After Bodie, our goal was to reach the Mono Lake visitors’ center to learn more about the lake, and then to actually scout out the Mono Lake shooting for the evening. We did get to the visitors’ center in time to see a few exhibits It closes about 4;00pm) and to talk to the park rangers about how to get to the “south tufa area” which was purported to be the best place for taking pictures.
Then we drove to the south tufa area, and timed the walk from the parking lot to the edge of the lake (about 6-8 minutes). Sunset was estimated to be at 8:10. The lake is in a valley on the east side of the Sierras meaning that the sun would go behind the mountains well ahead of sunset. Calculating that we wanted to arrive lakeside about 2 hours before sunset put us there at 6:10; an 8 minute walk put us at 6:02; a 20 minute car ride from the hotel means we had to leave the hotel at 5:42 ( to be exact!). By this time it was 4:45 and we still needed to drive 20 minutes to the hotel, check in and get something to eat. Resting was probably not in the picture!
We got to our hotel in the 20 minutes we had estimated, and checked-in. We ordered our dinner to go from the hotel restaurant. A quick settle into our rooms, a quick take-out dinner on the porch over-looking a pond, then we were back in the car and on our way back to the lake. All went easily according to schedule and we were there with plenty of time to get set up before the light began to change.
Mono Lake is a very interesting and unusual place and a well-known destination for photographers. We did not have the place to ourselves! There we tons of other photographers there: Professionals, judging by the gear; amateurs like us, some taking a class; and lots of tourists (their lack of courtesy to the other people taking pictures set them clearly apart).
And so much for the admonition not to climb on the tufa formations … There just wasn’t much maneuvering room with so many people.
Let me tell you a little about this lake so that you can imagine why we were all so excited to take pictures of it.
The lake has no outlet. Water flows in from three small rivers and is lost only through evaporation. As a result, the salt leeching into the lake from the surrounding rocks has nowhere to go. Half a century ago the city of LA diverted the water from the rivers, before it reached the lake, for drinking water for the city. This caused a steady drop in the lake level. After a serious court battle, conservationists and people trying to preserve the lake managed to get the water siphoning stopped. Now the lake level is mandated by law and it has recovered about 20 feet (of the almost 40 feet that were lost during the siphoning.) The actual mandated level will bring the lake up another 9 feet.
The amount of water is crucial because it is salt water and its salinity is easily twice that of the ocean. Obviously the ecosystem around the lake is very unusual, and it is worth preserving as a unique place in the world.
Just some fun facts to know and tell: the Native Americans who lived near the lake lived off the larva of the alkali flies … Thankfully, now we only have to imagine birds with that particular diet! The flies themselves are quite interesting because they move around under the surface of the water encased in a bubble, feeding on microscopic organisms.
The only other fauna of visible size living in the lake is brine shrimp, which have no nutritional value for humans, but feed lots of birds and are (were, in the case of Mono) harvested commercially for pet fish food.
Called a “soda lake”, the water of the lake is highly alkaline. However, water that bubbles up from underground into the lake is rich in calcium, when these two types of water mix, they form calcium carbonate (and neutralize the water). The calcium carbonate molecules adhere to one another and columns of stone start to grow – hence, the tufa. The tufa formed underwater, but when the lake levels went down, they were revealed. There are areas, like the south tufa area, where the tufa is still exposed above the rising water level, and the otherworldly look it gives to the lake and the area is what draws photographers and tourists.
Annie, David, Gerry and I stayed until about 9 pm, trying to get some good shots, preferably without other photographers in them, but finally, a little discouraged and quite cold, we gave up and returned to the hotel. The schedule for Sunday morning was to be back out there to shoot at sunrise, so we planned to be up and out of the hotel by 4:45 am. (If you think this is odd, trust me, for photographers, it is pretty standard!)
Boy! That 4:30 alarm came fast. Driving from the hotel back to the lake it was already getting light. Our calculations were off somewhere because we had intended to arrive in the dark. It actually did not pose much of a problem. Though the sky was getting lighter, the sun did not come up until it’s appointed hour at 5:45am so we had plenty of time to shoot. Fortunately, the only other photographers out at that hour were a few professionals and a handful of the students from the class of the night before.
The dawn light was excellent for shooting and we all got good shots, plenty of colors, and a general sense of well-being from having witnessed the dawn of a beautiful day in this fascinating place. It also helped that the air was warming up instead of cooling off.
The sage brush around the lake was also alive with animals. We could hear birds singing from the moment we stepped out of the car. Gerry saw a jack rabbit. I saw a couple of little squirrels scampering around and around a column of tufa, chasing each other. Lots of rustling in the sage brush alerted us to the fact that we were not alone.
By 7:35 am we were back in the hotel, had dropped off our gear and were sitting around cups of steaming coffee and tea, waiting for the hearty breakfast we felt we had earned. The sense of euphoria from the morning shoot soon lost out to the allure of sleep left un-slept, so we had a little down time for napping and resting before we packed the car for the ride back to Truckee.
I spent the time writing this journal, sitting out on the porch of our room. Now that the rushing around was behind us, I had time to appreciate the hotel and its surroundings.
The Double Eagle Resort and Spa is located in June Lake, though it is not on the lake of the town’s name. It has its own pond, with two-story, four-unit cabins around the periphery. It is nestled in a pine forest, and a huge mountain looms behind it. From the hotel we could see several waterfalls way up high on the mountain, flush with melt from its beautiful crown of snow. It was really a lovely place. It was a little farther from Mono Lake than we would have wanted (simply to cut down on the driving time to and from the shoots) but it was so lovely there, it was a shame not to have been able to spend more time enjoying it. That was the reason that I did not nap that morning. I wanted to sit out on my porch and enjoy the cool sunshine, admire the pond and the scenery.
With a 3 1/2 hour drive ahead of us, we packed up and checked out about 11 and began a leisurely drive northward. We missed the road we wanted to take over the Sierras (the men were in the front seat, supposedly with the route under control, while Annie and I were sitting in the back seat solving the world’s problems) and so ended up in Gardenersville for lunch at a Mexican place called the Aguila Real. It was a gorgeous day, so we sat outside, enjoyed the sunshine, and ate huge platters of freshly home-made Mexican food that far out shown most of the restaurant fare Mexican food I have eaten in my life.
Re-fueled, we took a circuitous route to get back on our original planned route, albeit missing a section, but we made it over the mountains back to the west side and the shore of Lake Tahoe easily and finished our drive to Truckee arriving about 4:30.
Tired and wanting to look at our pictures, we got take out Chinese food, laughed and drank, and went to bed early.
Monday morning we took everything pretty slowly, relaxed and caught up on the photo editing. But another beautiful day was beckoning, so we eventually got organized. The impromptu plan was to follow the Little Truckee River north and have a picnic on its banks. Store bought sandwiches and beer in the cooler, we found a nice spot along the river with a picnic table near the water and, slowly peeling off layers until we were down to our short sleeved t-tee shirts, we basked in the sun.
The river was racing along at a good pace, so we got some photos, but Annie and I also went wild flower hunting. We found many varieties, some quite uncommon. There were some flowers so tiny they were no bigger than a nail head, and others hung their blossoms down, as if trying not to call themselves to our attention. We compared the Latin names, and laughed over the common names, all the while appreciating the adaptations these plants have made to live in a place where the winter weather is very harsh.
Once back at the house, we got the wildflower books out again, and started researching more about the flowers we had found. It was still warm enough to be able to sit out on the deck and enjoy the late afternoon.
At 5:30, we piled in the car again and drove up to Reno to drop Gerry off at the airport. To get back to San Juan by Tuesday, he had to fly to LA and take a red-eye to Miami. On the way back, Annie, David and I made plans to go out for dinner, and made reservations from the car for 7:15.
Dinner was at a wonderfully romantic restaurant called Pianeta. The building had once been the town’s laundromat (made famous, and also probably went out of business, as a result of the habit of the local crazy man to pee in the dryers!). Italian cuisine, excellent service, a personality rich sauvignon blanc and lively conversation: the perfect recipe for a great last dinner.
After a little tutorial on blogging (we have a blog for the Oaxaca Wonders, our group of traveling photography friends), exhaustion set in, and before I knew it a text message woke me to begin my own trip to the airport on Tuesday morning.
As I finish up the journal of what we did when and why, I am thinking back over the last few days and feeling really lucky to have feasted my eyes on the natural beauty I saw all around me on this trip and to have been able to see it and share it with people whose friendship is dear. I am sure that a good portion of my instant love for this area is due to its similarities to northern Wisconsin – the pines, the cool, crisp air, the lake culture, the water, the woods, the outdoors in general. No, Wisconsin doesn’t have snow-capped mountains to frame its beauty, but the feelings this California mountain region evoke are at the same soul level as those I get from northern Wisconsin. The Sierra Nevada is a place I know I could live and never get tired of exploring. I will definitely return.