Saturday, March 17, 2012

Skinny lake a real darling for off-season kayaking

"Robbers Roost" overlooks Lake Clementine
It’s not the largest or smallest kayaking lake in Northern California. Might not qualify as the most beautiful, either, though it’s quite scenic. If you have to stick a superlative on Lake Clementine, near Auburn, it might be…the skinniest lake. In places, you could almost line up four or five sea kayaks, bow to stern, and form a bridge across it. 

Okay, Lake Clementine is probably at least 75 yards wide in most spots. But no joke, there's a rule requiring boaters to go counter-clockwise around the lake to avoid collisions. That’s a good reason to paddle Lake Clementine in the off-season.

A skinny lake deserves a fattening snack
On a weekend early in March, the directional directive was unnecessary. Water traffic was light. There were far more people cranking bicycles up the steep, twisting one-lane access road from the dam. Most of them were skinny, too, darn them.

Lake Clementine’s real attraction is accessibility. Tucked into the densely-wooded American River Canyon, the lake seems remote, yet it’s only minutes away from I-80 and Auburn.

There are some strong reminders of the Old West – Clementine, as in “oh my darling,” was the title character in a Gold Rush song. The lake’s dam was built on the North Fork of the American River in 1939 to halt runoff debris from gold mining. And the lake’s most prominent feature – a gray limestone outcropping known as “Robbers Roost” – took its name from the days when outlaws supposedly hid in the rocks to watch for passing stagecoaches.

Vultures rule the Roost, but mountain lions are also around
On the Saturday we paddled, the only varmints circling Robbers Roost were turkey vultures that rode the ridge thermals and shared the view with a couple of grand houses, one of which looked to be the size of a small hotel.

NorCal Yak pal Paul in otter territory
Our paddling pod included NorCal Yak pal Paul, a member of the SacYakkers kayak club, who knew a bit about the lake. He guided us to a spot where he’d seen river otters on a previous trip.

None this day, though they’ve been photographed by other kayakers. The area is also known to mountain lions, deer and other critters, including bass fishermen. Mostly we saw Canada geese that honked their annoyance at us.

Paddling in place of gold panning in the riffle
Moving through turquoise water, we paddled up to the first riffle announcing the North Fork, enjoyed a pleasant lunch at a beach area, then headed back toward the dam. An afternoon breeze carried a whiff of smoke. We soon spotted a brushfire that made for some interesting moments before it was extinguished.

Glad we were there at the right time, darling Clementine – so close and yet so wild, we hope that you will never be lost and gone forever.


A paddle from the small launch ramp near the dam to the upper lake picnic area and campground is just under eight miles, roundtrip. Our paddle took about five hours, including a lunch stop. It’s advisable to be off the water by mid-afternoon, since winds may pick up.

Good flow at Clementine in early spring
Lake Clementine is part of the Auburn State Recreation Area, a popular destination for hiking, fishing, and camping during the summer season. Day use parking at Lake Clementine is $10. Better yet, consider buying a state park pass -- you'll get a price break while helping the state parks with their funding problems. 

Easy access to the lake is via Foresthill Road, off I-80, to the launch ramp near the dam. The 2.5-mile road down to the water is paved, but it’s narrow, very steep, and may be crowded with bicyclists – so go slowly and watch out for them.

© Glenn Brank 2012