The year was 1975, and my friends and I had been invited to go waterskiing at Lake Berryessa by my older brother, Scott, and a couple of his friends. A few weeks prior they had taken us to St. Helena’s little movie theater to watch the movie “Jaws.” The movie had been traumatic but exciting.
After arriving at the lake, we got into the boat and motored out from the dock. The sun was high in the sky and beat down on our unprotected skin. The smell of musty algae from the lake swirled around us as we headed for deeper water. Todd estimated the depth of the lake to be thousands of feet. The engine stopped when we were about 100 yards from shore. I don’t remember any adult supervision. It was the mid-1970s after all, and we were all living in uncharted territory.
Scott provided instructions as I sat on the back of the boat. I had on a swimming suit and no life jacket, and a pair of old water skis that had been thrust into my hands.
“Just float in the water with your skis pointing up. Then you give the thumbs-up signal and we gun the boat. All you do is hang on to the rope and we pull you along. It’s easy. It’s fun.”
“OK. Get into the water,” his friend Doug said as he pushed me into the cold, murky liquid.
I was floating in brown, muddy water. A stick floated by.
“Hey, I’ve heard that some sharks can swim into freshwater lakes,” Doug called to me from the boat. “It happened in Boston.”
“Yeah, I heard that, too,” my brother yelled, hands cupped to ensure that I received this critical new information.
I was floating in the middle of the lake, my feet strapped to ancient water skis, my hands grasping my lifeline rope to the boat. All I could picture was the movie poster for “Jaws,” with a huge monster shark eagerly swimming up from the depths to consume an unaware swimmer above. My heart started to pound. Under me I was convinced that I felt the water surge as if something large was swimming below me down in the impenetrable depths.
The lake’s history was itself somewhat dramatic. California became the 31st state on Sept. 9, 1850. The territory had originally been populated by various Native American tribes for thousands of years. But in the 16th and 17th centuries the region was explored by a number of European expeditions and was eventually claimed by the Spanish Empire and called “Alta California.” The Spanish rulers attempted to convert the area to Catholicism by building mission settlements up and down the state. In 1821 Mexico took over the region after its successful war of independence against Spain.
During Mexico’s governance of Alta California, it adopted a policy to populate and secularize the region by handing out large land grants. Two of these were presented to the Berryessa family (actually, the original name was a Basque surname, Berrelleza, but it was anglicized to Berreyesa and then later Berryessa). In 1836 the first of the grants was called “Mayacamas.” It totaled more than 17,000 acres and covered the northern end of the Napa Valley, including Calistoga and Knights Valley. Seven years later they were given an even bigger grant of more than 35,000 acres (nearly 55 square miles). This grant was named “Las Putas Rancho” and it included Berryessa Valley.
In 1848 Mexico ceded the Alta California region to the United States after the Mexican-American War, and then in 1958 the construction of Lake Berryessa was completed.
This lake is the largest in Napa County and provides both water and power from its large dam. The dam is named Monticello after the abandoned town that now lies at the bottom of the lake, somewhere deep below my panic-stricken body as I treaded water on its surface, water skis on my feet, me certain that a huge mutant shark was swimming just below my dangling limbs and ready to pounce.
I considered abandoning my skis and swimming for the boat, or maybe even the shore. I knew how to swim, having swum on the St. Helena Grape Stompers swim team since I was 5 years old. But could I outswim a shark?
Just then the boat’s engine revved and the rope I was holding began to tighten. I held on, thinking that once I was up on skis I’d be safe, or at least safer, than just thrashing there on the surface like so much shark bait.
The rope pulled my arms hard and I leaned back against the force.
“Keep your ski tips up!” my friends yelled from the boat. Their voices sounded distant as the boat pulled away.
I could see Scott and his friends at the helm, laughing and pointing.
I was pulled forward, slowly at first and then faster and faster as water splashed into my face and eyes. I was up. I was shaky, and I was waterskiing. My skis skipped along the water making a slapping sound, and the spray and wind felt good on my skin.
“Lean back and loosen up,” my friends yelled.
I leaned back and relaxed my legs. Around me the water looked like glass and reflected a blurry blue sky as I whizzed by.
“How could a shark live in this lake?” I thought as I skated over the surface, trying to avoid the boat’s wake. I knew that a huge dam would block the movement of any large fish, even if they could swim upriver. But even with this new epiphany I was not convinced. I felt safer on top of the water than floating in it, so I vowed to stay up on my skis for as long as I could. My arms ached. My legs stung, but I was determined not to fall and be consumed. I was even starting to have fun.
“Wahoo,” I yelled into the wind.
I was staying up longer than most of the other kids that day. Scott looked back toward me from the helm, his face a mixture of disappointment and pride that his younger brother could water ski.
After my first run, I didn’t go back into the water that day, and it was a long time before I could swim in large lakes or the ocean without constantly, frantically scanning around me for any sign of sharks. “Jaws” was a movie that had affected the world, but especially us kids. And only two years later, in 1977, a new Hollywood blockbuster was going to transform our world again. “Star Wars” was coming to our little community, but that is another story.
(Tim Carl grew up in St. Helena (class of ‘84). Left to join the Navy, came back, married his sweetheart from Rutherford and then went to school. He ended up getting his Ph.D in biology at CU and then became a Fellow at Harvard. Later, in 2006, he co-founded Knights Bridge Winery. email@example.com)