Musings of a Mono Lake kayaker

As I set my kayak down with a crunch on the rough sheets of limestone in a few inches of salty water, I disturbed a furious cloud of tiny black alkali flies around my feet. Anyone venturing into this lake has to step through the dense swarm that clings to the shoreline like a living tub ring. I hurried to buckle my personal flotation device and snap together my kayak paddle while I scanned the broad, dark blue expanse of the lake at dawn: gulls bobbed quietly in the middle distance and as far as I could see to the wavering outline of the far shore, some eight or nine miles across from me. The sun was just cresting the bare hills on the east side of the lake and the reflections of the eastern wall of the Sierras shimmered like a second mountain range on the face of the water. The peaks stood starkly against the blue of the morning sky with exquisite clarity of detail. Each granite crest and white line of snow seemed close enough to almost reach out and touch. I crouched down into the kayak and shoved off, wincing as the bone-like rock scraped along the bottom of my boat, and I speared quickly out onto the tranquil, buoyant murk. Suddenly all was quiet; I was alone on Mono Lake.

I aimed the prow for the eastern shore, planning to the cross and return by early afternoon. I’d camped the night before in the Jeffrey Pine woods along the skirt of the Mono–Inyo Craters, a volcanic chain stretching south to Mammoth Mountain. I’d driven a good while off 120 East into the hills on a dusty four-by-four track until I found a clearing and set up a tarp beside my truck under black thunderclouds. After the sky erupted in a burst of warm, summer rain, it draped itself in a brilliant orange and pink sunset on the knife-edged crest of the Sierras. I fell asleep to the sound of the wind whipping my tarp. In the early morning I drove down the unpaved road to the parking lot at Navy Beach, a washboard ride through dust and sage. There were no other cars in the lot. The lake in morning light was a vast sheet of shimmering blue glass surrounded by a stark white shore, hawk-hunted hills, emptiness, and palpable silence.

It’s no wonder Clint Eastwood chose this beach to film “High Plains Drifter,” his surreal 1973 western about a mono-syllabic, scowling, gun toting avenger, after he’d scouted locations in Nevada and Oregon on a solo trip in his pickup truck. It takes some getting used to a place so stripped down to essentials: air, bitter water, and open land. Near the shore where I put in my kayak, hundreds of miles from Hollywood, he had instructed his tech crew to nail together a wooden movie set for the forlorn town he envisioned as the stage for his wild-west drama of desperation. While I eased my boat through the water along the parched, scattered coast, I remembered the final scene of the movie: the cry of the gulls and the withering soundtrack as the unnamed rider evaporated into the shimmering hills. I narrowed my eyes like Clint and paddled on.

This 45,133 acre body of water (roughly 13 miles wide by 9.3 long) has a stark and lonely beauty owing partly to its special geographic location: it is nestled in the high desert some 6,300 feet above sea level at the front door of the snowcapped Sierras. The lake is the murky end-of-the-line for crystal clear-water creeks that tumble out of the high mountains into a volcanic basin formed 750,000 years ago. page speed test The mountain water has no outlet to the ocean, and under pitiless sunlight, it forms a highly alkaline, shallow, saline soda lake. In this high concentration of salt (almost 2 ½ times saltier than the sea) no fish live, but there is a native brine shrimp population that feeds the two million annual migratory and nesting birds. I could see shrimp wiggle just under the surface along the shore, along with the alkali flies that “walked” underwater in their own little bubble of air.

The water in the summer is dark green with planktonic algea that support the food chain of the lake. I did not relish tipping over in this dark, warm brine, and took care with each stroke not to upset my boat. All sorts of water birds – avocets, killdeer, grebes, sandpipers and snowy plovers – rest here on their migratory journeys, and a good portion of California’s seagulls spend part of their year nesting and feeding here. Osprey nest in the rock formations. The air is alive with piercing calls and bursts of flight, and the whole surface of the lake is dotted with sleek forms resting on the slightly rolling waves. I quietly cut my way across the water through their world.

I paddled eastward and scanned the distance north of me: Negit and Paoha Islands, northern links in the Mono-Inyo volcanic chain. The latter is only about 250 years old, with evidence of magma still looking for ways to the surface (its name comes from a Native American word for the long-haired spirits that lived in the hot springs there). On this island Mark Twain “found nothing but solitude, ashes, and heartbreaking silence.” Paoha’s highest cone contains a heart-shaped lake. Negit Island is older, and was, before water diversions began in 1941, a major nesting ground for California gulls. But by 1990, when Los Angeles had drunk down so much water from the creeks that feed Mono Lake that levels had fallen 45 vertical feet (half its pre-1941 volume), the island was a peninsula, and predators overran Negit, disrupting the hatchery. Heroic conservation efforts—by a few committed people appalled by the devastation that others were blind to—have brought the lake closer to historical levels; the island is back, but not the nesting birds.

Camping, in general, at Mono Lake – on the islands (except during nesting season) and on the shore – is permitted, should you want to soak up all that silence and solitude. The required permit is issued for free at the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center. Remember all the golden rules: plan ahead and prepare, leave no trace and take nothing away. The lake is open to anyone with a boat. Outfitters from Mammoth Lakes and Lee Vining offer guided kayak and canoe trips in the summer. Hidden obstacles in the shallow water make it a dicey proposition for anything but a small craft. Warnings are posted to “be off the lake by noon and always check the weather forecast in advance.” The Mono Visitor Center advises adventurers to equip themselves with extra food and water, dry clothing and overnight gear, just in case they’re stranded on a far shore by the weather.

I was only there for the morning. After an hour or so of steady work, I pulled into shore to stretch my legs near a small cluster of tufa that rose like open-air stalagmites at the edge of the water on the south-eastern side. Tufas form underwater when calcium-rich springs engage the carbonates in the lake water and slowly settle into these carbuncled limestone towers. The water diversions of the last century exposed these that I stood beside.

I dragged my light boat up onto the sand. I’d just recently undergone bilateral knee replacement, so I moved cautiously, careful not to turn too quickly and have my tender joints suddenly complain. As I stood and looked out over the lake, I became aware of the sound of a spring whispering tunefully in the tufa towers: it bubbled from the heart of the formation and danced through a tiny trough into the shallows. I reached my hand down to gather up a palm-full of the cool water and put my tongue to it, confirming all I’d read about the springs that collaborated in the formation of these rocks: full of calcium.

I stood for a long while hip deep in the tepid water, hoping that perhaps, as I’d heard somewhere, it possessed healing properties. Alkali flies whirred in tight circles around me. I considered going for a swim, but didn’t relish having the salt-laden soup dry on my skin and in my hair and clothes. I gathered my legs back into the cockpit of my kayak and shoved off again into the lake. I was soon far from shore. I could not see the beach where I’d parked, but the same silver wavelets slapped against the limestone of the shore and the birds drifted on their bellies as far out on the water as my eyes could make out. The hills blinked back at me in their stillness.

One has to resist the impulse to really get anywhere while on this water: there is really no destination other than the lake itself. The birds cry out and circle the surface or float high upon it as it slowly undulates, the insects whine furiously at the water’s edge, and the trickling sound of the oar rising and falling becomes constant and mesmerizing. The moonlike, desolate beauty astounds. My goal—the eastern shore—seemed to come no closer to me no matter how hard I paddled as I struggled to cut faster across the distance. I soon began to ease my pace and lean back in my kayak seat: I floated at times without rowing at all, a solitary human flotsam far out on the lake, taking in the silence and the view. The gulls seemed to accept me as one of their own and no longer launched into the air suddenly as I eased closer to them resting easily on the surface. The alkaline water buoyed their bodies almost completely upon the surface. All around me the treeless shoreline reverberated in a mirage that seemed so close, but waited miles away.

The water lapped in desultory piano notes at my paddle, and my mind eventually eased into the tempo of the slow clock of the earth: the sun inched across the blue dome above; the gulls rose and settled back on the sheet-like surface near and far; a remnant of mountain cloud drifted overhead and was reflected brilliantly upon the mirror of the water. The morning passed without moving. I gave up my urge to get anywhere—my paddling seemed to have little effect–and was instead just there.

Mono 1To the west and south I could see numerous minor outcroppings, including the distinctive tufa rock formations. The lake was unrelenting in its gorgeous monotony, no hint of coves or inlets to explore. Small variations of sight and sound and motion caught my attention. Everywhere the water and landscape shimmered with life. This place is fantastically beautiful, to be sure, but so seemingly unfriendly to man, I marveled at the quality of heart and mind that could thrive here and call it home. Once, before the arrival of European settlers and miners (after the US Army had “discovered” the lake while searching for Chief Tenaya’s band of Miwok) a small tribe called the Kutzadika’a, a branch of the Northern Paiutes, lived here for part of each year, foraging for fly pupae along the shores, before moving on to the Pinyon Pine forests in the fall. Evidence of human settlement reaches back 10,000 years. I scanned the wilderness and admired the rare and resilient kind of noticing, of eye and ear tuned to the most subtle variations, that could wring life and joy and satisfaction from such a hard edge of creation.

It is, of course, not at all a desolate place. The land and water team with hundreds of varieties of plant and animal. The sage hills rattle with jackrabbit and mouse huddled under the vigilant circling of hawks. Antelope graze green shoots in the brush. The sunrises are especially vibrant and the sunsets on the mountains startle the imagination with their streaks and whorls of red and purple and orange. One simply has to slow down and pay attention to the silence that isn’t really silence at all; there is a bright pulse in it that can wake your eyes suddenly to what is all around you.

Easy to say. I’ve read my share of what has been written on the subject of solitude, and the error of our techno-centric ways, and I’ve gone on at times after a beer or two about my own transformative experiences in the mountains, but this morning out on Mono Lake unsettled me quite a bit: this wasn’t “about” feeling alone, but something of the real thing. It stunned me. The distance seemed to peer into me and to come close, yet it kept retreating, inviting me ever onward, inward. I lost heart. I lifted my paddle from the water and let myself drift a while, and shuddered with a feeling that I didn’t quite belong here, alone, so far out. I decided I’d cross the lake some other time, maybe with a friend along, and I slowly turned my kayak around.

As I paddled with tired arms the long way back across the glassy oil-green water towards Navy Beach I began to make out the momentary flashes of oars and the slim outlines of canoes with groups of tourists moving out from the shoreline. I was glad, finally, in my frightened-of-solitude, “civilized man” way, to see some other people. I drew near them finally and waved. The air was alive with their laughter and bits of conversation. I was struck, though, by the thought that they were seeing a different Mono Lake than I just had—beautiful for sure, but holding back, perhaps, its subtle, sobering communication of the rhythm of the planet shared in solitude. I got my boat up on my truck, and headed home. I drove slowly, letting others fly by me on Highway 395, as I looked out on the lake glittering in the late morning, and realized there’s nothing “fun” or easy to package about being alone in a place like Mono Lake. It’s about willingness to approach it on its own terms. It’s no amusement park or play land by the beach. The startling beauty and frank loneliness of the fragile environment can humble us, to our benefit. It brings you down a notch.

No need to romanticize it; there’s plenty of fact there in all that transcendence. Understanding the tenuous web of interconnected systems of the Mono Basin can help us keep a sensible perspective that actually means survival of the planet as we know it, and of ourselves. Yes, it’s just a mile off the road, and no great feat to visit. We almost destroyed it with our blind thirst (as we did Owens Lake just south of it). The understanding and will to preserve such a world of both stark and subtle wonders comes not from romanticizing it, but from real experience of its connection to us, ecological as well as spiritual. As I found in my little venture out onto the water, time spent along there can reverberate deeply in the heart for a long while afterwards. It’s a fragile experience that speaks in a voice across tens of thousands of years. It’s good to get out on the quiet water for a while and listen to what that voice has to say. It’s good to go there, and hear it whisper, “leave me alone.”

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