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Tahoe Nugget #103:

Donner Lake on Ice
January 27, 2007

The recent California cold wave caused an estimated $1 billion in damage to the Golden State's citrus and avocado crops. The extended period of overnight temperatures in the teens and 20s in the San Joaquin Valley destroyed about 70% of the fruit and avos still on the trees. Temperatures here in the Tahoe area fell to below zero on several nights and afternoon highs failed to reach 32 degrees for more than a week. The cold snap was definitely nippy, but not even close to the brutal cold wave of 1937, the chilliest month in California and Nevada's history.

In January 1937, two separate cold fronts kept the region in the deep freeze and set record low temperatures for both states that still stand. One frigid air mass rolled into the Great Basin during the first week of January, which sent the mercury plummeting to minus 50 degrees at San Jacinto, Nevada (a mile-high basin located near the Idaho border), the Silver State's all-time lowest temperature. A second Arctic intrusion surged into the Far West ten days later and reinforced the frigid air already entrenched. On January 20, 1937, observers at Boca, California, recorded the Golden State's coldest temperature ever at 45 below zero.

The cold temperatures of the past two weeks froze area lakes and reservoirs (Tahoe doesn't freeze) and inspired ice skaters to dust off their blades and hit the ice. The lack of precipitation and wind during the freezing process made Donner Lake a spectacular setting for gliding or playing hockey on the smooth, glass-like sheet of ice. It's a rare event when the 300-foot deep lake ices over without a snowpack and offers the opportunity to skate among the surrounding granite peaks.

After my own skating excursion to Donner Lake on Wednesday, I read in that day's newspaper that the Truckee Fire Protection agency was warning people to stay off the ice because it was not safe. The ice 50 yards offshore was about 4 to 6 inches thick and the water temperature about 36 degrees. Their warnings went unheeded by some locals who organized hockey games or practiced their skating moves at various places on the lake. Yesterday the fun ended tragically when an unidentified man broke through the ice and drowned. His body may never be recovered as he sank in 250 feet of water. Similar to Tahoe, the cold water near the bottom of Donner Lake will refrigerate his body tissue and it will not float back to the surface.

Photo #1: Game over. Hockey players calling it a day.

Photo #2: Skating with Donner Peak looming overhead. Note the railroad snowsheds of the first transcontinental railroad built during the late 1860s.

Photo #3: At one point during the freezing process, a westerly wind must have broken up the first frozen layer and pushed it up in pieces onto a more stable sheet of ice. The ice beyond this fracture zone did not look safe to me so I avoided it and other areas in the middle of the lake that looked too thin.

Nugget #102 A Game Over Donner ice1

Nugget #102 B Nugget Donner ice skating peak1

Nugget #102 C Donner lake frozen flakes1


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