Saturday, June 08, 2024

Expedition Across the Divide


Rare Plants and Common Purpose

1 The Exalted Subshrub 

Abraham and Augusto clamber their way down the brushy slot canyon over boulders and between thorny branches. Baja summer sun and the rigor of their toil soak their long-sleeved shirts with sweat, but they are elated. They have bagged the prize of the hunt: a documented observation of the elusive Galium carterae.

They saw it first from the top of the slot. An unassuming, scruffy patch of dark green dabbed with white caught Augusto’s attention as we passed a 5-meter side gash in the ground whose floor I couldn’t make out in the shade and shrubbery, but peering over the edge gave me the willies. 

Sprigs of tiny pointy white leaves stood out like flowers from a distance against the Galium’s greenery and stole the show from even smaller pale-yellow flowers. The botanists studied it through cameras, binoculars, and cameras aimed through binoculars. Abraham read and reread a scientific description through his round-framed glasses and Augusto made many notes in a small notebook. 

So exciting was their find that they decided to launch a ground-level assault, involving negotiating our way down the mountainside to the outlet of the slot and bushwhacking in.

I stand with Alfonso, a ranchero in a black cowboy hat and a grey moustache, near the outlet of the slot, awaiting the botanists and overlooking crumpled origami mountains. His kind eyes know well the land he surveys below us.  

The eastern face of the range is steep and textured, a reddish shade of brown. A wide landscape of pale latte-colored plateaus gracefully slopes to the west, punctuated by grey rockslides. Mountains tinge with blue in the distance, fading into a horizon of marine fog. A creamy ribbon wanders through occasional patches of shy green along the bottom of an arroyo that bends its way toward the Pacific.  

“Nobody lives in any of the ranches there any more,” he says. 

For over 40 years, more years than the botany boys have been alive, Alfonso has chased “la bestia” burros, mules, cows, goats and horses, through prickly thickets and across loose rocky mountainsides. He is a ranchero, vaquero, cowboy. He knows exactly where in the hidden folds of mountain are the 3 puddles of water that support days and nights afield. He recognizes the desiccated vine of a kind of wild sweet potato that can be dug up with a conveniently shaped rock, dusted off, peeled with the ever-handy blade, and eaten raw, or cooked in a variety of ways if one has the utensils and inclination. He’s applied lomboy and sliced cactus to injuries incurred along the way. He knows the locations of at least 5 abandoned ranches in these drainages.

We chat as we wait for the boys to arrive with their cameras and notebooks, their day packs and their grins, bearing evidence of success on this exploratory botany expedition organized by Sula Vanderplank of Conserva Loreto and funded by Baja Rare, a program of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

Alfonso turns to me and asks about this expedition in general, “Why do they do this?”

It’s an honest question. 

Though he’s puzzled, Alfonso has a lot invested in the effort.


2 The trail

Not only does he know the area and provide the animals that carry us to our basecamp where he stashed our food and camping gear the day before we started, but he rebuilt the trail up the steep face of the Giganta and made getting here even possible. Storms obliterated the trail more than a decade earlier and nobody had passed this way since. 

Rebuilding it took a year of moving boulders by hand, backfilling deep holes by shovel and chopping back vengeful desert plants. On our ride up he points out a boulder that crushed his finger during his efforts, an injury that left him with permanent nerve damage. 

Despite his labors, it’s still not an easy trail. We’re instructed to hold the mane of our horse or mule and lean forward as they lunge up steep hillsides. We balance breathlessly as our mounts position themselves to jump down precipices or skid on pebbles over the slickrock. We’re invited to walk the switchbacks where the animals awkwardly pivot themselves on the turns above dizzying drops. This is not an outing for the faint-hearted. 

Our expedition started up the Primer Agua 4-wheel drive road on Wednesday May 15, 2024. My 56th birthday. At the ranch Alfonso shares with his wife Paula, we shift into muledrive. We’re joined for safety and assistance on the ride up by Luis, a handsome young vaquero on a super-charged blood bay horse with bulging neck muscles, wild eyes, and hooves that never stop moving. Luis, they say, can ride anything. His spurs jingle the soundtrack of our day.

My mount is Principe, named for a Mexican cookie. His coat of chestnut brown is flecked throughout with white hairs. From a distance he appears almost pink. He stands statue without being tied as we secure my day pack behind the saddle and I mount up, with my flappy, awkward, oversized chaps. 

A horse’s ears are its radar, swiveling this way and that. Like most animals, the horse’s survival depends on its alertness to its surroundings. Horses hear in ranges both higher and lower than humans, and more sensitively. Their ears pivot 180 degrees and can tilt, prick, droop and flatten, also expressing mood and concentration. Aimed forward, they can indicate interest in what’s ahead. 

Principe’s ears swivel independently as he concentrates both ahead on the trail and back on my cues like leg squeeze to move, pressure on reins to turn. His ears tell me he’s relaxed, agreeable, and willing to work in partnership with me.

There are parallels between riding a horse and being a human in the environment. Through I grew up riding horses, it’s still amazing to me that such a large and powerful animal does our bidding. How much of the cooperation is born of trust and collaboration, and how much of dominance? 

When we change the landscape around us, the collaboration or dominance question also applies. Are we working within natural principles or putting a house or a road where Nature needs the flexibility to move, like a waterway or a coastline? Are we growing food with sustainable practices, or fundamentally changing the relationships of the land through monocrops, pesticides and irrigation? 

Horse and environment are bigger than we are and have the capacity to do something unexpected. It is wise to stay alert for rebellion, or a return to a longer-term equilibrium than we planned for. Like the ears of the horse, we keep swiveling, keep listening. 

This botany expedition is one swivel of our horse ears. Up the mountains this week we seek plants last documented decades ago and other rare or strange life we may stumble across on the way. What are the plants telling us about this place? About land, weather, climate? About change? About our tenancy here?


3 The ride

Alfonso and Augusto ride side by side chatting, ranchero and botanist. The round white rump of Bonbon, Alfonso’s mule, and the narrow bay rump of Chuckwaka bob and rock along to different rhythms. The men periodically burst into song, one riffing off the other with the impassioned cries of classical Ranchero.  

As we ride, botanist Augusto correlates his vocabulary with that of Alfonso.  “No, that’s not palo verde.” Alfonso surprises all of us about the tree with the green trunk which the rest of us lowlanders call palo verde. “Palo verde is the one with the TRULY green trunk up there.” Alfonso motions toward the mesa where we’re headed.

Language is a tool through which we see the world. When we hold the lens of scientific names, we think in categories. The relationships are those of family and process. Who is your relative? How long back did you split from that group?

“Palo verde de verdad” Alfonso’s REAL palo verde, on the mesa is Parkinsonia praecox, an early-flowering species of palo verde. Palo verde is a commonly accepted general name for green-trunked trees in the genus Parkinsonia, named in honor of English botanist John Parkinson (1567-1650). is a free global database of species to which we’ll upload our observations from this expedition. Our photos will be scrutinized and identified and will be available for the scientific community. The unfiltered, worldwide version (iNat) is rendered in English. is the same database filtered for Mexico and presented in Spanish. The scientific names are the same. Some plants have common names in Spanish is so well known that the Spanish is used on the global site as well. iNat gives its common name of Alfonso’s “palo verde de verdad” as Palo Brea. 

Palo in Spanish means branch, wood, or stick. Brea means pitch or tar. Wax from pustules on the bark of palo brea has been heated and used as ranch glue. Interestingly, brea in old English was used as a title for noble families living on a hill and came to simply mean hill, appropriate to this tree that typically grows at elevation in Baja. 

“What do you call this one?” asks Augusto of the palo-not-verde we’re passing.


Later Augusto inquires, “How many species of mesquite do you know?”

The question baffles Alfonso. All thorny, tree-like beings were mesquite. Their differences didn’t matter so much as you could cut branches from any and feed them to your hungry mule. That was a plant relationship in the cowboy’s world.

We pass a colony of pale cacti with a grey stubble of spines at the tips of some branches.  I learned it as Old Man’s Beard. iNat calls it senita, but it’s commonly called garambullo around here. Lophocereus schottii probably rolls nicely off the tongue of come bespeckled botanist but sounds to me like a lazy star. Lopho: lazy. Sirius: the brightest star in our northern sky. Shotty-Ay: maybe it was a shooting star?  This is what you get when you invite an English major / kayak guide on a botany trip. I am a late invitee/volunteer, replacing a key member who couldn’t make it. Obviously not for my botany prowess, but I have outdoor experience and a penchant for nature-nerding and posting observations on iNat. 

The trail narrows from a vehicle track to single file through the arroyo and along it’s brushy sides when the arroyo is too bouldery for our four-footeds to negotiate. The essential nature of the leather chaps I’m wearing over my legs becomes evident as we push through all sorts of bush. I wish I had chaps for my head as my elegantly tall Principe delights in passing just below thorny mesquite branches. 

We reach a mesa, rest the sweaty bestia, and consider investigating plants along the eastern cliff-edge of the mesa. Below his dark grey floppy brimmed outdoor hat, Abraham slides his red buff off his face for a drink of water. His peaceful, bookish features behind round glasses are clouded with worry about being out in the sun at 1pm, the heat of the day. I point out the clouds and the refreshing breeze and calculate from Alfonso’s “half an hour to camp” estimation that we’ll be in the shade by 1 if we explore the cliff for an hour. He agrees and off we wander with our cameras and notebooks while cowboys Alfonso and Luis have a smoke.

Crossing the mesa we encounter Alfonso’s palo verde de verdad and take photos of it while Alfonso and Luis adjust the saddles further back and tighten the girths on our mounts for the decent into a drainage that leads to the Pacific. We’ve crossed the Giganta divide.

Horses may be generally faster, but mules are more sure-footed in rough terrain, especially downhill. Principe lowers his head to inspect the pebbles over the slickrock in a few touchy places and pauses to arrange the placement of his hooves for the tricky drops. On a steep, loose section, my mount does something between walking and skiing. For a moment I am horse-surfing down the mountain.

We come to a wide shady mesquite tree tied to a strawberry blonde mule. A white plasti-burlap costal of food hangs from a stout branch. A pile of our camping gear sits nearby. A few steps beyond the tree and its companions is a puddle of clear water in grey rock, about the size of a long-bed pick-up truck but only half a tire deep. It feeds some mini-cascades waving with furry green algae. A lower green pool fades into the gravel. Insects, lizards, birds, amphibians, and wiggly aquatic things flit and slither about.

Alfonso points out good camping downstream of the water and we decide it’ll make a fine home for our two nights on expedition. We carry all but the mule and the tree to the indicated shady patch of gravel, then settle in and pass around the bottle of Huichol hot sauce to season and moisten burritos of machaca (dried, pounded beef) on homemade tortillas. Our mounts lower their heads for long drinks from the green pool.

Luis says adios and turns his dancing horse and singing spurs back down to the ranch.


4 Botanizing

We turn our curiosity down the arroyo. There’s a polyglot of languages in our party. We converse in Spanish. Abraham and Augusto scamper on in the Latin of scientific names, which runs right by Alfonso. I catch some, but struggle to understand our different pronunciations. I verbalize in a stiff, book-learned, English-influenced Latin while they riff along with Spanish influence, formal education, and perhaps having actually heard someone say the scientific name before. 

I feel the rush of recognizing a plant and turn to call it by name to share the experience. But here, my English names for plants are useless and confer no connection but my own memory.

The boys get excited about a chubby pale green rosette growing on the cliff-face. A Dudleya desconocida. Unrecognized succulent. Alfonso sits on a rock shelf nearby and watches us reach, climb, photograph, and chatter enthusiastically. Who should we name it after? Exhausting both my usefulness in pursuit of the Dudleya and my curiosity about nearby plants, I join the ranchero.

Conversing about the Dudleya, I mention the Spanish name siempreviva. However, to Alfonso, siempreviva is a different plant altogether. He shows it to us the next day high on the mountainside: a dried-up brown fern which he said simply turns green and uncurls its tiny fronds after it rains. None of the rest of us have ever seen it before.

For Alfonso these plants we’re fawning over are old friends or at least casual acquaintances oft passed and occasionally greeted. 

On our way back up the arroyo to camp, he detours up a tributary and leads us without fanfare to a healthy congregation of the little Dudleya. “Unrecognized” is a relative thing.

His connection with the plant life here is contextual and experiential, a different kind of intimacy than scientific study with the life that is the plant. 

Our detour takes us through the site of a former ranch, now just memories, a cow skull wedged in a thorny bush and a few broken bits of glass. We can see a mountain ridge from here and discuss tomorrow’s objectives. Rare plants would most likely be found near water and on steep, high, north-facing cliffs, we speculate. To the mountain we would go, and on the way back, seek moisture or shady crevices.

Back at camp, Alfonso butts two rectangular rocks against the cliff wall to make a fireplace, and within minutes has some dry branches burning to heat water for coffee. Augusto heads out to place a game cam on a trail he saw earlier. Abraham and I sort through the food to see what we have. Once there are coals, we heat cans of imported beef stew, joking how the can and its contents resemble dog food. Good ranchero that he is, Alfonso will have none of it but chews on his machaca burritos from home.

A breeze keeps the night cool and brings the hoots of a great horned owl. 


5 The March

I scramble eggs for breakfast in the soot-blackened frypan over the morning fire. Hot coffee melts and reshapes the boys’ makeshift mugs of square electrolyte bottles with the tops cut off. 

Alfonso has taken the two horses up to better forage for the day and returned before we’re ready to march. And march we do. We have miles to cover to reach that high ridge, and he has seen how slowly we can cover ground looking at plants.

After about 15 minutes, we pass the 2 horses. Occasionally we pause to survey the landscape ahead and agree on route, but mostly we tromp on as fast as we can. A passionflower appears to be a different species of Passiflora than the ones we’d seen at lower elevations. Photos must be taken. We joke about finding important plants so we can catch our breath. Alfonso suffers us with patience.

At 65 years old, Alfonso out-hikes all of us in his black leather boots, uphill, downhill, chopping trail, or leading 2 horses through the brush on nothing but a cup of coffee in the morning and occasional sips of water from the plastic gallon he filled from the cleanest part of the puddle before we set out. He carries it on a loop of well-worn webbing over the shoulder of his faded and worn blue button-down shirt. He carries nothing else, though a folding blade and a small machete appear in his hands when he wills them into being at a time of need.

We traverse a sloping hillside, cross a small arroyo with a scenic stand of palo blanco, tromp up a rise, and zigzag between bushes across an almost flat stretch.  

We all wear jeans, long sleeves, and boots even in the heat, and are grateful for the protection of the thick materials as the thorns are hungry. When pressing our way between bushes, for a while we could choose the non-thorny flexible branches of lomboy or matacora and lean into them, avoiding whatever thorny shrub was on the other side. Increasingly the choices are between thorns and spines, thorns and more thorns, or thorns and vicious rabid thorns.  Palo Adán Fouquiera diguetii, Dog Poop Bush Ebenopsis confinis and a thorny devil that shows no respect and knows no boundaries, Mimosa distachya. Intimate with plants alright, this expedition.  

During our periodic short breaks, Alfonso hunkers below the branches of shrubs in the shade.  When I use the moment to wander over to a cluster of rocks and start observing the hunting spiders, Alfonso takes it as time to move on. During one break, I notice elongated spiral snail shells, sun-bleached to white. I later learn from an iNat mollusk specialist that this is the first observation of this species on the iNat database. Berendtia taylori, a land snail described in 1861 was originally mis-classified the same way I mis-classified it when I posted it. 

That’s the beauty of working in community where curiosity is rewarded. Ignorance is not a barrier to participation. Being wrong is just a doorway to learning.

Plants without English common names on iNat have helped me learn Latin names. What I know from the Baja California Plant Field Guide as rama parda, the smelly purple trumpet that almost always blooms, is Ruellia californica. But if I start to identify it online as “Rama” the database offers me earthworms and little fishes. 

At the higher elevations we’re surprised to notice Ruellia californica’s slightly fuzzy, odiferous leaves are instead shiny and fit for polite company, being the subspecies Ruellia californica peninsularis. Learned: the Ruellia californica I know from the islands and little elevations is actually the redundantly named subspecies Ruellia californica californica.


6 The Ridge

Eventually we make it to a cliff face, along which we follow Alfonso to a place we can scramble up, and it opens a new level. A plateau leads to a ridge that swoops up a steep hillside to the big north face. It’s evident immediately that there are different plants up here.

Several tall Elephant Trees Pachycormus discolor raise branches high with creamy foliage or tiny blossoms, it’s hard to tell from the ground. A ragweed holds 6” long leaves aloft like jagged flags. We claw and scramble to a little perch on the very northeastern tip of the steep scarp. Abraham recognizes a rare Buddleja corrugata gentryi he’s not expecting to see here. It has light green fuzzy leaves and stems and a tower of over 30 compact orange blossoms crammed together at the tip.  Augusto takes careful notes. Coordinates. Altitude: 1,000 meters. Habitat: cliff face. Neighboring plants, like the Agave sobria it embraces. 

Alfonso hunkers nearby in the shade of a cliff and a colubrina shrub. I scramble just a little further upward to investigate a pocket of flora and am rewarded with the Dudleya species as well as a delicate white blossomed Drymaria I recognize from an encounter on Isla del Carmen after a rain and from a shady crevice up in a canyon near Tabor.

From here we can see a fog bank on the Pacific. Some of these plants suggest the fog visits here on occasion, most notably a stringy lichen that reminds me of ones I’ve seen in the Pacific Northwest of the US and on the northern Baja Pacific coast. It’s in the family Ramalinaceae, appropriately known as “sea fog lichen”.

Up here on the on the spine of the Sierra la Giganta overlooking the Gulf and the Pacific, we are on a tectonic ride to the northwest, but so slowly we won’t notice it in our lifetimes. A collision of tectonic plates formed these mountains and their neighbors, and a spreading rift opened the gulf that made them a peninsula. 

Knowing this leads to a question of scale. The plant species we are studying are snapshots in a process of adaptation and extinction. Change is constant, and it is linear or cyclical depending on the scale at which you consider it.

A plant sprouts, grows, reproduces and dies. Linear. From its seeds sprout the next generation. Cyclical. Mountains change so slowly we view them as static, but just ask Alfonso who spent a year rebuilding the trail if rocks don’t flow downhill. Erosion flattens mountains. Linear. Tectonic forces shape new ones. Cyclical, though geology is complex because its minerals mix and react with molecules from plants, air, sea, animals, and other life and its products. It’s a whole planet recycling system.

Everything is connected, including in ways we still don’t completely grasp. As humans, our great gift of understanding lets us recognize this. It also lets us see the worldwide epidemic of species extinctions and the deterioration of natural systems. 

Linear is the path to extinction. There have been five major extinctions before this, and each one opened new opportunity for different kinds of life. Cyclical. If mountains recycle and species have a shelf life, why does a little Dudleya stuck high on a cliff matter?

Of course, for those going extinct it kind of sucks. Those adaptable enough to live through upheaval embrace change to succeed. Where are we in this picture? 

Can we slow the change? Hold onto a quality of life so we and those we love live in comfort a little longer? Feel like we weren’t the oafs who destroyed the beauty and functional systems we inherited?

Aligning our use of natural resources and ways of being in the world with the longevity of biological communities, genetic diversity, and ultimately the environment we live in is the work of conservation.

Conservation is for us.

Conserva Loreto, which put together this expedition, is “a program committed to the protection and strengthening of Loreto's conservation areas, for the benefit of people and biodiversity. Our mission is to conserve natural resources for future generations through Research, Education and Social Justice. We support an environment in which local communities not only survive, but thrive, with access to rich and diversified biological resources.”

Here we can easily wander off this prickly dry hillside into Philosophy, Religion, Psychology, Ethics. Where concepts of soul and purpose weave into the fibers, where fear and scarcity lurk, where fairness is weighed. Where we try to make sense of our experience of the world in a larger way.


7 Return to the Question

Instead, we make our way down the mountainside. We pass a crevice in the earth where Augusto exclaims at a plant he sees growing on the cliff wall. Could this be the Galium carterae on our Most Wanted rare plant list? Left hand scribbling earnestly, he makes his notes while Abraham dictates. 

I find myself standing with the vaquero as we wait for the boys to emerge from the canyon victorious with their observation. And Alfonso asks that question of all questions. Why? 

Why do we scour mountainsides for shy plants? Why do we go to great efforts to describe and document plants? I look out over the folded land and breathe for a moment, considering.

 “To understand the world,” I finally say. “This is one way: describe the plant, capture its image, note its habitat, parse its genetics.” I turn to look at him. “Living with it as you do is another way.” 


8 Living with the World

Back in camp Augusto checks his game cameras and Abraham and I mix canned tuna with canned veggies to make a quick and easy no-cook dinner. 

After we eat, Alfonso offers us some of his understanding of the world. A summary of 40 years of observing includes a lament on climate. “The gentle winter rains don’t fall anymore,” he says. “The plants start to grow after a little sprinkle, but seeds aren’t developing fully enough to germinate the next generation. The rain that falls in winter, if it falls at all, may only dampen one place or another, but it doesn’t fall everywhere or as often as it once did. There isn’t pasture for the animals. The bushes, garabatillo, are all dry with no leaves and a lot fewer plants than there used to be.”

We all bear scars of battle from that cursed bush today. 

“Imagínate!” exclaims Augusto with a grin. “There used to be more of them!”

Alfonso and Paula don’t have anyone succeeding them on the ranch. They are one major injury or the death of a partner away from shutting down their ranch, too. Then there will be no more active ranches in this watershed either, like on the Pacific side. He does not talk nostalgically about it, just states it, but it’s part of an epidemic of extinction of ranches and people living intimately with this land.

I visited the Sierra San Francisco cave paintings in the central Baja peninsula on a mule trip a few years back. A friend pointed out similarities of lifestyle between the artists of the paintings and the vaqueros who led us to see them. Depicted on the rock were deer, rabbits, people, birds. Arrows. It was a culture whose resources came from plants, animals, rock. 

Indigenous people lived a life of deep knowledge of the plants and animals. They survived in an area immensely challenging to do so. Though no indigenous cultures remain in southern Baja California, some of their knowledge lives on in the culture that now inhabits the more inaccessible parts of their homeland, protected from rapid change by the landscape itself. 

The equipment we used and some of the food we ate were direct products of local animals or local plant technology. Leather saddles and saddlebags, rigid rawhide containers, crates of cactus ribs. Machaca. The animals supporting the ancient culture and the animals of current cultures differed, but both cultures sustained themselves in relationship with the land, animals and plants.

Cultures and people who are intimate with a place hold information. Not just information like a dry seed in the hand, but experience alive in relationship, alive with the exchange of nutrients and energy. Alive with the perspective of time.


9 Realization

If we are here to understand, what have we come to understand? We are here in the name of science, which holds information in books and databases and drawers of dried plants. These are valuable for bringing life into the halls of study, and study is essential for improving how we live in the world, but study needs to remember that the thing brought inside for analysis and the images stored in electronic tables are missing something. 

The spark of sun, droplets of fog from a distant sea, the shade of a neighboring plant, the hidden way their roots intertwine and break rock and hold hillside. The home provided to the beetle. The pollen to the insect. The lunch for the spider who awaits the pollenating insect. Dried leaves for the millipede. Recognition in the eye of the passing vaquero.

Our short time in these mountains has brought home that relationships matter. Relationships of climate and plants, of plants with each other, of plants with animals, of us with resources, and beyond that.

A common purpose brings us together. Our differences enrich us. The botanists asked questions of the plants the rancher had never thought to ask. The rancher held knowledge through a lifetime of noticing, and perspectives the botanists hadn’t yet pondered. 

Relationships are built of shared experiences. In the process of gaining understanding, of seeking, we gained something more profound than information. We lived experiences together in this place of mountain desert. 

Relationships are built over time, built of these experiences in a place. For conservation to succeed, the conversations about it need to include people whose relationships have been long and intimate with place, land, plants, animals, sea. Conservation is a social issue as well as an environmental and scientific one.

Conservation is an idea. Information is the seed. Relationships are the soaking rain that nourish its growth. Community can bring to life the seed of sustainability offered by conservation. Or stomp it into the dust, at its own eventual peril. 


10 Action

This means, dear Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto (PNBL) and CONANP, please include community conversation in the development of new National Park plans and reconvene Consejo Asesor (advisory council) meetings for the PNBL. You will gain perspective on what issues are motivating people now. You will gain clarity on the non-governmental human resources available to mobilize to meet specific needs.  Your community will gain an appreciation of the complexity of the voices and objectives around these spaces and their resources. Organizations and individuals will be energized to support something they have a voice in shaping, and could be enabled to contribute outreach, education, cleanup, research, monitoring, vigilance, etc. 

You already know several issues of concern to your surrounding population of humans: access to wild spaces including beaches and sea and camping, fresh water supply, fair enforcement of existing rules, scientific support of harvest regulations and other management decisions.

There are people, groups, and organizations with a wealth of experience in the places you’re managing and planning to manage. In addition to the resources and goodwill you could gain, conversing with your community about objectives and how to meet them can help avoid ineffective strategies that cost time, money, and the loss of confidence of the community. 

Please reconvene Consejo Asesor meetings and include science/research at the table, and open at least one “town hall” meeting per new park while the process of developing their management plans is underway.

We ask because we care. Thank you.


11 Fate of the Subshrub and its Fans

We descend the steep east face of the Giganta on a Friday, pausing between switchbacks to observe another green and white subshrub Galium carterae and some other rare plants on the way. 

We say our goodbyes to Alfonso and Paula at Rancho Saucito. Abraham catches a bus for La Paz and his studies at CIBNOR for a Masters in Botany.  Augusto reconnects with the organizer of this expedition, Sula, and they begin to compile a scientific report from the trip. 

I return to overseeing summer operations at Sea Kayak Baja Mexico, which include free-to-the-community paddlesports training and sponsored programs for schoolkids to connect with nature through paddling. 

And we post our observations on iNat. Have a peek if you’d like.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Training Trip


I’m training to cross the Sea of Cortez in a kayak this coming October. Each weekend I go out for a slightly longer paddle than the weekend before. Though I’m paddling towards a goal, I’m as much using the goal as a motivating excuse for getting out there as I am using these outings to prepare for a future event. Participating in the present moment is the real practice here.


This past weekend I paddled north from Loreto. It was an exploration as well as a training, since I haven’t paddled this coast in at least 15 years. Friday afternoon took me 13nm up the coast from Loreto to San Bruno, the mouth of a large estuary. Crossing the Gulf will entail a a few island hops followed by a long section, so I’m practicing doing a moderate day followed by a long one. That pattern also gives me a night of sleeping out under the stars, which is nourishment for the soul.


The best information I could find to carry on my deck regarding this coastline was a photocopy of the chart surveyed by the USS Narraganset in 1873 and 1875 which showed the mouth to an inlet clear and open. A lot can change in 145 years, especially in geologically volatile Baja, and especially at the mouth of an estuary! 


It was getting on towards evening when I completed the stretch of mountainous coastline north of Isla Coronados and arrived in the vicinity of San Bruno. A crescent bay of a quarter mile’s width with a small hill on the northern point was the first break in the mountains. Waves from a 1-meter SE swell dumped dirty and powerful on the steep sand beach. Beyond the hill the coast was a long expanse of breakers, spilling more gently but without a clear channel and with the probability of partially submerged remains of trees scattered throughout. The tide was high and would be low in the morning when I would leave the beach around 4am and I did not relish the prospect of trying to find passage through an unfamiliar estuary mouth in the dark in the morning. So I chose the dumping breakers on the steep beach. I watched the waves crash for several long moments, then chose a location and paddled the last few strokes on the brown hump of a wave as it collapsed in gritty foam and shot up the beach. 


I leapt out and anchored the kayak against the greedy pull of the retreating wave, but my feet slid back with the wave and the kayak in the gripless slope. The next wave filled the cockpit with a slurry of beach and sea and the ocean growled its malintent. 


It wasn’t graceful, but I eventually managed to wrestle my kayak from the waves and deliver it to dry level beach. A pack of coyotes pulled at the carcass of a sea turtle next to the half-buried branches of a surf-sanded tree. A palapa and a motorless panga stood at the north end of the beach without signs of activity. I walked around my end of the beach, climbed a high sand dune to try to see the estuary but didn’t learn much.  The dune cast a lengthening shadow where I determined I’d make my bed. I also determined where I’d prefer to launch in the morning if the swell was still up, after watching the breakers for a while to memorize where the underwater rocks were. 


The contents of the kayak went into 2 Ikea bags and I carried them to my camp. Moving the kayak was the next puzzle. I didn’t relish the idea of floating it to move it down the beach on account of the hungry breakers. Then it occurred to me that I had a set of wheels in the back hatch which I had used to get the kayak to the water in Loreto, and then forgotten about. I laughed with joy at my good fortune and giggled a little at my forgetfulness. I wheeled the kayak over to my camp, tied it up to the sturdy branches of a tree sticking out of the sand, and left the wheels on for convenience and flexibility in the morning.


A peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich was my dinner as the light faded. On these trips I travel as light as possible. No stove, no cutting board, no kitchen. Boiled eggs, cans of tuna eaten with a spoon out of the can, granola bars, nuts, dried fruit, pre-made bean burritos and peanut butter sandwiches form my diet. I can eat them in the kayak.


I prepared for the morning, sealed up the kayak, and set out the ground tarp, the Therm-a-Rest, and a thin sheet, anchoring them all with rocks or sticks or water bottle against the breeze. I wrapped my pathetically small clothing drybag in a pillowcase. After removing from the drybag my sleeping t-shirt, a small towel to get the sand off my feet and Moose, it only contained a pair of socks, a warm hat, a spare shirt and a sarong. All together they didn’t make much of a pillow, but enough.


Jupiter appeared first. Then Saturn. Antares. Arcturus. Altair. Vega. Spica. Deneb. There is something comforting in recognizing and greeting these lights in the sky. The dimmer stars filled in. Scorpius. Big Dipper. Cygnus flew above me, the giant swan in the shape of a cross, wingtips raised. For a while the axis of the swan was the same as mine. As I stretched out my arms to reflect its shape, I thought of my dad. The cross: so central to his beliefs, to his being. 

“Dad, what do you know now?” I asked the sky. ”Where is your spirit?” Just then a brilliant shooting star coursed across my view.


Whether it was the wind, or the anticipation of paddling 35nm the next day, or thoughts of mischievous coyotes, I had trouble falling asleep. But the night was beautiful. As the tide dropped sometimes waves would begin to break before they smashed the shore. They make a certain higher-pitched hiss when they break early. I picked up head up to look, and saw a bright glow. The bioluminescence was outstanding! From 60’ away, the breaking wave was the brightest thing in my little universe. Again and again, I would hear the hiss, look, and smile.


The Milky Way slowly pivoted. Scorpius crawled along the mountains. Cygnus flew a different direction. Finally I fell asleep, and woke suddenly out of a dream that everyone had packed and departed and I was left behind. It was 3:01, nine minutes before I’d set my alarm to go off, reasoning that I could get away with 10 more minutes sleep because 3am sounded too early to get up. 


Because I had 9 minutes to spare, I took the luxury of slowly eating a boiled egg and half a sandwich while still sitting on my tarp, listening to the waves in the dark. Out to sea, the white light of a fishing boat shone. Another light appeared slightly above it, and I tried to make sense of the perspective. The new light was reddish. It started to grow. So did my smile of recognition. The crescent moon. The whole of it wasn’t yet up when it disappeared behind a cloud bank. Just a moment it had peeked out, and I had been sitting there looking, as if I’d been waiting for the show. Moments like this make it easy to feel alive when living outside. Alive and connected to some larger meaning or script.


I paddled north through a sea of tiny lights. Horizontal lines glowed and dissipated to my left, the breakers of the San Bruno estuary. I gave them a wide berth and paid close attention to the shape of the swells approaching from the right so I wouldn’t get caught out by the breaking of a bigger set. Occasionally the rounded cone of Isla Coronados caught my attention with a start, tricking my eye into thinking it was a large, dark wave. In the dark, I paddled by sight, but also by the sound of the breakers and the feel of the shape of the waves as they passed.


The moon cleared the low cloud bank and Venus followed shortly after. Over the next 2 hours I watched the slow-motion drama of Venus overtaking the moon. The moon moves eastward relative to the constellations to complete its path around the earth every 28 days. If you have the patience to watch it when it’s near a star or planet, in an hour you suspect there’s been some change, and 2 hours are enough to see for sure. The moon clearly rose first, and by sunrise, Venus had climbed higher than the moon, or more accurately, the moon had lagged behind Venus and the rest of the sky. What a privilege to have watched it, and all the more so from a kayak.


Even in the dark, it was hot enough to be sweating as I paddled. On my hourly break, I wanted to jump in the water to cool off and have a pee. Large creatures feed in the night. My awkward thrashing to return on top of the kayak will surely signal to them that I am lame, easy prey and fit to be removed from the gene pool. I am understandably nervous about jumping in the water at night. Just as I reached the hour, small manta rays called mobulas started leaping out of the water around me. Nobody knows for sure why they do it. Competing for a mate, shaking off parasites, just plain fun.  But they don’t do it to avoid predators. They gave me the confidence to do my own jumping.


Later, on my return, something large did follow me. Twice it made a large splash just behind my kayak. The second time I turned fast enough to see something brown in the water, like a sea lion, but it never breathed. Shortly after, something hit the back of my kayak from underwater hard enough to make the kayak shudder and push the partly deployed skeg up into the kayak. That hour I did not jump into the water.


The final approach to Loreto wasn’t nearly as spectacular as the previous week’s dolphin escort through bioluminescent nighttime waters, a special treat.  These last few hours were rough, in the 110-degree heat index of the August afternoon, but I made 35.5nm since morning, and 48.75nm overall. Next week we’ll shoot for 40nm nonstop and 55nm overall.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Persistence of Light

The sun departed leaving an orange glow above the Loreto mountains. Ahead, Isla del Carmen blushed her final farewell to the day. I pointed just north of her two prominent peaks, paddling through bouncy seas. A gentle breeze met me from my right. Dark shapes of waves occasionally broke the horizon. Above a low bank of clouds ahead, Jupiter popped to life.


As the sky darkened, sounds of town faded behind me. Cars, dogs. The lights persisted, the measured white march of the waterfront Malecon. The tall blink of the marina’s lighthouse. Red and blue flashes of police cars paced the waterfront, trying to send people home so the virus could enjoy the quiet night streets.


Slowly stars appeared overhead. The shapes of islands grew indistinct. Saturn appeared below Jupiter, and the two aligned to point to the low spot where I was headed. Zero-nine-zero on my compass, though it was too dark to see it. The sky pointed the way.


My paddle stirred up glowing creatures in the water. Random individuals lit up in protest at being tossed up on my deck in droplets of spray. They were too small to see, let alone put back in the water. Splashing water onto the deck to rinse them off just stranded more of them, so I left them to their fate. Occasional whitecaps shone a blue-white as they broke. Swirling footprints marked my wake.


Behind me, the Loreto mountains stayed lined up with the stern of my kayak, telling me I was not drifting off course. The final glow faded behind them, and they disappeared, obscured by the harsh lights of town. Somewhere about halfway across the 9nm crossing, when I could no longer see the mountains, I realized that the faint smudge in the sky north of town was the comet Neowise, which I had been hoping to see. 


I paused my paddling to listen to the waves talking around me. They have subtle, burbly voices. I heard something ahead, a steady hissing. Like a river or a tide race, or waves on a distant shore. The shore was still too far to hear, so I filed that sound in my head and kept paddling, ready for it to be a channel of current, or wind, or just the way the breeze was accumulating the sounds of the burbling water. 


The star Altair balanced Jupiter and Saturn on the other side of my destination, giving my direction a feeling of symmetry. In the darkness, Jupiter left a wide swath of reflection on the choppy water, a path of soft light leading from me to the amorphous darkness of the island. 


As tempted as my heart has always been to follow the path of reflected heavenly bodies on the water, my head reminds me that they are an illusion. A trick of faint light and perspective. “Like love,” retorts my broken heart. I don’t bother to form words in reply. Paddling is my answer. I stay my course, to the left of that path. 


As my kayak moved through the waves, water on the deck occasionally caught the faint light of Jupiter at just the right angle to make it shine. Overhead, the Milky Way angled brightly across the sky, with the giant hook of the Scorpius’ tail firmly lodged in the heart of it, tugging it towards the west. A distant cloud bank flashed with lightening, a common summer Sea of Cortez phenomenon, too far away to worry about, but fun to watch.


When I was about 2 hours into the crossing, the wind picked up, straight on my nose.  It increased quickly. Peaks of glowing whitecaps became prevalent. They turned into rows of glowing waves. The deck of my kayak lit up like party lights as it pierced wave after wave, the deck rigging illuminated by the little creatures that got caught in it. Spray off the bow rained steadily on my face. Perhaps I was wearing the glitter as well.


My glowing footprints kept moving aft, which I took as a reassuring sign. Other than that, I couldn’t tell if I was actually moving forward. The kayak felt heavy and slow, though I had hardly packed anything for the island overnight. Just bars, nuts, and dried fruit for food. Water, a sleeping pad, a sheet, and trusty Moose. A few shreds of dry clothing not even enough to make a decent pillow. Toothbrush and harmonica. Basic safety implements, and the collapsible kayak trolley that got me to the water.  


Isla Cholla lighthouse on my left and a distant headland on my right together formed a gateway that did not want me to pass. They seemed to stay exactly where they were. I tried the tactic of alternating several short powerful strokes to get speed, then 2 relaxed strokes to catch my breath while sustaining the glide. The lighthouse and the headland were unimpressed. I ignored them and counted 100 full strokes before checking again. Maybe, just maybe they were giving me a little. I counted 100 strokes 3 more times. The gateway was letting me through, grudgingly. Gradually, the height of the waves began to diminish.


I approached the blackness of the coastline where my eyes could make out nothing. Carmen had grown tall against the sky, but I couldn’t tell how close I was to the shore. The absence of a moon let the faint lights take the stage-- the Milky Way, the bioluminescence, Jupiter’s reflection, the comet—but made it hard to find the beach I was headed for. Nor, for the wind, could I hear the waves on the shore which I often rely on to discern rocks from sand. Nor could I smell the night air descending the arroyo and wafting the scent of desert plants over the water, indicating a beach.


The gusts started to hit. The wind was crossing the island and dropping with random whimsey. A gust from my left tried to steal my paddle. I grabbed it back. The entire surface of the water lit up in the gust, leaving the kayak a dark spear in the middle of a sea of dancing blue-white. Breathtakingly beautiful and a bit frightening at the same time, as that dark spear skittered sideways through the light.


The only aid to navigation in this area was Punta Cholla lighthouse, 3nm to the northwest. The folded layers of hills on Isla del Carmen make it hard to read the skyline at close range, much harder than it is from a distance, or than reading the single ridge of Isla Danzante.

I knew within less than half a mile for certain where I was, and thought I knew within a couple hundred yards. I also knew that from here to the north there were 3 wide, accessible and hospitable beaches, as well as 2 rough beaches that would work in a pinch, before I reached the protected cove of Balandra, which itself had several places one could pull up a kayak and call home for the night.


I knew there were rocky reefs along here between the beaches. Still, I was surprised then my paddle struck a shallow rock. I was trying to parallel the shore until the cliffs backed away from the water, without being able to really make out either the cliffs or the edge of the water. While dancing with the gusts. 


My headlamp was the top thing in my day hatch. I’ve knocked it off my head into the water before, so no longer paddle with it there, and I was glad to not have had it around my neck while being bathed in salt spray. I have also tried to use it to find a beach and found that it illuminated the moisture in the air at close range and told me nothing about the coast, while killing my night vision for a while. So I left it in the hatch. I could do this. Control in the gusts, slow squinting progress between. 


The cliffs seemed to back away. A steady dark line with a faint lightness above it suggested a beach. I crept toward that line. The kayak surprised me by stopping gently on the shore before I reached the line. The line, it turned out, was wet sand of a recent high tide. No matter. I was on the beach. 


I glanced to my right as I stepped out of the kayak and saw silhouetted the familiar pinnacle of Playa Roja, with its osprey nest crown on top. I smiled. I was one beach north of where I’d intended, but had no thought of getting back on the water. There was a symmetry and poetic justice of landing here. On a prior night crossing, I’d been shooting for this beach and landed instead at the one just south. Tonight I’d done that in reverse. The two are close enough to swim between, with one cliff and one reef separating them, so landing at either after a 9-nm crossing in the dark isn’t so far off the mark.


I moved the kayak up the beach, weighed it down with rocks, and tied it off before unpacking my few things. The kayak quivered in the gusts like it wanted to go back out and play. It was 11pm. I was ready to lie down and admire those faint, persistent lights above as I drifted off into contented sleep. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Dolphin Galaxies

Sometimes you just need to go. Get outside. Sleep under the stars. Remember what all the computer work is for.

So I did. At about 7:30 in the evening I shut the half-done projects into my laptop, their cries for attention muffled by the closing of the lid. I put the kayak on wheels and loaded the sleeping essentials into an Ikea bag, along with a few granola bars, some nuts, and dried fruit, and headed out the driveway. Locked the gate behind me, and pulled my kayak down the middle of the street, as you do in Loreto.

I love living in Loreto, a block from the water. The hotter it gets into the summer, the earlier I’m going paddling or running each day. Now I go before sunrise, and even then often drenched in sweat. It’s a little fresher after the rain this week, Loreto’s first rain in 8 months.

The sun is setting over the mountains now, casting a last red glow on Isla del Carmen 9 nm to the east. My destination. I’ve become comfortable finding more familiar beaches by ear, bioluminescence and skyline silhouette in the starlight. But this part of the island I travel less often, and only once before have I paddled directly from Loreto to there. I’m not exactly sure which peak to aim for. So I guestimate a little to the south and know there are several options to my left once I reach the island.

But I’ve a ways to go. I empty the Ikea bag into my kayak, and pack the wheels into the hatch. I push off the beach and become amphibian. A live performer is torturing some chords at the waterfront Hotel Oasis where guests sit at outdoor tables draped in white linen. It’s all-you-can-eat clam and oyster night. The sounds and lights of Loreto follow me into the dusk.

Swells are coming from both north and south, almost opposite each other, making for a syncopated rising and falling as I paddle less by sight and more by feel. A light headwind keeps me cool.

Isla del Carmen turns blue, then black. I notice a shadow moving back and forth on the deck of my kayak. A crescent moon hangs over my shoulder, bright enough to cast a shadow. A couple of planets keep it company. Stars come out, lighthouses blink in the distance. The Southern Cross slowly cartwheels back below the horizon.

I hear the splashes of fish on occasion, but these are bigger, and more persistent, and coming from all around, almost like the churning water of a tide race. I stop paddling to listen. The staccato exhalations of dolphins accompanies the splashes. I see one dark crescent break the water beside my kayak. They are behind, in front, and many to the right. I alternate between paddling and listening. Between excitement and gratitude, my smile another beaming crescent in the night. How can the presence of other beings bring such a flood of joy?

Big splash to the rear. I turn to see another leaping high in the moonlight. “Whoo-hoo! You are beautiful!” I declare.

I wonder how they know exactly where the surface of the water is to take a breath in the dark on a wavy night. I wonder what they see of stars. I wonder if they can see anything through the thick brilliance of the bioluminescence streaming past their faces. My paddle sends galaxies spinning out beside my wake. I wonder what the dolphins know of galaxies.

I’m about halfway, a little over an hour into the crossing. Isla Danzante’s distant blink and the silhouetted cone of Isla Coronados are on either shoulder. My path is crossing the line between them.

I will hear the dolphins off and on for the rest of the journey, until I also hear waves breaking on the rocks of Carmen.

There I am alone. I feel alone. There is a tall rocky point in front of me. Not a good place to sleep. It’s 10:30pm. I know there are reefs along this side of the island, so I keep a cautious distance from the point as I head north, listening.

I have a headlamp hanging ready but turned off around my neck. It’s not strong enough to cut the humid air all the way to the shore. I have a GPS in my day hatch, with a familiar beach already programmed. It felt like the responsible thing to do before I left. But I don’t need it.

The waves change tone. The air smells slightly earthier. I head closer. This beach will do. I pull up the kayak, float myself for a bit in the sparkling water, then make my bed as the moon sets behind the mountains. The mountains are invisible, another darkness in the darkness. The moon disappears tail first into the darkness without touching the lit horizon of Loreto.

I lie down beside my kayak and look at the clouds of light swirling half-mixed with the darkness as the Milky Way rolls off Scorpius’ tail just above the peaks of Carmen. I look until my eyes can’t look any more, and then I dream to the sounds of water.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Hot Honeymoon, New York City

Five minutes after we returned to the hotel, Henrick and I smelled smoke. We were weary from walking all day: 3 hours in the World Trade Center observatory and memorial and 3 more hours walking back from there via the High Line and busy streets to Pod 51 Hotel, on 51st Street. We’d been refreshed by a good dinner and were ready to put our feet up and relax.

I thought the smoke came from our air conditioner, so I turned it off and opened the window to stick my head out. Below us was a restaurant and their back door stood open just under our window. Smoke drifted out. Were they smoking something? It didn’t smell very tasty. There were sirens outside, but this is New York City. Sirens all the time. They couldn’t be for us.

Henrick stepped out of the bathroom and into his shoes to investigate, but came right back. The hall was full of smoke and the fire alarm just started.

An announcement cut through the beeping, “This is not an emergency, but please evacuate the hotel using the stairways.”

Most of our possessions were already in our small day-packs. We’d traveled light on this 3-day honeymoon in the city. We shoved the rest into the packs in just a few seconds. I put my shoes back on, grabbed my headlamp (always the prepared camper), and we slunk low and quickly through the dark smoky hallway to the stairs, with shirts over our mouths, and eyes squinted. Others were descending as well. The stairs were well-lit and not so smoky.

Black-suited firemen dragged a hose into the entrance as we filed out. They were headed through a door to the adjoining Salvation Burger restaurant. It was about 8pm with the last daylight in the sky.

Red fire trucks parked in the street with their lights flashing. Firemen strode purposefully about. Police and fire vehicles blocked both ends of the street with their multi-colored light shows. The nearest truck extended a ladder up the front of the building but nobody went up, and nobody leaned out waving handkerchiefs from windows above. Smoke began wafting out of an 8th floor window. People gathered in the street to look.

Henrick and I chatted with a young Brazilian woman Natalia from the apartment across the street as we watched the action. More trucks arrived. Two firemen dragged a litter of first aid supplies and implements of destruction up the street. More yellow suits strode past carrying long crowbars and axes.

A friend of Natalia joined us and pointed out the owner of the burger shop, a woman in a white chef shirt. She was enjoying great success and notoriety in the city with her restaurants, of which this was the latest, open just 2 months. Kitchen fires are fairly common in the industry, according to our local informants. Natalia’s friend had lost her home and belongings to a kitchen fire in the restaurant below her apartment.

Firemen’s names reflected in yellow on the tail of their long shirts, a design modification since 9-1-1. “All these trucks may seem like an over-reaction, but this is what they do now,” she said. “They’re prepared for anything.” Steel-framed gurneys loaded with first aid supplies stood ready in the street attended by yellow-suited EMS responders.

After about an hour, the excitement slowed down. The smoke had quit. Hoses were being dragged back out and folded. The ladder lowered. The white-coated kitchen staff was herded away by a tall fellow, perhaps to be grilled. The owner still chatted with a tight knot of people near the restaurant. Our new friends and other spectators wandered off.

Cleanup looked like it would take a while for the fire crew, and not many were actually working on it. Henrick and I headed for someplace to sit, and the pub a few doors down looked inviting. The emergency lights flashed through the pub windows giving it a reddish disco feel. We nursed our beers for about another hour until the disco ended.

The street was still blocked, and a crowd assembled around the hotel, which was blocked and attended by an officer. A couple waiting said they’d been informed that there would be rooms arranged for everyone, and that they would get more info soon. Who knew when “soon” would be.

With everything we had on our backs and no worries, we wandered off in the other direction to find another pub. Might as well enjoy the evening! We sipped our beverages peacefully on sidewalk chairs between the noisy bar and the busy street, discussing life’s endless topics for another hour and joking about our hot honeymoon.

The last flashing lights quietly extinguished and drove away. Taxis began entering our street. The hotel lobby was still bustling when we returned, so we went up the stairs to see our room. In the hall there were some chunks of drywall and debris. One door near ours had been broken into. Other doors stood open, including ours. The room next to ours had a hole smashed in the wall. Our AC unit had been pulled from the window and lay askew on the floor. The room smelled slightly smoky, but was otherwise quite liveable. We decided we could stay, but would ask for a discount.

“What’s your room?” asked the clerk.


“We have a room for you in another hotel a few blocks away and the taxi fare is covered,” said the clerk.

We were impressed. Considering what Henrick and I had just discussed, though, this seemed more dramatic than necessary. I said, “We’ve just been up to see the room, and, if it’s permitted, we could stay there. The AC is on the floor and it smells a little smoky, but not too bad, and we can step over the AC. We were just going to ask for something of a discount.” I didn’t say it was to cover the bar tab while we’d waited, but that’s the amount I was thinking.

The clerk excused himself and ducked into an office. He returned to double check with us that it really would be ok, and then tell us that we could have the night for free. What’s not to like? That was worth several times more than what I’d asked for. There was a bagel store around the corner that I had my eyes on for the morning’s breakfast, and we didn’t feel like relocating, really. Believe it or not, we can both be homebodies, and we’d bonded with our tiny room whose closet of a bathroom reminded us of an apartment we’d shared for a month in Orebro, Sweden. We returned happy to our little nest.

After the fire, the restaurant would obviously be closed for a while, and the hotel had some repairs to do, but nobody had been hurt.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Whirlwind East Coast Tour

In September, I rototilled the garden with Kyleen, packed Baby Blue the Wondertruck with kayaks and gear, dropped Henrick off at the airport for his trip to Sweden, and headed south. I drove, Moose navigated.

We recalled to each other the stories of summer. How Henrick’s workshop grew daily from the ground up. Kyleen’s shipping container and the work to make it into a home. How Henrick and Kyleen worked together so well and the little farm family gelled. It was a summer to savor as the miles rolled by the window.

At the border we met up with Maddie. One day and $3000 later we picked up the legally imported kayaks at an unmarked house behind a restaurant and continued south to Surf Camp, then Loreto. Between unpacking and moving in, we made time to SUP the Loreto waterfront at sunrise, and to enjoy one sleepless night on Rattlesnake Beach watching the lunar eclipse then paddle to Danzante Island and back in the morning. Two days after arriving, I was on the bus for a 20 hour ride back to the border.

Next stop, Maine, where I learned how much more I have to learn about coaching. “Coaching” is a car I’ve been driving for nearly 2 decades. I know how to work it from the driver’s seat and how to negotiate traffic. In Maine, we looked under the hood. What makes the engine run? We kicked the tires and studied the tread. We asked ourselves what’s important for a young driver to know for their general competence; what’s useful for a depth of resourcefulness?

We were learning to develop coaches. The course was BCUAB Tutor Training and Level 1 and Level 2 Orientation. For the first time I learned about the Kolb model of experiential learning, which is fundamental in education.

My coaching has been largely seat of the pants. Gut sense and logic. How is the flow going and is it time to change the pace? Can they handle one more challenge? What worked well last time? What can I improve? The idea of progressions and covering the learning preferences of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic have long been incorporated. The exciting thing about this course was that there are so many other lenses through which to look at the learning and coaching process. Binoculars, microscopes, telescopes, infrared, x-ray… Then the challenge is to identify what is the most important for beginning coaches, without overwhelming them with theory. Paddling is a physical activity after all. John Carmody, Steve Maynard, Todd Wright, Bonnie Perry, and I put our heads together, guided by Steve MacDonald.

Maine was fall colors, stone houses, and dining together with the clink of ideas on the plate. Ideas surging cold and salty over rocks with students riding on them.

Next stop, Georgia. White sand beaches and screened-in porches, and spray lifting off the clash of waves in Tybee Islands’ triangle in the wind. Oysters on the table pried open with fingers and savored with the long southern vowels of conversation.

I cut Georgia one day short for an impulsive detour to the Bahamas. Travel, while exciting, can leave one homesick. Not for the house particularly, but for the comfort of familiar companions. Henrick was a stone’s throw off the Florida coast, closer than we would be in a long time, especially since we didn’t actually know when or where the next visit would be. His schedule had him welding and pipefitting from 8am to 8pm every day until the project was complete, no weekends. But he still had 12 night hours! He was just as enthusiastic as I at the thought of a 2-night visit.

Maybe I don’t have to say how refreshing it is to just hold each other and tell stories of our recent days. To be enveloped in acceptance and tenderness. At gatherings of people I often feel like a bit of a social misfit. If I’m there to coach, I do my best and like to think I do a good job. I enjoy that. But the insecure little girl inside struggles in social situations. After 3 weeks of social situations… Henrick, for his part, wasn’t terribly inspired by rebuilding the laundry facilities on the humbly named cruise ship “Celebrity Infinity”. We were each other’s salve, and each other’s celebration.

There’s a romance to sailing across the Pacific, to meeting up on various continents and islands when we can. In the spirit of it, a 2-night fling in the Bahamas just fit perfectly! The second night Henrick’s supervisor gave him 4 hours off. We celebrated at Lucaya harbor with Matterhorns of pina colada, live music, and even a little dancing. What mattered most, though, was just being in each other’s company. I’m still smiling.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Great Barrier Island

Sailboat Misty is looking a little sad in the boatyard, with the dust and rust of neglect from these many months away. Henrick shimmies up the stern and sends down the ladder. Once we’re aboard, the memories flood back. Palm paradise beaches. Deep ocean blue. The smell of baking bread to the music of the Be Good Tanyas. Where went the struggles and seasickness, the wind shifts in the night and storms at sea? The memories are all idyllic. I long for the islands again.

We plan to paddle around Great Barrier Island together on this visit. The Barrier, as locals call it, protects the Hauraki Gulf from Pacific Ocean swells. Auckland is located deep within the Hauraki Gulf, along with a number of other smaller islands.

Henrick sharpens a knife for our trip. Angle grinder on metal. The sound and smell of young love. Creativity, beginnings. Marina Seca boatyard in Guaymas, Mexico.

We raid the diminishing larder—dehydrated egg powder and cheese, pasta, couscous, a jar of peanut butter.

The next day, we catch a ride with Dave, a friend, to Auckland for the ferry. With our kayaks on the car deck, and us on board with several dozen other passengers, the Sea Link catamaran leaves the harbor. We pass the Maritime Museum where Hokulea was tied up when we arrived last week. The catamaran is the replica of a traditional sailing canoe which started the renaissance of Polynesian navigation and cultural pride, We pass giant freighters being loaded by long-necked cranes. Sky Tower stands above it all.

The ferry pushes against an incoming tide out of the harbor and into the larger Hauraki Bay. We can’t see The Barrier from here. Eventually the Coromandel Peninsula comes into view. Four and a half hours later we arrive at Tryphena Harbor, GBI.

After a fine dinner at Tipi and Bob’s Waterfront Lodge, we check weather websites. We measure distances, calculate times, look at tides, decipher the currents from the tidal diamonds, and decide to set out counter-clockwise.

12 January
The first crux move is rounding the south end including Cape Barrier. In the morning we will have some 2-3 knots against us and against a 15-18kt wind. Great for surfing, but perhaps less than ideal for our first day and a committing cliffy coastline.

We set out at the stroke of 11am, which is still a little early for the current. We outsmart it by ducking into Sandy Bay, about 3 nm into our journey, and pass an hour by eating lunch and exploring of this tiny, uninhabited cove. The tide runs out and turns around to push us along nicely in much calmer waters. A fat SW swell enlivens the coastline.

At 4:30pm, we carry the boats over a low-tide beach and walk them up a shallow stream to the Medlands Department of Conservation campsite. Friendly neighbors, a refreshing cold shower, and a fine dehydrated dinner make it feel like home.

13 January
Onward up the coastline, we pass more sea caves. mostly guarded by churning white sea. A little blue penguin swims between us with a punk “hairdo”. Surfing into a kayak-wide channel in the rocks at exactly high tide, we enter a creek and paddle the rest of the way up to Harataonga campsite.

We return to the sea later to snorkel and see a tremendous variety of seaweeds (there are 66 recorded species around the island). We also spot a few fish, and a group of little hovering cuttlefish that change color with their mood. To warm up, we lie down in the shallow stream. Heat emanates from the streambed in some places. It smells slightly farty, but the warmth is welcome. There are mineral hot springs on the island, the last vestiges of a volcanic past.

Henrick and I walk part of the coastal trail for a view out to Rakitu Island and a stab at cell phone reception and a forecast, which we succeed in getting. It’s perfect for the next few days. The Kaka native parrots squawk and fly into the sprawling trees above us.

14 January
As islands on the horizon tend to do, Rakitu calls to us. We paddle out the next morning and follow the coastline closely with our unloaded kayaks, relishing the Romany handling again. Caves, rockhops, close-up views. The southern tip of Rakitu is a breathtaking Rhyolite dome formed about 8-10 million years ago as part of volcanic activity in the area. A basalt islet nearby is the only known basalt lava on “The Barrier”.

15 January
Before the rest of camp is up, we glide down Harataonga stream past the Blue-Winged Teal, a New Zealand endemic locally known as Pateke. Once past the dumpy half-meter break, we cruise along the coastline, watching the wind slowly build. It’s still closer to 10kts, but with the forecast E 20kts, we decide not to land at Wairarapa to avoid having to paddle back east again.

Rangiwhakaea Bay, our target, is little over an hour away, and we’re reasonably sure we can land there in the forecasted conditions. We hope so because the next stop is four hours further, around the Needles at the north end. Henrick finds the bouncy conditions challenging as we round the point towards Rangiwhakaea Bay, and I worry about tomorrow, with its long exposure and the building swell.

We investigate three coves in Rangiwhakaea Bay and choose Kirikiri Beach, facing east but tucked behind its own modest point. A venerable Pohutukawa tree shelters us from the sun on a small rocky beach. The east wind flaps our laundry hanging from the Pohutukawa branches. A creek trickles through the forest to pool behind a berm of rocks and forest debris. The streambed itself has been bulldozed by some great force, leaving bare rocks, sand bars, and broken trees strewn in its widened path. We will see dramatic evidence of the June 2014 storm at almost every stream we observe, from here on around the island.

16 January
The swell is indeed bigger this morning. We don’t need to open our eyes to know. Besides, it’s still dark when we awake. The early start will let us launch before the tide drops too much and breaks more of the swells coming into our mini-bay. We time a quick beach-break launch off our steep beach, skirt up in the “safe zone” of deeper water a few meters off the beach while waiting for a lull between sets, then power past the point, where the waves start their outer break.

Henrick launches first, and disappears in the big, disorganized sea. It’s a steep, rocky coastline, which sends the waves’ energy back at various angles to cross the incoming swell.

Now THIS is the sea, I think as we paddle. So long as there is no reason to fear for our safety, I love a rambunctious sea. Henrick is concentrating, but doing well. I stick close.

Another reason to leave with the dawn this morning is the current around the Needles. Deb Volturno, Paul, and Natasha circumnavigated a few weeks before and said they were surprised at the force of the current near the north end, and how quickly it changed. Yesterday I studied the tidal diamonds on our nautical chart. Of course there is no diamond right where one wants it, since nautical charts aren’t made for kayakers. Diamond “B” is several miles west and “C” is about two thirds of the way down GBI’s east coast. Off the Needles themselves, the chart indicates tidal rips of 2-3kts in either direction. Since we paddle at just over 3 knots and realize how the current can affect the sea state, we do want to pass with minimal current, and in our direction if possible.

It’s not simple; the direction at “C” changes a couple hours before the direction at “B” and the directions of current spin around the compass, so it’s not “in” or “out”; it’s more complex. The best I can figure, we will paddle north up the east side with the current, round the Needles against less than half a knot (opposing a 1.5 to 2 meter swell), and paddle down the long, exposed west side with current building in our favor. We may be 4 hours at sea with no landings. Thankfully, the wind leaves us in peace.

There is a gap that would cut off the Needles and Aiguilles Island, and save perhaps an hour. I check in with Henrick. Because Tom the guitar-playing fisherman at Harataonga campsite told us that it’s not a real circumnavigation without the Needles, Henrick is determined to go the whole way. We’re perfectly on schedule, the conditions are lovely, and I am not inclined to leave any rock unexplored, so we go for it.

I take photos of Henrick paddling past the spires. Sometimes he’s in the photos. Occasionally a swell swallows him completely. Buller’s Shearwaters stream past us. Some wheel around for a second look. Several pop over a swell gliding low and find themselves beak to bow with our kayaks. They hang on nearly meter-wide wings, steering with the subtlest shift of weight.

The moment of rounding the tip of the Needles is brief and exciting. Smooth faces of the swells stand up when they meet the current. Occasionally the top meter or so tumbles in a roar of white. They are deliciously surfable for a few waves, and then we’re past. A fishing boat bobs in the much-reduced swells on the west side. Our adrenaline slowly subsides, but the flow of shearwaters past our heads does not.

Other birds mix in the flow of shearwaters. Something half the size and mostly grey. Something all dark—perhaps one of the Black Petrels that nest on Mt Hobson, The Barrier’s highest peak. Around the west side we encounter Little Shearwaters. They run along the water with outstretched wings before taking flight. We like them, though we’re not sure why. Perhaps because of their technique, or their petite size.

On Aiguilles Island we spot a tiny cobble beach that occasionally has a brief window of opportunity for landing a kayak. Since we’re almost halfway through our 4-hour paddle, and have heard from several sources that there are absolutely no landings remotely possible on the upcoming segment, we decide to try to land.

The swell must have been teasing us when we first saw the landing, for it gives no chance for a while after that. Powerful dumpers with cross-surges caress the beach roughly and slap against firm boulders.. Finally I see a moment, and dart in, leap out of the kayak and hold it fast as the surge recedes. Next surge, I drag it up with the water, then scoop up the stern in my arms and pivot it uphill. Henrick has zipped in as well, so I grab the bow of his boat and we stagger up the loose cobble (called shingle in NZ) under the weight of the kayak.

Relief break, a couple bites of salami, and we ready ourselves for the escape. Patience eventually pays off and we’re back on the water, feeling a little like we got away with something.

We wander among sea stacks. The gap that Deb and friends had passed through must have been at a higher tide, a smaller swell, or both. Today the swell wraps around the west side and meets the incoming east swell in a crashing white zipper. We are two hours before low tide at neaps.

Slightly further south from the gap I spy light through a passage. An arch leads into a gap to the other side where there is a deep cove, unnamed on our topo map. We’ve been told this is a reasonable landing and from which one can climb a hill for VHF reception and a forecast. We passed it by because of the swell direction and size, the interest of time, and because we felt reasonably confident in our good forecast and the steady conditions we had. In calmer conditions and with higher tide, this slot looks like it could be a great sneak.

Today, I watch as the other side of the slot explodes with every wave. A surge finds me in the slot—it was just a matter of time. I backsurf my way out up to my elbows in white foam, making the necessary zigzag turns between rocky walls, and feeling sheepish, like I’d just gotten away with something else. Henrick was just around the corner, so he only saw my exit. I’m really not a daredevil in remote places like this, and I don’t want him to worry.

“Cliffs of Doom” is how someone described the 4-mile stretch between the Needles and Miners Cove. Here a 250- to 300-meter high ridge follows the coastline, almost completely unbroken by streams. The cliffs are made of ancient sedimentary rock deposited some 150 million years ago. The formation underlays the island and predates the volcanic activity that created most of the rest of The Barrier about 18 million years ago.

Miners Cove, our destination, is a disappointment. It’s wide, protected, and shadeless. Somehow I just don’t like the vibe here. Was it the mining history that left scars in the spirit of the place? Was it the treeless valley? Was it just my mood being influenced by the good bang I took on my shin before leaving the beach this morning that makes it painful to walk or sit on the beach? We eat lunch and agree to explore further.

On our way out, we stop by a motor yacht for an updated forecast. “Take a Break” was doing just that before heading up to the Needles to fish. They offer us water as well, but we carry plenty.

We paddle through Ahuriri point. The Barrier and its associated islands have great arches that make shortcuts through points. This one is a little shallow on the exit, which makes it fun riding the surge through. A pretty beach meets us on the other side. In the center of it a tall grey stone stands over the waving grass. A marker for something. Something Maori perhaps. Beside it is a green DOC sign declaring the place as Ahuriri Beach. No fires, dogs, or camping.

The next beach is a winner. No signs at all. A fresh water lagoon has formed behind the beach. Piles of torn up trees and fresh berms of gravel and dirt with young plants tell stories of dynamic changes in the 2014 storm. Nine hundred centimeters of rain in a day, is the statistic I recall someone telling us. Nature is impressive.

The lagoon is deep enough that we can’t stand. We portage our kayaks to it, paddle across, and set up home on the far side. Up the hillside we get fresh water. At every campsite we’ve drunk from stream after purifying. The water is always a little cloudy, probably because the sediment is still sorting itself out after the storm exposed raw earth.

Henrick walks the low tide rocks along the shoreline in the evening. My shin still throbs so I’m completely content to relax and watch the world from here.

17 January
I could stay here another day. That’s the beauty of having too much time to do a trip! We spend the morning under the pohutukawa trees on the hillside, reading and listening to unfamiliar birdsong.

We eventually decide to paddle away. The luxury of choice. Around noon we set out. After the next major point, we see no beaches good for camping until almost Whangaparapara. Thankfully, DOC has an official campsite near Port Fitzroy.

Fitzroy is supply central for a healthy boating population which enjoys the inlets and islands nearby. We stop in the port, pick up a few more supplies at the store and enjoy a couple of burgers at the burger shack on the waterfront. Kids jump from the tops of pilings along the wharf. Tourists sunbathe on a dock in the bay. Tied between the dock and shore is a big log. Kids take turns logrolling, solo, or in groups, splashing into the sun-gilded water as we eat our early dinner.

Akapoua campsite is best accessed at mid to high tide since the storm washed rubble and trees out of a nearby stream. We and the camp host have the place to ourselves on his last night of being on duty. We also share the site with a half dozen Pateke. It’s hard to imagine they are rare. Here, they are not shy, and they are not nice to each other, with one going as far as to grab another’s tail. They patrol around our kayaks, hopping on the deck, peeking in hatches. The sand flies are not shy either. Banded Rail, another rare bird, runs around the campsite. This is the best campsite for birding. Tui and raucous Kaka wake us in the morning.

18 January
It’s just a couple miles to Smokehouse Cove, a haven for cruisers that we’ve been told repeatedly about. We manage to make it into a journey of 10nm by circumnavigating Kaikoura Island and its neighbors including Wellington Point, the westernmost part of The Barrier.

Facilities at Smokehouse Bay include deep tubs for hand-washing laundry complete with old-fashioned ringers for squeezing water out of clothes. Fishermen may smoke their catch in a large smokehouse. A woodstove can also heat water for a bath of shower. A girl is swinging from a rope tied to a grandfatherly Pohutakawa tree when we arrive. Her mother studies for her radio license in the shade at a picnic table below. They’re Swiss and traveling with the rest of their family on a catamaran anchored among the dozen other boats in the bay.

We eat lunch. I walk up a trail to get cell reception for an updated forecast. Henrick is chatting with some other cruisers when I return with news of more good weather for a few days. The cruisers say that Emmy of Great Barrier Marine Radio asked about us that morning during the 7:45 weather on channel 1 . “Take a Break” reported we were alive & well, last seen in Miner’s Cove. It’s good to know folks are looking out! We’ve been unable to get Emmy’s broadcasts on our hand-held radio, so the cell phone has actually been a better source for forecasts. Sometimes it takes hiking up a hill, but we’ve had sufficient reception everywhere except in Rangiwhakaea Bay on the NE side and Miners Cove on the NW.

At 3pm we leave to scour the coastline for a campsite. Wanting an early start through the Broken Islands, we’re reluctant to go back to Akapoua campsite. For 6nm we poke into every inlet and mangrove swamp. In many places along the coast, but especially in these coves, we notice slips where the storm rain loosened hillsides and they slid down into the water. In some cases communities of trees remain somewhat intact, just a little crooked and at a little lower elevation.

Tide is rising. Many places look good, but won’t in 2 hours. Finally we settle in against the crumbly cliffs of Red Cliff. A log makes a seat, and Henrick’s kayak makes a fine dinner table.

We set the tent up against the cliff and wake to another high tide in the morning just a foot away from our nylon front door. Thankfully mussel farms in the long inlet protect us from the wakes of passing boats.

19 January
The Broken Islands offer too many options! They express the island’s volcanic past, with rubbly breccias, lava flows, and layers of ash. Since the period of the ice ages, about 2 million years ago, river-carved valleys were flooded by a rising sea, creating these islands out of former hilltops. We weave our way randomly through their many gaps.

On remote Mahuki Island we duck into an inlet for a snack break and discover a house and little dinghy tied up. We don’t stay long and don’t see anyone. The rest of the island has gannet colonies above the cliffs.

Bowling Alley Bay has been recommended to us for camping, but we want to make it to Whangaparapara today. Good thing, too. Bowling Alley Bay beaches have bowling-ball size cobbles. Or almost that big. There is sand offshore; perhaps it washed out in the storm. We lunch on one cove and actually manage to doze off afterwards draped over those cobbles. Beautiful anchorage, though. A few dolphins exit the cove as we enter.

We coast another 6nm to Mangati Bay where there appears to be a nice beach. We didn’t land, as we’re too distracted by the Bottlenose Dolphins playing and leaping. From scarred old veterans to little babies, they swim around as we float. They like to leap out and back flop, exposing white bellies. I put on my mask, wondering how they might respond if I took a peek within their element. It only takes one dip, sculling with my paddle, and three dolphins come by to have a close look. I hear their squeaks.

At the end of a 16nm day, we land at The Green DOC campsite, deep inside Whangaparapara. A small grassy campsite is all ours for the night. A magnificent horizontal pohutukawa tree lines the waterfront, grounded by at least 4 trunks. These trees put out aerial branches that become new trunks if they reach the ground.

“I hate these trees,” declares Henrick as we move the picnic table out from under it. Pohutukawas drop their red flowers on everything. But they are beautiful in their exuberant flowering and shady sprawl.

I’ve thought that if I were a tree I’d like to be a pohutukawa. Their structure creates the opportunity for a whole community of plants and animals. Epiphytes cling, birds roost, vines twine. Kayakers sit below. Almost every lunch we’ve eaten on this trip has been in the shade of a pohutukawa tree. If I were a pohutukawa, though, I’d be sure not to drop my flowers in Henrick’s dinner.

20 January
A relaxing day of reading and a walk to Whangaparapara peak. We keep a good sweaty pace and beat the estimated time posted on the sign (1hr 10mins) by an incredible 40 minutes. Still, I think we’ll skip the 22km round trip hike to Mount Hobson.

Upon our return we find we have neighbors; two groups of hikers. This campsite is walk-in or boat-in only, which reduces the traffic. This site has more mosquitoes at night than any other site we stayed at. So long as we stay in the tent we’re protected and can listen to the droning whine of their hoards with detachment.

21 January
I have found a way to make 2-year oatmeal appetizing: have as the only alternative 2-year old egg powder and “dog food” (flavored soy protein). We’re making ourselves eat through the food stores that remained on the sailboat after our Mexico to New Zealand crossing in 2012. We do reward ourselves at night with a delicious dinner at Tipi & Bob’s. Tom the fishing guitar player with the radio show who we’d met at Harataonga campsite recommended the Reef & Beef, so I have to try it.

Our waitress at Tipi & Bob’s also has a show on the local radio station and knows Tom. Actually Tipi & Bob’s underwrites Tom’s show. The waitress tells us of a tavern owner up the hill who records open mike sessions at his tavern and sometimes plays the authentic local music on his radio show. That’s as genuine “Barrier” as it gets!

• Emmy Pratt Great Barrier Marine Radio channel 1 7:45am 6:45pm? Phone 09 4290 281
• Margery (manager) Tipi & Bob’s Waterfront Lodge in Tryphena Harbor. Water access with steep concrete ramp, picnic tables, restaurant. 09 4290 550.
• Sea Link Ferry

Campsites we stayed at (there are more):
• Medlands DOC campsite (Carry into shallow stream or long carry direct to campsite at low tide)
• Harataonga DOC campsite (may be able to paddle all the way in at high tide, or may require some carry to get into stream; stream paddle-able)
• Freedom camping Rangiwhakaea Bay; Kirikiri Beach
• Miner’s Cove (big, flat, tree-less)
• Freedom camping just around Ahuriri Point
• Akapoua DOC campsite (best access within 3 hours of high tide)
• The Green DOC campsite (at least 1 meter of tide recommended)
• (Bowling Alley Bay very rocky—may have changed in 2014 storm. Would not recommend camping. Mangati Bay may be another option, close to Whangaparapara)
• DOC sites $10 person. First site will charge an extra $5 person for not having reserved ahead, or if you change your dates. Thereafter, there are no extra fees. These are to encourage pre-booking, which they also understand may be difficult when kayaking around. There was plenty of space in mid-January.

Crux moves:
South end. (We went counter-clockwise) Tidal diamonds on nautical charts extremely valuable info for planning this. SE-facing Rosalie Bay was not a desirable landing in 1-meter SE swell, but a tiny NE-facing cove between Haupapa & Shakespeare Point offered a pit-stop in lower tide. No camping here. Sandy Cove offered good shelter for a last break before committing to the paddle.

North End. Tidal diamonds B & C invaluable for extrapolating currents and inferring conditions around the Needles. We rounded (counter-clockwise) 5-6 hours after Auckland high tide, on neaps. May be able to land in a NE-facing cove on east side of point and climb hill for forecast if the swell isn’t big NE. At lower tides and swells of over 1 meter, the gap shortcut may be inaccessible.