Friday, November 07, 2008

Kayaking to Cedros Island

We wandered tired and dusty through the remote, pirate-descended Baja town of Bahia Tortugas until we happened upon a smiling shopkeeper. He stood by a freshly painted white wall and a young man hand-lettering “Aborro…” with a red brush. The sun was low, the primitive road long with us. We wanted a place to camp. The shopkeeper directed us to Ruben, at the end of the road, past the barren dirt hills, past the cemetery.

Ruben sells diesel to yachters cruising the coast. This very evening, he happens to be welcoming some favorite customers. Within two hours, we are fed fresh lobster from the bay, a local ranch’s cheese drizzled with olive oil and crumbled oregano, and some of the family’s wine from their northern Baja vineyard, and Axel is bitten on the leg by a dog. Then we are regaled with traditional Mexican ranchero music sung by the yacht delivery captain and his first mate. I never realized so many Mexican songs involve lighthouses.

The wine bottle is empty, tequila half gone, the captain and crew on their way, and a fire burns in the 55-gallon drum by the Diesel sign. Ruben stands close under the night sky and tells me his dreams for the place: a cement floor decorated with shells in the shape of a star. A real Pemex gasoline station here. Friends and customers coming by to spend time on that cement courtyard overlooking the mouth of the bay. Evenings much like tonight. He smiles. I can’t help but like Ruben and his sincere face. Even with his dirt floor…especially with his dirt floor. We’ve all got to dream.

In the morning, Ruben and his wife return from their house in town to see us off. He gives me names of friends in all the places we are hoping to pass by: Punta Eugenia, Isla Cedros, Isla Natividad, Bahia Asuncion. Axel and I hope to paddle our kayaks in some of the most remote places on the northwest tip of the Viscaino Peninsula, itself an out-of-the way piece of Baja. Ruben’s friends will be some of the most gracious people we meet.

Everyone has warned us about currents here, from the Baja cruising guides to knowledgeable captains. “Curientes muy fuerte” usually accompanied with a gesture of power. What we can’t get out of anyone, though, is when and what direction those infamous currents run. “Just watch the lobster buoys,” said the singing captain after a few tequilas.

What we learn about Cedros’ currents through the week, piece by piece, follows.

1. Isla Cedros area has one tide cycle per day.
2. If you ask a seasoned local fisherman about currents, he’ll usually ask somebody else.
3. You sometimes get conflicting information about tides from the same person, but part of it is bound to be right.
4. During neap tides (the weaker ones), the currents weren’t stronger than 2 knots, and that just at a small tide race around a headland.
5. All local boaters carry GPS, and consult them if you ask when the tide will change and which direction it will run. That information isn’t always accurate.
6. We deduced that the current ebbs both north and south around the island from the east side (the splitting point probably changes through the daily tidal cycle and the monthly lunar cycle). Visible points of land and underwater topography have the effect of creating eddies both great and small. The captain of the water delivery boat confirmed this for us, but couldn’t tell us what the tides would do the next day.

Despite all the head scratching and complaining we did about our given information, we guessed the currents well enough after 5 days that we had tidal assist all day on day 6 for 3 miles of coastal paddling, 11 miles of crossing, and 9 miles of circumnavigating Isla Natividad. And we guessed the direction of current correctly for the final crossing the next day, even though we underestimated its strength. This could, of course, be pure luck.

Our journey to Cedros and Natividad Islands launched at 11:45 from Punta Eugenia. We first started towards Natividad. The weather was so calm, and forecast for more of the same, that we took the slack in ebb current as an excuse to head directly for Cedros. We landed after five hours near the salt works through sizeable dumping surf.

Guerrero Negro produces a large percentage of the world’s salt from seawater in giant lagoons on the north shore of the Viscaino Peninsula. Due to the shallow and treacherous entrances to the lagoons, they barge the salt to Cedros Island where it is loaded on freighters in a surprisingly industrial patch of wilderness. We landed next to it. Panga driver Nacho drove his motor boat up to tell us there was better camping up the island and he could give us a lift. We thanked him and decided to paddle there. A boy on the beach and his sister collected 5 caracoles, turban snails, for us from the tide line, and gave them to us to eat. The boy recommended bashing them open with a rock and eating them in crema, which is how we prepared them that night, with garlic from home. Chewy, they were, but not bad. We camped in the arroyo at the south end of the town of Cedros, known locally as el pueblo. The village.

The second day we got on the water just after sunrise and leisurely paddled north. And kept paddling. Rocks passed. A few palm trees passed. Panga boats with lobstermen passed. Pelicans and terns and gulls and cormorants passed. We took short breaks, ate, and kept paddling. By late afternoon, the end of the island was in view. As we approached, a ruckus grew in volume. Near the lobstermen’s outpost of Punta Norte, sea lion and elephant seal rookeries lined the shore. When elephant seals move, an impressive wave of blubber goes caterpillaring along the beach. When they bellow at each other, they sound like a diesel boat motor not quite firing properly. Sea lions vocalize in many different ways, the most important quality of sea lion song being that it not stop. A curious sea lion pup sniffed the bows of our kayaks as if asking who we were, a greeting they do often with each other.

At Punta Norte, four young men worked in the shade of a few trees. They clipped and crimped and tied together green coated metal mesh to build lobster pots. We asked for information on the currents at the north end, and conditions on the other side, and where we could camp. We were shown to 2 vacant rooms in the fish camp dorms for the night. Mine had a half sheet of plywood so thin I almost went to the floor when I leaned on it, so I had a good night’s sleep on the floor. Axel’s was close to the generator so he ended up sleeping outside on the other end of camp.

We had access to water, a toilet, and a week-old internet forecast which called for 9’ west swell mixed with a lingering south swell. According to the best information we could get this far, there were no sufficiently protected harbors on the other side of the island to count on a landing place for perhaps 30 nautical miles. Strength and direction of current were still unknown. The general agreement among lobstermen and vigilantes in the outpost was that the other side of the island would be muy feo tomorrow. Neither of us felt up to that.

Before bedding down in my private Punta Norte accommodations, I visited with the women of the camp who were gathered beneath the trees chatting. They were enjoying a weekend with the dads and kids before taking the youngsters back to el pueblo for school. Lots of questions we answered for each other. Ani shared a Hershey’s chocolate bar with me. In any language, this is a gesture of friendship.

A crew of vigilancia headed out in a panga into the darkness. They patrol all night to keep poachers off the lobster pots. While we visited, a voice came over the VHF broadcasting from a speaker on a post in the middle of camp. Everyone listened a moment. Ani explained that they caught somebody at one of their pots. I never quite understood what they do with those folks, but I did see a rifle get hustled through camp, a rare possession among Mexican civilians.

Morning in Punta Norte found the tide in and the NW swell up. The surge rose and swirled and broke on to the landing. It washed nearly the entire beach, then retreated, exposing almost 30’ of sloped rocky shore. A crew of vigilancia in a panga came near shore to be handed a fresh can of fuel, and both the crew and the man on shore danced with the waves for ten minutes before there came a moment of calm long enough to make the hand-off.

The women were still in their dorms with the kids, but several men watched our launch with interest. Per our usual routine, Axel and I carried my boat to the upper reaches of the water, then together launched his on a smaller surge in between the sets. Once he was safely in deeper water getting settled in his boat, I returned to mine. It was parked next to a dinghy on the cement ramp to the gasoline storage hut at the highest point on the landing. A big surge came in, and I grabbed the seaward end and lifted it clear of the wave, gambling that the water wouldn’t also float the inland end, which it didn’t. The dinghy floated and shifted on its short tether.

By the next surge, I had reached the inland end, the bow. When the surge floated the stern, I walked my kayak up the ramp to the metal door of the hut, matching the speed of the wave and keeping control of my heavily laden boat. I waited there a few more waves, hoping they didn’t get bigger because I was up against the door with nowhere else to go, and the dinghy, animated by the waves, was threatening to get intimate with my kayak.

The energy of the waves began to abate. As a surge retreated, I floated the kayak seaward. On a carefully chosen surge, I pulled the kayak down to meet the water, swung a leg across as the cockpit passed my standing place, sat astride, and paddled backwards into deep water where I finished climbing in and skirting up. I got the feeling the audience was disappointed not to see some carnage.

Around the north end we paddled, planning on a peek at the western side and a retreat back down the eastern side. Swells were much bigger on that side and smashed impressively on the cliffs. The spirit of adventure was on us. It was tough to turn back, but we believed our decision to be a sound one, and turn back we did, enjoying a tailwind and a following sea.

It was early afternoon before we saw el Gran Canyon, our destination for the day. It was the low spot on a mountainous island, the most likely hike across. The beach had a hut and a tree. As we approached from the north, a fishing boat, apparently a shrimper, approached from the south, and anchored off the beach. We waved to each other. As two marineros in a dinghy worked at mooring the stern of the boat to a buoy, I paddled up to the boat.

“De donde vienen?” they always ask, and seem impressed that we paddled from Punta Eugenia. Like many people we meet on the trip, they also seem slightly surprised and quite happy that I speak some Spanish. They are eager to chat, answer our questions, and ask plenty of their own.

They are the water delivery boat for the islands. The hut on the beach is a water storage tank, filling via a tube that runs several miles inland to a spring. Every 3 or 4 days, this boat fills and does its deliveries. In an hour and a half they take on 60 tons of water. They offer us watermelon rounds with lime and chili, then invite us on board for a filling lunch of quesadillas, beans, and fried spam.

The cook plays the Eagles over a classy sound system while we eat. He’s a musician, so he thrives on good music, he explains. In halting English, he proudly introduces himself, “My name is Juan.” Captain Alfredo wears a baseball cap with an A on it. He is a soft-spoken man while we’re there, to whom the crew responds to promptly. Nacho, the young marinero who offered us a panga ride from our first beach on Cedros, was among the crew. So was a 12-year old boy, the son of one of the sailors. He showed us how to dive off the rail of the boat and climb back through the tethered dinghy and up the side of the boat.

The boat was a well painted royal blue with a 6’ tall spool of hose on the back deck. Its dinghy was a different story. If it had a color, I forgot what. Several inches of water sloshed about the floor through a maze of fat, fraying lines joined together at a metal ring. This attached to the hoist when it was brought on board the big boat. Seats were bare wood worn so thin that the back one had completely collapsed and the front one threatened to. The little boat served its purpose, though.

As the dinghy brought in the end of the water tube, we prepared to return to our kayaks, having been well fed and generously hosted. The boat motored off under a puff of dark smoke, and we paddled to the rocky beach to explore. Throughout the afternoon, a few pangas motored south, carrying the moms & kids from Punta Norte back to el pueblo. They all waved as they passed.

The following morning, in the light of the orange horizon and the tiniest sliver of moon, we set out up the Gran Canyon of Cedros Island. Two and a half hours up, we allowed, and hustled. For an island only about 6 miles across, this canyon seems impossibly broad and long. The walking is fairly easy since the occasional waters scoured nice walkways bare. On the north side of some high peaks, dark patches of juniper trees grew. These trees once covered more of the islands and were the reason behind the name Cedros Island, since the Spaniards thought they were cedars.

The canyon narrows and finally we climb a ridge to see Isla San Benito and on the west, and the hazy mountains of the Baja peninsula 60 miles east. It’s our only peek at the west side of Cedros Island. We descend, rest a bit, and resume paddling south to el pueblo for the night, arriving to the frolicking of dolphins.

We leave our beach at el pueblo as sunrise starts to show her colors. The abandoned shacks south of town look like their story should be told in a faded old paperback with the back cover torn half off. Mismatched panels of old plywood, rusty corrugated roofing, and unidentified scraps comprise the walls of windowless huts whose black doorless openings swallow the predawn light.

Low barren ridges of earth embrace the lifeless village. Hills fold upon more hills away from the old memories, pale, then tan, then brown, retreating back to the red mountain before any living thing appears.

The sun rises beyond a freighter anchored near the salt works. Barges with ridges of purest white salt await unloading. Gulls perch on the salt crest, adding their own whitener. The current starts strong on our crossing from Cedros to Natividad, then slacks. We paddle over kelp forests. Looking down through the clear water at the leaning underwater trees, I feel like I’m flying.

Around Natividad we paddle, admiring reef breaks and sea lion colonies, and shriveling our noses at the fragrance of sea bird guano that covers the rocks.

At Punta Arena on Natividad Island, northwest swell and south swell both wrap around and find just the right bottom contour to make two perfectly rideable surf waves in front of our camp. We eat the last delicata squash from my home garden, and watch blue throated lizards devour flies. The view is a perfect overview of both Cedros Island where we came from, and Punta Eugenia, where we paddle the next morning into the rising sun.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


It’s a hot night in Bahia Asuncion, too hot to hide under the sleeping bag from the mosquitoes, so I get eaten alive right in Gloria’s front yard. Despite the mosquitoes, meeting Gloria was one of those miracles that happen when you let yourself arrive someplace without knowing exactly what you’re doing there.

Bahia Tortugas. The map got us there on a Baja road trip in late October 2008. Winding roads led us through the maze of town, only once in the wrong direction, head on to an amused local. A shopkeeper directed us to Ruben’s place where we could camp. Ruben gave us the names of his best friends in nearby towns where we might also camp. Gloria was one. “Muy buena persona.”

We arrived a week later in Bahia Asuncion. The map got us there, too. That and the help of some men who pushed us and the Sabritas truck out of the soft sand. Stopping at an aborrotes store for cold drinks, I asked for Gloria, esposa of the late Simon Salinas. The restaurant next door happened to be hers.

You know when you walk into a restaurant and all three patrons greet you warmly, that you’re in the right place. Then the patrons turn out to be Gloria, her son, and her brother, sitting to eat their own meal. You’re so much in the right place, that you set aside your freshly bought cold drinks, order up whatever cold thing she might have in the fridge, and revel in the refreshment and the rightness of it all until they’re done eating.

“Any friend of Ruben’s is a friend of mine,” says Gloria. Her son Memo leads us to their house on the bay, shows us the water hose, and leaves us to ourselves. Oh, beautiful laundry day! Oh, delightful bucket bath! Ah, to rinse away the salt and dust of travel and leave only fresh memories.

Sun swings low, we feel organized and clean again, and walk back to the restaurant for fish dinner and some visiting.

In the mosquito dawn, Little Black Dog limps with me down the beach to admire the gift of the new day waking. Seems he’s adopted us.

Something about Baja is visceral. It’s simple, bare. Close to the soul. Is it the land? The rawness and precious brevity of life here in the desert where survival can be as uncertain as the rains? Is it in speaking from my heart in a language I hardly command, but can limp around in a bit?

Gloria and I get to talking in the morning. She comes out in her nightgown to wish us Buenos dias. She talks about other friends who’ve stayed. Some setting up whole tarp villages. Ruben and his family visiting before her husband died 5 short months ago. Plans to move the restaurant to her house and expand the hospitality aspect. The kids grown and out of school, her husband finally had time and resources to get the permits for those dreams. And then he died.

She doesn’t say how, not that it matters. The sorrow, the tears, she says. Memo came up from La Paz to stay with her for the year and help out. “I’m beginning to feel I can be strong,” she says. “Dios es grande.” Tears come to her eyes, and to mine, too. I can’t imagine the weight of such a loss.

Her kids are coming in 3 days for Dia de los Muertos. It’s the first time this celebration has meant anything personal to them. Not for her, because she lost her parents some time ago. But for her kids, it is now significant. A way to honor and celebrate the connection with those who’ve gone. A reuniting of the family, those present in body and those in spirit.

Lately she’s stayed busy with the humble, 3-table restaurant, which she’s run for 20 years. “I always was more busy than he was.” A smile. The busyness now is good, she says, because it keeps her occupied.

I say to her that feeding people is valiente. I can’t think of a better word at the moment. What I’m trying to say is that I believe in food and the sharing of it. That she is more than staying occupied. Through her grief, she is vibrant. She is giving life to others. The old man who came in last night and ordered “una cena”, a dinner. Simple as that. He probably comes in often.

Food. Its nourishment is a gift of the earth. A ray of the sun. A piece of the soul and a work of the hands that give it. A gift of connection, a gift of life. Even as a negocio it is a gift.

I want to give her my last apple from the home tree. This poor apple is beat up. It’s driven many miles over all kinds of roads. It’s been in a kayak to Cedros Island and back. It’s the most pathetic apple I had since I gave all the prettier ones away already. But its significance is more than a piece of bruised fruit from far away. It’s everything I just said. It’s a piece of my heart, of my home. It’s my gift of living to a woman I admire.