BASS LAKE — There’s a new theme in the works around the lake this year: play like a local.
In order to bring meaning to the message, a handful of local writers and photographers were invited by Visit Yosemite Madera County to spend an afternoon galavanting around the resorts and properties that line Bass Lake, seeking out what’s new this summer and what remains, perfectly, the same.
We started the day at The Pines Resort with a welcoming pastry breakfast at Ducey’s, overlooking the lake. Visit Yosemite Madera County’s Rhonda Salisbury introduced colleagues Therese Williams and Kim Lawson, and turned the floor over to Mark Choe, who is Director of Sales and Marketing for The Pines Resport.
Almost seven years ago, Mark’s parents Kyusun and Sunwha Choe purchased The Pines Resort, a seven-in-one property, including The Pines Bar, Pines Market, gas station, events center, hotel and restaurants. The Choes invested everything in The Pines Resort, Mark explained, and the business is one of the largest employers and taxpayers in Madera County, with 130 to 200 people employed depending on the season.
Mark says last year was their best year, yet. This year is expected to be even better, with so much water in the lake. Chef Jonathan Frabotta continues to provide fresh and delicious fare at 120-seat Ducey’s, farm to table and organic whenever possible, with a willingness in the kitchen to work with dietary restrictions and preferences.
Along for the day was The Vegan Cyclist, aka Tyler Pearce, who lives in Bass Lake and brought his family. Tyler has a big following on social media and readily confirmed that, whenever he’s been to Ducey’s, the kitchen has always been able to accommodate his vegan requests.
Most of the employees at The Pines Resort are local and have been with the company for number of years, and they also have seasonal employees. They hire a lot of young, local residents, and are often the first place young people work. In many cases, their parents or grandparents used to work at the lake. This is true of all three primary resorts around the lake — The Pines, The Forks and Miller’s Landing Resorts. Working at any of these locations is a rite of passage for mountain area youth. Also true is the staff of each business, and the families behind them, care about their clientele, with a strong desire to help and connect.
One of the new things people at The Pines are excited about this year is that the location is now a stop on the YARTS: Yosemite Area Rapid Transit. For the first time, a traveler can arrive in Fresno via plane, train or bus, and take public transportation all the way up Highway 41 and out to The Pines at Bass Lake, and then continue on up to Yosemite and back. It also means that locals can get out to Bass Lake by bus from Coarsegold and Oakhurst, so that’s exciting. For more information on YARTS travel, click here.
Leaving The Pines, our group walked right down the docks to Bass Lake Water Sports, where we were greeted by General Manager Tom Tuso, and a fresh, hot platter filled with Marina Burgers courtesy of Zack Meier.
Tom has lived in this area for 37 years, and this is his 21st year in business. He explained that a recent wintertime visit to cooking school is responsible for the enhancement of the Marina Burgers’ new menu to include mushroom, pastrami, and bacon among the favorites. The fresh beef is specially ground, and the samples passed around proved Tom’s point — the burgers were delicious.
Like other local businesses, Bass Lake Boat Rentals employs teenage girls and boys who quickly learn that the strive for great customer service is behind every move they will make, whether behind the counter, on the dock or in the water.
Safety comes first, and anyone who rents a boat will hear the operational rules at least twice before they go out. The staff and owners take personal pride in the business, and they love the lake and run a clean marina. Tom says a day on a boat is a day well spent, and it’s his wish that people leave with a family-bonding vacation memory that isn’t plastic.
Bass Lake Water Sports continues their tradition this year of having fire dancers on the dock on Saturday nights, along with other spectacular events throughout the summer.
From 75 boats including jet skis, paddle boards, kayaks, and everything in between, the place is a one-stop fun shop, even if all you need is a fishing license or a candy bar. When you’re there, be sure to look up and admire the beachy-vintage decor of old propellers lining the rafters.
Heading back out into the beautiful sunshine bouncing off the water on an arguably perfect day, we boarded the roomy, comfortable Bass Lake Queen tour boat for what proved to be a delightful cruise with captain Mike Barnes.
The Bass Lake Queen is available for groups, as well as daily guided tours around the lake. We hear it’s not unheard of for the boat to be raided by friendly pirates, by prior arrangement. The open-air covered vessel has plenty of room for a large group and offers a smooth ride at a nice clip, and the captain is happy to answer questions.
As we toured, visitor’s bureau board member Steve Welch of Bass Lake Realty answered questions about lakeside properties. He said that of about 1,000 homes around the lake, two to three hundred are vacation rentals. This year, residents and visitors alike are pleased to see docks bouncing atop the water, as compared with sitting on the dry lake bottom as has been the case during the drought.
Steve says that rentals range from about $1,200 to $6,000 per week, depending on the accommodations, and that people can expect a discount of 25 – 30 percent in the off-season. Some homes right on the lake can sell for well over a million dollars, and all told, there are about 40 to 50 home sales per year in Bass Lake.
It was hard not to be distracted by the stunning cloud formations building overhead, and before long, we arrived at our next stop.
The Forks Resort
The Forks Resort has been in the family for 76 years, explain owners Leslie and Ron Cox, who invited our group to sit in the shade on their patio, offering the perfect treat for the mini-vacation moment.
While many people are anxious to wrap their hands around classic Forks Burger whenever possible, it was nice to see an alternative: fruit kabobs, brownie bites, and a lovely selection of wines.
Despite the unexpected switch-up of fruit and chocolate over sourdough burger, Leslie reminded us that The Forks is all about tradition. They don’t change anything unless they have to, she says, noting the multi-generational make-up of their loyal clientele.
The house they live in was built the year she was born, Leslie recounted, and said that it was 1946 when the first Forks Burger came off the grill. They make their own 1000 Island and Ranch dressings the same way they always have, and the soup and chowder are freshly homemade.
The pet-friendly location has 13 comfortable, rustic cabins and their patio is a very popular place to hang out. At one time, The Forks employed an artistically gifted craftsman for drywall in the cabins. As a result, each one has an animal smoothed into the texture of the wall, including bear, deer and eagle.
In addition to appreciating their long-term staff, Leslie says they are proud to provide local kids with employment and give them a safe place where they can be treated well and learn the value of hard work.
The shop at The Forks is full of both necessities and special locally made souvenirs that allow visitors to take home a little piece of life at Bass Lake.
Back on the Bass Lake Queen, we motored gently across the lake again, this time with our eyes toward the tips of trees, in search of resident eagles. Their nest was spotted, but we didn’t catch wind of any of the stately birds whose wingspan can reach six feet across, yet.
Our captain docked at Miller’s Landing and helped us off the Bass Lake Queen, and we made our way to Miller’s. Passing their selection of good-looking sports clothes and useful memorabilia, we walked upstairs to the second floor, overlooking the lake.
Michelle Miller had assembled a magical array of treats beneath the picture window, and we dove into the menu items with gusto while she talked about the family-owned business, now it its 37th season.
Miller’s has a local, generational clientele, as well, and Michelle says 90 percent of their guests return annually. In addition to the restaurant and store, they have boat rentals, and a beautiful new wedding area. Also new this year is an exclusive pet menu that will make your tail wag. For kids and anyone who loves a bit of whimsy: ask about their unicorn offerings. Miller’s Landing also has an online store so loved ones can suit-up appropriately, even before or after arrival.
This year Miller’s Landing is running a summer challenge that’s similar to a scavenger hunt and perfect for families with kids of all ages: Go Adventure Bass Lake.
Now in its second season on Bass Lake, the charming tugboat aptly named Wishon A Star goes out for sunset tours with appetizers, beer and wine. At Miller’s they believe it’s all about personal attention, and the excellent service and array of opportunities around the resort make it a must-do stop for anyone who wants to play like a local.
What about the trees?
Reboarding the Queen for our return trip, we settled in our seats in time to see an eagle soaring on the opposite side of the lake from its nest, so our patience was well-rewarded. This was a perfect time to hear from Brittany Dyer. Among her many roles, Brittany is a graduate student in forestry and is on the governor’s Tree Mortality Task Force, and her task at the moment was to answer questions about the dead and dying trees that have been removed or remain standing, for now, in the forest around the lake.
Brittany told us that, of the 10 high hazard counties when it comes to tree mortality in California, Madera County is ground zero. This comes as no surprise to local residents who are acutely aware of the ponderosa pine die-off, having watched it happen seemingly overnight. 102 million trees have died across the state over 32 million acres of forested land, according to Brittany.
For visitors and locals, she says, this unprecedented tree mortality provides an opportunity to talk about forest management in the future. Historically, this time is unique and it’s possible to view the loss through the lens of hope with knowledge that the healthy understory of native plants will emerge as the landscape continues to change.
We love Bass Lake.
As the Bass Lake Queen was secured at the dock and we debarked, our spirits were bouyed, having been out on the lake and to so many of our favorite local haunts. It’s true that visitors can play like locals, and it’s wonderful for a “local” to be reminded of the natural wonders that surround us, and all the opportunities we have for great, old-fashioned, unplugged fun.
What really struck me, though, and what I’ve been thinking about for the three weeks since this trip is this: the people who own, operate, promote and work at the resorts and businesses around the lake are all individual families and, put together, the lake people are all family. They love the lake and the visitors who have become like family, too. They truly appreciate the vibrancy that an international clientele bring to this little hamlet in the Sierra, and bring hospitality to a level of joy. Without exception, this look behind the scenes yielded a view of businesses and people steeped in tradition yet, as Mark Choe said of his parents, remaining innovative and always seeking new ways to elevate the experience for the customer.
So, if you’re a visitor to Bass Lake and its surrounds, play like a local. And if you’re a local, play like a visitor some days. Either way, get out to Bass Lake and play — it’s the perfect way to amend whatever ails the soul.