A Ride on the MS Dixie II

September 18th was little Sammy’s birthday. Every year on his birthday we try to think of something in the area that we’ve never done; something new we can try. So this year, since Sammy loves boats, the natural choice was to take a ride on the MS Dixie II.

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The MS Dixie II is one of Lake Tahoe’s three paddlewheelers (the others are the Tahoe Queen and Tahoe Gal). It leaves from Zephyr Cove and travels straight across the Lake to Emerald Bay. Then it swings around Fannette Island, pulls in close for a look at Vikingsholm, and heads back. It’s a two-hour trip in all, and it’s a good way to kill an afternoon.

It’s actually a real, live paddlewheel boat, too. The wheel in the back spans the width of the boat and churns its way through the water, pushing the boat forward. Although their dirty little secret is that the paddlewheel only accounts for about 1/3 of the ship’s propulsion. The rest comes from ordinary propellers underwater. And despite the smokestacks, it’s diesel powered, not steam.

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The MS Dixie II is a fairly new boat. It was built in 1994, specially for Lake Tahoe, and has only been sailing for 13 summers now. But its lineage goes back to the original MS Dixie, which was brought to the lake in 1949. From 1972 to 1993 the Dixie made the daily trips across the Lake. It even sank once, when the doors on the lower deck were left open one stormy night. The wind pushed wave after wave into the lower decks, filling up the hold with water. When the crew came out the next morning, they found the Dixie resting on the bottom of the lake, in about ten feet of water. Needless to say that day’s cruises had to be cancelled, and for the next few weeks as the Dixie was raised, cleaned and repaired.

At the start of the 1990s, the MS Dixie was starting to show its age. 1993 was announced to be its final season, and they commissioned a new, bigger boat to be built to replace it. The MS Dixie II was constructed in Wisconsin, transported in pieces across the country by truck, and assembled on the beach at Zephyr Cove. It launched in the spring of 1994.

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Most of the trip takes place out in the middle of Lake Tahoe, miles away from shore in water over a thousand feet deep. But the highlight of the trip is when the boat approaches the narrow entrance to Emerald Bay and enters the glacier-carved valley. As you pass through the mouth of the bay, the water’s depth rapidly decreases until there is only about five feet of clearance between the boat’s bottom and the rocks below. In fact, I think in years of extreme drought the MS Dixie isn’t allowed to enter Emerald Bay; there just isn’t enough clearance.

Sitting right in the middle of Emerald Bay is Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe’s only island. In the 1870s this granite outcropping was the home of Captain Dick Barter, a crazy old hermit with many stories to his name. He built a crypt on the island and let everyone know he wanted to be buried there. But when his boat was dashed on the rocks in 1873, his body was swallowed by the cold depths of Lake Tahoe.

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Later, in the 1920s, Mrs. Lora Knight moved to Emerald Bay and built a stone house on the shore. Vikingsholm was designed as a Scandinavian castle, and was built in 1929 as a summer home for Mrs. Kinght and her guests. She also had a stone teahouse built on top of Fannette Island, right near the place Captain Barter had dug his grave.

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Mrs. Knight stayed at Emerald Bay until her death in 1945. After that the teahouse was abandoned and ravaged by vandals, until now only the stone walls remain. Vikingsholm, however, has been exquisitely preserved and is open for tours during the summer months. The MS Dixie II gets up nice and close to the shore to give you a good view of the castle. You can’t stop and get out, though. If you want to visit Vikingsholm, you’ve got to park and walk down the mile-long trail yourself.

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After a slow pass by Vikingsholm, the paddlewheel starts up again, and the Dixie swings back around Fannette Island, heading through the gap into the open waters of Lake Tahoe. From this point it’s a nice leisurely cruise back across the lake to the Dixie’s home port at Zephyr Cove. On the way back the video monitors across the ship queue up and show clips from Sunken Treasures of Lake Tahoe.

Before you know it you’re back at the dock, and everyone on the ship presses together to disembark on the single gangplank at the bow.

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It’s a fun trip, riding on the MS Dixie II, even if it is a little pricey at $33. But it’s one of the few public tour boats that will take you across the waters of Lake Tahoe, at least until the ferry service becomes a reality. So if you’ve got some time to kill, head on up to Tahoe for a ride on the Dixie. It has daily cruises to Emerald Bay all winter.

Check out the rest of my MS Dixie photo gallery.

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