The Breaking Point: A Trial by Wind on Nevada’s Pyramid Lake

Whether you are out for a few hours or on an expedition, conditions can change—rapidly, in some areas—creating a situation far beyond what you may have planned for.

In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you can easily kayak and ski on the same day. Local events involving these two sports include age-group competition, but now that I’m well into my 69th year, winning prizes is not important. Such activity encourages fitness, and participating in these events provides me with enduring pleasure.

I had been resting all week, prior to the last ski race of the season, so I’d be fresh and strong for the competition, which would take place at the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in California. Before leaving my home in the San Francisco Bay Area to head to the race, I loaded one of my kayaks on my car so I could break up the drive to Mammoth with a detour to Pyramid Lake. Located in the Nevada hills northeast of Reno, this lovely body of water is a perfect place to watch birds or enjoy a relaxing paddle.

The elevation of Pyramid Lake is 3,512 feet. Its general orientation is north to south, and it’s over 26 miles long and more than four miles wide at its narrowest. The lake’s main source of water is the Truckee River, which flows in after traveling 73 miles from Lake Tahoe. Aside from the evaporation from the lake’s surface, there is no outflow from Pyramid.

With plans to make a leisurely crossing of the southern part of the lake, I drove to the put-in at Sutcliffe, a small town on the west side of the lake’s south end. It was a balmy day in March without a cloud in the sky and not a breath of wind. There was snow on the high ground that rises to 8,000 feet around the lake. The kayak I had brought was the oldest in my fleet, but it was a very stable boat, ideal for sightseeing and bird watching.

After buying a liter of bottled water and a ham-and-cheese sandwich in the Sutcliffe store, I stowed my gear and launched onto the smooth blue water. My put-in was on a fine-pebble beach directly in front of the ranger office and Sutcliffe’s gas station. I planned to paddle due east to make the five-and-a-half-mile crossing to the Fremont Pyramid, the island after which the lake is named. Close to this island is a rock formation at least 40 feet high in the shape of a crouching Paiute woman with an open basket beside her. She is a famous icon in Native-American mythology called Stone Mother.

The still lake mirrored the high blue sky. Just off shore, an eared grebe floated motionlessly, connected like a Siamese twin to its reflection on the water.

I landed a few yards below the trio, two young men and a young woman. One of them said, “Must be nice out there on water like this.” I agreed and asked if they paddled. “I wish,” said the young woman. Then she added, “We’re ski instructors from Squaw on a two-day break.”

After unloading my gear, I fired up my stove and made a pot of tea. Washing down my sandwich with a hot, strong beverage added a notch to my sense of well being. I walked up a shallow gradient to enjoy a better view of the Stone Mother and sat in the sun to rest. In the distance to the southwest, over Jackass Peak, a long, low ridge of black clouds materialized, and I took note of it while glancing at my watch. It was approaching mid-day—time to head back to my truck.

By the time I was packed up and ready to leave, the distant cloud line had stretched across the sky from south to west and was closing in on the mountains toward which I’d be paddling. The lake’s surface was no longer a smooth blue mirror, but a wrinkled sheet with little waves popping up–hardly rough enough to be cause for concern.

I put my paddling jacket and PFD on, and as I called good-bye to the three campers, the woman walked over and looked across the lake. “Isn’t it getting rough out there?” she asked. I considered her question and gave the water a good look. It had changed a lot since morning, but there was nothing particularly threatening about it. The sky was cobalt, and the dark ridge of clouds was still far behind the mountains, which were well back from the lake. There was no more than a slight breeze as I pushed off from the beach, and I could clearly hear her anxious voice behind me call out, “Take care!” “Thanks,” I replied. “It doesn’t look too bad.”

Five minutes into the crossing, I had a good rhythm going, but there was a strengthening crosswind. Soon there was a bullying wind coming over my left bow. I dropped the rudder and put pressure on my left pedal to counter the oblique wind coming from the southwest. I relished the work ahead, knowing that in an hour or so, the kayak would be on my truck’s roof rack. I thought of the hotel room with its luxurious bathtub waiting for me, and I began to think about Italian for dinner.

Within a few minutes, the wind had become violent, and big, sloppy waves tossed the kayak and saturated me. The water was pretty cold, and I was soaked despite my paddling jacket and PFD. I didn’t notice that I was getting chilled because I was working hard and was entirely focused on reaching my truck. The sky above me was still blue, but the black cloud ridge ahead was much bigger, extending across the line of mountains in front of me. I could see curtains of rain etched against its darkness. The cloud was closing rapidly on Sutcliffe, so I glanced at my watch to estimate how close I was to my truck. I figured that I would reach the beach within another 15 minutes.

Streaks of lightning flicked across the mountains and three curtains of rain extended across the range. All my strength and sensibilities were engaged in the splendid workout—the weather’s and my own. Pumping my legs with each stroke, every part of me, from my feet to my hands, was in sync as I drove into the weather. It didn’t occur to me that I might not reach my truck. It was very untidy water, but I was enjoying it.

Suddenly, a loud “SNAP!” shot through the sound of the wind and rain. My left leg flew forward and my knee dropped abruptly. The cable on the right side of the rudder had broken. My left leg and foot took the cable to its full extension and jerked the rudder all the way around the stern of the boat, and there the rudder stayed, locked. I pushed on my right pedal, and it simply slid away from me on the track, its cable no longer attached to the rudder.

I was more frustrated than alarmed. The day was supposed to be one of rest, and I was suddenly faced with hard work to get back to the truck. I rose to the challenge willingly, but it wasn’t that simple. I had no balanced drive forward and no resistance at my feet to use to lock my knees in place. I spread my knees wide for better control, but the rudder was acting as a drogue, slowing me down and making my kayak hook to the left. The waves threw the kayak every which way. I had to make quick, powerful draw strokes across my bow to regain my heading every time the kayak was thrown off. Meanwhile, most of my strength was applied to long sweeping strokes on the left side of the boat to make forward progress. This overload of effort on one side was much more tiring than using uniform strokes.

Slowly, extremely slowly, I saw the truck growing closer. Lightning zigzagged along the mountains and seemed powerful enough to split rocks. The rain descended in ever-widening curtains and was saturating Sutcliffe. Soon it would reach me.

I felt the first twinge of fear and knew exactly what was causing it: I was running out of energy. Although I was completely soaked from head to waist, the sheer output of effort had been keeping me warm so far. But now the chill of the wind and the water was getting to me. I had to reach the truck before I got too cold and exhausted. But the waves and wind were forcing me off course. Instead of aiming for the truck, I decided to take a new heading that would minimize the effects of the locked rudder and the blast of the quartering wind. I realized that reaching the truck no longer mattered. All that mattered was to reach a beach–any beach. In spite of my efforts, it was soon obvious that I wasn’t closing in on the land at all but going backward. It took a while to sink in that I no longer had enough power to make forward progress; I had hit the wall.

I stared vacantly around at the upheaval of water that tossed and turned my kayak. I had no energy left. My blades rose and fell lamely. The wind would take me wherever it was going and there was nothing I could do about it.

An hour had passed since the cable had snapped, and in that time I may have progressed perhaps three-quarters of a mile. If the wind had its way, I’d hit a remote beach 15 miles to the north. If the remoteness of my position and my lack of emergency equipment didn’t undo me, hypothermia would. I had come within a quarter mile of my truck then realized my truck was looking smaller and smaller: I had lost half a mile.

All I could do was try to stay upright. I’m skilled at rolling but was certain that I wouldn’t have enough energy for it. So I sat there, tossed around by the water and despairing, realizing that I’d really blown it.

As I tried to accept the possibility of failure, I found myself going through memories of the hardest things I’d faced and survived. Their common denominator was that even though I would hit the wall and collapse, I’d come to, get up and go on to reach my goal, usually ahead of the field. I never gave in.

But I was almost 70 years old, and age had finally caught up with me. I was no longer that strong and that daring. I couldn’t get my kayak to face the way I needed to go, and I was being thrown north and east, well away from my truck. Anaho Island would have been the closest landing behind me, but I had drifted away from it. Untapped reserves, not so much of physical strength, but determination, kicked in. I was not willing to die out here. I would put up a fight.

With my rudder locked alongside the hull, it was hard, but somehow I started inching toward Anaho. After a while, I decided that the lee of the island on its north shore would be my goal. As I approached Anaho, I saw what looked like a white skiff with two men in it, one standing at either end. They were close in to the shore and must have been fishing. I thought, Thank God! They’ll be able to help me. All I had to do was get their attention.

I had only packed for a relaxing day trip in balmy weather. I had no flares with me and no signal horn—two things I always carry when out at sea. With luck, one of them might glance around and see me, but I would have to get closer for them to hear me yell.

Without foot bracing, I couldn’t put power or speed into my stroke. I matched a long sweep on the left with a weaker, shorter stroke on the right. I couldn’t tell if Anaho Island was getting closer, but the two men were still there, standing at either end of their boat. When I thought I was within range, I shouted. Sucking in a great lungful of air, my first long call for help sounded effective to me. I called again and again, taking a rest between each shout. There was no response. It took a while to believe they couldn’t hear me. The wind and water were apparently making more racket than my voice could penetrate. Having gained some relief by venting with my voice, I continued paddling, digging my right blade firmly into every wave on the weather side.

When I looked around for my fishermen again, their boat was gone; they had vanished. They must have returned to Sutcliffe, where my truck was waiting for me; there was no place else for them to go. I almost wept. By now I had closed the distance between me and the lee shore of Anaho, but as far as I could tell, there was no beach to land on—only boulders and a low cliff behind them. I pushed on to the north of the island.

The water in the lee of Anaho was calm and the island buffered the wind. Scanning the front of the boulders, trying to assess where the fishermen had been, something dawned on me. I realized that the long, low boat was actually a line of white foam slapping against the boulders. My two fishermen were two vertical shadows created by slashes on the rocks behind the foam. The undoing of this illusion sank deeply to a pit in my stomach. Yet this image of a boat with two men in it may have saved my life; it pulled me like a magnet toward Anaho and, without the drive to be rescued, I may not have kept going that long.

With no reasonable landing in sight, I closed in on the north shore of Anaho. I turned northeast and headed across the gap between Anaho and the shoreline where I’d had lunch several hours earlier. I aimed for the beach where the young ski instructor had called out for me to take care. I landed just as darkness fell, and dropped gratefully to my knees.

It had taken me five-and-a-half hours to cover the five miles back to this beach. I was so cold, my whole body shook like the leaves on an aspen tree. I knew I needed fuel, and lots of it. I took off my wet PFD and climbed the beach to gather firewood. In the dark, I couldn’t find any firewood and remembered that, when I stopped for lunch, the beach had been clear of any tinder.

I opened the rear hatch for my tea kit, fired up my stove and quickly made a brew. I remembered that I still had two bagels I’d bought a week ago. They were in my pack in a bag with a wire twist to keep the bag airtight. Soon I was shivering so badly that I had to exercise vigorously to stop it. I swung my arms and beat my flanks and shoulders. I slapped my face hard with both hands and jogged in place.

I snuggled down between some rocks to get some rest, but within seconds, the inevitable shivering returned. Without shelter, I wouldn’t be able to stay at the beach. Until that point, I hadn’t even looked at my broken cable. By the meager light of my stove, I turned the shredded wires over in my hands, knowing that unless I could jury-rig some repair, I’d be stuck. Predictably, the break was at the end of the cable where it clamps to the rudder. I peeled off the electrical tape that had protected the attachment for 15 years. The nut holding the U-turn in the cable was rusted tight. I pulled a length of steel cable toward me and threaded it behind the nut to make a U-turn back over itself. Ah, but how to hold it? My kingdom for my toolkit!

I considered retracting my rudder, but unless I repaired the cable, I would have no compression for my legs and therefore a loose and unstable fit. I had no desire to head back out without having a solid fit in the cockpit. Inspiration! The six-inch wire twist from the bagel bag could be the frapping to bind a loop in the end of the cable. I pulled about four inches of the rudder cable to make the U-turn and reset it farther forward on its slider to accommodate the shortened cable. I climbed into the boat to test my repair. The frapping didn’t hold; the pedal flew away from my foot, and I was back where I started. Working in the dark—in March at an elevation of well over 3,000 feet—my hands were frozen and fatigue was pulling me apart.

I remained in the boat with my hands clamped between my thighs to warm them. Sitting there thinking, it came to me: Get the stove out of the boat and set it beside the rudder to warm your fingers while working. The second time, the frapping was tighter and the last bit of wire was jammed between the two strands of cable that made the U-turn. After a successful test, I was soon launching off the beach. The storm had passed, and I paddled into what had become a star-lit, windless night.

The lights of Sutcliffe were almost six miles away, and the longer I stared at them the more inviting they became. I heard gulls calling, and soon I was gliding through a loose flock of them as they rested on the placid water. There was more than a half moon illuminating the lake and I made the crossing very smoothly, paddling without pause. The contrast with what I’d been through and what it was like to cross in the same water, now absolutely calm, was a moving experience. It had been my purgatory, but I had not given up; it had become my paradise. I paddled across free of any feelings of anxiety.

Landing as close to my truck as I could, I left the kayak on the beach and ran up to the truck, stripped off my wet clothing, toweled off and put on a down ski jacket. I sat inside with the heater on full blast until I felt warm enough to get the kayak onto the rack and drive back to Reno to settle into my hotel. By midnight, I was soaking in a steaming-hot bath in my room.

The next day, I didn’t make it to the start of the ski race. When I arrived at the race course in Mammoth, my chest started hurting. After a fitful night, I drove home and collapsed on my bed. Pneumonia kept me close to it for the next month. All because I set out alone on an easy half-day lake trip using a kayak with worn-out rigging, wearing insufficient clothing and carrying minimal food and no repair kit, flashlight, flare, horn or emergency shelter. I went without telling anyone where I was going. All because I wasn’t really going kayaking—I was just stopping off at Pyramid Lake to relax and fill in a few hours of idle time.

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