Mark Twain was, in his own word, “vagabondizing,” when he visited Mono Lake in California’s eastern Sierra in 1862 and wrote about in “Roughing It.”
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Twain’s descriptions of Mono Lake, as read by Stuart Wilkinson of Caldera Kayaks at the end of one of his guided kayak tours of the lake 152 years later, remain pretty much as Twain first wrote … “a solemn, silent, sail-less sea,” the “lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on Earth.”
Though, the “lifeless, treeless place” in a “hideous desert” that Twain wrote about is anything but barren and hardly hideous. Today, the extreme nature of Mono Lake attracts rather than repels humanity.
Mono Lake is a place so extreme that it has been the subject of National Air and Space Administration (NASA) scientists who studied its limestone formations called “tufa towers” to determine if the grotesquely shaped calcium forms might contain carbonate globules.
The NASA scientists wanted to know whether the globules might house “extremeophiles,” tiny microorganisms that thrive in hostile environments and that, if found on Mars, could prove the existence of life on other planets.
Astrobiologist Richard Hoover of NASA’s National Space Science and Technology Center also searched the lake’s salty, alkaline, muddy depths, where life-producing oxygen is non-existent, and found three new species of living bacteria, generating new support for the idea that if life can exist within Mono Lake’s sulfuric, mucky depths, it might exist on Mars or other worlds.
Despite its hostile extremes, Mono Lake is, contradictorily, a nurturing place where trillions of life forms exist, many of which fly to it, each summer. The lake’s annual bird migration attracts thousands of bird watchers who come for the birds… millions of them. Eared grebes, California gulls and Wilson’s and red-necked phalaropes by the score flock to Mono Lake to feast upon brine shrimp and a 100-mile-long belt of alkali flies that rings the lake.
So great is Mono Lake’s importance to North American avian populations that the American Bird Conservancy and the Audubon Society have designated it as an “Important bird area of global significance.” At times in summer, it is an aquatic Serengeti, filled with wildlife at California’s eastern edge.
In that “hideous” desert and in the mountains that rise over 2,000 feet above Mono Lake, 100 species of birds flock to the eastern Sierra each summer, including violet-green swallows, sage grouse and tundra swan.
Wilkinson’s tours kayak out toward deformed, Seussian-like tufa towers that rise from the lake’s murky depths. Atop four of the towers, osprey have built nests. The tours are careful not to paddle closer than 100 feet, in order to avoid flushing osprey chicks from their nests. Still, kayakers paddle close enough to see the downy heads of the chicks rise to be fed by their parents who have brought fish to them from alpine lakes high in the Sierra.
The osprey will fly miles to find fish as there are no fish, frogs, snakes or polliwogs — as Twain noted — living within its alkaline waters, only trillions of feathery white brine fish seen everywhere in its cloudy waters and thousands upon thousands of harmless alkali flies along its shore, that scurry away from your every step and that when immersed will surround themselves in an air bubble and “pop to the surface as dry as a patent office report,” as Twain described.
Wilkinson inserts such colorful detail on Caldera Kayaks’ $75 guided natural history tour. For reservations, call 760-934-1691 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The main put-in area for kayaking is near South Tufa State Reserve at Navy Beach. The lake is so salty and mineral-filled, that kayakers are advised to wear water sandals, flip flops or other water sport shoes. Bring a towel and an extra bottle of water to clean off the mineral-rich lake water after kayaking. Cameras and cell phones should be left on shore, or placed in a plastic bag to protect them from corrosive splash droplets, when kayaking.
Despite what Twain wrote about Mono Lake being “little graced with the picturesque,” its austere beauty is a favorite subject of photographers, the first of whom discovered its picturesque qualities being renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adams. It is best photographed in the morning when the lake and surrounding hills are colored shades of pink and purple by dawn’s early light.
Twain wrote of the “half dozen little mountain brooks” that flow into the lake. For years, their inflow was diverted to provide water to Los Angeles. That caused the lake level to drop, revealing the tufa towers and threatening the creation of a land bridge that could have been crossed by predators to the two islands where 90 percent of the California gull population nests. However, in 1994, the California State Water Resources Control Board issued an order to protect Mono Lake and its tributary streams, the lake level has risen and threats to the lakes wildlife have diminished.
To do your own vagabondizing at Mono Lake, begin at the U.S. Forest Service’s Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center a half-mile north of Lee Vining on U.S. 395. Include a stop at the Mono Lake Committee Information Center in Lee Vining, with a store filled with books and Mono Lake souvenirs. The Eastern Sierra Birding Trail Map, found online at easternsierrabirdingtrail.org, guides visitors to 38 birding sites along U.S. 395. And, lodging is found in Lee Vining, June Lake and Mammoth Lakes (visitmammoth.com or monocounty.org).
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.