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(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook )


On Lake Don Pedro with the Allen Family

In November of 1997, I relocated to the Great Central Valley of California after accepting a position with Foster Poultry Farms in Livingston, one of the largest privately owned poultry farms in the United States. I came to the Farm from Atlanta for a large information technology implementation and that decision led to a myriad of new experiences and friendships.

Chief among those friendships was the hospitality and warmth I received from Carter Allen and his family. Carter was a Technical Project Manager at Foster Poultry Farms. In early 1999, I found myself reporting to Carter and we became close friends. Actually, Carter and his clan adopted me, and they became the West Coast branch of my family. I spent the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays lounging in the warmth and generosity of his welcoming home.

Carter is taller than I am, though that does not make anyone tall. I would call him good looking with sandy colored hair and a fine face. Carter is generous with his friends and quick to laugh, is lean yet strongly built and formidable in a quiet and assured way, and I would not want to be the person that wronged him. He is an avid hunter and outdoorsman. His wife Judy radiates a warm and welcoming smile, and she has her own list of outdoor accomplishments, such as completing a formal Marathon and Yosemite ascents of Half Dome via the cables and of Mt Dana, the third highest peak in Yosemite National Park. When I first met Carter and Judy, they had a border collie named Zoe and true to the breed, Zoe added a touch of insanity and unpredictability to every occasion.

Carter’s parents, Allister and Marilynne, were friendly and generous to me. Carter’s dad, Allister, is a big poobah in the Clampers, a fraternal organization known for its zeal in preserving the history of the mining industry throughout the West, as well as for throwing one hell of a great party. It is no exaggeration to say that Carter's dad is a well-liked figure, and that he is known and respected throughout the State of California. They are good people and I enjoy their company. The preferred drink at Carter’s house during the holidays is a favorite of mine as well, a Manhattan cocktail, so I felt right at home with Carter and his dad.

Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, as well as the Super Bowl party, were always a memorable time at Carter’s home. In addition to Carter's folks, Judy's parents, Paul and Betty, would visit from their home near San Francisco. Judy’s sister Laurie and family, husband Tom and kids, were regular visitors, along with Carter's sisters Lisa and Carrie, and their families. Also included were an ever-changing mix of relatives and friends, especially those that found themselves alone or in need, or far removed from their native roots. I always appreciated being at those gatherings and enjoyed the opportunity to experience genuine hospitality in an area of the country where I was a newcomer with little access to the simple joys of familial intimacy.

I came to know Don Pedro Reservoir and its houseboat community through the Allen family. Don Pedro Reservoir, also known as Lake Don Pedro, is located in the Central Valley of California between Modesto in the west and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east. Formed by a dam built across the Tuolumne River in 1971, Lake Don Pedro is the fifth largest artificial body of water in the State. Storing over 2 million acre-feet of water and submerging some 26 miles of the Tuolumne riverbed, the lake and its 160 miles of shoreline provides a myriad of recreational opportunities to its visitors, chief among them being boating, water skiing, fishing, swimming, and camping. Many houseboats have permanent moorings on the lake and these floating homes support a small local industry dedicated to the maintenance and support of these family oriented vessels.

The Allen family owned a communal houseboat moored at Lake Don Pedro and they made frequent use of the craft during the warmer months of the year. A group of six friends from Patterson, California built the houseboat in 1971, and this group included Allister Allen and his brother Walton. After its construction, the group shared the boat's yearly maintenance and ownership costs. Over the years, interest in the boat waned among some of the original builders so Allister and Walton bought the others out, and the boat now served the Allen families exclusively.

This floating home was a large craft; the boat was 52 feet long and 20 feet wide. The vessel had two levels and a covered walkway on the lower deck that surrounded a central rectangular structure. This structure enclosed the kitchen, aft sleeping quarters, and a bathroom with very little privacy. Wooden pillars spaced ten feet apart stood on the edge of the lower deck and helped support the upper level. A wooden ramp ran down into the water at the stern. Carpeted like all of the walking areas in a type of synthetic non-slip indoor-outdoor material, the ramp allowed the dog to climb back on board the boat from the water without assistance. For swimmers, a ladder made of wood led from lake to deck fore and aft. A chain secured a large portable gas barbeque to a pillar near the stern. A steep set of steps located aft led upwards to a deck area edged by a metal railing that ran the length of each side. A small covered area stood on this deck, as well as wooden and metal storage chests that held a variety of supplies and gear. Folding and plastic deck chairs sat in various piles on the deck.

This boat had been the scene of many grand parties and gatherings over the years, for the builders at first, and later for their offspring. Carter told me his cousin Jason once threw a weekend party on the boat where the crowd consumed seven kegs of beer. I attended several memorable get-togethers that Carter had hosted on the houseboat, including one where he secured jet-skis for general use. On that day, it took ten minutes for two yahoos to run their jet-skis into each other, sending one to the hospital with a separated shoulder. Zoe did her part to foster the legends of the houseboat; she had a habit of nipping at the heels of people diving into the water from the deck and one day she sent someone's child to the emergency room in search of stitches. Yet these incidents were small potatoes when compared to the many hours of fun and relaxation that the Allens and their friends enjoyed on the boat over the years.

My own history with boats is a clouded one. As I suffer from severe motion sickness, the thought of spending many hours on a rolling platform put me off a bit, yet I always enjoyed a speedboat and cruising around during the day while sitting out in the sun. I hated sailing and the rocking that went along with wind power. One minute in the hold of a sailboat and I was violently ill, but I thought I could manage a day on a houseboat.

As anyone who has ever kept a boat in the water knows, the price of usage and partying is eternal maintenance and vigilance, along with plenty of cash. On a wall in the boat's galley was a plaque that read, "A boat is a hole in the water in which you pour a lot of money." Over the years, I came to see how much effort Carter expended in keeping the craft shipshape and available for use by the entire family. I know that maintenance and upkeep was supposed to be a shared endeavor, but it always struck me that Carter performed the yeoman’s portion of the maintenance effort.

In the winter and spring, I would occasionally join Carter on his maintenance trips. We would leave work and drive to his house in Waterford to drop off my car, and then continue on to the lake in Carter’s truck. The main entrance was at West Bay, located in the southwest corner of the reservoir, which sported two large recreational camping areas, Blue Oaks and Fleming Meadows, as well as a large boat launch and marina complex. Parking at Fleming Meadows, we would walk down the steep hill of the boat launch to the marina carrying a toolbox, retrieve the Allen's fiberglass ski boat from its assigned dock space, and head out on the lake to where the houseboat sat tied to its mooring buoy. Once aboard, Carter worked on whatever needed repair. Later, we would enjoy a high-speed run around the lake before making our return to the marina in the dark to tie up the runabout, and drive back to Carter's home.

The runabout provided a great deal of summer fun on its own; it was an Ebbtide, 19 and a half feet long, with a Chevy Blazer 6-cylinder engine for a power plant. It had a triangular seating area in the bow reached by a small opening in the center windshield between the pilot and co-pilot seats. There was additional space for passengers aft of the pilot's seat. With only two on board, the craft could really fly. The Allen family also kept a second speedboat at the marina that Allister used, a 20-foot beast of a jet boat powered by a 455 cubic-inch Oldsmobile engine, a craft that sat low and wide in the water.

In the spring of 2001, the Allen family had their houseboat tied to a steel buoy at a public mooring on the north shore of the main body of the lake, along with a large number of other boats attached to their numbered spaces. This location provided little privacy as the boats sat tied to their buoys close together. The Allens did not particularly care for this arrangement, but some other family had anchored their boat in the cove where the Allens traditionally moored their houseboat during the summer months.

One day in early May, while at work in Livingston, Carter showed up at my desk and asked what my schedule looked like, if I could get away for the afternoon and assist him; someone in the large Allen family network had phoned Carter and informed him that the Allen's favorite cove at Lake Don Pedro was now empty. In a few minutes, we were out the door and on our way to his house in Waterford. Leaving my car in his driveway, we put Zoe in the truck and drove to a sandwich shop where we picked up grinders and a six-pack of beer before driving to the Fleming Meadows marina and retrieving the ski boat. In short order, we were flying across the lake towards the cove where the Allens anchored their floating home every summer, Zoe standing in the bow. After verifying that the cove was empty, we headed southwest in the runabout at top speed towards the Allen's houseboat.

Carter reduced speed as we approached the moorage and slowly made his way through the floating mass of boats until he reached the Allen family craft. We secured the runabout to the side of the houseboat and did a quick check looking for anything wild that may have come aboard, such as rattlesnakes. In a few pulls, Carter started the 70-horsepower outboard motor located in the stern and we untied the large craft from its mooring buoy and slowly maneuvered through the other boats into open water. A small boat wheel in the wall at the bow of the boat controlled the rudder; if you stood before this wheel facing it you were looking astern, so one rested with their back against the wall looking ahead and steered with a hand off to one side. We now retraced our way to the northeast, this time at a slow rate of speed.

In an hour, we were back at the cove, a deep wide 'V' in the side of a grassy hill dotted with California Oaks. Carter backed the houseboat into the cove to a point where the shoreline stood twenty-five feet off each side of the stern. From a storage bin, he retrieved two four-foot long steel rods, heavy nylon rope, and a sledgehammer. We put these in the runabout and Carter stripped down to bathing trunks and sandals before untying the Ebbtide from the side of the houseboat and heading for shore. He jumped off the bow of the boat and with the sledge pounded a steel rod two and a half feet into the earth about ten feet from the waterline. Carter secured one end of the nylon rope to the steel rod and motored to the other side of the cove where he sank the second rod and secured the other end of nylon rope to it. He now secured the nylon rope through the stern of the houseboat and made the rope taut when the stern rested at an equal distance between the shoreline on each side of the cove, the rope forming a straight line between the steel rods and the stern of the boat. Secured through the boat and anchored to well-sunk rods, our work was now complete. With the family craft now secured in its traditional summer mooring, Carter was pleased and relaxed; the cove accommodated only one boat so the Allens would have plenty of privacy. Zoe used the ramp to enter the water, complete her bathroom duty on shore, and return to the boat without requiring any human assistance. We sat at a table on the lower deck of the bow and enjoyed sandwiches and beer as the shadows grew long across the lake.

One day that June, Carter invited me to spend a night on the lake during the week of July 4th; Carter and Judy planned an entire week of vacation onboard with various friends and family members visiting during that period. Carter enticed me further by offering a tour of the entire reservoir. That was one thing I had yet to experience, seeing all the large bays and traveling upstream all the way to the bridge above Moccasin. I worried some about my motion sickness, yet since the surface of the lake was unlike the waves and tides of the ocean, the large houseboat seemed stable enough; I thought staying onboard one night was possible without much distress. July 4th fell on a Wednesday, so I agreed to come out the day before; after a day spent cruising on the lake we could enjoy the annual fireworks display scheduled for that Tuesday night. The prospect of a day's adventure and a night on the water with friends appealed to me.

When the big day arrived, I packed a one-night backpack and set the pack on the passenger seat of my small sports car. Inside the pack, I had a sleeping bag and pad, underwear, a light sweater, extra pair of shorts and sandals, a nice Sauvignon Blanc, two packages of good cheese and crackers, a six-pack of Guinness Stout, T-shirts, towel, cigars, and toiletries. I wore a T-shirt, nylon shorts, sneakers, and a wide brim summer hat with mesh around the crown. I left Modesto about eight am in the relative coolness of morning for the forty-mile ride to the parking area at Fleming Meadows. After paying the entrance fee, I drove through the grounds toward the boat launch. From the number of cars and boat-trailers already parked at Fleming Meadows it was evident traffic on the lake during the holiday would be busy indeed. I found a parking place for my small car, grabbed my pack from the passenger seat, and put the straps over my shoulders. From the car, it was a short but steep walk downhill to the boat launch where I would rendezvous with Carter sometime after nine for transport out to the houseboat.

I walked down the hill on the left side of the boat launch and continued out on one of the aluminum piers that extended into the lake from each side of the ramp at the waterline. At the end of the dock, I dropped my pack and raised my eyes to gaze across the lake that now extended out before me to the north and east. The area around the marina and boat launch had a posted speed limit of 5 mph so the pace was slow around the aluminum piers: families were driving down the ramp, turning around at the bottom and backing their trailers into the water. After launching the boat, someone would tie the boat up at one of the aluminum piers while the driver then continued back uphill to park before returning to the lake. A long line of vehicles towing boats had formed on the ramp awaiting their turn to put in. Out beyond the semicircle of pylons that signified the 5mph zone, numerous boats and jet-skis were already flying across the water throwing up rooster tails of spray or towing skiers behind them, a dull roar emanating from the collective horsepower that drove them all.

Far out in the bay I could see a ski-boat heading directly for the boat launch. As it drew closer, I could discern that it was Carter in the Ebbtide. I gave him a wave that he returned and soon he was within the reduced speed area and slowly approaching the dock. He turned in toward the pier and threw the engine in reverse before coming to a complete stop at the side of the long aluminum dock. I handed him my pack and stepped into the boat; in a second, we were making our way out into the lake.

As we passed out of the area marked by floating ‘Reduced Speed Zone' signs, Carter put the throttle down and we joined the throng of boaters already out plying the lake on the warm summer morning, enjoying the moist cool wind blowing through our hair as we cut across the surface of Don Pedro. After twenty minutes of play, Carter made his way to the cove where the houseboat sat securely tied. Judy stood watching us approach with Zoe standing at her knee. We secured the Ebbtide on the port side and I stepped out onto the deck of the Allen’s floating summer palace to a warm hello and a hug from Judy.

I found a cooler with room for my wine and beer, put the cheese in the small fridge, and dropped my sleeping gear on the upper level. Back on the lower deck, I accepted a coffee from Judy. As we talked, Allister and Marilynne approach us in the jet boat, the small figure of Carter’s mom sitting low in the boat and bundled in a large sweater and hat. Allister threw Carter a line and they secured the craft to the starboard side of the houseboat, then Carter’s folks came on board with pastries and other breakfast treats.

After breakfast, around 11:00 am, it was time to see the lake. Carter put snacks and a cooler of sodas in the Ebbtide and Judy, Marilynne and I secured our sunhats and sunscreen then stepped onboard from the deck; Zoe stayed with Allister on the houseboat.

Carter began with a counterclockwise swing through North Bay, West Bay, and South Bay; we learned firsthand how busy the lake was during the holiday week. Houseboats sat moored in the coves, with two, three, or four boats often tied side by side. Groups and families enjoying the hot summer weather populated these floating party stations, and music blared from outside speakers; floating rings of powerboats surrounded these collective rafts. Out in the lake, every type and size of boat was blasting a wake across the water through the unrelenting sun. We saw water skiers, wake boarders, tube riders, jet-skis, and drag boats.

The police were out in force as well. One police boat sat in the middle of the lake and several officers surveyed the action with high power binoculars; if they saw anyone piloting a boat with an open container of liquor or reckless behavior, they paid the miscreants an immediate visit. These boat and liquor violations appeared as points on your driver's license and fines or penalties were severe. Boat accidents injure many people and Carter took it seriously when he was on the lake amid a lot of high-speed action.

We curled around the east side of Middle Bay, visited Willow Creek Arm, and stopped at the floating restroom near the outlet of Watch Creek. These floating bathrooms sported toilets on a raft; you pulled up alongside, secured your boat, and relieved yourself, great for people and water quality as well. We spun through East Bay and, after turning the boat westwards, cruised along the north shore of Upper Bay.

The shores and hills seemed devoid of wildlife; it was afternoon and very hot as the sun was still high. Yet at any time, you might spy deer, fox, coyote, or even a rare mountain lion making their way through the grass and oaks that covered the hills surrounding the lake.

We passed under a power line, saw Wreck Bay, and turned north up a narrow stretch of river called Railroad Canyon. We traveled the three-mile route at the posted lower speed with vessels going north along the east side and those going south traveling along the west side of the canyon, occasionally trading pleasantries with the other boats as they motored by us.

We went under the rte 120 bridge and the narrow river waterway ended. We headed west, traveled under the Jacksonville Road Bridge and entered Moccasin Arm. Given our indirect route and general cruising around, we had probably covered more than 20 miles already. Carter filled the gas tanks at the Moccasin marina and we felt the terrible heat of the day when the boat wasn't moving through the water. After fueling, we retraced our route under the Jacksonville Road Bridge and headed west to explore Woody Creek Arm. We turned around about five miles or so from the marina and stopped at another floating restroom. From there, we found the entrance to Railroad Canyon and began our journey back to the houseboat.

About halfway into the canyon we came across a police boat moored on the west side, its lights flashing. Several other boats had stopped there as well. We saw a body floating in the water bobbing in its lifejacket, an officer and a civilian alongside providing first aid. The police had set out floating signs that read 'Reduce Speed' and 'No Wake', yet some boaters in each direction seemed oblivious to the situation. Carter slowed to a crawl; we saw a damaged jet-ski floating in the water. The body in the lifejacket was limp and unresponsive. After declining our offer of assistance, we continued on our way south.

We exited Railroad Canyon and Carter got back on the throttle as he cut wide arcs traveling through Upper Bay and into the narrows leading south to Middle Bay below. Eventually, the houseboat came into view and Carter had the Ebbtide pointed right at it. As we approached the craft, Zoe stood waiting for us, barking and wagging her tail.

We returned to the houseboat around 5:00 pm and secured the Ebbtide to its mooring on the port side. Carter’s sister Lisa was now onboard with her husband, Ernie. Lisa and Ernie lived down near Fresno where Ernie had a bar and restaurant named JJs. Carter told me the place served a good drink alongside a fine sandwich, high praise in the working world of the Central Valley. Lisa and Carter shared several physical attributes and they were emotionally close as well. They resembled each other, her hair and facial structure reminded me of Carter’s and they would occasionally wrestle with each other, as if they were still young siblings growing up together in the Central Valley.

Back in the cove on board it was hot and without the high-speed wind from cruising that we had enjoyed out on the ski boat, the rise in the afternoon temperatures felt severe. We all took a dip in the lake; the surface temperature of the water was warm but ice-cold water born in the mountains of the Sierra lurked close below in the green-black depths. The shadows were getting longer and we took some comfort in that; soon the steep hillside of our cove would provide shelter from the sun and the boat would rest in shade.

Now was that magic time of the day in California when the land turned golden in the late afternoon light of the summer sun and we settled down to enjoy the view. Carter put rope sausage and chorizo on the grill and made cocktails for those not enjoying a beer or glass of wine. Judy produced a large platter of cut veggies and ranch dip and I set out a wedge of blue cheese with crackers. When the meat was cooked, Carter cut the sausages into bite-sized chunks and served them on a plate with toothpicks and a small cup of mustard for dipping. We relaxed on the lower deck in the shade of the walkway and gave ourselves over to conversation as music from the stereo played through the speakers mounted outside high on the wall of the galley.

For dinner, Allister cooked two racks of pork back ribs on the grill and Judy made a tossed salad; corn on the cob and garlic bread completed the repast. I opened the Sauvignon Blanc, which was now ice-cold, and set it on the table to have with dinner.

It was getting dark by the time we finished eating. Out in the lake we could see the running lights of many boats making their way down towards the dam, disappearing behind the hill to our right as if on their way to some unseen Dunkirk. We all piled into the Ebbtide and Carter quickly had us cruising out into the lake. We continued towards the dam and worked our way into the flotilla of boats awaiting the fireworks show. We were not disappointed.

After the fireworks, we cruised back to the houseboat to sit at the table on the bow, have a cocktail, and smoke a good cigar. It was still very warm and I had spent the entire day out in the sun. After enjoying a large Manhattan with Carter and Allister, I settled into an ice cold Guinness.

Eventually, we all made our way to our sleeping areas, and I retreated to the top deck where I had left my gear earlier, inflated the sleeping pad, and spread my bag out on top of it. Using a cushion for a pillow, I lay down on top of the bag in my underwear. I felt no breeze and the night was still warm. While there was not a great deal of boat traffic at night, given the summer holiday crowds and the number of fishermen plying the waters, someone was always piloting a boat out in the large bay going somewhere, and eventually the waves created by their passage rolled into the cove to gently rock the houseboat. Underneath the vessel, where the large flotation pontoons lay in the water below the deck, came the soft clopping sounds of the small waves breaking against the hollow steel drums.

The hours crawled by and the constant motion of the boat made me ill. The air was unmoving and the temperature uncomfortable. The boat moved to the rhythm of the waves with no cadence or regularity, and from underneath the lower deck came the soft sounds of "slop", "clop" and "plop" as small waves broke against the unseen hollow metal pontoons. I went downstairs to relieve myself and to find a cold drink. As I stood in the darkness, balancing myself on the edge of the deck with my hand on one of the columns, I could not help but think of Natalie Wood's death and the nighttime tumble she took off her boat near Catalina Island in 1981.

Finally, the sky began to lighten in the east. I arose before dawn and went below to make a pot of coffee in the galley. The coffee finished brewing as the sun came up. As soon as the light of the sun shone out on the water of the lake, the temperature seemed to go up fifteen degrees, we heard the immediate roar of high performance watercraft echoing in the cove as the first water skiers and other assorted speed junkies took to the surface of Lake Don Pedro.

Carter and Allister appeared in the galley next and we drank coffee and ate breakfast muffins and Danish that Allister had brought the day before. After breakfast, Allister said he was going to the marina. He wanted ice and the newspaper, and planned to pick up Judy's folks, Paul and Betty, if they had arrived. Here was my chance for relief. I went upstairs and packed up my gear, then put the backpack on the Ebbtide.

When Allister was ready, I said my goodbyes, got on the Ebbtide, and left with the iceboat. It was July 4, 2001 and I yearned for the feeling of solid ground beneath my feet.

Back at home, I reveled in the air-conditioned luxury of my house. For a week after, I felt dizzy in the shower from residual motion sickness. The local weather said that Modesto airport had seen 109 degrees on the day of my houseboat venture, and I believed every degree of it. My sincere wish is to never spend another night on a boat.

All things in life have their moment in time and the houseboat was no different. Carter later told me that someone in the family had been moving the houseboat to a new mooring and, just as we had done that May in 2001, made the trip with the small runabout secured to the side of the houseboat. During relocation, the bowline of the jet boat snapped and the force of the water quickly spun the small craft around. As the runabout was now being towed stern first, water poured in over the low transom and quickly filled the boat. In a flash the jet boat, like the Titanic, was doomed; once it was under water the weight and the drag ripped out the stern cleat and the precious little one of a kind boat, along with its 455 cubic-inch Oldsmobile engine, was on its way to the bottom of Lake Don Pedro, more than 200 feet below. In 2004, Carter took a job in Southern California and his leaving signaled the real end for the family houseboat. With no one available to perform the required maintenance, the Allens sold the craft to a local family.

Carter tells me that the new owners have refurbished the houseboat completely, outfitted the vessel with the latest in marine technology and fixtures, and that the craft is virtually unrecognizable. It is now ready to provide the new owners with decades of service and memories.

I take great comfort in that thought.

Laudizen King
September 2010
Los Angeles