April - California in Springtime

May 1, 2017
Captain's Log Starship 1XE, Day 1 in the month of April in the Earth Calendar Year of 2017.
It's Back to Bodie...and early April was clearly too early this year for flying the Bodie Hills area. Blizzards and 85mph winds. Fortunately though, we were grounded in a pretty spectacular landscape, the Eastern Sierras. Having climbed extensively in Yosemite for a great many years, I had no idea what lay just over that cosmic valley to the east - an unusual landscape called Bodie Hills, surrounding the ghost mining town of Bodie. I have just finished reading Camp 4 by Steve Roper, and watching a Netflix video called Valley Uprising, both chronicling the heyday of Yosemite and the heroes and heroics of that wild and crazy bunch of maniacs. It is a place very close to my heart, as in the early 70s a bunch of us Colorado ski bums would pack into a dilapidated van as soon as ski season ended and head to Tonopah and proceed to the valley where Camp 4 awaited us.
Our flight missions for this week included flying up and down the Owens Valley from Lee Vining, Mammoth and the lovely Bodie Hills south to Bishop following a deep trench, the Owens River Gorge. Slashing 14,000 foot peaks dwarfed us on both sides, with the Sierras to the west and the White Mountains on our east. Galore in history, and captured for posterity by great climber photographers like my old friend Galen Rowell, this luminous landscape is undergoing land management reviews, and local communities are organizing, as this area is becoming an ever more popular destination for tourists and recreationists. We flew arid desert lands, dramatically juxtaposed with snow covered peaks, that are National Conservation Lands, protected by the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan but not from future mining. The idea of the conservation campaigns in eastern Inyo County is to preserve the values that made these areas sacred to Native Americans and attracted both the early and more recent settlers, and to balance the economies of scale in a sustainable way.
Alabama Hills & Mt. Whitney
Our first flights were in the north, filling the plane with passengers ranging from scientists, historians, to Forest Service and Park Service officials, from the communities of Mammoth Lakes, Lee Vining and Bridgeport.The Mammoth airport is the gateway to this popular California ski area but we were shocked by the lack of airplane traffic and 'heavy metal' we are used to in Colorado, and Aspen in particular. On the big weekends in Aspen there are billions of dollars' worth of aircraft parked at one time. 1XE mingled quite respectably with the few jets in Mammoth coming over from the LA basin.
As the weather improved, we headed south, taking a short detour over the incomparable majesty of Yosemite, and marveling at the snowpack which was at 261%, with the heaviest snow being caused by extreme 'atmospheric rivers'. My first thought was where is all this water going to go during what will be an epic winter run off? California has been in a severe drought situation for over five years and now another problem surfaces...where to put the water? When you delve into the geography and the climate and then the politics it's an interesting and unusual mix of water law, water storage, water scarcity, and proximity to the 2nd largest city in the U.S., Los Angeles.
It turns out a long time ago in a far-off land there was plenty of water and it would head down to the Owens River into the once 200 square mile Owens Lake. Then came the gold rush that drew people to Bodie and Lone Pine, followed by those attracted by the sunshine and the hype of the Golden State. Beginning in 1913, the insatiable demand for water from Lala Land sucked Owens Lake dry. By the 1920s this unquenchable thirst had left a dry lake, which became a dust bowl...and not just any dust bowl but the premiere dust situation in the USA, a million tons annually of wind borne particles.
Owens Lake
Now we have this kind of a monster snow year and it has everyone running around scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to dispose of all the water before it inundates all the pipe and tunnel infrastructure on the lake itself. Oh, did I mention that Owens Lake has no natural exit? The answer right now is an innovative approach to divert the water underground and replenish depleted aquifers that are still in a drought-like state, and live happily ever after. Not. Because in California and the Western U.S. we have a water storage and transport system that was designed and built more than 50 years ago in a very different climate. Because of climate change, we are now experiencing more frequent occurrences of hot, dry conditions (drought) punctuated by wet conditions. Our aging dam and pipeline infrastructure was not built for these atmospheric river events - in the next few years, these Pineapple Express events could increase even more if global warming is not kept in check.
Back in the air to Bishop airfield at the northern end of the Owens Valley, with the local airport geezers hanging out talking barnstorming blarney, and then on to Furnace Creek, deep in the heart of Death Valley at -210 feet elevation to fly the beautiful and unique Amargosa River and Basin, a river in the heart of the desert, providing islands of water to desert plants and animals. Right crosswind, left crosswind, cracked runways at Lone Pine, heat and heavy loads had us flight planning and doing fuel calculations well into the night. A California adventure like none other.