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[Back to chapter 5] • [Forward to chapter 7] • [Contents]
AMONG the many unlooked-for treasures that are bound up and hidden away in the depths of Sierra solitudes, none more surely charm and surprise all kinds of travelers than the glacier lakes. The forests and the glaciers and the snowy fountains of the streams advertise their wealth in a more or less telling manner even in the distance, but nothing is seen of the lakes until we have climbed above them. All the upper branches of the rivers are fairly laden with lakes, like orchard trees with fruit. They lie embosomed in the deep woods, down in the grovy bottoms of cañons, high on bald table-lands, and around the feet of the icy peaks, mirroring back their wild beauty over and over again. Some conception of their lavish abundance may be made from the fact that, from one standpoint on the summit of Red Mountain, a day’s journey to the east of Yosemite Valley, no fewer than forty-two are displayed within a radius of ten miles. The whole number in the Sierra can hardly be less than fifteen hundred, not counting the smaller pools and tarns, which are innumerable. Perhaps two thirds or more lie on the western flank of the range, and all are restricted to the alpine and subalpine regions. At the close of the last glacial period, the middle and foot-hill regions also abounded in lakes, all of which have long since vanished as completely as the magnificent ancient glaciers that brought them into existence.
Though the eastern flank of the range is excessively steep, we find lakes pretty regularly distributed throughout even the most precipitous portions. They are mostly found in the upper branches of the cañons, and in the glacial amphitheaters around the peaks.
Occasionally long, narrow specimens occur upon the steep sides of dividing ridges, their basins swung lengthwise like hammocks, and very rarely one is found lying so exactly on the summit of the range at the head of some pass that its waters are discharged down both flanks when the snow is melting fast. But, however situated, they soon cease to form surprises to the studious mountaineer; for, like all the love-work of Nature, they are harmoniously related to one another, and to all the other features of the mountains. It is easy, therefore, to find the bright lake-eyes in the roughest and most ungovernable-looking topography of any landscape countenance. Even in the lower regions, where they have been closed for many a century, their rocky orbits are still discernible, filled in with the detritus of flood and avalanche. A beautiful system of grouping in correspondence with the glacial fountains is soon perceived; also their extension in the direction of the trends of the ancient glaciers; and in general their dependence as to form, size, and position upon the character of the rocks in which their basins have been eroded, and the quantity and direction of application of the glacial force expended upon each basin.
In the upper cañons we usually find them in pretty regular succession, strung together like beads on the bright ribbons of their feeding-streams, which pour, white and gray with foam and spray, from one to the other, their perfect mirror stillness making impressive contrasts with the grand blare and glare of the connecting cataracts. In Lake Hollow, on the north side of the Hoffman spur, immediately above the great Tuolumne cañon, there are ten lovely lakelets lying near together in one general hollow, like eggs in a nest. Seen from above, in a general view, feathered with Hemlock Spruce, and fringed with sedge, they seem to me the most singularly beautiful and interestingly located lake-cluster I have ever yet discovered.
Lake Tahoe, 22 miles long by about 10 wide, and from 500 to over 1600 feet in depth, is the largest of all the Sierra lakes. It lies just beyond the northern limit of the higher portion of the range between the main axis and a spur that puts out on the east side from near the head of the Carson River. Its forested shores go curving in and out around many an emerald bay and pine-crowned promontory, and its waters are everywhere as keenly pure as any to be found among the highest mountains.
Donner Lake, rendered memorable by the terrible fate of the Donner party, is about three miles long, and lies about ten miles to the north of Tahoe, at the head of one of the tributaries of the Truckee. A few miles farther north lies Lake Independence, about the same size as Donner. But far the greater number of the lakes lie much higher and are quite small, few of them exceeding a mile in length, most of them less than half a mile.
Along the lower edge of the lake-belt, the smallest have disappeared by the filling-in of their basins, leaving only those of considerable size. But all along the upper freshly glaciated margin of the lake-bearing zone, every hollow, however small, lying within reach of any portion of the close network of streams, contains a bright, brimming pool; so that the landscape viewed from the mountain-tops seems to be sown broadcast with them. Many of the larger lakes are encircled with smaller ones like central gems girdled with sparkling brilliants. In general, however, there is no marked dividing line as to size. In order, therefore, to prevent confusion, I would state here that in giving numbers, I include none less than 500 yards in circumference.
In the basin of the Merced River, I counted 131, of which 111 are upon the tributaries that fall so grandly into Yosemite Valley. Pohono Creek, which forms the fall of that name, takes its rise in a beautiful lake, lying beneath the shadow of a lofty granite spur that puts out from Buena Vista peak. This is now the only lake left in the whole Pohono Basin. The Illilouette has sixteen, the Nevada no fewer than sixty-seven, the Tenaya eight, Hoffmann Creek five, and Yosemite Creek fourteen. There are but two other lake-bearing affluents of the Merced, viz., the South Fork with fifteen, and Cascade Creek with five, both of which unite with the main trunk below Yosemite.
The Merced River, as a whole, is remarkably like an elm-tree, and it requires but little effort on the part of the imagination to picture it standing upright, with all its lakes hanging upon its spreading branches, the topmost eighty miles in height. Now add all the other lake-bearing rivers of the Sierra, each in its place, and you will have a truly glorious spectacle, —an avenue the length and width of the
LAKE TENAYA, ONE OF THE YOSEMITE FOUNTAINS.
range; the long, slender, gray shafts of the main trunks, the milky way of arching branches, and the silvery lakes, all clearly defined and shining on the sky. How excitedly such an addition to the scenery would be gazed at! Yet these lakeful rivers are still more excitingly beautiful and impressive in their natural positions to those who have the eyes to see them as they lie imbedded in their meadows and forests and glacier-sculptured rocks.
When a mountain lake is born,—when, like a young eye, it first opens to the light,—it is an irregular, expressionless crescent, inclosed in banks of rock and ice,—bare, glaciated rock on the lower side, the rugged snout of a glacier on the upper. In this condition it remains for many a year, until at length, toward the end of some auspicious cluster of seasons, the glacier recedes beyond the upper margin of the basin, leaving it open from shore to shore for the first time, thousands of years after its conception beneath the glacier that excavated its basin. The landscape, cold and bare, is reflected in its pure depths; the winds ruffle its glassy surface, and the sun fills it with throbbing spangles, while its waves begin to lap and murmur around its leafless shores,—sun-spangles during the day and reflected stars at night its only flowers, the winds and the snow its only visitors. Meanwhile, the glacier continues to recede, and numerous rills, still younger than the lake itself, bring down glacier-mud, sand-grains, and pebbles, giving rise to margin-rings and plats of soil. To these fresh soil-beds come many a waiting plant. First, a hardy carex with arching leaves and a spike of brown flowers; then, as the seasons grow warmer, and the soil-beds deeper and wider, other sedges take their appointed places, and these are joined by blue gentians, daisies, dodecatheons, violets, honeyworts, and many a lowly moss. Shrubs also hasten in time to the new gardens,—kalmia with its glossy leaves and purple flowers, the arctic willow, making soft woven carpets, together with the heathy bryanthus and cassiope, the fairest and dearest of them all. Insects now enrich the air, frogs pipe cheerily in the shallows, soon followed by the ouzel, which is the first bird to visit a glacier lake, as the sedge is the first of plants.
So the young lake grows in beauty, becoming more and more humanly lovable from century to century. Groves of aspen spring up, and hardy pines, and the Hemlock Spruce, until it is richly overshadowed and embowered. But while its shores are being enriched, the soil-beds creep out with incessant growth, contracting its area, while the lighter mud-particles deposited on the bottom cause it to grow constantly shallower, until at length the last remnant of the lake vanishes,—closed forever in ripe and natural old age. And now its feeding-stream goes winding on without halting through the new gardens and groves that have taken its place.
The length of the life of any lake depends ordinarily upon the capacity of its basin, as compared with the carrying power of the streams that flow into it, the character of the rocks over which these streams flow, and the relative position of the lake toward other lakes. In a series whose basins lie in the same cañon, and are fed by one and the same main stream, the uppermost will, of course, vanish first unless some other lake-filling agent comes in to modify the result; because at first it receives nearly all of the sediments that the stream brings down, only the finest of the mud-particles being carried through the highest of the series to the next below. Then the next higher, and the next would be successively filled, and the lowest would be the last to vanish. But this simplicity as to duration is broken in upon in various ways, chiefly through the action of side-streams that enter the lower lakes direct. For, notwithstanding many of these side tributaries are quite short, and, during late summer, feeble, they all become powerful torrents in springtime when the snow is melting, and carry not only sand and pine-needles, but large trunks and boulders tons in weight, sweeping them down their steeply inclined channels and into the lake basins with astounding energy. Many of these side affluents also have the advantage of access to the main lateral moraines of the vanished glacier that occupied the cañon, and upon these they draw for lake-filling material, while the main trunk stream flows mostly over clean glacier pavements, where but little moraine matter is ever left for them to carry. Thus a small rapid stream with abundance of loose transportable material within its reach may fill up an extensive basin in a few centuries, while a large perennial trunk stream, flowing over clean, enduring pavements, though ordinarily a hundred times larger, may not fill a smaller basin in thousands of years.
The comparative influence of great and small streams as lake-fillers is strikingly illustrated in Yosemite Valley, through which the Merced flows. The bottom of the valley is now composed of level meadow-lands and dry, sloping soil-beds planted with oak and pine, but it was once a lake stretching from wall to wall and nearly from one end of the valley to the other, forming one of the most beautiful cliff-bound sheets of water that ever existed in the Sierra. And though never perhaps seen by human eye, it was but yesterday, geologically speaking, since it disappeared, and the traces of its existence are still so fresh, it may easily be restored to the eye of imagination and viewed in all its grandeur, about as truly and vividly as if actually before us. Now we find that the detritus which fills this magnificent basin was not brought down from the distant mountains by the main streams that converge here to form the river, however powerful and available for the purpose at first sight they appear; but almost wholly by the small local tributaries, such as those of Indian Cañon, the Sentinel, and the Three Brothers, and by a few small residual glaciers which lingered in the shadows of the walls long after the main trunk glacier had receded beyond the head of the valley.
Had the glaciers that once covered the range been melted at once, leaving the entire surface bare from top to bottom simultaneously, then of course all the lakes would have come into existence at the same time, and the highest, other circumstances being equal, would, as we have seen, be the first to vanish. But because they melted gradually from the foot of the range upward, the lower lakes were the first to see the light and the first to be obliterated. Therefore, instead of finding the lakes of the present day at the foot of the range, we find them at the top. Most of the lower lakes vanished thousands of years before those now brightening the alpine landscapes were born. And in general, owing to the deliberation of the upward
THE DEATH OF A LAKE.
retreat of the glaciers, the lowest of the existing lakes are also the oldest, a gradual transition being apparent throughout the entire belt, from the older, forested, meadow-rimmed and contracted forms all the way up to those that are new born, lying bare and meadowless among the highest peaks.
A few small lakes unfortunately situated are extinguished suddenly by a single swoop of an avalanche, carrying down immense numbers of trees, together with the soil they were growing upon. Others are obliterated by land-slips, earthquake taluses, etc., but these lake-deaths compared with those resulting from the deliberate and incessant deposition of sediments, may be termed accidental. Their fate is like that of trees struck by lightning.
The lake-line is of course still rising, its present elevation being about 8000 feet above sea-level; somewhat higher than this toward the southern extremity of the range, lower toward the northern, on account of the difference in time of the withdrawal of the glaciers, due to difference in climate. Specimens occur here and there considerably below this limit, in basins specially protected from inwashing detritus, or exceptional in size. These, however, are not sufficiently numerous to make any marked irregularity in the line. The highest I have yet found lies at an elevation of about 12,000 feet, in a glacier womb, at the foot of one of the highest of the summit peaks, a few miles to the north of Mount Ritter. The basins of perhaps twenty-five or thirty are still in process of formation beneath the few lingering glaciers, but by the time they are born, an equal or greater number will probably have died. Since the beginning of the close of the ice-period the whole numberin the range has perhaps never been greater than at present.
A rough approximation to the average duration of these mountain lakes may be made from data already suggested, but I cannot stop here to present the subject in detail. I must also forego, in the mean time, the pleasure of a full discussion of the interestingquestion of lake-basin formation, for which fine, clear, demonstrative material abounds in these mountains. In addition to what has been already given on the subject, I will only make this one statement. Every lake in the Sierra is a glacier lake. Their basins were not merely remodeled and scoured out by this mighty agent, but in the first place were eroded from the solid.
I must now make haste to give some nearer views of representative specimens lying at different elevations on the main lake-belt, confining myself to descriptions of the features most characteristic of each.
SHADOW LAKE [now called Merced Lake - ed.]
THIS is a fine specimen of the oldest and lowest of the existing lakes. It lies about eight miles above Yosemite Valley, on the main branch of the Merced, at an elevation of about 7350 feet above the sea; and is everywhere so securely cliff-bound that without artificial trails only wild animals can get down to its rocky shores from any direction. Its original length was about a mile and a half; now it is only half a mile in length by about a fourth of a mile in width, and over the lowest portion of the basin ninety-eight feet deep. Its crystal waters are clasped around on the north andsouth by majestic granite walls sculptured in true Yosemitic style into domes, gables, and battlemented headlands, which on the south come plunging down sheer into deep water, from a height of from 1500 to 2000 feet. The South Lyell glacier eroded this magnificent basin out of solid porphyritic granite while forcing its way westward from the summit fountains toward Yosemite, and the exposed rocks around the shores, and the projecting bosses of the walls, ground and burnished beneath the vast ice-flood, still glow with silvery radiance, notwithstanding the innumerable corroding storms that have fallen upon them. The general conformation of the basin, as well as the moraines laid along the top of the walls, and the grooves and scratches on the bottom and sides, indicate in the most unmistakable manner the direction pursued by this mighty ice-river, its great depth, and the tremendous energy it exerted in thrusting itself into and out of the basin; bearing down with superior pressure upon this portion of its channel, because of the greater declivity, consequently eroding it deeper than the other portions about it, and producing the lake-bowl as the necessary result.
With these magnificent ice-characters so vividly before us it is not easy to realize that the old glacier that made them vanished tens of centuries ago; for, excepting the vegetation that has sprung up, and the changes effected by an earthquake that hurled rock-avalanches from the weaker headlands, the basin as a whole presents the same appearance that it did when first brought to light. The lake itself, however, has undergone marked changes; one sees at a glance that it is growing old. More than two thirds of its original area is now dry land, covered with meadow-grasses and groves of pine and fir, and the level bed of alluvium stretching across from wall to wall at the head is evidently growing out all along its lakeward margin, and will at length close the lake forever.
Every lover of fine wildness would delight to saunter on a summer day through the flowery groves now occupying the filled-up portion of the basin. The curving shore is clearly traced by a ribbon of white sand upon which the ripples play; then comes a belt of broad-leafed sedges, interrupted here and there by impenetrable tangles of willows; beyond this there are groves of trembling aspen; then a dark, shadowy belt of Two-leaved Pine, with here and there a round carex meadow ensconced nest-like in its midst; and lastly, a narrow outer margin of majestic Silver Fir 200 feet high. The ground beneath the trees is covered with a luxuriant crop of grasses, chiefly triticum, bromus, and calamagrostis, with purple spikes and panicles arching to one’s shoulders; while the open meadow patches glow throughout the summer with showy flowers,—heleniums, goldenrods, erigerons, lupines, castilleias, and lilies, and form favorite hiding-and feeding-grounds for bears and deer.
The rugged south wall is feathered darkly along the top with an imposing array of spirey Silver Firs, while the rifted precipices all the way down to the water’s edge are adorned with picturesque old junipers, their cinnamon-colored bark showing finely upon the neutral gray of the granite. These, with a few venturesome Dwarf Pines and Spruces, lean out over fissured ribs and tablets, or stand erect back in shadowy niches, in an indescribably wild and fearless manner. Moreover, the white-flowered Douglas spiræa and dwarf evergreen oak form graceful fringes along the narrower seams, wherever the slightest hold can be effected. Rock-ferns, too, are here, such as allosorus, pellæa, and cheilanthes, making handsome rosettes on the drier fissures; and the delicate maidenhair, cistoperis, and woodsia hide back in mossy grottoes, moistened by some trickling rill; and then the orange wall-flower holds up its showy panicles here and there in the sunshine, and bahia makes bosses of gold. But, notwithstanding all this plant beauty, the general impression in looking across the lake is of stern, unflinching rockiness; the ferns and flowers are scarcely seen, and not one fiftieth of the whole surface is screened with plant life.
The sunnier north wall is more varied in sculpture, but the general tone is the same. A few headlands, flat-topped and soil-covered, support clumps of cedar and pine; and up-curving tangles of chinquapin and live-oak, growing on rough earthquake taluses, girdle their bases. Small streams come cascading down between them, their foaming margins brightened with gay primulas, gilias, and mimuluses. And close along the shore on this side there is a strip of rocky meadow enameled with buttercups, daisies, and white violets, and the purple-topped grasses out on its beveled border dip their leaves into the water.
The lower edge of the basin is a dam-like swell of solid granite, heavily abraded by the old glacier, but scarce at all cut into as yet by the outflowing stream, though it has flowed on unceasingly since the lake came into existence.
As soon as the stream is fairly over the lake-lip it breaks into cascades, never for a moment halting, and scarce abating one jot of its glad energy, until it reaches the next filled-up basin, a mile below. Then swirling and curving drowsily through meadow and grove, it breaks forth anew into gray rapids and falls, leaping and gliding in glorious exuberance of wild bound and dance down into another and yet another filled-up lake basin. Then, after a long rest in the levels of Little Yosemite, it makes its grandest display in the famous Nevada Fall. Out of the clouds of spray at the foot of the fall the battered, roaring river gropes its way, makes another mile of cascades and rapids, rests a moment in Emerald Pool, then plunges over the grand cliff of the Vernal Fall, and goes thundering and chafing down a boulder-choked gorge of tremendous depth and wildness into the tranquil reaches of the old Yosemite lake basin.
The color-beauty about Shadow Lake during the Indian summer is much richer than one could hope to find in so young and so glacial a wilderness. Almost every leaf is tinted then, and the goldenrods are in bloom; but most of the color is given by the ripe grasses, willows, and aspens. At the foot of the lake you stand in a trembling aspen grove, every leaf painted like a butterfly, and away to right and left round the shores sweeps a curving ribbon of meadow, red and brown dotted with pale yellow, shading off here and there into hazy purple. The walls, too, are dashed with bits of bright color that gleam out on the neutral granite gray. But neither the walls, nor the margin meadow, nor yet the gay, fluttering grove in which you stand, nor the lake itself, flashing with spangles, can long hold your attention; for at the head of the lake there is a gorgeous mass of orange-yellow, belonging to the main aspen belt of the basin, which seems the very fountain whence all the color below it had flowed, and here your eye is filled and fixed. This glorious mass is about thirty feet high, and extends across the basin nearly from wall to wall. Rich bosses of willow flame in front of it, and from the base of these the brown meadow comes forward to the water’s edge, the whole being relieved against the unyielding green of the coniferæ, while thick sun-gold is poured over all.
During these blessed color-days no cloud darkens the sky, the winds are gentle, and the landscape rests, hushed everywhere, and indescribably impressive. A few ducks are usually seen sailing on the lake, apparently more for pleasure than anything else, and the ouzels at the head of the rapids sing always; while robins, grosbeaks, and the Douglas squirrels are busy in the groves, making delightful company, and intensifying the feeling of grateful sequestration without ruffling the deep, hushed calm and peace.
This autumnal mellowness usually lasts until the end of November. Then come days of quite another kind. The winter clouds grow, and bloom, and shed their starry crystals on every leaf and rock, and all the colors vanish like a sunset. The deer gather and hasten down their well-known trails, fearful of being snow-bound. Storm succeeds storm, heaping snow on the cliffs and meadows, and bending the slender pines to the ground in wide arches, one over the other, clustering and interlacing like lodged wheat. Avalanches rush and boom from the shelving heights, piling immense heaps upon the frozen lake, and all the summer glory is buried and lost. Yet in the midst of this hearty winter the sun shines warm at times, calling the Douglas squirrel to frisk in the snowy pines and seek out his hidden stores; and the weather is never so severe as to drive away the grouse and little nut-hatches and chickadees.
Toward May, the lake begins to open. The hot sun sends down innumerable streams over the cliffs, streaking them round and round with foam. The snow slowly vanishes, and the meadows show tintings of green. Then spring comes on apace; flowers and flies enrich the air and the sod, and the deer come back to the upper groves like birds to an old nest.
I first discovered this charming lake in the autumn of 1872, while on my way to the glaciers at the head of the river. It was rejoicing then in its gayest colors, untrodden, hidden in the glorious wildness like unmined gold. Year after year I walked its shores without discovering any other trace of humanity than the remains of an Indian camp-fire and the thigh-bones of a deer that had been broken to get at the marrow. It lies out of the regular ways of Indians, who love to hunt in more accessible fields adjacent to trails. Their knowledge of deer-haunts had probably enticed them here some hunger-time when they wished to make sure of a feast; for hunting in this lake-hollow is like hunting in a fenced park. I had told the beauty of Shadow Lake only to a few friends, fearing it might come to be trampled and “improved” like Yosemite. On my last visit, as I was sauntering along the shore on the strip of sand between the water and sod, reading the tracks of the wild animals that live here, I was startled by a human track, which I at once saw belonged to some shepherd; for each step was turned out 35° or 40° from the general course pursued, and was also run over in an uncertain sprawling fashion at the heel, while a row of round dots on the right indicated the staff that shepherds carry. None but a shepherd could make such a track, and after tracing it a few minutes I began to fear that he might be seeking pasturage; for what else could he be seeking? Returning from the glaciers shortly afterward, my worst fears were realized. A trail had been made down the mountain-side from the north, and all the gardens and meadows were destroyed by a horde of hoofed locusts, as if swept by fire. The money-changers were in the temple.
BESIDES these larger cañon lakes, fed by the main cañon streams, there are many smaller ones lying aloft on the top of rock benches, entirely independent of the general drainage channels, and of course drawing their supplies from a very limited area. Notwithstanding they are mostly small and shallow, owing to their immunity from avalanche detritus and the inwashings of powerful streams, they often endure longer than others many times larger but less favorably situated. When very shallow they become dry toward the end of summer; but because their basins are ground out of seamless stone they suffer no loss save from evaporation alone; and the great depth of snow that falls, lasting into June, makes their dry season short in any case.
Orange Lake is a fair illustration of this bench form. It lies in the middle of a beautiful glacial pavement near the lower margin of the lake-line, about a mile and a half to the northwest of Shadow Lake. It is only about 100 yards in circumference. Next the water there is a girdle of carices with wide overarching leaves, then in regular order a shaggy ruff of huckleberry bushes, a zone of willows with here and there a bush of the Mountain Ash, then a zone of aspens with a few pines around the outside. These zones are of course concentric, and together form a wall beyond which the naked ice-burnished granite stretches away in every direction, leaving it conspicuously relieved, like a bunch of palms in a desert.
In autumn, when the colors are ripe, the whole circular grove, at a little distance, looks like a big handful of flowers set in a cup to be kept fresh—a tuft of goldenrods. Its feeding-streams are exceedingly beautiful, notwithstanding their inconstancy and extreme shallowness. They have no channel whatever, and consequently are left free to spread in thin sheets upon the shining granite and wander at will. In many places the current is less than a fourth of an inch deep, and flows with so little friction it is scarcely visible. Sometimes there is not a single foam-bell, or drifting pine-needle, or irregularity of any sort to manifest its motion. Yet when observed narrowly it is seen to form a web of gliding lacework exquisitely woven, giving beautiful reflections from its minute curving ripples and eddies, and differing from the waterlaces of large cascades in being everywhere transparent. In spring, when the snow is melting, the lake-bowl is brimming full, and sends forth quite a large stream that slips glassily for 200 yards or so until it comes to an almost vertical precipice 800 feet high, down which it plunges in a fine cataract; then it gathers its scattered waters and goes smoothly over folds of gently dipping granite to its confluence with the main cañon stream. During the greater portion of the year, however, not a single water sound will you hear either at head or foot of the lake, not even the whispered lappings of ripple-waves along the shore; for the winds are fenced out. But the deep mountain silence is sweetened now and then by birds that stop here to rest and drink on their way across the cañon.
LAKE STARR KING
A BEAUTIFUL variety of the bench-top lakes occurs just where the great lateral moraines of the main glaciers have been shoved forward in outswelling concentric rings by small residual tributary glaciers.
LAKE STARR KING.
Instead of being encompassed by a narrow ring of trees like Orange Lake, these lie embosomed in dense moraine woods, so dense that in seeking them you may pass them by again and again, although you may know nearly where they lie concealed.
Lake Starr King, lying to the north of the cone of that name, above the Little Yosemite Valley, is a fine specimen of this variety. The ouzels pass it by, and so do the ducks; they could hardly get into it if they would, without plumping straight down inside the circling trees.
Yet these isolated gems, lying like fallen fruit detached from the branches, are not altogether without inhabitants and joyous, animating visitors. Of course fishes cannot get into them, and this is generally true of nearly every glacier lake in the range, but they are all well stocked with happy frogs. How did the frogs get into them in the first place? Perhaps their sticky spawn was carried in on the feet of ducks or other birds, else their progenitors must have made some exciting excursions through the woods and up the sides of the cañons. Down in the still, pure depths of these hidden lakelets you may also find the larvæ of innumerable insects and a great variety of beetles, while the air above them is thick with humming wings, through the midst of which fly-catchers are constantly darting. And in autumn, when the huckleberries are ripe, bands of robins and grosbeaks come to feast, forming altogether delightful little byworlds for the naturalist.
Pushing our way upward toward the axis of the range, we find lakes in greater and greater abundance, and more youthful in aspect. At an elevation of about 9000 feet above sea-level they seem to have arrived at middle age,—that is, their basins seem to be about half filled with alluvium. Broad sheets of meadow-land are seen extending into them, imperfect and boggy in many places and more nearly level than those of the older lakes below them and the vegetation of their shores is of course more alpine. Kalmia, ledum, and cassiope fringe the meadow rocks, while the luxuriant, waving groves, so characteristic of the lower lakes, are represented only by clumps of the Dwarf Pine and Hemlock Spruce. These, however, are oftentimes very picturesquely grouped on rocky headlands around the outer rim of the meadows, or with still more striking effect crown some rocky islet.
Moreover, from causes that we cannot stop here to explain, the cliffs about these middle-aged lakes are seldom of the massive Yosemite type, but are more broken, and less sheer, and they usually stand back, leaving the shores comparatively free; while the few precipitous rocks that do come forward and plunge directly into deep water are seldom more than three or four hundred feet high.
I have never yet met ducks in any of the lakes of this kind, but the ouzel is never wanting where the feeding-streams are perennial. Wild sheep and deer may occasionally be seen on the meadows, and very rarely a bear. One might camp on the rugged shores of these bright fountains for weeks, without meeting any animal larger than the marmots that burrow beneath glacier boulders along the edges of the meadows.
The highest and youngest of all the lakes lie nestled in glacier wombs. At first sight, they seem pictures of pure bloodless desolation, miniature arctic seas, bound in perpetual ice and snow, and overshadowed by harsh, gloomy, crumbling precipices. Their waters are keen ultramarine blue in the deepest parts, lively grass-green toward the shore shallows and around the edges of the small bergs usually floating about in them. A few hardy sedges, frost-pinched every night, are occasionally found making soft sods along the sun-touched portions of their shores, and when their northern banks slope openly to the south, and are soil-covered, no matter how coarsely, they are sure to be brightened with flowers. One lake in particular now comes to mind which illustrates the floweriness of the sun-touched banks of these icy gems. Close up under the shadow of the Sierra Matterhorn, on the eastern slope of the range, lies one of the iciest of these glacier lakes at an elevation of about 12,000 feet. A short, ragged-edged glacier crawls into it from the south, and on the opposite side it is embanked and dammed by a series of concentric terminal moraines, made by the glacier when it entirely filled the basin. Half a mile below lies a second lake, at a height of 11,500 feet, about as cold and as pure as a snow-crystal. The waters of the first come gurgling down into it over and through the moraine dam, while a second stream pours into it direct from a glacier that lies to the southeast. Sheer precipices of crystalline snow rise out of deep water on the south, keeping perpetual winter on that side, but there is a fine summery spot on the other, notwithstanding the lake is only about 300 yards wide. Here, on August 25, 1873, I found a charming company of flowers, not pinched, crouching dwarfs, scarce able to look up, but warm and juicy, standing erect in rich cheery color and bloom. On a narrow strip of shingle, close to the water’s edge, there were a few tufts of carex gone to seed; and a little way back up the rocky bank at the foot of a crumbling wall so inclined as to absorb and radiate as well as reflect a considerable quantity of sun-heat, was the garden, containing a thrifty thicket of Cowania covered with large yellow flowers; several bushes of the alpine ribes with berries nearly ripe and wildly acid; a few handsome grasses belonging to two distinct species, and one goldenrod; a few hairy lupines and radiant spragueas, whose blue and rose-colored flowers were set off to fine advatage amid green carices; and along a narrow seam in the very warmest angle of the wall a perfectly gorgeous fringe of Epilobium obcordatum with flowers an inch wide, crowded together in lavish profusion, and colored as royal a purple as ever was worn by any high-bred plant of the tropics; and best of all, and greatest of all, a noble thistle in full bloom, standing erect, head and shoulders above his companions, and thrusting out his lances in sturdy vigor as if growing on a Scottish brae. All this brave warm bloom among the raw stones, right in the face of the onlooking glaciers.
As far as I have been able to find out, these upper lakes are snow-buried in winter to a depth of about thirty-five or forty feet, and those most exposed to avalanches, to a depth of even a hundred feet or more. These last are, of course, nearly lost to the landscape. Some remain buried for years, when the snowfall is exceptionally great, and many open only on one side late in the season. The snow of the closed side is composed of coarse granulescompacted and froze into a firm, faintly stratified mass, like the névé of a glacier. The lapping waves of the open portion gradually undermine and cause it to break off in large masses like icebergs, which gives rise to a precipitous front like the discharging wall of a glacier entering the sea. The play of the lights among the crystal angles of these snow-cliffs, the pearly white of the outswelling bosses, the bergs drifting in front, aglow in the sun and edged with green water, and the deep blue disk of the lake itself extending to your feet,—this forms a picture that enriches all your afterlife, and is never forgotten. But however perfect the season and the day, the cold incompleteness of these young lakes is always keenly felt. We approach them with a kind of mean caution, and steal unconfidingly around their crystal shores, dashed and ill at ease, as if expecting to hear some forbidding voice. But the lovesongs of the ouzels and the love-looks of the daisies gradually reassure us, and manifest the warm fountain humanity that pervades the coldest and most solitary of them all.
[Back to chapter 5]
[Forward to chapter 7]
The Mountains of California
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