Kayaking Mono Lake
Sure, it’s fun to paddle the briny seas, but how about a high-altitude lake that’s three times saltier than the ocean? Where strange, alien limestone formations appear from the water? Where nothing can live except brine shrimp and alkali flies, yet this supports amazing bird life?
Count me the hell in. So: What was it like?
Mono Lake is at 6383 feet above sea level in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, just east of Lee Vining, which itself is the town just to the east of Yosemite National Park. The Mono Basin in which it sits has historically been volcanically active. It has both hot springs and snowmelt streams that feed it, but it has no outlet. The strange tufa formations for which Mono Lake is perhaps best known are formed from calcium carbonate from springs on the bottom of the lake, and were only revealed once Los Angeles started drawing water from it.
Due to its proximity to the mountains, Mono Lake has a reputation for savage afternoon winds and extremes of heat and cold. Its shores are black with a ribbon of alkali flies and the husks of their larvae, a strange, low-flying, moving carpet that parts around you when you approach it. Islands and beaches feel like over-cooked brownies beneath your feet: Crusty, but moist beneath, giving way with each footstep. The amount of biomass in the lake is astounding, especially when you consider that it’s pretty much all brine shrimp.
However, it’s an amazing place to paddle, utterly alien and desolate, but with a vast, big-sky beauty of its own.
If you ever consider paddling Mono Lake, here are some tidbits of advice from our trip.
- You must bring your own water and observe the strictest Leave No Trace camping rules. It is an exceedingly fragile place. It means a fair amount of extra effort, but if you’re going to camp there, leave it as you found it. You’ll be rewarded.
- Bring at least an extra liter of water for each day for rinsing salt from your body, and perhaps some pieces of gear. You’ll be miserable if you don’t.
- Get on the water really early. While the footage in the video above looks benign, winds can kick up as early as 10:30am in the morning. We didn’t measure any wind stronger than 14 knots, however, while we were there.
- The best place to camp is the center of the eastern side of Paoha Island, but it is off limits from April through July due to migratory birds. Do not camp on the southern half, as it is owned by the Los Angeles Department of Public Works. You can camp on the eastern shore of the Lake itself, too, but not anywhere near the hot springs – check with the visitor’s center rangers. You cannot camp anywhere on the western half of the shoreline.
- The hands-down best tufa formations are actually between the much-visited South Tufa and the Mono Lake Visitor’s Center (not shown on any map we’ve come across), and to the northeast of Negit Island. Both are accessible only by boat.
- We observed strange, pronounced swell before some winds started to rip. The swell was extremely high-period, about 2-4 seconds, and up to a foot in height. Either an air pressure gradient or katabatic winds slowly descending to the water’s surface could be the cause, I suppose. It’s beautiful and kind of surfable, but probably is foretelling gusts coming your way within the hour.
- If, like me, you carry camera gear of any kind, any water spot on the lens will leave thick deposits of salt. The popular “lick the lens” advice for GoPro waterproof housings did absolutely work well. Be aware, though, those licks will taste like days-old shellfish. Rinse with fresh water first.
- There are kayak and canoe outfitters who offer rentals to do similar stuff on Mono Lake, but they won’t take you in as close.
I’ve backpacked for a week and gotten dirtier than I was on this trip. However, I’ve never felt, well, more gross coming off the water on that last day. However, the land and water is fascinating, and I’d recommend this trip to anyone who wants a more challenging and less-typical kayak expedition.