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High-country sea of tranquillity

I have arrived at campsites by foot or by Subaru wagon many times but never by boat. Until about this time last summer, when I found myself skippering a small motorboat: On board were my partner, Julie, our drooling but seaworthy Labrador and half the contents of our garage.

Our destination was the far side of Florence Lake, deep in the Sierra Nevada at the end of a steep, narrow and possibly nauseating 20-mile road. The road alone, impassable to large motor homes, filters out the masses.

In other words, no one gets to Florence Lake by accident.

The lake is one of several high-country reservoirs for Southern California Edison's massive hydroelectric power system in the western Sierra. The lake is almost entirely surrounded by the John Muir Wilderness, a 584,000-acre patch of land covered by mountains, forests and the kind of scenery worthy of the great conservationist's name.

The easiest access points, however, are in the eastern Sierra. On the western side, where we were, reaching the popular wilderness requires a long mountain drive, a hike or both. In exchange for the hassle, visitors to remote haunts such as Florence Lake get quiet.

The lake is massive — it's more than two miles long and a mile wide — but there's a strict 15 mph speed limit for boats, which makes it impractical for water-skiing and unthinkable for ripping about on a Jet Ski. The road also keeps big boat trailers at bay.

Lodging is in short supply. A Forest Service campground called Jackass Meadow sits below the lake's dam. From there, it's about a 10-minute drive to the lake. Save for a handful of private cabins and a small store that sells groceries and rents boats, the area is undeveloped.

We arrived on a Thursday in mid-July, armed with a hiking map but no knowledge of the lay of the land. The woman who works at the store rented us a 15-foot aluminum boat ($165 for three days) and gave us a brief tutorial on how to operate the 8-horsepower engine.

We acted as if we were listening, proceeded to somehow plow our craft into a parked boat and then were merrily on our way.

A word of warning to busybodies who like to plan: Camping at Florence Lake is a highly casual affair. You can reserve your boat ahead of time by e-mail, but there is no official campground or officially delineated campsites. Instead, visitors motor around the lake until they find a nice spot.

The area is certainly captivating, with all the treats to be expected of the Sierra — snowy peaks, thickly forested slopes and exposed granite formations in seemingly every direction. At the far side of the lake sits the big hump that is Florence Rock, which rises about 380 feet out of the water.

Reservoirs can be unsightly, often getting that ring-around-the-bathtub look as they are drawn down over the summer. Florence managed to avoid that, probably because the previous winter brought deep snows that had filled the lake. It also helped that we there early in the summer.

For the next 20 minutes, we motored the length of the lake, passing a small island where it's possible to camp and have 360-degree views of the area — although that also means everyone can see everything you do. From there, we powered our way down the increasingly narrow inlet of the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, an area best reached early in the season, before the lake's levels start to fall.

After checking out several potential spots, we settled on a flat and spacious site that had been improved by visitors over the years. It boasted plenty of shade, a fire ring, a dilapidated picnic bench and bear boxes to protect food from marauding beasts. There was even an old outhouse, a luxury in these parts.

There was also a small sandy beach, and at water's edge we found two large boulders flat enough to accommodate a pair of portable lounge chairs. Our dog Molly, a chocolate Lab, indicated her approval in the ill-mannered way that pooches convey their good cheer and then spent the afternoon swimming.

We spent the next three days fly-fishing, napping (it's a hobby) and hiking. Although it is certainly a sweet spot to be on the water, Florence Lake is probably better known for the access it provides to some great trails, including Pacific Crest and John Muir.

Many lake visitors don't rent boats. Instead, they take the water taxi operated by the Florence Lake store to the far side and hop on a trail that loosely follows the San Joaquin. Some folks backpack; others walk or ride horses rented from a stable at the lake's far end to the Muir Trail Ranch, a private parcel within the wilderness that features luxury tent cabins.

In our case, from our campsite we followed a trail that spanned the river on a beautiful wooden bridge, then climbed uphill to a connection with the main trail. From there we trekked nine miles through forest and meadows before turning around at vast Blayney Meadows, a lovely spot beneath the ramparts that on this day was very green; three horses from the ranch were out grazing and exchanged sniffs with our dog.

Late Sunday afternoon, we threw our belongings back in the boat. (Next time, we'll bring a kayak or float tube so that if we want to go fishing or for a short paddle, we won't have to fire up the outboard engine.) On our way back to the store, we made several loops around the lake, not wanting our four-day excursion to end.

Finally, we returned to the dock and called it a weekend by successfully plowing into another parked boat.

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(INFOBOX BELOW)

In the wilderness

GETTING THERE:

From Los Angeles, it is about 310 miles to Florence Lake. Take Interstate 5 north to California 99 north. In Fresno, take California 168 to Huntington Lake. Just past Sierra Summit ski area, turn right onto Kaiser Pass Road, a nice, paved, two-lane road for two miles. The final 20 miles are one- to 1 1/2 lanes wide. It's easily navigable by car or SUV, but it's a white-knuckle and pothole-ridden slog.

WHERE TO STAY:

Campsites around Florence Lake are first-come, first-camped and require no permits. There are a dozen or so sites right on the water.

Jackass Meadow Campground, information (559) 893-2111, reservations, (877) 444-6777, http://www.reserveusa.com . Forty-eight improved campsites near the river with paved parking, restrooms, tables and fire pits. $14 per night per site.

Mono Hot Springs, (559) 325-1710, http://www.monohotsprings.com . The only accommodations nearby. Take the turnoff about eight miles back up Kaiser Pass Road. It has cabins and tent cabins, from $65 per night. It also has a restaurant open 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Dinner entrees $12-$25.

Muir Trail Ranch, P.O. Box 176, Lakeshore, CA 93634; (209) 966-3195, http://www.muirtrailranch.com . Log cabins and tent cabins available in summer to groups of 15 or more for weeklong stays. Short stays in spring, fall. Rates start at $125 per adult per day.

TO LEARN MORE:

Florence Lake sits within the Sierra National Forest, (559) 297-0706, http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/sierra/ . The grocery store, http://www.florence-lake.com , stocks food, backpacking supplies, rents boats and runs the ferry service.

— Steve Hymon
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