About Sky Pilot - the House

As told by Lennie . . . the story continues from the history page

The "Auction"

After fifteen years of satisfying first one agency and then another, the group finally had all the necessary permits to build 43 houses. But there was one major step left. Up until this point, the eighty acres were held in common ownership, with no individual lots. Now we had to decide which family got which site. Our ever-inventive friend, Nils Nilsson, came up with a wonderful auction process. On a bright Fall day, all 25 families gathered at the lake. Each site had been staked, flagged, and numbered. Posted on the wall in the old dining hall, were numbers correlating with each lot. The auction rules provided that each family could place a bid on their preferred lot. A bid could start at zero, but would go up in increments of $1,000. Since there were 43 lots and only 25 families, some lots had no bids, others had just one bid, and a relatively few had more than one bid. Only the lots with multiple bids would go to Round Two of the bidding. People in Round Two could either raise their bid on the contested lot, or switch to a different lot, which in some cases caused an uncontested lot to become contested. This process was repeated until each lot had just one bid which took about seven rounds. Amazingly, everyone seemed happy with the outcome. The "market" had worked. Some lots sold for $30,000, others for zero. The proceeds went into the common funds that helped a bit in paying for all the infrastructure costs.

Choosing Our Lot

photo of site

Mike and I had walked all over the property, and we had to decide whether we wanted a lakefront lot, where there would be an unobstructed lake view, but lots of people activity, or perhaps a more quiet site, away from the hustle and bustle of the store, lakefront, and marina. We also had to consider the sun. Some sites get early morning sun, but not late afternoon, and vice versa.

Mike preferred a site high on the hill at the western end of the property, with a view of Cathedral Peak. But that site was also close to the road, and we wanted to get away from roads and traffic. We valued the peace and quiet of a more remote location.

I began to focus on the eastern end of the property, where the uppermost lot seemed promising. It was as far from the road and all the bustle around the marina and store as one could get. Clambering up on a rock, I could see up into Desolation Wilderness, Cathedral Peak, a sliver of Mt. Tallac, glimpses of the lake through the trees, and even the Mt. Rose area at the North end of Tahoe, way off in the distance. In my view, this lot was an undiscovered jewel! Mike agreed with my assessment of its potential, so we bid $1,000 on it and held our breath. As each round of the lot bidding progressed, no one seemed to be interested in "our" Lot 39. In the end, we had our chosen lot. Hooray!!

The Design Process

We decided to hire family friend Lars Nilsson and his partner as our architects. Mike delved into research of Craftsman style houses, visiting the Green and Green houses in Pasadena, and coming up with design details that would evoke the "Old Fallen Leaf".

Just as we were deciding on building materials, we heard from my cousin, Teen, that three big redwoods trees in the sheep pasture at the family ranch in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County had blown down in a windstorm. What better idea than to use those trees that were part of my family history, in the new house! We found a local logger, Jerry Smith, who brought his Wood Mizer portable mill to the site, and cut the trees to match the specifications for the lumber we needed. As the logs were milled into boards, Mike and I stacked them in a little redwood grove with "stickers" between the boards to allow air to circulate so the wood would dry evenly. When all the boards were stacked, we covered the piles loosely with tarps to keep debris and rain off, and left them for a year to dry.

photo of lumber at ranch

The following spring, Mike and I became the delivery service to transport all the lumber from the Ranch to Fallen Leaf Lake. We rented a 16 foot flatbed truck from Hengehold Rentals in Palo Alto, drove four hours to the ranch in Mendocino, loaded up the truck, tying the load carefully to prevent shifting on the curvy roads, and then clambered back into the cab and headed for Fallen Leaf. After about six hours driving from Mendocino to Fallen Leaf, we arrived in a cloud of dust at the house site on the hill. There, our friends Nils Nilsson and Tony Swanson were conscripted by Mike to help unload. The next morning, we got up early and drove the truck back to Palo Alto. This Roberts do-it-yourself delivery service was repeated five times to schlep all the wood to the house site.

Construction Begins

In 1962, we had built a rustic, but sturdy cabin at Soda Springs for the total cost of $2500! One way we kept costs so low was that we did all the work ourselves, with help from friends. But this time, Mike did compromise, and we had a great team of carpenters and other workers, headed up by our now-neighbor at FLL, Mike Zanetell, who helped build the Fallen Leaf House. This allowed us to do as much or as little of the work as we wanted.

photo of earth mover
photo of foundation and MMR

Construction began during the fall of 1995, when Brig Ebright excavated for the foundation. His zealous digging, which required the relocation of many large boulders, resulted in a hole that was much bigger than we expected. But as it turned out, we happily ended up with a great basement! In October, the foundation was poured at at the last possible time before freezing weather would have been a problem for the curing of the concrete. Then we had to wait again, this time until the snow was off the ground the following spring, when the house really began to go up.

Mike (Roberts), having suffered the consequences of failures of water pipes inside walls at Soda Springs, insisted on doing all the hot and cold water plumbing himself. This involved several days of meticulous soldering of joints, and making sure that each run of pipe had a slight downhill slope that would allow it to drain properly in the winter. As Mike has been known to say more than once over the years, standing water in freezing pipes is a formula for disaster! And this house could not afford to have its walls summarily cut into and patched back up as had happened several times at Soda Springs.

My big contribution to the house was painting every board before it was nailed in place. Much of this painting occurred in the winter, with the reflected light from the snowy peaks across the lake providing light in the big living room space, where we had set up our painting space on sawhorses. The house had lots of bead board and wainscoting, which required special care to make sure the paint was applied uniformly in all the nooks and crannies.

My other big contribution was as the cleanup lady. To save a bit of money, we had not included cleanup of the site in our contract with the contractor. So every weekend, one of our main tasks became cleaning up all the nails, lumber scraps, piles of sawdust, and other debris left by the carpenters, electricians, roofers, etc. What a Sisyphean Task that was! I hated it.

Will the house ever be done?

photo of raising the walls

The house took much longer to finish than we expected. The contractors, all great guys, were also great at finding reasons to have fun, especially when there was fresh snow on the mountains. There is a measurement of time that we got to know intimately, called "Tahoe Time". We were also competing with a much bigger house down the road, whose owner was always at the lake, phoning the contractor daily about her urgency to get finished.


photo of LLR watering aspens

Before the construction was even finished, it was very evident that we needed to do some landscaping, admittedly a bit of an oxymoron in a natural forest. But the house sat amidst a vast area of bare dirt with just a few rocks sticking out here and there, most of which had been "planted" during the excavation process. We also needed to plant vegetation that would prevent erosion on the steep hillside around the house, as well as some trees that would screen the large, new water tank located just up the hill from Sky Pilot. For several years, each fall we went to Aspen Hollow or Tahoe Tree Company and bought aspen trees on sale, and watched them grow tremendously the next spring. We filled in with other native or closely related shrubs and flowers, including Willows, Mountain Ash, Alder, Ninebark, Golden Current, Burning Bush, Choke Berry, Redtwig Dogwood, Thimbleberry, and Lupines, Sierra Columbine, Phlox, and Rudbeckia. We bought native lupines and grasses from Comstock Seed in Carson City; they gather many of their seeds by hand.

All of the new planting required installation of an irrigation system, which we've continually extended and improved over the years. Our efforts have been greatly rewarded as today we are mostly pruning stuff out instead of planting!

The Name - Sky Pilot

In the fall of 1997, our house was finally "finished", and we had the pleasure of sitting on the deck with a margarita in hand, enjoying the last rays of afternoon sun, and surveying the view. What satisfaction!

But, a Roberts house is never really done, and various house and landscaping projects and improvements continue.

We named the house Sky Pilot, after the wildflower, polemonium eximium tiny image of sky pilot flower, that grows at the highest mountain elevations in the Sierra. It seems a fitting name, as our eyes are inevitably drawn upward to the peaks of Desolation Wilderness, as we watch the ever changing show of nature from our aerie.

photo of sky pilot
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