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.