Convict Lake

There is only one word to describe the backdrop at Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierra: orgasmic! That’s why everybody wants to go there to fish, hike, camp and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Convict Lake has gone through many changes geologically and with increased visitor use. As recently as 1980, Convict was hammered by powerhouse earthquakes that closed the backcountry all summer, while crews repaired the trails.

Before the quake the forest service decided to install an expensive bridge in Convict Canyon and helicopter it in. Some years before a mule packer had drowned trying to cross the swollen stream. The engineer was told by his own forest service people not to put the bridge at the confluence of Genevieve and Convict Creek high up in the stark, narrow canyon. Of course, he didn’t listen, because he was a legend in his own mind. Sure enough, that bridge only lasted a year, until a big snow took it out. That didn’t deter the engineer in the least, and he decided to put up another bridge in the very same spot. The earthquake and snow took it out, and all that is left now is the monolithic concrete center support and abutments. And to think that before all that, the trail crew used to ride up the canyon on their horses and blast out the debris at the stream crossing every spring. They would throw rock into the stream channel to flatten it out and make it safe for stock to cross. All this was accomplished in one day and now commercial pack stock use on the Convict Trail is history. That boy from the Forest Service office just couldn’t learn how to engineer that whole deal, and being stone deaf didn’t help him much either.

All the extreme forces of nature can be observed in Convict Canyon from huge alluvial granite and slate rockslides to the power of avalanches and debris fields. It’s very exciting to see this force of Nature, as long as it isn’t happening, when you are standing there.

I observed Convict Lake in every kind of weather from snow and blow to the intense high altitude solar rays of an Eastern Sierra summer. Sometimes the wind would blow off the lake at 80 mph with killer hardhats flying through the air from the work crews. It was comical and colorful to see all the dome tents rolling like tumbleweeds through the campground. Many mornings were super calm and glassy on the lake, and so pleasant with the fragrant smell of the Cottonwood trees wafting through the air. It was pretty impressive to see that backdrop all lit up at the end of the lake revealing the intense folding and faulting of the rock. My work partner for a couple of seasons at Convict Lake was Jack O’Neill, a retired California Highway Patrol officer from the Victorville area. We were responsible for running work crews of California Conservation Corps and state inmates in the rehabilitation of the campground and lakeshore. Once in awhile Jack and I were able to break away from the crews and work on our own. One nice day we were placing large granite boulders in a rip-rap pattern to stabilize the embankment along the lakeshore. A young lady with her elderly father stopped along the path to ask what we were doing. We told her we were placing the rock to prevent erosion from fishermen and wave action from the lake. To this she rudely replied, “It reminds me of a breakwater down at Redondo Beach, and what you are doing really looks stupid!” That was just too much for old Jack and he said, “Listen, lady, if you don’t like it, you can just go back down to Redondo Beach where you came from!” That promptly ended that conversation.

Another time Jack found a large bag of trash that someone had thrown in the bushes. He searched through the bag, found an address, and sent the trash back to them in the mail. We used to laugh trying to visualize what they must have thought and the expression on their faces, when they received their surprise package. Despite all the stress from working with the crews and their special problems, old Jack and I managed to have some good times at Convict those two summers. Jack was a true gentleman, who loved nature and shared his vast wisdom with others. cowboy trail 007

Some other memories I have of Convict are of opening day of fishing, the movie crews and the bizarre salamanders from hell. Opening day was always a zoo. We would have to work all night to keep fishermen from going into the lake before sunrise, so there was usually a line of cars backed up for nearly a mile. It was like a big 2a.m. tailgate party, and then we would open the flood gates at the morning. In they would pour to converge on every inch of the lake and usually have their limit within an hour. Convict has been in many movies and TV shows like Star Trek and commercials like the one for Nature Valley granola bars. It was very exciting to watch Hollywood do their thing at Convict, and the food was good, too.

Nobody knew about the strange salamanders. My co-worker showed me the proof one day at the sewage treatment plant. Talk about bizarre! The ugly looking creatures would come out of the water, like a fish after a fly. They were big and scary looking! Supposedly, someone threw them in Laurel pond, where the sewage effluent from Mammoth is stored. Apparently, they went a long distance cross country from there to the treatment ponds at Convict Lake. Who knows how big they are now? Loch Ness has its Nessie and Convict has its salamanders from Mars.


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