Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Evolution of References

The dark night was the first book of poetry and the constellations were the poems.
- Chet Raymo An Intimate Look at the Night Sky

I left the lights of Loreto behind, obscured by passing swells and eventually by the roundness of the sea upon the globe.

Evening worked the last of its magic with fading colors in the sky. Venus, my first friend of the night, shone in the western sky over the mountains. Jupiter hid behind a cloud bank to the east before peeking out. The beauty. The freedom of paddling back to camp down the 10 mile wide corridor between Carmen Island and the Loreto coast.

Ahead, the dark headland of Punta Coyote aligned below a distant triple peak. I paddled to hold that course. The gap between Punta Coyote and Danzante Island, which I had always thought of as a crossing, now looked like a narrow target.

Even after stars appeared, the ambient light continued to fade until the darkness was complete. No moon shone. Fear. The half-light in the waves felt ominous. My kayak, small. My faith in it and my motor—my body—shaky. Punta Coyote dissolved into the mountains beyond. The triple peak became a faint swell on the horizon, difficult to distinguish from the much bigger more distant mountain to the left and the double peak to the right.

As in life, our aids to navigation, or our perspective of them, evolve. Though my Punta Coyote reference was gone, Danzante Island’s dark hump gave guidance. Lights of occasional cars descending the mountains shone clear in the gap, and went black behind Coyote, to reappear in glimpses much further north. Puerto Escondido’s lights glowed another reference.

In the evolution of references, in the adaptation of eyes, mind, body, there was comfort.

The zodiacal light or “sun pillar” glowed faintly behind the western stars. Venus set. Vega, Altair, Deneb burned their fires high. The swan, the eagle, the leaping dolphin. Poetry of the ancients kept me company from above.

Something flapped or flopped out of my path with haste and agitation of bioluminescence. The constellations below. Waves around crested with their own light. Bioluminescence tumbled in my bow wake and surrounded my paddle blade. Even illuminated my stern wake as I descended a wave. A hanging stern draw carved a brilliant parallel wake if I ran straight, or converged if I turned the kayak.

My body interacted with the waves by feel. The rattle of the bow toggle against hull at the beginning of a surf usually indicated a short steep ride that often wanted to end with a broaching turn. Some waves had the perfect push and I could paddle downhill on them for long rides. My sail helped to catch the waves, then flapped limply as the speed of the wave outraced the push of the wind.

After 12nm, Punta Coyote outgrew the mountains beyond to loom large and close. Sounds of waves at its base. Three hours. Another 30 minutes to camp and the constellations of home. Patty & Mike’s TV. Christmas lights in the bushes. A glow from within Jay and Diane’s little camper, reflecting faintly off Henry & Joan’s old trailer. Low bushes, shallow reef, silhouette of Michael’s truck against the sky, and finally my gap in the shrubbery. The evolution of references leading me home.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Monserrate in 24 hours

November 4, 8:50pm. Danzante Island, campsite DZ05. I arrived with the west wind, the unruly one. Back in camp it blew the wrong way into the stove, picked the shade tarp up and played with it, then shoved it down on my head.

I left camp in the dark at 6:30pm and set the sail for the wind to play with too. West is offshore, with its hazards like the further out you get the worse it is, and it’s hard to get back to safety unless there’s something to catch you on the other side. My intent was to paddle to Monserrate Island, 15nm out, then wait for the forecasted turning of the wind and ride it back. You know how reliable forecasts are.

Half a mile offshore, some gusts got my attention by tipping the kayak hard to the left. Waves were only about a foot, well within my comfort, but it was also dark, and everything feels a bit more exhilarating in the dark.

My intent was a night training run with some wind and waves. If I’m going through with the Crazy Plan, I should be comfortable riding seas throughout an entire night, or I should know that I’m not comfortable with it and forget the idea. Funny how a little idea like crossing the Sea of Cortez can get me out here where I hadn’t really considered it before.

Before I left, I talked with my beach neighbor Jay who had just returned from the day’s fishing in his motor boat. He said it was roughest offshore from Ligui canyon. That makes sense, how the wind funnels through there. Also for him, the rest of his trip would have been sheltered by the coastal mountains as he hugged the shoreline. Fetch. I had to add the effect of distance the wind would be blowing over the water. Fifteen NM by the time I got to Monserrate. How big would the waves be there? How strong the wind?

I motor-sailed my kayak towards the south tip of Danzante Island, which partly obscured my view of Monserrate, if I could see Monserrate in the moonlight, which I wasn’t quite sure. A light on a Danzante Island beach called El Arroyo was probably from the outfitting company I used to work for. They would be cleaning up their last dinner, which would have been a chili relleno casserole in the dutch oven, with a cabbage salad on the side, perhaps dusted with sand from the wind blowing directly onto their beach. Something about too much predictability I’m allergic to. Which is why I’m here skimming through the swells and somebody else is tending that light on the beach.

Spray flies off the bow, catches the wind and showers me. Again and again. I’m in a short sleeved paddle jacket and quite comfortable with the warm shower and the cool wind. Strokes are light and fast as the sail pulls the kayak along the growing swells. Water gurgles against the hull.

I will head south of Danzante Island, into the wind funnel from Ligui canyon. I want to feel the strength of the wind. To feel the waves collide with the perpetually opposing current that lives there. From there I will decide if I go to Monserrate Island. I will stop at one of the sea stacks in the Candeleros group and stretch before continuing. This is the plan.

Swells are exciting and surf rides frequent as I arrive at the stack. After stowing the sail, I thread between rocks into a protected pool from which I intend to step out onto a rock shelf. Water sloshes up and down. Wind funnels through my hideout, strong and sustained. Sounds of water crashing all about. Dark shapes hint at their craggy nature in the light of my headlamp. Sparkling ripples rush by over a shallow shelf and shatter into spray against little rocks. I struggle to maneuver closer, then in a moment change my mind, pivot, glide out of the pool, and head for the shelter of Danzante Island.

Decision made, I feel relief. I haven’t done a Very Stupid Thing tonight. Yes, sometimes I have to push the limits, but tonight isn’t one of those times. That means I can play in the mini tide race between here and Danzante Island. For about a mile I paddle without the sail, trying to assess how I’d feel about the conditions in the daylight. Broadside to two foot whitecaps, about 15kts plus gusts. I’d be content. The current adds interest. I watch island silhouettes for signs of my drift, but the current and wind seem to be about even in their effect, and I’m headed straight.

Nearer to the island is a rock that resembles a submarine. I can’t see it, but I feel the waves steepen, and figure I must be nearing the underwater shelf next to it that makes the best standing waves. I turn and catch some good rides. Bury the bow up to the front hatch. Moonlit shards of water tumble off my deck. Night surfing! Whoo-hoo!

The west wind bends and accelerates around the south tip of Danzante Island, and from here runs with the current up the east side of the island. Quickly the waves flatten out. I hoist the sail, taking 2 tries to get the mast up. The gusts are impressive, as I hang onto a stern rudder and fly along. The sail suddenly jibes in an ungraceful flop from one side to the other. Then it flaps limply. My kick-ass tailwind has just met the air coming over Danzante’s low spot. I wrap up the sail and paddle into my favorite beach on this island. I am drenched completely. Soggy pony tail, salt encrusted eyes.

Instead of being out tonight pushing the limits, I’m comfortably rolled into a tarp with a blanket-padded rock for a pillow, on a beach that feels like home, in the company of a very familiar stuffed moose. Sounds of water lapping on the rocky shore. The sounds increase. Gusts press my tarp hard against me. The kayak next to me shudders in the wind. I’m very glad to be here, and not out there. I hear rockfalls from the cliffs through the night, probably teased into jumping by the wind.

November 5, 9:50am. Don’t look now, but I’m naked on a sandy beach in the sun enjoying a leisurely brunch on Monserrate Island. Leisurely because all I have to do now is wait for the wind to die or shift to another direction so I can go back without too much effort.

I left Danzante Island at dawn. The wind had calmed considerably from the night’s fitful throwing of rocks, rocking of boats, and massaging of human tarp-burritos. Still the spray occasionally launched itself from the tops of whitecaps. The sun rose over Santa Catalina Island, another 20 miles out from where I bobbed along. It rose perfectly in position to climb the sky behind the sail. Paddling east in the morning can be brutal on the eyes, but this was perfect.

The sail pulled me along nicely. Up to two knots during my snack breaks. Five and six while paddling. When the sun ran out of sail to climb and shone on my face, I turned to ride the waves at a better surfing angle and arrived shortly at the long blonde beach of Monserrate. Three hours and fifteen minutes to Monserrate, 11.5 nm.

When I’m out paddling, at first I catch myself looking about at the mountains and the islands. Their lighting, their shapes. I count the time to the next landing. I am a terrestrial creature looking for home. Soon I look at the water. Its texture. Its colors. The swells and wind ripples are often at odds with each other somehow. Multiple directions of swell cross each other. Whether the whitecap tumbles listlessly or claws hungrily at the water as it scrambles forward. I am a sea creature at home for a time.

I project ahead to a longer crossing, the Crazy Plan. Some 30 hours in the kayak, with a 7-hour warm-up. I project further to the Pacific crossing dream. Weeks, months. Bigger boat. More room to stretch out. Better stocked galley, I hope, as I eat another Bimbo granola bar, strawberry flavor.

It may never happen, this Crazy Plan to cross the Sea of Cortes. I will make that decision when I get there. Or the weather or other timings may make the decision for me. That’s ok. If I don’t go forward now believing in it, acting on that belief, communicating to the universe that that is what I want, I will have closed my own door. I won’t do that--I won’t give in to a fear of failure before I’ve tried.

Five hours, multiple journal pages, power naps, and a long walk later, two things happen. The wind shifts, and a sailboat arrives. I visit with the family on Eyone for a bit, and take the NE wind back home. Fifteen NM in four hours exactly. The last four I was back on the track of my morning loop, going the other direction. I thought I’d see how fast I could do it now, for fun and because the sun had just set and I wanted to get home. Fifty three minutes. With a Greenland stick, in a Romany. No sail. I must have had some current assisting, but still it’s amazing what the body can do. Most amazingly, it felt good! This Crazy Plan might work after all.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Crazy Plan

Really it was the kayak’s idea. Romany said to me as we were paddling early one morning towards a distant star that hadn’t risen, you’ll miss me if you go work on that big metal boat with that man of yours.

Romany was right.

So I said, how can we get there, the two of us?

Well, duh! Said the kayak. I float, you paddle. That’s how it works.

Google Earth. 82NM to Guaymas from the nearest point in Baja, which is Santa Rosalia. Tortugas Island a convenient 22nm into the trip. That’s still a 60nm crossing. My morning loops are about 11nm, and I was feeling proud of them. That’s like 6 times around that loop. Without a break. Day and night. After a 22nm warmup. Looks like it’s time to start expanding that morning loop.

It is the nature of dreams to pull us onward. Even if I never launch on that crossing, the dream will inspire me to get in better shape.

Henrick likes the idea and says even if he’s launched Misty before I paddle over for him, he can follow me in Misty as a safety boat. I really appreciate the support, but where is my incentive to go forward through the exhaustion of the night or the fear of growing waves if my escape, my love, and a comfortable bed, are just behind me?

I’m not sure about the crazy plan. It’s just an idea. I’ll turn it over a few more times to consider the facets in different lighting. Carry it around in my pocket for a while. See what I think later without the suggestive whisperings of an eager kayak in my ear.

Meanwhile, I expanded my morning paddle to include Carmen Island this morning. Still, thinking of the crazy plan puts my 14nm jaunt into perspective. When I expanded my morning loop last year, it felt like I was reaching deep into the wilderness, pushing the limits. Venturing further, going boldly, with Star Trek theme music reverberating off the waves and rumbling the mountains. Compared to a 82nm crossing, it’s insignificant.

Still, upon landing back at my beach, I feel that euphoric glow. My body is saying, This is what I’m made for! Thanks for getting me out of the office.

Notes From the Beach

Snapshots not taken
The photobook of my life has some spectacular images today: Danzante’s symmetrical silhouette with orange glow on both sides of the central ridge like the corners of a smile. The green pose of a many-armed pitaya dulce cactus sprawls before the mountian’s morning blush. Looking down on the silver sea on my morning hike, I see a lone sailboat cutting through the middle of that molten puddle.

From my yoga mat under the mesquite, the blue sky and the filigreed leaves of a single branch catch sunlight in luminous green patterns. Simple. Profound. Beautiful.

Is it the quality of the scenes, or the time to see them?

I drop off the paddlers for their trip at a beach south of Mulege and drive back to Loreto. There is a curve about a half an hour north of town. Round that curve, and the curtain of rock moves aside to reveal a view across a cactus-studded valley to the Sierra la Giganta mountains. Layer upon blue layer of haphazard ranges. Facets of some peaks seem to defy gravity. My heart leaps at this view on every annual migration and even now, though I’m returning from just a few hours’ absence.

As I get closer, I can pick out the wall of mountain at the base of which I make my winter home. It is a tremendous mass. A serrated block of fantastic proportions. Elsewhere there are peaks and points and sky. Here there is no sky between the peaks. It is unique in a range of uniqueness. Nightly I curl up to sleep at its feet beside the sea. A home no architect could hope to equal.

Ol’ Blue lumbers along the slow rocky road from the highway to the beach. A forest of cactus and mesquite and lomboy envelops the truck. The plants are incredibly dry now, many leafless, after a couple of years without rain. Even the cholla hang their twisted arms in postures of despair. But there is resilience in them still.

A peace takes me. Crescent moon overhead. Last light on the sea. The presence of that great wall of rock behind me. Nearly a mile high. Close enough to snuggle. Huge enough to never know it fully. My heart hangs on a string between those opposites, the intimacy and the vastness, and I am in love with those mountains. Deeper every year, like I imagine the face of a livelong lover will feel. More treasured with time and every weathered wrinkle.

I want to play music. Deep in my belly I want song to come out, to become part of the place. To join the crickets and the water lapping. I’ve looked everywhere for my flute. Turned the office inside out. My last hope is that I missed it last time I looked in the tent. But no. Not in the bin of clothes. Nor in the telescope box. Nor in some hidden fold of nylon. Not in with the pots, or the food. Please be somewhere I can find you!

I am a bird who has lost its notes and my insides hurt. I try to whistle and to sing, but those are not instruments that quite express what wants to come out. Whether I am also tired or hungry or whatever other factors I don’t know. The stars are a symphony and I am voiceless. I am lonely for my flute and let the sad tears come.

In a way it’s satisfying to have the space and safety to feel a simple feeling, even it is sadness. Between the mountains and the sea and the stars, I feel held. Even if I can’t warble my thanks through a tube of metal.

Another great morning at Rattlesnake Beach. Danzante Island for breakfast again, launching before sunrise. Stars in the sea. Sun pillar gives way to pre-dawn glow. Island pinnacles wear their subtle morning faces. Distant mountain peaks blush pink. My wake stretches behind me.

The Romany kayak and I hatch a plan to paddle across to see Henrick in Guaymas when my work here is done. Dolphins leap near an eastern point as the sun breaks the horizon over Santa Catalina Island. My shadow paddles beside me on the brick-red flanks of Danzante.

I solve the world’s problems on the last leg of the loop. Everything is simple. The path is clear. Unfortunately the path gets muddy through the cleaning of gear, showering, and making breakfast. But that’s how it goes. I’ll have to paddle out again tomorrow to figure it out for good.

Flute! I found it! In the bottom of a box of blankets at the storage unit. I carried it like a trophy to the beach. After a season away, what joy to play to the crescent moon and the stars tonight. After two songs, Sandy the dog comes running down the beach, a black bundle of wiggles in the night. She arrived for the season with her owners just a few days ago. She crawls forward through the sand, still wiggling, to my feet where she looks up for a scratch in the thick mane of her neck. She whines and groans, then rolls over for a belly scratch and lifts up her grey muzzle to give me a lick on the face. Ah, joy. May it forever be contagious.


LoCo Roundup 2011 was a great success! ( We put on 17 BCU courses, a Greenland paddle carving course, and several general courses ranging from an hour to 3 days each. The event actually made money for the first time in 5 years, something believed to be impossible for a strictly instructional symposium to do. Many, many thanks to all who were part of it! Still, it WAS the last LoCo. It’s time for new adventures!

October 1, Henrick and I loaded my new ’93 Ford F150 to the gills, kissed the farm goodbye, and made tracks towards the Mexican border.

The next morning we paused for a brief stop in Portland so I could Row for the Cure in a tandem kayak with Laura Jackson. Oh, it felt good to reach out and power that hull through the water with another likeminded gal! And to do it for a good cause. As a 5-year breast cancer survivor, I am thankful for the tremendous efforts of others in raising money and awareness towards a cure. For me, cancer was a small chapter whose pages turned long ago. That’s how it feels now, with much gratitude, and life rolls joyously onward. Even more joyously now with the perspective that chapter brings.

I am on my 15th annual migration to Baja to coach, guide, and just be, on a little strip of beach between the mountains and the sea. Sea Kayak Baja Mexico, LLC my humble venture, is the child of passion and ignorance, delivered without the midwife of business sense. That it ever got off the ground is a testament to luck, a few hardy clients, and my Mexican business partner Ivette Granados.

The fate of beach where I live outside of Loreto is in limbo—saved from luxury development more than once by fallen economies. My residence there is never guaranteed.

But I have no monopoly on uncertainty. Unplanned adventure seems to apply to all aspects of life. Relationship, family, career, financial investment, creativity, vacations, and particularly journeys. It is a truth that applies so well to journeys, in fact, that they are metaphors for all the rest.

A friend who was experienced in Baja travels once advised not to bring anything to Mexico that I wouldn’t mind parting with. Before my first Baja trip 15 years ago I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing. It prepared me well for crossing with the expectation of losing everything, from possessions, to identity, to belief systems, in an almost religious purging. Still I went. Still, 15 years later, I return, more invested than ever.

Sometimes the frustration of holding back outweighs the fear of going forward, and you just go for it. What do you have to lose but everything? And once you lose everything, you’re just left with you and your spirit. Which is all you ever started with. And so you can again. Not that I won’t fight tooth and nail to hold on, and complain a bit. In the end you can’t take it with you anyway. Life is then the sum of our experiences, not our possessions. And we are spirit, not a list of accomplishments.

Which leads us to the next phase. I have been trying to find the balance between running a kayaking venture in WA state, one in Mexico, an annual event, and a farm. Balancing too much is a great circus trick, but not how I want to keep living. Some things had to be trimmed back. Then I met Henrick, and added a relationship and a shared life of adventure travel. I often do things a bit backwards.

For the last 2 years, I’ve been working with business partners to develop our companies in a direction to run with less of me around. I’ve spent some time working with Henrick preparing his sailboat Misty for voyage.

In 2012, I hope to make a leap in priorities from scheduling myself primarily around my kayaking projects to building an “us” and creating some exciting history together.

I’ve never held down a real job, indoors with regular pay, for an entire year. Never in my life. Guiding and teaching has held my attention for 15 years, and been immensely rewarding. There are still aspects I treasure: Coaching people and watching them develop. The synergy of working with other coaches and business partners. Certain exhilarating and meditative paddle trips. The connection with the outdoors, the stars, the plants, the wind.

Now I have met someone with whom I feel a deep kinship, and it seems our lives could blend nicely. On we go, now seeking the balance between relationship, personal rewards of creative work projects, and financial responsibilities. First stop for me is the Second Annual Loreto Kayak Symposium, and for Henrick, the Joy of Boatwork.