Lopez Lake Recreation Area: A lake of leisure

Fred Fernamburg of Arroyo Grande said he's been fishing at Lopez Lake since he was a kid.
Fred Fernamburg of Arroyo Grande said he's been fishing at Lopez Lake since he was a kid. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

It’s only midmorning on a weekday, and Lopez Lake Recreation Area is already a hive of activity.

A line of boats is waiting to be inspected for invasive mussels before a day on the lake. Windsurfers have their equipment spread out on the beach, waiting for the breeze to pick up. Shore anglers cast their lines into the water, hoping to take home a creel full of fish. Campers sip coffee before setting off for a day of hiking.

Lopez Lake snakes like a liquid horseshoe among the oak woodlands of the Santa Lucia Mountains 10 miles northeast of Arroyo Grande. It is one of San Luis Obispo County’s most popular outdoor recreation venues.

More than 400,000 campers, hikers and boaters visit the 4,276-acre, county-run park each year, with activity peaking in the summer.

“On a busy day, there’s not a picnic table or fire pit that’s not taken,” said Ranger Matt Mohle as he headed out to check activity on the lake.

Fishermen in bass boats dot the shoreline. One of them is Mike Steen of Grover Beach, who fishes the lake several times a week. Today, he says he is practicing for the annual pan-fishing derby that will be held Sept. 8.

On cue, his pole starts to wobble, and he reels in a red-ear sunfish. Crappie, bass, bluegill, trout and catfish are also taken by anglers.

Shore anglers are out in force as well. Fred Fernamburg of Arroyo Grande fishes from a dock for red-ear. He, too, comes to the lake several times a week, drawn by its natural beauty.

As Mohle heads back to the marina, boats with powerful outboard motors zoom by. They are on their way to the farther reaches of the lake to water ski and wakeboard, a form of water skiing in which the skier uses the boat’s wake to perform maneuvers.

Jet Skis, canoes, kayaks, windsurfers and standup paddle boarders also use Lopez. During a typical summer month, nearly 3,000 boats use the lake. Boating activity peaked in July 2011, when 4,066 vessels used the lake.

Back at the marina, Mohle sets about the rangers’ most time-consuming activity — inspecting arriving boats to make sure they are not carrying quagga mussels. This highly invasive species can quickly colonize any hard surface in a lake and has caused severe economic damage to some lakes and waterways in Southern California.

All boats must be clean and dry to pass inspection. Boats that don’t pass inspection are turned away.

“It’s been a major challenge getting the boaters to comply and still want to use the lake,” Mohle said. “The last thing we want to do is ruin someone’s weekend by turning someone away, but we have to follow our protocols.”Frequent visitors can speed up the process by having a ranger attach a band that, if unbroken, shows that the boat never left its trailer between visits.

Lopez Lake was built in 1969 as a domestic water source for the Five Cities area. It is one of the few domestic reservoirs in the area that allows swimming. That’s because the lake’s water treatment plant is designed to eliminate the bacteria that is introduced by bodily contact with the water.

Noontime rolls around, and Mohle gets in his pickup to visit one of the park’s most successful concessions — Mustang Waterpark. A group of boys in swimming trunks is gathered at the entrance impatiently waiting for owner Chris Simpson to open up.

This year, the park was open daily from June 9 to Aug. 18. During that period, an estimated 23,000 people, mostly children, visited the park. With kids now back in school, the park is open weekends and Labor Day through Sept. 15. The main attraction is two curving 600-foot-long waterslides.

“The water park’s been a part of the fabric of the recreation area for the past 30 years,” Simpson said.

On the drive back to the marina, Mohle is flagged down by a camper who wants the ranger to settle a dispute about when a campsite should be vacated. With 354 sites available, camping is another major activity.

The campsites run the gamut from those near the marina with full recreational vehicle hookups to primitive Encinal Camp, which can only be reached by boat or hiking in. During the summer months, the recreation area’s eight full-time employees are augmented by 16 part-time workers and 10 camp hosts to keep up with all the activity.

Rangers like Mohle are not sworn peace officers, but they are all certified emergency medical technicians. With medical aid up to half an hour away, rangers must be prepared to handle a variety of emergencies.

Their main job is to ensure that visitors enjoy the park safely, Mohle said. Rangers at Lopez must deal with a public safety issue that is common at many parks in wilderness areas — black bears.

The Lopez area has one of the most robust bear populations in the county, and the opportunistic feeders occasionally pay unwanted visits to the campground. Campers are given “bear aware” talks by rangers to minimize problems.

Locking food in cars and properly disposing of trash in dumpsters are the most important steps campers can take to avoid a confrontation with a bear, rangers say. Bears at Lopez have not developed the aggressive habits of breaking into cars as they have in places such as Yosemite National Park.

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