By Frances Griffey
There’s something about the dark that prompts deep conversations and intense contemplation. For children, the dark is where monsters lurk in hiding, but as we get older, we learn to respect and even look forward to the night. It’s the perfect time for going out with friends or being alone with your thoughts. In the black of night, often under a blanket of twinkling stars, you can’t help but feel more connected to your surroundings, whether it be family, friends, nature or yourself.
On a cloudy Wednesday evening in June, I drove up to Whiskeytown Lake to participate in my first moonlight kayak tour. The sun was just starting to sink behind the mountains and 20 or so people stood with paddles in hand next to bright orange, blue and green kayaks lined up on the shore of Brandy Creek Beach.
These night kayak tours provided by Whiskeytown are offered during the five days before a full moon exclusively in summertime. It’s the perfect way to see the lake in a different light (literally).
“This park belongs to everybody and it’s a good way that we can get people out to enjoy this park, teach them something at the same time and give them a little of the significance of why this park is here,” explained Park Ranger Matt Switzer.
The program was born after jet skis were banned in Whiskeytown over 10 years ago. After losing a portion of visitors to this ban, opening kayak tour programs were the perfect solution to keep people recreating at the lake.
“We were kind of looking for a way to lure some of that crowd back. Of course, a lot of people were unhappy when jet skis were banned, but this program came out of it so I think we kind of won out of that,” Switzer said.
NorCal residents and tourists alike come to Whiskeytown Lake during summer nights for these one-of-a-kind tours. But surprisingly, many locals don’t know about this program.
“I didn’t know that we had this in Shasta County, this is way cool,” Redding local, Stephanie Wassmouth, said.
Wassmouth recently heard about the night kayak tours and decided she just had to come out and experience it for herself. She had such a great time that she said she planned to go at least once again over summer.
“I would totally recommend it because it’s very peaceful. It’s nice, cool and calm. You get to learn a lot of the history of Shasta County and see the beautiful sites. It’s awesome,” Wassmouth said.
One reason why Wassmouth likes kayaking at night so much is the lack of boats. She said the wakes made my speedboats can be scary, so not having to worry about that was a plus.
And there’s really nothing to be afraid of during these kayak tours. Even though it’s pitch black by the end of the tour, you feel completely safe in the group, with a ranger leading the way and volunteers trailing the crowd making sure nobody falls behind.
“I think for a lot of people this is something that they would never go out and do on their own,” Switzer said. “It’s a safe way for people to come out here and experience the lake without having to worry about having their own kayaks or knowing what they’re doing or getting lost. They get to come out and hear a little something about the area while at the same time just being able to enjoy this. Not many people come out here at night. It’s definitely a nice safe way to see the other side of Whiskeytown, the night side.”
I had kayaked only once or twice before, but picked it up fairly quickly. After setting out into the sunset, we paddled around the lake for a few minutes before stopping and listening to Switzer tell a story. It felt like a campfire tale, minus the fire and plus a large body of water.
The story was one of an infamous stagecoach robber: Black Bart (A.K.A. Charlie Bowles, sometimes spelled Boles). He was a “gentleman” bandit, who robbed 27 stagecoaches without firing a single shot. But (spoiler alert!) his 28th robbery went awry and he ended up getting caught and imprisoned.
“He’s like our own semi-local Robin Hood and he’s not in the history books, so I think he deserves his due just for being a unique piece of history. This whole area has some fantastic Gold Rush history and a lot of unique stories, and the Black Bart one isn’t one that’s told very often,” Switzer said.
Learning about this folktale throughout the tour was fun, but the best part was undoubtedly watching the sky change colors and the moon gradually rise over the mountains.
“That moon coming up – you can’t find anything better than that. That was awesome,” Wassmouth said.
Over halfway into the tour, we were taken to an inlet and given 20 minutes to explore – either paddle around or swim in the cool water. As I paddled, I swear I felt something brush against the bottom of my kayak and my mind immediate jumped to ‘Lochness Monster’ (okay, it was probably just a curious fish).
The West sky was a pale blue, the clouds tinged with a dull pink hue. The sky in the East was a dark blue with the moon peaking over a nearby mountain. The lake was unusually quiet and calm. It was dark, but in a serene way rather than an ominous way. The only sounds were words exchanged by other kayakers in the group, warm wind rushing through the trees, the occasional chirping of birds and the soft noise of our paddles grazing the dark water.
“I think it’s a little bit more of a closer experience with nature than we get in the daytime tours,” Switzer said, perfectly putting into words how intimate these moonlight tours really are.
Led by the light of the almost-full moon, we headed back to Brandy Creek as our two-hour tour came to an end. The water, a clear greenish color at the start of the evening was now a slick glassy black that reflected the moonlight. A few stars shined between gaps in the clouds in the overcast night sky as we hauled our kayaks back onto the beach.
“Everybody sees the lake by daytime; very few people come out and see it at night. So the people that come out, you’re kind of like the elite few that get to see it in this environment. Everybody comes out to the lake to get away from the heat in the daytime, but a lot of people don’t think about what the lake has to offer at night,” Switzer said.
We take the lake for granted during the day, often forgetting it has something special to offer at night. The area transforms from a buzzing hub of playing children and sunbathing teens to a tranquil dark paradise. Indeed, the other side of Whiskeytown, the darker side, is one that shouldn’t be missed.