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The sharp scent of a scenic landmark

Beware: Creatures from an ancient (and pungent) lake could be living it up in that car next to you on the freeway.


Mono Lake, Calif. — The first step to understanding HOW THE TRUNK of my wife's Toyota became a stinking den of damp little animals -- and why I'll be taking my next few meals without salt, thanks very much -- is to recognize the insidious power of a pretty picture.

You've seen that picture of Mono Lake: the weird rocks and still water, shot at dawn or dusk, with the strange lumpy towers. It's album cover country. In fact, my first glimpse of it came on the inside jacket of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here." I wondered: Waterfront property on the moon? But then, like so many other Pink Floyd fans, I got hungry or sleepy or something. Time passed.

Then, last week, I found myself with an appointment in the Owens Valley and access to an inflatable kayak. Into my head popped that pretty picture. I borrowed my wife's car, which gets better mileage than mine, recruited my friend Doug as a paddling partner, and in no time we were blasting north. And then stomping on a foot pump to fill the limp kayak. And then tiptoeing toward the water's edge for our first full sensory experience of Mono Lake.

"Hmm," said Doug. "What a delightful aroma."

By then, I'd done a little homework, so the stench was not entirely a surprise. Mono Lake, about 320 miles north of Los Angeles near the town of Lee Vining, may be the oldest living lake in North America, going back more than 700,000 years. Fed by mountain streams, it lies about 7,000 feet above sea level.

Because its water evaporates instead of running off, the lake has always been salty -- too salty for fish but tasty for dozens of bird species and the tiny critters they feed on. Its tufa towers may look like pterodactyl scat, but they're really calcium-carbonate mounds, formed by interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water.Which was fine until the 20th century. But the sinks and swimming pools of Los Angeles weren't just going to fill themselves. Having laid down an aqueduct to the Owens Valley years before, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in 1941 began sucking water from the lake's feeder streams. The lake, already twice as salty as the ocean, grew saltier and smaller.

But the tide turned. In the late 1970s, scientists and locals formed a committee, launched a legal battle against the mighty DWP and prevailed in 1994. Now, the level of the lake, which covers about 60 square miles, is rising again, the bird population growing. As the Mono Lake Committee celebrates its 25th anniversary, its leaders have the liberty of worrying more about the perils posed by tourism -- at the moment, rangers at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve are tussling with one entrepreneur who plans to offer motor-driven boat tours.

And so, as my present to those who worry about Mono being loved to death, allow me to report that the stink is just the beginning. The lake's beloved gulls tilt back their heads and bray like donkeys in heat. Boaters have drowned amid gusting winds and heaving swells. And the shallows and shores are infested with the sort of tiny flying and floating beasts that might turn up in your backyard if the pool man neglected to visit for 700,000 years.

It was early morning when we slid in the kayak, and dead calm. Yet when I glanced down at the black-sand beach, the grains shifted shape. And hummed. And I realized that this was not black sand but a convention of alkali flies, rearranging themselves with my every step.

Mark Twain, I later learned, stopped by about 130 years ago and called this "a belt of flies an inch deep and six feet wide, and this belt extends clear around the lake -- a belt of flies one hundred miles long.... You can hold them under water as long as you please -- they do not mind it -- they are only proud of it."

But the flies stick mostly to the shoreline. Pushing off, we entered a new realm, this one dominated by brine shrimp: worm-like, fingernail-sized creatures that float at all depths, trillions of them. We paddled, snapped pictures and watched the light play on the tufa towers like swimming-pool reflections dancing on a stucco wall. Once the braying died down, I even admired the birds. (One day in late August, volunteer birders counted 48 species.)

The dead calm endured. For most of this time, we didn't see another soul. A part of me ached to slide in for a swim.

But another part of me heard Rod Serling's voice, intoning the tale of the swimmer who accidentally swallowed a pregnant brine shrimp and....

Never mind. Resume breakfast. I didn't swim. But I did decide that admiring Mono for its looks alone is like ogling a bathing beauty before beholding her chronic bad breath and nasal whine. It's an understandable act, but it's not a relationship. Embracing the whole package -- making the same peace with the flies and the shrimp that we do with the moose and the dolphin -- that's a different deal.

After a few hours, we stuffed the kayak in the trunk and headed straight for fresh water: showers for us and a hose to rinse everything else. We then aimed south, all the while trying to imagine that we sniffed no scent, felt no chalky film on our watches and cameras, suspected no clinging stowaways in the dark folds of the kayak.

But the next time traffic slows on the Hollywood Freeway, have a look around. If you see hungry grebes and gulls dive-bombing a gold-colored Corolla and an angry woman inside, dialing her husband on the cellphone, you'll know that vehicle has experienced a certain lake in Sensurround and that Mono is having some revenge on Los Angeles at last.

To e-mail Christopher Reynolds, read past columns or view his photos, go to

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