Mono Lake Memories

Over the years I have observed Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra from every shore in every kind of weather-from the mirror calm of a bright orange sunrise to the violent churning foam of a turbulent, green sea. And always, the choking alkaline dust blows on the east side of the lake creating great clouds of toxic dust. Mono Lake is ever changing and provides a lot of life from such an ancient dead sea.

Paiute people harvested the high protein fly larvae that were wind driven onto the shore in great piles. In all the surrounding hills were pine nut trees and large game, while along the streams, riparian plants flourished. The islands provided an unlimited supply of sea gull eggs and birds to hunt. In summer, the door was open to the Sierra backcountry for the people to return to like they had for centuries. Back and forth they would go following the trans-Sierra trade routes or fleeing the cavalry in historic times.

John Muir thought Mono Lake was quite a sight when he came over Bloody Canyon from Yosemite and saw it for the first time. He complained about how dirty the Indians were in such a clean environment. Mark Twain had a whale of a time when he got caught in a storm on the lake and barely made it to shore. He had a lot of nasty things to say about how the water in the lake would peel off skin, but the lake was actually a popular water ski spot in the 60s. You know how Twain liked to exaggerate.

Every shore around the lake has something different to see and experience. To the south are the Tufa Towers and large, thick stands of sagebrush that grow beyond the sandy beaches. In the spring the no see ums can make life real unpleasant in the six foot tall, 150 year old sagebrush. Without a hat the little devils will get into your hair and bite your scalp in a hundred different places before you can reach up to scratch the itch. A day without a breeze during May-June when the no see ums are out is a good time not to be there.

The south side of the lake leads down through vast fields of white pumice to some awesome volcanic examples called the Mono Craters. These craters are really fun to climb and run down the steep, pumice slopes. Now that the motorcycles aren’t ripping everything up in the craters anymore, the area is returning to its former smooth and sandy glory. Riding motorcycles in the craters at high speed was fun while it lasted, but those days are over.

Another interesting historical site on the south end of the lake on Hwy 120 is Mono Mills. Men were all over the country cutting huge Jeffrey trees to be gathered at the saw mill for shipment by train to the mines at Bodie. It is still possible to walk sections of the railroad grade where the ties are left rotting on the ground and old cans and broken glass lay scattered about. Some spots had short trestles. This was another project where Chinese labor was employed to negotiate the steep grades required to get up the hill to Bodie.

The east side of the lake is mostly four wheel drive because of the thick, soft pumice on the old railroad grade. There are Pinyon pine trees but not much evidence of previous inhabitants. They seemed to like the north and west shores better.

Always in view are the mysterious volcanic islands that are stark but have a magnetic quality that entices the visitor to want to go out there and explore.

The north side of the lake has sand dunes with a scattering of Pinyon and Juniper trees leading up to the hills where the Indians gathered nuts in the fall. There are springs and small creeks that draw more wildlife than in other parts of the lake. On the northwest part of the lakeshore are immense hills of black pumice that have been mined for road cinders and other uses for many years. A lot of sheepherding has gone on in this area from the 1890s to the present day.

The west side of the lake is where most of the activity occurs where the highway runs at the base of steep mountains that lead into Yosemite. The old store called Hammonds and other historical buildings are still there. The town of Lee Vining remains an important tourist stop for visitors along Tioga Pass and Hwy 395.

High above the lake are many mines. Some have roads to them like the Log Cabin Mine, but others are reached only by hiking cross country or on old trails. The Mono View Mine from the 1890s is one such place that has a spectacular view of the lake. This was one of those places where everything had to be packed in on horse or mules a couple of miles up the steep, tree-lined hillside.

In the 1980s I had the opportunity to meet a gentleman who reclaimed the Mono View Mine and made a trail to get his little dirt bike up the hill. He was in his seventies then and was actually working the mine in summer. There was nobody tougher and more highly skilled than the old prospectors and miners who walked the mountains and deserts long before anybody but the Indians.

There is a wealth of history that Mono Lake possesses even to this day after the area was saved from being drained by Los Angeles. Since Dick Dahlgren of Cal Trout caught a fish in Rush Creek that wasn’t supposed to be there to people transporting water on their bicycles from Mono Lake to LA, more people have come to realize the importance of this ancient sea with its high, wave cut terraces and stark beauty. The local bumper sticker says it all, “Long live Mono Lake!”


One Response to “Mono Lake Memories”

  1. john Says:

    Your writting is fantastic, the historic value, I can’t thank you enough I Iove reading it so much.

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