Ancient Mono Lake was the stately body of water on which we chose to christen a spiffy new green polyethylene canoe with backrests: a birthday gift from me to my son, Karl. Though the origin of the word is uncertain, Mono (pronounced mō-nō) is believed by some to be a Yokuts word for “fly eater,” referring to the regional Native Americans who would harvest fly pupae for tasty snacks they called kutsavi. The lake covers about 60 square miles and is one of the oldest in North America. Its present-day topography was molded by millions of years of volcanic activity: slipping, sinking, and tilting until a bowl-like basin filled with water and became Mono Lake.
Salts and minerals traveled with Sierra streams into Mono Lake over the years. Lacking an outlet, the lake became two and a half times as salty as the ocean as freshwater evaporated. There are no fish in Mono Lake due to the harsh alkaline water, but it’s still a very much alive and important body of water. Alkali flies and half-inch-long brine shrimp thrive, providing food for more than a million migratory birds that visit each spring and summer. For some species, this is their only rest stop between Canada and Central or South America. For others, like the California gull, it is a nesting site for thousands of chicks — one of the largest colonies in the world.
Now my white-haired self needs a helping hand to climb aboard, but I remember a skinny girl, with long dark hair, pushing a canoe with both hands into a Midwestern lake. The barefoot girl, in search of water lilies, jumps into her boat just as it floats away on a glassy surface. She grabs a paddle and slides onto the stern seat in one youthful fluid movement. Karl and I drift in his canoe, as silent as a moccasin tiptoeing across a mirror, suspended on the horizon. Mother Earth, a master of her medium, uses upward-moving freshwater springs that provide calcium with just the correct portion of carbonate-rich alkaline water to sculpt her mystical limestone tufa (too-fah) towers. They form forever-changing art around the mouth of a spring, flourishing with life while serving as safe platforms for large osprey nests. Perhaps I’m influenced by my privileged view from the bow seat, but it feels like a spiritual site to me.
We are trapped in time, between a real and reflected world, oblivious to the lone, dark cloud swiftly moving across the sky in our direction. As sprinkles hit my face, I sit up straight and transfer as much power as I can muster into the now-vertical paddle. With each pull through inky water, years of images bubble past me. Are we racing against a typical Mono Lake storm or am I alone in the middle of an Indiana lake, calling for help, surrounded by swirling white water? Karl expertly maneuvers around partially exposed rocks until we reach shore and I can easily climb out. When I glance back from the car, though, I’m sure there is a young girl with long, dark hair pulling her mother’s green canvas-covered wooden canoe safely onto that long-ago misty beach.
Mono Lake is about 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park, near the town of Lee Vining on Highway 395. For more information, see monolake.org.