California throughout the Holocene. "We’ve obtained potentially the most accurate record thus far on the instances of 200-year-long droughts in the Sierra," Kent said in 2012 UNR media report. Kleppe has also published a paper on his research, entitled Duration and severity of Medieval drought in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The waters of Fallen Leaf Lake make for some of the best scenery in the Sierras, but it's the history they hide that is truly fascinating.
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 Stanford connection with Fallen Leaf Lake started at the end of the 1800s. William Wrightman Price graduated in Stanford University's second class, then went on to become a Stanford engineering professor. Price was a nature enthusiast and made his way to Fallen Leaf Lake in 1896. He built a boy's camp upstream from Fallen Leaf Lake near Glen Alpine Springs. At the camp, the boys learned to fish, hunt and live in the outdoors. They climbed the mountains, measured the trails with bicycle wheels, and installed plaques at the top of the peaks so hikers could record their visits.After Price married he brought his wife to camp, so family members of the boys thought it was a good idea and joined their campers. More and more guests visited the camp each summer. At nearby Glen Alpine Springs Resort, the proprietors were a bit unhappy that the campers' relatives were staying at the camp and not their hotel. The story goes that one summer there were 75 visitors at the camp, so the resort owners informed Price that they would no longer carry milk and mail for a competitor. Price then moved his 'Housekeeping Camp' to the south end of Fallen Leaf Lake where Stanford Sierra Camp is today. In 1905 Price built several tent cabins and a kitchen, then in 1907 with many families other than those of the camp boys visiting, Price built cabins which are now our staff cabins along "Rustic Row". Thanks to Carol Thomsen, wife of former director Chris Thomsen, we have a record of the early years at Fallen Leaf Lake. Stay tuned, we'll continue the history next month!
There is a Washoe Indian legend about the formation of Fallen Leaf and the surrounding lakes. A warrior was fleeing from an evil spirit with only a leafy branch in his hand given to him by a deity called the good one. The warrior was told if pursued by danger, drop the magical branch and water would appear where the branch fell. In a fit of panic, the warrior snapped the branch and dropped half. Rapidly, water began to rise creating a barrier between the warrior and the evil one now known as Lake Tahoe. With relief, the warrior continued to flee the evil one. As the warrior hurried up the canyon to where Fallen Leaf Lake now lies, he spotted the evil one once again. With only half the branch and four leaves the warrior plucked a leaf and waited with bated breath as it fell to the ground. Once again, water sprang up and Fallen Leaf Lake was formed. The warrior continued to run, and as he dropped the rest of the leaves Lily, Grass and Heather Lakes rose up to protect him. The warrior crossed the wastes of Desolation Valley and leaving the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada, found safety in the neighboring Sacramento Valley.