Mr. Don Banta
The primary interview was conducted on 10/29/91 without a tape recorder from 2:30 to 6:30pm at Mr. Banta's home in Lee Vining. Follow-up interviews were conducted over the phone on 11/6/91 and 12/31/91.
Don Banta was born in Bishop, and has lived continuously in Lee Vining since 1932, when he was four years old. Don has one brother and one sister.
Originally, the Banta family owned the Lee Vining Market and operated a campground called Lake View Camp, which was also in Lee Vining. Eventually, the market was sold to Harry Blaver, and cabins and motel units replaced the campsites. The business is currently called the Best Western Lake View Lodge.
Don and his wife, Rita, have four grown children, some of who still live in the eastern Sierra. His son, Bill Banta, now runs the Lodge.
His father, Bill Banta Sr., liked to hunt and Don was encouraged to take an interest in wildlife. Don was an extremely active sportsman, and has hunted and fished extensively in the Mono Basin for the last fifty years. He is also a keen observer and birdwatcher. Don helps monitor the new Lee Vining Canyon bighorn herd. Furthermore, Don has erected countless bird nestboxes in the Mono Basin - innumerable house wrens owe their start to his efforts!
Black-crowned night heron. They used to be very rare in the Mono Basin.
American avocet. Mr. Banta doesn't remember seeing many avocets when the lake was higher. There weren't many non-phalarope shorebirds either. Avocets have become much more common.
Phalaropes. When Mono Lake was higher, there were many more phalaropes, which locals called "Mono Lake pigeons." There were quite a few large groups, and these groups contained from several hundred to a thousand per group. Then (the 1940s), as now, the south-bound females would arrive first, then the males and juveniles would come. Some of the many places they would occur included the mouth of Lee Vining Creek and near the Nay Ranch, but phalaropes were scattered all over the lake. From mid-summer to September there were always numerous phalaropes. Phalarope numbers seem to have decreased since the 1940s.
Caspian tern. Mr. Banta remembers that he never noticed them in the Mono Basin until one year (maybe 1960) he took a boat out to the islands and saw a small colony of about 20 pairs nesting on the sand of one of the islets. It was the island with the biggest fake volcano, which would indicate Krakatoa. However, Little Tahiti has small volcanoes and has, at least now, more sandy beaches. (Mr. Banta agrees, upon reading this, that it could very well have been either of these two islands.)
California gull. Originally, only two or three of the Negit islets were used extensively by gulls (these were the only ones exposed at the time). The gulls would move in as the islands became available. Mr. Banta feels that there are more gulls now than there were back in the 1940s.
Eared grebe. The locals called them "helldivers." Mr. Banta feels that there are many more now than back in the 1940s.
Waterfowl. From the mid-1940s to mid-1950s there were numerous Northern shovelers around Mono Lake - hundreds of thousands. Two places they tended to congregate were Simon Springs (one of the springs ran like a stream) and the mouth of Rush Creek. They also were present in large numbers at Gull Bath (mouth of Wilson Creek), and at springs at Thompson Ranch (even upper Thompson Ranch, above the county road, had springs that attracted a few ducks, especially mallards, and also wigeon, teal and pintails) and the mouth of Lee Vining Creek. "The" Mono Lake duck species was the shoveler. They were by far the most common species. Shovelers were rarely found away from Mono Lake, and only in fairly good-sized ponds or lagoons.
There have always been quite a few ruddy ducks.
Sometimes canvasback would be found around the lake. There usually were few at Dechambeau Ponds.
There was not as much waterfowl habitat at South Tufa Area then. The water came right up to the sage. Shovelers were all around the lakeshore where there were brine flies and fresh water. At Simon Springs, shovelers were the primary species. Other species were around the freshwater springs, but the shoveler was the dominant species everywhere.
Mr. Banta feels that more waterfowl used to spend the winter at Mono Lake, as opposed to just stopping in the fall. Very few ducks overwinter here now. There were a lot more shovelers, also a good number of wigeon, teal and pintails. Mallards would sometimes fly up the meadows of Rush Creek during winter, and some mallards would also overwinter at the Thompson Ranch.
There was good duck hunting on Mono Lake through the 1970s. After the 1970s, duck numbers declined everywhere. The waterfowl populations at Coleville, Walker, Bridgeport, and Long Valley also decreased after the 1970s.
Ducks, especially the shovelers, often fed on floating kutsavi (brine fly pupae). The wind would push it into rows in the water, and ducks would gather to feed on it. The shovelers would never leave the lake to feed on upland or creek areas as would some of the other waterfowl species.
Swans. Mr. Banta remembers 100-150 swans at Mono Lake during the winter months. He started noticing them more frequently during 1960 and 1970. They were less common before then.
Canada geese. The population of Canada geese has remained fairly stable. About 200-300 usually wintered. Sometimes this number might increase to 500. Geese used to fly up Rush Creek and graze on the meadows, especially when it was stormy. Only a small number would do this (approximately 20 to 30). Mr. Banta would sometimes hunt here for geese, as well as ducks - there were always a few ducks up Rush Creek.
On very rare occasions, Canada geese would also feed in small numbers on the Cain Ranch meadows west of 395.
Snow geese. Mr. Banta remembers about 15-30 snow geese showing up, usually in early winter. They would usually be found just below the Hansen's place, near the County Park. They usually didn't stick around for very long.
Ruddy duck. Ruddy ducks used to be here in smaller numbers. They are probably more numerous now.
Common snipe (Jacksnipe). Mr. Banta thinks the population may be about the same now as before diversions. He didn't hunt them often since there weren't very many of them. A favorite hunting place used to be between Mill Creek and the mouth of Wilson Creek, below Thompson Ranch. As the lake receded, low sand berms were created that trapped shallow water behind them. These lagoons were anywhere from 10 to 20 feet wide and 300 feet long. Sometimes the hunters would mend these berms to try to maintain the lagoons. There was also grass wetlands in these areas. Willows have overgrown a lot of the lower Thompson Ranch.
Sandhill cranes. When Mr. Banta's dad was in the Owens Valley as a boy, he remembers hundreds of migrating sandhill cranes. Mr. Banta doesn't remember, however, having seen sandhill cranes in the Mono Basin. He suspects that the Owens Valley birds just passed through and did not spend the whole winter there.
White pelican. White pelicans used to be very rare in the Mono Basin.
Sage grouse. Mr. Banta remembers several sage grouse leks in the Mono Basin. One was in an area east of 395 and south of 120, near "A" ditch, which used to irrigate a large meadow which has now reverted to sage. Another lek was along Aqueduct Road about 200' north of the Walker/Parker loop road (near Grant Reservoir). There were 30 to 50 birds at this Parker Creek meadow lek. There also used to be a large lek near Gaspipe Summit in the Big Sandflat area, and there were leks at the Conway Ranch. Now, of course, sage grouse are extremely uncommon in the Mono Basin. Mr. Banta saw 2 to 3 near Mono Gate #1 last year.
Sage grouse strutted at a number of the meadow-spring areas in the Bodie Hills area between the Virginia Lakes Road at Conway Summit and Aurora. Included in the leks found west of Hwy. 395 was a site adjacent to the Virginia Lakes road, and another in a meadow near Virginia Creek. There were at least 200 grouse in this general area. (You could always encounter sage grouse on the upper road to Virginia Lakes.) This year, Mr. Banta saw about 18 to 20 in this area.
There was also a lek on the east side of Hwy. 395 adjacent to a 4WD road near Mono Diggings between the Coyote Springs Road and Hwy. 395. (This road goes from Hwy. 395 over the mountains, and comes out near the Dogtown monument on Hwy. 395.)
Other Bodie Hills leks were around Bodie and Murphy's Spring, the Geiger Grade Road, and near the old stage station going towards Aurora.
Mr. Banta recalls at least 10 known leks in the Mono Basin (including the Bodie Hills leks).
Mr. Banta suggested that I contact Walter Cain of Bridgeport about former sage grouse lek locations.
Corvids. There were depredation permits in Mono County for both crows and magpies. Different bounties were paid for nests, eggs, young or adults. This was because it was believed that corvids preyed on eggs of sage grouse, quail, etc. Before 1942-43, Mr. Banta never saw a crow or raven in the Mono Basin, though they were present in Bishop. Ravens were uncommon then - they are much more common now. There are many more times the number of ravens now. He collected a number of bounties for magpies.
Valley quail. There used to be quite a few places in the Mono Basin that supported small numbers of valley quail. He doesn't know whether or not they were introduced. Valley quail locations included the town of Lee Vining, Thompson Ranch, Dechambeau Ranch, and the Camasco Ranch. They had the best success in places where they could scavenge extra food from hay and grain fed to livestock.
Lee Vining had from 50 to 200 quail. This covey did better in the years when Mr. Banta's father would spread out grain for quail near town when he was feeding the family dairy cow during the winter.
The County Park quail (Thompson Ranch) hung on longer than any of the other populations. Mr. Banta kept horses down there some years ago and would sometimes spread out grain for the quail during the winter. He also would trap out the bobcat in that area. (Racoons and bobcats are probably some of their primary predators.)
The Dechambeau Ranch covey was there until about 8 to 10 years ago.
Mr. Banta last saw valley quail in the Mono Basin near the Goat Ranch. This was 4 to 5 years ago.
Invertebrates. Mr. Banta doesn't remember anything resembling a bloodworm or any unusual algae floating in the water. He never observed any barnacle-like creatures, but his boat was never in Mono Lake for extended periods of time, and they might not have had a chance to accumulate.
There was a little wet area near the Farrington Ranch above the new highway. Although it was not a dependable place for waterfowl, and was not hunted by Mr. Banta, it sometimes supported a few ducks.
There were also several shallow ponds near the Rogers Ranch fed by an irrigation ditch. Sometimes they had a few grebes, but the ponds were never especially good for duck hunting. They were easy to wade or walk across. By late summer, they became quite warm.
Mr. Banta showed me some enormous (3' X 4') aerial photos (probably from 1968). These clearly showed a large lagoon at the east side of the mouth of Rush Creek that had been dried up as the lake level dropped.
There was also good duck habitat at Walter Dombrowski's duck club, which consisted of several ponds on the southeast side of Rush Creek. The duck club ponds were fed by diverted water from Rush Creek. They may have supplemented the natural vegetation with planted crops for the ducks.
There was also a fresh water or backwater place which appeared when the lake receded well below Dombrowski's ponds, near the shore of Mono Lake. These shallow ponds/lagoons (about 1/2' deep) were not manmade, and appeared after the Dombrowski ponds dried up. They were created either from seepage of freshwater or entrapment of rainwater behind a berm, and were adjacent to the lake about a half-mile south from the mouth of Rush Creek. Mr. Banta once observed several hundred to several thousand shovelers there which were so thick that they seemed to make the shallow water (1/2 acre) look like land.
(There was an old airplane wreck not too far from those lagoons. During the late 1940s or early 1950s, the pilot was flying over Mono Lake when either the engine failed or he ran out of gas and thus had to make a forced landing. The plane floated, so the pilot sat on the airplane all night until it drifted close enough to land so he could swim to shore. The plane later floated to shore, and remnants could be seen in the brush for a long time.)
Mr. Banta also remembers hunting at a pond on the west side of Lee Vining Creek somewhere around 1948-1950. The pond at Lee Vining Creek was definitely there for a considerable amount of time prior to water diversions - as long as the Nay Ranch was being irrigated. The pond most likely dried up a while after 1950. Mr. Banta sketched its location on a map. It was just above the Mono Lake high water line and had a lot of cattails. "It was quite a pond." It was a good place to hunt when conditions were windy since the ducks would come off the lake and seek areas of calmer water. It was about the size of one of the Dechambeau Ponds. Remnants of this pond could probably still be found.
Another important area for ducks was the substantial lagoons that once existed on the northeast shore of Mono Lake. The western edge of these lagoons is still visible if you drive out on 10 mile road to the end of the road. Here, a sandy berm stands between the end of the road and the Mono Lake shoreline. Water used to back up behind this berm. There were two or three lagoons that might have been 1/4 of a mile long each, and they were present in the area from 10 mile road to the Sulphur Ponds. The lagoons held brackish water. The Sulphur Ponds used to hold several hundred ducks, including mallards, pintails and wigeon. It tended to attract a lower percentage of shovelers than did Mono Lake. These lagoons were visible on Mr. Banta's giant aerial photos. Sagebrush has invaded the area near the Sulphur Ponds where the lagoons used to be.
Mr. Banta used to hunt at Dechambeau Ponds from about 1945 to 1985. The ponds used to be a private hunting club. It was posted with "No trespassing" signs, etc. His parents were part-owners of the ranch and ponds, and Mr. Banta would help with irrigation. This necessitated a lot of time with a backhoe, clearing the sandy soil out of the ditches between the ranch and Wilson Creek. The irrigation was important not only to improve the forage for sheep, but to maintain the level of the ponds. All three ponds were kept full of water. The ponds have suffered in recent years not only because the irrigation has decreased but also because the flow from the hot springs used to be a lot stronger.
Rock duck blinds are still present above the lake shore not far from the Dechambeau Ponds. Near the blinds, two ponds formed as the lake dropped, which were called the County Ponds. They were natural depressions, and received surface water from overflow of the Dechambeau Ponds. An old, dry streambed still can be seen between Dechambeau Ranch to the County Ponds. When it ran, the stream had enough water that motorists were often concerned about getting stuck when driving across it. A few willows used to grow along the stream banks, and Mr. Banta would sometimes be able to ambush ducks and geese there. The ponds didn't have much cover, but might have had a few small willows. They were a hunting "hot spot." "The ducks would come booming over the ponds, intending to land." (These ponds had water and ducks during one of the recent wet years - possibly 1986.)
I asked Mr. Banta why he thought the duck population had declined. He felt that it had more to do with a decline in the overall population rather than changes in Mono Lake's habitat.
After Mono Lake began to recede, there were extensive wetlands present. There were some cattails then, but Mr. Banta feels that there are more cattails now. There were few large ponds. There was one big freshwater spring just past (east of) the first big bunch of buckberry (buffaloberry) after the road goes down a hill. Sometimes there would be geese in that spot. This spring supported extensive watercress beds. Some of the water came out of a pipe and it should still be possible to find pipe remnants. Overall, there was probably about a mile of waterfowl habitat at Simon Springs. There was a lot of tall grass. Water backed up in lagoons. This water was probably pretty fresh. It was too wet to drive down there so you had to walk.
There used to be two structures in the Simon Springs area. One was called the cowboy shack. This was near the west side of where the cliffs start. There was a building west of the bluffs, that may have been part of Sammann's ranch. Another cabin on the east side of the bluffs was called the painter's cabin because the man who stayed there had created beautiful painted wallpaper with scenes of Mono Lake with Chinese junks on it. Mr. Banta took some samples of this paper but it was later lost or misplaced.
MORE WETLAND NOTES
I asked Mr. Banta what has happened to wetlands as the lake has dropped. He said that he thinks wetlands adjoining Mono Lake shoreline seemed to increase generally in area if not in "habitat quality" around all of the shore, immediately after the lake level began to go down. Irrigation influence, he believes, permitted seepage to occur adjacent to the lake for several years after irrigation had essentially stopped. He thinks that these seeps or springs caused more wetlands particularly on the west side, for ten or twenty years after Mono Lake began to recede.
Ducks and geese came in frequently to (post-diversion) wetlands east of Dechambeau Ranch. These wetlands developed between the 1940s lake shore and dropping lake level; from the cinder bank to within a hundred yards of the new shoreline. It was characterized by low grass and flooded areas, and was approximately one half-mile in length. The wetlands were probably watered from seepage from ranch irrigation. There were few tules/cattails except for a patch at an area called the washout, which is to the east where the shore curves (curved). There was a large spring that ran out through a ditch or trench in this washout area. This spring maintained a flow for many years after the lake started to drop, but now it is completely dry.
From Dechambeau Ponds, Mr. Banta used to see fog build up over Mono Lake about a mile or two east of Black Point. He took a boat there to investigate. The lake water was about twelve feet deep. Hot sulfurous water was coming out of the top of the tufa at a rate of about 1 cfs. (Hot water still comes out of the base of this tufa.)
NO-SEE-UMS/UNKNOWN FLY SPECIES
Before the 1960s, Mr. Banta doesn't recall seeing any no-see-ums in the Mono Basin. Then, in a few years, they were present throughout the Basin.
Once, about 15 years ago, there was a huge infestation of a nocturnal small dark brown fly in the town of Lee Vining. It occurred in late summer or early fall. There were so many that everyone in town had to sweep up (or shovel) wind rows of flies that had died during the night.
There used to be a salt works southeast of the Camasco Ranch (now called the Dondero Ranch). There are still some ruins southeast of the existing ranch. It was run by a man named Williams.
Quite a lot of alfalfa was grown east of old Hwy. 395 near Lee Vining, the Mattly Ranch, and the Rogers Ranch. Mr. Banta thinks this happened from about 1910 until 1940.
Mr. Banta remembers fishing on the reservoir before it was enlarged in 1935. As the water rose, the primary vegetation it drowned was sage. There may have been some aspen at Upper Lake (the upper or west-most lobe of the lake which is visible when the lake is low) or the narrows (the area between the two sections of the old lake). German Brown trout prospered when the lake rose because chubs liked the newly flooded sage habitat. Chubs were numerous for a few years. The Brown trout thrived on them!
He suggested I contact Myrtle Carson about Grant Reservoir. She is an in-law of the Carson family. Myrtle was the wife of Stanley, one of the sons of the Roy Carson family. They ran the boat landing.
Mr. Banta used to occasionally hunt in the Rush Creek bottomlands morass. He doesn't remember any ponds from this area (above the upper culvert i.e.. above the meadows crossing above Mono Lake).
Mr. Banta would often fish in the meadows of Rush Creek (the bottomlands) for Brown trout. This was when he was old enough to drive, but before the Test Station was installed. The limit was 25 fish and he would sometimes catch the limit. This would include 2 or 3 fish that were two pounds in weight. Many fish were over one foot.
The meadows were the best place to fish on Rush Creek (better, for instance, than the reach of Rush Creek from Rush Creek bridge (old 395) to Grant Reservoir. There were numerous holes, undercut banks, gravel bars and riffles. Both Lee Vining and Rush Creeks had lots of hellgrammites or stone-fly larvae, also known as caddisfly larvae. They made good bait.
There was also "awfully good fishing" in the canal from Mono Gate #1 to near the Rush Creek channel. There were no trees along this ditch - just a few clumps of willows.
I showed Mr. Banta the photo labelled as Rush Creek which shows a footbridge with willows on either side. He said that it could either be where Big Spring came in or the channel itself.
LEE VINING CREEK
When he was a kid, Mr. Banta remembers tremendous vacillation in the flow of Lee Vining Creek. This may have been partially due to fluctuating releases from Ellery Lake (although it is possible that sometimes the Los Angeles diversion would alter the rate of diversions). The flow would, however, usually fluctuate above as well as below the Los Angeles aqueduct intake. Sometimes the flow would drop so low that it was easy to catch fish by hand. This situation occurred below the Lee Vining power plant as he remembers. When water was released upstream, it would come down very suddenly and the kids would try to race across the stream just in time to beat the torrent. At their peak, the released waters were too deep to be able to cross on foot. Mr. Banta suggests that the change in the volume of water occurred as the change of power demand took place. Power was generated at Lee Vining Plant. The same plant is now a sub-station.
The stream bottom hasn't changed too much. It always had cobbles and was hard to wade across. There may be a few more boulders now. There may have been more sand or soil in some places.
Mr. Banta finds it surprising that there seem to be no photos of the old bridge over lower Lee Vining Creek (by the county road crossing). Kids would often sit on this bridge. The fire in the 1950s destroyed this bridge.
Before the fire, there were cottonwoods and aspen on lower Lee Vining Creek. Just below town, it was thick with pine trees. Years ago, many had been lumbered off, but there were still quite a few large trees approximately 100 years old, and a few even older than that.
From approximately 1930 to 1938, Currie Ditch was the main water supply for the town of Lee Vining. The flow in this ditch also fluctuated a lot. When Mr. Banta was small, his family got their drinking water from this ditch. The pipeline would sometimes go dry. Then he and his dad would to upstream to the box and sometimes leaves would be obstructing the flow. Originally, the flow was controlled by the ranchers. After Lee Vining changed the point of diversion (by extending the water line above the Currie Ditch head gate), the DWP probably controlled the ditch flow.
It was possible to catch fish in this irrigation ditch as far downstream as the current elementary school in Lee Vining. Downstream of the school the water would be spread in various ditches. Sometimes one or another of these ditches would be dry, depending on how the users wanted to spread the water. (Lee Vining's drinking water came from this ditch above where the irrigation began.)
This ditch went across the highway at the Currie Ranch (where the Caltrans yard is now). There was a siphon under the highway. Below the highway, there were corrals, an old hay barn, and a slaughter house. (This area is now the County Road Department, Caltrans Maintenance, and Mono Basin Historical Building site.) Sometimes fish would get as far down as the Currie Ranch. There was a good flow in that part of the ditch. In fact, the barn was eventually moved to an area east of the high school (across from where the Nicely's ball field now stands) and the Bantas had an irrigated garden at the old barn spot where Cal Trans is now. There was always plenty of water available for irrigation.
Eventually, approximately 1940, it was decided that Lee Vining needed a more sanitary water supply. The city of Los Angeles helped with this. They provided some pipe which was put in below the forebay for the Lee Vining power plant penstock (i.e. the old dam near the water tank on Lee Vining Creek). When the forebay was abandoned, they ran pipes up to the forebay itself.
Now the town water comes from the spring near the Headquarters Camp.
There was also a large irrigation ditch from the Gibbs Creek diversion to the Farrington Ranch and past the current Andrews residence which had water in it most of the year. Sometimes this diversion (also known as Horse Creek) would run all the way to the current Dondero Ranch, and on to Mono Lake, but that would depend largely on how the irrigators were distributing the water. There was an old diversion box above Upper Horse Creek Meadow where you could divert the water completely into either Horse Creek or Lee Vining Creek.
Mr. Banta thought that the photo of the large ditch (labelled as Rush Creek) could be "A" or "B" ditch but most likely was the former. It was probably taken near where the old highway bisected the ditches.
During elementary school, Mr. Banta went on two class field trips to the islands with Wallis McPherson. They walked on Paoha Island, but not on Negit Island.
Around 1960, Mr. Banta observed that great-horned owls nested in the crevasses on Negit Island.
In the 1950's, Mr. Banta had a boat and would often go out to the island. He went out there once with Wes Johnson.
One time there was a water-ski race around Negit Island. It was probably sponsored by the marina. The winner was Johnny Carson, from the Silver Lake family, and Mr. Banta was on board the winning boat. There was about six feet of water in the channel and they didn't have to worry about steering around or hitting tufa.
A favorite swimming hole was "A" ditch. There was a large pond on "A" ditch that is probably still visible. It is somewhere west of Highway 395. Mr. Banta drew the location on a map for me. There used to be a diving board there, which is probably still visible. He used to go there around 1935-40, when he was 7 or 8 years old and usually got driven there. The Indian kids from Farrington Ranch would walk over.
A lot of people water-skied at the Old Marina (from 1960 to 1970).
OTHER HISTORICAL NOTES
When Pole Line Road (Highway 167) was built, they used 10 Mile Road (the dirt road just east of the Binderup house) to get water to make compact fill. The Mono Lake water was pumped into trucks and hauled into various places and used to compact the road base.
Along the old lakeshore, there still exists ruins of the old dock where the steamship "Rocket" once moored. Lumber from Mono Mills and supplies from west side ranches were transported across Mono Lake and freighted by wagon to Bodie from this dock.
End of interview. February 19, 2015 obituary in the Inyo Register.