By Melissa Wynn
Photos by Eric Ohde
In the days of the gold rush, the area that is now under Whiskeytown Lake was a simple gold camp that eventually grew into a thriving community, thanks to the gold found in Whiskey and Clear Creeks, which now run through the lake.
With scuba gear in hand, and proper diving certification, you too can return to yesteryear and swim through what used to be Whiskeytown along with the trout and other fishes. Although the buildings no longer stand, divers enjoy the search for antique remnants left behind by the prospectors and pioneers of another era.
Shasta County local and long time diving enthusiast Rich Gregory enjoys a great dive site just west of the visitor center where 120 large galvanized buoys support a thermal curtain suspended beneath the waves. This curtain is approximately 2,400 ft. long and is kept from floating to the surface by more than 100 counterweights. Local firefighter and avid scuba diver Eric Ohde explains, “You can only dive under the curtain, when the lake levels are full at a depth of 18-22 feet. There tends to be lots of fish hanging around that area plus lots of underwater growth, so it is a good place to see things.”
The purpose of the thermal curtain is to keep the warmer surface water from flowing into the Sacramento River. With the curtain in place, only the colder water near the bottom flows into the diversion, helping keep the river cool for spawning salmon.
Rich also often enjoys a swim with the curious small bass in the underwater gardens of the coves on the west side of the dam. He said if you feed them crawdads they will follow you around like puppies. This is a fun adventure for experienced divers. It is important to stay inside the 5-mph buoys to be safe from boating traffic. Abundant aquatic plant life in this area give the schools of fish plenty of hiding places and the smart scuba diver a preview of tomorrow’s great day fishing.
Only trained divers should consider this adventure. Several online bloggers credit Whiskeytown Lake as one of the best lakes for diving due to the water’s clarity. However, like diving anywhere, if the bottom is covered in fine silt and you disturb it, there goes the visibility.
The area west of the Oak Bottom turn off, around the old highway bridge in about 60 feet of water, is one of those silty places, so be careful and come prepared. The bridge is covered in silt and can be hard to see. Lake water also holds the green hue that mountain lakes are famous for, so don’t expect crystal clear water either. This end of the lake also has a reputation for being a bit chilly compared to other Whiskeytown diving sites, but flipping around the illusive, silt covered bridge might be worth it. A heavier wetsuit is in order for this dive as the water is dark and cold at that depth.
Overall, Eric explains: “The best visibility and plant life is within the first 20 feet or so.
Whiskeytown Lake gets pretty dark after about 45 feet down. There is also a very significant thermocline at around 12 to 28 feet deep depending on the time of year and ambient temperature. This means that temperatures drop 8 to 10 degrees in the space of 1-2 feet. It is a definite line that you can feel and even see at night with lights. It’s where the warm, less dense water sits on top of the colder, more dense water creating a very defined temperature line. It also has a bit of a fuzzy optical effect and at night it shows up as a reflective layer that partially bounces the light back.”
Water and reflection go hand in hand as you can see in the great photo of Eric in the bubble. It may look like another diver swimming closer to the surface, but it is actually Eric reflected by the bubble surface back to his own camera lens. Fascinating!
Lake diving is a great way for those newly certified to become more comfortable with the process. Unlike the ocean where you become part of the natural food chain once you dive in, lakes are a more peaceful, go-at-your-own-pace kind of diving experience. Leave a trail of tinkling bubbles through the enchanting underworld where prospectors once panned for gold while you learn to scuba dive. What could be more serene?
As is required by the park rangers, when diving in the Whiskeytown Lake Recreation Area always make sure to use a diver float with a dive flag on it above your dive site so boaters will stay clear of your diving area. Have a blast and dive safely!
Interested novices can learn about certification courses from Rich at Redding’s Howell’s Dive Shop, located at 1426 Eureka Way. This is a quick stop off of Interstate 5 on the way to Whiskeytown Lake where one can fill air tanks or purchase diving gear and supplies. Eric told Mountain Valley Living, “Howell’s Dive Shop is the heart and soul of diving in this area. Without Rich and his beloved dive shop, we would not be diving! Thanks Rich!”
Whether you are a first time diver or someone that has flipped around for years, Whiskeytown Lake is an awesome place to visit the underwater ghosts of the amazing and historic Northern California playground that we all call home.
Howell’s Dive Shop
1426 Eureka Way Redding, CA 96001