Go jump in the lake

Lakes never meant much to me until I moved to the mountains. My family never spent vacations at lakes. When I was a young ‘un, we’d load up the wagon every summer and head to the beach — the ocean beach.

There, I got a lesson in survival: Hurricanes, shark attacks and rip tides that would whip you halfway to Portugal in a jiffy. (More likely, though, the vacation’s most threatening moment would be a rumble with the jerky kid in the condo next door, or an altercation with a rusty fishhook to the toe.)

As a kid, I never would have thought a trip the lake could measure up to the beach, in terms of excitement, adventure and fun. Lakes seemed like barely more than swollen-up puddles.

How naive I was. Since moving to the mountains, I’ve swum in a goodly number of nearby lakes, and discovered that life there has its own thrills and challenges.

Just entering the water at most lakes is risky business, in my book. Lake bottoms are goopy and muddy and peppered with hard, unidentified objects that I’m reluctant to let touch my feet. So I try to entirely avoid the trauma of wading in by finding a dock to jump off.

If there’s no dock, I hurl myself sideways into the water, flopping through the shallows in a well-practiced manner that brings me to deep water without ever having touched the unknown ick below.

But deep water has its own perils. The lakes around here teem with creepy, crawly life. Once, in a lake in north Georgia, a school of tiny, toothless fish swam right up to me and did their best to nibble me. And how about those snapping turtles? You always hear stories about two-foot snappers that appear each summer and eat poodles. I’m forever asking clerks in bait shops and canoe-rental shacks if any recent attacks have been reported.

As if the things under the water weren’t enough to make you jumpy, there’s all that stuff whizzing around on top — and I don’t mean water moccasins. I’m talking about jet skis and motor boats and water skiers. If you’re not careful, you just might be buzzed by a pontoon boat full of sightseers.

Now that I’ve properly scared the bikini bottoms off of you, I’ll concede that there are many beautiful, swimmable and boatable lakes in western North Carolina. One is Lake Lure, southeast of Asheville on Highway 74. Lake Lure is a product of a dam on the Broad River, and it features a public beach that’s open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, along with public boat launches. Info on lake activities and fees is available from the Hickory Nut Gorge Visitors Center ((828) 625-2725). No jet skiing is allowed on Lake Lure.

Thorpe Reservoir (commonly called Lake Glenville, after the village that it displaced when the Tuckasegee River was dammed in 1940) also offers public beaches and boat launches. The lake is just off of Highway 108, and more info is available by calling the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce ((828) 743-5191).

For my money, though, there’s no beating a dip in Fontana Lake, which is bordered on the north by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and on the south by Nantahala National Forest. From high above, in the early evening light, the lake’s still waters and deep-green forested shores are nothing short of enchanted.

Fontana Lake’s waters are dotted with tree-covered islands — prime spots for camping, fishing and exploring. Every type of water sport is allowed in the lake’s cold, clear waters. Canoes — a great way to explore any lake — are available for rental.

Fishermen ply the waters, hoping to catch walleyes and smallmouth, largemouth and striped bass. Trout fishermen have great luck in the surrounding streams, reports Craig Litz, a spokesman for the historic Fontana Village Resort on Highway 28 ((800)-849-2258). The resort offers cabins, inn rooms, campsites and houseboats. You can buy fishing licenses at Fontana Village Marina, and resort guests can launch a boat for free. Non-guests pay $4.

Miles and miles of trails wind their way along the lake’s 240 miles of shoreline, with more than 20 miles of maintained trails in the 300-acre village itself — including the Hazel Creek Trail, which leads to an old cemetery. He suggests that hikers bring along a detailed U.S. Forest Service topographic map.

Almost every lake in western North Carolina was created by a dam. The Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal agency, created Fontana Lake in the 1940s by damming the Little Tennessee River. This dam — the tallest east of the Rockies — measures 480 feet from bottom to top (that’s roughly twice the height of downtown Asheville’s BB&T building).

TVA began building the structure on property leased from the Aluminum Company of America in January of 1942. Working around the clock, seven days a week, crews completed the dam 34.5 million worker-hours later. By January 1945, it was delivering high-pressure water for hydroelectric power.

You can visit the dam’s powerhouse, which is still going strong, and learn how it works by taking an incline car from the top of the dam down to the base. Tickets are $2 for adults, and $1 for kids ages 3 to 12. Tours run 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and take about half an hour. People with disabilities can drive to the lower level of the dam and enter the powerhouse from there, according to spokesperson Peggy Ruchotzke. Call (828) 498-2234 for more info about Fontana Dam.

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