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.