SHAVER LAKE -- Hey, what happened to all the water?
Instead of a lake here, there's just an empty brown expanse littered with boulders, tree stumps and logs.
But take a closer look, preferably with binoculars or a spotting scope. What you're seeing is Fresno County history, much of it exposed to sunlight for the first time in eight decades.
"It's like, 'Wow!' You're never going to see it like this in your life ever again," said Kathy Melkonian of Fresno, who drove up to take pictures and gawk at the empty lake. "You're so used to seeing it full of water."
Shaver Lake will remain completely drained this winter while contractors hired by lake operator Southern California Edison place a protective liner along bottom sections of the dam's concrete surface to guard against erosion and leakage. Water levels are expected to return to normal by Memorial Day weekend.
But the 170-foot-tall "new" dam, completed in 1927 to provide hydroelectric power, isn't what's creating the fuss. That honor belongs to the 50-foot-tall, 300-foot-long, rock-fill dam built in 1893 by the Fresno Flume and Irrigation Co. for its lumber mill operation.
In its day, the mill pond created behind the old dam stored 5,000 acre feet of water, a fraction of the size of modern-day Shaver Lake. Processed lumber from the mill was then delivered to the Valley by way of a 42-mile-long wooden flume that snaked down the mountain to the present site of the Clovis Rodeo Grounds.
What's remarkable is that much of the heavy machinery that powered the lumber operation -- an old steam engine, drive wheels, boilers, remnants of smoke stacks, even a steam ship -- is still down there.
Except with the lake drained, these artifacts are visible instead of sitting beneath 120 feet of water.
"What gets me excited is being able to see how the operation worked," said Norman Saude of Tollhouse. "It's like going back in time to 1894."
The old dam and mill pond sit about 500 yards southeast of the modern dam and can be seen from turnouts along Highway 168 as well as Shaver Lake Point. A member of the Central Sierra Historical Society, Saude is one of many stopping by for a look-see.
"Even the old ladder is still in position," he marvels while peering through binoculars. "The same ladder from the old pictures."
Unfortunately for history buffs, the turnout is as close as they're going to get.
Citing safety concerns as well as state and federal laws that protect archaeological and cultural sites, SCE isn't allowing the public (or the media) down in the exposed lake bed.
Access roads are blocked by gates, and fences and signs warn off people from getting too close. At high-traffic areas such as Eastwood Cove, orange-vested security guards in white SCE pickups stand guard to make sure folks don't wander down too far.
Jeff Young is one of the fortunate few. SCE hired him to help the company's archaeologist catalog what's down there.
Young is a lumber mill operator and lifelong Shaver Lake resident. His great-great-grandfather, Henry Hauret, was a teacher at Pine Ridge School (near where Cressman's General Store stands today on Highway 168 just below Shaver Lake) at the turn of the 19th century.
Young spent two days last week combing the dry lake bed, calling it "a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
"Many of the items that we were touching, measuring and describing for the archaeologist haven't seen sunlight since the old dam was exposed," Young said.
"It was fascinating, especially to someone that's interested in history and archaeology. I've been looking at the lake bottom for old bottles since I was a kid."