Atmospheric

Boating, fishing and swimming are some of the activities available at California's Shaver Lake, which is about the size of Lake Arrowhead. (Susan James / For The Times)

When my 10-year-old nephew returned from summer camp with tales of adventure, his 8-year-old cousin Lauren wanted much of the same. She was too late for summer camp, though, so I promised her the next best thing: a fall weekend camp, just for her, at beautiful Shaver Lake.

Here in the Sierra National Forest, south of Yosemite and 50 minutes northeast of Fresno, we could ride horses, go boating and walk in the woods. Because so few people know about Shaver Lake, it's a quiet place with few tourists — the way the Sierra used to be when I was Lauren's age.

We set out late one Friday last month with my father, Royal Harrison (Grandpa to Lauren), coming along to fend off ferocious wild animals that Lauren feared might be lurking among the pines. Because of roadwork and a traffic accident, the drive to Shaver Lake — miles and miles of lion-colored hills, rising to 5,600 feet — was exhausting.

When we arrived at the Elliott House, a charming and comfortable three-room bed-and-breakfast, co-owner Joanne Elliott had a plate of fruit and cookies waiting. Her husband, Greg, made a dinner reservation for us at the nearby Sierra House restaurant.

Like the Elliott House, the Sierra House had a rustic ambience. Lauren and I ordered filling clam chowder and house salads, and Grandpa indulged in pasta with scampi and what he said was a delicious martini. The service was excellent. Lauren was taken with the setting, especially a lamp made of red glass and shaped like a bunch of grapes.

Back at Elliott House, we settled into our pine-paneled bedroom upstairs, decorated with attractive country collectibles and equipped with a private bathroom. Grandpa took the queen-size bed, I had a rollaway and Lauren, content for an indoor camping experience, spread her sleeping bag on the comfortable sofa.

We felt as though we were visiting friends, not staying at a hotel. This was especially true in the mornings, when we gathered with a honeymooning couple from England for breakfast. We indulged in eggs Benedict, cereal and juice the first morning, apple and pear pancakes with sausage and fruit smoothies the second.

Riding and boating

Ominous gray clouds greeted us Saturday. We bundled up and headed for Shaver Stable, a mile away. There, trail guide Melissa introduced Lauren to a bay horse named Sandy; Hilary was my steed. Grandpa waited for us back at the corral.

Lauren had little experience with horses, but she took to it like a pro. She was especially excited when we glimpsed the shadowy shape of a coyote among the distant trees (plus a noisy gathering of squirrels that protested our passage). Three other girls about Lauren's age were among the riders, and they competed with one another for cowgirl honors. As we followed the trail down a hillside and through clustered pines, Lauren called out, "Hey, there really is a lake!"

In the silvery early-morning light, our first glimpse of Shaver Lake was invigorating. So were the cold wind coming off the water and the chop of waves. We circled the shoreline, which was studded with glacially deposited boulders, twists of driftwood and fishermen. At the end of the line, my horse would stop occasionally, prick up her ears and gaze soulfully into the distance, as if hearing equine voices from the other side. Then with a sigh she would turn back to the trail. Lauren thought she was a pretty slow horse. I told her Hilary was just thinking hard.

Fearing afternoon rain, we took a boat out onto the lake before lunch. Grandpa joined us as skipper of our rented four-seat catamaran with outboard engine. We bounced from wave to wave. Lauren kept urging Grandpa to go faster, but we had to keep an eye out for submerged rocks.

Shaver Lake, about the size of Lake Arrowhead, is an artificial lake with a massive concrete dam — but beautiful nonetheless. In the visitor brochures distributed by the Chamber of Commerce, the lake is called "the best-kept secret in California's central Sierra," but enough fishermen crowd the rocky shores and sandy beaches to prove that somebody has talked.

Beneath the turbulent sky, the long lip of the dam looked strangely forbidding.

"What would happen if it broke?" Lauren asked.

"Well," Grandpa said, "we'd water-ski all the way back to L.A."

The water was surprisingly warm, and from our vantage point on the water we could see a few specks — swimmers — at a campground near the shoreline. We had hoped to go swimming too, but the air was nippy. (Temperatures later in the month climbed into the high 70s, but average highs for October fall in the mid-60s.) Instead we decided to drive to Huntington Lake for a late lunch.

From Shaver Lake, the Lakeshore Resort at Huntington Lake is 40 minutes by car and about 2,000 feet higher. The scent of wood smoke in the cold air reminded me of childhood summers spent in a log cabin at Mammoth Lakes, and it was in a sentimental mood that we clustered around the resort restaurant's massive stone fireplace.

Grandpa ordered a Philly beefsteak sandwich, which he declared A-OK. Lauren and I were less satisfied with our turkey, bacon and avocado sandwich on grilled sourdough.