The Shore of Sugar Lake
Updated: Jun 28
In the Summer of 2019 the Pawluskis (a family around the corner from us) invited us to camp with them at Sugar Lake. It was a splendid time and we were able to return to the lake in the Summer of 2020 despite a certain global unpleasantness.
There are many lakes in the Okanagan valley and many more lakes in the interior of BC. They are each extraordinary in their own way — some extraordinarily beautiful (Kalamalka Lake), some extraordinarily vast (Okanagan Lake), some placed deep in a shadowy rift (Echo Lake) and some perched a mile above sea level (Big Peter’s Lake). Depending on their proximity to the various population centers in the area and their conduciveness to water sports, some of these lakes grow quite crowded in mid Summer.
Sugar Lake is an in-between lake. It is remarkably beautiful but beautiful in the same way that many other lakes are beautiful here. Neither its color nor its depth nor its size nor its elevation raise any eyebrows. It was formed many years ago with the installation of a hydroelectric dam at the Southwestern edge of the Monashee Range on the Shuswap River. The lake is a few miles long and a couple of miles wide, sits at around 2,000 feet above sea level, and is a couple of hours drive from our home in Armstrong. This puts it about an hour and a half outside the most populated portions of the valley. This, the miles of gravel road you must drive to access it, and its relatively small size prevents its being overrun by boaters and day trippers.
On a sunny weekend in July, the Sugar Lake campgrounds are likely to be full, but there are few enough campgrounds to prevent full from feeling crowded. Additionally, its low elevation and placement to the West of the higher mountains means that the lake soaks up hours and hours of hot mid-afternoon sun, making it one of the warmest lakes in the area.
It is the perfect setting for a family camping trip.
So after a rainy, cool Summer, when we considered where we would want to spend our last chances for warm weather, it didn’t require much debate. What it did require was a little preparation.
The campground we chose — Sugar Creek Campground — is on the East side of the lake. This means that it’s shaded by the Monashees until late in the morning but also that it basks in the afternoon sun until late in the evening — a good tradeoff.
It also means that in addition to the half hour of old pavement and gravel which you must travel to get to the lake from the main highway, you must navigate another half hour of narrow, twisted, often rutted, washboarded, and steep forest service road (FSR) to get to camp. It’s not a bad road by FSR standards, but it does seem like it’s going to go on forever the first time you drive it and it’s more or less a dead end. There’s nothing else out there except the campground and a few hiking trails. And if you miss the turnoff to the campground, as Rebecca — with an SUV full of kids and a trailer in tow — did this last Summer, there’s few places to turn around and very little cell coverage.
Once you are there, however, you find a little piece of paradise: 17 campsites arranged along a half mile of gravelly, rocky lakefront. On a day when the wind is low and the water is calm, you can see the bottom of the lake twenty feet below your paddle board — past the layer of warm water on the surface into the frigid reminder of snowy origins a few miles upstream.
Having some knowledge of the campground and which sites we wanted, Owen and I headed out to Sugar Creek Campground a day or two before the rest of the family to claim a spot. We arrived on a Tuesday early in the morning with the rationale that people would be leaving from a stay over the weekend. The spot we had hoped for was occupied, but we found another that was suitable and made a Jeep excursion up the old road into the alpine atop Sugar Mountain to pass the afternoon.
When we arrived back a few hours later, low and behold, the good spot was open. Leaving Owen as sentry, I went to gather up our few belongings and relocated to a campsite at what the locals call “Hot Rocks”.
Naming this spot — at whatever point it acquired a name from local usage — did not require a great degree of creativity: on a hot day, the rocks are indeed hot.
But even the most simple things in life have layers. Twice in the two weeks we camped at Hot Rocks we had visitors from the local community. Both times it was an old jacked-up Toyota Tacoma. Both times it was a group of three people in their twenties — a guy and two girls. Both times they parked, drank and talked and laughed loudly to even louder music. The first group pulled a few pool floats out of the bed of the pickup and lounged in the water in the sun. The second group arrived too late for the sun, but the moon was full in the Southern sky and probably aided the beers in making everyone in the party a little better looking.
These two incidents lead us to believe that the etymology of “Hot Rocks” may have a poetic history behind its prosaic name, including stories both sweet and salacious.
That’s a remarkable thing: that a single spot with a rock outcropping in the sun can be the setting of stories for so many people and — very likely — the conception of at least one or two.
Rebecca and the rest of the kids arrived late the next day after a multi-point turn-around with a sixteen foot utility trailer on a narrow gravel road.
The campground is not very developed. There’s no running water or electricity but there are a few neat white outhouses and picnic tables and a fire pit at each site.
For shelter, we set up our big, cheap cabin tent. It doesn’t offer very much protection, but we expected mostly good weather. For bedding, we brought the mattresses from the travel trailer, a few sleeping bags for the kids, and our winter down duvet for Rebecca and me. This plush arrangement might have offended my minimalist sensibilities a few years ago, but I’ve learned two things since then: one, some things are not worth arguing about and two, a real mattress and a down duvet makes sleeping on hard ground involve more sleeping.
The original plan was to have some of the kids in another tent, but everyone ended up wanting to stay together. We all fit but just barely.
We also strung up a 12x15 tarp over the picnic table and two portable tables for the stove and cooking utensils. We brought four coolers — two Yetis and two Walmart specials. I had resisted getting good coolers for a long time but with the prospect of two Summer weeks dry camping, I broke down. The difference was remarkable. It was a lot to spend just to have ice at the end of a week, but when you’re an hour from the store, it makes a difference. Unfortunately, the lettuce — yes lettuce — was stored in the cheap coolers to make room for meats and dairy in the Yetis, and it did not fair as well as we had hoped. Besides being lettuceless for the last week of the trip, however, we ate like kings and probably could have stayed another week on the food we had left over.
We cut and split about an eighth-cord of firewood from the plentiful deadfall in the forest around us. Most of our cooking didn’t require a fire, but the evenings are always cool and a fire lengthened the time we could stay outside.
To supply water, we brought two five-gallon jugs and replenished these jugs as needed with a gravity-fed filter. We washed hands in the lake with a bar of natural, biodegradable soap and washed dishes by bringing water up from the lake and using two Rubbermade storage bins — one for dirty and one for clean — as our two-basin sink.
This was our fourth or fifth time dry camping but our first time on our own for an extended period. We’re still clumsy with some of these systems while others tick like clockwork. Setting up the camp so that it functions well is both an art and a science — albeit not ones that require advanced degrees. Nothing in particular about camping is very complicated, but everything altogether is. Going about a day takes different skills and different routines than at home. This can be (and is for me) stressful at first, but it is also a source of satisfaction. A few days in, when the wind kicked up and the rain came in torrents, it was strangely pleasurable to huddle under the tarp at the picnic table and see the water stream just as I’d envisioned off the taut, sloped edges just beyond reach of our supper cooking on the stove.
Hot Rocks is a fantastic and a treacherous place to swim. The rocks slope off into the clear blue-green water, creating little bays, shelves, and shoals, some smooth and some serrated. When you’re ready to dry off, there’s no better feeling in the world than leaning back against a dry towel on sun-warmed stone to let the sharp chill of water droplets on skin tingle precariously between cold and hot until the warmth settles and spreads and begins to grow the least bit uncomfortable. Then you jump back in and repeat.
This, I think, accounts for much of the pleasure of swimming and perhaps many other pleasures as well: the fluctuation between discomforts of various sorts. The heat of the rocks would be nothing much without the cold of the water to accent it and the cold would be misery if there were not a way to warm up afterwards. Eating until you’re full feels fantastic after you’re really and truly hungry, but staying full through a sedentary day of constant nibbling feels awful. Rest only feels really exquisite after prolonged effort; resting when you’re not tired is anguish.
Interestingly, it’s seldom in the middle where we derive the most satisfaction but in riding the wild spectrum between extremes — between the water and the shore. No one wishes for storms, but without them we might never really enjoy the sun. Part of the pleasure of camping, for instance, is coming back to a sturdy home and not camping.
The rocks are treacherous because they are slippery. They are slippery only below the surface where algae has coated them; above the surface, they are textured and easily-navigable with bare feet. Given all the hard, irregular surfaces surrounding the entrance points into the water, this slipperiness has the potential to create camp-ending problems — cuts, scrapes, or worse.
Fortunately, as with many dangers, the solution is simple if not always easy to remember or adhere to: stay low. To demonstrate, I lay flat on the ground and asked the kids how — in that posture — I could be hurt from a fall. Gravity is only dangerous when you allow it to work for too long. If you keep its effects short, it poses no threat. I followed this demonstration up with a mnemonic for the safe use of the paddle boards and canoe:
“LIFE WITH YOU ROCKS I SEE”: Wear your LIFE jacket, always have someone WITH YOU, stay seated when paddling over the ROCKS, and stay where Rebecca and I can SEE you.
Even now, six months after the trip, the kids remembered all four instructions within a few minutes of thinking about it.
Risk is something we always live with. At home it might consist of a fall down the loft ladder, an accident on the tractor, or failing to pay attention to the movements of a large animal. Since these are daily risks on the farm, the main danger arises when we begin to act as though they have ceased to exist through our frequent skirting round them. If you live with an elephant in the room, then you start to forget eventually that it’s a wild animal.
In many ways, the risks are less at the lake, but still very real and the path to receive treatment is longer. Additionally, the risks are new to the kids, so they are blissfully unaware. They aren’t aware of the elephant in the lake.
Managing risk involves both identifying new elephants in your environment — the lake looks friendly, but it’s not tame — as well as being diligent to treat every elephant with the respect it deserves — always wear your seatbelt on the tractor.
Our days on the lake were largely mellow and largely scheduleless but never sedentary for too long. We swam every day and were often on the paddle boards and in the canoe for hours at a time.
We had several visitors. Rebecca’s mom came out the day after Caleb’s birthday for a surprise follow up party, Dixon and Kathrine joined us for a day and Jay and Tammy stayed overnight toward the end of our time.
We thoroughly enjoyed these visits. It’s not often that you can spend time with anyone anymore without having anything else to do, but with spotty cell service and no agenda the visit becomes the agenda. Time doesn’t exist in the same way when you’re staring into a fire or out over water.
Two weeks on the lake in the mountains provides ample room for adventures both large and small. We had our share and were able to share some of them with our friends. For one of them, I was on my own. I had been wanting to see if I could get to the top of Mt Fostall — a prominent peak in the Southern Monashees — right from the campground by foot. It isn’t a long way, but for fifteen miles or so out of a meandering 30-mile route to the peak, there’s no trail — just you and the mountains.
I scheduled three days for the round trip, but decided to push the envelop a bit and did it in two with a hitch hike back to the camp once I got to the opposite side of the U-shaped route. I covered about 48 miles and about 15k vertical feet over two days.
It was a spectacular excursion and for a couple of days afterwards, movement of any kind was painful.
The day after I arrived back from this side trip, I canoed with Owen for about a mile across the lake to camp for the night on the larger island. Owen, Caleb, and I had made this trip once before a few days earlier to scope things out and discovered a well-defined little campsite on the Southern point above a small cliff over the water.
I have not done much canoeing and I’m not very skilled, but I quite enjoy it. The psychology of paddling a canoe across a large body of water is very different than hiking or running even though the exertion level might be the same. There are no turns in the trail or next few steps. From moment to moment in the substantial mid-section of your route, your position on the water relative to your destination and your point of departure appears to be exactly the same despite tremendous effort and a dozen paddle strokes. Your eye can’t perceive the difference between 5,280 feet and 5,180 feet and the surface of the water quickly erases any evidence of progress.
At first, I noticed myself growing frustrated with this indeterminacy and paddling harder in order, I suppose, to leave more of a mark or move more quickly to a point from which I could more clearly gauge progress. Sustaining this type of effort, I think, would be physically doable but mentally impossible. On a longer route over larger water, you’d have to let your mind settle into a state where the experience on the water and the physical effort were blended — where the sensation of pulling against the paddle was blended with that of sitting and gazing across the lake so that you could do both for hours. Then at long intervals you might look around and find that your intended shore was just a few strokes away.
Owen and I docked the canoe by pulling it up all the way onto the shore of the island and tying it off on a tree. The combination of these measures was probably not necessary, but just a few days earlier, we’d seen the lake roll with six foot breakers and didn’t want to wake up to find our means of transport back to camp washed away.
The sunset was beautiful that night and our vantage point was perfect, poised at the Southern curve of the island against the widest section of the lake. We were far from the first to have camped there and whether earlier in the season or in seasons long past, enterprising campers had constructed a substantial fire pit and a windbreak out of loose rocks. We pitched camp, made one jump each from the cliff into the cold water, made a small fire, roasted some marshmallows for s’mores and talked — as I recall — about ducks.
Well, it started with ducks. We saw some floating by almost right below us at sunset as we were drying off after our swim. Owen remarked how great it would be to be a duck — to swim contentedly all day. I conceded the point, but worried that their diet would leave something to be desired, and even swimming would get boring eventually:
Other ducks: “Hey! Let’s go swim around the lake and eat bugs.”
Owen duck: “Um, do you think we could do something else?”
Other ducks: “Something else? Like what? Swimming or eating bugs?”
Owen duck: “Nevermind.”
The conversation then progressed into animal intelligence, semiotics, and the triadic relationship between the sign (the word “bug”), the symbol (the abstract idea of a bug), and the object (the actual thing you’re referring to) and how animals — even those which use language — skip the symbol and don’t appear — as even very young humans do — to develop abstract, conceptual ideas both about actual things in their environment (water, the idea of water, the properties of water, the capabilities of water) but also about things which have no referent in their physical environment (“George Washington”, the first holder of an abstract office called “president” of an abstract idea called “The United States” which is itself an instance of another abstract idea called “government”, all of this encased in another completely non-physical concept called “history” — the record of things which don’t exist but presumably did exist at one time). After January 6th, 2021, for instance, our concepts of “President”, “United States”, “Government”, and even “George Washington” are all subtly different than they were on January 5th even though the whole of that day is, thankfully, encased in history and vanishingly few of those who are affected by these ideas had any physical contact with the actual historical events.
The result of this triadic use of language is that even when people are sharing an environment with ducks, our perceived environment (our “world” if you will) consists of a labyrinthine network of interconnected, sometimes contradictory concepts and ideas that is anchored in our environment but doesn’t equal it.
Ergo: The ducks that swam under our rock are now part of my and Owen’s world even though we’ve left their environment. As far as we can tell, the ducks don’t have similar conversations about us.
We humans can connect duck sightings to the storming of the Capital and somehow make sense of the connection.
Speaking of animal intelligence and unlawful raids, a chronicle of our time at Sugar Lake would not be complete without a chapter devoted to our year-old St Bernard Heidi.
Heidi is already very large — 120 lbs at last measure — and normally very calm for a young dog. She has very simple life standards: she wants to be near her people, she wants to roughhouse with our Golden Doodle named Blue twice a day, she wants to bark at the danger, she wants to nap with a purpose, and she wants unlimited quantities of cold water to drink. When worlds collideSugar lake met all of these requirements in spades and Heidi seemed completely content in her new environment. At first, she tried to swim out or wander down the bank to be near the kids on the paddle boards, but once she determined that they were ok and would come back, that anxiety was assuaged. In the mornings, she would make her way down into the water chest deep and lap loudly and happily for several minutes as though she’d never tasted anything so good. Then she would pull herself dripping, with long strings of drool stretching from her ample jowls, to the warm rock and nap until she was thirsty again — it was a good life.
Then into this happy existence there entered a shadow of desire in the form of a roasted ear of corn.
Jay had been preparing it for some time on a grate over the fire, adding to the tending a protracted explanation for the kids of the precise technique which he was using to produce the prototype of perfect roasted corn by which all other roasted corn into the distant future would be measured:
“Even a millimeter right or left and you throw the whole thing off. It disrupts the thermal coefficient of the corn’s flavor receptivity” — Jay Stang
This comedic routine produced all the bubbling, childish laughs one could hope for.
Heidi, in contrast, did not laugh but sat still and serious outside the ring of people listening with increased intensity and every so often sniffing the air. In retrospect, we might perhaps have seen her muscles tensing and her mouth twitching if both were not so thoroughly obscured by immense folds of skin.
The ears were completed just at the right moment when their texture and aroma were most enticing. One ear went to Tammy (who was standing and out of reach) and one went to Jay, who was seated by the fire, not quite finished with his explanation of the angle of atomic alignment necessary to produce the juiciest and most flavourful cob.
Heidi’s ears tilted upwards causing the skin of her forehead to roll forward over her eyebrows — but out of the deep recess, she was looking at one thing in all the wide world with a yearning that awakened in her memories of the wild elk hunts of her ancestors. When the moment came to spring in for the killing stroke, her whole body responded with the force of instinct.
A lot happened in the next few moments. Somehow Heidi knew to move quickly for both of her next two moves as though she had premeditated what the human’s response might be to her decision. She darted her head forward, procured the perfectly-roasted ear of corn and was off in a blur of brown and white fur. “Blaze” has seldom described Heidi’s lumberings about, but in this instance it is the only word that fits. Jay’s response was also blazing — up from his camp chair like a lightning bolt and chasing after Heidi through bush and over rock. The kids joined in and what had been a mellow dinner by the campfire was soon a rodeo of dogs and kids, and Jay and corn.
When Heidi was finally cornered and Jay regained his corn, only about half of it was left and that portion a little gnawed and slobbery — although Jay said it still tasted good, which just goes to show you how important it is to roast corn on the cob properly.
For most of our time camping, the weather was wonderful if a little on the cool side for swimming. It might only hit 70F but in full sun and calm winds you could quickly reach that level of warm discomfort which makes a dip in the water so delicious.
We did, however, get a taste of the lake’s other moods.
One evening as we were grilling burgers over the fire, the sky in the West grew dark and the wind began to increase. It had previously been rather dry, so we took a few precautions about the fire, threw on rain jackets and tightened the tarp.
It was a tremendous squall even though it was short lived. The glassy water we’d been paddling over just half an our previously rolled up in choppy grey mounds of four to six feet. The older kids stood out on the rocks which earlier had been several feet above the surface as pounding waves sent splashes of spray right up into their faces. Little Clara huddled in my lap and buried her face in my arms through the worst of it, knowing that if she couldn’t see the storm it couldn’t hurt her.
It is exciting to be right in the midst of the storm right up until it isn’t. You can feel the power of the wind and water and if you knew how far it would swell and rage, you could spread your arms and enjoy the display. But you don’t know. What’s certain is that it can always swell beyond what you can handle: the wind can increase until it destroys whatever shelter you’ve prepared, the water can pile up until it swamps your boat. There’s no controlling it. It’s not tame and has no limit that we know of. The extent of the storms we’ve come to expect in a given place is just what a few generations have experienced; there’s no law of nature which says these expectations form the extent.
My mother tells me a story about when I was four and visiting the ocean for the first time on the Gulf Coast. I ran and cried when the waves would crest and slide toward me over the sand. Then she took me by the hand, walked me down to the mark highest up the beach where the largest waves etched a line.
“God said that the waves could only come this far, Nathan”, she told me.
It must not have occurred to me that God was as far outside my control as the waves and that He could have — and often had — changed his mind during the fiercest storms and allowed the ocean to travel far inland. But it must have made a great deal of difference in my young mind to know that someone of kind intent had administrative responsibility for something as large and powerful as the sea because from then on I played in the waves without fear.
This, then, is another wonder hidden in plain sight amid the folds of everyday life: that the same water at the same shore can mean death and life, adventure and terror, a refreshing dip and an anguish of cold. No one can live on water for very long, but we are drawn to occupy its edges and to venture occasionally out into its depths — to explore this frontier between complacency and survival. There’s a joy and urgency in leaving the shore and also in returning to it.