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A bounty of wonders at California's ancient Mono Lake

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / November 2, 2005

MONO BASIN, Calif. -- It's not against state law to swim in Mono Lake, but it is against the laws of nature. The water in this ancient geological marvel is so thick with salt (more than twice that of ocean water) that floating comes much easier than swimming.

I attempted neither, because at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve there are no showers in which to wash off the slime and stink associated with the lake's high levels of salt and alkalinity. And because my group of three, on our way back to San Francisco from a July visit to nearby Yosemite National Park, would be in a car most of the day, I thought it more polite to stay dry.

Not that I wasn't tempted to test the waters of one of North America's oldest lakes, formed more than a million years ago.

I first learned about Mono Lake (pronounced MOE-no) years ago when a friend sent a postcard showing a lake with clusters of knobby towers of limestone formed by the lake's carbonates and the freshwater springs' calcium. I knew I had to see those structures for myself. (An image of the lake was used by Pink Floyd in the album art for ''Wish You Were Here.") The porous stone spires, some as tall as 40 feet, are called tufa (TOO-fah). Though they are absolutely remarkable, eerie, and captivating, they're not nearly as tall or plentiful as postcards and photos lead you to believe.

The tufa towers, the lake's star attraction amid a bounty of wonders that includes an important ecosystem and a thriving bird population, were made visible by what the Lake Mono Basin community for years fought successfully to reverse -- redirected water. In 1941, Los Angeles began taking water from an area about 300 miles north by diverting four of the five biggest streams that feed Mono Lake. That resulted in a whopping 40-foot drop in the 60-square-mile body of water. The tufa, formed underwater, emerged in all its glory, looking like stalagmites from the bottom of a cave. Once the tufa is out of the water, it stops growing.

The best way to view the lake, which is in the state reserve and part of the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area, is to take a naturalist-guided canoe tour (summer weekends only) or a ranger-led walk in the South Tufa area. The canoe rides are led by the volunteer-driven Mono Lake Committee, which has the distinction of being the largest single-interest group in the state. With help from the National Audubon Society, it is credited with restoring the lake. In 1994, after a 16-year legal battle, the state issued an order to save the lake and its tributaries, and now its water level is slowly rising.

We were disappointed to learn that the canoe trip was booked -- that is, until we took a fascinating stroll with Mono Lake reserve guide Dave Marquart, a 24-year veteran who clearly enjoys telling the lake's story. Along with impressing our group of 10 adults and three children with his repertoire of bird calls (Brewer's sparrow and sage thrasher, to name two), the accuracy of which I cannot vouch for, he pointed out plants and animals, like salt grass and kangaroo mice.

''Mark Twain called Mono Lake a dead sea. It's not dead at all. It gets 2 million birds a year," Marquart said. And then there are the half-inch-long brine shrimp, seen from April through October. ''Let's see if we can catch a few," Marquart said, holding out cups for us all. It's not hard to snag several with one scoop during the summer months, what with about 4 trillion plying the waters.

The shrimp and their pals, the alkali flies, feed on the lake's green algae, which blooms in the winter. The well-fed twosome attract the lake's more than 80 species of migratory birds. The most notable species are Wilson's and red-necked phalaropes, eared grebes, and two nesting species, California gulls and snowy plovers. About 1.5 million grebes migrate from August through October.

Marquart pointed out the volcanic hills to the north and east. To the south are Mono Craters, the youngest mountain range in North America, with the most recent eruption only 650 years ago. The lake has two islands, and one, Paoha, is thought to be only 300 years old, he said, with some volcanic activity still present. The hills are lovely to look at, too. The area, at the base of the Sierra Nevada, gets several feet of snow in the winter, though the lake never freezes.

Either before or after visiting Mono Lake, you'll want to stop in the closest town, Lee Vining, which has about 500 year-round residents. This refreshingly down-to-earth eastern gateway to Yosemite has a few motels, restaurants, and gift shops (many close in the winter), and is home to the Mono Lake Committee Information Center and Bookstore. There you can learn even more about one of the continent's most productive ecosystems and the fight to keep it that way.

Contact Diane Daniel at ddaniel@globe.com.

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