Baja Day 5: Wet Exit!


I wake up in the middle of the night to sounds outside my tent. Something is moving and it doesn’t have a headlamp on. Then I hear breathing. It’s very close. I lie still. Should I get up and look? I slowly feel for my headlight but don’t find it. I lie quietly for several minutes. It seems to go away, maybe down to the water. I fall asleep. I see a dark shape through the mesh window of my tent -- the hind end of an animal, like a big  dog. I think that was a dream though. But I definitely heard something. 

At breakfast I ask if anyone else heard anything. No one did. Noah says that there are a couple of coyotes that live here though. One night he was sleeping while they came up about 3 feet away from him. Noah doesn’t sleep in a tent. Since he was downwind they didn’t notice him until he woke up and scared them away. 

“They like to lick the dew off the tents,” he says. “They’re actually pretty small, about the size of foxes.  You could take them on.”   

He says that another time at the same beach about 50 cows invaded the camp in the middle of the night.  People were pulling up their tents and scrambling to find somewhere else to sleep.


Practice on the water today is a review of everything covered in class. The wind picked up the in afternoon, blowing us out away from the protection of little cove. I’m in the big Tyee, trying to scull for support on my off side. I capsize, then try to roll up. My blade angle is wrong and my paddle dives. I’m almost falling out of the huge cockpit underwater. I pull myself back in, brace with my knees against the deck and try rolling up again but don’t make it. I know I’m rolling against the wind, and should try again on the other side but in frustration I wet exit instead. I can’t believe it! I don’t remember the last time I missed my roll and had to bail out. Noah comes to rescue me. 

“It was the wind,” I say. “I was rolling against it!” 

“It happens to the best of us,” he says.

I hate feathered euroblades and swear never to paddle with one again after this trip.

It’s the last night. Noah has been busy for the last hour squeezing all the leftover limes into a big pot, using a headlamp now that it’s dark. I go to my tent and dig out the same fork and blue plastic bowl I’ve been eating out of all week long. All anyone really needs for camping is one big bowl and a fork. Don’t bother with the titanium forks though. They are cool but if you lose them which is bound to happen then you’ve just lost a really expensive fork. 

“Time for margaritas!” someone says. 

Apparently that’s what Noah was working on for the last hour. It’s a little warm without any ice but otherwise an awesome field margarita! John is walking around pouring extra tequila in everyone’s mug.  “We gotta finish it all before we get back!”

After dinner we sit on the beach and the water starts to sparkle as it splashes against the rocks. The bioluminescence is here early tonight. We throw rocks into the water, lazily at first, then more regularly.  The splashes glow. Gay takes out a paddle, stands in the water and starts sculling across the surface, stirring up swirls of light. Then Noah gets his kayak and launches into the darkness. He’s making circles in the cove but I can’t see him except for the occasional glowing splash from his paddle. I reach down into the water and scoop up a handful of stars. It’s magical.

[Thanks to Jackie for the great pictures]



Baja Day 4: I am a Kayak Nerd


The wind blows through the night. I can hear it rush across the beach but I’m sheltered among the low trees. When morning comes it has died down completely. We pack for the next camp, this time heading north. I’m happy to leave the scorpion’s nest and dung piles behind.

Noah says that last week the wind blew from the north and brought in some big swell. He led his students over a 2 mile crossing to Isla Danzante in 8-12 ft waves. It took them over an hour just to land all the kayaks and he was sponging pee out of the cockpits at the end of it.

It’s hot . The sun is bright and the water flat. Pato is leading the group. We stop paddling for a water break.

“Whales!”  Noah says.  “Just to the left of that second island.”

We are all completely silent for several minutes, waiting and watching the horizon. Then just in front of White Rock we see the spray and big black humps. 

“Humpbacks,” Pato says. “Let’s get closer.” 

We paddle, trying to anticipate where they’ll come up again. After about 5 minutes we all stop and wait.  Silence again. Then they surface right in front of us. Big black humps, then the tail. They look a lot bigger up close, but it’s so hard to judge scale on the water. We paddle again, this time a lot harder, all the while looking around. Then stop and listen. The whales surface behind us, very close to shore. It looks like a mother and a pup. We watch them and slowly follow them along the cliffs, and leave them as they swim out to the north.


After lunch I tell Noah that I want to try the Chilco, a longer, narrower kayak. It has a tighter fit and feels like it should be easy to roll. I take it out into the protected cove of our new campsite. First I try a standard roll, then storm roll, armpit, crook of the arm, butterfly… I can’t get up with butterfly though.  Noah arrives in another kayak to join me.  He shows me “C to C”.  You know I’ve never really learned that one.  He shows me a paddle float roll and recovers leaning forward. It’s a lot like a norsaq roll using a paddle float on your hand, with a forward recovery. I grab a paddle float and roll up, but with a layback recovery. I set up for a reverse sweep, roll over by throwing myself back and pop up with a forward recovery. He asks how do you set up for that? I show him but he doesn’t try it since it’s a little unusual.  Enough showing off – it’s time for sculling practice…

We sit on the beach in the dark and the tequila is passed around. Someone asks me what’s the difference between the Aleut qayaq and the Greenland qajaq. I say that they probably all evolved from an ancestral skin boat when the first peoples migrated across the Bering Sea land bridge and through Alaska, Northern Canada and into Greenland. Jon Turk makes a good case for the migration from Asia to North America being a coastal marine migration in skin-on-frame kayaks and open deck boats. I talk about how the Greenlanders hunted seal in protected fjords, how the harpoon is constructed with a detachable tip and connected to a harpoon line and a float made with an air-filled seal skin float, how when a seal is harpooned the kayaker throws the float off the kayak and when the seal eventually tires from pulling the float it can be harpooned again and killed, how the different Greenland rolls probably developed as recovery methods when hunters capsized with their paddles tangled up in those harpoon lines or deck lines, how the Aleut paddled on rough water on exposed coasts, and the typical design of the baidarka with its truncated stern and bifid bow resulted in an extremely fast rough water boat that could surf even small waves and the concave surface on the bifid bow could not be constructed otherwise with skin-on-frame design, how the King Islanders used a single-bladed paddle for the King Island roll, how the Aleut were enslaved by the Russians to hunt sea otter in hunting parties involving hundreds of kayaks that traveled as far south as California and nearly drove the sea otter to extinction….


Then I stop myself. Jeez, how come I know all this stuff?  There are paddlers like Noah who know kayaking because they live it every day, wandering around and exploring lost lakes in Central America.  But me?  I suddenly realize that I’m just a kayak nerd! 


Baja Day 3: Windstorm


I’m in my tent in the middle of the night and the west wind is howling. Noah warned us that it might get a little windy so be sure to stake the tents down and put everything inside. I tied mine to piles of rocks in the corners. Now the wind is blasting sand against the tent. I can’t sleep because the tent is flapping and I’m waiting for something to pop loose and the whole thing to start rolling down the beach into the water. I put on fleece long underwear and a fleece cap and finally start to warm up. I see the sky grow pink as the sun rises and wonder if I got any sleep at all. Maybe when it warms up the wind will die down. 

The sky is totally clear when the sun is up. I see the others gathering in the shelter of the cliff by the water. I’m afraid if I get out the tent will pop loose, but I finally get out with my coffee mug and pile a few more rocks in the corners to keep everything down. I walk over to the cliff and on the way Jackie clambers out her tent which has collapsed and rolled over on its side. The others are running over with rocks to keep it from rolling away. I grab one of the lines and pull a corner back in place and stake it down.

At the cliff someone asks me, "Is it true that there are only 11 kayaks?" 

"I don’t know," I say. "I didn’t check. You mean we lost one of them last night?"

 "Noah says there were only 11 kayaks this morning."

One of the little Swifts is gone.  I can’t believe it!  The other kayaks look undisturbed so someone suggests that it was stolen. Is he just being a paranoid American?  All anyone had to do was sneak in during the night and paddle it over to the next beach to a waiting truck... in complete darkness and 25 mph winds gusting up to 35. 

Noah looks stressed. He’s on the VHF radio trying to contact the other Tofino groups. He and Pato abandoned making pancakes this morning because of the wind. A big pot of pancake batter sits in the sand. We all huddle in the shelter of the cliff and eat granola and yogurt. A friendly black dog from the nearby ranch that has been with us since last night lies between John’s legs. Some of us try to nap while we wait for a plan from Noah. Finally Noah tells us that Pato is going to hike to the ranch and borrow a boat and go search for the missing kayak. Apparently he has done it before with success. The wind is still howling with no sign of dying down so we aren’t getting on the water anyway. We are free to do whatever we want until lunch. 

First thing everyone does is move their tents off of the beach into more sheltered locations among the bushes. I find a place near an old fire pit among piles of dried donkey dung. I kick over some rocks I want to use to anchor the tent and uncover a scorpion. Noah is helping me and sees it. “That’s a good sized one”, he says.


Later Jackie, Rebecca, John and I go for a hike along the ridge west of camp. The black dog comes along and we follow him thinking he knows a way along some trails but we just end up walking along an arroyo into a canyon. It’s sunny and pleasant in the canyon which is sheltered from the wind. There are a few caves in the cliffs. Jackie goes into a big one looking for petroglyphs and is startled when a couple bats fly out at her. Along the path back to camp there are small mounds of dirt with tunnels in the middle of them. Jackie thinks they must be some kind of nest. Later Pato tells us that they were made by tarantulas

By lunch the kayak still had not been found. In the afternoon Noah takes us on a paddle back to the cove in front of the hot spring to work on bracing. Rebecca chooses to stay behind. The cove isn’t completely sheltered and the water is a little rough so a few people capsize and we get to practice more rescues with the wind pushing us into the rocks. Afterwards we all peel off our wetsuits and get into the hot spring. A solo yellow kayak appears from the south -- it’s Pato! He never did find the missing white Swift, so he ended up renting another kayak from the ranch. Like a trusty Mexican sidekick out of some ethnocentric American western, he walked 18 miles that day to the ranch then paddled north to camp to complete his mission. Later the rancher came by the camp to collect the rent, dressed in leather and riding a burro, straight out of a western himself.

[TO BE CONTINUED: That's it for a few days.  I got my drysuit and helmet packed and I'm off to the Body Boat Blade BCU 4 Star Training in Neah Bay, for some fun in real "conditions"! ]


Baja Day 2: Wet Exit


All this sun is going to drive me crazy!  The first thing I do in the morning is put on sunscreen and shades before even getting out of my tent. By 8 AM it’s hot. We have breakfast and start to break camp. After I pack up I crouch in the shadow of the cave and trim the jagged edges of a fingernail with my new little buck knife. One thing I learned on this trip is that you should always bring nail clippers. We prepare to paddle half a day south to the next campsite.

This is probably the third time I’ve taken a course which starts from the very beginning and they have you practice wet exits.  It’s t-shirt and shorts weather but the water feels cold, probably around 60 degrees. I’m wearing a long farmer john and a long black sleeve shirt from the recently defunct Gig Harbor Kayak Center. “OK, I’m going to try a couple rolls now” – I pull it off, both sides. Ah, refreshing! I’m in that old Tyee with A Euroblade so it feels awkward. And now the rudder has popped loose and it’s swinging off to the side. I ask Pato to put it back in place. The little bungee that keeps it secured to the deck is missing.

Before the trip we talked as a group about our previous kayaking experience and it was clear that I had the most training of any of the students. Noah asked me if I was OK with going through all the basic exercises and strokes again and I said yeah, I’ll just have fun with it. We made an agreement though that if he sees me practice bad form he would get all BCU on my ass. So I ended up learning quite a bit thanks to him and my form has improved. Noah just completed the 4 Star Sea assessment before coming to Baja. He said that during his exam it wasn’t always good enough to perform each individual stroke correctly. What his assessor really wanted to see was strokes combined and flowing together seamlessly, like a forward stroke merging into a hanging draw, or a bow rudder into a forward stroke.


After wet exit and rescue practice we paddle to one of the highlights of the week, a hot spring bubbling up in the intertidal zone. We park the kayaks and walk across the rocks to a murky green puddle. This is it?!  I had imagined it a lot bigger. It turns out to have room for plenty of people to stretch out in it though. The water burns my ankles as I step in, and I have to take a minute before sitting down. The high tide will cover the spring completely over and wash it out, so it’s important to get there at low tide, and before other kayaking groups start to move in.

After doing a little snorkeling I see another group of people walking toward the hot spring. Apparently it’s the women’s paddling group camped in the next beach over. “Hola,"  I say as pass them on the way back to our kayaks. Jackie starts up a conversation with them while they start to strip completely naked and step in. I turn around and double back to the spring. “Um, Jackie… Hey, did I leave my snorkel back here? Anyone see my snorkel?”


Have you ever used one of those river toilets? It consists of a plastic box and a detachable toilet seat. The procedure is to first pee in the intertidal zone to keep the volume in the toilet down. Then take the designated toilet paper roll in the zip lock bag so that everyone knows that someone else is using the baño. Don’t put the used toilet paper in the baño because it makes it a lot harder to clean out. There is a separate plastic bag for all the used toilet paper. It’s actually not that unpleasant to use because you’re out alone in the middle of nature and can admire the scenery. Plus there is plenty of ventilation. I admit I had to fish the toilet paper out of the tank with a stick a couple times because I forgot to put it in the plastic bag, but I bet everyone has done that!



Baja Day 1: Meet the Guides


This is Pato and Noah, kayak guides for the Wilderness Kayak Institute Sea of Cortez Skills Course. Pato is NOLS trained and a resident of Magdalena Bay.He has been a kayak guide for the past 8 years, and used to be a fisherman until the fishing started to go bad. By the way, El Pato means “The Duck” in Spanish. Noah is BCU trained, 4 Star Sea. He spent the last few years wandering around Central and South America, making friends wherever he went and paddling in borrowed kayaks. Before that he spent a couple years teaching underprivileged American kids to survive in the wilderness of Patagonia, backpacking and kayaking, until the funds for the nonprofit he worked for dried up. A big tattoo accentuates the rippling muscles of his left upper arm. He has been working for Tofino/WKI in Baja now since December.

“This is officially a non-alcoholic trip guys,” he says. “But if you are interested in getting something, I know a grocery on the way out.”

We stop and John buys a couple bottles of tequila for the group. There is a wide variety of tequila at the grocery store but luckily John seems to know how to pick the good stuff!


A van drives us down dusty dirt roads to the put-in, a shallow bay where seagulls fight over fish scraps thrown by fishermen. The wreck of an old sailboat and a station wagon sit half buried in the sand. I’m assigned what must be the oldest boat in the fleet – a green Seaward Tyee. The cockpit is surrounded by some serious cracks in the gel coat and the neoprene hatch covers have gotten all crusty. It’s a barge.  I have so much room left over after packing that I could easily have brought more stuff. I would have liked to have brought at least another couple t-shirts. I sit with a couple 8 L water bags in the cockpit, one behind the seat and one under my knees


After a half day’s paddle we make it to camp. I set up my tent near a shallow cave. All over these campsites the previous visitors leave collections of shells, fish skeletons, and coral, little “museums” set up on the beach or in holes in the cliffs. We get a fire going as Noah and Pato prepare dinner: quesadillas, black beans, guacamole, and salsa. It tastes great! I didn't think I'd like it so much but the tequila turned out to be a good choice too. The night starts to get cool but it's warm by the fire. John passes the bottle around again and I pour a shot into my titanium mug. Others take shots right out of the bottle cap. What a great group of people!


Around the fire Noah gives a little safety chat. Watch out for scorpions: they like to crawl under tents and air mattresses for the warmth. So keep your tent closed at all times and keep your stuff inside. If you get bitten it’ll hurt a lot, like a really bad bee sting, but it’s not life threatening. There are also rattlesnakes around. If you encounter one just slowly back off. If you get bit, well… just try not to panic. You’ll probably be OK. When snorkeling watch out for scorpion fish. They have really nasty stingers and blend into the rocks. You can also get stung by sting rays. They lie on the sandy bottom and will sting you if you step near them. The best thing to do is to shuffle your feet when walking in the water, or just not stand up anywhere when snorkeling. I ask Noah what is the worst thing that ever happened on one of these trips and he says, “ One night everybody got so drunk on tequila they were too hung over the next morning to paddle...”



Off To Baja!


Spent the whole day running around getting gear together for my Sea of Cortez Expedition Skills Course through Wilderness Kayak Institute. Had to replace two leaky drybags and a hydration system, a knife (got a shorter one that should make it through the airport), and dug out my old snorkeling gear. I learned that compression dry bags help a lot -- don't bother buying dry bags that don't compress!

This trip seems to come at the right time, after weeks of dealing with upheaval at my job (not made any better by me planning to leave). As you can tell my cedar strip kayak has been on hold for a number of days (means I've been busy). Hopefully, during this next week in the desert I'll have the chance to focus, get my priorities straight, and decide what I really want. It'll be good to have to worry only about food, shelter, sleep, and my forward stroke.

The route takes us around the islands of Parque Nacional Bahia Loreto. I chose this trip though Tofino (Wilderness Kayak Institute) because it was skills oriented and I'd get to paddle my own kayak. In a lot of those guided tours on the Sea of Cortez you get stuck in a double and a support boat powers on ahead of the group so when you get to camp it's already set up with big tents, chairs, coolers full of ice cold beer and a barbeque grill. Sounds kind of fun but I'd be embarrassed to say I went on one of those trips!

So one week without posts, but I should have plenty of new pics and stories when I return!