Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Mono Lake/Sierra Aspens 
Trip Date: October 7-9, 2005
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: October 11, 2005

Leroy’s dream deferred: Finding our gold at Mono Lake

Seven persons took part in the Mono Lake/Sierra Aspens field trip to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the weekend of October 7, 8 and 9, 2005. The pre-trip logistics were considerably rocky with this on-again-off-again field trip, but once a few people solidified their plans, it got off to a good start. For the five club members and two associates who took part, this trip turned out to be a real winner!  

The peak window for the autumn change of aspen leaves on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada began the weekend we arrived and will probably last through this week and into next. 

Thanks to some helpful research by Dave and Subrata, we spent two enchanting mornings photographing in Lundy Canyon completely immersed in the golds, greens and rosy oranges of the groves of delicate and beautiful quaking aspens. I can’t remember ever taking such a wonderful short hike through such spectacular trees! Those who missed this trip should have more than a little bit of remorse. 

Although the lodging in the town of Lee Vining was just a tad on the “dear” side (from about $65 a night and up) our accommodations at the Yosemite Gateway Motel were comfortable and more than satisfactory for a bunch of early-rising photogs. (Thanks to Gina for letting us know about the last few remaining vacancies.)

The town, named after miner Leroy Vining, is home to only 400 people. Vining came to California in the 1850s and began prospecting up in the canyons of present day Yosemite National Park. He and a party of other miners found some evidence of gold in a gulch east of Tioga Pass. They discovered enough metal to touch off a small gold rush; however, their luck eventually played out. Vining gave up mining and opened a sawmill on the future site of the town that bears his name. The town became Lee Vining in 1923. Leroy suffered a tragic and bizarre end—he accidentally shot himself while in a saloon.

If the town were located anywhere else but on the busy tourist mainline of Highway 395, it would be little more than a ghost town—a population its size would barely be able to support a post office and general store. But with the migration of Tahoe/Reno-bound vagabonds and Mammoth/ Death Valley/Vegas-bound travelers, the town has several restaurants, a market, motels and some purveyors of souvenirs and fishing supplies. Our people, however, didn’t spend a lot of time looking for those little dust collectors that say “Mono Lake” on them. In fact, our group maintained a rather rigorous schedule. Friday afternoon our plucky group converged on the small community near the barren shores of Mono Lake and gathered for an impromptu night shoot near the motel. Most quit before midnight and went to bed to prepare for the 5:30 wake-up call. 

Saturday’s shooting began before dawn with a drive up Lundy Canyon (only 7 miles to the north of Lee Vining) for a meeting of sky, water and the fiery colors of the aspen trees (populus tremuloides). On this particular turbulent October morning, this canyon had just the right mixture of all three. Look for the pictures at future club meetings and on individual websites. We captured the sunrise on Lundy Lake and then moved up the canyon to a large flat flooded by the joint dam-building efforts of several beavers. Aspens are the primary source of food for the beaver.  The beautiful ponds caused everyone to sigh in pleasure as we saw the golds and oranges mirrored off the placid water of the ponds. Words—even pictures—cannot begin to describe what we were seeing that morning. As we grinded away with our cameras, the choppy, white clouds played about the high western ridge of the Sierras, softening the light and making us work hard to manage our exposures and mind our contrast ranges. It was the most rewarding exposure workout I’ve done in a long, long time. By 10 a.m. the angle of the sun was getting high and the late-rising photographers were coming up the canyon in droves. We smiled with just a hint of smugness showing as we passed them on the road because we knew our memory cards were full of the best early gold. 

Contented and happily exhausted, we gathered at the Mobil station at the foot of the Tioga Pass road—the best moderately priced place to eat in Lee Vining. (Although we hadn’t sampled the fare at the two or three more upscale restaurants on the north end of town.) The restaurant looked like a roadside cafeteria in a large modern gas station with a gift shop, but the food they plated up was exceptional. I had a few disagreements with some of the dishes, but still went away from the table (three times) stuffed and generally impressed. 

For Saturday afternoon, the group split up into three contingents. Subrata continued up Lundy Canyon, Dave and Gina’s carpools drove up to the Bodie ghost town. 

Bodie was a mining boomtown that peaked in the 1880s and was virtually abandoned by the 1930s. The California State Parks System took over the town in 1962 and made it a state historic park. If you love history and ghost towns, then Bodie is a must-see!

I headed south to Mammoth. My friend Bob and I took a short hike to see the Devil’s Postpile National Monument and then up another trail a few miles into the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Crossing over the Sierra Crest Trail, we walked through the edge of a catastrophic 8,000-acre 1992 forest fire. The destruction was awesome, yet gave us a first-hand look at how the forest regenerates itself. Little trees were sprouting up all over the place, competing for their share of the sunlight. The fire was started by lightning and allowed to burn until it began to threaten too much of the surrounding wilderness—then the Forest Service decided to put it out. Our destination was a waterfall a mile or so into the forest. The large falls spectacularly plunged over a cliff in a deep chasm and the spectacle was well worth the walk.

Our groups reunited for dinner at the Mobil station and went to the South Tufa area of Mono Lake for a night shoot on the shore. Little did we know that this particular beach would be infested by hundreds of photographers—more photographers than people in Lee Vining! It seemed that they were all intent on photographing the same scenes and they set upon the fresh meat of the scenery like packs of hungry jackals. Some of the jackals had to eat tail, while others got the thick meat of the best angles. They all ran off after sunset and some looked askance at our party as to say, “Hey! There’s no more light—you guys are too late!”

We, however, had the last laugh. The stars came out and we stayed on the chilly lakeshore and took part in a little exploration of the cumulative light-gathering properties of film and digital matrices in respect to star trails and added artificial light. At midnight we wandered away from the diamond-dusted matrix of space above us and the calming sound of briny waves lapping at the flat shoreline.

Mono Lake was formed about 700,000 years ago by melting glaciers and it was nearly brought to its knees by the underhanded politics of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which began diverting fresh water from the lake’s tributary streams. Los Angeles took so much water that the volume of the lake halved while its salinity doubled. The ecosystem began to collapse and the lake became a cause for environmental activists beginning in 1978. By 1995, the lake had dropped more than 40 vertical feet below its pre-diversion level. It was destined to become a lifeless chemical sump for the sake of keeping the swimming pools and lawns of Los Angeles overflowing with water. Apparently the only thing LA did in exchange for pinching the Sierra water was to build an ugly little public park in the town of Lee Vining. Fortunately, the destruction was halted and the lake is being allowed to refill to its pre-1962 level.

Mono Lake, although one of the most saline lakes in the country, is host to numerous wild species. The lake won’t support fish, but the waters teem with tiny brine shrimp. Many times during the year the shoreline is covered with tiny flies and the large island near the northern end of the lake is a rookery for the California Gull. Thanks to the grassroots “Save Mono Lake” movement, these species will be allowed to thrive and the lake will continue to be a magnet for hoards of photographers like us.

Our last day, Sunday, began much like Saturday—before dawn. Subrata ventured down to the south tufa formations to gather with the newly assembled flock of photographers to take his slice of the waning twilight on the formations. In his estimation, the dawn proved to be less spectacular than expected.

For the last photo opportunity our group unanimously voted to continue our work on Lundy Canyon and everyone (even the word guy) headed up the dirt jeep road above Lundy Lake. Sunday’s sky was devoid of clouds, but the sun on the aspen leaves gave us many options. We began working a beaver pond higher up the road and ended up hiking up a steep and rocky trail to a waterfall and series of vantage points overlooking the aspen-covered upper valley. 

The quaking aspen is the most widely distributed species of tree on the North American continent. It ranges from the Atlantic coast of Canada to Alaska and south through the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada Mountains and through the northern regions of the Great Basin and the Midwest. The tree is a member of the willow family. It is a type of poplar tree that spreads by sending suckers out from the roots, thus forming large colonies of aspens. Recently biologists determined that a large aspen cluster in the Great Basin is the largest living thing on earth. The aspen can adapt to a wide variety of soil, moisture and climate conditions, but does better in colder climates. Individual aspen trees can reach a height of 50 feet or taller.

Aspen watchers have voiced concerns about the possibility of dwindling eastern Sierra aspen communities. Over the past 140 years the prevention of natural wild fires and the excessive browsing of ungulates—hoofed animals—has contributed adversely to the tree population. If these threats to the trees continue unchecked, conifers may eventually replace the aspen trees.

Our wonderful trip came to an end with a lunch at the Mobil station and it was back on the road. Leroy Vining came to the desolate shores of Mono Lake prospecting for gold—we found our “gold” and returned to the Bay Area quite satisfied!

© 2005 S.R. Hinrichs