An Expedition to Photograph Mono Lake From The Air.



As the ocean breezes and their moisture-carrying clouds blow in over land from the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Northern California, they cross a wide fertile valley where all manner of fruits and vegetables are grown. This is one of the great breadbaskets of the world as a result of both the climate and the soil, but especially the rainfall.

If you keep going across this valley you will eventualy come to a range of mountains known as the Sierra Nevada. Here the moisture-carrying clouds are forced up to higher altitudes where they cool down and drop their rain (or snow) as a result, on the windward sides of the mountain range - so that by the time the winds reach the peak of the mountain range and pass over to the leeward side, there is little or no moisture left.

The rain that fell on the Western slopes collects into creeks and streams and rivers that flow back into the fertile valley. But on the Eastern slopes, the available moisture is very sparse - and is almost non-existent by the time the air currents have reached the flatlands on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In contrast to the lush fertile land of the Central Valley, here we are near the border with Nevada - and the terrain consists of large expanses of arid land interspersed with the occasional remnants of extinct volcanos - and a low spot in the desert that struggles to maintain a shallow lake where water has collected from the few small creeks that exist on this side of the mountain range.

This is not just another lake - this is Mono lake. This lake supports a truly extraordinary ecological context. If the water level were to change drastically, all sorts of negative repercussions would follow.

For example - the islands in the lake are the breeding ground for birds that migrate great distances to raise their young here. If the water-level in this shallow lake were to drop just a few feet, then a land-bridge would develop between the mainland shore of the lake and the islands, giving access to these breeding grounds to all kinds of predators.This would increase the population of the predators while depleting that of the birds - until the latter were wiped-out - whereupon the number of predators would also drop dramatically.

Another example - a major (and very unusual) attraction for tourists in this lake are the famous "tufas". These occur almost nowhere else in the world, and certainly not in the size and abundance that they occur here. They were originally formed many hundreds (thousands?) of years ago when the lake was deeper. Ground-water in the depths of the Earth below the lake would seep upward, much like a spring, but emerging from the lake floor rather than on a hillside. This "spring water" contained some dissolved minerals which got deposited (very slowly) on the lake floor as the spring water dispersed into the lake water, much like a stalactites form when spring water emerges into the floor of a subterranean cave. Then as the level of the lake water droped, these miniature "castles" built on the lake floor became visible.

But there is man-made pressure that covets water contained in bodies like this, and would like to pipe it away to the growing suburban population centers that need more water elsewhere in California. Or even some local agricultural operations could be made more viable and the land become more valuable if they could just use this water....

So the lake must be protected and monitored. An organization was set up to perform this task ("The Mono Lake Committee") and they have requested some aerial support from an organization of volunteer pilots who lend their services and their aircraft to help causes like this ("LightHawk"). The request is to take pictures of some specific views from low altitude above and around the lake.

Following are some pictures taken on one of these missions.

In which we fly over the Sierras to Mono Lake. We pass via Yosemite and the Tioga Pass to land in Lee Vining before returning the same way.


0020 We start heading up in to the Sierra Nevada. Soon after we have passed the foothills and snow-capped peaks come into into sight, we see a large rock poking up next to a deep valley. This is Half Dome, and the valley is that of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park.


0026 We divert from our course slightly to go peek over the edge of the ridge. Half Dome and Yosemite valley now in full view, and the Merced River can be see heading toward the ocean at top right of the picture.

At first I thought that the ledge of rock right below us might be El Capitan, but I have since been informed that it is in fact Mount Watson. First right opposite Half Dome is first North Dome, then Basket Dome, then Mt Watson


0032 We have passed over the edge of the valley and can now look down and see the flat land in the bottom that is the core of Yosemite Park


0038 As we cross the valley to pass right over Half Dome we can look back across to the other side and see Yosemite Falls and below them to the right the famous Ahwanee Hotel.


0041 Continuing toward the east, the snow-capped peaks are getting closer. As midday approaches, a line of clouds collects over the summit ridge. We want to stay below these "thunder-bumpers" but above the granite. With potential up and down drafts near the ridge, this could be an exciting ride.


0048 Approaching the summit, we go on up to 11,000 and thread our way through the valleys. We could go higher to make sure of clearing any granite that might be in the way, but given VFR conditions it is probably better to not go very much higher and avoid any question of sustained oxygen deprivation.


20034 The instrument panel is reassuring - we're 11,500 ft above sea level, air-speed is 120 knots and the exhaust gas temperature is steady in all six cylinders


0122 We follow the Tioga Pass up to even higher elevations - it looks like the lowest saddle in the ridge where we can cross over the summit is still ahead of us.


0123 We pass through a low spot which forms a saddle between peaks and it looks like we have crested the summit. Some of the peaks look very sharp and jagged...

At the top left of the picture is Cathedral Peaks - so named for obvious reasons.


0061 Having passed the summit, we are now in rain-shadow so the terrain changes from lush forest, carpeted in snow, to high desert. The Tioga pass is clearly visible hugging the mountainside, and we can follow this down to Mono Lake which is on the desert floor and hidden at this point behind the ridge immediately ahead. (You can just see a sliver of the emerald water of the lake peeking over the ridge.)


0064 Follow the road down. Nice view of a row of craters (extinct volcanoes) slightly to the left of dead ahead.

We can see two roads here (bottom center of picture), the minor local road running aling the bottom of the valley, and just to to the left of it, we can see the Tioga Pass hugging the side of the moutain, descending into the valley.


5792 Entering the valley itself, we pass right by one of the old volcanic craters which appears to be occupied by a large plum pudding - in fact the last bit of magma that oozed out long ago to form a plug. Highway 395 crosses horizontaly in the distance on its way down south, and we can see Grant Lake nestled behind it at the foot of the mountains,


0065 Looking to our left now, Mono Lake comes into view. Somehow a bug has made it up to this altitude and met his end against the windshield.

Note that we can see three big islands in the lake - one white (all the way on the left), one black, and a third larger one that actualy looks like it belongs on Earth rather than the Moon or Mars. We will get a closer look at these islands a little later on.


5791 We fly out over the lake a bit and catch our first glimpse of the town of Lee Vining - just above the little bay on the left of the picture, and just beyond the dirt runway where we will be landing and that is also just visible if you know where to look for it.


1229 Across the lake to the north are a couple of islands - these islands form a critical piece in the lifecycle of certain bird types that come here to breed. If the water level were to get too low, a land-bridge would join the islands to the shore and make them vulnerable to predators.

In front of us is the island that actualy has recognizable vegetation on it and is neither completely white nor completely black. Nearly off the picture to the right are two more islands with very different landscapes.


5830 A closer look at some of these islands. The low islands are colored a brilliant white, being covered with chemicals deposited from the briny water over the centuries. However, the islands that have some higher elevations are made of lava-deposited rock and contrast strikingly with their neighbors.


1234 We make a low pass over the famous tufas. You can see parking lot for tourists at the top of the picture, but we are flying over specifically to take pictures showing the water-level in the lake (see e.g. the "bathtub rings" along the shore in the right-hand side of the picture.)

Such pictures were taken annualy at various spots around the shores of the lake as well as specifically wherever larger creeks emptied into the lake to check water-flow in the creek as well as the color of the water flowing into the lake for tell-tale signs of pollution or sediment.


5799 The same spot but taken from a slightly different andle.


1243 Here is an example of a creek flowing into the lake and the water discoloration at that point. One of the primary missions of this flight (conducted annualy and sometimes twice a year) is to document water in-and-out flow on the lake.


5818 Here is another (less obvious) example of what we were looking for.

You can see two lines of green vegetation coming down from the hill and then seemingly joining into a single flow down to the shoreline. Except there is no visible water flow at this time of the year - however it is likely that there is intermittent water flow along these courses during other times of the year, and there is at least some water in the ground as witnessed by the green grass and the trees.


0096 We circle the lake to loose altitude in preparation for landing at Lee Vining which can be seen in the distance.


0099 Head for downtown Lee Vining (dead ahead) after which we'll make a left turn and fly downwind to a mile or two beyond the end of the runway, then make a 180° turn to make our final approach to landing against the wind.

We can see the end of the Tioga Pass snaking down from the mountains to join Highway 395 which goes right through the center of Lee Vining.


2097 We fly right over downtown Lee Vining as we circle round to position ourselves for a landing. Population of Lee Vining is about 250, and the town was formerly known as "Poverty Flat". It lies over 2 kilometers above sea level (6,780 ft) in high desert.


0102 Drop the undercart and apply flaps as we enter final approach to the strip which can be seen a little to the right of dead ahead. Highway 395 on the left leads into the town of Lee Vining which is just visible


0109 Safely on the deck, we can look back to the mountains over which we came - and get ready to go back the same way after a brief lunch.


2077 A 15 minute walk brings us to the premier restaurant in Lee Vining. Refueling is accomplished with a hamburger and a chocolate shake (extra chocolate please).


2076 One of the advantages of flying a small plane into remote spots in California is that one gets to sample and develop a sommelier's appreciation for fine milk shakes. The importance of maintaining one's sugar and caffeine levels while flying in these extreme conditions cannot be over-emphasides. It therefore behooves the intrepid aviator to seek out only the very best in milk-shakes - and this establishment never failed to please our discerning palates.


At this point we have a rendez-vous with our contacts from the "Mono Lake Committee" (more generaly identified as the organization associated with the "Save Mono Lake" slogan) to discuss some detailed photographic wishes they have. They kindly offer to lend us a car so we can take an extended lunch break and drive over to where the tufas are and take a closer look at them.

So the next few pictures were taken while standing firmly on Mother Earth rather than whizzing by at 110 knots...


0078 Standing on the shore looking back towards the mountains, a whole row of tufas in the water


0085 well as some individual specimens


0095 These are standing in the water some distance from the shore.


0093 But if we look to the right from where we are standing, we can see a whole outcropping of tufas on shore at the waters edge. These tufas would have originaly "grown" when that area was underwater, but as the water level in the lake dropped thay are now standing on dry land.


0094 Looking to the left again, we can see whole clusters right at the water's edge. As the level of the lake goes up or down by even a small amount will change whether the tufas are on dry land or have their feet in the lake.


0079 Up the beach a little ways, you can clearly see the structure of the tufa is very similar to that of a conventional stalagmite as might be found in a cave somewhere.


0081 This grew once upon a time when a subterraneal source of chemical-laden water forced a trickle up through what was then a lake-bed. The spring water "evaporated" into the lake water leaving being a small amount of chemical salts at the point where it came up throught the lake bed.

These salts accumulated over time on the bed of what was then the lake and eventualy grew the structure you see here.


0088 As the delicate towers became exposed above the falling level of the water, they became prone to damage from all kinds of agents - including humans.


After enjoying our extended lunch-hour sightseeing the tufas, we drive back to Lee Vining to resume aerial operations.



2069 After a quick walkaround inspection of the plane with a checklist, we position ourselves to take off again. It is a warm day (85°f, or 30°C, so the air is thin) and we are at high altitude ( 6781 ft, over 2km above sea level, where the air is even thinner, and carries less oxygen for the engine to breath to develop full power) so we're going to open the throttle all the way and use up most of the runway - with some to spare for safety! (Mono lake in the background)


2072 Taxi down to the other end so that we are facing into what little wind there is... At this altitude and air temperature our safety margins are more limited, so we run through the full take-off checklist before commiting ourselves to rolling - run the engine revs up and ensure both magnetos are firing, pitch control, and exhaust-gas temperature. Make sure both tanks are feeding fuel - open her up, let go the brakes, and we're off...


1375 Right after lift off, we zoom over the lone little cemetary in the desert. It would be interesting to hear the stories of the pioneers who lay buried here.


1336 As we reach the northern shore of the lake, we can see the islands again to the right. Some types of sea-gull migrate all the way from the Pacific Coast (flying over the moutains) to nest and lay their eggs here.

To the left, along the shore of the lake is an escarpment where it appears some kind of mining is going on.


A closer look at the mining operation - it appears that they are specifically extractig dirt from the foot of the escarpment, separating some of it out (maybe of a particular grain size or consistency?) and spreading the excess material out to form a new table with escarpment along the shoreline. In the picture to the right, you can just make out a long conveyor belt stretching from the "face" of the mining operation to a big pile of whatever it is they are mining (see the large horse-shoe shaped mound of dirt piled up ready to be carted away by trucks using the access road at left bottom of the picture).

This kind of mineral extraction can be exteremely perilous. By successively further undermining the foot of the escarpment, a critical point will occur where a huge slope-collapse is likely to occur and a major part of the hillside will slump catastrophically in a landslide that buries the area immdeiately below - including any people and equipment working in that area. We can see by looking at the fissures in the dirt around the mining area that this has already happened once, and some thousands of tons of dirt have slid downhill..


1347 We circle the lake climbing all the time to gain some altitude before we head up the pass over the mountains again. Here we are looking toward the south shore over the bird-sanctuary islands.


1301 A last look at some tufas (in the water in the foreground) while in the same view we can see the airstrip, Lee Vining itself, and the road heading west back up into the mountains.

On the extreme right we can see the creek from Lee Vining where it enters the lake. This spot was one of the focal points for the photo mission to help document the environmental context as it changed over time.


0116 Now that we are up a bit, we can start to head back toward home - we can now see the pass clearly where it leads back into the mountains, with Highway 395 going left-to-right across the picture as it passes through Lee Vining. Just in front of this we can see the scar that is the airstrip.


0119 On our return journey, we follow the pass up again - in the distance we can see the big dog-leg in the pass.

And a line of thunder-bumper clouds is starting to form over the summit which coud be a sign of turbulence with nasty up and down drafts, so we want to fly in the gap bettween the granite and the cumulus.


0121 A closer look at the dog-leg. When driving down the pass, it is advisable to avoid having a passenger on the downhill side who suffers from vertigo or fear of heights. And maybe stop every now and then to let the brakes cool.


0049 We work our way up to the peaks again


2104 At the top, the peaks don't seem quite so prominent because everything is high here. There is an awful lot of inhospitable granite in this world...


0058 Eventualy we can drop down a little to where there are lush green alpine valleys - I thought this might be the Tenaya Valley, but others say it looks more like the watershed for the Merced River.


7293 And so - after a couple of hundred fairly boring miles over the central valley, we hit Silicon Valley again, over Sunnyvale Golf Course at the intersection of Highways 101 and 237 looking towards Alviso.

(People famiiar with the landmarks of Silicon Valley may notice what looks like a small white dot at the center of this image - positioned just above a cubic-shaped building, colored with a slight tinge of blue. The "dot" is in fact a large dish-antenna, and there are some more on the ground just in front and to the right of the building. This was referred to by the local denizens as "The Blue Cube" despite the official - and slightly euphemistic - sign on the building which once identified it as "Satellite Test Center"and in later years "Onizuka Air Force Station".)


0950 We line up on the runway at Palo Alto - in the distance we can just make out a large ship heading into the port of Redwood City, and if you look really carefully - that is downtown San Francisco, just to the right of center on the horizon about 50 miles away.

The actual runway on which we are going to land is the strip on the right. The one on the left is the taxiway to get from one end to the other without occupying the runway itself. To the laft of that is the open-air parking area for aircraft that are not housed in hangars. Along the back edge of this area you can just make out the control tower standing out against the trees on the golf course.just beyond it.

Final flare-out before toch-down occurs over the Palo Alto duck pond whose waters are connected to the larger San Francisco Bay on the right.


7304 About 100 yds from touch-down, we flash by the Palo Alto duck-pond - the fountain in the center is not operating today. The shadow of the plane flitting over the ground confirms for us that our wheels are down for landing.




The pictures shown above were taken in the summer of 2003, taken on two separate trips about 10 days apart.

The camera used was one of the first "digital" consumer cameras to become available on the market, the Sony "Mavica". As such it was very crude by today's standards. It recorded its images on a floppy disc housed within the camera, and the image size was very small relative to what we have today in even the least expensive cell phone - let alone professional quality cameras.

Not only was the image limited in the quantity of pixels, it's ability to capture color and contrast was also very limited. Thus the first version of the web-page I created using these photos was also relatively crude - the images on the screen were smaller to avoid "grainy" effects, and the color rendition was severely compromised by the presence of even the slightest haze in the distant views. Many of the original images as produced by the camera were very flat and milky-colored with a greenish-blue cast to what little color they showed. So the first effort to create a web-page featuring these images was very disappointing when viewed from todays perspective - although they were welcomed as a marvellous innovation at the time.

But over time, better software became available and some 17 years later I revisited the original camera images from that trip and "re-processed" them with the benefit now not only of better software with more capabilities, but also a lot more experience in optimizing and correcting aerial images through digital means rather than in the darkroom.

Saul with our two local contacts from the Mono Lake Committee
Mono Lake itself goes from strength to strength and seems to be surviving well. After the hard work in the days of the original EIR (Environmental Impact Report) and the subsequent "Decision" by the State Water Resources Contol Board, the protection of the lake seems assured. But taking nothing for granted, the Mono Lake Committee maintains a level of activity and watchfullness to ensure the continued health of the lake. It was part of this ongoing monitoring which led them to request aerial support from the LightHawk Organization which organizes a band of experienced volunteer pilots (and their planes) and co-ordinates flights in support of environmental efforts all over the United States and even down into Mexico and Central America.

The two flights during which these pictures were taken are examples of this cooperation. My good friend Saul (middle of picture) and I flew many such missions, both sponsored by LightHawk and through private arrangements. At the time of this adventure in 2003 he was 80 years old and still a very skilled and competent pilot.

We continued to fly as a team on a number of "missions" in support of environmental groups and miscellaneous projects for some more years, until we decided mutually that it was time for both of us to metaphorically hang up the silk scarf, goggles, and gloves. Saul passed away peacefully at home in the summer of 2015 aged 92.