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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