Written by Chief Petty Officer Class Sherri Eng, 11th Coast Guard District.
Call Coast Guard Station Lake Tahoe “Station Vacation” and the 18-member crew will quickly tell you that it’s not all fun and games working on the largest alpine lake in North America.
Summertime is abuzz with boaters, swimmers and sunbathers enjoying the lake ringed by the towering Sierra Nevada. The crystal blue waters can lure water-goers into a false sense of security. Unpredictable mountain weather patterns can change rapidly, turning a calm outing on the lake into a rough day on the sea. High winds and eight-foot waves are not uncommon on Lake Tahoe.
“I don’t think people realize how dangerous this lake can get in a few minutes,” says Petty Officer 2nd Class Kauakea Colon. “It’s dangerous. You just don’t know what lies beneath the surface. Depending on the weather, it can kill you.”
Stretching 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, the crew has a lot of water to cover. The station responds to about 150 search and rescue cases each summer.
“We’re non-stop when the busy season gets here. Memorial Day through Labor Day, you don’t sit down at all,” says Petty Officer 2nd Class Megan Archer. “We’re up from sunrise until midnight, then we go to bed to get our eight hours of rest and we’re up the next day doing the same exact thing again.”
With just two 25-foot response boats to cover the 72 miles of shoreline, the station depends heavily on four nearby Coast Guard Auxiliary flotillas and other federal, state and local law enforcement and emergency response agencies to fulfill its many missions. The Coast Guard has maritime jurisdiction over the lake because it extends across two states – California and Nevada.
Located at more than 6,000 feet above sea level, Lake Tahoe is the highest lake of its size in the United States. Working at such altitude poses some challenges – boat engines lose about 1,000 rpm and maintaining physical fitness is more difficult in the thin air.
Once winter hits, activity on the lake drops dramatically. The crew may welcome this well-deserved break, but enduring a long period of inactivity can be difficult, too. Crewmembers spend their time studying and training to maintain their proficiencies and qualifications. Snow removal becomes part of daily life.
“Winter is very long. The weather is extreme and it snows quite frequently,” says Chief Petty Officer Bruce E. Helterbridle, the station’s officer-in-charge. “If a heavy storm is moving through, a typical snow day means that the duty section is waking up every four hours and shoveling snow all through the night and maintaining snow removal all through the day.”
Still, despite its challenges, crewmembers say they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“Lake Tahoe is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been stationed or visited,” says Colon. “It’s like a good movie – you hit ‘pause’ and no matter what scene it’s on, it looks like a good, quality photo.”