Glamour Shot vs. Reality
Overrun East Shore Photo Spot Needs Cleanup
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Ripples cloud the pellucid waterquivering at the feet of boulders defaced with coarse graffiti. A delicate coat of ice clings to the sand tracing the shoreline. Overhead, the sun hangs low over the horizon, entwined in thick storm clouds disappearing over the distant hills. In the foreground, old cans and bottles laybroken and discombobulated alongside crude fire pits. This east shore beach is a harmony of poetic beauty and human waste.
Lake Tahoe shimmers, relaxed after seven days of intense snow and rain. Today the murky, overcast sky has parted, and a ray of light glistens from a patch of blue. For Tahoe locals, the storm’s passing offers a moment ’s respite. Forphotographers like myself, it means a chance at a divine sunset soaked in an inferno of glowing red.
As daylight wanes, four photographers stand shoulder to shoulder, dressed head-to-toe in brand-name outdoor gear, setting up their cameras for the coming sunset. Hands fumble with carbon fiber tripod legs, stacks of neutral density filters and state-of-the-art digital cameras. As they fidget with their equipment, one of them says, “Man, that was a crazy drive over the summit.” Another chimes in: “Yeah, it took me all day to get here from San Francisco.”
It doesn’t surprise me that these people aren’t from around here. The rise of the internet has caused a photographytourism spike. Social media and websites are saturated with images of vibrantsunsets reflecting in the blue of the lake. Every weekend, a fresh batch ofphotographers arrive on the east shore to capture their own photo of the unlikely tree growing from the crook of L-shapedBonsai Rock. This spot used to be a secret, but now, hundreds of articles about it litter the internet. Google “bonsai rock” and you’ll find “how to get to bonsai rock” and “tips on photographing bonsai rock.” A local company even offers a “Lake Tahoe Photo Tour” that runs right along the beach.
On this day, I notice how assuredly the photographers arrived and immediately set up their gear in one spot with complete certainty. It reminded me of the first time I found Bonsai Rock. I had just bought a cheap DSLR and a 50mm lens. With only a basic understanding of how cameras worked, I ignorantly thought I was the next Ansel Adams. I didn’t have acalculated way of planning my shots; I just showed up at someplace before sunset and made something work. One afternoon, I parked my truck on the east shore and trekked my gear down a single-track dirt trail to the lake. I didn’t know I was headed for what would soon be the most iconic beach of Tahoe. I ran up and down that gorgeous beach, exploring every angle to determine my favorite before I set up my camera. Now other photographers just plug in “Bonsai Rock” to their GPS, show up, and already know exactly where to stand to get the angle they want to shoot.
Over the consistent click ofshutters, I hear thephotographers talk. “It’s a shame to see the way people treat this place,” one man says. He’s right. As Bonsai Rock has become better known, heavy foot traffic has taken a toll; the narrow dirt trail that once weaved its way to the beach is now a wide, eroded scar. Garbage and graffiti are commonplace.
The sun breaks free of the clouds,disappearing behind the distant peaks. Grey storm clouds soak up the sun’sdying rays. The system that has let loose a barrage of moisture on the Sierra catches fire. Yellow transforms to red, reflecting on the mountains’ fresh snow. It’s the kind of sunset that photographers make millions from. As the four visitors feverishly make adjustments to their compositions, their small talk dies out. No one wants to waste this opportunity to capture the perfect image.
Soon, the orange haze of the sunset disperses, and the clouds return to a faded blue. The men start to pack up theircameras. Beaming with excitement, they ask each other, “Did you get any good ones?” One by one, they hike their gear up the hill, each one taking a separate route,widening the scar on the slope. I walk over to the spot they just left, their marks freshly imprinted in the wet sand. Four sets of boot prints stomped right over the trash littering the beach. I bend down to pick up a broken bottle. Why wouldn’t these people, who dedicate an entire weekend and drive many hours tophotograph this place, take an extrasecond to pick up a piece of trash? They pack out all their heavy equipment; surely they could carry a little garbage. Thesephotographersunderstand the value andbeauty of Bonsai Rock. If they won’t do theminimum to protect our playground, who will?
We can’t just blame the tourists. The people who visit here every day are just as liable, if not more so. It’s easy to pass judgment on visitors, but the bigger question is how did all this trash get here, and why is it still here? The “protect-your-playground” mantra is a Facebook status with recurring shares. But not enough of us, either locals or visitors, take any real action.