It was a strange smokey haze that greeted my father and I at Mono Lake. The foreign towers that jettisoned out of the water were of another world. A fantasy land of moon-like proportions, only there were also water and birds, rather than just weird, textured stone and mineral structures.
My whole adult life I’ve dreamed of visiting Mono Lake. Travel magazine views I’ve had of the lake display something captivating and beautiful. From the visitors center on a hill overlooking the lake, I saw a dull reflection of what I wanted to see. Cloaked in smoke was something I’d thought about seeing over and over again. Inside the visitors center, Yosemite-trekkers and Labor Day campers were also disappointed.
A couple German travelers driving up from Los Angeles had no idea Yosemite was burning, and a park ranger had to tell them about the five hour detour they would have to take in order to see Half Dome. The same park ranger tried to explain to a lady how no open flame meant no fire of any kind, no propane stove, no charcoal, nothing.
With the Rim Fire burning more than 200,000 acres of land just a few miles northwest of where we were, I could understand the no flame thing, but damn, what a weekend for the world to burn. But as awful as it felt to my sinuses and my lungs, the smoke was growing on me. It seemed to fit with where we were, and on our five-mile drive southeast to the South Tufa reserve, my excitement came back to me.
Sagebrush, these bushes with tiny yellow flowers, and rolling hills surround the majority of the oldest lake in the United States, which incidentally has a higher salt content than the ocean. Along with the smoke that day came a threat of thunder, lightening, and rain. Humid electricity hung as we walked toward the lakes tufa-filled edge. The other side of the lake was obsolete, obscured by the grey smog that blocked any long-range visibility.
My dog started scaring off hikers as soon as we left the car, panting and pulling with an excitement I couldn’t handle. I forced him to wear his special nose harness, so he wouldn’t pull. He was still panting and pulling (but not as hard) and everyone thought he was one of those crazy pit bulls that takes chunks out of people. But he’s not, it was the lizards that got him riled up, darting in and out of the brush and hiding under tufa, teasing him, taunting him.
Tufas have the texture of sand that got wet, then dried to a hard, course edge. They look like old cottage cheese castles, discolored by minerals and molded by gigantic clumsy hands. They were created by the natural springs that feed the lake. As they bubbled up underwater, minerals came together to form the towers of solidified rock.
My dad and I came to the realization that the only reason the full-length of the stone skyscrapers (it’s pretty much the high desert, so yeah, skyscrapers) are visible is because the water level of the lake has dropped so significantly over the years. From the sign that marked the high waterline of 1941, the shoreline looked to be about 40 yards away. If the waterline was where it used to be, only the tops of the tufa would have been visible above the lake.
Mono Lake is essentially a catch-all for snow melt coming out the Sierras to the west of the basin. Because the lake doesn’t have a natural outlet, evaporation is one of the only ways the lake’s water level decreases after spring’s warm temperatures fill it. However, the Los Angeles Municipal Water Authority thought the streams feeding the lake would be a perfect source of water for L.A. residents, so it started siphoning off fresh water before it hit the lake.
That was in the 1940s.
Here we are now, decades and many legal fights later, and water is no longer being diverted from the natural springs and streams. However, the lake level is still low and faces a long haul of depending on many BIG snow years. Mono Lake needs to rise another seven feet before it gets back to the state-mandated “normal” level. With this whole climate change thing, and the potential for a future full of low snow pack years, it could be a while.
It really is mind-numbing, what we think we can do without paying attention to future consequences. The mountain-fed streams were all but destroyed and are being rehabilitated. And who knows if that state-mandated tick mark is truly where the lake’s water should be, but reaching it could undo some of the environmental havoc we humans caused to this ancient lake over a relatively short period of time.
Should the lake rise, it would cover some of the boardwalks and trails visitors currently use to view the infamous South Tufa Reserve, but it would also mean a fuller, more pristine lake. It’s something I would like to see someday, when I come back. Or, I would at least like to come back and see those cool islands in the middle of the lake, which weren’t visible through the smoke that hung around over Labor Day weekend for my dad and I.
Next time I’m bringing a kayak.