Morning Photo Shoots At Magnificent Mono Lake, CA
Warning: This post has picture overload 🙂
For the past two mornings I’ve been getting up at 5AM. Yes, you read that right….5AM. That would be in the pitch dark of the night, before sunrise, before any sane person (well, other than vampires) should be awake.
I should preface this by mentioning that I’m not a morning person, not even in the slightest sense, so the fact that I’m doing this of my own volition is quite a monumental feat. Add to this that temps have been dropping to around 25F (-4C) overnight which means that in order to drag my reluctant butt out of my cozy, warm bed I need to put on 7 layers of clothing (approximately tripling my width) and wobble as best I can out of the rig into the complete FREEZING darkness beyond. It’s sheer insanity.
So, what in the world would possess me to do such a thing?
Why, the lure of a good pic of course.
Several days ago, the Wondertopia boys and us moved our rigs about 60 miles north to the Mono Lake area. It’s a place I’ve visited many times before and it holds a special place in my heart. Back in my youth (many, many, many(?) years ago) it was one of the very first places I tent-camped in the US.
In those days I was a fresh-faced & adventurous young thing (‘d like to think the latter, at least, still holds true), and I’d just moved to the big US of A from little ‘ol England. I was totally seduced by the vast open spaces here and, on a whim I decided to take a driving trip to the mountains and do some exploring. After stopping at Yosemite (where I spent a very cold night sleeping on the valley floor) I motored over magnificent Tioga Pass and that’s when I first saw it. An enormous aqua-blue lake, with two ying-yang islands (one black, one white) in the middle. The lake was surrounded by volcanic cinder cones and barren, brown mountains all of which reflected like mirrors on the perfectly-still water. It looked like the surface of an alien planet and it called to me something crazy.
Once I got to the water’s edge it got even better. Brilliant white sculptures dotted the shoreline. The bulbous, irregular spires looked like giant termite-hills and stretched like cathedrals of snow across the floor. Walking amongst them was like getting lost in a white wonderland. In places they towered over my head, in others they barely reached my knees and in spots they twisted and danced together in abstract shapes. I’d never seen anything like it in my life and I was immediately hooked.
That was my introduction to Mono Lake, and I’ve never been the same since. Everytime we come down 395 I look forward to my first glimpse of this magnificent beauty, and almost everytime we see her I have to stop.
Her stats are fascinating. She’s estimated to be at least 750,000 years old and possibly much older than that (1-3 million years) making her one of the oldest lakes in North America. She spans 45,133 acres and harbors a max depth of ~159 feet. But what makes her unique is her unusual chemistry. She’s a chloride-carbonate-sulfate “triple water” lake with a highly alkaline PH and she’s very, very salty, about three times as salty as the ocean.
The latter has happened over time, accelerated by the diversion of water from Mono by the LA Water Department (a sad story, that’s still being worked today). Due to her weird chemistry she has no fish, just algae, brine shrimp, and alkali flies but these latter, interestingly enough, attract millions of migrating birds each year. She also has underwater calcium-rich springs that bubble and bond with carbonates in the water to form calcium carbonate (limestone) spires. These are the white, alien-looking sculptures I first observed along the shoreline back in the day. Here they call them “tufa’s” and they’re only visible because water levels have dropped over the years.
It was because of the tufa’s that I was getting up at 5AM.
You see there’s a large formation of tufa’s on the south side of the lake (called, believe it or not, the South Tufa’s) that just happen to be in the perfect spot to catch the first light of the day. The sun rises on their face creating a back-drop of color from deep reds to blues and even purples right before she crests the mountains. Then, as the first rays hit the tufa’s they glow briefly and intensely orange before finally dulling to grey-white. It’s a morning theater unmatched anywhere else and as a photographer it’s one of the “must do” things in the area. To experience the full effect, however, you need to get to the tufa’s at least 1/2 hour before the sun actually rises. Thus our crazy 5AM wakeup call.
Before the day of the planned first shoot our buddies Island Girl**, fresh up from San Diego, joined us. So bright (night?) and early on Friday morning, freezing fingers and all, all 6 of us (plus 3 doggies) motored on over to the South Tufa’s to watch the show.
That morning was cloudless, but the sunrise was nonetheless sublime and I managed to capture a deep purple hue right before she crested the mountains that I’d never seen before. All 6 of us spent over an hour at the shoreline enjoying the changing light both before and after sunrise, following our outing with a tasty breakfast at Nicely’s in nearby Lee Vining. The next morning looked even better with a hint of potential clouds, so we couldn’t resist the draw to go back down and try it again. This time around Paul & Russ stayed in bed while the rest of us enjoyed flashes of color by the lake. Sublime!
Two days, two crazy early rises, but two absolutely amazing experiences. If you ever come to the area, I definitely recommend it even if it means dragging your butt out of bed in the freezing cold. You won’t regret it!
I’ve got one more post on this area (to bring you up to date) and then we’ll find ourselves in Reno, NV at the end of our spring 395 travels. After many dry months in the SW I’m looking insanely forward to the green, moist PNW and a summer of hosting on the coast. The season is changing and we’re moving north. It’s time and it’s gonna be good.
**Hector, from Island Girl is a fabulous nature photographer and just recently launched his new website hmlopezphoto.com. Ever seen a moonbeam (moon rainbow) in Yosemite?? Neither had I! But Hector has caught it and it’s spectacular. Check out his site for that and many more excellent shots!SPONSORED LINK: SPONSORED LINK:
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