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Earth, Wind, and Shakshuka

An S.F.-based photographer and his friends bring Palestinian culture to the campfire. 

The drought has dropped Upper Sardine Lake's water level, but this kid was still jumping from 30 feet in the air. "No one could believe he was doing that," says photographer Nader Khouri.

 

When Nader Khouri and his entourage spent a week camping in the Lakes Basin Recreation Area, they didn’t bring a cooler of hot dogs and a bag of marshmallows to roast. Instead, they sat around a campfire in the middle of the California wilderness watching shakshuka, a Middle Eastern dish of tomatoes and eggs, simmer over the coals as one of them played Arabic music on his oud. “My friends are Palestinian and have been in the U.S. for only 10 years, so hot dogs and s’mores are new to them,” says Khouri, who is also of Palestinian heritage.

About four hours northeast of the city, above Highway 49 and off the Gold Lake Highway, lie two dozen or so small lakes connected by trails. For the past couple of years, that’s where the Mission-based photographer has headed on summer weekends away. “There’s no cell phone reception,” Khouri says. “I love that.”

He found the place after a suggestion from a neighbor, but he and his crew had been traveling to that part of Northern California for a few years, taking trips to the Yuba River to escape the city. Even though he lives right beside a large body of water, there’s something about getting up in the mountains and next to a river: “It’s that feeling where it’s 90 degrees outside, and you’re staring at this crystal clear freshwater-spring river, and there aren’t a lot of people around,” he says.

Shakshuka, a Middle Eastern dish of eggs and tomatoes, cooks over the campfire.

Many of the lakes are accessible only by hiking, and one side of the recreation area is edged by the Pacific Crest Trail, but you don’t have to be Cheryl Strayed to get there. There are lodges, and cabins to rent, as well as campgrounds with highly sought-after sites. A week before the trip, Khouri snagged the last spot at Chapman Creek via the Recreation.gov app. (The irony of an uplugged respite requiring a smartphone during the planning stage is not lost on him.)

For two days, Khouri and his caravan of pals and dogs cooked over the fire, hiked between Upper and Lower Sardine Lakes, and jumped off cliffs into the water, careful to avoid the rocks. “You’ve got to watch out,” he says. “From far away, it looks easy. And then I went 15 feet up.”

 

DO THE TRIP

Route: 80 to CA-99 to CA-20 to CA-49
Driving hours from San Francisco: 3 hours and 40 minutes with no traffic; on a Friday, plan for 6 or 7 hours.
Accommodations: Chapman Creek Campground. The sites come with picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilet access (bring toilet paper).
Necessities: Water shoes for the rocks in the lakes, headlamps, and, for Khouri's group, some whiskey.

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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