1998 - To Mono Lake, Tioga Pass, and Yosemite

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DAY TWO (Wednesday):

Up with the dawn, I fix myself a breakfast beneath blue skies and granite mountains then, surprisingly, throw myself in the car and head back down the 120 towards Mono Lake.

You see, I've been by Mono Lake lots of times. But that's all I've ever really done - gone by it. So today, I plan to explore it and the town of Lee Vining (a place I've only ever stopped at for gas before) - if only a little bit. So, thirty minutes later I'm in Lee Vining and once again pulling into the Mono Lake Visitor's Center parking lot - with the Center open this time.

The Center is brand new (within the last few years) and is perched on a high bluff, overlooking Lee Vining Creek and the lake itself. IShore of Mono Lake, with the islands in the background wander around the exhibits, wish I could have seen Mono Lake during the Ice Age (when I would have been about four hundred feet underwater where I was), and learn the local Indians considered the Lake's ubiquitous "brine flies'"larva a delicacy.

(You think they could have at least provided a tasting for tourists then)

At the Center I get a map of the Lake area and...map out my future travels. Next stop is the site of the old Marina, abandoned since the 50's when the lake level started getting too low. It"s a short drive north along the 395 and I pull off onto a dirt track to an equally dirt parking lot a hundred feet further on, park, get out of the car, and wander towards the lake.

With the water levels coming back up, Mono's two islands are once again islands. At the minimum point (when last I saw them), the smaller - Negit - was a peninsula, rather firmly attached to shore and the larger - Paoha - was just barely qualifying as an island. You could walk to it, if you didn't mind getting your feet slightly wet. Big trouble if you were a bird, because that"s where they nested.

The Marina itself is pretty much gone: A few concrete foundations and an old boat launching ramp - still one hundred or so feet from the shore of the lake - are all that remain. Of more recent vintage is a plank walkway down to the water's edge. I stroll down it to the water and kneel down to get a closer look at Mono Lake's two primary life forms.

The first one was easy to spot - be work to avoid it, really. All around the edge of the lake, forming a band about ten, fifteen feet wide, are what"s called "brine flies,"drifting on the top of the water. Fortunately (very fortunately, given their numbers), these flies don't bother people (as long as you're not algae) and in fact drift slightly away from you as you come close. Apart from that, well, they're flies, notable only due to their vast numbers.

The water was up to here when I was bornPeering into the water itself you see, along with the larva of the flies, Mono"s other life form, "brine shrimp." Tiny, smaller than the flies in fact, they seem to be everywhere in the Lake's waters. Like the flies, though, they are otherwise visually unimpressive apart from their numbers.

(From a biological/ecological standpoint they're a great deal more interesting, but that's not something you can see)

Having my fill of tiny wildlife for the moment, I'm off again, this time heading for the "South Tufa Area." It's back south to Lee Vining, then a further five miles south to the 120 going east (as opposed to west, back to the campground) though some of the many volcanic craters in the area (the land south of Mono Lake is a veritable lunar landscape of volcanic craters). Yet another five or so east and it was time to turn off to the "area's" parking lot, along an apparently infrequently maintained dirt road.

It's hard to describe tufa if you haven't seen it. In some ways, it reminds me of those African termite mounds. In others, it's like those "magic rocks" that grow into stalagmite thingies when you add them to water, abet bleached dirty white.

I showed the guy at the entrance booth my Visitor Center ticket (it gets you in free to the Tufa Area) and headed off down the self-guided trail to the water, and the tufa. Soon you start passing small tufas, looking more like low rocks than the "towers" you see in most pictures. You also pass signs saying "Here was the lake level in (such and such a year)." I pass the lake level from my birth year, still firmly on dry land. About halfway along, I pass the court-mandated lake level that the lake is hopefully rising to. Now the tufas are rising on either side of the trail and just a minute or two later I hit the water's edge, while they continue out into the lake.

Classic Tufa Shot... More tufa, artistically posed... Actually, the water's edge has been moving up a great deal lately (the lake's doing pretty good this year, thanks to El Niño) and large chunks of the trail are muddy, or even under water. With luck, in a few more years, much of what I was walking through will be under water, and the only way to see some of the tufas I saw that day will be by boat.

Tufas are actually the result of freshwater springs rising up though the briny lake waters, so all that I was seeing today had been actually below water when it formed. Then, towards the end of the walk I actually got to see a couple of brand new tufas, just beginning to form.
Brand, spanking new tufa. Note the brine flies feeding on the algae
A small arm of the lake had drifted in next to trail, and at the bottom, beneath the sheet of the inevitable brine flies, were two small (bowl-sized) mounds, like miniature volcanos, with just the occasional streams of bubbles coming from them as the spring that fed them coughed up a bit of gas. Judging by how recently this area must have been dry land, I deduce from this that tufas must form pretty quickly once they get started.

It's getting towards noon now, and I leave the "area" and head back towards Lee Vining. The plan is to wander around the town a bit, and get something non-water to drink.

Lee Vining is like most mountain tourist towns: A few motels/hotels, a few restaurants (usually western themed), and the inevitable general store which tries to have a little bit of everything, all of which is priced about fifty percent higher than home. That includes sodas, of which there are only small bottles, weakly chilled, at somewhat frightening prices. So after my wander I decide to find a 7-11...

...after all, there's got to be a 7-11 around somewhere...

...there wasn't.

Well, not in Lee Vining anyway. I knew there was one back in Bishop, but that was nearly seventy miles away, quite a trip for a Dr. Pepper. Farther up the 395 to the north, though, was the town of Bridgeport, which sounded like it should be a bit bigger than Lee Vining, was only twenty-five miles away, and had the advantage of being through brand new (to me) territory.

So it's off to Bridgeport, climbing the mountains north of the lake, then dropping down the other side, the road sharing a narrow canyon with a stream. Rather scenic, really.

But Bridgeport while slightly larger (by a couple of hundred) than Lee Vining, and possessing a very nicely historical court house, was no more convenienced-marted than Lee Vining. With no larger towns within sight (indeed, with few towns in sight period) I sighed, settled for a can of soda from a gas station, and headed back.Mono Lake from the north, as I return from Bridgeport.

I got back to the campground about three-ish and, as is my way, once again resumed various walkabouts. First back down to the resort, then up past the campground to the top of the pass and the back entrance to Yosemite National Park, marked by a big stone gateway and a $20 fee if you want to enter by car (ten, if you're on foot!). Well, I wouldn't be doing that today. Tomorrow, yes, but not today, so it was back to the campground with me.

Once there, I wandered around the lake through the lumpy meadow that surrounds its western shore, then returned to make supper and relax with a bit more of the dinosaur book (actually, it's a book on bird's dinosaurian origins The Mistaken Extinction, but I digress).

And, darn it, clouds were coming over Mount Dana again!

Fortunately, unlike the previous evening, this night's rain proved to be a short spatter that departed as quickly as it arrived. I didn't even put the sleeping bag in the car; just covered it with the tarp.

Unfortunately, more of the clouds hung around for the evening. There were therefore fewer stars (and satellites) for my viewing pleasure, but it was still a pretty night, even with half the sky opaqued by the clouds.


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