It’s 6:45 a.m. and 45 degrees on a late June morning, one of those mock-spring moments that make you want to bundle up and sleep in. Instead, Bobby Carter, his friend Eric, and I are here at the Donner Lake boat launch ramp. A cloudy sky and gentle breeze overshadowing the lake bring a chill to the morning, the lake’s smooth surface subtly reflecting a soft gray from above. Yet Bobby appears in shorts and a tie-dye long sleeve shirt, grinning from ear to ear and apparently not worried at all about the dim sky overhead.
We’re 15 minutes early today, and that’ll be just the jump he needs on those other darn boats that have been hitting the smooth surface of the lake before him the past few days, leaving a bumpy wake that interrupts his ride. I’m instructed to climb into a classic blue and white Ski Nautique with Eric, a friend and fellow skier, while Bobby reverses the big maroon Ford “work truck” to dip the boat into the water.
Soon, we’re gliding out onto Donner’s tranquil surface and talking about how long he’s been at this. He pauses to think: He’s been waterskiing 63 years, and snow skiing for 65. Today, he is 70 years old.
“It’s makes me feel exhilarated,” he says.
The longtime passion was born in Ensenada, Mexico, where he traveled as a child with his family, not too far from where he grew up in Los Angeles. Other times, they’d visit the tiny Puddingstone Reservoir in Pomona, setting out on an old outboard-motorboat his folks partnered with another couple to buy. They called her Oleanna.
When he’s not waterskiing, Bobby is mountain biking, climbing with buddies or teaching climbing to kids, hang-gliding, or snow skiing. He’s also still an active groomer at Northstar. Age is just a number to him, and though he’s a husband, father, and a new grandfather, he’s “still a kid” and says that it’s when he doesn’t do all these active things that he feels worst.
“I guess I’m 70 years old now,” he says. “A lot of people quit doing stuff, and I just don’t feel that way. I keep doing the stuff I love to do, and that’s what keeps me feeling like I’m young. I think as long as you keep active … you’re gonna stay young.”
Bobby and a couple of friends meet at Donner every weekday at 7 a.m. to ski. They take turns towing each other, riding on a single slalom ski and making smooth gliding turns arcing from one side of the wake to the outside of the other edge. Bobby gave up double skis as a kid, and laughs that they’re for beginners. The men ride from one side of the lake to the other, staying up the whole time. It’s incredibly strenuous. By the end of summer, each person will have the endurance to ride twice that: the length of the lake and back to the other side.
“This is my gym,” Bobby says.
When it’s his turn, he literally begins shaking with excitement from the moment he stands up to don his dry suit, beginning to think about the ride. He is a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie. A boyish smile creeps up on his face as he collects his gear and looks out across the water. He takes off his shoes and points to toenails painted gold to match the finish on his ski, and, pulling the thick stretchy fabric over his hips, pauses to lay on his side like a cheerleader posing for a photo. I later ask him if he lives to be in the water. He says he loves it. You can tell.
“The anticipation of getting in the water, getting that pull, gettin’ up and just screamin’ across that glass,” he says. “It’s such a pristine balance of nature and water, the whole experience. It’s almost a zen feeling of meditation.”
I ask Bobby if fun is what motivates him. He says yes, and “in the old days, you could say I was crazy,” but adds shyly that he’s also “a loving, caring, good guy,” when asked what sides of his personality people might know less of. Perhaps because he’s a mix of that lean-bodied athlete topped with white hair and a flashy smile, the strong hand of a climbing teacher, the weathered skin of a surfer, and the stern awareness of a longtime mountain man — some might miss that the common thread here really is a huge love for life and kindness toward all those he encounters in this life.
Bobby moved to Tahoe in 1969, in a time when athletes were pioneering mountain sports like skiing and hang-gliding. Working at Squaw as a ski patroller, he met such greats as Jim Bridwell, Kim Schmitz, and Eric Beck, who would become legendary climbers, and so he took up climbing and hang-gliding. He was the first man to hang-glide off Donner Peak. In his lifetime, he’s also climbed El Capitan and gone hang-gliding from Mount Everest. Back in Tahoe, he went on to groom for both Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, when combing the mountains with machines was first becoming a thing. He was a groomer for 30 years, before transferring to Northstar where he still works, but calls himself semi-retired.
When retirement finally does come, what does he want to do? Ski more on water and snow, hang-glide more, bike more, and climb more, of course.