Monday, December 26, 2011

Another Day at the Beach

(from December 8)
It was a merry breakfast in camp this morning. Buckets danced and twirled about the ground. Plastic lids launched off the table to join them. The tent huffed and puffed and jiggled at its tethers. Bushes sang. All in all, a good day to take the kayak out for a sail.

I’ve found a good rhythm of being on the beach for a couple nights, then going to town and sleeping on the office floor for a couple. It gives the opportunity to focus on work for a spell, make good progress, and then to get away for an unhurried time and contemplate real things like stars and wind and how a body moves a kayak through the waves.

With a Sea of Cortez crossing still in the back of my mind, I’ve increased one paddle workout per week by about 10nm each time, from my usual 11 to 22 to 32. These I try to do nonstop. Experimenting with pacing, nutrition, hydration, clothing, seating, relief breaks. I haven’t particularly avoided windy days, which this season provides plenty of.

The last trip was 32.8nm, starting just before sunrise in about 12kts of wind, and returning 9 hours later in over 20kts. The forecast was for north wind, so I crossed over to Carmen Island, nearly 8 miles, and started upwind against about 15kts at that point, and building. Sometime later I saw the 50’ sailboat Endless Summer heading for port. My progress dipped below 2kts. I lost the whale that had kept me distracted for a while watching its exhalations waft off to the south. The constant sound of wind started to get annoying. I calculated how long it should take me to get back and wondered how much more the wind would build. I finally decided to turn around. But first, hoisted the sail. Beating upwind has its payoffs.

The GPS batteries died after I’d reached a burst of 9.4kts. Sometime after that the skeg started to vibrate on the better surf runs. And then it vibrated at a higher pitch. I ran with the wind and waves about 17nm in 3 hours of paddling while sailing. And what a run! It’s a treat to look sideways at the wave and watch the wind loft droplets of sea into the air, almost in slow motion because you are moving with it.

I continued down the channel between Carmen and Danzante Islands, partly to get in the mileage I was looking for, and partly because the northward current and some of Danzante’s headlands make the waves stand up better for riding. Paid that back by crawling upwind on the relatively protected west side of the island before taking a beam sea homeward. The final crossing I did with the sail, and it had my wholehearted attention every moment as chunks of wave would tumble down faces significantly taller than I was.

Just before a cooling sun dipped behind the western mountains, I reached my home beach thinking of warmth and food. My beach neighbor Liz walked by to invite me to a soup potluck, and even brought by a nice worm bowl full for starters. Oh, heaven! This beach community of about 15 campers tucked into the desert shrubbery is something to be thankful for. Thanks, Beach Neighbors!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Breakfast on the Beach

One morning a feeding frenzy of sea birds passes not 20’ offshore from my sleeping bag. The commotion heads north along the beach. Cormorants take flight leaving contrails of sunlit splashes. They skid to a landing and immediately submerge, herding the fish northward and inshore.

A snowy egret follows the fray, stilt-legged jogger with yellow feet. Brown pelicans, who normally dive from a height, don’t bother lifting a wing when they jab their bills into the shallows. A black wave surges onto the beach and a cormorant appears at the feet of a great blue heron, which tilts its head at the sight of the fish flapping in the cormorant’s beak. Throaty cormorant grunts are audible over the splashing.

The frenzy calms. Pelicans depart for a splash seen further out. Two snowy egrets take to chasing each other with incongruously peevish displays of their angel wings. They raise white head feathers in a punk crown, jump about, make short banking flights, but both keep returning to the edge of the water where the cormorants mill about.

Second course. The feeding regains momentum, moving back south towards me. Pelicans return. Cormorants glide out of waves onto the sand and waddle ungracefully back. Egrets and herons stab at the waters edge. One wading pelican jabs and comes up with a cormorant’s head, which it grudgingly releases.

Everything Matters - Loreto Kayak Symposium

Loreto Kayak Symposium 2011

In December ended the long series that started in October as the Loreto Kayak Symposium on the Baja California peninsula in Mexico.

The classes happening here are simple, yet of tremendous importance. Loreto is on the cusp of government sponsored mega-development on the scale of Cancun and Los Cabos. These kayaking events provide tools, inspiration, and voice for sustainability in development, from both ecological and economic standpoints.

Symposium events
Symposium festivities were enhanced by competition prizes donated by Kokatat , Werner, NRS, Seals , and Cascade Designs. Appreciative winners of the solo kids’ race, the kids & parents race, an obstacle course, and a long distance race, took home top quality gear to inspire their continued paddling and camping experiences. Thanks to our sponsors!

At a weekend beach festival in October, university students offered short presentations on the beach. Parts of the kayak, safety equipment, etc. Abraham Levy , a Mexican who paddled the entire coastline of Mexico, gave a rousing presentation at the university. British Canoe Union courses carried on for the next week and a half, and brought participants from Venezuela, Canada, and Australia as well as Mexico.

For logistical and economic reasons, a 21-day Expedition Challenge from Mulege to Loreto, was sandwiched into the event. Paddlers hailed from Sweden, Australia, Georgia, California, and Washington state.

In the past two years of Loreto Kayak Symposium, years of prior classes crystallized into some real progress. In October 2010, three Mexicans became certified as BCU coaches— Ivette Granados , Santiago Berrueta , and Yuriria Hernandez (and 1 Canadian Leah Blok who works in Baja). Since then, one more Mexican, Oscar Manguy has become a Coach 1, Santiago has trained for Coach 2, and both Oscar and his wife Yuriria Hernandez have trained for their 4-star Sea Leadership awards. Santiago already has this leadership award, making him the first and so far only Mexican to hold this challenging certification.

The series ended in early December with a simple class of great significance: mentoring the first generation of British-certified Mexican coaches as they train the university interns who will likely become the future guides and owners.

Loreto’s Romance with Tourism
Tourism can be nearly as destructive as an extraction-based economy. Or it can give an economic value to plants, creatures and intact ecosystems and inspire their care. The conversation of sustainability is alive and well in Loreto, with such players as the National Marine Park of Loreto , the Eco-Alliance of Loreto , Rare Conservation, the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, Center for Civic Collaboration, Antares Ecological Group, Community and Biodiversity. They have a tough challenge in the face of the government-sponsored luxury-minded development plans Fonatur.

Yet there is hope and momentum. UNESCO declared the Sea of Cortez and all its islands a World Heritage Site in 2005 . This international recognition parallels a local cultural awakening to the unique marine treasure that the people of Baja California live on.

Extraction and Outfitting
Historically, Baja natives hunted and gathered for their survival. Pearl oysters were “discovered” by explorers and gathered to extinction. Shark fisheries began for export and severely depleted the shark population of the Sea. Small planes brought sport fishermen. Roads opened up opportunities for more commercial fisheries. For generations, the sea has been the bottomless bank account of Baja California. Anyone with a little initiative could dip in and extract a living.

In the 1960s Tim Means started bringing tourists south of the border and founded Baja Expeditions . Later, Trudi Angel founded Paddling South in Loreto. In less extractive ways outfitters were dipping into the Sea of Cortez for their livelihoods as well. In the 1990s the National Marine Park of Loreto was finding its feet, and several outfitting companies were operating in the Loreto area. Mexican immigration was also pushing for outfitters to hire more locals, trying to tap into adventure travel for local economic sustainability.

On the premise that fishermen know the sea and that young people are trainable and will work for less money, my employer recruited teenage fishermen’s sons. This was my fourth year guiding in Baja, and my boss asked if I would train our newly hired Mexican staff. They spoke just a few words of English.

Kayak Training
Teaching kayaking in a foreign language is a great way to learn that language. Conjugate lessons into full sentences. Instant feedback. Eager students are keen to help with the communication. Teaching kayaking in a foreign language is also great for developing coaching skills. It keeps the talk to action ratio low on the talking end.

In 2007, when Ivette Granados and I started Sea Kayak Baja Mexico , one of the major contributions she brought to the team was her connection with the universities of Baja California Sur (the southern state of Baja). She understood that ours was not to be just another tour company, but an educational center.

I believe that for knowledge or skill to be meaningful in the long run, the power of it must be given to local hands. Train the teachers. Support the leaders. Encourage the future mentors. Someday when my time in Baja is done, I would love to see a network of kayak coaches and university professors able to develop their own guides to a skill level appropriate to the areas in which they’re leading, and certify them with internationally respected credentials. In my own small way, I see that as contributing to the strength of Loreto as a sustainably-managed eco-destination.

Nowadays many Mexican guides are hired as fresh university grads in related fields of science such as Marine Biology or Alternative Tourism. They speak good English. They know how to apply themselves. They understand the uniqueness of the Sea of Cortez.

The importance of training and credentials is understood by these graduates. It is not lost either on their employers as they advertise their staff and services, or demonstrate to their insurance company how they’re managing risk through training and prevention.

The Municipality of Loreto in 2010 also saw the value of professional training in kayaking. Seeking to build the town as a world-class guide training destination to match its renowned paddling location, they offered to sponsor the costly British flights and coach fees, and bridge the gap between the cost of running the courses and the $18/person the students could afford. Due to an impressive level of corruption in that administration, the local government went so bankrupt that they couldn’t fund the special ed school bus or the city’s utility bill for several months. Kayaking fell off the budget long before a single peso went towards it.

Changing Perceptions
Loreto is in the process of re-creating its cultural perception of the sea. This is happening from many fronts at once: school children, university students, administration. In the mid-1990s some farsighted residents noted the increasing population and tourism were stretching the resources of the sea. Having seen the collapse of other fisheries on Mainland Mexico, these organizers began petitioning the Mexican federal government for a tool to manage their natural resources sustainable for the long haul. In 1996, nine years before the UNESCO declaration, the National Marine Park of the Bay of Loreto was created as a result of local residents’ efforts. The marine park encompasses 2,065 square kilometers of sea including 5 islands and numerous sea stacks.

Trawling and bottom dragging were prohibited. Limits were instated on fishing and shellfish harvesting. Island tourism regulated. For better or worse, the free-for-all was curbed.

Fernando Arcas, one of the original petitioners, continues to research wildlife behavior and population in the park. He heads GEA (Grupo Ecologista Antares) (info) and (tours). Fernando is joined by secretary Maria Elena and educator Luis. They publish pamphlets and occasionally insert them into the local paper. Sea Turtles—how to let them nest undisturbed. Sharks—why they’re important to the health of the sea. Blue whales—gentle giants who are our neighbors.

They take elementary school kids to the waterfront. Get them excited about the treasure that lies just beyond the sandy beach of their hometown. To these presentations Ivette brings a big sit-on-top kayak and some PFDs. She talks about boating safety and fun. Kids practice putting on the life jackets and helping each other tighten them well. They see how many can sit in one kayak together on the sand, and talk about the animals they might see.

In the summer, Ivette gathers 2-3 enthusiastic university interns and runs a kayak day camp for kids at Hotel Desert Inn, a beach-front resort with a pool. The kids swim, play games with sit-on-top kayaks and learn kayak basics in a spirited format that has 4-year olds and 12-year olds all working together. This is common in the local culture and feeds well into the awareness of others that is so important in kayaking.

In a culture where the sea has largely been the resource bank for extraction, showing youngsters its intrinsic value and a method for low impact access is a significant step for the future. It may even afford a few of them a good living showing it to visitors someday.

Life Skills for the Future
University interns do 100 hours of community service to pay back their education. Beyond helping at summer camp and the symposium, our interns also learn to run the store and put out rentals. Accounting, retail, customer service, English. The dream of many of these students is to either be a guide, which pays well locally, or to run their own company. Rural Baja is mostly free of franchises and chains, so family owned businesses are common.

Interns in the university’s Alternative Tourism track must create a project as part of their studies. Something to bring value to their community.

Ramon is one of our interns. His family owns an orchard/ranch in the village of San Isidro, west of Loreto. San Isidro is a mountain oasis with freshwater lagoons formed by springs. The family raise sugar cane as their primary cash crop, forming it into the familiar brown sugar cones sold in fruiterias and mercados in town, and they engage in typical subsistence ranching. Hurricane Jimena wiped out most of their plantation, and they have been looking for a way to recover.

Working with his parents and his uncle, Ramon is planning an oasis eco-tour project: paddle the half-mile long lagoons and enjoy palms, turtles, birds, and interesting geology. Marine fossils are layered in the mountain rocks. The iconic El Pilon peak is an eroded red-brown cone lending its name to the cone-shaped brown sugar “piloncillo” that was the family’s cash product. In the eco-tour plan, Ramon envisions giving visitors hands-on experience pressing sugar, or milking goats, or working with leather as his family treats them to genuine ranch hospitality.

Daniel’s family owns a purified water store in Loreto. His eco-tour route explores the mangroves in a protected estuary near Loreto. Mangroves are the ocean’s nurseries, home to juvenile fish, oysters, and a host of birds from snowy egrets to osprey to brown pelicans.

To put it in prospectve, John Steinbeck, in The Log from the Sea of Cortez in 1941 wrote, “And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance… none of it is important, or all of it is.”

Many thanks to the sponsors who have supported the Loreto Kayak Symposium. Far beyond providing equipment, you have supplied momentum, belief, incentive, and encouragement. It is greatly appreciated!