Sunday, December 13, 2009

Early Morning Workout

All are lit by their chosen fire.

Tiny plankton swirl and glow around my paddle. A neighbor down the beach burns a big fire into the morning. His reddened form leans toward the flame as his spirit pulls forth some truth.

Crescent smile among the stars leaves a spotted trail of moondrops on the water that my kayak pierces on its important journey into the next moment. My heart warms to the distant burn that lights that smile and marks my way.


From Nov 29, 2009

Golden lomboy leaves garnish the high tide line this morning. Some are flat faded hearts, some folded butterflies awaiting their next erratic flight. A mischievous west wind blew them offshore yesterday and in the night they floated back home like paper salmon, spent on the shore. Their nutrients wait to nourish something else.

It was that same mischievous west wind I was cursing multi-lingually yesterday as it carried the dust of Loreto out to sea over the whitecaps I was fighting. The waves I didn’t care about. Nor the salt spray, nor the sunscreen in my eyes, nor the distance from shore, nor the snot streaking across my cheek. The raw spot on my hip rubbing on the kayak seat I cared a little about but not enough to give up the next paddle stroke. I didn’t care about the 7 miles behind me. I cared about the one in front, and particularly about closing the distance between my kayak and Pancho’s kayak before that mile ran out.

It was my first kayak race. It was organized by Pancho as part of Mexico’s National Conservation Week, to highlight the potential of sustainable tourism. Pancho is a tall, muscular, broad-shouldered Baja native with an appropriate dose of Mexican machismo and pride in his blood. We have a little bit of professional history between us, which tends to express itself as competitiveness. All of this I knew as I watched him working those shoulders in front of me. He would die before he would let me pass him. I also knew that if I ever tapped into the competitiveness in my genes, I might become dangerous too. It was ok if I couldn’t pass him this time; I could make him suffer from here just by trying.

The race started on calm seas, with a field of 5 single paddlers and 2 doubles. Pancho and 1 double took the lead. I drafted Pancho for fun, then pulled alongside and started a conversation. The double was a boat-length ahead and the rest of the crew several lengths back. The conversation and the pace were easy. I concentrated on impeccable technique. After a couple miles, a breeze picked up, making it easier to drift apart so the kayaks could respond to the waves without colliding. Then surfing became possible, and steering more challenging since the wind was on the stern quarter. Pancho took the downwind side and I took the upwind line.

To snack, I would catch a wave, grab a boiled egg out of my PFD pocket, and take a bite. I shoved the rest back in the pocket and resumed paddling before the surf ride ran out. This makes for a messy PFD, but that’s a small price. Energy snacks are hard to come by in Baja, so a pre-peeled egg seemed like a good, waterproof, no-garbage option. I tried the same technique for a sip of chocolate milk, but putting the lid back on garnered a brief fumble.

All of a sudden Pancho was turning around. I tried to call to him several times, but either he didn’t hear or didn’t answer. We were still a good mile from El Bajo, the turn around point. I didn’t see the turn-around boat, but figured the park panga that was running beside the group would pull ahead and position itself before we arrived. The backup plan was to turn at the last house. I didn’t realize it was this soon. So I hit the brakes and turned around too, but lost several boat lengths and didn’t get that last good swig of chocolate milk I was counting on before the turn into the wind. No matter. Good technique, and good spirits. Keep the pressure on. A quick glance at my GPS showed that we’d averaged 4.9kts before the turn-around.

Sometimes I thought I was gaining, and would really work the rotation and foot pressure, then look up and not be any closer. Pancho kept looking back and digging in. He never took a swig of water during the whole race. We do sell camelbacks for PFDs here in Loreto, but there’s that professional competition thing, and such a purchase would be supporting the enemy. I love my camelback and consulted it often during the race.

He crossed the finish line before I did, and I was happy for him. In the end I think it was appropriate that he win. When I pulled up to the beach, he was floating beside his kayak, moaning. He managed to raise an arm for a high-five as I glided up. Overall average: 4.4kts.

We waited a good 20 minutes for the next competitors to come in. Meanwhile, Everardo the park director showed some photos he’d taken at the finish. The moment I crossed the line, the small crowd cheered, and I raised my paddle overhead in acknowledgement. A smile came up from deep inside; the joy of being on the water and completing a good challenge. Everardo’s photo captures this sentiment. In his photo, Pancho has the face of agony.

It was a worthwhile experience, and I am satisfied. I’m also hooked. There’s a longer race at the end of January. I think I’ll carry a second camelback of chocolate milk and hope that Pancho hasn’t trained harder than I have.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Dismantling a Centipede

I returned from a 10-day Carmen Island Circumnavigation to find a 6-inch centipede sunbathing on the dirt of my campsite. Closer inspection revealed it to actually be quite dead. Each plump amber segment had its own pair of blonde legs. A set of ferocious mahogany mandibles folded under the head. A file of miniscule cider-colored ants hustled to and from its body. I let nature take her course and just watched over the next couple of days, stepping around the scene whenever I went to the water tank.

Slowly the ants began deflating the centipede. Segments at the tail end lost their plump roundness, then turned transparently hollow, then broke off one by one and drifted away in the breeze. After three days, the ants still marched on the front half, climbing through the exoskeleton like a jungle-gym. Even the legs became hollow tubes.

I know it’s cliché, but it still amazes me what a focused and united effort of itty bitty critters can accomplish: dismantling a centipede several hundred times their size. Are they consuming it as they go? Do they have a pantry in their basement under my camp especially for centipede jerky?

Their industry and effectiveness reminds me of the best moments of our recent kayak trip. Working together in teams of 4 to move a loaded kayak to the water, two pairs each sharing a strap. Or the synchronized way we packed, sometimes on a moment’s notice to take advantage of a weather window. Somehow we managed to be ready all 10 of us at the same time. Somebody was paying attention to the bigger picture, picking up the little pieces, offering a hand to somebody who was struggling, filling water bottles for all if they were ahead. Good attitudes, good chemistry, aware people. What magic!

I wonder if the ants ever have a discombobulated day, or a few mutinous individuals? Do they have a sense of humor and joke together as they work? Give antennae high-fives as they pass, moving too fast for the human eye to really follow?

After a week, the centipede segments have dispersed, probably lodging under bushes with the dry leaves. The ants still commute their meandering highways through camp, and I’m about to organize another group of kayakers. The wind carries on.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Workouts in Nature’s Gym

There’s a rocky stair-stepper at the north end of the beach. It’s textured with desert flowers this week and so fragrant that my sneakers are camp air fresheners after a climb. An enthusiasm of grasshoppers explodes ahead of each step. Trailside spiders dine on a vast menu of colorful critters trapped out of air.

At sunrise, between the fresh light on the western mountains and the blossoming glow over the eastern islands, the view from the top is not bad.

There’s a lap pool at my front door. Laps as long as you want. If you don’t mind a few turns, you could lap the world from here. Instead of lane lines painted on the bottom, there are fish to follow, so laps don’t run too straight.

For the paddlesports enthusiast, there are some opportunities too. Here I go on one now. Around Danzante Island before Brunch. Eleven nautical miles, with sunrise on the big screen for my workout entertainment.

Opening scene, starlight with a touch of moon. Glowing specks swirl in the water around each paddle stroke. Reflected moonlight? Fallen stars? Or agitated microscopic sea creatures. The drama of dawn steals the show. Even before the sun walks onto the scene, it reaches up to pinch the bottoms of a few passing clouds, and they blush a gaudy pink. To the west, the sheer craggy wall of mountains reddens in voyeuristic excitement. Gulls laugh from their rocky roosts, and small rays do jumping jacks, popping out of the water to wave their wings before they fall back down.

When the sun sits red on the horizon, the shadow of a paddler follows me along the dappled cliffs of Danzante island. A workout partner for just a moment.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Into Baja!

Oct 15. Rancho Santa Inez, Cataviña, Baja!

We started this morning under a crescent moon and Venus in the dawning sky. Crossed the border at Tecate mostly uneventfully (only lost one small piece off my trailer and lost John once, but he circled back).

I worried a lot today, about the truck, our progress, our safety on the road… then stopped to remind myself that worrying doesn’t help anything. Enjoy the ride. Take what comes. It will be OK.

The music, the passing hills and plants-- cirio, agave, cholla, cardon cacti, all old friends. The act of driving all day. The delicious solitude of driving alone in my truck with thoughts, memories, feelings all my own.

The warm glow of late evening painted itself on the curious round boulders of the Cataviña landscape as we drove south this evening. Tan boulders high as a cardon’s belly button. Rosy mountains to the east. The shadow of my truck with its kayak top hat and trailer drove through boulders and cacti like a ghost.

I set out my sleeping bag under a spectacular ceiling of stars. Not just individual stars, but the swath of Milky Way, clear as a trail in the wilderness. A trail with distinct puddles of galactic light to skip through.

A couple days ago we did the importation dance. This is necessary to use kayaks for business in Mexico. We crossed the equipment into Mexico through an import broker, met the gear there and got the all-important green documents with which we can bring the kayaks in & out of the country. We hauled them back to the US to load our personal gear, and would resume migration the next morning. As we waited in line to cross back to the US, three cameras in each lane studied drivers from various angles. John explained how biometric technology recognizes points of people’s faces—tip of nose, cheek bones, other unchangeables. Here in Baja, the points are light. The points of a friend’s face. Cassiopia. Cygnus. Delphinus. Recognition, and the warmth it kindles.

I migrate for work. I can make a better winter living as a Baja guide than I can in WA. I migrate for sun. Solar heating. I migrate for Baja. Its landscape, starscape, seas; its people; the energy of the place. I migrate back for trees, the garden, the community of farmers paddlers and friends, and summer work.

All manner of insects are attracted to my headlamp. An iridescent moth lands on my pen and rides for a few words. An orange termite-creature squeaks every time it crash-lands on the paper, my hand, the sand, my face. It whines pathetically when I hold it still to see it better.

For the first time in over a week, I am not sleeping between kayaks at Aqua Adventures, however pleasant that was. I am sleeping between a trailer full of kayaks and a mesquite tree under the stars, to a chorus of crickets, the flatulence of distant truck brakes, and the sound of some large ungulate chewing and digesting indiscreetly in the nearby shrubbery.

Lights come on in the house of the ranching family who runs the campground. John rustles in the tent on the other side of the truck. It’s time to move again. I hold the naked morning to me for one last snuggle, then get up to pack my sleeping bag.

Oct 16.
Landscape from San Ignacio down has been incredibly green! I crested a rise in the road to catch a glimpse of a hand walking across the pavement. No, it was too hairy. A tarantula, silhouetted for a moment against the sky, legs outstretched in an inspired gallop. How had it just missed the 18-wheeler coming the other direction? I straddled it with my tires and sent it a wish to miss John’s tires behind me.

Tarantulas migrate. Follow some irrepressible calling to move in a direction despite perils. Do they ever weigh the relative merits of just staying home this year? Or is it then no longer home if you belong in another place at that time? Does some inner voice just say Move and they do? Does a tarantula pontificate on the risks of travel? Can the chunky little arachnid hear the soundtrack of freedom as it struts through an ever-changing landscape? Does its heart sing as it passes a familiar landmark? Should we consider it lucky, brave, or ignorant as it sets out on its journey? Do I follow a voice any different from that spider, or a gray whale, or an elegant tern?

Migration is a temporary unleashing of the creative mind and heart from the daily duties of running a kayak company, a farm, and a symposium. Those are creative, too, but in a more structured way. My only mandate now is to go south. Be open to the journey. Open the senses. Open the heart. Breathe. Some people take vacations. I migrate.

South of Loreto. Home beach. Sound of wavelets, crickets. Starlight reflecting on water. Bulk of mountains, dark on dark. Comforting and familiar are the bumps and dips on the rough dirt road to get here, augmented by the recent hurricane. New and obnoxious - the glow from Ensenada Blanca development. Comforting and familiar - faithful plants waiting exactly where they were last spring. Reassuring - the lack of any improvement right here on this beach.

How lucky and precious and rare to find this on the shore of anywhere, let alone in the perfect kayak training ground. In So Cal I couldn’t find a parking spot anywhere near the sea to go swimming. Here in “my” spot I can’t find a trace of humanity other than a few rocks I moved to surround some young lomboy plants last winter and the makeshift paddle varnishing rack I found nailed to the mesquite tree, utilized and left.

It’s good to be home again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

You’re not going to believe this.

Starbucks, El Cajon, CA. Waiting for John to return from towing his trailer back to Aqua Adventures and come take me and my trailer back to Ford to wait for Ol’ Blue to get fixed. Again.

I was up at 4am this morning to load the last boxes, send the last emails, and be on the road by 5. Interstate 5 south, east on Hwy 94 towards Tecate, a mellower border crossing than Tijuana. Then Ol’ Blue started sputtering again. Nah, it was a bump in the road. Keep driving. No, it really is the engine. See if it keeps doing it. … Some miles later, the answer is yes. Turn around head back towards the Ford dealership. Thirty miles from San Diego, and it dies at a stoplight in a busy intersection. Refuses to start. A friendly motorist in a pickup truck older than mine drags the truck and trailer out of the intersection while hurrying commuters fly around the scene on both sides, turning left from right-hand lanes and almost bisecting the tow.

An hour later, a AAA tow truck shows up to haul the beast back to the Ford dealership who won’t commit to looking at it without the $98 “look at it” fee, even though the very same thing that they supposedly fixed is happening again.

But, there is a spacious parking lot to shuffle boats and vehicles. A Burger King has a handy rest room. The payphone doesn’t work, but thankfully John’s cell does. There are palm trees, including a fake that is actually a cell phone tower. Best of all, there is a Starbucks with internet access and good snacks.

So, maybe John will get to surf his little kayak in San Diego today, and I will get in another swim. Two days ago I swam from beach to cove and back in La Jolla, which is a 2 mile round trip. It felt great!

I had a funny feeling that today wasn’t a Baja day. Hard to explain these feelings, but they end up being right a little too often. Maybe instead of just listening to these feelings, I could envision things happening how I’d like to see them go, and influence the direction of events. Ok, then. The truck’s problem will be a faulty hall effect sensor, which is the part they installed last week. They will replace it at no charge, and Ol Blue will be healed. We will swim and surf this evening in celebration, and cross the border tomorrow morning past good-natured inspection officers who either wave us through or are satisfied by looking briefly at the paperwork and kayaks. The road will unfold gently before us in scenic and uneventful undulation.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Demo Paddle of a SEDA Ikkuma

Snort! A big wet head popped out of the water just a couple meters from my kayak with a fish flopping in its jaws. The male sea lion and I scared each other about equally. He recovered and chewed his fish to bits among a chorus of gulls.

I watched him over my shoulder, then paddled on south toward Point Loma and the entrance to San Diego Bay. I’d left from Mission Bay a couple of hours before and explored the cliffs along the way. One cave had an open ceiling and a shaft of California sunlight angling in. Another was a tunnel I could paddle through. Along the coast, swells arched up over shallow reefs, but not with enough enthusiasm to break. Most of the time.

Off Point Loma, with San Diego in view, swells broke inconsistently on a reef in a spot called Ralph’s. I didn’t get past here because the little waves were too much fun. A paddle-boarder came through while I played. Skimmed by standing on his board, caught a few small waves inside of me, holding his long paddle horizontal while he surfed. Then he glided away looking tall and elegant.

I sat outside of the break waiting for the perfect bigger set like I’d seen come through when I was too close to shore to ride it. Just one big one, then I’ll head back, I said to myself. Then a boatload of rude young men motored by just outside of me. First someone shouted what a stupid kayaker I was because there was no swell out here. I ignored them. Then they proceeded to practice their best obscene vocabulary words at high decibels, and I admired the gentle sway of kelp in the water. I knew there was no swell in sight, but fantasized about luring them closer to shore by engaging them in conversation. I would be facing the sea, of course, and they would be facing their vocabulary target. I would let the wind and swell gently take me in closer to the point while they laughed and jeered. I would smile, tease, and lead them on a little with my stupidity. Just as the first big swell towered over the broadside of their boat, I would jet my kayak over it and away from the carnage that would ensue. But would I really just paddle away and leave the poor sodden, misguided youth sputtering in the breakers? Well, at least the water’s warm.

Finally they ran out of words and moved away. And the swell came. I rode a nice unbroken shoulder about as high as my head for 50 yards or so. Satisfied and grinning, I began the paddle north. In exactly 2 hours, I was back at the Aqua Adventures dock in my borrowed Seda Ikkuma. Nice boat, really. Only lacks torpedoes.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lucky 13, or “It’s not always the adventure we planned on.”

On October 6, 2009, Ol’ Blue my trusty pickup truck, turns 200,000 miles on a CA highway en route to Mexico. Within 300 miles, it breaks down in a rest area 45 miles north of San Diego.

Although this is trip #13 to Baja, this situation is not as unlucky as it sounds. Quite fortunate, really. The rest area where we broke down was ocean front with palm trees. Some people pay lots of money to hang out in such a place! Plus it had functioning payphones.

I called my mechanic back home to trouble-shoot and get advice. I called AAA. I called my friend Jen’s kayak shop, Aqua Adventures, who I was planning on visiting anyway. AAA covered the towing fee for Ol’ Blue to a Ford dealership a few miles from the kayak shop. Jen's partner Jake came through rush hour traffic to get me and the trailer.

John is the husband of a kayaking client of mine. He volunteered to help me drive 6 new sit-on-tops to Mexico. This may have been more adventure than he signed up for, but he took it in stride. During our wait time, we unloaded the boats from his trailer, stuck names and numbers on them, and photographed them. We were just reloading when Jake arrived.

The importation of kayaks and gear to Mexico is taking longer than the truck took to repair, so the truck didn’t cost us any time, just $530. Some people pay a lot more than that for an adventure!

Meanwhile, Jen took us to dinner at an amazing sushi buffet, loaned me a truck to get around, and set me up with internet access and office space. She helped John and me get on the water to explore. So we’ve been generously cared for! All of this underscores to me that flexibility and friendship is at least as valuable as planning. Of course luck, or divine providence, doesn’t hurt either.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Prestegard’s Fix It Shop

One of the things I like best about being part of a small community is the characters who make it. Last fall I bought a refurbished riding mower from Prestegard’s Fix-It Shop in Cathlamet, WA. I never thought I’d be the owner of a riding mower, but 21 acres of reed canary grass that will grow to 7’ in a summer is way too much grass for a tempermental push mower, and I couldn’t afford a real tractor. The price was good. We pushed it together up the ramps into the back of my truck. Mr Prestegard wheezed and said, “If it gives you any trouble, just give me a holler, I’ll fix it for you.”

It gave Will trouble all winter, as he was caring for the farm in my absence. He finally gave up on mowing. I couldn’t get it to work when I got home, either, so I took good Mr Prestegard at his word and called him yesterday, now that it stopped raining for a while. He said he’d come by today. At 4pm I called to check, and got the best apology/excuse I’ve heard in a long time.

“Oh, I didn’t forget about you; I just forgot.”

There is logic in there somewhere.

“Let me see, I can come out now.” He repeated the directions very carefully. It’s a small town, with not a single traffic light in the whole county, and he had all of 3 turns to make from his shop on the hill to my farm on the island. He was thorough, and enumerated just about every house he would pass on the way.

Good Mr Prestegard is about as deaf as he is forgetful. “Do you live in a mobile home?” He asked.

“No, I live in a barn.”

“You what?”

“I. Live. In. The. Barn.”

“Oh, in the barn.”

He pulled into the drive in an old tan pickup whose engine registered about 3 on the Richter scale, and a matching trailer in case he needed to take the mower to the shop.

He was good. Within 10 minutes of tinkering in my driveway, he figured out the problem and jury-rigged it to run with minimal quirks. We chatted about this and that as he worked. Former owners of my farm are often a favorite topic among the old-timers. Once he got the mower to cooperate, he had an epiphany. Perhaps it was the hands-on connection with the machine that sparked it. He stood up, removed his baseball cap and ran his hand over his bare scalp.

“This is a mower you bought from me.”

“Yup, last fall.” I had mentioned that about 4 times already, each time I called and again when he arrived. More than anything, his comment gave me pause to appreciate the rural small-town-ness of Mr Prestegard’s lawn mower house calls for perfect strangers who babble nonsense over the phone.

He wouldn’t accept payment, but agreed that he liked garlic and kale, so I walked him slow and wheezing to the garden, and pulled him some fresh green garlic and a bag of greens.

“Wow, this is big,” he said of the garden. “She just has a little one up there.” I think he was referring to his wife.

“What happened to your barn?” He asked.


“The siding is gone.”

“The prior owners tried to renovate it, and left it like that.” I really wish I had the funds to renovate it properly, but I simply don’t, so I watch it sag a little more each year.

“That milk room where you live?”

Old-timers recognize a milk-room when they see one, and it made me smile. The dairy processed milk here in years past.

“Looks like it stays cool in the summer.” He added.

“It does.”

Some of our conversation seemed coherent, but I also appreciated the randomness of how he responded more to things he saw around us or to things in his head than to anything I might say. The point was just to be standing in the garden and connecting with another human being.

Mr Prestegard rumbled out the driveway, and I set to mowing the knee-high grass. Ah, a working machine is a joy to use. Even if it is a riding lawnmower.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Today is the second day of my annual northward migration. So far, so good. Lots to think about, like this common misperception:

The Freedom of the Open Road. Really, the road is quite limiting. It’s just a line from one place to another, through an expansive landscape. When I turn onto the road, I have 2 options: left or right. Or not to go which is then the third option.

Too much freedom is chaos, and that can feel overwhelming, or lonely. Freedom, with its parameters, is usually that I’m looking for. After all, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free. So the song goes.

If I am free on the sea with my kayak, I still need to maintain it and my gear in good order, maintain also my basic nutrition, awareness of the weather and my navigation. I need to have prepared my skills. Without these, I will soon become a floating disaster. Chaos.

Freedom within parameters—the responsibility of preparation and maintenance. This is what I really seek.

The more I have, the less free I am. The more house, property, business, boats, the more responsibility. The more stuff to worry about. There is a balance between having nothing—utter freedom—and having the parameters or tools or toys to pursue that which brings us joy. A boat to go paddling or water skiing or sailing. Work for money. Money for travel. Land to dream with, or farm, or rent, or just mow repeatedly.

How about relationships? Are freedom and commitment compatible? Can a relationship be a parameter within which a satisfying freedom can be found?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Love Eclipse

Venus is the slimmest Mona Lisa smirk in the morning sky. My rickety old telescope has its legs sunk into the sand on a beach in Baja. It also shows me the red face of Mars in close pursuit in the sky, but far off in its true orbit. And Jupiter with its whirling moons, the timings of which first told us skywatchers that light was mortal and had a speed.

The moon has been marching through this lineup this week, getting thinner and thinner like a pilgrim on a diet. Now it smirks the same as Venus, which is a small coincidence since the two are near to sunrise and lie between us and the sun. An hour ago the two were so close together I could barely see Venus, just a comma next to an entire glowing novel.

Now, she’s gone. Venus, the goddess of love, has been eclipsed by the moon. The orange glow of day creeps up stage to steal the drama of darkness.

Today is my last day here at the beach, and I feel the eclipse with a sad heart. Tomorrow I begin the journey back to sleeping inside.

But wait! Look again. As I write this on the tailgate of my pickup truck, listening to the birds of morning and little wavelets on the shore, Venus reappears from the shaded side of the moon! Love returns. Unrestrained celebration in a brilliant point of light! Oh, joy!

Do I still have to pack today?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


The scorpionfish is an overconfident creature. It has camouflage so convincing that I have been snorkeling nose to nose with one and thought it was part of the rock, until it moved an eyeball. It will venture into water so shallow that you can step out of a kayak onto one. The venom in its dorsal spines is legendary. I once saw someone whose arm was still swollen up to the elbow two days after a puncture on the thumb. I heard about another strong and mature adult male stepping on one and screaming virulent curses upon the fish’s entire lineage, then whimpering for days.

After a morning run today, I waded barefoot into the Sea of Cortez for a rinse, and in water less than knee deep lay a scorpionfish, confident as ever. Thankfully, I saw it. This situation posed an interesting opportunity, with just enough risk to be tempting. The flesh of a scorpionfish is tasty, if you can capture it, kill it, and fillet it without getting pricked by a dorsal spine. That, and I was hungry.

I submerged a 5-gallon bucket in front of the fish, scooped the bucket under its wide head and pushed it in with a stick. All it did was raise its spines. It was way too easy. Too late it realized its captivity and thrashed about in the bucket. The price of overconfidence.

Its head was as hard as a rock. With a pancake flipper I held its spines to the side while trying to stab something vital through the gills with a 6” kitchen knife. Quick stab and pull back while it thrashes. A few times. I felt my adrenaline starting to build, so I walked away. Not a good time to be hasty with those spines flying about. I bathed in the sea and returned to see if the fish was any closer to dead. A couple gulls inquired about the progress. How do they know what’s in the bucket?

The fish thrashed less when I prodded it, and allowed itself to be turned on its side. With the spatula holding it, and my knife hand wrapped in a T-shirt, I began to fillet it in the bucket. I did side B with the fish on the sand. The colors in its skin and tail were beautiful. Greens, browns, oranges all blended in a minute camo.

The second fillet always comes out worse. I left it on a plate while moving 2 steps away to rinse the first one in the sea. This was overconfidence on my part, and I paid in an instant. In swooped a waiting gull and made off with the other fillet! In two midair gulps it was gone. “F*&#$@ER!” I hollered after it. “You stole half my fish! How it got that whole fillet down in one piece, I don’t know.

I had been looking forward to tossing the carcass to the birds. Instead I briefly considered burying it in revenge, but that wore off quickly. A pelican tried to get the wide head and prickly attachments into its bill but couldn’t manage, so the gulls pecked at it and at each other for a while.

Meanwhile, the remaining fillet made two tasty breakfast tacos, and an interesting contemplation on the price of overconfidence.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Easter trip

April 17 2009

The last trip of the season is over. Eight days around Carmen Island with my friends and clients Sam and Lee. The sea gods smiled on us, for all the windy days were all tailwinds, following us as we rounded the island.

It was a relaxing trip, knocking off the 8-12 nautical miles usually before lunch, and taking time for siesta and exploration in the afternoon. Time too for contemplation and conversation. Time for music and stars and paddling at sunrise.

On day 5 we left Salinas Bay and rode the following seas to the island’s freshwater spring. After a good bath and lunch, we caught some more rides south to the white cliffs that hide a little beach called Arroyo Blanco.

As we rounded the final cliff that Easter Sunday, 5 great egrets took flight from atop the entrance to the cove. Five white angels with long spindly legs and the sun shining through their wings. Up they circled, looking down at us. The purity of their translucent wings, the whiteness of the cliffs, the grace of their flight, balanced between the profound blue of sea and sky, was the perfect Easter song.

Later we walked the arroyo up to a pour-off 40-50’ high, sculpted like modern art in the fossil-laden gray and white rock. Fingers, alcoves, and ledges of the craggy formation have long tempted me to decorate them with candles some still and starry night, and play music until the moon finds me. If I ever have an excuse for some ceremony that can be held on an island in the Sea of Cortez, up an arroyo that requires a little climbing, this is the place. It holds magic.

Today, I carry my flute and play a simple, heartfelt rendition of Amazing Grace beside the fig tree as my reflection on Easter.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Fresh Crab and Warm Tortillas

I usually plan and prepare the meals for my kayak trips and there’s good reason for this. This week was an exception. I had a custom lesson for a group of 7 plus their 2 leaders—lessons on two levels at once. I welcomed the freedom from the kitchen that they offered so I could focus more on coaching.

Their frugality, resourcefulness, and creativity were admirable and set in my life a new standard for minimalism. They cooked for 10 on a 6” frypan, using a whittled stick as a stirring utensil. A 10-pack of tortillas and an oval tin of sardines was lunch for all. But we all ate equally and nobody complained.

In their defense, they were from Estonia and never had to provision from a Mexican grocery store before. At least they bought lots of tortillas.

Fishing proved fruitless. On day 3, they admitted they hadn’t brought enough food, and went in search of other options. A team came back with 5 small crabs, my friends the Sally Lightfoot, about which I had mixed feelings because I was hungry too. We boiled them and ate them hot out of the water, legs, body meat, and some even crunched on the thin shells.

A sight we made—10 figures huddled over a small pile of brightly colored shells crunching, chewing, twisting, and bashing the joints between rocks. Among the camp detritus of mismatched bowls, half-empty water jugs, and whittled tools, we could have been a primitive tribe sitting on our haunches on the rocks, intent on the minute bits of white meat lodged in a crevice of shell.

The next night was a repeat, but we ate later, after dark. With no fires allowed in the park, our primitive tribe huddled together with our backs to the night and our hands lit by the beams from each other’s foreheads.

The tortillas had begun to mold, so we decided to heat and eat them. We had nothing else to put on them, and everyone was eating their crab directly from the shell, so the random bottle of BBQ sauce that no-one knew what to do with became the spread for our moldy tortillas. It was one of those memorable nights for which the concept of perspective was designed.

We weren’t desperation dining on moldy staples and the only critters we could catch; we luxuriated under the starry Baja sky with friends sharing fresh crab and warm tortillas and memories of a good day’s paddling, complete with dolphins, leaping manta rays, and a humpback whale.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Just in Time

It was one of those trips that fills the soul. Sometimes an ephemeral magic happens that connects people in a certain place at a certain time in a special way.

A 7-day circumnavigation of Isla Espiritu Santo near La Paz, run by BOA and led by Rafael and myself. Seven clients, including one teen, came together from Ontario Canada, and 4 more, including 2 teens, randomly came from the same town. One gal came from my home state of Washington.

Kayaking in a commercial trip along a desert island is a unique blend of opposites. Wildlife and plants. The populous, wiggly marine life juxtaposes sparse, stoic plants. The geology tells of coming together and ripping apart; of layers building on layers, pink smooth sandstone, red volcanic flows, round brown rocks impossibly holding formation up a cliff. It tells of pushing, tilting, and slowly eroding, making its way into the sea. White sand beaches nuzzle into deep red coves. White sand coming from coral and shells—pieces of the sea washing onto the land.

People. A kayak trip usually self-selects hands-on, outdoorsy, active people. Independent, yet willing to participate in a group and hire leaders.

Anthropology. The ancients left paint on the cliffs, shell piles on the hills, hollows ground into flat rocks, and rock enclosures in the bays. They lived on what they found here. Whole lives. We carry an obscene amount of food and luxury for just 7 days, and get resupplied halfway through. But through some alchemy of grace, we can walk their trails and feel their presence.

It is the balance of opposites that holds tension on the thread on which we spin.

Guides. Rafa likes to sleep late, set no times, and siesta after lunch. He doesn’t mind launching at 4pm and making dinner in the dark. Anytime we get somewhere, we are “just in time”. When will we go? When we are ready. When will we be ready? After we eat and clean up and pack the boats. When will lunch be? When we’re done making it. There is sound logic in this.

I’m a sunrise connoisseur. A pack-in-the-action kind of person. I’d rather chop veggies than sit and watch somebody else do it. I really get excited if somebody wants to learn something like kayaking, stars, plants. I’ll go all day without sitting once.

It is the straining of opposites that frays the thread until it breaks and the spinning beads go bouncing between the floorboards. This did not happen. A light finger on that thread knows when to release its tug and preserve the singing tension. Just in time. Through it all, that ephemeral magic played, and filled my soul.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Wild, Wild Life

There were sea monsters last night in my dreams. But they weren’t dreams. The moon was more than halfway through its night’s journey and flirting with clouds. The sea, almost still. I lay in my truck on the beach with the back open, awakened by something from the depths. I listened.

PWWWWFT! An explosion of breath, followed by a great gasp. Whale! A big whale, within a mile of shore. Then a smaller breath. Was it the blue whale mom and calf pair? There are now two of those roaming the National Marine Park, according to a number of researchers who are out there daily. We saw one pair cruise by our lunch beach last week, the kayak-long crescent of the baby’s back arcing over the water, and the gigantic mottled grey flank of its mother.

Again a pair of breaths, and a big splash. A splash? It sounded like something very big falling in the water, more than something flat slapping it. A breach? Was there a humpback pair in the area? I hadn’t heard of one. They’re more prone to breaching, and blues are not officially supposed to fling their enormous mass skyward. The biggest animals on the planet should be more sedate.

However, one boat of researchers watched a blue mom and baby blue do just that a couple of weeks ago. The whales had been lounging near the panga motorboat for some time, then suddenly took off speed swimming along the surface, throwing up big wakes, toward another distant blue whale. When the 3 met a few miles away, enormous splashing ensued. Through binoculars, the researchers could see whale bodies launching partway out of the sea and falling back, throwing out great walls of water. It was too late in the day and too far away to clearly document the activity, so the whales got away with their unofficial breaching. Ah, there is much we don’t know about these magnificent sea monsters.

Tonight as well. They are silent, gliding through their underwater world. The next set of breaths is further off, and I can’t hear the inhaling gasp. Again there is a huge splash near the end of the cycle of breathing. They go silent again, making short work of this 4-mile bay. The next breaths are further yet. I am about to let them go from my nighttime thoughts and resume sleep, when I hear a much more impressive splash. Like somebody dropped a house in the water. It’s the longest splash I’ve ever heard in my life. And what followed was even better. A loud and distinct VVVVRRRRR, like something got jammed in the vacuum cleaner. As if the other whale were cheering. It’s the first whale vocalization I’ve ever heard, and it made me tingle.

A guide friend told me once of camping on a beach in western Canada and hearing blues vocalize as they passed close by. The ground vibrated. The next morning, everybody in her group reported feeling and hearing it. Tonight these whales must be about 3 miles off, and the sound is impressive.

I’m talking ‘bout good vibrations, yeah they’re coming from those cetaceans!

Speaking of vibrations, on my way to the out “house” this morning, I crossed 5 snake trails. It’s not uncommon to see one, but 5 is a lot, even for a place called Rattlesnake Beach. After a few weeks of unseasonably warm weather, the snakes are on the move early this year.

In 12 years of guiding, I’ve seen 2 or 3 rattlesnakes on the islands during the kayak season, but last week’s trip doubled that number. Four of us were walking up the plant hike to the overlook on Danzate Island’s southern end. Client Ruedi was in the lead when he screamed and jumped 4 feet into the air. I heard the rattling before he came back down. He had stumbled into not 1 but 2 intertwined snakes. As we watched, they appeared to be competing rather than mating. I’ve since learned that if 2 males encounter a female at the same time, they will engage in a “combat dance” where the male who manages to stand up the tallest for the longest or pin the other to the ground, will win the affections of the watching female. It is rare to actually get to watch this.

We never saw the female in the thick brush, but we didn’t look, either. For a half a hour, the males posed and tumbled down the trail in a ritual both graceful and primal. Sometimes slow and weaving, sometimes reaching too high and falling over, sometimes lightning fast spinning maneuvers. The snakes were 4-5’ long, and one had 12 rattles. They stood at times about 2’ high.

We left them still posing, though not as tall as initially, and one appeared to have taken the upper, uh, tongue? Still the other wouldn’t give up. Client hunger drove us back to the beach and we left the snakes to their rituals.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Rising Jupiter

By the light of a rising Jupiter the day begins. The sound of waves tripping over themselves comes like a chorus of disorganized voices, one here, one over there, each singing their part without a common rhythm.

I want to paddle but I also don’t. It’s not the lumpiness that’s bound to be out there that holds me back so much as the lumpiness inside. I have LoCo Roundup on my mind, and am frustrated that my energy seems wasted in trying to organize a functional database by trial and error. The days available to work on it are winding down, and I want something to show for all the time invested. In relationships, I am also floating on a rogue current without orientation or direction. Trips will resume soon, and that will give me purpose and direction, but I also feel anxious because I will have time for nothing else like laundry or personal balance. Whatever that is!

The horizon behind Danzante’s sleeping form is glowing. The sun has made its night’s journey. Last night after sunset, its trail still glowed into the stars. A column of side-lit space particles. Beside its trail, the moon and Venus followed obliquely. Two crescents visible together in the locator on my telescope. While I watched, they passed each other. The bottom of the smiling moon at first just a smidge below the planet, and at touchdown, noticeably above.

I carried my beat-up old telescope to a friend’s camper, but they weren’t in. So I watched the sky for a while, watched the pair of evening crescents descend, the craters on the moon dancing as it settled deeper into the atmosphere. Turned and focused on Saturn, now a beautiful zero—a fat circle with an angled line across. The furthest member of our solar family visible to the naked eye.

Now Mercury rises, chasing Jupiter. Three days ago, Mercury led the charge; this morning Jupiter has a good lead. Mars should be coming soon, to make a full serving of visible planets in one night. I get the telescope from under the mesquite tree and look through the locator. No, that trick of the eye is a planet. I was wrong. They’ve switched places and Mars now chases Jupiter while Mercury falls back into the orange brightness of morning.

How can tiny points of light be so exciting? I don’t know. But I do find comfort in the elegant sky drama. Dawn reveals the noisy waves as miniscule, and it makes me smile to see how silly my anxiety has been. Another day is being unwrapped as the gift it is, and I will go enjoy it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Rock and spirit

The weighty, slow transience of rocks. The airy permanence of spirit.

A gull preens on the waves in front of camp. Bobs, dips, shakes. Wades shoreward to stand in knee deep breakers on yellow pencil legs. Its triangle feet fold with each step as it walks to a standing place, face into the wind.

A hole in the busy-ness. Not a lack of things on the never-ending list, but something I’ve dug for myself today. How shallow it seems for all the “have to do” I’ve piled around it. Of course they are all choices.

This morning whitecaps tumble by 100yds offshore, but don’t come in. Not a leaf trembles in the mangle dulce bushes. Castle mountains rise almost vertical in the west, reaching for a setting, waning moon. Cold night air pours down their striped and fluted walls, meets the incoming wind, and holds it off the beach. They hold each other in a tender sunrise balance broken finally by the warmth of the sun. Breezes sputter to the shore and start to play with my camp things. I sit and watch it happen.

Another morning I launch alone just before 6am. The crescent moon rises fuzzy behind eastern clouds. Arcturus, Spika, and Antares disappear behind a veil. Bioluminescence glows in my bow wake and around each paddle stroke. Sometimes the blade of my Greenland stick comes out of the water entirely glowing. I hear a big splash behind me and a snort; a sea lion follows for a few minutes.

Clouds have a hint of light behind them as I pass the southern end of Danzante Island about 7am. A small ray leaps out of the water as if to check on the progress of sunrise. Pelicans cover Submarine Rock and somebody fishes out of a skiff nearby as I head out for Carmen Island. There is no wind and only the most subtle swell. Below clouds, Isla Santa Cruz is clear on the distant horizon. A far boat trails black smoke as it passes between Monserrate and Santa Catalina Islands.

Somehow the names are a comfort. I know where I am because I know what the map says that island is. I have a place in the universe because I know what other people call that star. Blue footed boobies and brown boobies in groups of 2 or 3, circle overhead before moving along. Trying to figure out a name for me, this funny yellow island with the windmill in the middle. But they probably don’t need names to feel at home.

I take a 15 minute break on Punta Baja, scolded by two pairs of yellow legged gulls, then push off for the northern tip of Danzante Island. A kayak group awakes to breakfast on park beach CN27, put I pass far offshore. A light breeze ripples the water. The sun never really rose; it slipped unnoticed over the horizon and is walking about wearing clouds today. Despite a slight NW breeze, an opposing current pushes me gently into it, and I drift north.
Around the northern tip of Danzante, rafts of little grebes float together. Another small ray leaps. This kind is called a mobula. Thousands of them flock together just below the surface around the whole NW end of the island and into Honeymoon Cove. I drift and watch them flap slowly. An undulating carpet. Wingtips break the surface here and there.

Like little peeks into a dimension where it all becomes clear. Like I sit in the shade of a mesquite, squinting at my computer screen, wondering which is the purpose of what, or if it’s all just about being present wherever now happens to be. How to stay in that mindset and run a kayak company, or any other endeavor that requires forethought?

It’s all a matter of perspective, really. Again I slide towards the eastern horizon which is still as dark as the whole circle of sky. The Mountain Man is hard to discern this morning. He’s a cartoonish character with his round head tilted back, a bulbous nose, and a wide open mouth. He aligns with Bird Poop Rock when I’m halfway to the southern tip of Danzante Island. Today Bird Poop Rock is more of a looming feeling than a visual clue. A low bright star east of Crux slides along the southern horizon as I paddle. Nearer and nearer to the Mountain Man comes the star.

“I’ll feed you a star,” I proclaim.

“AHHHHH,” he replies

I paddle faster until the star aligns with his open mouth. It all feels so close in the darkness. The Mountain Man is family. The star could be the song just sung, lingering as a perfect point of light. It could be a golden-red apple ready to fall into the maw.

“Eat it!” I say. Nothing. The star slides onward. “Get it! Gulp it!”

Mountain Man yawns passively at the sky as the star slides up his nose.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Isla Santa Catalina

Once in a while a journey comes along that shows us what we’re made of. My solo paddle to Isla Santa Catalina February 2009 was one of those trips. The most remote island in the Bay of Loreto National Marine Park, its specter on the horizon has long haunted me, but I’ve lacked the time and fortitude to make the double crossing out to it, with Monserrate Island as a midway point in what would otherwise be a 24-mile crossing.

Opportunity arose this week: time and a reasonable weather window. I also just caught a good cold from my business partner, but that would have to wait for later on my schedule, because I had decided to go to Catalina.

I did errands by day, packed in the evening, and launched from my camp on Rattlesnake Beach at about 9pm. Night paddling is one of my favorite things. The tranquility, the focus, the simple profundity that those points of light up there are distant suns, and all the potential that opens. The way the water moves and you feel it through the boat, and other senses that awaken with the limiting of sight. The citrus scent of torote on the cool breeze that comes off a hillside.

By 11pm I’d moved out of home turf to Puertecitos, a coastal beach I’d visited a handful of times. I could camp here or push on to Monserrate Island. Fighting a sore throat and unsure if I’d make it there before the moon set, I opted to camp on the coast.

I landed and lugged the heavy boat up the beach by picking up one end and pivoting it uphill, then switching ends until I’d walked the boat above the high tide line. After stomping the small cobbles beside it until they were relatively flat, I fell asleep until 4:30. There’s something about an adventure that wakes me up in the morning ready to go. With some spoonfuls of mango yogurt, an orange, and a pre-boiled egg in the gas tank, the yellow kayak and I pushed off into the darkness. The moon had set and bioluminescence sparkled spectacularly with each paddle stroke. A whale breathed somewhere behind me. Scorpius looped its great tail into the glowing heart of the milky way. Oh, beautiful world, I’m on my way to the islands! Paddling under cover of dark feels like you’re getting away with something. The sun is sleeping, and when it wakes up and finds you, look how far you’ve come!

By the time the yachters’ net crackled on the radio at 8, I’d been circled by a huge manta ray and was within spitting distance of Monserrate. I kept paddling to the east side to make the next crossing as short as possible. On a half-shaded beach I kept the veggies in the boat cool while drying my wet clothes and self in the sun. Naked and barefoot on the firm wet sands of Monserrate, eating mango yogurt with the sun on my back. Not a bad way to live.

Two hours later, I pushed off for the Promised Land. Paddle an hour, stretch, snack, resume. Calm seas and gentle swell, light breeze. To the north, a panga and a blue whale. Tall column of grey against a pale horizon, count to 4, then a detonation—the delayed exhale of the biggest animal on the planet. Just me, a distant boat, a whale, and a whole lot of water. It’s amazing how much water is out here.

Monserrate wouldn’t go away. I paddled for an hour and it was still there, just behind me. The dissonance between insecurity of leaving it, and frustration at how slowly it faded. I guess it’s like anything—to find a distant shore you must leave one behind, with all the excitement and hesitation that conjures.

Watching distant islands crawl across the horizon. Making up songs, singing loud. The euphoria of being more than halfway! Then the eternal last hour. Catalina was right there, I just couldn’t reach it.

Touchdown 2:40pm, 20 mins ahead of projected time, and a couple miles south of anticipated landing. The current was pushing me that way, and a north wind picked up, so I went with them. I picked a beach, landed, and immediately fell in love with the clean granite cobbles at the shore. This speckled salt and pepper stone is different from the other islands. Cooing doves welcomed me to the place.

Wet clothes drying on the beach, I marched up the closest hillside with sandals, camera, and a bamboo pole I found on the beach so I could fend off the endemic rattle-less rattlesnakes that hide under every shrub on Catalina. I never did find even one. Giant barrel cacti are another endemic, more visible to your everyday nakedkayaker tromping enthusiastically about on a new island. I tried to pose with one. I set the timer, left the camera on a rock, and thought I’d run behind the cactus, stick my arms out to the sides and peek over the top. The first attempt showed a just a cactus with a crescent moon off to one side.

A black plastic crate conveniently washed up on the beach to become my cooking table. I arranged it in front of the perfect sitting rock and presto—a kitchen! Top chefs for miles about clamored for just such a spread.

Triangulation and a chart based on 1800s datum placed me in the middle of the west side of the island, and I felt sure I was further south. Circumnavigation the next day would prove my hunch right; this beach was within 2 miles of the south end of the 10-mile island. Paddling the next day would put me literally into uncharted territory, as the island has just dashed lines indicating no solid data for the east side; just a coastline there somewhere. The research vessel that did the charting and soundings had made one pass between Monserrate and Catalina Islands, about in the middle of the 12MN gap. Two hundred forty-nine fathoms deep where I crossed is darn deep, and kept my mind occupied for some time during the crossing trying to figure out in my head how many feet that would be. Sometimes being slow at math is a bonus. I also looked for the numbers in the water as a milestone, but saw nothing but peaceful green water with little tiny krill swimming in the vastness.

Little mouse in the night, are you one of the Catalina endemics? Trotting lightly across my shoulder, munching in the organic trash bag on the kayak deck? I see your brown backside as you scamper away. You’re bigger than the mice I’ve seen on Danzante and Carmen Islands.

Doves heralded sunrise, and were welcome. Sinus pain and difficulty breathing plagued my night and I finally resorted to the detested childhood remedy—gargling with hot salt water. It’s always an indication of how bad I’m feeling if I’ll actually do it. Indeed, I got out of the warm sleeping bag, reassembled the stove, unpacked the pot and mug, and brought them all back to my nest to prepare the remedy. Now, where to find some salt water?

No radio reception on the water from Catalina, so I didn’t catch the daily yachters’ net. I began a clockwise circumnavigation at 8am, tucking into each cove to inspect beaches, poke into sea caves, and savor the shade of cliffs. Three whales breathed in the distance near another panga as I climbed the NW corner. Lines of pelicans cruised by, usually in odd numbers. Do they count? “Hey, we need another bird for this formation before we’re cleared for takeoff!” Twice, the formation included 11 pelicans and a brown booby. Flight inspector?

Around the north tip, the sea was calm enough to shoot through the rocks, between preening pelicans who didn’t even look up at my passage. Three male sea lions snoozed in the water, hoisting their flippers in the air as dive flags. Three more males lounged on a rock. All the frigates I saw are females. I caught up to a leisurely pod of dolphins as we were both rounding the odd fan of gray cobble on the NE side. They continued on as I stopped for a lunch break of pre-rolled bean burritos.

I picked a tiny beach with just enough shade to sit up in, and this time it’s me I’m keeping cool. Let the veggies roast. The bobos found me immediately. Where did they come from? There’s nothing here but rock. The little bugs don’t bite, but they walk with remarkably heavy feet over every inch of skin, showing preference for facial features. Choices are to accept them, or to go nuts. Or to leave the beach, which I wasn’t ready to do yet. I ate the burritos with one hand and waved them off with the other. Finally, I leaned back into my rock alcove, resigned to accepting the buggars. With a protective arm across my eyes, I let them have their way. The bobos had carnivals, they procreated, they ran marathons, they had sing-alongs. They hosted revival meetings and danced in circles. I wonder if it tickles the earth this much when we walk around?

Dolphins again, coming back towards me once I’m on the water. Animated this time, leaping, tail slapping. One cruises close enough to see it in the water. Along the SE edge of Catalina, the sea caves were marvelous. One had a blow-hole that would consistently go off 4 times in quick succession, then pause. I paddled around the south end where I’d expected to camp, but didn’t feel like it. Low tide left big slimy cobbles along the shore, and the beaches just didn’t feel right. A few minutes around the corner and back up the west side, the perfect beach slid into sight—sand even at low tide! Small cobbles up higher for camping! A cliff that provided all-day shade! A great arroyo for hiking! Looks like home.

While looking for a fresh camera battery in the morning, I discovered I’d packed the hand-crank radio-flashlight in the extra battery bag. Not a bad idea since both my headlamps are on the fritz. I cranked it up and scrolled through the am stations. There actually were some. Music, too. Ode to Joy, of all songs. I often play this one at sunrise on my flute as a wake-up call. I didn’t know it had words. And I didn’t know the words were in Spanish! How appropriate—Ode to Joy for sunrise on Catalina Island, on a trip I’d not brought my flute on, but the music found me anyway.

What I did pack for this trip was 11 days worth of food and water, which makes a remarkably heavy boat. 34 liters (3 per day) of water, 12 raw eggs, 6 boiled eggs, a variety of veggies that keep well, and bags of dry food. The trip ended up only taking 4 days, plus the night paddle before and the morning I didn’t want to leave Danzante to go home and clean up. But with the uncertain February winds, having the means to stay put and wait them out was my safety plan. Five days of wind too strong to paddle a long crossing in isn’t unheard of around here.

I climbed the nearby ridge to try the radio at 8am, and actually got reception! More surprising, was somebody heard me, too, and relayed my data. I felt connected. Voices from home. How nostalgic a person can get with 2 days and a lot of seawater under the hull. I wandered about photographing cacti, and eyed a good hike up to a peak. I carried my trusty snake stick, camera, and tied my water bottle around my neck. This was probably the riskiest activity of the whole trip—wandering about in steep terrain over loose rocks in cactus and rattlesnake country—wearing sandals. Eleven ravens circled about, following my progress, chortling, swooping, glistening in the sun. I had to admit they were worthier beings, and more adapted to this terrain than I.

The summit offered rewarding views of the whole south end of the island, plus tempting other islands as well. When I returned to the beach, the north wind was up to about 12kts, and I didn’t feel like fighting it. Tide was going negative, and the waterfront cobbles were bound to be slippery at most other beaches, so I delayed the plan to move up the island, and read a book, “Almost an Island”. At low tide I crabbed my way around the rocky headland just to have a look.

Eventually the tide began to fill in and the wind began to lay down a little. I scrambled some eggs for dinner, packed up, and paddled into the choppy waves until sunset when I found a beach that had the right feel to it and would make for a shorter crossing in the morning. I hopped around on the cobbles taking photos as the sun went down, then set up camp for sleeping. The smallest cobbles were fist-sized, but they must have been comfortable enough, for I was asleep in moments.

I awoke at 3:30. Clouds were sparse enough to use moonlight for paddling, and the wind was still down enough to give it a shot. However, the wind had turned west in the night, and it didn’t take long for it to begin building. I was headed straight into it. Whitecaps started to hiss around me. The moon shied in and out of clouds. In a much less graceful pattern, my kayak plunged into and through waves. This wave plunging tends to slow a boat down. Every few strokes it felt like I had to get the whole thing moving again, and there was no glide to the action. I leaned hard onto the paddle.

I followed the moon until it set. Leo was the next constellation poised over the western horizon, so I followed Leo for a while. It just happened to be midway between the lighthouse on the south tip of Isla Monserrate, which I could see once I was a couple miles off Catalina, and the glow from the lights of Loreto, which I was dismayed to see soon thereafter. Afterglow of the moon dissipated and the night grew deliciously black. Scorpius hooked his tail into the milky way behind me. Saturn followed Leo down towards home. Waves grew to 2-3feet. In their breaking hiss, bioluminescence sparkled by about head high. As the boat plunged through waves, sea sparkles washed over the deck and onto my skirt. So enchanted was I, that even though I was singing songs like, “The sun will come out…tomorrow”, I didn’t want it to break the spell of lights cavorting in the darkness.

The horizon did begin to glow, and the dimmer stars faded. I found myself worrying, in a strange twist of logic, how I would know where I was going if I couldn’t see Leo.

The sun did come up. I saw Monserrate Island in front of me, and a giant manta ray thrashing around on the surface. Slowly I limped towards the island, having tweaked an old muscle injury over my right ribs by powering through the night waves. I would discover later when I looked at my hands, that despite the fact that I paddle for a living and have been working out by paddling lately, I also earned 5 blisters on that crossing.

Eight o’clock and I was still plugging away. A down & dirty triangulation lining up land forms and relating them to the chart put me at about 2 miles off the NE tip of Monserrate. I turned my radio on for the yachters net and held it in my teeth as I kept paddling. “And that’s all on the tides” was the first snippet I heard, which meant I’d missed check-ins and the weather. I keyed the radio and called in “Kayak Baja” sure nobody would hear me. Somebody did. They relayed my message and said the weather looked good for today. After that exchange, I only caught snippets, but it was still comforting to hear voices from home.

I passed the first landings by a couple of miles and pushed on to the NW tip of Monserrate. I’m a chronic “do it now and get it over with” person, but probably should have stopped at the first beach and rested. By the time I got where I was headed, 14.5miles upwind from my early morning launch, I’d completely lost my sense of humor. Autopilot made cheese and avocado burritos, shoved them in my mouth, and then fell fast asleep on the hard sand.

I woke 30 mins later, still sniffly and coughing with my cold, but feeling significantly better. I even forgave the wind a little bit. After which it relaxed somewhat. I switched back to the Greenland paddle and made myself promise to go slow and easy. Whales in the distance helped pull my spirits along. I was enjoying being on the sea, and Danzante looked reassuringly far away. The wind died and left gently undulating water. Then a breeze picked up from the other direction, as if too much wind had accidently blown that way and had to come back. A churning line of white in the new upwind direction worried me until I saw the black crescents of dolphins leaping out of them. A churning wall of dolphins! I turned north, then back west to see them better. A hundred or more on what looked like a joyous pilgrimage. Ah, life!

Some time later, I turned south to investigate another wall of white, thinking it to be dolphins or rays, but it was a line of strong wind, and I got stuck in it. Once I was there, I couldn’t make it out because the wind line moved with me at the same speed. Tricked! I resigned myself to a slow and bouncy trip.

I don’t know why speed has to matter so much, as if I always need to prove myself. The point is to enjoy being out there. I have food and water and a warm jacket at hand. I can stop and stretch and rest. I can crawl out of the boat to pee and climb back in through really any conditions I’d remotely want to be caught paddling in. I am happy paddling after dark. The moon will be up tonight. I know well the beaches where I’m headed and have found my destination before even without a moon. So what’s the hurry? Still it frustrates me to be slowed by the wind. At least this time my sense of humor doesn’t retire utterly. It strikes me that I’m enjoying the privilege of paddling in the only wind in sight. All around and just out of reach is a light blue slick line where the boat would glide willingly along and fail to build any character at all in the process.

On the water, time and distance become each other’s measure. Sun, moon, and tides hold the schedule between them. Wind runs around with the megaphone and directs the scene. And clouds can pull the plug on the moon. It’s good to be connected with these things, and even humbled by them from time to time.

In the cyclical way of things, this week just before the full moon of February happened to be the time 11 years ago that I was inspired to spend the night solo on the Pacific ocean south of Todos Santos. A huge step, probably not well advised from a risk management standpoint, but a proving ground for faith and fortitude.

The trip to Isla Catalina being another one of those journeys that shows you what you’re made of, I’d have to say this time it’s Bimbo brand strawberry bran-fruit bars, for that is what I most often reached for during those short on-water breaks.

Suddenly Danzante Island was beside me. Submarine rock on the other side. Ahead, calm water, and 4 miles away at the base of the mountains, home camp. Just an hour away. Fresh water for cleaning up. A bucket shower. The flat padded bed of my truck to sleep in. Neighbors to greet. Emails, and computer work. I decided to camp out on Danzante for the night and wander in around noon tomorrow.

After paddling 83 miles in 4 days, exploring a partly uncharted island, and answering to my own inner taskmaster, it was delicious to wake up late. To roll over and munch peanuts and of course strawberry Bimbo bars out of my day hatch while still in my sleeping bag, and watch the morning get on without me.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Wind and Tide

It’s 5am in my tent at Rattlesnake Beach. I am lightly breaded and ready to be fried. All night the wind blew, and this cheap tent filtered the sand into a fine mist that has dusted everything in here. Clothes, books, the computer somehow even in its case, my pillow, Moose. Me.

It’s a zen practice of acceptance, sleeping in a light rain of sand. Hear the wind stirring the bushes, the blowing particles hitting the tent, then brace yourself. Feel the lightest sprinkling on your face. It doesn’t hurt, but does make you want to stop inhaling for the duration. Relax. Accept what you cannot change, or what you choose not to do the work involved in changing. Eventually through the fairy dust and the flapping of the tent, the intimate nylon clutching alternately at your head and feet, you drift into sleep.

“Sand is my friend,” in the memorable words of Tulio, a guide and student on my last course. “Sand is my friend. I am going to bed with my friend.”

Relax. Accept. You are one with sand. In the Big Geological picture, you and it are made of much the same elements. What makes you different in this moment, is that your sand-dust has the capacity to become grumpy about it, or to cultivate a sense of humor.

It was wind that inspired our moonlight crossing back from Isla Espiritu Santo to a beach near La Paz last week. Three guides Manuel, Rafa and Tulio, plus Ben the owner of the company, and I took a ride in a panga motorboat out to the island with kayaks strapped to the overhead rack. There we met up with guide Leah, who was finishing up a commercial trip. Together we discovered the nuances of kayak maneuvering and discussed risk management for 3 days while traveling down the island.

What a spirited, talented, fun group of people! And they pay me to do this! Or, more accurately, they cover the expenses I incur in becoming able to do this. Certification, insurance, permits, travel, food. They way I am reimbursed is in the way it fills my soul to be with them. The accounts that really matter are filled with laughter, with getting salty and cold and then huddling over cups of hot chocolate together. When Manuel edges his kayak well and plants the paddle just right, making his boat spin… and his smile shows his satisfaction. When I hear Rafa say to his friends after working on a new exercise “Que padre!” When Leah ignores sunset to continue working on her balance brace. When Tulio giggles and declares his friendship with the elements as he crawls into his sandy tent.

Yes, this is why I live. Sure it takes energy, sometimes more than I think I have. It takes preparation in big and little ways. It involves struggle and sometimes feeling like I’m failing, and rethinking my approach. It takes all my heart, but the way it fills me there aren’t words to measure.

But back to the wind, the connector of things, the breath that gives us weather, and rain, and life on this planet. The forecast involved a bit much of it for our plans of crossing back to La Paz by motorboat the morning following our course, so we preemptively paddled the 5 miles back under moonlight over gentle swells. Stealthy silhouettes sliding across moon sparkles. Voices over the water talking, singing. Or silence and a close unity of travelers on a big sea. We camped late on a protected beach outside of La Paz, burned a fire, and crawled into our sleeping bags on the small ledge of beach. Except for Ben, who set his camp way up on the big dune. This should have been a clue to the rest of us.

It was 5am in my sleeping bag on the little sandy beach when something in the sound of the water woke me up. I leaned up on my elbows and looked over the ledge down the slope to the breaking waves. Swell had increased due to wind on the open water. Tide had risen because that’s what it does. Between the two, surges of water were approaching the lip of the ledge we camped on. But not close enough to actually move. I lay my head back down and left one ear open. Some minutes later somebody was moving my feet. I sat up. Water hissed its way into the sand and back down the slope. A wave had floated the foot of my mattress. Salt water was on my tarp, percolating slowly down through the many holes. Awake! I stood up, sleeping bag around my waist. Hopping, I pulled the tarp and everything on it back 20ft to the base of the dune. Then woke the people in the 2 tents closest to the water so they could retreat.

When was high tide? How much higher would it come? I studied Rafa’s tent on a high spot for several minutes, and decided to let him sleep. He seemed to prefer a later start in the mornings. I crawled back into my sleeping bag as the big moon slipped behind the point that protected us from the wind. Shortly Rafa’s light came on in his tent. Figuring it was a sign of more water to come, I relented and got up.

By the time Ben poked his head over the big dune, the sun was well up, and so were we. Leah and I were preparing breakfast as surges of water swept past our ankles. My kitchen at home doesn’t even have running water—what a luxury! “Wave!” someone called out, and we grabbed the table so it wouldn’t wash away with our food on it.

As Leah would point out to her clients at the pre-trip meeting that night with the forecast of a windy week, “We put the adventure in Adventure Travel. Adventure Kayaking, Adventure Snorkeling...” So well prepared is she as a guide that she that very morning practiced Adventure Cooking, and even Adventure Sleeping.