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2000 Expedition Journals
Our next encounter with stingrays came a few days later in Bahia de Los Angeles. Here is Luke’s description of our stay there and his ray encounter:
Bahia de Los Angeles, two and half weeks into the trip, was to be the first real outpost of civilization for us. It's also supposed to have plankton-rich waters that host whale sharks for 4 months a year. We were denied on both accounts as the only telephone landline in town was down and the sharks were elusive. But we still managed to enjoy ourselves, rest, meet great folks and eat real food!
We think the shark story is a conspiracy. All the locals and gringo regulars are in on it. They tell all the new guys about the dozen or so that feed in the bay for four months a year and ask you every day if you've seen them yet. We heard stories about people swimming with them and taking rides on the dorsal fins etc. We went out 3 separate times, all the way to the estuary at the back of the bay on the 3rd time, alas. To add injury to insult, when taking a swim after searching in vain for the sharks, my right foot found a couple baby stingrays who lacerated the sole and side with their spikes. So to drown our disappointment and ease my pain we gorged on fresh clams on the half-shell with lime on the beach.
Our HQ was Guillermo's, a great little cantina next to the boat ramps at the west edge of town. Our waiter Rey (how great to go through life named “king", the owners Lucy and brother Guillermo were gracious to a fault. We took advantage of their hospitality by parking ourselves at a table all day until closing to use electricity (for the computer etc.) and then sleeping on the beach in front.
It's a very rustic, low-key place where people are happy to help and always generous. The 4 days were filled with many positive experiences and only a few misadventures. On the 2nd day the high tide pulled my boat into the water and swamped it. Before I could even think to look to anyone for help, a fisherman and a boy were at my side helping me bail. Situation resolved. Also, when shopping at a local market for supplies we casually mentioned we were in need of a wire grill for barbecuing fish and before you know it, the clerk is out front cutting a section off of a wire shelf with a hacksaw. Despite these positive marks the whole stay was tempered by an incident of theft. My blue dry bag with most of my clothing and $250 was taken from the deck of my boat during the 2nd night. Not a huge loss but enough to make you think twice about leaving any gear unattended ever.
Crossing a large bay 16-18 miles seemed to take forever. The distances here are so hard to judge. From 8-15 miles, you can't tell the difference. The clarity of the lines between land and ocean are so clear that anything off in the distance is just that, an unquantifiable gap that only seems to get closer once inside of 5 miles. It's psychologically devastating when crossing a bay such as this (San Rafael). Land on your right is miles off, the point is also miles off and in the minds eye it stays there. You don't pass any nearby landmarks to give you a sense of progress.
3 days out of Bay of L.A and an undetermined fraction of the way across San Rafael bay, this was the frustration I was feeling. We had 16 miles to do and I was in no hurry. After what seemed like hours but was more like 3 1/2, the point finally started to loom larger.
I was in the zone, where you become machine-like, each stroke the exact clone of the one before. On flat water you can almost go into stasis during these stretches. I was only functioning on 50% brainwave activity and it took me a full 10 seconds to realize that the scene around me was drastically changing. Paddling through endless fins and spouts and twittering dark bodies I finally realized what was happening. A multi-hundred strong pod of dark gray dolphins stretched in a narrow band more than a mile long. It was like a river of dolphins that flowed from 10 feet in front of my kayak off toward the point.
I believe they were following and feeding on a school of Yellowtail that were riding a tidal current eddy and snaking their way around the point and arcing into the bay. The dolphins were jumping out of the water, spouting, and following the same course and I wandered right into the middle of it. I could have reached out and touched dozens of them!
Threading through their midst and out the other side, I was awestruck and didn't notice what was happening on the water 300 yards in front of me. Whales spouting! The marine kingdom was staging a grand review just in front of my kayak this day.
Usually, displays of this sort in the wild are signs of something notable to come, like animal stampedes on the Savannah before an encroaching wildfire. I should have been more wary and read the signs. As soon as the whales passed, the water between me and the point began to ripple and within 2 minutes one of the legendary east blowing winds that rage out of the arroyos and blow boats out into the middle of the Sea of Cortez was upon me. For me trying to reach the point less than a mile away, it was coming at an angle, from 2 o'clock.
Keeping my upper-body bent into the wind, paddle angle low and using as much torso rotation as possible, I muscled my way to the beach in nearly 40 minutes of all-out effort. JP who had been way ahead, had a shorter fight. He was lounging on the beach when I arrived, frothing at the mouth, with all of my back muscles gorged with blood from the max exertion.
After a 15 minute break, we reboarded and made our way around the point to the bay of San Francisquito. On the map, it looks like a little tiny indentation, and we expected a 10-minute paddle. We rounded the corner to see a mile and a half deep bay foaming with breakers blown up by 45-knot winds. The fetch was only 1.5 miles and the breakers were 3-4 feet high!
The human mind, more than the body it inhabits, is a wellspring of fortitude. You are capable of such things as 3rd and 4th winds, and so on. The difference between endurance champions and also-rans, between survivors and casualties is the ability to tap into mental reserves again and again and force your body to listen. The official jargon is endorphin production overcoming muscle fatigue and low blood sugar. But it's really just the drill sergeant of your brain giving you a kick in the rear to get you where you have to be. The final 30 minutes to the protected cliffs and lagoon was a brutal test of the mind's will.
Sailors swear by this cove as the only place to hide for 30 miles when storms hit. They don't mention how hard it is to get there if you're caught in the middle of one.
We arrived dead tired. A few fishermen and a fireman from San Diego patted us on the back and welcomed us.
We also had the good fortune to run into Wade and his two marine-biologist partners from Monterrey CA and joined them for heavenly fish tacos at the cantina a mile down the road at Punta San Francisquito.
That night, despite blowing sand and winds that threatened to remove our sleeping bags from our bodies, we slumbered.
It's interesting to see how you lose your edge after a few days in town. We spent nearly a week relaxing under the date palms by the river in Mulege. Once back in the boat, the paddle felt awkward, the boat felt heavier than I remembered (did we really buy that much food?) and I wondered what had happened to my patented touring stroke.
We finally packed up and paddled out of the estuary. White egrets vogued on the muddy banks among the mangrove trees and brown pelicans crash landed in the murky water (how do they see the fish in that sludge?) Our perception of the place had changed in the short time we were there. Upon arrival, after a month and a half in the desert, we were enthralled with the greenery, palm trees and mangrove lining the river, bushes, plants, banana trees, date palms, abundant shade, and the humidity that gathered on the sleeping bag at night. It had seemed so lush. On our way out we saw it differently. The trees were all tinged in brown. The cars on the dirt tracks framing the river kicked up dust. A few dried dates, shriveled and shrunken, lay nestled in the folds of my deck bag, souvenirs from its week-long respite in the shade of the palms.
We had looked forward to Mulege for days before arrival and were not disappointed. With a fabulous bakery, Eduardo's Taco stand, Saul's grocery and La Almeja restaurant, we took full advantage of the cuisine and shopping. But after 4 days we began to long for the simplicity of beach camping and primitive cookery. There's much less to worry about out on the water and on the beach. The unpredictable human element is not a factor. Gear is 100% safe left on a deserted strip of sand for a few hours while you snorkel and nothing made by man obscures your view of the sunset. But don't get me wrong, Mulege is a great place to spend a few days. Check out the original 1705 Jesuit mission up on the hill at the back end of the estuary. The walk through the dense palms and heavy shadows by stagnant pools of brackish water is eerily beautiful and the view from the courtyard surrounding the stone church is amazing. A valley filled with palm trees unfolds out before you, reaching rugged dry peaks in the distance. And desert surrounds it. Magic. Also, say Hola to Senor Callo at the bus stop. For two dollars you can get either a bus ticket to the next town, a couple tacos and a beer from his family's stand or a haircut and great conversation from the man himself. Timing is important though. The buses follow a loose schedule, the restaurant runs out of guacamole during the lunch rush and Senor Callo's dexterity with the trimmers is inversely proportional to the amount of tequila he consumes through the afternoon.
But I digress, back to the tale at hand:
We pulled out of the protected estuary into 20+ knot winds blowing south into Concepcion Bay. Unfortunately, our destination lay east and then south, across the bay. Into 6 foot swell we went. 8 miles of lurching and pitching later we reached the point and as I was feeling like a pinball, we found the first protected cove and made camp.
It turned out to be the site of an abandoned manganese mine. The only things left were the shells of the worker's barracks and rutted roads (looks like they'd be great mtn. bike and hiking trails now). The decaying cement block structures were roofless and the tops of the uneven walls looked like parapets of an English castle in the angular light. We cooked our own meal for the first time in a week and felt almost regal. We were kings of the deserted cove and fully self-sufficient.
The next morning, the wind started picking up just after sunrise. That's a bad sign in Baja and we knew we'd be in for a big surf day. We paddled out of the protected bay into 7-8 foot rollers, all headed south. We smiled the smile of the lazy hobo who's just found a ride.
The first 2 hours were great fun and we made great time. There's a technique to using these waves to your advantage, You stroke lazily when in the trough and then when you see the bow dip slightly and feel the stern rise, being pushed up by the following swell, you throw in a couple hard strokes to get up to speed and the wave takes you for a ride. Quick, light strokes on the top of the wave keep you straight and balanced.
The first 2 hours and 10 miles were more fun than a fair ride. The next 3 hours were drastically different. It's amazing what an extra 3 feet of wave can do to ruin a good time. The swells increased to a regular 10 feet, occasionally cresting 12, and land was no longer visible when down in the troughs. For those susceptible to motion sickness, you know this spells doom. Having a distant horizon line or a static background in your field of vision is crucial for inner ear equilibrium.. I don't get seasick easily, but on this day I was in rough shape.
We were tracing the coast of the peninsula that formed the outside of the 20 mile long Bay of Concepcion. The terrain is rugged and rocky with cliffs that keep you on the water for quite a while. It was during an uninterrupted 10 mile stretch of cliffs, with no beaches or coves to land in, that I got ill. I had to endure for another 3 hours until a protected cove could be found.
My energy levels were on critical low. I couldn't muster any power to keep my boat surfing. It was all I could do to put one blade in the water after the other. Down in the troughs, my boat wouldn't move, and then the swell would pick me up, and because I had no momentum, dump over the top of me, swamping the boat, dripping through my leaky spray skirt and making me miserable. I had to pump out every 10 minutes for the last 2 hours.
JP, never seasick in his life, was immune to all of this and was having a blast. Like a faithful dog, he would run ahead, frolicking in the huge surf until he disappeared and then wait to see if I was ok.
I began to get cold, exhausted and worried. I tried to force down a Clif Bar for energy and gagged on every bite (I usually love them). The occasional 12 foot walls of water became the norm and I prayed for a cove to appear. I scoured the coast after every little point of land for a protected beach.
Punta El Medano Blanco came into view after nearly 5 hours on the water. I had barely been able to put my blades in the water for the last two and a half hours and we still progressed almost 8 nautical miles. The wind was that strong. I struggled around the rocks at the point and into the flat water on the north, lee side of the bay, pulled up on the beach and lay down for a half-hour without moving. The nausea subsided after an hour. Color came back into my face and appetite returned.
I'd never seen waves that big, let alone been out in them. Yet it was strange, in that I never felt I was in danger of drowning or capsizing. The swells came at regular intervals with reasonable frequency. I was more afraid of being stuck out there in hypothermic shock. I also now realize the importance of knowing your own limits and not letting the atavistic urge to make progress override your sense of caution. I am better skilled because of experiences like this and hope they will prepare me for the more aggressive waters of the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.
The stretch of coast south of Mulege, from Pulpito to Loreto, is stunningly beautiful. And contrary to other areas of Baja plagued by overfishing, it abounds with treasures that can be plucked from its waters and served up on your plate.
After two days of rough stuff in the big surf with no time or inclination to fish or dive, it was great to arrive in Pulpito and see reefs and submerged rocks teeming with life and flat water to boot! The afternoon we arrived, we set out with our spearguns to finally put some protein on the table after three days of dried, packaged food. JP is the skilled hunter and, well, I'm a bit of a late bloomer with the mask, fins, and gun and must take the role of scavenger. I usually pluck the stationary sea urchins or shellfish and just take my rightful place by the campstove to prepare the "bacon" that he brings home. However, this place would prove to be different.
There's a reef out in the middle of the cove that rises up out of 15 feet of water and hosts a myriad of creatures. It's hard to find at high tide, but when the tide ebbs, waves seem to suddenly stumble and break over it, making it an easy mark for divers.
After missing my first three shots, I abandoned the idea of spearing anything and began looking for the elusive shellfish that everyone talks about. Scallops in this bay? Nope. Clams? Nope. Oysters? Nope. But what has 18 inch tentacles and drives your dinner bill up into the stratosphere? Sure enough, lobster. Pacific lobster to be specific, no claws on this variety, alas, but ooh la la the tails!
I dove down quietly (not my forte, I always scare away the fish that I want to shoot) into the crack in the rocks and reached in to grab him and my hand grazed the tip of the tentacles before I could get at their base. Poof! He disappeared out his back door, gone without a trace.
The increasingly dark and cold water forced me to return to shore dejected at the prospect of another one-pot slop of dried foods. We went to bed full but unsatisfied.
The next day we decided to put in a full day as hunter-gatherers and leave the paddles idle. The local wildlife, especially the pelicans, seems to be doing well for itself in this cove, so we figured there must be a bounty out there. JP spent the morning spearfishing and fending off a moray eel who wanted a piece of his catch (see his story about his foray with the moray) while I went straight back to the lobster reef. Alas no sign.
We spent the rest o f the late morning and early afternoon chasing little Sally Lightfoot soft-shell crabs around the rocks on the point and nabbing them with a pole spear and trident tip. Most people are captivated by the coloring of these guys--they change from speckled blue to red upon entering the water--and marvel at their acrobatics as they scuttle and jump across the gaps and cracks in the rocks and scale vertical cliffs to escape. One shouldn’t forget their gustatory value. For us, come hell or high water, shellfish were going into the pot! Local indigenous peoples had survived on them in lean times and so would we.
We gathered 8 decent-sized, crimson and azure colored adults and headed back for the beach.
I took a chance and paddled by lobster rock and "Hla!" he was home. I approached, he tried the same trick and I circled around the back and found him in no-crustacean's land, scooting along the sandy bottom toward another rock cluster. Gotcha!
The three pronged pole spear served us well that day. We boiled crabs and the lobster tail in 1/5 sea water, 4/5 fresh, chicken bullion, minced garlic, oregano, sage, and threw in macaroni pasta for filler. A kayak tour group sharing the beach with us (they had a support boat with coolers etc.) supplied us with cold beer and we sat ripping shells apart and sucking out bits of succulent meat with our new friends. We made a royal mess of ourselves and proclaimed victory in our time.
Oh, but there's more. . .
The next day we paddled across a wide bay and pulled into San Juanico cove. This cove is a jewel! So beautiful you can't fathom why it's unsullied and quiet. Where are the crowds of people on jet skis, the legions of dive boats, and the huge resort hotels carved out of the cliffs? All in Cabo San Lucas fortunately. There was nothing but the odd sailboat and a few car campers who made the trek out from Highway 1 on the bumpy dirt road. How has this place remained a secret?
Golden beaches are tucked into gaps in the cliffs. Grottos and underwater caves pockmark the walls. Spires of volcanic rock stick up out of the middle of the cove and underwater rock gardens create dark shadows in clear turquoise water.
We arrived in the afternoon which left us with little time to dive for anything for the table. However, fortune smiles on those who believe good things happen, and we are both positive thinkers. When we stopped to say hello to a couple on a yacht, they bestowed upon us a few gallons of fresh water and a steak! We shared the beach that night with four other kayakers, a lovely Canadian couple Paul and Sara, and a fellow expedition paddler Solo Max and his dad (check out this guys website and expedition itinerary!) They turned green with envy when we fried up steak with garlic and soy sauce while they spooned down rice. There's a limit to generosity I guess. Sharing a cup of sugar or dry goods is one thing, but as for a steak in the desert. . . Sorry again for not sharing guys.
The following day we hit the water early. There were rumored to be scallops out there and we were going to find them. A large rock garden in 10-12 feet of water lay only 200 yards off shore from the beach. We went straight for it. The variety of scallops found there were rock scallops. They look like round, barnacle covered rocks that cling to large boulders or are mixed in with a bed of similar sized rocks that look exactly the same. For rookies like us they were too well camouflaged.
We swam down into the garden and started tapping randomly, looking for movement. Scallops sit with the shell open just a crack to filte- feed from the water that moves by, and when disturbed, they shut very quickly. Rocks all around us would shudder and close. They were everywhere!
Apparently, rock scallops are like Americans. They like to keep large houses and fill them with lots of stuff of questionable necessity. All the shells were 6-8 inches wide and the insides were filled with a couple tablespoonfuls of guts and only a small thimble-sized lump of white meat. The ivory medallions of flesh you pay fortunes for were disappointingly tiny. The big guys must be rare indeed. Or so we thought.
JP couldn't be bothered with scallop hunting for such a measly result, so he set off with his gun. I continued undaunted. I had seen on occasion what appeared to be larger circular rock forms with a speckled yellow and black ribbon of something tucked up inside a long fissure like crack. I assumed it was a sea snake or something else unsavory and had never bothered to look closely. Tired of gut-filled, piddling little scallops, I decided to take a chance. I swam up to one of the large round rocks with the mottled yellow and black protrusion, shoved my dive knife in and retreated quickly. The rock seemed to release a little and then, nothing. I went back to look. It was indeed a scallop. Massive! The shell was the size of my head, and after cutting out the guts, the medallion of meat it produced, was three inches in diameter and over an inch thick.
I now knew what to look for and how to harvest. I swam around enthralled, looking at every rock cluster for the tell-tale band of yellow and black. With my dive knife and a little mesh draw-string bag, I collected two lbs. of medallions in an hour. The technique was to shove the knife in before the shell clamped shut, and sever the muscle on the side of the shell attached to the rock. Then I'd pry off the outer half with the scallop, guts and all still attached. Once up on the surface, I'd cut away the lip, guts and leg, leaving the medallion. One slice to detach it from the shell and into the bag.
We'd been looking for the wrong size! To give you an idea, I never looked at any shell smaller than a dinner plate. The biggest one I spied was the size of a cymbal. These were all grand-daddies. The largest medallion was almost 3 inches wide and 2 inches thick, 4 full mouthfuls of meat!
My popularity was at its peak in camp that night and I had enough to stuff us and Paul and Sara. We pan-fried them in oil with garlic and salt. The density and sweetness of the flesh was incredible! They were so satisfying by themselves that we struggled to finish off our portions of rice we had prepared to accompany them.
The next night was Thanksgiving, and more of the same, only in a different location. I gathered in the morning before departure and put them in a ziploc with salt water. I stored them in my deckbag and sauteed them on the next beach (diff. prep. See campers garlic white sauce).
It was certainly a week to remember, four days of Thanksgiving really. There is no comparison to the feeling of full-belly satisfaction and after-glow of a decadent meal that you have gathered and prepared yourself.
This day was one of my best in the water. On the flipside, it was one of Jean-Philippe’s most challenging and frustrating as he describes it in his story, “When the hunter becomes hunted”.
In the grand chronological scheme of things, I'd always been under the impression that first comes marriage then the honeymoon and then the rocky road (disclaimer: my folks, and notable others, wonderful relationship are exceptions). If you happen to leave Loreto on a calm day, there is not rocky road to Honeymoon Cove, just 17 miles of smooth water through the straight between the Baja mainland and the imposing Isla Carmen.
We chose the day that the residual winds from the huge storm that thrashed the west coast of the US from Seattle to San Diego, came to town. It also turned out to be the day our spray skirts went on strike.
We had picked out the REI tropical weight spray skirt thinking it would be a great, lightweight, breathable, waterproof, sealed-fabric alternative to hot neoprene. For the first month it was, the bilgepump rarely left its perch on deck and we didn't overheat. The second month of use, we began to find our cockpits half full of water before the end of the day and within a couple of weeks, the waterproofing was almost gone. Any wave that splashed over us and pooled in the folds of the skirt would drip through leaving us splashing about hip-deep in water and making our boats difficult to handle.
The worst waves are the ones that are refracted, choppy and windblown and slop over the side of your boat. We had 16 miles to paddle through the narrow straight from Loreto to Honeymoon cove in waves of exactly that type. The first two hours we went with following seas and swell that wasn't blown over or breaking too often. We only had to stop and pump once.
The wind here seems to sense when you've reached the homestretch of a long crossing. It's a cruel and vindictive wind, and always blows harder when you've got the destination in sight. With less than half to go, the waves and wind stepped it up a level and every few seconds, our decks were washed over. There was almost a constant stream of water coming through the folds in the skirt fabric. After 15 minutes, I'd be up to my hips in water. The full sea-sock (a body condom-like sack that stuffs into our cockpits and takes the place of watertight bulkheads in our foldable boats, keeping them from filling up and sinking) would put pressure on the foot pedals keeping them at the same position and not allowing us to steer. At the mercy of the waves, I'd veer off to the side when surfing down the backside of the swell and no amount of sweep strokes would correct the direction of the cumbersome, waterlogged boat. The only solution was to peel back a tiny corner of the skirt, insert the pump and go at it like mad before another swell swamped me and filled me up entirely.
This pattern went on repeatedly for an hour and half. My right shoulder was developing a cramp from, frantic pumping and didn't seem to be making any progress. Finally with the island near and less than a mile to go I decided to make a run for it and get into the cove without any more pumping. I paid dearly for it. I was already half-full when a large set of waves washed over the deck four consecutive times, almost filling up the cockpit completely. The boat was riding extremely low and no amount of paddling would move it.
I opened the skirt a crack and slid the pump through like straw and began heaving up and down on the handle. I only had a few inches of clearance between the edge of the cockpit and the water and an untimely large set of waves crested the rim and filled me up. The kayak lurched and teetered and got caught in swell that directed it sideways away from the island. It was broadside to the waves.
I was very stressed and frustrated and did the only thing possible; I pumped furiously for five minutes before making any headway. By the time I got the boat riding high enough that I could maneuver it I was so tired on my right side that I could barely paddle.
I ended having to pump five more times in that last mile before I could get around the point and into the calm protected water and onto the beach that day. And in spite of the calm beauty of the cove, I spent the next two hours shaking and recovering. Lessons were learned that day, and heat be damned, neoprene is our only solution when we head to the Caribbean in February.
1 km = 0.62 statute miles
1 Nautical Mile = 1.85 km
1 Nautical Mile = 1.15 miles
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