Kayaks safely hugging the alkaline- and salt-encrusted shore, their navigators having embarked amid the legions of brine shrimp, squadrons of flies and hovering avian hordes that call this unusual body of water home, tour guide Stuart Wilkinson found time to rifle through his dry-bag and unsheath some weathered papers.
“I want to read you all something,” he said, raising his voice above the noontime wind buffeting the moonlike landscape, “that I think sums up what this place is about.”
The author: some newspaper hack named Mark Twain.
Our kayaking group, whose chalky white hands and forearms attested to the lake’s potent mineral makeup, beamed with the knowledge that, yessiree, we were among the few hardy travelers up for adventure.
Here, Wilkinson paused for effect, and to let our laughter subside.
By the time Wilkinson finished his soliloquy, though, the group had turned pensive. Sure, we recognized that Twain, consummate humorist, often used hyperbole as deftly as a butcher wielding a knife. It was the tool of his trade. But to call Mono Lake “hideous” and “lifeless,” utterly lacking redeeming in aesthetic value?
Nuh-uh. Not even close.
Spend a few hours paddling part of Mono’s 45,000 surface acres, or stroll the ever-expanding shoreline at South Tufa Beach, or take a panoramic view from the top of the nearby Panum Crater, and even the crustiest of curmudgeons would admit life teems at a site bearing a rugged, scoured beauty.
Something of a staid ecological bouillabaisse, Mono Lake is one of California’s oldest bodies of water, dating back 750,000 years.
Fed by freshwater streams but with no outlets, this “terminal” lake has a salinity level more than twice that of the Pacific Ocean, an alkaline content makes the water almost soapy to the touch. Too harsh for fish, the water is inundated with inch-long, wormy brine shrimp, more than 4 trillion of them. Buzzing along the shoreline are millions of alkali flies noshing on algae. And, in turn, the flies and shrimp are dining options for migratory birds including California gulls, Wilson’s and Red-necked phalaropes and eared grebes.
Jutting out of the water and — due to evaporation and siphoning — also lining the shore are Rorschach-like tufa towers, stark limestone sentinels. They are formed when minerals such as calcium from the lake’s bubbling freshwater springs coalesce with the carbonates in the saltwater and solidify into looming towers onto which ospreys make their nests and upon which nature photographers from around the world train their high-powered lenses.
Nature, indeed, thrives here. You just have to look a little closer, go beyond just stopping the car at a vista point along Highway 395 at the eastern base of Tioga Pass. You need to embrace the starkness.
“I can’t think of any place like this,” said tourist Denis Howlett, who visited with his wife, Ruth, from Cambridge, England. “I’ve been to a lot of places: the Middle East, Australia, the Red Sea. This place is unique.”
Wilkinson, the kayak tour guide, calls Mono “surreal” and says its ecological wonders never cease to amaze him no matter how many times he’s been on the water.
Over the years, though, he’s also seen the water recede, sometimes drastically but lately only a bit — through evaporation and low-snow years, but mainly through the decades-ong diversion from up-lake streams by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Since 1941, when Los Angeles started siphoning water to fill its swimming pools, water its lawns and fill its taps, Mono Lake dropped 45 vertical feet, doubling its salinity. The lake was like a bathtub with the plug pulled out, slowly receding to a dry bed.
But in 1994, due to efforts by a nonprofit citizens group called the Mono Lake Committee, the California Water Resources Control Board was spurred to order the LADWP to allow Mono Lake’s water level to return to a “healthy” 6,392 feet above sea level — 20 feet higher than its all-time low in 1982.
Even now, Mono’s shoreline resembles a middle-aged man’s receding hairline, new patches of white sandy grit replacing the cobalt blue. In the nearly 20 years since Los Angeles agreed to cut diversion, the lake has risen only to 6,281.65 feet — an improvement, but not close to what the Mono Lake Committee seeks and the Water Resources Control Board demands.
“It’s just a shame, really, that it’s lost so much water,” said tourist Ken Kaufman, who lives in the Southern California city of Upland. just east of L.A. “I would’ve liked to have seen it before, but it’s still a fascinating place.”
Bryce Tiernan, a docent who leads shoreline tours at South Tufa beach for the Mono Lake Committee, asked his group to peer far into the horizon, where the dirty brown foothills meet the pinon pine treeline.
“That’s the ice age level of Mono Lake, 750,000 years ago,” he said. “From 1941 to 1982, the lake lost half its volume and scientists thought it was on the verge of an ecological collapse. The lake was getting too harsh for animal life, so a compromise was reached in which Los Angeles got some of its water and the lake would get back to the level to maintain the ecosystem.”
Those “Save Mono Lake” bumper stickers, which became omnipresent on the back of cars in the late 1970s and early ’80s, have been replaced with “I ♥ Mono” emblems. But, even though Los Angeles now only gets about 1 percent of its water from Mono’s feeder streams, the lake isn’t close to its goal level. The Mono Lake Committee and LADWP are tussling over how to upgrade aqueduct release valves to make it easier for water to flow back into the lake.
Though low, Mono Lake is not at the crisis stage it was in the ’70s. There is no sense of urgency to tourists to visit before it becomes uninhabitable.
In an ironic twist, the lower lake level actually has been a boon for visitors. Epoch’s ago, before man’s intervention, those weirdly beautiful tufa towers were entirely submerged, because, as Tiernan said, “you need the two (types of ) waters to mix to form it.”
In the past century, the tufa (pronounced: TOO-FAH) towers have become more pronounced. They line the shoreline and even extend as far as the parking lot at South Tufa beach. Tiernan pointed out that “where we’re standing, we would’ve been knee-deep in water about 70 years ago.”
So, the brine shrimp’s and alkali flies’ loss is tourists’ gain. Nature photographers flock to Mono at sunrise and sunset for sublime shots of the tufa towers reflected off the silvery, glassy lake and framed by pink, cloud-speckled horizons.
“The tufa are just such great formations,” said tourist Todd Olthoff, of Rancho Santa Margarita. “There are so many things to do with the (camera) settings and the light. That and the bird life.”
The birds of Mono Lake are an entertaining bunch. On one recent day, a single osprey perched atop the tallest of a series of tufa towers, its elaborate nest on a lower level. The osprey would flap its expansive wings, levitate for a few seconds, and then return. It was as if it was posing for the cameras.
“You’re thinking, ‘Why is a fish-eating bird at Mono Lake, where there are no fish?’” Tiernan said. “Well, no natural predators around, for one. They’ll nest out in the tufa, so that their chicks are safe. Just 10 miles away is the June Lake Loop, with freshwater lakes filled with fish. So they’ll commute back and forth with fish.”
Equally fascinating are the actions of the phalaropes, who skim the water surface in tight formations, then alight on the lake and perform dervishlike spin moves. That, Tiernan said, “creates a mini-vortex that sucks up the shrimp and fly pupae, and (the shorebirds) eat it off the surface.”
Kids — and kids-at-heart — seem most intrigued with the alkali flies, scores of which collect on the shore. The Halikis brothers (Aidan, 12, and Taso, 9) of Temucula, near Riverside, took turns making running forays into the flies, which parted at their feet and buzzed around. The flies neither alighted nor bit the boys.
Tiernan distracted the boys by telling them to dip a finger in the water and put it on the front of their tongues.
“What does that taste like?” he asked.
“Salty!” said Aidan.
“Now dip your finger and put it on the back of your tongue. What does that taste like?”
“Fishy!” said Taso.
The boys then proceeded to chase more flies.
Tiernan: “When (the late PBS travel show host) Huell Howser was out here once, they tried to show him different stuff, but all he wanted to do was chase flies.”
Howser also was enamored with the tufa, Tiernan said. To engage tourists, Tiernan actually has them make their own tufa in a glass milk bottle. He had Aidan collect a few ounces of Mono Lake’s water and pour it into the bottle. He had Taso squirt fresh water into the bottle. Then he let chemistry do its thing while he continued the tour.
About a half-hour later, a solid, milky mass was forming on the bottom of the bottle. Tiernan told the kids he’d extricate the tufa from the bottle, using vinegar, at tour’s end.
But, as Tiernan crouched to show shrimp under a magnifying glass, Taso accidently knocked over the bottle, and cloudy fluid seeped out. He jumped back.
“No use crying over spilled tufa,” cracked the dad, Dave Halikis.
Having studied Mono Lake via kayak and land, the only thing left was to go vertical. Less than a quarter-mile from the South Tufa beach sits Panum Crater, a 650-year-old extinct volcano and one of the sources of all those rich minerals that give the lake its distinctive characteristics.
You can hike a mile around the rim, but the real fun is to be had inside the caldera. Taking the Plug Trail, tourists can descend into a geologic mass strewn with jagged rocks and large boulders and, most prominent, vast shards of sparkling black obsidian glass.
“The obsidian is what makes this unusual,” said tourist Linda Trombino, hiking with fellow Rocklin resident Jerry Swearingen. “It’s scattered everywhere. There are many trails down in there that get you right up next to it.”
Emerging from the bowels of the Plug Trail, you can ascend to the talus-laden pinnacle and get a sweeping view of Mono Lake — depleted, yes, but still a sight to behold.
The temptation here is to rebut Twain, to take his “lifeless-hideous” words to task once more.
Instead, let’s leave with the profound words of Dave Halikis, father of the two rambunctious boys: “Ooh, this place is weird.”