Saturday, August 15, 2020

Training Trip


I’m training to cross the Sea of Cortez in a kayak this coming October. Each weekend I go out for a slightly longer paddle than the weekend before. Though I’m paddling towards a goal, I’m as much using the goal as a motivating excuse for getting out there as I am using these outings to prepare for a future event. Participating in the present moment is the real practice here.


This past weekend I paddled north from Loreto. It was an exploration as well as a training, since I haven’t paddled this coast in at least 15 years. Friday afternoon took me 13nm up the coast from Loreto to San Bruno, the mouth of a large estuary. Crossing the Gulf will entail a a few island hops followed by a long section, so I’m practicing doing a moderate day followed by a long one. That pattern also gives me a night of sleeping out under the stars, which is nourishment for the soul.


The best information I could find to carry on my deck regarding this coastline was a photocopy of the chart surveyed by the USS Narraganset in 1873 and 1875 which showed the mouth to an inlet clear and open. A lot can change in 145 years, especially in geologically volatile Baja, and especially at the mouth of an estuary! 


It was getting on towards evening when I completed the stretch of mountainous coastline north of Isla Coronados and arrived in the vicinity of San Bruno. A crescent bay of a quarter mile’s width with a small hill on the northern point was the first break in the mountains. Waves from a 1-meter SE swell dumped dirty and powerful on the steep sand beach. Beyond the hill the coast was a long expanse of breakers, spilling more gently but without a clear channel and with the probability of partially submerged remains of trees scattered throughout. The tide was high and would be low in the morning when I would leave the beach around 4am and I did not relish the prospect of trying to find passage through an unfamiliar estuary mouth in the dark in the morning. So I chose the dumping breakers on the steep beach. I watched the waves crash for several long moments, then chose a location and paddled the last few strokes on the brown hump of a wave as it collapsed in gritty foam and shot up the beach. 


I leapt out and anchored the kayak against the greedy pull of the retreating wave, but my feet slid back with the wave and the kayak in the gripless slope. The next wave filled the cockpit with a slurry of beach and sea and the ocean growled its malintent. 


It wasn’t graceful, but I eventually managed to wrestle my kayak from the waves and deliver it to dry level beach. A pack of coyotes pulled at the carcass of a sea turtle next to the half-buried branches of a surf-sanded tree. A palapa and a motorless panga stood at the north end of the beach without signs of activity. I walked around my end of the beach, climbed a high sand dune to try to see the estuary but didn’t learn much.  The dune cast a lengthening shadow where I determined I’d make my bed. I also determined where I’d prefer to launch in the morning if the swell was still up, after watching the breakers for a while to memorize where the underwater rocks were. 


The contents of the kayak went into 2 Ikea bags and I carried them to my camp. Moving the kayak was the next puzzle. I didn’t relish the idea of floating it to move it down the beach on account of the hungry breakers. Then it occurred to me that I had a set of wheels in the back hatch which I had used to get the kayak to the water in Loreto, and then forgotten about. I laughed with joy at my good fortune and giggled a little at my forgetfulness. I wheeled the kayak over to my camp, tied it up to the sturdy branches of a tree sticking out of the sand, and left the wheels on for convenience and flexibility in the morning.


A peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich was my dinner as the light faded. On these trips I travel as light as possible. No stove, no cutting board, no kitchen. Boiled eggs, cans of tuna eaten with a spoon out of the can, granola bars, nuts, dried fruit, pre-made bean burritos and peanut butter sandwiches form my diet. I can eat them in the kayak.


I prepared for the morning, sealed up the kayak, and set out the ground tarp, the Therm-a-Rest, and a thin sheet, anchoring them all with rocks or sticks or water bottle against the breeze. I wrapped my pathetically small clothing drybag in a pillowcase. After removing from the drybag my sleeping t-shirt, a small towel to get the sand off my feet and Moose, it only contained a pair of socks, a warm hat, a spare shirt and a sarong. All together they didn’t make much of a pillow, but enough.


Jupiter appeared first. Then Saturn. Antares. Arcturus. Altair. Vega. Spica. Deneb. There is something comforting in recognizing and greeting these lights in the sky. The dimmer stars filled in. Scorpius. Big Dipper. Cygnus flew above me, the giant swan in the shape of a cross, wingtips raised. For a while the axis of the swan was the same as mine. As I stretched out my arms to reflect its shape, I thought of my dad. The cross: so central to his beliefs, to his being. 

“Dad, what do you know now?” I asked the sky. ”Where is your spirit?” Just then a brilliant shooting star coursed across my view.


Whether it was the wind, or the anticipation of paddling 35nm the next day, or thoughts of mischievous coyotes, I had trouble falling asleep. But the night was beautiful. As the tide dropped sometimes waves would begin to break before they smashed the shore. They make a certain higher-pitched hiss when they break early. I picked up head up to look, and saw a bright glow. The bioluminescence was outstanding! From 60’ away, the breaking wave was the brightest thing in my little universe. Again and again, I would hear the hiss, look, and smile.


The Milky Way slowly pivoted. Scorpius crawled along the mountains. Cygnus flew a different direction. Finally I fell asleep, and woke suddenly out of a dream that everyone had packed and departed and I was left behind. It was 3:01, nine minutes before I’d set my alarm to go off, reasoning that I could get away with 10 more minutes sleep because 3am sounded too early to get up. 


Because I had 9 minutes to spare, I took the luxury of slowly eating a boiled egg and half a sandwich while still sitting on my tarp, listening to the waves in the dark. Out to sea, the white light of a fishing boat shone. Another light appeared slightly above it, and I tried to make sense of the perspective. The new light was reddish. It started to grow. So did my smile of recognition. The crescent moon. The whole of it wasn’t yet up when it disappeared behind a cloud bank. Just a moment it had peeked out, and I had been sitting there looking, as if I’d been waiting for the show. Moments like this make it easy to feel alive when living outside. Alive and connected to some larger meaning or script.


I paddled north through a sea of tiny lights. Horizontal lines glowed and dissipated to my left, the breakers of the San Bruno estuary. I gave them a wide berth and paid close attention to the shape of the swells approaching from the right so I wouldn’t get caught out by the breaking of a bigger set. Occasionally the rounded cone of Isla Coronados caught my attention with a start, tricking my eye into thinking it was a large, dark wave. In the dark, I paddled by sight, but also by the sound of the breakers and the feel of the shape of the waves as they passed.


The moon cleared the low cloud bank and Venus followed shortly after. Over the next 2 hours I watched the slow-motion drama of Venus overtaking the moon. The moon moves eastward relative to the constellations to complete its path around the earth every 28 days. If you have the patience to watch it when it’s near a star or planet, in an hour you suspect there’s been some change, and 2 hours are enough to see for sure. The moon clearly rose first, and by sunrise, Venus had climbed higher than the moon, or more accurately, the moon had lagged behind Venus and the rest of the sky. What a privilege to have watched it, and all the more so from a kayak.


Even in the dark, it was hot enough to be sweating as I paddled. On my hourly break, I wanted to jump in the water to cool off and have a pee. Large creatures feed in the night. My awkward thrashing to return on top of the kayak will surely signal to them that I am lame, easy prey and fit to be removed from the gene pool. I am understandably nervous about jumping in the water at night. Just as I reached the hour, small manta rays called mobulas started leaping out of the water around me. Nobody knows for sure why they do it. Competing for a mate, shaking off parasites, just plain fun.  But they don’t do it to avoid predators. They gave me the confidence to do my own jumping.


Later, on my return, something large did follow me. Twice it made a large splash just behind my kayak. The second time I turned fast enough to see something brown in the water, like a sea lion, but it never breathed. Shortly after, something hit the back of my kayak from underwater hard enough to make the kayak shudder and push the partly deployed skeg up into the kayak. That hour I did not jump into the water.


The final approach to Loreto wasn’t nearly as spectacular as the previous week’s dolphin escort through bioluminescent nighttime waters, a special treat.  These last few hours were rough, in the 110-degree heat index of the August afternoon, but I made 35.5nm since morning, and 48.75nm overall. Next week we’ll shoot for 40nm nonstop and 55nm overall.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Persistence of Light

The sun departed leaving an orange glow above the Loreto mountains. Ahead, Isla del Carmen blushed her final farewell to the day. I pointed just north of her two prominent peaks, paddling through bouncy seas. A gentle breeze met me from my right. Dark shapes of waves occasionally broke the horizon. Above a low bank of clouds ahead, Jupiter popped to life.


As the sky darkened, sounds of town faded behind me. Cars, dogs. The lights persisted, the measured white march of the waterfront Malecon. The tall blink of the marina’s lighthouse. Red and blue flashes of police cars paced the waterfront, trying to send people home so the virus could enjoy the quiet night streets.


Slowly stars appeared overhead. The shapes of islands grew indistinct. Saturn appeared below Jupiter, and the two aligned to point to the low spot where I was headed. Zero-nine-zero on my compass, though it was too dark to see it. The sky pointed the way.


My paddle stirred up glowing creatures in the water. Random individuals lit up in protest at being tossed up on my deck in droplets of spray. They were too small to see, let alone put back in the water. Splashing water onto the deck to rinse them off just stranded more of them, so I left them to their fate. Occasional whitecaps shone a blue-white as they broke. Swirling footprints marked my wake.


Behind me, the Loreto mountains stayed lined up with the stern of my kayak, telling me I was not drifting off course. The final glow faded behind them, and they disappeared, obscured by the harsh lights of town. Somewhere about halfway across the 9nm crossing, when I could no longer see the mountains, I realized that the faint smudge in the sky north of town was the comet Neowise, which I had been hoping to see. 


I paused my paddling to listen to the waves talking around me. They have subtle, burbly voices. I heard something ahead, a steady hissing. Like a river or a tide race, or waves on a distant shore. The shore was still too far to hear, so I filed that sound in my head and kept paddling, ready for it to be a channel of current, or wind, or just the way the breeze was accumulating the sounds of the burbling water. 


The star Altair balanced Jupiter and Saturn on the other side of my destination, giving my direction a feeling of symmetry. In the darkness, Jupiter left a wide swath of reflection on the choppy water, a path of soft light leading from me to the amorphous darkness of the island. 


As tempted as my heart has always been to follow the path of reflected heavenly bodies on the water, my head reminds me that they are an illusion. A trick of faint light and perspective. “Like love,” retorts my broken heart. I don’t bother to form words in reply. Paddling is my answer. I stay my course, to the left of that path. 


As my kayak moved through the waves, water on the deck occasionally caught the faint light of Jupiter at just the right angle to make it shine. Overhead, the Milky Way angled brightly across the sky, with the giant hook of the Scorpius’ tail firmly lodged in the heart of it, tugging it towards the west. A distant cloud bank flashed with lightening, a common summer Sea of Cortez phenomenon, too far away to worry about, but fun to watch.


When I was about 2 hours into the crossing, the wind picked up, straight on my nose.  It increased quickly. Peaks of glowing whitecaps became prevalent. They turned into rows of glowing waves. The deck of my kayak lit up like party lights as it pierced wave after wave, the deck rigging illuminated by the little creatures that got caught in it. Spray off the bow rained steadily on my face. Perhaps I was wearing the glitter as well.


My glowing footprints kept moving aft, which I took as a reassuring sign. Other than that, I couldn’t tell if I was actually moving forward. The kayak felt heavy and slow, though I had hardly packed anything for the island overnight. Just bars, nuts, and dried fruit for food. Water, a sleeping pad, a sheet, and trusty Moose. A few shreds of dry clothing not even enough to make a decent pillow. Toothbrush and harmonica. Basic safety implements, and the collapsible kayak trolley that got me to the water.  


Isla Cholla lighthouse on my left and a distant headland on my right together formed a gateway that did not want me to pass. They seemed to stay exactly where they were. I tried the tactic of alternating several short powerful strokes to get speed, then 2 relaxed strokes to catch my breath while sustaining the glide. The lighthouse and the headland were unimpressed. I ignored them and counted 100 full strokes before checking again. Maybe, just maybe they were giving me a little. I counted 100 strokes 3 more times. The gateway was letting me through, grudgingly. Gradually, the height of the waves began to diminish.


I approached the blackness of the coastline where my eyes could make out nothing. Carmen had grown tall against the sky, but I couldn’t tell how close I was to the shore. The absence of a moon let the faint lights take the stage-- the Milky Way, the bioluminescence, Jupiter’s reflection, the comet—but made it hard to find the beach I was headed for. Nor, for the wind, could I hear the waves on the shore which I often rely on to discern rocks from sand. Nor could I smell the night air descending the arroyo and wafting the scent of desert plants over the water, indicating a beach.


The gusts started to hit. The wind was crossing the island and dropping with random whimsey. A gust from my left tried to steal my paddle. I grabbed it back. The entire surface of the water lit up in the gust, leaving the kayak a dark spear in the middle of a sea of dancing blue-white. Breathtakingly beautiful and a bit frightening at the same time, as that dark spear skittered sideways through the light.


The only aid to navigation in this area was Punta Cholla lighthouse, 3nm to the northwest. The folded layers of hills on Isla del Carmen make it hard to read the skyline at close range, much harder than it is from a distance, or than reading the single ridge of Isla Danzante.

I knew within less than half a mile for certain where I was, and thought I knew within a couple hundred yards. I also knew that from here to the north there were 3 wide, accessible and hospitable beaches, as well as 2 rough beaches that would work in a pinch, before I reached the protected cove of Balandra, which itself had several places one could pull up a kayak and call home for the night.


I knew there were rocky reefs along here between the beaches. Still, I was surprised then my paddle struck a shallow rock. I was trying to parallel the shore until the cliffs backed away from the water, without being able to really make out either the cliffs or the edge of the water. While dancing with the gusts. 


My headlamp was the top thing in my day hatch. I’ve knocked it off my head into the water before, so no longer paddle with it there, and I was glad to not have had it around my neck while being bathed in salt spray. I have also tried to use it to find a beach and found that it illuminated the moisture in the air at close range and told me nothing about the coast, while killing my night vision for a while. So I left it in the hatch. I could do this. Control in the gusts, slow squinting progress between. 


The cliffs seemed to back away. A steady dark line with a faint lightness above it suggested a beach. I crept toward that line. The kayak surprised me by stopping gently on the shore before I reached the line. The line, it turned out, was wet sand of a recent high tide. No matter. I was on the beach. 


I glanced to my right as I stepped out of the kayak and saw silhouetted the familiar pinnacle of Playa Roja, with its osprey nest crown on top. I smiled. I was one beach north of where I’d intended, but had no thought of getting back on the water. There was a symmetry and poetic justice of landing here. On a prior night crossing, I’d been shooting for this beach and landed instead at the one just south. Tonight I’d done that in reverse. The two are close enough to swim between, with one cliff and one reef separating them, so landing at either after a 9-nm crossing in the dark isn’t so far off the mark.


I moved the kayak up the beach, weighed it down with rocks, and tied it off before unpacking my few things. The kayak quivered in the gusts like it wanted to go back out and play. It was 11pm. I was ready to lie down and admire those faint, persistent lights above as I drifted off into contented sleep.