Wandering Mono's Wildness
By Genny Smith
You've heard of Mono Lake, of course. Judging from letters the Mono Lake Committee has received from such varied locales as Bolivia, Germany, Russia and even China, it seems much of the world has heard of it. People know that this strangely beautiful lake is close to dying. The huge lake east of Yosemite National Park has dropped 40 feet since 1941, when four out of its five streams were diverted into an aqueduct that supplies water to the city of Los Angeles, 350 miles away.
Yes, many people have heard of Mono Lake. But how many know about the Aeolian Buttes? Mono Craters? Devil's Punchbowl? How about Mono Mills, Lundy Canyon, or the Dana Plateau? These are all lesser-known but important elements of the wild, magnificent basin that nurtures Mono Lake and contributes water, sediment and chemicals to it.
It may seem that we have neglected the wonders that surround Mono Lake on every side. So focused have we been on Mono's plight, on its beauty and its importance to the birds by the hundreds of thousands that nest, rest, or refuel on its food-rich waters, that perhaps we failed to keep the lake in perspective. It's just one part of an extraordinary basin flanked on the west by the abrupt Sierra scarp, a basin whose highest peaks tower 6500 feet above its lowest waters.
Perhaps we have seldom talked about them, but those of us who know Mono Lake intimately have always felt the intricate connections it has with the surrounding land and its creatures. Recent court decisions make clear how vital those connections are. Much of the Mono Lake news today centers on court-mandated stream flows. Work has begun to restore life to Mono's long-dry creeks, paid for by the city of Los Angeles.
These newly-reborn streams depend on the meltwater from the snow-spangled Sierra crest and the high-mountain forests that hold the moisture through the summer. And so it goes—the sagebrush uplands, the glacier-carved lakes, the volcanoes, the alluvial gravels, the pumice that blankets most of the region, the long arid summers—all this makes Mono Lake what it is—an alkaline desert lake three times saltier than the ocean that produces amazingly abundant food for nesting gulls and migrating shorebirds.
This calendar, then, makes up for our seeming neglect of Mono's wonderful surroundings. It puts the lake into perspective and invites you to explore the entire basin of Mono. Invites you to walk the roads that lead to abandoned mines and logging sites and deserted ranches. To hike the trails that lead far up Lundy Canyon and Rush Creek to the snowbanks that nourish the streams' headwaters.
Most important of all, it invites you to leave the roads and trails behind and wander—wander away, anywhere up, north or south or any direction in between. Much of the Mono Basin remains wild; with just a little effort you can discover some of its wild places and the wild things that live there. Not that we can supply you with a map and say, "Go west two miles and then turn north..." No, wildness just doesn't appear that easily, on command.
The thrill of wildness comes from those rare, unforeseen encounters when you happen upon the unexpected. As when, in the sagebrush, you discover some old irrigation ditches or bits of the Bodie and Benton Railroad bed, or a jackrabbit, so still that often you will fail to see him. Or when, amidst an alpine boulder field, you hear a pika's nasal call and then find him spreading out his hay on the rocks to dry. Or, upon a snowfield, you see a flock of rosy finches feeding on frozen insects. Or, under a waterfall, a dipper flying in and out feeding its young. Or, on a high, rocky slope, an unexpected field of bright blue polemonium. Or a bighorn sheep, the same color as the granite, calmly looking down at you. Or among the stately Jeffrey pine, you discover a sudden splash of reddish-purple mimulus, tiny monkey flowers carpeting the white pumice.
So open is this country—and much of it unfenced public land—that you can walk for miles in almost any direction. Who says you have to hike a trail or drive a road? Have you never thought of just starting off toward some point you want to get to? Or following a stream as it meanders to... who knows where? Or just wandering with no destination in mind at all, enjoying the space, the sky, the silence? Then as you listen, you may realize it's not silence at all, only the absence of man-made noise. A quietness that lets you hear the earth's songs—insects buzzing, wind stirring leaves, the faint rustling of lizards and ground squirrels as they hurry to hide from you. Gentle noises you seldom hear.
But no matter where your wanderings take you, from any one of a hundred viewpoints that you discover, always below lies that magical lake with its ever-changing colors—now sky-blue, now silver, gray, green, rose, or hues with names that you have never imagined.
Fascinating as the lake is, Mono Basin's uplands, its streams, its nearby volcanoes and surrounding mountains offer different but wonderful worlds to wander in. We—and they—invite you to miles of wildness, countless surprises and endless days of wonder and discovery.