About Me

I’m a California-based voice & visual artist. I immerse myself in creative adventure by exploring multiple genres, styles, and forms in my writing and art. I also make short films. ❤️robots.

Tahoe Trekker: Gangster Paddling

What do the mob and water sports have in common? Clue: Lake Tahoe is on the California/Nevada border.
I'm exploring Lake Tahoe then stepping back in time with George Whittell, Jr. and the Rat Pack.
Tahoe City Kayak Sunset Tour
This piece originally appeared on the MyDestination.com main page (which is now MyGuide Network) in June 2013. Additional photos are included here.

North Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border is a mecca for winter sporting enthusiasts, but summer also has an abundance of intriguing options. Since I’m a water person who loves history, my adventure begins with the Tahoe City Kayak sunset tour. I’d never kayaked, simply because I have this silly fear of the boat rolling like a log and dumping me into the water.

Before we set out, a brief lesson is in order. Andrew Laughlin, the unassuming owner of TCK with a business degree yet living the mountain-lifestyle dream, instructs how to stroke efficiently by maintaining the “paddler’s box,” a 90-degree-square hold.
North Lake Tahoe, the Cal-Neva and Incline Village in the distance
The kayak rocks as I put a foot in its center. Then squatting low, I plant my butt in the cushioned seat. Andrew paddles ahead, offering these tips, “If you aren’t twisting at the waist, you’re using more energy than necessary. When kayaking, ease is key.” We gently glide into the sparkling evening water of Lake Tahoe.

The tour begins with enthralling tales peppered with authentic history. We’re introduced to Tahoe Tessie, the region’s sister monster to Scotland’s Loch Nessie. Lake Tahoe is the second deepest in the US and tenth in the world, so maybe anything is possible?

Andrew tells us stories of loggers and bootleggers. In 1859, the Comstock Lode, Nevada’s silver version of California’s Gold Rush, depended upon Tahoe timber for rails and mining. A virtual forest is buried under the Nevada desert in the form of mining shaft supports. Back in the 1930s, eccentric multimillionaire George Whittell, Jr. bought vast amounts of this naked, clear-cut land. Across the lake, there are tours of his Thunderbird Lodge.

With the last evening light, our kayak outing winds up. I hop up onto the edge of the dock and stand up, “I didn’t dump it once. I felt so safe!” The others laugh. I thought for sure my backside would hurt but the Hobie Kayak has a "comfort" seat.

Tahoe City Kayak’s Historic West Shore Tour has to be one of the best activities in Tahoe! Steps from the dock, dinner at the Christy Hill Restaurant has a waterfront view to match the fine dining. Exquisite. Try the braised bison short ribs with horseradish potato puree.
Caretaker's Cottage, one of many buildings making up the Whittell estate
Next up, the Thunderbird Lodge on the northeast shore. The tour leaves from the Incline Village Visitor’s Center. During the shuttle ride, we get just enough history about ultra-rich playboy George Whittell, Jr. to step back in time before we unload at his Tudor Revival summer estate.
George Whittlell, Jr's bedroom marked by the bobcat pelt hanging on
grand room's upper levels rail. Photos of George with Bill the lion and dog
Docents explain that although Whittell, Jr. vowed never to work, after high school, rebelious George ran away with the Barnum and Bailey’s Circus to be a lion tamer. Later, he volunteered to drive an ambulance in WWI on the Italian Front. He rocked the Roaring Twenties, rivaling even F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby.
The Thunderbird yacht built for Whittell in 1939 parked in the estate's
boathouse can be chartered for special occasions
The reclusive billionaire (in current dollars) bought and preserved approximately 40,000 acres (16 thousand hectares) of the Nevada side. His best friend, a lion named Bill, rode shotgun in Whittell’s luxury Duesenberg convertible, “perching his chin or paws on the windshield, mane flying in the breeze.” Whittell’s personal beach, Sand Harbor, is now a Nevada State Park.

From south of Sand Harbor, looking at the Whittell estate jutting into Lk Tahoe
Whittell was extremely private. To scare boaters away he simulated cannon-fire sounds. His buddies, across the water at the Cal-Neva Resort, watched for colored-light signals. This is how they knew to come visiting… and bring casino showgirls. Among his human friends were Frank Sinatra, boxer Jack Dempsey, baseball player Ty Cobb, the Shah of Iran, former US presidents, and Howard Hughes.
Whittell's Card House, always ready for action
High-stakes gambling took place in Whittell’s card house, which is connected to a secret tunnel. A hidden door in the shower of the bathroom leads to a spiral staircase. Quick steps down to the chilly stone tunnel and you’ll find the opium den.
George Whittell, Jr.'s secret tunnel
Now that I have a window into the secret world of Lake Tahoe, time for another tunnel tour at the legendary Cal-Neva Resort… and more about the Hollywood connection to this area.
Cal-Neva Resort
Our guide, Rozlynn Weig, shares the resort’s intimate alleged secrets. The resort straddles the border of California and Nevada with tunnels and escape hatches. Perfect for mobsters back in the day to duck out, or to covertly transfer the deadbeat gambler who was currently “on ice” in the basement cooler. They’d whisk the stiff through the underground passage up the concrete ramp and out to swim with the fishes in the lake. Maybe that's just folklore?
The Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis, Jr.
Frank Sinatra was a partial owner of the Cal-Neva in the 60s. Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Marilyn Monroe, and assorted mobsters including the infamous mob boss, Sam Giancana, frequented this border hotel. It’s easy to imagine “Ol’ Blue Eyes” Sinatra holding a whiskey, splashed with dry vermouth, leaning on the rail looking out at the moon over the expansive shimmering waters of Lake Tahoe. My favorite Frank Sinatra movie: Guys and Dolls.
Photos of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe decorate a Cal-Neva wall
Cabin #4 for Frank and Cabin #3 for Marilyn
Psychics named one haunted area near the basement cooler “Marilyn’s Tunnel” because of paranormal activity. There were more underground passages to the cabins. Important visitors would’ve moved around unnoticed. Marilyn stayed in cabin #3 for “the dames.” Cabin #4 was for “the pals.” Some of her last days were at the Cal-Neva. July 27-29 in 1962. She died one week later. My favorite Marilyn Monroe movie: The River of No Return.                                                 
Frank Sinatra's wall of theater history at Cal-Neva Resort. Spotlight orb on
the blue-eyed Jester. Could this be evidence of ghostly activity?
There are plentiful activities for all at Lake Tahoe. I bought my own kayak vest, so I’m ready for more paddling.
Lake Tahoe's Alpenglow
In Tahoe this summer? Here are some events you might want to check out:
Squaw Valley Writers Conference
Wanderlust California Yoga/Music/Nature Festival
For more of my posts:
Tahoe Trekker: Hike the TRT to PCT!
 Writer's Bucket List: Travel-Writing Wings On!
my posts on travel and travel writing

Alonna Shaw is a nature-loving writer who utilizes her background in theatre, film, and television. Her debut novel, Eleven Sundays, is a heartwarming contemporary story of Annie's quarter-life crisis spurring her into a transformational journey from what she thought she should be to who she needed to become.
Photo credits: Alonna Shaw

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