Define tranquility.

Is it an idea? A feeling?

A mind free of life's daily clutter: to-do lists, deadlines, appointments, spam?

Or is it a place? Somewhere full of sun and sand. A hideaway in the snowy mountains.

How about a lake?

A small one, with water like glass, surrounded by groves of maples and oaks and cedars and spruce -- patches of November's saffron and rust mingled with the green.

The fragrance from the sun-baked pine needles drifts in the air.

Some aged canoes tied to a small pier rock gently in the water, rapping its side in lackadaisical rhythm.

Every few minutes or so, a hawk or eagle or other bird soars by, and you raise your head to catch a glimpse of its graceful flight.

Slowly, you rise from your chair on the deck, still staring at the stunning masterpiece stretched out before you. You decide to take a walk, knowing the one thing more inspiring than looking at this pristine beauty is being immersed in it.

This is Zaca Lake.

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Nestled in the San Rafael Mountains near Santa Ynez, at an elevation of 2,395 ft., Zaca Lake Retreat and Mineral Springs is a sanctuary where nature, not humankind, reigns supreme.

Diverse plants and animals share the 20-acre mineral spring lake and 450 acres of wooded, mountainous land surrounding it: apple and ash trees, ferns and flowers, black bears, deer, mountain lions, foxes, badgers, wild turkeys and a broad bird population including the threatened bald eagle, and the list goes on.

There are people at the lake, too: a small handful of volunteers who live there year-round and a fluctuating number of guests, although their presence on a Sunday afternoon in mid-November was obscure. A couple of nods and a hello or two from that weekend's visitors and that was all.

The desolation and silence at times seemed almost spooky.

But welcome.

Lake volunteer Simone Temkin explained there had been 20 guests there that weekend, which, on average for that time of year, was down somewhat. However, she noted that fewer people visit the lake after Labor Day. (Memorial Day to Labor Day is the retreat's peak season.)

The number of volunteers was down, too, she said, noting there are currently five who live at the lake, about 50 percent less than the typical amount for this time of year.

Knowing that, it was still hard to imagine the lake feeling anything but serene -- even at full capacity at 120.

That's likely thanks to the efforts of the Zaca Charitable Foundation, which has operated the retreat since 1998.

"We want this to be a peaceful, tranquil, contemplative environment," said Temkin, who has lived at the lake for a little more than a year, and visited on a regular basis for years before that.

As a volunteer, Temkin receives a small monthly stipend and lives in a cabin at the lake rent-free. She and the other volunteers are responsible for maintenance of the cabins and lodge, working in the retreat's office answering phones, signing in guests and other duties.

Her hours are flexible, she said, and the tasks and the monthly pay are considered less a sacrifice than a fair trade for living at a place like Zaca Lake.

"I love this being my home," Temkin said. "There's always something new and different to notice. I enjoy the diversity of people that come through here," she said.

Jason Harvie, assistant to the foundation's trustees, works off site, but said his favorite thing to do when he visits the lake a couple of times a week, is to sit on the lodge's terrace and watch the bears, who come down to the water to take a drink.

"It takes away all the tension," he said.

To maintain this type of environment that Temkin, Harvie and others treasure, the foundation, which is run by volunteers, operates the lake exclusively for religious, charitable, educational and/or scientific purposes and to reclaim, preserve and enhance the environment and ecosystem for the benefit of the public.

Funding for the retreat comes from two main sources: donations and the fees collected from cabin rentals.

Groups who meet at the lake for spiritual and other purposes, and a summer camp for disadvantaged children, for example, account for a large amount of the retreat's business and activity; but the retreat is also open to the general public.

Several families have met there for reunions, Temkin said.

Individual guests also visit the retreat for some rustic R&R. There are no phones, televisions or computers in any of the cabins. Instead, there are fireplaces, mineral bathtubs and king-size beds with cozy quilts.

Guests also have access to a small collection of canoes and paddleboats to take out on the lake.

However, to ensure the conservation of the lake, and the tranquility for guests, the foundation has put into place certain restrictions.

The lake is not open for day use or for tent or RV camping.

People who wish to visit the lake must make a reservation to stay at least one night in one of the cabins. Only those who have made a reservation will be given the code for the gate at the entrance of the lake.

There is also no fishing at the lake, and use of boats with motors is prohibited.

"We want to maintain a natural environment," Temkin said.

Pets are also not allowed.

Temkin said she understands that some locals may feel upset that they live so close to the retreat and have to pay to spend the night, but she said an onslaught of people at the lake would make it more difficult for the volunteers to monitor what was going on.

Plus, a lot of people means more damage to the lake itself, surrounding land and wildlife.

"The impact on the environment is a lot," Temkin said.

The Chumash Native American Tribe consider the lake a sacred place, and according to their legends, it is bottomless, with a passageway existing through the lake to Santa Cruz Island where the Chumash lived before coming to the mainland, with underwater caves containing oxygen and home to a civilization of "little people." The lake also possesses a strong energy current.

While the Chumash didn't live at the lake when they first started visiting it thousands of years ago, they cared for it and used it for contemplative and ceremonial purposes.

The spirit of the lake is considered to be "female," so women would come to the lake for reasons of health, fertility and other reasons.

This is according to a Chumash descendant who asked his identity not be revealed, who also lives and volunteers at the lake.

Some literature suggests the Chumash have used the lake for meditation and ceremonies for 13,000 years.

While the legend of being bottomless adds to the lake's lore, that idea has been investigated and refuted by some.

In their book, "The History of Zaca Lake," which they wrote about 10 years ago, Los Olivos residents Jim and Lynne Norris talk about that legend.

"We dispelled some of the myths," he said, noting the lake has been measured to be 42 ft. deep.

The book, now out of print, but perhaps available at local used bookstores, focuses on the history of some of the homesteaders at the lake, who began settling there around 1890.

One of the pioneers featured is John Libeu from France. He was the first European homesteader at Zaca Lake.

Norris said Libeu played an integral role in homesteading the area, therefore keeping the land in private hands and preventing it from becoming part of the Los Padres National Forest surrounding the lake.

"That's the reason it exists as it does today," he said.

Several first-hand accounts from homesteaders still alive at the time are included in the book.

Norris said some of its characteristics -- it is the only natural lake in Santa Barbara County and is Southern California's largest naturally occurring lake -- make it a such a special place.

"It's uniquely beautiful because of its isolation," Norris said.

The lake, which can look several different colors like silver, blue and green, is also unique in that it "turns over," Norris noted.

When the wind blows across the lake, it chills the water. The cold water sinks to the bottom and turns over the sediment at the bottom of the lake, which gives it a purplish hue.

Staff Writer Britt Fairchild can be reached at 739-2220 or atbfairchild@pulitzer.net.

December 16, 2004

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