Last weekend Aubrey and I found some time to go backpacking in the Sierra. Coming from the heat of Pasadena, it was nice to cool off in the mountains again. The weather was a strange mix – we simultaneously had 65° temperatures and warm sun, while graupel (a cross between snow and hail) blew in from some distant clouds.

Tent, Sierra Forest, California

Forest Home : Prints Available

My tent, pitched among some beatiful trees in the Sierra Nevada. The early morning sun provided some welcome radiant warmth in the crisp mountain air. 

Aubrey enjoying the sunshine and graupel - a cross between snow and hail (see the white flecks?) below Temple Crag.

Aubrey enjoying the sunshine and graupel – a cross between snow and hail (see the white flecks?) below Temple Crag.

As you may well know, California is in the throes of its fourth year of a major drought. Snowpack in the Sierra was at 5% of normal a month ago, and last weeks snowpack survey was cancelled on account of there not being any snow to survey. These numbers, however, and even photographs of barren mountains and empty lakes, aren’t as moving as seeing the issues first hand. In a normal year, lakes at 10,000 feet in the Sierra begin to thaw in late June. On our trip last weekend to the Big Pine lakes at 10,000 feet, we were surprised to find no snow, and no ice, in the first weekend of May.

Temple Crag, Big Pine Lakes, Sierra Nevada

A Moment of Zen : Prints Available

Temple Crag looms above 2nd lake, one the of the Big Pine lakes below the Palisade basin in California's John Muir Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. 

Even more surprising was the lake level of 2nd lake, which was thirty or more feet below it’s recent historical level. If you look closely you will see an unnatural bathtub ring around the lake shore in the image above. Apparently many years ago LA Water & Power built a damn to increase the capacity of the lake, and drilled a tunnel from 2nd lake to 1st lake to make it possible to drain it almost completely in the case of a severe drought. Well, the time has come. From the lingering ice lining the shore, it is apparent that within the last few months alone the lake level has dropped almost 20 feet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the lake is entirely empty before the end of the year.

2nd lake dam, and extremely low water level. The water should have been at the level of the damn in the foreground, and close to the trees in the distance!

2nd lake dam, and extremely low water level. The water should have been at the level of the damn in the foreground, and close to the trees in the distance!

Cabin near big pine lakes 2nd lake dam. Although the cabin itself is quite old, it was outfitted with a brand new chimney, suggesting some recent occupants? I would love to know more about the activity here if anyone has any additional information.

Cabin near big pine lakes 2nd lake dam. Although the cabin itself is quite old, it was outfitted with a brand new chimney, suggesting some recent occupants? I would love to know more about the activity here if anyone has any additional information.

The scarcity of water isn’t just a problem for the states agriculture, drinking water, etc. Many of our trees are too thirsty and stressed to fight off the invasion of pine beetles, and before long large swathes of the forests blanketing the low elevation Sierra may be dead.

On the bright side, with all these dead and dying trees, colorful abstracts of weathered wood will be everywhere. That is, so long as the wildfires don’t destroy the entire landscape. [/end sarcasm]

Wood Abstract, Sierra Nevada, California

Woodbow : Prints Available

An abstract scene of the weathered wood of an old tree in California's Sierra Nevada.

The first step in making change is admitting that there is indeed a problem. Currently, within city limits (at least in my neighborhood) one would hardly know there is a drought at all. Lawns are still green, and sprinklers are still running. In fact, many sidewalks are frequently soaked in water early in the morning. That water, at least in part, is coming from those precious backcountry lakes like 2nd lake. This separation between consumption and destruction seems to be a general problem underlying so many of the issues in our society today.

A verdant green pasadena lawn (taken on a rare cloudy day).

A verdant green pasadena lawn (taken on a rare cloudy day).

Perhaps it’s time we take some inspiration from the native environments that survive on the minimal water that is locally available. Before our trip to the mountains Aubrey and I spent a night in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine. We hiked out to some of my favorite granite boulders, and on the way back Aubrey spotted a small blooming beavertail cactus. There is a certain beauty in these simple, austere, landscapes. Perhaps us Californian’s can learn a thing or two about aesthetics from the desert landscape that surrounds us.

Click images for larger view!

Blooming Cactus, Owen's Valley, Desert

Austerity : Prints Available

A lonely blooming beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) adds a touch of life to the otherwise stark desert landscape of the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine in California's Owen's Valley.

To be fair, there are a few attractive water-friendly yards around, but you do have to look pretty hard to find them!

A Pasadena cactus garden - note the grassy green lawn next door, however.

A Pasadena cactus garden – note the grassy green lawn next door, however.

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6 Comments to “Beauty in Austerity – Inspirations from the Eastern Sierra”

  1. Boyan says:

    A woman from Fresono was quoted in the New Your Times that [she] “is not giving up her lawn for some smelt”. Water rates in Freson are apparently some of the lowest in the country. To paraphrase Obama’s ghost writer, oh the audacity of ignorance. On the brighter side economics are, with increasing frequency, pushing non uber-wealthy to rip out their lawns… at least according to anecdotal evidence of my daily dog walks.

    In my opinion awns are a (somewhat) manageable problem that can be brought under control in relatively short time. The trend has started even in quite affluent neighborhoods like the one in the last image above. Agriculture will be, on the other hand, a much tougher nut to crack. There is the “taking livelihood” argument that will be provided as justification, as well as the sticky issue of reduced tax revenue in a state that seems to have an infinite appetite for spending. On my last visit to Anza-Borrego a month or so ago I was SHOCKED to discover square miles of orange groves in the middle of a barren desert. This makes just as little sense as the golf courses of Palm Springs (many of which at least use recycled water).

  2. Chris Kayler says:

    Sadly I don’t really see a time when the majority of people come to the conclusion that you have in your post. It’s going to take a lot for people to change. BTW, “Austerity” and “Woodbow” are really gorgeous.

  3. Steve Sieren says:

    Looks like a great time to remove the dam!!

    You’ll be getting plenty more overcast days this month and next month.

  4. Eric says:

    Floris,

    Not sure if you know the history of the other cabin once belonging to Lon Chaney? It’s along the trail from Big Pine to the number lakes and here is an article you may be interested in. http://articles.latimes.com/20.....-outthere7 Perhaps the one in your photo was built around the same time?

    Great photos and blog as always!

    -Eric

  5. Thanks folks for the kind words!

    Steve – I sure hope we continue getting some of those overcast days. I worry that the “June gloom” has become the “May gloom” and we’ll instead get an extra month of summer…

    Eric – Thanks for the link! I had no idea about the history of that cabin. We saw Lon’s cabin on the way in, but I didn’t think much about it (given the forest service sign) aside from it looking a little out of place. The cabin I posted a picture of is a different one, however, off trail near 2nd lake, and most likely associated with the dam at 2nd lake. Strange that the wilderness act caused the forest service to consider demolishing Lon’s cabin, and yet this other mysterious cabin has been outfitted with a brand new chimney within the past year or two (as evidenced by how shiny it was, and the brand new lock on it).

    – Floris

  6. Joey Priola says:

    Beautiful images as always, Floris. I’m especially fond of “Forest Home” and “A Moment of Zen.” It’s startling to see the water levels of the backcountry lakes so low, and for there to be hardly any snow dusting the mountains in early May. The Big Pine Lakes area has been on my list of places to explore and photograph for some time now, but it looks like if I don’t hurry there won’t be any more lakes to camp at and photograph 🙁