Mono Tones: Tufa the Price of One

A little over a week ago, I had the privelege of doing a couple of invited talks for Operation Sierra Storm, in Mammoth Lakes CA, on tropical cyclone tornadoes and on large venue preparedness for severe weather. Originally I was scheduled to travel out Wednesday, give the talks Thursday, then fly back the next day — quite a hectic travel feat given that Mammoth is a three hour drive from the airport in Reno. In-and-out travel, especially to a place as deeply interesting to an earth scientist as the eastern Sierra and Long Valley Caldera, isn’t cool. Fortunately I had the chance to take an extra day of my own time out there, and it was more than worth the effort and expense.

Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain are a skier’s paradise, but I don’t ski! All the roads into the national parks and wilderness areas (Yosemite, Sequoia, and so forth) were snowed in for the winter and closed even to 4-wheel drive vehicles.

So much for my notions of trekking off into the vast Sierran wilderness, backpack hoisted astern, scenes of wintertime wonderment just waiting for the lenses of eye and camera, as if I were some modern day hybrid of Ansel Adams and John Muir.

Fortunately the valleys and basins were available to me while everybody else hit the slopes. It was on the afternoon of my “free day, and the early morning before I had to leave, that I discovered and then rediscovered Mono Lake (preservation committee and state reserve websites). I could go there on a hundred different days and rediscover it anew each time.

Mono is a highly alkaline and salty lake that occupies part of a downdropped graben — a desert basin between the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains. It has been there over a million years and, as such, is older than the Great Lakes, indeed, one of the oldest inland bodies of water in North America.

In the 1940s, Los Angeles began taking water from streams that fed Mono Lake, contributing to its shriveling in ensuing decades. The lake soon shrank enough to cause air quality problems from alkali dust blowing off its former bottom, and to expose the formations of tufa that had been submerged. Court battles ensued amongst the various interests involved, resulting in a truce that will raise the lake — not to pre-1940s levels, but to a sustainable medium that L.A. can’t overdraw.

Tufa itself is a form of calcium carbonate (limestone) with other embedded minerals. It precipitates out of freshwater springs that rise through the lake bed, then through the heavier saltwater. Over many years of action, these underwater mineral springs formed columns, pillows and pillars — some quite spectacular — revealed by the shrunken lake levels.

The otherwordly aura and the stark beauty of the tufa, and of the basin as a whole, have attracted sightseers, bathers, naturalists and shutterbugs from worldwide. Mono Lake is one of those places that one must not deny the chance to visit when such an opportunity presents itself.

The tufa towers and salt-encrusted shoreline were a little harder to explore in the cold weather (temperatures zero to 28 deg F), but that kept the crowds away. For much of both my trips to the reserve, I was the only person around to marvel at the beauty of the place.

Because my old pocket digital camera finally crapped out — total mechanical failure and self-destruction of the built in lens mechanism almost immediately upon reaching the tufa — my best shots are still on rolls of film awaiting development. All I can offer now are a few teasers from the afternoon excursion that are really lame compared to what I hope to have captured on film. Nonetheless, here are a handful that I managed to force out of the digital camera before it failed altogether: tufa in the snow; fat tufa tower and reflection; reflections of tufa and snow; salt plants poking through the snow; tufa “ships adrift” in the fog and water.

Again, those are awfully poor samples — quite unrepresentative of the best scenes I encountered, but all that is available right now to illustrate the journeys. It’s hard to get well focused snapshots with an old digital camera while the lens is moving in and out on its own, listing sideways, making crunching and grinding noises, and error messages are pouring from the LCD screen. [Stupid worthless Nikon…I’ve had troubles with them before regarding both lousy craftsmanship and horrible customer “service,” so this was no real surprise! No more Nikon-anything, ever, for me.]

So I pretty much gave up on that camera and concentrated instead on film for the remaining hours, that afternoon and the next morning. If they’re as spectacular as I think they’ll be, a few of the slide stills (many of which I shot of images not even attempted with the crappy digital) may appear in SkyPix in the future, and perhaps even on a soon-to-debut stock photography site.

In the meantime, I’ll always remember those magical hours spent alongside a bizarre and special lake, crisply cold, still air, tufts of snow crowning pillars of tufa, reflections on the lake, the peculiar intermingling of snow, salt, desert and water, and mystical morning fog.


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