There’s no place I’ve lived (with the possible exception of Hawaii) that has had such a huge effect on who I am as Big Bear Lake, California. My parents moved there around 1972-73 from Tacoma, Washington – most of my mom’s family followed us. I lived in Big Bear for two distinct periods – my normal, privileged and happy childhood from 1973-1981 and then an incredibly dysfunctional early-teen period from 1985-1988. Like many kids, my life changed dramatically after my parents went through an ugly and violent divorce. Most of my happy childhood memories come from the 73-81 period. At the time, our family was prosperous – we were surrounded by uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, and friends. Here are some of the amazing things I remember from Big Bear Lake.
I’m not talking about little snowstorms or a foot on the ground. I’m talking about full on blizzards where our house got buried. We had to jump out the second floor window to get out! 8-10 feet of snow. Big Bear is in the mountains above Los Angeles but it sits at an elevation of nearly 7000′ feet. One great thing about all that snow was snow days, snow forts, and playing in the snow all winter long. There were two ski resorts in Big Bear in those days Snow Summit and Goldmine (now Bear Mountain). We had annual season passes at Snow Summit and ski lessons were an essential part of being a kid in Big Bear. Our winter jacket’s were festooned with colored B’s to denote our level. If memory serves – the Red B was the expert skiier.
Big Bear Lake, Jenks Lake, Baldwin Lake
There were a number of snow fed lakes in the area, so summer was a time of swimming and water skiing. We would also wander the shallows searching for giant orange carp in the lake or fish for blu gill, bass, and trout. Jenk’s Lake was a tiny lake where school trips would go to learn about nature and do camp activities. In the winter, the lakes would completely freeze over and it was common for ‘dumb flatlanders’ (our term for weekend visitors from L.A.) to fall through the ice.
Fawnskin and Fawnskin Caverns
On one side of the lake is the tiny village of Fawnskin (which is strange because my sister is named Fawn) – as a teen, I wandered and drank all through this area. During all of the time I was living there, it was a fun pasttime to hike and climb in Fawnskin. There was a huge complex of boulder made caverns which were most fun to climb in (and most dangerous) during the winter months when they were filled with ice and snow.
Old Miner’s Days and Hell’s Angels
Every summer there was a festival celebrating the rough and ready miner’s who had flooded the valley in 49′. This weeks long festival included a multi-day burro race around the valley, burro baseball, a parade, a Miss Clementine and Mr. Kadiddlehopper Pageant, and much more. The Hell’s Angels were always around during this time – in fact they loved Big Bear and were frequent visitors – they sponsored school picnics and some of the teachers were even members of the famous biker gang.
Big Dick Rock
Big Bear has huge boulder piles everywhere. I’m not sure what geology created that – but every kid in Big Bear knew about ‘Big Dick Rock’
Big Bear Dam (old and new)
Big Bear has an old dam which is usually under water and a new dam that traffic crosses. The ‘New Dam’ was built in the 1930s.
There’s a tiny island in an area called Boulder Bay – that has a bunch of Chinese houses built on it. My aunt and uncle lived there for a year. It’s scenic and pretty strange….I’ve heard the owner lives on Maui.
The Rifle Range
There’s a rifle range in Big Bear and as kids we used to go there and collect lead bullets. Sometimes when people were shooting. We got chased away many times – it was incredibly stupid.
Old Mines and Cabins
Big Bear has lots of National Forest land and if you dig around in it (as we did a lot of) you will find mines, old caverns, old cabins, and in the 1970s – things like boxes of dynamite. We did incredibly stupid things with all of that stuff and somehow never killed ourselves.
‘Down the Hill’
When you live in Big Bear – every other place is ‘down the hill’ and people from other parts of California are called ‘flatlanders’. Going ‘down the hill’ meant going to Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego, or other places.
The Old Juniper Tree fort in Whispering Forest
Generations of kids have built tree forts in the old Juniper tree that sits across from my childhood home. Despite the itchy bark, the big drops, and the territoriality of kids like me – this tree has been the dreaming and hanging out space for many growing kids.
Holcomb Valley with it’s decrepit town of Belleville, the abandoned shacks, hidden gold mines, rifle and shotgun casings, herds of mules and packs of coyotes, hidden springs, and deep desolate and lonely hidden places – there should be songs written about this place.
The Crow’s Nest, The Poop Deck, Chad’s, and The Bear’s Den
I don’t know how many of these bars remain – but Big Bear Lake had the most colorful drinking establishment names of anywhere I’ve ever lived. Sure, maybe Chad’s doesn’t sound that exciting until you see three hundred Harley’s parked in the streets in front of it. As kids, we spent a lot of time at the Big Bear Arcade across the street and would all pile out to watch bikers beat the hell out of each other in the streets during the middle of the day.
The Bear Statues and Octoberfest
Big Bear used to have these beautiful standing bear statues that would welcome you into town. Visitors and residents would dress the bears which stood on top of rock pillars. Sometimes in snow jackets, goggles, hats, or winter gear – other times in bikinis. They were the childhood mascots to the town.
Each October there would be a week long drinking festival – I don’t think there were a lot of Germans in Big Bear but there were certainly a lot of drinkers so it was a big deal. Our parents put us in a children’s dance troop called the Polka Tots and we would train in Bavarian dance and travel to events throughout Southern California to dance in leiderhosen for the boys and frilly dresses and braids for the girls. It was a very strange thing to do.
Pan Hot Springs
I learned to swim in beautiful thermal pools that smelled slightly of sulfur. I was never a particularly good swimmer but I will always appreciate the fact that I learned to swim in pools created by mountain hot springs.
Rattlesnakes, Scorpions, Coyotes, Raccoons, Burros, Mountain Lions, and Bears
There’s a lot more to remember about Big Bear – it was an amazing place to be a child – but probably the most striking memory is the proximity of nature to us. We used to encounter rattlesnakes on a regular basis – we would flip stones and catch snakes and scorpions with old glass jars. The yip yip of coyotes was a part of the lullaby that would put us to sleep and the braying of the wild burro herds would startle us awake – at which point we would watch them be chased from yards and gardens in the neighborhood. We didn’t see a lot of bears in those days – but they and the mountain lions were about – we’d catch sign of them on the trails – pawprints, piles of poo, the acrid musky odor of a mountain lion or lynx.
This was my childhood. It sounds like a time long ago – and I guess as I write this it was generally four decades ago – but when I look at pictures or think about how different the world was then – it seems like it was much much longer. I love the memories of my childhood in Big Bear Lake, California.