The Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery

As each breath I take fills my lung with ash from the Getty Fire, which is just a few miles north of my front door, I look back to the unexpected highlight of last week’s trip to the Eastern Sierras. I am referring to the Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery in Independence, California.  Built in 1916, the hatchery was run by the California Department of Fish and Game until 1996, when the State found they couldn’t afford its upkeep. It was then that a nonprofit organization called the Friends of Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery was formed to run the former hatchery as a museum, with an interpretive center and gift shop.

The real highlight are the grounds, which include a pond well stocked with rainbow trout and visiting ducks. A small number of fish (mostly trout) are still hatched there as part of the museum.

Martine fell in love with the gift shop, which included two items of special interest to her: some attractive and reasonably-priced quilts made by a woman in Bakersfield and a bucket filled with packets of fish food. We purchased one of the quilts, and several packets of fish food.

It turns out that the ducks were more aggressive about begging for the fish food than the trout. That was all right with Martine, as she enjoyed feeding the ducks more, while I thought of them as shameless beggars.

We actually visited the Fish Hatchery on both Thursday and Friday last week. It was a beautiful and peaceful place.

A wildfire in July 2007 burned 55,000 acres west of the hatchery. Then, a year later that same month, a heavy thunderstorm caused a mudslide that damaged part of the hatchery as well as two of the employee residences. I am delighted that the Friends of the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery managed to clear the damage and re-open the facility.

If you find yourself on Highway 395 and desire a couple of peaceful hours in a beautiful locale, I highly recommend a visit to the hatchery. And say alone to the ducks and trout for me.


The Devil’s Postpile

The Columnar Basalt Formation at Devil’s Postpile National Monument

The last of the three major destinations of our recent Eastern Sierra road trip was the Devil’s Postpile National Monument near Mammoth Lakes. There are a number of locations around the world where thick lava formations, in cooling, form cliff faces of hexagonal columns. Probably the most famous are the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Staffa in the Scottish Hebrides.

The nearest such formation to me is the Devil’s Postpile. The Monument can be reached primarily by taking a shuttle bus from the Mammoth Mountain ski area to Stop #6, from which there is an easy half-mile hike to the cliff face. The top of the columns looks like this:

What the Columns Look Like from Up Top

We didn’t actually take the hike to the top of the columns, but only because we didn’t want to push ourselves too hard at high altitude.

The hike to the basalt columns follows the San Joaquin River through a pine and juniper forest of surpassing loveliness. In fact we liked the surroundings so much that the columnar basalt formation was almost a letdown considering the lead up to it.

I would like to return in future and extend the hike to Rainbow Falls, which is also in the Monument.


Towers of Tufa

Mono Lake and Tufa Towers

On our way down the mountain from the ghost town of Bodie, we stopped at the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve and took a little hike. Mono Lake has numerous towers formed of pure calcium carbonate when the calcium of the underground water met the heavy carbonate content of the saline lake water. As the volume of the lake fell due to being siphoned off by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), the towers, which were formerly underwater features, now appeared as pinnacles looming along the south shore of the lake.

The Yellow Water is Composed of Trillions of Brine Shrimp

Mono Lake is teeming with life, beginning with the brine shrimp which teem in the waters, along with the alkali flies that feed on them and the birds that feed on the insects and the brine shrimp. As one walks along the shore of the lake, one sees billions of bobbing alkali flies, visible in the photograph directly above.

Brine Shrimp

Because of a 1990s court decision that went against the DWP, an attempt will be made to allow Mono Lake to refill—up to a point. The intention is not to submerge all the tufa towers, but to encourage the life forms that dominate the lake.


Ghost Town

The Ghost Town of Bodie As Seen from the Cemetery

There are ghost towns scattered all across the West, but the one that impressed me the most is Bodie, just north of Mono Lake, at an altitude of 8,375 feet (2,553 meters). It is above the tree line and suffers from icy winters and occasional major snowfalls. Founded in 1859 and named after a prospector who froze to death before he ever saw the town named after him, it saw its greatest glory between 1877 (when it was the third largest city in California) and the early 1880s. After the main gold and silver veins gave out, there was still some mining taking place through the Second World War.

In 1962, Bodie became a California State Historic Park. Instead of Disneyfying the buildings that survived several major fires, the State decided to keep the buildings pretty much as they were—with the original furniture that the inhabitants left behind when they quitted the region. The only repairs have been to replace badly damaged roofs and shore up buildings that were about to collapse.

Buildings Shored Up from Total Collapse

The original outhouses behind the buildings remain, though they have been filled in to protect visitors from accidents. Several of the better preserved houses are current residences for California State Park personnel.

In the long run, this ghost town will become a total ruin. Until then, it provides a fascinating and totally unvarnished look at life in a 19th century mining town. Most of the buildings cannot be entered, but one could peek in through the windows and see store merchandise, gaming tables, coffins, as well as kitchen, bedroom, and living room furniture. Why is this stuff still here? Because Bodie is in an isolated area, the miners and others who left thought it was cheaper to buy new stuff at their next destination than to arrange for expensive transport of their shabby belongings.

The Standard Stamping Mill Reduced Ore into Its Mineral Elements

There are tales of gunfights—and people were shot to death in disputes—but when remains are not the gun fighting legends, but the stories of miners and their families, and the people who sold goods to them, ran the newspaper, the bank, the whorehouses and opium dens. There is no picturesque boot hill because the ne’er-do-wells who filled each other with lead were buried outside the cemetery without any monuments to commemorate them.


Escaping the Heat

Owens Dry Lake South of Lone Pine with Its Toxic Dust

South of Bishop, the Owens Valley can make you feel as if you were in a hot oven. Although the area is considered as high desert, it is not all that high. The elevations from south to north vary only by some 500 feet (152 meters). Here is the data in both feet and meters:

  • Olancha – 3,658 feet (1,115 meters)
  • Lone Pine – 3,727 feet (1,1136 meters)
  • Independence – 3,930 feet (1,198 meters)
  • Big Pine – 3,989 feet (1,216 meters)
  • Bishop – 4,150 feet (1,254 meters)

When we were in Big Pine two weeks ago, it was 95º Fahrenheit (35º Celsius), and we were sweltering. After eating lunch, we headed up into the White Mountains to visit the Schulman Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest at an elevation of over 10,100 feet (3,078 meters). In some 30 miles (48 km) we were to climb some 6,000 feet (1,829 meters).

In my 2018 Subaru Forester, there is a display showing the current outside temperature. After our hot morning on the floor of the valley, we saw the temperature decline by some 20º Fahrenheit and become downright cool by the time we reached the piñon pine zone.

In the Piñon Pine Zone: The Sierra Nevada in the Background and the White Mountains in the Foreground

By the time we got to the Schulman Grove, we were perfectly comfortable. There is a backpacker rule of thumb that the temperature drops by 3.5-5.0º Fahrenheit per 1,000 feet, depending on a fairly large number of variables.

In the past, Martine developed a headache when we got to 8,000 feet elevation at Chama, NM and Mesa Verde, CO. This time we both felt great at 10,100 feet. Was the difference that we drank a whole lot more water? Could be.


Pinus longaeva

The Bristlecone Pine Forest at 10,100 Feet Elevation

Perhaps the most interesting destination on our recent trip to the Eastern Sierras was the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the Inyo National Forest in the White Mountains. The living bristlecones are as old as 4,862 years old. Using the science of dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, it is possible to go back almost 10,000 years comparing overlapping dry/wet year rings with those of standing dead bristlecones and even fallen dead bristlecones. Because of the climate near the peaks of the White Mountains is so dry and windy, fungi that destroy the dead wood are slow to take hold.

The following illustration shows how the sequencing of dry/wet years going back in time works:

How Dendrochronology Works

Using these methods, it is possible to scientifically disprove Bishop Ussher’s contention that the creation dated back to 4004 B.C. Dendrochronologists can take wooden lintels from Maya ruins and prove when the piece of wood was cut down. They have shown that the ruins of Stonehenge, for example, are a thousand years older than previously thought—which knocks into a cocked hat the anthropological theory that European civilization had its cultural origins in the Middle East.

Martine and I took the Discovery Trail from the Schulman Grove Visitor’s Center at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. We were unable to finish the trail, because it kept going to higher elevations, and I was having some trouble with breathing and light-headedness. Fortunately, these symptoms became less pronounced as we went about a hundred feet lower.

This Bristlecone Had, at Some Point, Been Subject to Fire

At the Visitor’s Center, I bought a bookmark with “Advice from a Bristlecone Pine,” which consisted of the following:

  • Sink your roots into the earth
  • Keep growing
  • Be content with your natural beauty
  • Weather adversity
  • Go out on a limb
  • Its OK to be a little gnarly
  • Honor your elders!

That second last bit about being a little gnarly is particularly interesting. The tall straight bristlecone pines are never as old as the twisted trunks and branches of trees that grow closer to the ground. Part of these trees could be bead, but they contain live branches that can continue living until something kills them. Amazing trees!


Indian Wells

The Serious Side of Indian Wells

California Route 14 cuts directly through the Antelope Valley and the Mojave Desert until it joins with U.S. 395 just north of Inyokern and just a few miles west of the epicenters of the Ridgecrest earthquakes. Along the side of 14 are a number of deserted motels and restaurants dating back to the 1930s. And there is also the Indian Wells Brewing Company, the manufacturers of Rocket Fizz Sodas, which, unlike the ruined properties, is very much a going concern.

On our way back to Los Angeles from the Eastern Sierras, the Indian Wells Brewing Company was the last stop on our trip. I didn’t know what to expect; but what Martine and I found turned out to be a hoot. Although the company also manufactures beers, I didn’t try them because I had to drive back to L.A. traffic stone sober. But the soda pops were a different story.

Alien Snot and Worm Ooze Are Just Two of the Colorful Soda Brands

So far I have tried the Marilyn Monroe Lemonade Soda, the Rocket Fizz Pineapple Soda, and the Tyler the Kid Sarsaparilla (which was delicious). We also got bottles of the King Kong Cola, the Three Stooges Root Beer, and a Key Lime-flavored Soda, which I suspect will be just as good. Altogether, we spent an hour at their store in the desert being entertained by the wild array of amusing brand names and the wild sense of humor they exhibited.

Beer Keg Urinal in the Restroom

Next time we drive around there, I’m going to have to try some of their beers.