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The sound of the fury

July 1st, 2019 by Kevin, Information Center & Bookstore Assistant

There are a number of ways to picture from afar the torrent of water heading downhill from the Sierra Nevada toward Mono Lake right now. One is to review data on the rapidly dwindling snowpack at Tioga Pass, some of which is destined for the lake.  Another is to check in on DWP’s real time streamflow monitoring, which quantifies in cubic feet per second how much water the creeks are carrying. And depending on shadows and leaf, it is even possible to glimpse Mill Creek itself from an overhead webcam.

All of these tools provide critical information for the Mono Lake Committee, DWP, and stream scientists. But they also all seem sterile in comparison to actually standing next to a creek flowing at 50, 100, or even 350 cubic feet per second. The reason, I think, is that they have no sound. And to traipse along one of the swollen creeks pouring out of the Sierra and into the Mono Basin this summer is to be awash in sound.

The author recording Lee Vining Creek. Photo by Kevin Brown.

To capture this auditory landscape, I spent a recent morning along the Lee Vining Creek Trail—not a half-mile from the Committee office—with my microphone, headphones, and field recorder.

Take a listen to Lee Vining Creek humming:

That clip is the audio equivalent of a wide-angle photograph. It is water overwhelming its channel with a force that can move rocks and sediment along its bottom and reshape the stream itself. (It is also a hum that scares away birders–how could they be expected to hear a Wilson’s Warbler, let alone a Steller’s Jay, over that din?!)

But the creek does not produce only one kind of noise. As I moved downstream I knelt along the creek edge and recorded some more. Listen:

 This is the sound of a steady stream of water, no more than might come out of a garden hose, dropping between two softball-sized rocks along the creek edge. It the kind of slow moving side channel that may deposit a willow seed in just the right place for it to take root.

Listening to Lee Vining Creek flow is relaxing, not only because of the sounds themselves, but also because of what they signify: the restoration of this watershed. So listen, listen, listen to the many sounds of an ecosystem being reborn and the lake level rising.