Winter at Elephant Butte Lake — birds, boats, and beauty

Elephant Butte Lake
at sunset
Photo by Sherry Fletcher.
Elephant Butte Lake at sunset

“Hi, how’s the weather? It’s snowing? Oh, too bad. We just got back from the lake!”

That’s my usual telephone conversation with relatives from the north on winter weekends. In its quieter months, Elephant Butte Reservoir, New Mexico’s largest lake, offers solitude and clarity that summer users will never know. The bright, clear sun, the mirrored lake surface, the warm, still air, describe many days throughout the winter months.

Add an occasional fish-splash and lots of bird sightings. Winter at the lake features great blue herons, sandhill cranes, a returning osprey, seagulls, grebes, cormorants, and pelicans. Golden eagles live in McRae Canyon, feasting on fish when people go home. Lots of ducks and other waterfowl are startled to find anything on the water besides themselves.

And we are on the water. We pack a portable lunch to eat on the boat. Sometimes we have turkey and dressing and cranberries on the sailboat. No wind, so we motor to a secluded cove. Of course, all coves are secluded in December. On a high hill behind the cove, we watch a golden eagle perch on a cactus.

One winter Saturday we sailed a 14-foot day sailer. It didn’t have a cabin, so we made sandwiches and shoved off. We didn’t get far because there was little wind, but we floated, feeling the movement of the boat in the water, hearing the small water slaps echoing against the hull. Reclining in the boat, we were warmed by the sun, feeling protected from all troubles.

A canoe offers more intimate encounters with birds that frequent the lake in winter. Paddles quiet, we watch herons snoozing or fishing, sandhill cranes flying, screeching, overhead, or a stark black and white osprey roosting on a sailboat’s mast.

We’ve sailed on winter nights, telling the children the story of Orion and the bull. Taurus, the bull, was put into the sky to keep Orion the hunter from terrorizing the Seven Sisters. You can see their constellations in winter, first the Sisters (the Pleiades) rise in the eastern sky, then the bull (a large sharp triangle), then Orion, with his sword hanging from his belt. A classic winter story, best told with the visual aids twinkling in the sky.

Sometimes the lake is not so warm. Winds come blustering through the Narrows, whipping the water into whitecaps, swells and crashing waves. With the cold northern winds, our many layers of clothing are still not enough. Hot drinks from a thermos and a safe harbor provide a refuge for observing nature’s intensity.

Stormy or calm, the lake in winter offers beautiful panoramas, with Kettle Top and the eastern mesas in sharp relief. Sometimes it’s so blue and bright it hurts your eyes. With the sky blue and the lake blue, and the far-off mountains blue, the landscape needs a little brown dirt to separate the colors.

Sunsets come early, usually before we’re ready, pinking up the soft grey clouds before fading to dark.