Holloway’s Marina on Big Bear Lake hasn’t even opened for kayaking yet — the water is too cold, according to the manager — but she is kind enough to bend the rules for us.
She sets a couple of brightly colored kayaks in the water and we climb in — carefully. I check; yes, the water is cold, but on this cloudless morning, the lake and surrounding countryside look as if they are in high-def — perfect for an hour’s paddle.
It’s hard to imagine that this manmade lake was once a valley. Big Bear Lake was created when a damn was built in the late 1880s. It took a while, but the valley eventually filled with snow run-off, which the lake depends on even today.
“The lake was considered one of the great wonders of the world back then,” Jim Lyon, a local historian and search-and-rescue leader, told us earlier.
With Big Bear’s ski slopes now barren and daily temperatures rising (at 6,750 feet, it rarely gets over 80 degrees here), area residents and businesses are gearing up for spring, summer and fall. The activities list is nearly endless and there’s something for everyone, regardless of age or interest.
Our serene hour on the lake brings us across the path some coots, black-feathered, yellow-beaked birds that bob on the water. They probably take for granted the beautiful 360-degree view, but we don’t. The mountain peaks around us, still frosted with snow, look like a painting. A bit later, we come across some “fishermen” with wicked looking crossbows who are hunting for the lake’s biggest pests — carp. It’s open season on these invasive fish and these guys are on the hunt.
Of a bit different temperament is Stan Miller, owner of the Knickerbocker Mansion. A sound engineer for singer Neil Diamond (and other big names) for 45 years (he’s still at it), Miller arrived in Big Bear 14 years ago to find the historic property in foreclosure.
“It had sat empty for years,” he explains. “I felt I had to save it. It would’ve been bulldozed. We don’t have much history in this country compared to Europe. We need to preserve what we have.”
The mansion was built by the first damkeeper, William Knickerbocker, a woodsman who arrived in the region in 1901 to mine for gold. Tales about “Knick” rival those of Paul Bunyan. He eventually married, had five children and built the mansion from logs he felled himself.
Miller made some expensive additions and modifications to transform the 4,500-squaqre-foot log home into a welcoming bed and breakfast. We spent two nights in the spacious-but-cozy third-floor “penthouse,” complete with a wood-burning stove. It was the perfect location to witness a spectacular thunder and lightning storm that produced more than an inch of hail on our large deck. All signs of the storm had disappeared by morning.
The weather was perfect during our visit to the Big Bear Alpine Zoo, originally a rehabilitation facility for animals that were injured in the devastating 1959 wildfire in the San Bernardino National Forest. A few of the animals were too injured to return to the wild, and the facility became their permanent home. Today, the zoo continues its rehab mission and returns 90 percent of the animals to the wild. Still, its current residents represent 85 species of birds and animals, including a three-legged black bear named Hucklebeary, who devoured several heads of lettuce while we watched.
A stroll through the grounds provides an up-close-and-personal experience with bears, mountain lions, wolves, bald eagles and all sorts of smaller mammals and birds.
For information about activities, dining and lodging at Big Bear Lake, visit bigbear.com, or call (800) 4-BIG-BEAR (800-424-4232).
Stay two or more nights at a participating lodge and get a gas card worth $50 to $100, and qualify for a drawing for a $500 gas card.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.