“Cold, sterile, subtle beauty, I felt like it was just me and God out there. So quiet, so beautiful,” states acclaimed wilderness photographer and adventurer Brian Ernst, after a 3-day solo winter kayaking expedition at Mono Lake in mid-February. Brian’s easy-going manner and passion for photography inspires people and photographers of all levels.
A born photographer, Brian bought his first camera at the age of ten and started his wilderness adventures in California, where he still lives today. Brian has paddled and hiked extensively to wherever nature has summoned him, to capture breathtaking landscapes on film, and now also with digital photography.
One can’t help but appreciate Mono Lake’s harsh beauty while paddling upon its salty waters during the coldest season of the year. The lake has a mystical quality; utterly barren, with an exceptional beauty of its own. Surrounded by the high desert, the powdery white snow and icy water breathes life into the desolate landscape of the Great Basin in the heart of winter.
It doesn't get cold enough to freeze Mono Lake’s salty water, but it does get cold enough for fresh water to freeze. At times a thin layer of ice floats on top of Mono Lake along the west shore, but it rarely gets thicker than a quarter of an inch, and breaks up easily in the wind.
As Brian explains, “It was pretty cool to beach my kayak in the snow and strap on snowshoes to get around on shore. The combination of snowshoeing and kayaking was appealing to me. If Mono Lake was fresh water it would have long been frozen this time of year so it's pretty unique to be able to do this outside of the North Pole. In fact if I stuck a tall candy cane in the ground here I could probably fool people into thinking I was actually at the North Pole.”
Mono Lake lies on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where high alpine peaks descend rapidly in elevation to the Mono Basin. Mono Lake is a massive body of water covering about 65 square miles, at 6383 feet above sea level, just east of Lee Vining. The Mono Basin is a large, relatively flat expanse 14 miles wide, with approximately 40 miles of shoreline.
Due to its proximity to the mountains, Mono Lake has a reputation for savage winds that can really whip up the lake’s water surface. In fact, winds on Mono Lake can reach hurricane force on a typical winter afternoon. If you capsize in 30 to 40 m.p.h. winds in the wintertime, there’s a good possibility immersion in cold water can quickly numb your extremities to the point of uselessness. Intensely cold hands may not be able to hold onto a capsized kayak or allow you to climb back onboard. Within minutes, severe pain clouds rational thought. And finally, hypothermia sets in.
A seasoned adventurer, Brian Ernst acknowledges, “It's a bit exciting being solo on the lake, not another soul around, in the middle of winter where the freezing water would result in rapid hypothermia in case of a tip over.”