Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mag Bay exploration

From a hilltop on southern Magdalena Island I could see a tide rip going out the mouth of the bay. A “V” of white breaking waves in a 4-mile expanse of textured blue. That was all the inspiration I needed to scramble down the hill and hop in my kayak.

The break was inconsistent and kind of small, but the water was so clear I could watch fish passing through the waves below me, and see the markings on the deep rock that made the first wave. I had some fun surfing, then went to explore the colorful coast and flirt with offshore rocks.

The swell forecast was 6-8’ from the NW. When the waves pressed themselves up against a vertical, barnacle-covered wall, the water level rose and fell about 15’, making impressive cascades. I found a sliver of beach at the base of a cliff, deep in a channel of rocks, waited out the sets, and landed, just because I could. Then launched again and explored until I got to a small sea lion colony.

It was satisfying to be on the sea, exploring a new place, in my own world of saltwater and rock and spray and primal noise, and rhythm and light, but there was a piece of the puzzle missing inside. Not that the space needed to be filled. However, if it were to be filled, there was just one match. At that moment, he was probably welding on a sailboat in Guaymas. So I paddled on and let the space of the puzzle piece be filled with light, like the gap below the underwater arch where the sunlight pierced green water and waves pushed through to fill the grotto and lift me up.

By the time I returned to camp, I had a plan. Steve, owner of Mag Bay Tours, was directing the setting up of a new seasonal whale watching camp on the southern tip of Magdalena Island. I was there to scout the area for a potential training camp for adventurous kayakers and see if we couldn’t put our efforts together to make some magical trips and mutual economic benefit. The plan I had in mind at the moment was more immediate, however.

I wanted to cross the mouth between the 2 islands, an expanse of 4 miles according to Steve. Then sleep on the other side and return in the morning. All in the name of research and exploration of course.

I set out at 4pm with a couple bologna sandwiches, some fruit, 3 liters of water, a sleeping mat, a sleeping bag, and some safety items. I didn’t have a chart of the area, but didn’t really care.

Fifteen minutes into the crossing, a vertical plume of spray caught my eye, and I watched the first whale of the season cross into the bay. I’m sure she was the first. There were others reported to the north, but Steve said there weren’t any down here yet. Besides, it felt like the first. I gave her a welcoming cheer. She put up her tail and disappeared. There was not a single whale watching boat in sight.

The crossing must have been less than 4 miles. Even knowing the wind, tide, and current were in my favor, I made it across too fast. Paddling was fun, so I kept going past my intended landing. And going, and going. Sunset came, painted the water pink, and left. I still wasn’t ready to be a land creature. Some crazy whim said, why don’t you circumnavigate the island?

It is only because I did not have a chart or map that I even entertained this folly. The island is some 50 miles around or better; I just couldn’t see the extent of it. Also there was no moon and some cloud cover, so night paddling in an unfamiliar place with unknown landings and swell was probably not the smartest move. This I knew in my logical brain, but my whimsical brain took control.

I reached the most distant visible point of the island just as dark really took over, having made mental notes of the last workable beaches as I passed them, now starting to navigate by Braille in the featureless blackness. Around the point, a scattering of distant lights surprised me by coming into view. I had no idea there was a village on the island. Another benefit of navigating without a chart—the joy of discovering a new population! Somehow that was enough of a discovery to make me finally content to take the last beach and evolve into a land creature.

The beach wasn’t anything from a postcard. Rough gravel, sharp cobbles, and “hatchet scallop” shells. It had a berm that I believed would be above the especially high spring tide of the night, so I pivoted the kayak up there. Bow, stern, bow, stern, leaving funny marks like commas in the gravel, spaced 16’ apart and marking the uphill progress of a rigid sea monster. Beyond the berm, the beach dropped to a soggy lowland. Luckily, on the berm directly above where I landed was the softest gravel of the entire beach, exactly the size of a body. It wanted only to be leveled. When I did this, the dampness of the gravel underneath gave me some concern about high tide. No matter. I would meet that challenge if it came. I sat and wrote by the light of my headlamp while the gravel dried in the breeze, then put down my bed and crawled in.

The instant I put my head down, the water sounded closer. It always does this, just to tease you. High tide should be sometime between 11 and midnight, so I set my watch alarm for an hour. At least a little sleep before I would have to move. At 9:30 I set it again for an hour. I have been woken up by high tide and a big swell floating my sleeping mat. It’s a weird feeling. I secured everything into or onto the kayak except what I was sleeping in, and had an escape plan. I had dreams of a crazy woman, a guy with a cat face, and big waves all meeting me on this beach in the night. Every hour I checked until half past midnight. Then finally quit resetting the alarm and rested easy.

Five-thirty I was awake. Eventually the horizon started to lighten and stars began drifting off to sleep. I packed up, very reluctantly put on wet paddling clothes, and launched when it was light enough to tell land from sea. My euphoric fantasies of paddling around the island were replaced by better morning judgment, so I paddled back the way I’d come. But it looked new because it was the other direction. Also because there was some light now.

Waterfront cliffs, interesting erosion, and some spectacular wind-sculpted torote trees. The Fanta bottles tied to lobster pots as buoys indicated that I was against the incoming tide, as expected, so I hugged the coast for every micro-eddy I could find. Frigate birds, brown pelicans, and cormorants populated my morning. An osprey shrieked from a clifftop, and a bald eagle watched me approach and fumble for my camera before taking flight too soon. I have never seen a bald eagle in Baja before, but am baffled by what else it could have been. Bigger than an osprey, with the distinct white head and tail. It certainly wasn’t a crested cara cara, which has a different build and beak.

Just beyond the eagle’s perch, I came ashore in the sun to dry out and write some thoughts about trips and life. The eagle never returned, but the sun felt delicious on my back.

On the crossing back to whale camp, I stopped to let a migrating gray whale pass in front of my kayak. What gigantic elegance in simply breathing and moving forward. What meditation there must be in the repetition of this for a few thousand miles. The whale passed with the inertia of a long journey. One panga of tourists was already behind it, and three others nearby. I threaded between the motor boats and headed for shore.