Our trip to Mono Lake was fantastic – in so many ways! We made very good time on our drive here. One of the advantages of a small group is that everything takes less time! The students all had a great time in the car. They started off with a rousing game of Hearts, followed by time reading, resting, and setting up the meal preparation/clean up schedule for our week here. The drive also gave us the opportunity to observe how the vegetation changes as we traveled across the state.

It was most exciting to note that we saw the same progression of ecosystems last week on our trip to Mt. Diablo as we did on our drive up into the Sierra out of the Central Valley! We were also able to observe the sudden changes from one ecosystem to the next that explain California’s extraordinary biodiversity. Upon arrival, we quickly settled in and dinner was prepared. We were able to spend a relaxing evening at the Outdoor Environmental Center (OEC - where we stayed), listening to a variety of stories about the natural world.

We woke up to a gorgeous day! The strong winds (gusts up to 50mph) that kept us indoors had abated, leaving clear skies. We headed out early and took a short hike down to the old marina, on the shores of Mono Lake. Students appreciated the opportunity to see the lake from a different perspective than they had in previous years.

We spent time discussing the history of this area. We reflected on how the native peoples of Mono Lake met their needs (eating pinyon pine nuts, alkali fly larvae, etc.) and discussed the ecology of the plants that we observed. Formations of pumice and tufa provided us with the opportunity to discuss how these structures are formed (the former is volcanic and the second results from a chemical reaction between the calcium in spring water and the carbonates in the lake) and to get in some hands-on exploring! Everyone was saddened to see how much the lake has suffered as a result of the drought. It has dropped several feet since last year, resulting in higher concentrations of salts. It was somewhat surreal to peer into the still waters – waters that are typically teeming with millions of brine shrimp. Consequences at a larger scale were also evident: we saw the bodies of various Eared Grebes, migratory birds that stop to feed at Mono Lake on their way south, that died due to the absence of brine shrimp.

We had a brief lunch in a park and visited the community garden.

CommunitygardenMonoLake

It was wonderful to see what they are able to do with such a short growing season! We then headed to Sage Hen Summit – a new destination for all of us. On the car ride to the summit, we passed through a forest of Jeffrey and Lodgepole Pines (actually, it is the largest stand of Jeffrey Pines in the world!).

Students' observations resulted in many questions: Why was there no underbrush in portions of the forest? Why were there areas with no trees? Why were there trees here when most of the surrounding land only contains bushes such as sage and rabbit brush? It was wonderful to hear them reflecting on these ecological questions! These are precisely the type of questions that guide ecologists’ research.

After a short (but steep!) hike to the summit, students had the opportunity to spend some time reflecting and observing and sketching their surroundings. They then received the answers to the very questions they had posed in the car! We discussed rain shadows, because the amount of precipitation is the limiting factor which will determine whether or not a forest can exist in this part of the world. The students also greatly enjoyed the opportunity to stretch their legs and test their balance on the rocks in the area!

 MonoLakeTop

 

On our way back to the OEC, we stopped and played some games in the forest. The students learned a thing or two about their ability to camouflage! At the house, students wrote in their journals and then prepared a delicious dinner! And yet, the evening was far from over! After dinner, Guleed Ali, a graduate student from Columbia University, came to talk to the students about climate change. What an incredible treat! Guleed not only gave a fascinating presentation, incorporating recent research (including his own), he also shared his passion for the topic with the students. He was very impressed with the thoughtful questions posed by our students. It was truly a phenomenal experience!

 

Related posts:

Biodiversity on Mount Diablo

Exploring biodiversity at Sausal Creek