Take a Tour: An Overview from a Ranger Guide
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State
When they say, "Ooh!" with the exclamation
point, I know things are going well.
A visit to Mono Lake can generate a lot of "oohs"
and "ahs." This place is so different, offers
such startling and unusual scenery and sights. Some
of the discoveries are immediate and obvious
like the tufa towers on the south shore, with their
variety of shapes and textures. Or the amazing contrast
of miles of blue water surrounded by desert shrubs,
with the snowy Sierra crest as a backdrop.
But some of the discoveries are more subtle. I know,
from talking to thousands of visitors, that fascinating
details can be missed during a casual, quick stop. We
put up exhibit panels and provide brochures to try to
fill in the gaps. And every summer day, rangers and
naturalists conduct guided walks.
We call this part of our job "interpretation."
Our kind of intepreter translates the information about
the area into a language that visitors can understand.
If you only come to Mono Lake once in your life, it
would be a shame to miss some of the easy, important
discoveries. If you are lucky enough to be able to explore
this area frequently, our staff members hope to give
you helpful background information for your own self-discoveries.
Would you like to go on a tour? Here are some of the
things you might do and see:
A Forest Service or State Reserve naturalist will greet
you at the South Tufa Area parking lot. That is the
main visitor site at Mono Lake; it is part of the Mono
Basin National Forest Scenic Area. The two agencies
share the schedule of tours.
You'll walk down a trail toward the center of the tufa
grove. What's a tufa and why does Mono Lake have them?
You'll have to learn about the lake's unique water chemistry
to understand the tufa towers. You may find yourself
participating in making some tufa, on the spot, by mixing
lake water with its high carbonate content
into freshwater containing calcium, like the
springs which enter the lake. The end product is calcium
carbonate tufa a solid produced by the
mixing of waters.
In fact, you'll find that everything at Mono Lake is
influenced by the salty, alkaline character of the water.
Rub some of it between your fingers. It will feel like
soapy dishwater. That's the carbonates, the dissolved
baking soda. It makes the water harsh, helps form tufa
towers, and makes it impossible for fish to live here.
But you won't have trouble locating the life which
has adapted to the lake's harsh conditions. Alkali flies
crowd the shore in the summer. Don't worry, the alkali
flies are shy. They don't like people and they won't
bother you. Look under water, near shore, and you'll
see them walking, enclosed in air bubbles.
The ranger will show you the fly larva and pupa stages
on the submerged rocks. Birds eat the adult flies and
the larvae. The Paiute Indians used to harvest the abundant
pupae, too. Would you like to taste one? It's a new
experience you may not want to miss. This was a staple
of the local Indians' diet, and a valuable item for
trade to other Indians.
Have you heard something about the water problems of
Mono Lake? Who hasn't, by now?
As you start to look at the life in the water, realize
that much of the controversy surrounded the likelihood
that the lake's creatures would not be able to adapt
to greater salinity levels as the lake shrinks. The
flies were already showing the effects, and research
was done to predict the levels where the falling lake
would no longer provide suitable habitat for their survival.
Brine shrimp the other animal found in large
numbers were also at risk. You can easily catch
them in containers provided by the tour guide. The lake
teems with the half-inch long shrimp in the summer,
adding up to millions of pounds of the tiny creatures.
They are a species unique to Mono Lake, a species which
has adapted to the unique conditions of this ancient
As long as the flies and shrimp survive, they will
be important food for over a million birds that visit
the lake each year. California gulls come here to eat
the "shrimp soup" and nest on islands in the
lake. Even more birds migrate here from nesting grounds
in Canada. This lake is their rest-stop and "gas
station" on long migrations between Canada and
Central and South America.
Which birds will you see on your tour? The gulls are
almost always easy to find; you can watch them feeding.
The young born this year are easy to tell because of
their brown color, though they look as big as the adults.
Thousands of phalaropes are here mid-summer, but the
lake is big and it's a matter of luck whether they'll
be hanging around the south shore on any given day.
The eared grebes start to arrive in late August.
Watch for kildeer, violet-green swallows, Brewers blackbirds,
sandpipers any of more than 100 bird species
found around the lake.
Volcanoes will be mentioned during your tour. Mono
Lake is ringed on three sides by volcanoes, has volcanic
islands, and you'll be walking on volcanic pumice and
obsidian chips along its shore. If the lake's chemistry
is the controlling factor for so much found here, volcanoes
are one of the primary factors behind that particular
blend of chemicals.
There is a lot of variety on the tours. Some of my
favorite moments have been totally unpredictable. Several
times an osprey, a fish-eating hawk that nests on a
tufa tower, has flown right over my group, holding a
fish in its talons. Fish at Mono Lake? No, but it is
only a few air miles over to Rush Creek and Grant Lake.
One day, a weasel put on a wild show for us. Occasionally
we'll see one of the sleek little hunters streaking
past, running from tufa-shelter to tufa-shelter. But
for some reason, this day, the weasel kept popping back
out, racing again and again between one tufa and another,
and now and then pausing to look at us, as if to make
sure we were admiring his performance.
Mono Lake is a very special place. Understanding and
appreciation of those qualities is the overriding objective
of our tours. We have some other sub-themes. Destroying
the false image of a "dead sea" is easy, once
people learn about the super-abundance of life the lake
We hope people incorporate what they discover here
into their own personal conclusions about the water-issue
questions. After visiting the lake, they should have
a clearer idea of what's been at stake. We know that
Mono Lake sells itself as a place to care about. And
that, perhaps, best explains why there is a plan now
in effect to raise, and to protect, Mono Lake. (The
State Water Board adopted a plan in September, 1994.)
Join us for a tour. Don't be surprised if you find
yourself "ooh-ing" and "ah-ing"
as you explore the mysteries of tufa towers, catch a
few brine shrimp, float bits of pumice rock in the lake,
and maybe even take a fly-pupae snack break along the
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