Saturday, January 19, 2008

Three Days to Guerrero Negro

Abraham Levy is kayaking the entire coast of Mexico. He has already completed the Caribbean side and now paddles some weeks south of Tijuana.

Ginni Callahan is taking a two-week break from guiding and coaching in the Sea of Cortez to surf with Dave at their favorite break on Baja’s Pacific coast.

January 9, 2008, Abraham paddles by the surf camp too far out to see, lands some miles south at a fishing village, and begins to set up camp.

In the village, Nacha and Sergio are preparing fish tacos to sell at the surf camp when they notice a brilliant yellow and orange kayak pulled up on the beach across the road from their house. They invite the handsome, travel-worn kayaker in for food, hear about his mission, and bring him to the surf camp, along with their fish tacos that evening, to meet some other kayakers.

At first he doesn’t look familiar, but his journey rings a bell. Yes, the guy paddling around Mexico. He was mentioned in a Canoe & Kayak magazine given to us because of a feature on Ginni. We swap notes on coasts we’ve both paddled, gather information on new places, trace our fingers along nautical charts by the dim light of our headlamps. Questions, answers, English, Spanish. The energy builds like a wave.

“Que remas?” I give him a tour of my Romany kayak. Abraham follows with video camera. Then the interview. Como se llama? Ginni Callahan. Donde estamos? At Rancho San Andres. Que piensas sobre este viaje? Sounds like fun. I want to go!

It was an offhand remark on my part. But a serious invitation followed.

Just after sunrise the next morning, a dirt-encrusted blue pickup lumbers over the rocky road towards the fishing village of Santa Rosalillita carrying one light green Romany kayak on the roof. David has decided not to paddle three days to Guerrero Negro with this ambitious young man, and Ginni, yes.

Nacha and Sergio serve us all a warm breakfast of eggs and beans and tortillas and homemade salsa. Some fussing with gear, some goodbyes, and Abraham and Ginni take to the sea, each with their own style of entry.

It’s a two-foot beach break, dumping all at once onto a moderately steep, scalloped beach. Abraham puts his kayak in the low spot, on the sand, enters, and inches forward with his hands until a wave meets him and he can paddle through the little break. Less traditionally, Ginni waits at the bow of her kayak on a slightly higher hill of surf-rounded cobbles until a medium-sized wave washes up to the boat. She pulls it down with the retreating water, hops aboard on her belly like a surfer to paddle a few strokes past the breaker zone, sits up, and slides her legs into the cockpit.

“Nunca lo he visto eso.” I have never seen that before, says Abraham. It was one of many firsts.

Santa Rosalillita falls behind as we head towards the distant point. The coast between Santa Rosalillita and Guerrero Negro is not a part I’d choose to paddle this time of year. January brings the biggest swell and chance of the worst winds. The route has few landings and miles of steep beaches that are completely exposed to the predominant NW swell. One landing is a surf spot they call The Wall. It’s where surfers go when they want to catch the biggest waves.

Abraham sets a good pace and evidently enjoys having someone to talk to. We drift toward whichever side I’m on as I try to keep the boats just far enough apart to avoid hitting paddles on each others boats at the exit of each stroke. We talk the whole day, and there is much to learn about each other.

He loved beaches as a kid and wanted to know all the beaches in Mexico. What better vehicle than a kayak? He learned to paddle in rivers. Pursued sponsorship of his dream for four years before finally launching his expedition. Continued learning en route along the Caribbean, and the Pacific would teach him even more.

Even more than a paddling trip and a dream, this trip is his business. “If you want to do well at anything, you have to learn how to sell,” an uncle once advised. Abraham learned to sell telephones door to door. Trying to sell his trip to sponsors he discovered that nobody wants to support something little. Make it big; ask for lots of money. His success is grandly evident in the boat he paddles, brightly smattered with logos. The shirt he wears for interviews has his sponsors printed on it. The wall behind him at speaking events is papered in logos. “If you want to do anything badly enough, and you keep working at it, you can do anything,” he declares. That smile doesn’t hurt a bit either, I’m sure.

The sea is gentle with us, and after three hours of sociable paddling we approach The Wall. An old river mouth a mile in width, forms a NW point which magnifies the swell. Breakers begin tumbling well offshore because of the long rocky reef. Arrecife, in Spanish. The rolling of rr’s sounds like the rumble of surf at a distance.

We take turns being taller than each other on the lifting swell. “Soy mas alta.” “Ya no.”
“I know why they call this place The Wall,” says Abraham. “These are walls of water.”
There are also walls of rock on land, built by surfers as meager protection from the frequent winds, which mercifully forget to blow while we’re there. Ten miles is Abraham’s shortest day yet, but we have plans to surf in the afternoon.

Abraham, for all his miles, has never just gone surfing. Surf is a door for him to pass through between beach and sea. I, on the other hand, live on the beach and paddle the sea so I can find fun places to surf. So it is to be for the 3 days we paddle together to Guerrero Negro: two skilled paddlers with different strengths, different perspectives, different backgrounds, and different languages, yet plenty enough in common to relish the playful sharing of company.

If the wave is gentle and hard to catch, especially if you’re starting far down the shoulder, aim towards the breaking part of the wave to catch it, then turn and ride with it. Abraham learns quickly. On a wave too big to see his head as he rides it (from my perspective further out to sea) I can follow the trail of his kayak moving towards the peak, then back away in a perfect reading and riding of a wave.

Dinner involves some strange combinations. Freeze-dried Mountain House Sante Fe Chicken (his contribution), and Mexican staples refried beans, fresh avocado and tortillas (my addition). The world of the burrito has never seen the like. Abraham breaks out his camping luxuries for the occasion—a short aluminum table, a foldable plastic serving spoon, and a titanium spork. A pair of osprey watches us from their nest in a nearby datilillo, or Joshua Tree. The nest is much bigger than the spindly, bent trunk should support, which makes it look like a Dr Seuss invention.

Darkness brings the setting of a red crescent moon, then photo sharing. On my camera, we see shots of Abraham surfing. On his phone/camera/marvel of technology, we see his entire trip. Stars revolve slowly past this private showing of a very publicized trip.

The image in my mind that exemplifies Abraham Levy will never be seen by any other. With my camera in my pocket, I paddle for my own survival as we leave The Wall the next morning. I summit a wave, slide down the backside, and look over my shoulder for Abraham. Through the crest of the wave bursts an orange and yellow streak, water streaming off as it soars completely airborne into the morning sunlight. This man has the muscle and grit to make his dreams fly.

Scale is deceiving on the water, especially with the low sunlight angle of winter. Abraham, with his poor eyesight, thinks the hazy distant point which alone populates our southern horizon, is Isla Cedros, some 60 NM away. I disagree. The day will reveal it as we get closer.

Intensive talk of day one diminishes, as it usually does. Spanish practice switches to English practice. Abraham fishes and catches some Sargasso, but no fish. The wind picks up and then dies back down. Still we paddle. A gull inspects us so closely I almost whack it with my paddle by accident.

Shore is over 2 miles away, and we are an island. The island sings. It sings poorly in English. It sings quite beautifully in Spanish. Traditional songs, sad songs. Sometimes the island is quiet and moves slowly along its course. “You don’t feel so far away when you paddle with someone else,” says Abraham. This is the first time he has paddled with someone on his entire trip.

The headland turns out not to be Isla Cedros, but Morro Santo Domingo, a long rocky point with several little sandy beaches near the mouth of Laguna Manuela. Most of the pocket beaches have big surf crashing onto them, but we work our way around into more protection and find the perfect one under the lighthouse, whose position is mismarked on my nautical chart. Everything about the beach is right. It faces south so we can see sunset, sunrise, and tomorrow’s paddling direction. The sand is clean and lovely for going barefoot. Red rocks embrace the evening sunlight with a most satisfying hue. The flat sand at the top of the beach is just large enough for two kayaks, two tents, and a common eating area. A trail leads up the hill to the lighthouse. And, for the businessman, signal for the phone and internet actually work for the first time in ten days. We can sit on the beach and GoogleEarth the upcoming coastline. Who needs those old-fashioned nautical charts?

It’s quite an undertaking, kayaking the whole coast of Mexico, especially solo. In the Caribbean Abraham had to shelter from hurricane winds in a patch of mangrove, constructing a platform above alligator-infested waters for the night. Further north on the Pacific he had to crash land through big surf when winds made it impossible to continue. But he’d never seen anything like the mouth of the Estero de San Jose. Our destination Guerrero Negro is situated inside this bay.

Estero San Jose is one of several lagoons along Baja’s Pacific coast, most famous for the gray whales that calve and mate here from January through March. Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Laguna San Ignacio, Bahia Magdelena.

As we approach Estero San Jose, the entire horizon is house-sized breakers. They tumble and tumble without getting closer to the coast. Two forces collide to make it thus: swell and current.

Earlier that morning could tell that the swell is building on our beach below the lighthouse by the tremendous crashing of waves on our eastern rocky point. “Such power without malice,” comments Abraham. “Beautiful.”

Paddling towards the boca, the entrance to the lagoon, we follow a compass bearing of 170 degrees. We need this reference because we can only see land occasionally, when we are on the crests of long swells. Even from the tops of waves, we can’t spot the 2-mile wide entrance because of the flatness of the sandy coast and the height of the breakers between us and there. The primary view is green, undulating sea, and each other. We won’t know until we check the online report in Guerrero Negro that the swell was 19-22’ on exposed NW-facing beaches, which this is.

Current is the other force. Living on the beach, in the surf, one gets in tune with the rhythm of tides. I didn’t have a tide chart, but could calculate that if we left the beach at our usual 9 or 10 am, we’d fight an increasing ebb current as we tried to enter the bay around 1 pm. Having had experience at the mouth of another Pacific lagoon, I suggest we aim to enter before 11am, and get an early morning start. Abraham is young and strong and does not need to plan around tides, so we leave at 10.

The bocas of Baja’s Pacific estuaries are notorious for their power and their shifty channels. I have the only nautical chart between us, and it shows four light towers, none of which still exist. This is the opening through which much of the world’s salt was once exported, so I envision something tamer, something less… well, less Baja. The horizon of tumbling white houses extends well over a mile out to sea. There is no visible channel of deeper smooth water. Breakers from the current meet the breakers along the sandy beach where more big swells trip over themselves and fall into a white froth. It’s a bit more than I have prepared myself for, so I adjust my mental calibration of “gnarly landing” as we approach. About then the wind begins building and pushing us shoreward.

“Plans?” I ask the man whose trip I have been invited on. He seems surprised by the question. “You’re the guide,” he says, as if my certifications mean more than his experience.

I have been working on a plan, which we both execute cleanly, though I wish for a ready camera once again and miss a fun shot of a small orange and yellow kayak in front of the open mouth of a hungry wave. Between sets of very big waves, I surf a shoulder-high one in to the shore. I look over the back of it and see that image, then hear the wave break, and see him skimming along broadside with a mighty fine brace keeping him just in front of its gnashing teeth. Once inside the bigger breakers, we paddle parallel to the smaller inshore waves for about 15 minutes until we think we see the entrance, take a quick look about from shore, and spot a channel to follow into the mouth. Mission accomplished, except for a few small breakers inside the mouth and 2 more hours of paddling against the current to meet David for our ride into town.

As it is with travelers, the sharing of a path, however briefly, has its influences. Abraham gleaned some skills along the way. For me, another piece of the Pacific coast is mapped in my mind. Before the forces of the sea, I am again as ever, humbled. Yet have gained in a feeling of peaceful confidence. I have been stretched and challenged and found myself capable, though at the end, mortally tired. The experience has broadened my awareness of what is and can be the business of kayaking, though to guard my heart and soul, I don’t even want to think about it. On some level I agree with Abraham’s uncle that you have to sell to succeed; I just don’t want to live my whole life that way. Not much of it at all, really.

Paddle on. May the sea be gentle with you!

Follow Abraham's trip at
see photos at