A very special and unique place.

Happy Quiet: Winter Wonders
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

Like you, the rangers at Mono Lake had been waiting, wondering when it would ever turn to winter. Recently, on one of those disgustingly beautiful mornings when it was cold but the sky was clear, the sun shone cheerfully and there was no wind at all, I went for a long run on the south shore of the lake.

As I ran along, suddenly the wind arrived, pushing at my back. It came roaring in, exactly at one o'clock, as if it was returning from a long lunchbreak. I turned, squinting my eyes to protect them from blowing beach sand, and saw clouds beginning to pile up and droop over our side of the Sierra Crest.

It was winter.

The lake, moments before flat and blue, began to churn with waves and generate whitecaps. Tumbleweeds, the wandering skeletons of that non-native pest, Russian thistle, came rolling past. Many of them lodged at the water's edge. I knew that if I returned the next day, the tumbleweeds would be frosted white by salt spray. They always remind me of the tumbleweed snowmen which, every Christmas when I was growing up in the Mojave Desert, we made by piling three rounds on top of each other and coating them with that white "imitation snow" that comes in spray bottles.

The waves were already generating soapsuds along the shore. The thick piles of white foam, a natural reaction when the lake's carbonate-rich water is agitated, would also decorate the shore the next morning. Have you ever seen frozen soapsuds? Yet another strange feature of this strange lake.

The wind blew hard that afternoon and all night. The next morning it stopped. But the clouds were here, finally, and snow began to sift down. And Mono Lake grew quiet.

There are kinds and degrees of quiet. Much of the winter Mono Lake is an exceptionally quiet place — when the wind's not blowing. It can come close to being totally silent ("quiet" and "silence" are, of course, two different things). It is not because nothing moves or is alive in this winter landscape. Look closely and you will see plenty of tracks in the snow that show the area abounds with critters. But they are rabbits and hares, weasels and shrews, voles and mice — animals that specialize in quiet. They are the hunted and the hunters who never draw attention to themselves. Watch the sky and you will see more silent hunters: the hawks and eagles patrolling overhead.

Winter is the quiet season for our park operation too. In the list of "most-asked questions" we rangers hear, one shows up a lot this time of year: "What do you do in the winter?" It's true that much of our job revolves around people, and fewer people are here in the winter. It is much quieter at Mono Lake right now than in summer, because we'll count about 4,000 visitors in December, compared to over 40,000 in August. So we cut back to a barebones staff. We catch up on projects which we were too busy to handle in the summer. And we enjoy the quiet.

We're still around to listen to those questions from the people who do come here, of course. Oddly, when the winter weather gets bad, we often see more people at Mono Lake. If wind or heavy snow shuts the lifts down, skiers who can't ski come our direction. Of course, stormy days are full of noise and tumult. But when the skiing is good, things slow down for us again. And then, on those special winter days, we get the comments and questions about quiet. Snow carpets the ground and frosts the tufa formations. Ice crystals decorate the shrubs. Someone gets out of their car and, in a few moments, notices the conspicuous absence of sound. They approach and, in a hushed voice as if they don't want to disturb the effect, say, "It's so wonderfully quiet here."

Absence of noise is a valuable treasure. It is one of Mono Lake's precious resources, worth protecting.

So enjoy the winter scene at the ski areas — the excitement and color and even the clamor and crowds. But if you need a change, come see Mono Lake.

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Mono Lake Committee
The Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center
Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve
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