The steel gray skiff cut through white caps whipped to a froth from the steady blow off northern California’s Sierra Buttes, still snow-covered and gleaming in the bright morning sunlight at the lake’s opposite end. Surely my ill-considered bathing suit and sarong would stay packed this long weekend. With the mountains looming over us, we took cover from the wind’s chill on the far side of Sardine Lake; the rhythmic pounding from a glacial waterfall’s cascade the only sound.
Settled at 6,200 feet on the lake’s shore, the family-operated Sardine Lake Resort is cloistered under towering pines. Named for Sardine, the miner’s mule who tumbled into the lake in the early 1800s, the pristine waters are fed by springs and snowmelt, and surrounded by conifer-covered mountains.
The dozen log cabins and a small dining lodge remain mostly unchanged from their original construction in 1941. Propane tanks, pine cones and piles of plywood from long abandoned projects stud the scrubby grounds, while small boats, available for rent, bang against the creaky wooden dock. Vivid blue Stellar’s Jay, with their loud screams and punky Mohawk headdresses, terrorize the camp; old trout priests and fishnets handmade from sculpted pine boughs decorate the cabin’s doors.
It wasn’t even mid-morning, yet there were already seven trout, both Cutthroats and Browns, tied from a rope and floating in the water behind our small boat.
Cutthroat trout thrive in clear, cold freshwater lakes and streams, and are named for the distinctive red coloring on their lower jaws. The species’ scientific name is Salmo clarki in honor of William Clark, who, along with his partner Lewis, first described the fish in their journals. The pair was commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to study the flora, fauna, and geography of the western United States following the Louisiana Purchase of 1804.
Freshwater Brown trout are seldom dull brown, instead often shimmery silver and intricately spotted. Opportunistic to their gills, they eat whenever food presents itself, gorging on other fish, birds, frogs, and insects near the water’s surface, including the carefully baited hook of the fly-fisherman.
Just shy of our daily limit of five fish each, we motored back to shore for a midday repast before returning to lure the remaining fish with worms ripped mercilessly in half and threaded onto tiny, naked hooks. More appetizing was our lunch: steaming bowls of leftover spaghettini dense with fiery red chili, green garlic, grated Parmesan and a lavish shaving of salty, cured tuna bottarga. A platter of leafy chicories followed, late-in-their-season bitter and laid with pork sliced thick from chops cooked the night prior. The inhabitants of several cabins, friends all, each claimed an evening to host dinner, with the previous night’s feast spilling over into the next day’s lunch. The small, well-equipped kitchen had cast iron skillets hanging from square-headed nails driven into the log walls, and mismatched plates and silverware, decent wine stems, and heavy tumblers lined the cupboard shelves.
Even forgoing noontime wine, our cheeks still blazed red from the constantly stoked cast iron stove. The cabin’s original chinked log construction house kitschy fish lamps, taxidermy, sagging mattresses, and plentiful towels, long laundered into sandpaper. Screen doors open onto small porches overlooking the lake, set with pendulous beds for morning reading, late afternoon dreaming, and bouts of evening drinking.
Unwashed and smelling of wood smoke, lake brine and fish, we gathered for our final meal together. Magnums of decades-old Stony Hill Chardonnay were uncorked while baguettes toasted for the freshly made rabbit rillettes, which we slathered with spicy French mustard and course sea salt. The trout was cleaned, butterflied and pierced onto pine skewers, whittled clean and sharp, before being grilled on mesquite coals. The fish’s flesh pulled easily away from its just-cooked, translucent skin. Topped with a spoonful of sauce made quickly from Sicilian capers, lemon, butter and a splash of the white wine, each mouthful was succulent, sweet and rich; flavors quite remarkable from a fish fed on snowmelt and bugs.