A very special and unique place.

Thanksgiving Day, 2014: Twenty Years Later At Mono Lake
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

I parked the car in one of the spaces with a charging unit, slid my credit card through the slot in the meter, then connected the plug. On cold, cloudy Thanksgiving afternoons in the mountains, I make it a point to keep the electric motor fully charged. Just as we always kept our gas tanks topped off, in the old days, as a winter precaution.

Two months earlier, with a lot of old friends, we'd celebrated the 20th anniversary of the 1994 decision that had saved Mono Lake. But for Thanksgiving in this year 2014, we'd wanted our family together for a more personal celebration. This was the very first trip to the South Tufa area of Mono Lake for my daughter-in-law and 6-year old granddaughter.

"So this is what 6,392 feet looks like," my son said. He'd grown up at Mono Lake, but lived far away now and hadn't seen it in many years.

"Well, it finally reached that elevation back in June, but you know how the annual pattern goes. The lake's down a foot now. Won't start up again until the spring runoff."

Our little group walked down the South Tufa area trail: grandma and grandpa (retired from our ranger jobs for 10 years now), son and daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

"The tufa area doesn't look all that different from here, Dad," my son said.

"No, not from the parking lot. Wait until we get down to the water. It's a lot shorter walk than it used to be."

The tufa area didn't appear different from that angle, because the higher lake still left a band of towers exposed between the parking area and the shore. But my attention was focused on the reactions of the two newcomers to Mono Lake.

"It's so quiet here," was my daughter-in-law's first comment about the site.

That was praise, not a complaint. Late-November's chilly weather still keeps visitor numbers down, even though the population of California has doubled since the Mono Lake decision was made back in 1994. The quiet of such wild places has become ever more precious, over the years.

My little granddaughter, clutching her father's hand, was almost too quiet, it seemed to me. But then, a lot of things about this place were a first for her. She'd asked us about snakes and bears her first night at our mountain home. So Grandma had taught her the song "Bats Eat Bugs, They Don't Eat People."*

That had eased fears of the unknown some. But it'd also shown me how important it was to get this little girl out into the real world more.

So we started looking closely at things, together. We were passing between rows of tufa towers and getting near the lake shore. I told her how the tall rocks formed from mixing two kinds of water together.

That got me an "Oh, Grandpa" disbelieving look. So I found a spring emerging under the lake and pointed to calcium carbonate crystals busily building a miniature tower. Soon she found several more such places and proudly showed her parents.

Before long, wiggly little brine shrimp in the water caught her eye. "Look!" she cried, trying to catch them to show us. It was too cold for hands in the water, so we used the thermos cup (Grandma always comes prepared) to scoop some up.

We identified males and females, and saw some mating in progress. ("Making babies, huh?" was her nonchalant comment.) And then I told her that all the adult shrimp we see in late November are going to die soon, as the lake gets cold. But their eggs will be waiting at the bottom of the lake to hatch next spring. She felt better, but wanted to know what the poor babies would do without their mommies and daddies around.

My son asked, "Has the reduced salinity helped the shrimp and fly populations?"

"Just like the research predicted, 20 years ago, Son," I said. "Or close enough, anyway. It's almost a linear relationship: as the salinity goes back down, productivity in the lake has gone back up. Of course, we had trillions of shrimp and flies even in 1994, but they're better off now and —"

"And in far less danger of the lake water reaching salinities that would've killed them off," my wife added. "If we get back into a long drought, now, we have 17 more feet of buffer against those thresholds."

Our granddaughter found this whole discussion boring. Her attention had shifted to birds on the lake. "Ducks!" she yelled. The place's natural quiet was succumbing to her growing enthusiasm.

Eared grebes dotted the water nearby. But it took binoculars to really appreciate how many of them there were. We shared ours, looking across mile after mile of the inland sea at literally hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.

"What about the ducks and geese issue, Dad? Weren't they hoping to see a million or so more, if the lake came up?"

Those had been the numbers, before stream diversions began in 1941, and there had been increases in waterfowl numbers at Mono Lake. But the response had been less than hoped for.

Migrating waterfowl need habitat sites north and south of Mono Lake, too, so improving things at Mono alone could only accomplish so much.

"It's too soon to give up, though. We've only just reached the target lake levels and salinities that go with them. Ask me again in five years, after the ecosystem has had time to fully adapt, and the surrounding wetlands sites have had time to mature, bordering this lake level."

We had been moving steadily along the shore. Daughter-in-law was photographing the off-shore towers and their reflections in the water.

"So, Son, what seems the biggest change to you, now that the lake is so high?"

"There didn't use to be so many towers poking out of the water, did there? It's even prettier this way, I think, with a forest of them out there in the water, but still visible."

He looked at me. "That was one of those issues you had to deal with, back then, wasn't it? The impression people had that the towers might all be gone if the lake came up."

"It was. And, if we have time, I want to take you to some of the other tufa areas. The north-shore groves, where towers were getting covered by willows back in the '90s, are nicer than ever."

"And the air-quality issue? The alkali-flat dust storms?"

"Just a nasty memory."

My granddaughter had discovered "a treasure," shiny black obsidian. Grandma explained why even the little rocks have to stay here for others to see. The two of them strolled off hand-in-hand, talking about volcanoes that helped form this place.

Son and daughter-in-law had fallen back, together studying the vista: mile after mile of lake covered by feeding birds, the snow-covered wall of the Sierra, tufa towers, clouds sailing overhead.

Sound carries well in a place like this. I heard her say, in a hushed voice, "I had no idea. This is awesome."

We set out, day by day, to do our work. But it's the big picture — the long term, and the generations to follow — that gives it meaning.

Happy Thanksgiving.

*If you'd like the words to "Bats Eat Bugs", call the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve at (760) 647-6331.

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