Kayaking the Sea of Tranquility

“This solemn, silent, sailless sea—this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth—is little graced with the picturesque.”

—Mark Twain, Roughing It

—–

I always wanted to be an astronaut as a kid.  Or an explorer.

Most kids I knew were big dreamers.  As we waited for our big dreams to inevitably materialize, we occupied our time with the kinds of little adventures that were within our reach, such as climbing trees in the neighborhood, building forts out of old cardboard boxes, and raising sea monkeys in small plastic aquariums, waiting in vain for our grand experiments to develop hands and feet, start wearing top hats and formal attire, and building their own civilizations in miniature.

Then we grew up, and at some point the vast majority of us realized that our childhood dreams of magnificent adventures were just that—dreams.  We reluctantly settled into a mundane existence, eventually forgetting almost completely about the grand dreams we once had.

I never got to step foot on the moon, or climb Mt. Everest, or travel by dog sled across Antarctica.  If I wanted adventure, I’d have to find it closer to home, on a scale less grand.

Anyway, it sure seemed like all of the good adventures had already been done.  The discovery of the new world.  The first ascent of Everest.  The first to set foot on the North Pole…and the South Pole.  The moon landing.  Was there anything left worth doing?

Some have proclaimed our age as the death of adventure.  But I’m here to tell you that adventure is still to be found.  It may not be as grand as it was during the golden age, but it can still leave a gigantic mark…maybe not on history itself, but certainly on your own personal history.  It’s simply a matter of scale.

Real adventure, it seems, depends solely on how you define it.

And by the way, my sea monkeys never rose any further up the evolutionary ladder than the brine shrimp they really were.

—–

Mike and I left Southern California at 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, and arrived at Big Springs campground in the Eastern Sierra, about a half hour drive south of Mono Lake, at 8:30 p.m.  My dad had driven down from Reno earlier in the day and picked out a prime campsite, so all we had to do was show up.  He even had a roaring campfire and some food ready for us when we arrived.

Setting up camp at Big Springs, 25 October 2001.

Setting up camp at Big Springs, 25 October 2001.

It was the end of October, and we were at an elevation of 7,300 feet.  In other words, it was cold.  With a big day ahead of us, we got to sleep fairly early.  The night wasn’t just cold; it was cold!  Probably in the high 20s.  An adventure in itself.

Friday morning, we had planned on being in our kayaks paddling across Mono Lake by no later than 9 a.m., but the cold morning slowed us down considerably.  After the sun peaked over the horizon, our blood started to warm up.  We eventually got motivated and organized, and finally hit the water by 10:15 a.m.

Navy Beach, on the south shore of Mono Lake, was our launching point.  Looking north from this vantage point, you couldn’t miss the south shore of Paoha Island.  “Three miles?  It doesn’t look that far…” one of us said out loud.  Famous last words.

—–

“In speaking of the peculiarities of Mono Lake, I ought to have mentioned that at intervals all around its shores stand picturesque turret-looking masses and clusters of a whitish, coarse-grained rock that resembles inferior mortar dried hard; and if one breaks off fragments of this rock he will find perfectly shaped and thoroughly petrified gulls’ eggs deeply imbedded in the mass. How did they get there?”

—Mark Twain, Roughing It

—–

The defining geologic feature of Mono Lake, tufa is a rough, thick, relatively soft rock-like calcium carbonate deposit that forms by precipitation from bodies of water with high dissolved calcium content.  Paddle near the tufa for a while and you will inevitably see water bubbling up here and there from freshwater springs on the lake bottom.  These are the locations of the tufa of tomorrow.

Avoiding the South Tufa Preserve area just a half mile to the west of Navy Beach, where all the tourists marvel at the other-worldly mineral formations that made Mono Lake famous, we headed towards the Osprey Tufa, about a quarter mile off shore.

A pair of osprey often uses the large flat spot on this tufa tower as a nesting area—hence the name. When ospreys are nesting here, access to the area around tufa is heavily restricted.  Luckily for us, no restrictions were in place in late October, and we were able to approach the tufa closely and get our first real taste of what it’s like to paddle a kayak on Mono Lake.

The journey begins: heading out to Osprey Tufa, with Paoha Island in the far distance.  Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

The journey begins: heading out to Osprey Tufa, with Paoha Island in the far distance. Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

As we paused near the Osprey Tufa, we were taken by the magnificence of the scenery around us.  A large, tranquil, inland sea, punctuated by oddly shaped clumps and towers of calcium carbonate, with volcanic mounds and the vast Eastern Sierra as a backdrop.  And the contrails left by the jets flying in and out of the Bay Area sure made for some very interesting, if unnatural looking, atmospheric patterns.

—–

Once past the Osprey Tufa, it was time to hunker down; our next stop, about three miles away according to the map, was the south shore of Paoha Island.  The entire South Tufa area gradually morphed from a gaudy display of geology gone mad, to small dots on the horizon, eventually completely disappearing from our view.

The first thing you notice when you put your kayak in the waters of Mono Lake is the buoyancy factor.  Our kayaks were each loaded down with about 30 to 40 extra pounds of camping gear, and should have been sitting very low in the water.  But in fact, they were riding higher than we had ever experienced, thanks to the high mineral content of the water in the lake.  I’ve also heard claims that the added drag from the high mineral content in the water significantly slows the progress of paddlers.

Ironically, Mike was in better shape than me for this trip, but he started to lag seriously behind due to the extra drag caused by his inflatable kayak.  I would charge ahead, then pause and wait for him while admiring the stupendous views, then repeat the process.  After this happened a few times, Mike told me to just go for it and we would meet up on the island.  We scanned the island, found a common reference point, and agreed to meet up there an hour or so later.

My arms became pistons in a simple human machine pumping towards Paoha.  My muscles began to feel the burn, but I was making definite progress as the puffy whitish island filled an increasingly large percentage of my field of vision.  We had agreed to aim for a dark section of rock on the east side of the island.  I was trying to focus on that spot as I pumped away, but at times the view to the west and south was just too distracting.  It was getting warm; pausing to take off my outer layer of clothing was just another perfect excuse to soak up the scenery.

In the middle of nowhere.  Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

In the middle of nowhere. Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

Sitting there in the middle of the lake, looking down into the water itself, the first thing you notice is that it looks thick, almost like sugary syrup.  Then movement…and into focus come thousands of brine shrimp doing cartwheels.  In a flashback to my childhood, I again had my sea monkeys, and they were performing in a gigantic circus act on a stage that stretched for many miles.

Back at the task at hand, I was aiming for one of two small beaches I thought I saw slightly to the left of our dark volcanic rock target. I reckoned that it would be real nice to get on to one of those little beaches for a few minutes to stretch my legs while I waited for Mike.  Just as I was getting close enough to taste victory, I realized—those were not beaches…

—–

“Sea-gull’s eggs being entirely useless to anybody unless they be cooked, Nature has provided an unfailing spring of boiling water on the largest island, and you can put your eggs in there, and in four minutes you can boil them as hard as any statement I have made during the past fifteen years.”

—Mark Twain, Roughing It

—–

It turns out the puffy white spots I desired were not beaches at all.  That wasn’t sand—that was steam coming out of the water!  My desire for a rest was quickly replaced by an energetic curiosity.

I had seen a reference to “hot springs on Paoha Island” on the Internet, but had no luck finding any details about their exact location.  Now, through a stroke of blind luck, we had stumbled upon them completely by accident!

The smell of sulfur coming off the hot water made my throat hurt and my eyes water.  Paddling through these hot springs from hell was awesome, but these were probably not the kind of hot springs you’d want to bathe in.  Asphyxiation always trumps relaxation.

Hot springs on Paoha Island.  Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

Hot springs on Paoha Island. Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

After paddling through the hot springs for a while, I decided to head around the rocky eastern point and hopefully find a sulfur-free spot to land the kayak and stretch my cramping legs.

Rounding the corner…what would I find on the other side?  More steaming sulfur springs?  Glorious white sand beaches?  Well, neither.  I found a small cove covered with three to four inch pebbles.  Not much of a “beach,” but I’d take it.

As I landed the kayak, hundreds, possibly thousands of alkali flies scattered.  It was at least the tenth or eleventh reminder of the day that Mono Lake was not Hawaii.  But here, there was beauty on its own terms; stark, desolate beauty, roughly hewn and sparsely accessorized, but beauty just the same.  A true adventure.

—–

“In places, picturesque jets of steam shot up out of crevices, giving evidence that although this ancient crater had gone out of active business, there was still some fire left in its furnaces.”

—Mark Twain, Roughing It

—–

After landing my kayak on the big pebble beach, I hiked up to the highest spot on the point, and was rewarded with a commanding view of the “beach” along the eastern shores of Paoha Island, the hot springs, and a number of steam vents coming out of the ground to the west.  At my feet were some bleached, weathered bones.  Could they be from the domestic sheep that used to graze the island?  Or maybe one of the coyotes who crossed the land bridge 20 to 30 years ago and decimated the bird population?  No large land mammals call the island home today, and these bones were obviously not from a recently deceased mammal.

Pebbly beach on Paoha Island.  Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

Pebbly beach on Paoha Island. Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

After 15 to 20 minutes of admiring the utterly unique view, I saw a small speck in open water to the south.  The speck gradually got bigger; it was Mike approaching the point.  Needless to say, Mike was as surprised as me to find himself smack in the middle of these odd hot springs.

—–

I was starting to feel significantly guilty about the kayak situation—I was expending probably half the energy that Mike was.  Mike rested for a few minutes.  I had already rested—and explored—for probably half an hour before he arrived.  We then continued on our way, rounding the southwest tip of the island and bidding farewell to our unexpected hot springs.  We were off to the eastern shore of the island, which from satellite photos looked to be a mile-plus-long, pristine, white sandy beach.

It didn’t take long for us to reach the eastern shore, and we quickly decided to land where we were and set up our base camp.

—–

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

—Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11

—–

Although Mono Lake was formed about 750,000 years ago, its largest island, Paoha, is less than 300 years old.  And that’s not even the most recent volcanic activity at the lake—the volcanic dome that is Negit Island, just north of Paoha, erupted about 270 years ago, and numerous steam vents continue to erupt on the island today.

The interior of Paoha Island.  Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

The interior of Paoha Island. Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

Stepping out of our kayaks and onto shore, we immediately noticed that this was no white sandy beach, but a vast shoreline covered in a soft brine-laced pumice dust, stretching as far as the eye could see.

—–

“You can’t get a sun tan on the moon, but I wouldn’t mind a holiday there.”

—Love and Rockets, Holiday on the Moon

—–

The shoreline near our campsite was odd and disgusting.  A light brown residue was deposited parallel to the shore and composed of a mixture of thousands of bird feathers and millions of dead brine shrimp.  And the smell…well, let’s just say I was already regretting having brought salmon for lunch and tuna for dinner.  After a couple of days down in the muck on Mono Lake, even the heartiest fish lover like me craves vast slabs of rare red meat.

—–

“…any time, you can see there 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. If you throw a stone among them, they swarm up so thick that they look dense, like a cloud.”

—Mark Twain, Roughing It

—–

Another feature of the disgusting shoreline was those damned alkali flies.  The shore appeared to be scattered with fine dark brown gravel—but gravel that moved when you approached.  Later in the day, the flies started to clump on dead brine shrimp in the water, and the wind would blow these “rafts” of alkali flies slowly up the coast.  Thankfully, the flies didn’t bite, or we would have been royally screwed.  In fact, I think this was my first-ever trip to the Eastern Sierra where I didn’t come back with numerous bug bites—and we didn’t even use insect repellent on the entire trip.  But was the trade-off—a horrible stench in place of bug bites—worth it?

—–

With camp set up, it was time to explore Paoha Island.  We headed north along the eastern coast of the island, intent on hiking up one of the volcanic domes at the northeast tip of the island.

Our campsite on the eastern shore of Paoha Island.  Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

Our campsite on the eastern shore of Paoha Island. Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

A few dozen yards inland, the island looked incredibly moonlike.  OK, so they don’t have plants on the moon.  But Paoha Island sure feels like you’re on another heavenly body.

—–

“Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert…”

—Mark Twain, Roughing It

—–

We walked along the shore and passed some strange brine-covered bush “skeletons” sitting on a black sand beach that reminded me of a famous Ansel Adams photograph.  As we approached the volcanic dome that was obviously the high point of the northeast corner of the island, we ascended an obtrusive obsidian flow on an eroding pumice hill.  The obsidian flow left a very interesting looking debris field that made odd noises as we walked over it.  It sounded like we were walking on large chunks of glass, and I worried what exposure to this was doing to our lightweight tennis shoes.  Luckily, we came out unscathed, with all our soles and toes intact.

We topped out on the dome, and the view was spectacular.  Looking north, we could see darkly volcanic Negit Island, and some of the lesser islands off to the northeast.  At the top of the dome, I was even able to get a cell phone signal from the nearby town of Lee Vining and make a brief call home to tell my wife and kids that all was well.

The top of the dome was covered with a smooth, finely ground but uncharacteristically dark pumice dust.  Placing my foot firmly in this alien soil and then retracting it, I was immediately taken by the resemblance to a photograph of what was possibly the most famous footprint in human history.

Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

Leaving my impression on Paoha Island. Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

—–

“That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.”

—Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11

—–

Mono Lake is an important waypoint for migratory birds.  At different times of year, literally millions of birds descend on the lake, and countless chicks are hatched each year.  Not all of these chicks survive.  As we walked south along the shore, back towards our campsite, we observed the strange assemblage of dead brine shrimp and feather debris and the occasional mummified bird carcass that accumulates along the shoreline.

Dried brine shrimp are actually collected from Mono Lake and sold as fish food.  I sure wouldn’t want to be the guy picking out all of the feathers and dead birds.

Back at camp, long shadows stretched across our forbidden landscape as sunset neared.  Losing light (and warmth) fast, we hoped that the night would not be nearly as cold as the previous night, even though our elevation on Paoha Island was lower than it had been at Big Springs campground.

Still and silent, looking to the east, the water of the lake resembled the world’s largest pane of glass.  Suddenly, we heard a noise.  Some kind of commotion was happening out on the lake.  The glass shattered. Because of the monumental scale of the lake, whatever was happening was moving towards us at a snail’s pace, like a rogue wave in slow motion.  The noise continued, and as it got closer, we realized it was a wall of birds, flapping their wings on the surface of the water and churning it into a frenzy.

Looking west across the interior of the island, we watched a typically spectacular Eastern Sierra sunset unfold.  Shortly after 6 p.m., the winds picked up, and we saw a large cloud of brine and pumice dust approaching us from the south.  Not wanting to fill our lungs with foul air, we dove into our tents for safety.

Fading daylight on Paoha Island.  Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

Fading daylight on Paoha Island. Mono Lake, 26 October 2001.

A little while later, the winds died down.  Before long, it was dead calm, and we exited the tents to admire the stars for a while.  Although the wind died, the lake had become very choppy.

We stood on the shore in the moonlight, taking it all in, absorbed by the solitude, the isolation, and most of all, the silence.  The only other sign of human life in this vast, desolate landscape was the lights of a passing jet high above the horizon.  We watched as it approached, then passed over the face of the moon, briefly illuminated in silhouette—one of only two times in my half century on this planet that I’ve seen an airplane pass over the face of the moon.

The moon set some time after midnight, long after we had drifted off to sleep.

—–

I woke up at about 6:30 a.m. and decided to watch—and photograph—the sunrise.  It wasn’t too cold, and the night had not been that bad at all—probably around 40 degrees, which was downright toasty compared to our previous night at Big Springs.

My first few photographs in the hour of the pearl were grainy and blurry, due to a combination of low light and lack of a tripod.  But the effect was very pleasing, making the resulting photographs look almost like crude, impressionistic oil paintings.  And the interesting sunrise just got better and better with each passing minute.  At the point where it literally looked like the sky was on fire above our tents, Mike woke up and crawled out of his tent, just in time for the most spectacular part of the sunrise.

Sunrise from Paoha Island.  Mono Lake, 27 October 2001.

Sunrise from Paoha Island. Mono Lake, 27 October 2001.

The winds were gone, and the chop had died down to a manageable level.  But overnight the weather had brought us a new surprise: lots of clouds.  It was dank and foreboding.  The weather report was calling for a big storm to head through, but with any luck we would miss it by about 24 hours.  And all we really needed was two to three hours to get back to Navy Beach.

With a sense of urgency, we spent about 20 to 30 minutes packing up and loading all of our camping gear on the kayaks, and then we were off.  It was 7:15 am.

Farewell, Tranquility Base.

—–

“There are only two seasons in the region round about Mono Lake—and these are, the breaking up of one winter and the beginning of the next.”

—Mark Twain, Roughing It

—–

How quickly the weather can change in the Eastern Sierra.  When we had paddled out to Pahoa Island the previous day, it was fall.  Less than 24 hours later, it was starting to feel a lot like winter.  There was a definite chill in the air, and clouds were hovering over the south shore of the island.

With one last quick look back at the stinky sulfur hot springs, we headed out to the open inland sea.  Our destination was the South Tufa formation, about three and a half miles away.

Goodbye, Paoha.  Mono Lake, 27 October 2001.

Goodbye, Paoha. Mono Lake, 27 October 2001.

Grinding across the open water, I noticed that it looked like someone had spilled a pint of heavy cream and let it dry all over my red kayak.  Two to three times as salty as the ocean, the waters of Mono Lake leave a white crusty residue on everything they touch.

—–

“(Mono Lake’s) sluggish waters are so strong with alkali that if you only dip the most hopelessly soiled garment into them once or twice, and wring it out, it will be found as clean as if it had been through the ablest of washerwomen’s hands.”

—Mark Twain, Roughing It

—–

After about two hours of paddling, we arrived at the South Tufa.  Less than half a mile from our launch area and safely out of danger with the weather, we took a victory lap of sorts and slowly drifted amongst the tufa formations.  Seeing the tufa from the water gave us a very different perspective on this unique area.

Victory lap: exploring the South Tufa Preserve by kayak.  Mono Lake, 27 October 2001.

Victory lap: exploring the South Tufa Preserve by kayak. Mono Lake, 27 October 2001.

As we turned to head back to our launch at Navy Beach, with Mike in the lead, for the first time I noticed an odd occurrence.

“Uh, Mike, I hate to tell you, but every time you take a stroke, the bottom of your backpack touches the water…” Mike’s gear was going to smell extra lovely on the long drive home.

—–

At 10 a.m. we were on the shore.  Our trip was over, but the adventure was just beginning for a couple in their tandem sea kayak launching from Navy Beach and heading out to Paoha Island.  We could only hope that their adventure was as satisfying as ours had been.

If my life outside is defined by grand adventures, this was surely one of the most amazing.  The geography, geology, and biology of Mono Lake, combined with the approach by kayak and having Paoha Island all to ourselves for a night, made this little adventure a classic.

It appears that the declaration of the death of adventure was premature.  Adventure can be large or small, simple or arduous, in faraway lands or in your own backyard.

Adventure, it seems, is what—and where—you make it.

—–

A much shorter version of this story was submitted to WaveLength magazine, but it was never published.  The full length story was first published in A Life Outside 2 in September 2012.  It was reprinted in Confessions of a Weekend Warrior: Sierra Stories (May 2013), Confessions of a Weekend Warrior: Kayaking Stories (June 2013), and Confessions of a Weekend Warrior: Road Trip Stories (July 2013).

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