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WEEKEND ESCAPE: MONO LAKE

Crazy Kayak Caper

Buoyed by a mythic Eastern Sierra lake, lodge and restaurant

May 23, 1999|KEVIN RODERICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Kevin Roderick is a senior projects editor at The Times

LEE VINING, Calif. — Watching the tourists from Europe scarf down cheeseburgers, I wondered if every aging Volkswagen bus there wears a "Save Mono Lake" bumper sticker, as they seem to here. Many of the lunchers were, like my threesome up from Los Angeles, in town to enjoy the seeming renaissance of Mono Lake, the Eastern Sierra saltwater sea noted for its eerie rock towers and troubled past.

Rising water levels have quieted fears of ecological demise, and the recent reopening of two lakefront landmarks--a restored lodge and a restaurant run by the granddaughter of photographer Ansel Adams--made the 300-mile drive each way sound more appealing. As insurance for a 9-year-old girl's demanding attention span (and to help satisfy her mother's hankering for a memorable picture), I went on the Web to prearrange a guided kayak trip among the famous tufa towers.

We reached Lee Vining, the only town on the lake, in early afternoon. After a quick lunch amid tablefuls of Germans and French on the patio of Nicely's cafe, we walked next door to the headquarters of the Mono Lake Committee for the first of many tellings of the lake's story.

Luckily it's a compelling tale; the dastardly antagonist in the story is, of course, imperial Los Angeles.

Thirsty for ever more water, the city's Department of Water and Power extended its Owens Valley aqueduct north to the Mono Lake basin in 1941. Although the ancient lake is about three times as salty as the Pacific, the streams that feed it are pure High Sierra runoff. When the DWP diverted those streams, the lake began to shrink. By the late 1970s, it had receded enough to threaten the rookeries where 85% of California sea gulls nest. David Gaines, a UC Davis graduate student, sounded alarms about declining bird life, and the Mono Lake Committee he helped create became a potent force. Many victories later the lake is rising again, at least for now.

The committee's center includes a memorial to Gaines, who died in a 1988 highway accident, a slide show and exhibits about the lake. A store sells books and souvenirs, and there is a tourist information kiosk for the region.

The next logical stop is just north of town at the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area visitor center, which commands a breathtaking view of the 60-square-mile lake and its volcanic islands, Negit and the larger Paoha. Visitor information is free, but admission to the center's exhibits is $2 for adults.

Displays include artifacts of the local Paiute Indians, an explanation of the tufa-making process and details on the lake's simple food chain of algae, brine shrimp, alkali flies and migrating birds. No fish or other life can tolerate the alkaline water, which is good for floating (and for washing) but which stings eyes and cuts.

The $2 fee also allows entry to the South Tufa Area, nine miles from the visitor center, reached off California 120. Guided walks explore the tufa groves several times a day in summer, and we joined a twilight walk led by Paul from the Mono Lake Committee.

Tufa, he explained, is essentially limestone that forms underwater when calcium-rich freshwater springs rise through the brine. The calcium reacts with carbonates in the lake water to form a rock crust that builds up at the mouth of the underwater spring. Towers stop growing when they poke through the water surface.

As the sun fell behind the Sierra peaks, we dragged into Tioga Lodge, hungry and tired. The lodge, across U.S. 395 from the shore about three miles north of town, was closed for almost 20 years, but reopened in 1997 after a loving restoration by new owners. Wildflower meadows cover the grounds, and a footbridge crosses Thompson Creek between the rooms and the office/dining room.

Dinner and breakfast are served in a whitewashed building brought years ago from Bodie, the historic ghost town up the highway toward Bridgeport. The food and service are several cuts above the usual Lee Vining fare, and a wine list is available along with outdoor dining in season. Breakfast was notably ample and relaxed.

Tioga Lodge, however, is not for light sleepers or a quiet lakeside respite. Semitrucks whined past like machine shops on wheels, and our night in the Sierra Room was long and sleep-deprived. Unfortunately, it is the closest cabin to the highway, making it the least quiet accommodation.

We moved the next night to the smaller Mono Lake Room, which had a nicer feel and furnishings, including an iron bed and softer lighting and a large window with a lake view. This time I was able to sleep. There are no phones or TVs.

About a mile farther up the highway, the historic Mono Inn at Mono Lake has also reopened, an experiment in elegant lakefront dining that so far seems successful. Opened in the 1920s as a destination lodge, then a steakhouse known locally for its prime rib nights, the property was taken over by the Ansel Adams family and is run by the famed photographer's granddaughter, Sarah Adams.

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