Friday, March 12, 2004

Open Water Kayak Expedition

Loreto, Mexico; Sea of Cortez

The First Annual Sea of Cortez Open Water Expedition must have been a success because many of the participants are talking about the next one. Personally the trip was rewarding on many levels. I got to share the Baja paddling experience that’s been so important in my life with friends who’ve wanted to see it. I got to run a Baja trip with an instruction component. Watched my handmade Pygmy kayaks carry Elaine and Marty across the Sea of Cortez, sunlight on the wood grain and the exotic rocky greens and tans and pinks of Carmen Island in the background.

Due to some last-minute cancellations, we had space for a Mexican guide-in-training to join us. I met David earlier this winter. He had worked just two days for Villas de Loreto before he joined us for a skill-building day for Mexican guides, and he quickly distinguished himself with his enthusiasm and skill. That day I told Villas they had a keeper.

He proved me right during this last trip. For sheer strength and speed, nobody in our group could touch him. Even in a heavier, slower boat, David could out-sprint any of us, including AJ. For personality, he was a winner. When not helping in the kitchen, he was studying his English, and involving guests in the process. Pre-dinner time turned into informal Spanish/English language classes, at times turning riotous as surprising things were slowly communicated, then verified. Like David’s other job as a body builder and dancer, alongside his role as father of a 2-year old. All at the ripe old age of 21.

David was an asset, too, in encouraging us to visit the old salt pond village on Carmen Island. Two of his friends caretake the place now, which is used occasionally used as a resort. From the 1920s till about 30 years ago, the salt works provided an economic basis more important to Loreto than fishing is today, according to David. Narrow gauge rails carried salt to a barge, which brought it to a ship waiting offshore in the narrow bay. A rusty, barnacled shipwreck lies there still.

The village is a study in irony and juxtaposition. In front of the mechanical repair shop, with its sign intact, sit two tractors filled with dirt and made into cactus planters. One has a flat tire. The old school house is now filled with plastic kayaks for resort users. Turkey vultures pose atop rusty metal poles that once held basketball hoops.

Walls of some buildings were constructed of stone, with coral in the gaps. Other buildings are composed entirely of mortared coral blocks, like lumpy white bricks. In front of a crumbling wall, an orange desert mallow blooms. At the base of a distant hill lies a cemetery where, David tells us, most of the graves belong to children who didn’t make it on this harsh island with its minimal medical care. While he was camping on a nearby point, he thought he saw their ghosts wandering along the sandy beach. He lingers a moment longer than the rest of us in the tiny whitewashed church, the only one of the old buildings apparently kept up, and crosses himself before leaving, perhaps thinking of the children.

The sea gods treated us to a tailwind one day. Our motley little fleet of mismatched kayaks bobbed along down the swell. All together we were ten boats and eleven people: Two wooden Pygmy kayaks; two plastic Tempests, a red, and a yellow; AJ’s yellow and lime fiberglass Tempest, Jim’s orange and yellow Assategue, and four geriatric but willing Seda boats rented from Villas de Loreto, including the Beluga, a white double. Paddles were about as matched as boats, and included a couple of Greenland sticks among the spectrum of big-bladed tools. Paddling styles varied, but increased in efficiency throughout the week. A warmth grew inside as I looked frequently over our crew. From the lead, I monitored our speed and spread, looked for signs of struggle in the rear, assessed the peripheral awareness of one drifting off towards the horizon, and visited with Julie, in front of me in the Beluga. Island silhouettes parted sea from sky, Monserrate to the south and Santa Catalina off to the east. The white marine fossil layer of Carmen’s southern tip glided quickly past the subtle hues of Sierra la Giganta’s steep slopes to the west, and all was well with the world.

Such is the guiding life. My trips in the Sea of Cortez are over for the season, and I head north slowly, hoping to savor some waves along the way. For those who are interested, the Second Annual Sea of Cortez Open Water Expedition is shaping up to be an 8-day adventure about the second week of March 2005, with an eight-mile crossing on the route.