Sunrise light on a grove of tufa towers emerging from the water of Mono Lake with soft green and dusty-red wild grasses in the foreground, Canada geese in the shallow water with reflections of the rocky towers, and desert hills in the distance.

Spotlight: The Mono Lake Volunteers

When I stand and look out from the shores of Mono Lake, there is an abundance of stories that flow through my mind.

Mono Lake Volunteers rove at South Tufa and County Park with spotting scopes and helpful information for visitors---keep an eye out for their blue shirts! Photo by Arya Degenhardt.
Mono Lake Volunteers rove at South Tufa and County Park with spotting scopes and helpful information for visitors—keep an eye out for their blue shirts! Photo by Arya Degenhardt.

At times I reflect on the region’s water story and the decades of litigation and activism that was required to bring awareness and ecological security to Mono Lake. Other times I am captivated by the dazzling aerial displays of the Wilson’s Phalaropes, which stop to feed at Mono Lake before embarking on a continuous 48-hour flight to the Andean Plateau in South America. It’s these stories and many more that help me to understand and appreciate the lake for the amazing place that it is, which is why I believe that providing interpretive information to visitors can greatly benefit their overall experience of Mono Lake.

Perhaps that is why there are so many great interpretive programs offered in the Mono Basin. And yet not everyone who visits Mono Lake is always able to attend a South Tufa tour or a bird walk. It is therefore to everyone’s benefit that there exists a special task force designed to provide an “on the fly” interpretive experience: the Mono Lake Volunteers.

If you go to South Tufa or County Park, you may very well see a Mono Lake Volunteer “roving” in the area—that is to say, equipped with an observation scope, a passion for the area, and the readiness to share both. It was my pleasure to talk to some of these volunteers and hear about their experiences and what they enjoy most about the work that they do.

Mono Lake Committee board member Sherryl Taylor, who has been involved with the volunteer program since 2005, says that roving at South Tufa is one of her favorite volunteer duties because it’s an opportunity for her to engage with all kinds of people and make the experience more memorable for visitors. And sometimes, it’s the visitors who provide Sherryl with the memorable interpretation: “Last week when I was roving at South Tufa, I caught some brine shrimp for a young family and we were looking at them together. The older brother asked why two of them were together and I said they were mating. He turned to his sister and explained that they were ‘planning a family.’ I had never thought about what the shrimp were doing in quite those terms.”

Volunteer and Committee board member Sherryl Taylor pulls invasive plants during a restoration project day at Mono Lake. Photo by Arya Degenhardt.

To my partial surprise, Sherryl said that one of her other favorite volunteer activities are the trash pickups. Perhaps she could sense my skepticism through the phone line, but she quickly reassured me: “I really do enjoy them. I enjoy the people of the Mono Basin and trash pickups are a great opportunity to meet and work with them for the cause of keeping our beautiful places clean. I do like restoration work and helping out at Chautauqua a lot too.”

Rhonda Starr and Hank Garretson moved here in 2004 to retire, but when the opportunity to volunteer presented itself, the beauty of the lake motivated them to participate; they have volunteered ever since. Rhonda also explained to me that “the best part was going through the volunteer training and finding out about the water story, the ecology and the geology. I really enjoy sharing the information with visitors.”

Jo Bacon, who joined the first-ever volunteer class alongside Rhonda and Hank, mentioned that “every day the lake and shore are different, so we have the opportunity to always have new experiences.”

Kathleen C., who is currently volunteering for her fourth consecutive summer, shared with me that her favorite part of the job is also interacting with visitors: “I enjoy the public and their stories and I like being able to offer them information. I can point out birds or simply provide information on lodging or where to camp. I would say my very favorite interactions are when visitors look through my spotting scope. When they see the adult Osprey with three little chick heads bobbing up in their nest, people gasp with delight!”

New Mono Lake Volunteers who joined the ten-year-long program this year. Photo by Rose Catron.

All the volunteers I interviewed had different life stories with varying levels of experience and expertise, and yet they all seemed to share some unifying characteristics. The volunteers had a very apparent passion for Mono Lake, and they all described that unique satisfaction of sharing the beauty of Mono Lake with visitors. Succinctly put by ten-year volunteer Phyl Benham: “Nothing can compare to the delight that visitors exhibit when they first see Mono Lake and say ‘Wow, this is so beautiful!'”