Thursday, March 29, 2007

Last Islands Trip

Was it an omen when we discovered on the first night that we’d forgotten to pack the coffee? What could be worse to forget, except perhaps toilet paper? Or maybe the prevailing omen was one of resourcefulness and kindness when David paddled the coffee out to us the next morning through the rare Sea of Cortez fog.

I didn’t think about it until almost the end of the trip, but if plans hold their course, this was my last Sea of Cortez Islands trip that I will lead for my employers of 8 years, Sea Kayak Adventures. On this route I have spent most of my last 8 winters, on the beaches of Carmen and Danzante Islands. My next trip is the La Paz 10-day, and that’s it for the season. Next season I hope to be busy with my own trips in new areas, and gently close the book on an era of paddling giant double kayak/barges and making extravagant meals. A change to look forward to while still feeling nostalgic, and a little nervous about braving the new. But at the beginning of this trip, its significance had not yet dawned on me.

When my well-coffee’d group finally launched into the fog later that morning to skirt Danzante Island, we were accompanied by a pod of dolphins. They passed directly beneath some of the kayaks. Leisurely we cruised together along the rocky coastline while mystery clouds poured into the creases between hills. Fog played hide and seek with silhouettes of odd desert plants on the ridges. Dolphins stuck their noses in the air to look around. Slapped the water with their tails. Circled back with apparent curiosity. The white darkness of fog moved behind us on the water, and sun bathed our happy aquatic procession.

One afternoon on southern Carmen Island we all hiked inland from Playa Blanca to see if we could find the fabled Indian well. There is a shell midden at the beach being eroded by recent storms, and a guest on my trip years ago found an arrowhead on the beach. An Indian well would make sense here. Except for the flat marine shelf we were on, and the proximity of the sea. Curiosity had all of us in its grip, so we followed the south rim of the arroyo naming, photographing, fondling and sniffing plants along the way. The arroyo below us was thick with foliage. Mesquite trees and giant torote reached up to the level of the rim. Palo verde clung onto the sides tenaciously.

A little barrel cactus torn by some torrent or wind clung to the rim’s sharp soil by one filamentous root. One of our party wanted to pick it up and “save” it, though she didn’t know what she would do with it, exactly. That instinct to give suffering things a hug.

We were a group more experienced in administering hugs than kayaking. Eight women in or near their 60s, woven together by threads of friendship and friends of friends, though none knew everybody. Plus one young couple and a middle-aged pair of fun-loving best friends. Derek from the couple and our guide Mario were the only men, but they managed. The eight women were all fit and spirited. Well versed in rolling with the surprises of life. Motherhood, grandparenting for many, travels around the globe. At least two had fought breast cancer and won. Several owned their own businesses, one donating much to cancer research. Now they were tackling the new challenges of a kayak camping trip with grace and humor. For some it was their first time in a kayak, ever. And it was the first time for all of them on an archeological expedition to find an Indian well on a desert island.

Mario walked ahead, and called my name. I left the pitied barrel cactus and those who wanted to hug it and followed the sound of his voice. At the top of the pouroff, just above what would be the waterfall had there been water running, and overhung by trees, was a hole about 4 ft around with fine gravel at the bottom. Decades or centuries after its creation, after untold storms had carried debris into it, it was still deep enough to hold significant water after a storm. Mario lowered himself in, marking the depth, scientifically, at one Mario and a half.

On the fifth day we awoke after a full night of westerlies that had been preceded by southerlies, and both Mario & I suspected north wind within the next days. We changed plans. After a morning hike and early lunch, we crossed to the protection of Punta Coyote. Except Punta Coyote was occupied, so we continued to Rattlesnake Beach with a fun 10 knot following sea. The mesquite-bordered campsite at Rattlesnake where my friends Dan & Heather stayed two years ago was vacant, as was the entire south end of the popular RV beach. So we landed and made ourselves at home. So many layers of memory and experience there for me. Klaus & Parvin’s newly vacant site was the next one, where Derek and Michelle pitched their tent. Bunny put up her tent in the subtle arroyo mouth where David & I slept out on the beach together for the first time. Where the Giggle Girls pitched among the mangle dulce bushes, I used to park my truck when I left on short personal trips, except the year Paul and Alisa were camped there.

As we set up the kitchen in Dan & Heathers site, I wrapped myself happily in blankets of warm memory. Somebody requested for Happy Hour entertainment on our final evening together that Joan and I do some voice & flute duets. I put my flute together and was trying to remove enough popcorn from my teeth to play when I turned to see 3 people entering the edge of the campsite. I waved, then recognized them. Scott and Cara. And Hans! The one responsible for introducing me to kayaking and Baja ten years ago. The one whose fault I was here at all. The inspiration for this life I lead. This is the moment when the soundtrack should do something dramatic. These vortices of energy and time and people just don’t do this except in fiction.

I visited Hans and Scott and Cara that night after my crew had fallen asleep. We retold old stories and caught up on news till the southern cross and scorpius came up. A new memory to snuggle into and smile when the cold wind blows.

The next morning, as planned, and just after coffee was ready, Joan and I faced the Sea of Cortez where Danzante Island’s silhouette glowed pregnant with a sun about to rise, and we harmonized Morning Has Broken. She and I, both recent breast cancer survivors, shared that bond and a general affection for each other. We became one energy for a moment in the music and the first glow of morning. The sun peeked up, a reflection widened on the water, sparkled, and everything came together on this last morning, to the soundtrack of voice and flute.

Thus a magical ending of an era, and a fitting beginning of the next.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Saved by a Leaky Boat

The trips began as most do, obediently following its itinerary. Then the wind picked up. This was a group with itchy feet, not wanting to sit on the beach, but preferring to challenge the wind. So, figuring we could always get back to Punta Coyote from Rattlesnake Beach, we cruised a mile downwind to walk a storm-scoured arroyo. The short paddle was in an area relatively protected by the hills of Puerto Escondido.

The excitement began when we launched to return. Digging into the wind was tougher than people expected, and after half an hour we’d put only a few hundred yards behind us. Some people were wearing down, and periodically somebody would lose their angle into the wind and struggle to turn back into it. I towed two doubles from the back of the group to the front, and looking at the big picture, decided it was time to surrender and take the group into the beach. Walking the kayaks up the beach was our pre-discussed back-up plan. The situation would be easier to control, and risks greatly reduced if we walked the kayaks up to the headland, then paddled the short, more protected crossing.

One guy in particular was upset and wanted to continue paddling, but the majority was relieved and saw the sense in it. Dan thought I was singling him out to go to the beach as a punishment for something since I sent him and his wife and their friends Chris and Regina in first, but they happened to be closest, and among the strongest, and I figured they could help others land if they were on shore. Discussion in the wind was not an option; it was one of those rare times for orders. He didn’t hesitate, but he sure got a lot of mileage out of grumbling about it afterwards!

All landed safely, we regrouped, briefed on safe walking of kayaks along the shore—keeping boat between self and shore, and not passing anyone in the line and in so doing putting them at risk of your kayak hitting them. Slowly, the parade progressed to the end of the beach, where a fateful green panga waited. A panga is an oversized rowboat with a motor used for fishing, tourism, and pretty much everything in Baja. Pangas are usually white with blue gunwales, but this one was painted green on the outside.

One gal was so pooped she wanted a hotel. No more wind, no more beach camping, no more paddling. So there were the 2 extremes: one wanted to keep paddling, and one wanted to go home. Friends of both told me later that they are just that way—one flighty and tried to cancel trip twice before it even began, and one (from New Jersey—I should make allowances) always challenging the “rules”. He was the one most often asked to put his shoes back on.

There we were in the wind, fifteen tired, hungry, paddlers facing a quarter mile more wind across the opening to Puerto Escondido. I was opening my mouth to organize a sheltered rest and gorp snack while the rest of my brain tackled the short crossing—partners to switch, strategies and angles… Lino caught me and said, “I know the guy who has that panga. We can find gas from someone on the beach, and take people to camp in the panga.”

I looked at the group, at the panga, and at the wind, and something clicked. To the group I announced, “We’re going to see if we can find gas for the panga while you rest.” A cheer went up. I suggested some places to sit out of the wind, and walked down the beach with Lino.

We chatted about options on the way. My raw left foot started to bleed from the rubbing of my sandal. Option one: We could haul the tired people in Panga, paddle the others, and then tow the kayaks. All that would take time and we’d be late for lunch with hungry tired people. I wasn’t sure about towing the kayaks—what damage we’d do in the wind. The trip was over the next day and we could get a pick-up right where the kayaks were if we wanted to keep the panga and ride out in the morning, which was option two. Or, option three, we could bring camp and lunch to the people where they sat on Rattlesnake beach. But there was no good place to camp where we were. And we did not want to retreat back down the beach to the open spaces and need to paddle back into the headwind again, with a forecast of stronger wind the next day.

Considering the forecast, the tiredness of the group, and all other factors, we decided on option two. Shuttle people, the rest of the food, and all loose gear back to camp in the panga in two shifts, and leave the kayaks in the care of the RVers “Honey Jim” and his wife, both kayakers themselves, and their Rottweiler dog. Back at camp there would be snorkeling opportunities and a single kayak to play with if people wanted in the afternoon.

I asked Lori to wait until after lunch to make a decision on leaving for a hotel. After lunch, Lori did still want a hotel if we could get a taxi and a ride out. We felt we needed to make one more trip back to the kayaks to close them up and tie them together just to feel better about leaving them, and we could take Lori and Glenda (who would go with Lori for support) to the ramp and call a taxi. We could also call SKA house to change our pickup location to Rattlesnake Beach. And make troops happy by bringing back some beer. This part was a secret.

The troops were crashed in their tents or sitting with a book or taking a relaxing walk along the coast. They were ready for some down time. We had challenged the conditions, and met our match. Spirits were generally good, except for grumbling Dan whom nobody took seriously anyway, least of all his wife who’d been in the front of his boat unable to open her eyes for the salt spray. Rest was welcome.

So Hilary held the beach front while I went with Lino and the girls, called a taxi, and walked with the girls to the beer store while we waited for the taxi. They said they’d had a great time, just were ready to sleep in a hotel and take a shower. One more night on the beach, they explained, couldn’t add any more to their experience. Sometimes I just don’t know what to believe about people!

There was beer at the store (which there hadn’t been the afternoon before when Lino and Jim paddled for it), and I sent beer, ice, and the girls in the taxi, which arrived as we reached the store, back to the ramp to deliver beer and pick up the girls’ stuff. I asked the taxi driver to take them to Hacienda Suites, but wait to make sure they had rooms there, or take them to a place with room availability.

Then I ran next door to the internet room to call for the Rattlesnake Beach pickup the next day, and began running back to the ramp. I hailed a passing VW van of yachters for a ride back, met Lino at the ramp, rode to Rattlesnake Beach to close and tie up the kayaks, then quickly back to the group on Punta Coyote. The afternoon jaunt was a mini-adventure involving a panga ride, walking, running, a taxi, and hitchhiking, all in the space of an hour and a half.

The New Jersey contingent of our group, up from their naps, was walking towards the lighthouse when we returned in the panga. We exchanged waves, then continued on to land at the beach, brought up the beer and ice, and got the lowdown on the walkers. Julie, one of our sprightly old ladies, had walked that way while the others napped. She came back reporting that she’d walked around to the side where the yachts anchored, and successfully begged a beer.

“Did you have to show your boobies?” one of the Jersey girls asked.
“Yeah, but you’ll do much better with yours because they’re young and perky,” Julie replied.

Upon hearing that report, the Jersey crew started their hike, wives in tow. That’s when we returned with our surprise cold beer for Julie, the big storyteller, to enjoy first while we laughed at the gullibility of the others and what they would do for a cold brew.

The next morning we panga’d people and gear out in three trips, the first of which I went on, helped unload gear, and rode back with Lino to facilitate the next trip. On the return, at his request, I sat up front to keep the bow down while Lino captained. The early morning sun gilded his straw hat, strap hooked under his brown chin. His full lips were relaxed but stoic, eyes obscured behind sunglasses--mirrors of the morning. Behind him the spray from our boat arched, our white trail stretched through the whitecaps, the red mountains rose impartial. Behind the last light blue bench seat Lino’s sandaled feet stood ankle deep or more in water that was geysering up from the thumb-sized hole and numerous pin-pricks in the bottom. As the captain steered with one hand, his face and manner intent on the horizon, the weather, the future, and all things pertinent to the sea and sky, his other hand scooped water and flung, scooped and flung with a homemade bleach-bottle bailer.

The juxtaposition of chaos and calm, all contained in the light blue interior of our vessel, a cradle in the storm with its dark blue gunwales somehow delineating this patch of peace in the midst of a storm, became not a juxtaposition at all, but a small perfect piece of a larger picture. It was a microcosm of our situation. The team of Lino, Hilary and myself, with the helpful hands of our guests, worked together to execute the ever evolving plan (Plan Q are we up to now?) Managing resources, people, and time, with the wind whipping around our heads and somehow a core of quiet from which we reach out to steer, look ahead, and bail the leaky rescue boat. A metaphor of life itself.

So that was the exciting ending to a memorable trip that also involved the capsize of a guide in a double on a crossing (and uneventful rescue), being followed by a film crew in an inflatable as we landed from that crossing, and seeing a 10’ shark from a hillside on the final morning’s hike. And people wonder how it doesn’t get boring after ten years of guiding here!

Paddle On!