If Norman Rockwell had painted the water-ski life, it would've looked something like Canyon Lake, California.
A brisk breeze cuts through the sun-baked tension at the Bob Barton Memorial Slalom Tournament. As the skier on the water rounds the first two buoys, the crowd at the starting dock rises to its feet. When he swerves around balls three and four, you can almost hear the collective inhale. And when it becomes clear he'll complete the pass, the held breaths break into cheers. It's a familiar scene — one you'd expect at any pro tournament where a few diehard ski fans watch the best skiers in the world inch toward 41 off at a private ski lake.
But at this tournament the spectators are a mix of slalom vets, course newbies and non-skiing friends and family. The starting dock is positioned on a busy thoroughfare blocked by an Event in Progress road sign and trafficked by buzzing golf carts, morning joggers and leisurely dog walkers. And on this particular morning, the skier on the water isn't Chris Parrish running his 39½-off pass. It's Men 4 competitor Dan Birch, and he's running 28.
Welcome to Canyon Lake, a gated city in the heart of the southern California desert, where the sound of an inboard engine is as common on a weekend as the smell of freshly cut grass. Built around one of the area's only skiable natural bodies of fresh water, the city is a haven for water-sports enthusiasts, offering residents access to 383 acres of sparkling water in the middle of a notoriously arid climate.
It all began in 1967, when entrepreneur Jay Keegan began selling the idea of a waterfront community in the desert to his ski buddies, touting Canyon Lake as a ready-made three-eventer's oasis. Barbara Canfield, a senior judge who, with her husband, bought one of the first lots in Canyon Lake, remembers the original sales pitch. “He told people that you need to live where you play, and drive to where you work,” she says. “We had started out in San Diego, so it was like heaven to come up here and be warm and ski. You would think this area would have a lot of places to ski, but there just aren't.”
As word of Canyon Lake's unique-to-the-desert waterfront lifestyle spread, so did the development. In 30 years the city went from a few hundred lakefront lots in the early 1970s to a full-fledged city with over 11,000 residents and its own police force, fire department and city hall. The gated city, which requires a resident or guest pass to enter, spans more than 4 square miles. Houses are built around the main body of water, its finger bays and the surrounding area.
The glistening main lake that first won Keegan's heart remains the centerpiece of the city, now attracting recreational boaters, hydrofoilers, wakeboarders and Jet
Skiers almost every weekend of the year. But it was a causeway built in the early 1980s that really nurtured Keegan's three-event vision. The road partitioned off one section of the main lake, creating a lagoon that's now reserved for trick skiing and a slalom course.
Which brings us back to that crowd-pleasing 28-off pass. It's not that the skiers here are impressed by mediocrity. Boasting the likes of former Big Dawg champion Scott Larson, a host of nationally and regionally ranked skiers and several Masters- tournament officials, the membership roster at Canyon Lake Ski Club reads like a Who's Who of AWSA's western region.
But at this, the last tournament of the season, Birch, who has just slaughtered his former tournament PB by 8.5 buoys, is the day's hero. That's partly because the club has adopted a team format for this annual slalom event, pitting randomly matched groups of club skiers against each other as they accumulate buoys over or under their best scores of the season. Birch's score has all but sealed the win for his team.
There's more to this club's story, though, than a ruthless competitive edge. “The people here all have one thing in common,” Birch says later. “They like being here. I'm kind of at the bottom, looking up at the other guys, but that's okay. I just love skiing.” Anyone you talk to at Canyon Lake will agree. The athletic ability it helps foster that seems to pulsate from the line of Malibus, Ski Nautiques, and MasterCrafts waiting for the course on any given weekend pales in comparison to the relationships it helps foster.
Show up at Canyon Lake with a tow rope and a will to ski, and chances are you'll make some friends. “We've never lived in a place where we've known so many people because of our water skiing,” Canfield recalls. “In other places we've been, all we really do is wave goodbye as we leave for a tournament, so we've never really known our neighbors, and here … you do.” The skiers at Canyon Lake are friendly enough with each other to share advice and equipment as freely as they exchange babysitters and recipes. And they know each other's skiing well enough to know when a 28-off pass deserves a standing ovation. “We have beginner skiers who will probably never go to regionals and nationals,” club president Tom Nathan says, “and they still come out here and have a great time.”
Still, it's hard to deny the wealth of talent concentrated inside Canyon Lake's gates. The Canyon Lake club sent 27 skiers to the Western Regional competition and 16 skiers to the National competition in 2006. The club also groomed pro three-event skier Rhoni Barton-Bischoff in the earliest stages of her career.
But the question of what makes Canyon Lake such a breeding ground for world-class skiers is a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Do great skiers come to Canyon Lake or does Canyon Lake create great skiers? It depends. For some the draw of a desert oasis came late in an already established career. Women's 3 skier Laura Johnson, for example, was an accomplished three-eventer when she moved into the city. “We have a unique opportunity here to ski more often,” she says. “We can ski before work, after work, or during the day, so we have a lot of national champions from here.” Residents like Johnson and her husband Dee make up a cross-section of club members who were drawn to the city's reputation and brought with them a strong history of competitive skiing.
For others Canyon Lake has provided a foundation for budding careers. Seventeen-year-old Brandon Barrett and his family moved to California from waterskiing's heartland in Auburndale, Florida, just minutes from Lucky Lowe's ski school and USAWS headquarters. “When we moved here, he was 15, and we couldn't take the love of his life away,” Brandon's mom, Suzanne, says of their move to the West Coast and their decision to settle in Canyon Lake. The only competitive skier in his family, Brandon now finds himself surrounded by potential ski partners and a treasure chest of expertise. On the day I see him ski, he makes it to the course from his house in less than 15 minutes and skis behind Scott Larson's Response LXi, picking up pointers from the slalom champ throughout the set. “There're people [in the club] who have won all-around at Nationals,” Men's 4 skier Stan Vasily observes, “So whatever discipline you choose, there's always a coach there for you.”
A case in point is Steven Brooks, Canyon Lake's latest rising star. The 13-year-old, three-event skier has earned attention in every event, thanks in part to the coaching he's found in his own backyard. With skiers like national champions Willy Bertotto and Bill Blyth imparting knowledge to him at least a few times a week, it's no wonder that Steven already has a national jump title under his belt. Bertotto, who also coached Barton-Bischoff for a time, points out that just like his former protégé, Steven has a visible drive that's amplified by the facilities at Canyon Lake. “Some people have the talent; some have the motivati
on; some have both,” he says. “This place gives those people the means to move forward.”
And it gives their families the means to join them. “It's not, 'let's put them on a bus and let them go play football or baseball,'” Jim Brooks says of son Steven and daughter Courtney, who also skis. “We're here together a lot. Competitive water skiing became our Little League.” The sentiment echoes throughout Canyon Lake. Without the ominous drive to a private site looming before them each weekend, families in this city are able to incorporate a serious skiing regimen into a well-rounded life. The result, as many parents here have found, is more children willing to give three-event skiing a go. Barrett, for example, who focused solely on slalom while he was in Florida, is now considering adding jump and trick to his repertoire because of their popularity and accessibility at Canyon Lake.
But it's not just young skiers who benefit from this talent-spawning phenomenon. Jack Honberger, who at 82 is the oldest skier in the club, notes, “There's always somebody here who's a good coach. It really helps [your skiing] to have somebody at the end of a pass to tell you what you were doing wrong.” As Dan Birch can attest, it also helps to have somebody telling you what you were doing right.
Whatever you need to hear at the end of your pass, there's usually someone at the Canyon Lake starting dock to say it — and plenty of opportunities to hear it. The club hosts at least three three-event tournaments a year and two slalom events, and about 40 members, on average, show up to compete. “One of the main things that works so well at our tournaments is that everybody skis off the same dock, so there's a lot of people around,” Women's 4 competitor and senior judge Linda Hockenberry says. “At a private lake, people end up skiing off their own dock or in their own group. There's a lot more exchange here. It really makes good use of the time on the water.”
It also makes good use of the time off the water. Long after the sun has sunk behind the mountains and the scores for day one of the Bob Barton Memorial Tournament have been tallied, the Canyon Lake slalom course is still abuzz in the afterglow of the day's events. As the city's competitive skiers share local wines and the Barrett family's famous grilled potatoes at the post-tournament barbecue, I repeat the question of the weekend (What makes Canyon Lake so special?) to club member Carol Brooks. She fingers one of her handle-shaped earrings for about a minute before the right words occur to her. “When we moved here,” she begins, “we instantly made a hundred friends — everyone in the ski club. And they're always there — if someone gets hurt, if your kids are sick, if your parents are sick. That's really special.”
And so the conversation goes, again and again. The answers vary from Canyon Lake's unique placement as the only natural ski lake in Southern California to its ability to churn out national-class athletes year after year to the undeniable camaraderie among its club members and residents. The list goes on, but the conversation stays the same: the question, the thoughtful pause … and the light bulb. Talking to the skiers here, it's hard to believe that this place once needed a sales pitch to recruit new homeowners; it's one of those rare places that seems to sell itself. Whether it's the mirage-like water on a desert backdrop or the hearty pats on the back after your best score of the season, there's just something irresistible and enchanting about Canyon Lake, California, that would make any water skier feel at home.
CLASS OF 2007
With a tendency to fuel water-skiing ambitions, Canyon Lake is always grooming its next generation of competitors. Here are the up-and-coming names you should remember.
Favorite Event: Slalom
Personal Best: 3 @ 38 off
“Slalom is so much more of a rush than wakeboarding. Wakeboarding is just so easy.”
Favorite Event: Trick
Personal Best: 2,960 points
“I like trick because it's more unpredictable than slalom, where you're just going around buoys.”
Favorite Event: Jump
Personal Best: 113 feet
“The competition is so fierce for jump. It's so fun to compete against the other kids.”
Favorite Event: Slalom
Personal Best: 3 @ 34 mph
“Everybody who tries slalom likes it. It's like an addiction.”
SET UP FOR VICTORY
At Canyon Lake the less-than-forgiving setups are just another champion-building ingredient. “Part of the specialty here is that we ski in conditions that aren't necessarily as pristine as other places,” club president Tom Nathan says. “It makes our skiers a little bit tougher and a little bit better.”
• The setup: Separated from the main lake by a causeway. Runs north and south with a predominant east-west crosswind.
• What they're up against: Glassy but movey water. On a windy day, the rollers can pick up.
• The setup: The area behind the slalom course.
• What they're up against: akeboarders. The battle for the nook behind the slalom course has heated up in recent years as wakeboarding becomes more popular.
• The setup: Located away from the main lake and slalom course, on a gated dirt road. Runs north and south with a predominant east-west crosswind.
• What they're up against: A short setup. There's just enough room for a sharp turn after the ramp.