Kayak in God's Pocket, Smarter Travel Dec. 2008| December, 2008
by Molly Feltner, SmarterTravel.com Staff - December 8, 2008 Sea Kayak Adventures has a great itinerary for veteran sea kayakers seeking for a new destination to explore or beginners who want to try a multi-day excursion without having to rough it: A six-day trip in British Columbia's God's Pocket Marine Provincial Park based out of an island resort in the middle of the park. Not only will you get to experience a spectacular region seldom visited by other kayakers—at the end of a good paddle you can unwind with a yoga session and a hot shower followed by a made-from-scratch meal in the comfy God's Pocket Resort to which the company has exclusive access. "The lodge is a jewel and it is the only structure allowed in God's Pocket Provincial Park," says Nancy Mertz, co-owner of Sea Kayak Adventures. "This virtually uninhabited island chain provides sheltered kayaking next to nutrient-laden currents where salmon gather in huge numbers. The salmon are eagerly sought after by the northern resident subspecies of orca, bald eagles, and seals. Not a trip goes by that we don't see humpback and minke whales, dall's porpoises, and sea otters. As we kayak along our emerald isles and rocky points, we can look across the Queen Charlotte Strait to the snow-capped peaks of the BC Coastal Range—just spectacular. So we have incredible scenery right in the heart of spectacular wildlife and yet are close to shelter from the elements if need be." During the trip, you'll kayak for about four hours each day with a break for lunch in between. In the afternoon you'll have time for hiking on the island and a yoga class before a happy hour on the resort's sun deck and then dinner. If you want a break from paddling for a day you can hang out at the resort or, if you're scuba certified, go diving with the lodge's host, who is also a dive master. "Jacques Cousteau named this area the world's best cold water scuba dive site," says Mertz. This trip departs June 29. Other God's Pocket trips not including yoga begin every Monday between July 6 and August 3. Prices include transfers to God's Pocket Resort, lodging, meals, kayaking equipment and instruction, yoga, and guides. Transportation to the trip start location in Point Hardy, British Columbia, is extra. Round-trip June airfare from Los Angeles to Vancouver, starts at $451, including taxes, on US Airways. From Vancouver, it's an eight-hour drive to Port Hardy.
Mexico Paddle Power, TravelAge West Dec 2008| December, 2008
By Mark Chesnut TravelAge West, December 6, 2008 Baja sunset Green. Eco-friendly. Carbon-neutral. These terms are thrown around all the time in today’s evolving travel industry, but what exactly do these buzz words mean for travelers, and how does one small tour operator make its own footprint even smaller? This year, Canada-based tour operator, Sea Kayak Adventures, announced that it is the first sea-kayaking and whale-watching company operating in Loreto, Baja California Sur, to become certified as a carbon-neutral company. In other words, the company — which has been in business since 1993 — now plans to offset 100 percent of the energy used in all of its tour operations, from now on. To achieve this goal, the company partnered with NativeEnergy, an organization that aims to combat global warming through the support of Native American, farmer-owned and charitable renewable energy projects. "We’d read about NativeEnergy in several magazines and looked it up online and on Al Gore’s Web site," said Nancy Mertz, co-owner of Sea Kayak Adventures. "We liked what we saw, and that a river-rafting company in the U.S. had done it. We chose to do it without really researching any other entity, and decided we could pay what it took to [obtain carbon-neutral status]." The company also decided to make the change without raising its rates or altering its existing operations. To offset its own carbon output, Sea Kayak Adventures now pays to support two different projects: the Schrack Family Farm methane project, which recovers waste heat to reduce the need for oil-fired water heating, and the Farmer-Owned Distributed Wind Turbines project, which funds the sale and installation of wind turbines to help farmers reduce their long-term electricity needs and lower their energy costs. In other words, these two projects help to create less carbon output, and in turn, Sea Kayak Adventures’ contributions to both projects reduce its own environmental footprint. So while the tour operator’s customers may not notice any difference, the global environment should ideally enjoy the benefits. Sea Kayak Adventures may also benefit from its environmentally conscious reputation. The company’s carbon-neutral policy is a "vitally important" selling point, according to Diane Bunting, a yoga and meditation instructor in Gig Harbor, Wash., who organizes yoga-kayak excursions to Baja California. "For me doing a yoga-kayak trip, one of the things that is of great interest to me is that each tour benefits all beings, not just humanity," she said. Bunting said that being eco-friendly is a plus for the people she’s taken on trips. "There’s a lot of social consciousness, and I appreciate that," she said. "Knowing the people that have been on the last three trips, I think being carbon-neutral would definitely be a selling point for them." Mertz said that, as far as she knows, Sea Kayak Adventures is the first kayaking operator to become carbon-neutral. "We wanted to be the first sea kayak operator to do so," she said, "and I think we are. We strongly believe in it, and we want to keep being a trendsetter — for example, we were the first sea-kayak company in Baja to develop and start using a porta-potty made specifically to fit into a double-touring kayak. Now, it is required by the national park there." The company’s offerings in 2009 include the Sea of Cortez Islands Quick Adventure, which begins at $995 and includes four days of sea kayaking and three nights of camping, plus two nights in a hotel with pool. The Sea of Cortez Islands and Magdalena Bay Whale Watching Combo remains its most popular tour. Available in February and March (when gray whales give birth), this eight-day program starts at $1,330 and includes five days of kayaking in the Sea of Cortez, with four nights of camping, and one day of gray whale watching. The 10-day program, starting at $1,795, also includes two nights at a whale-watching base camp. The 12-day Isla Carmen Circumnavigation program includes 10 days of kayaking, two nights in a hotel and all sleeping and camping gear, as well as the services of a naturalist guide. Priced at $1,695, it is available only once a year, in April, when the water is calm. Not only does Sea Kayak Adventures get up-close to the wonders of Baja, the tour operator also takes clients to some of British Columbia’s most scenic spots. On the six-day Wilderness Islands Sea Kayak Tour, clients will explore the islands and passages of Queen Charlotte Strait. On an average day, they will kayak for an average of two hours in the morning (after breakfast), stop for lunch on the beach and kayak another two hours after lunch. Dinners are served at one of the four different camps visited along the way. Clients can expect to see humpback and minke whales, seals, sea otters, porpoises and bald eagles while paddling around the remote island chain and through the intricate channels that make up God's Pocket Provincial Marine Park and Queen Charlotte Strait. The price for the Wilderness Islands excursion is approximately $1,500, and it is available for August 2009 bookings. According to the company, Johnstone Strait is the "best place in the world to observe wild orcas." So, it seems only natural that the six-day Johnstone Strait tour remains a popular offering for the 16-year old tour operator. The expedition departs from Telegraph Cove to Robson Bight Orca Preserve, located in the middle of orca territory off northern Vancouver Island. Four days will be dedicated to kayaking, whale-watching, hiking and creating dialogue about the surrounding wilderness. The tour costs approximately $1,400, and it is available for July and August bookings. On both itineraries, youth ages 14-17 receive a 10 percent discount. www.seakayakadventures.com Mark Chesnut (718) 396-5313 MarkChesnut@aol.com www.MarkChesnut.com Contributing Writer, Business Traveler Magazine: www.btusonline.com; Performance Media Group: www.performancemediallc.com; TravelAge West: www.travelagewest.com; Travel Weekly: www.travelweekly.com; Latin Trade: www.latintrade.com Contributing Editor, Passport Magazine: www.passportmagazine.com Writer/Host, Passport.TV WorldBeat: www.passportmagazine.com/tv/index.php?media=WorldBeat Contributing Editor, American Express Custom Publishing Solutions: http://amexpub.com/travelinsights/
Absolutely Killer, The Spokesman-Review Sept. 2008| September, 2008
Sea kayaking with orcas is up close and personal By Rich Landers The Spokesman-Review Posted September 23, 2008 While some people are content to simply watch killer whales, sea kayakers have a yen to experience them. The payoff for investing a few days and a little muscle power can be huge, as another eclectic group of adventurers learned this summer in the fabled orca waterways off northeastern Vancouver Island. From the cozy cocoon of a kayak cockpit, the paddlers felt the forceful channel currents that govern the movements of salmon and the orcas that prey on them. View Photo Journal Carrying gear beyond the high tide line let them feel the sea-polished stones that lure an orca to rub its 6-ton body against the beach much as a cat soothes itself against the family room couch. Camping along orca waters provided 24-hours-a-day to see, hear and understand orcas and the rest of their marine environment. Paddling slowly along beds of bull kelp, kayakers looked into the clear waters at sea cucumbers, urchins and, when the sea stars fell into perfect alignment, a few of them looked into the eye of a 20-some-foot killer whale cruising a few yards under their 18-foot kayaks. The extraordinary thing about this six-day sea-kayaking expedition is that it was comprised of ordinary people. A librarian, a marketing specialist, a physical education instructor, a retired fireman, an ultra-sound technologist and a Disneyland maintenance specialist none of whom had more than modest fair-weather paddling experience were in a group taking bold strokes beyond their comfort zone. Bobbing like a cork in a kayak, half under and half above the surface of the sea, Californian Janet Zuhse pointed to cruise ship in the distance steaming down the Inside Passage from Alaska. “That was my other option for this vacation,” she said with a sigh. “And I chose a kayak?” “I’d do just about anything for a chance to get close to an orca,” said Michelle Laferriere of Florida as she warmed up and sipped wine by a driftwood fire after a rainy day of paddling. Three guides from Coeur d’Alene-based Sea Kayak Adventures provided the boats, gear, experience and instruction. With this measure of security, the group ventured through Johnstone Strait, a 2-mile wide, 50-mile-long glacier-carved channel. The company enables paddling novices to defer the skills of reading complicated tide and current charts and monitoring weather radio. When a storm leaves the strait awash in whitecaps, the guides know which islands provide calm waters. This was far more than a paddle trip from one point to another. This trip had no mother ship, so everyone had to pack a portion of the group food and equipment along with personal gear into the roomy and stable tandem kayaks. The group learned kayaking skills, and how to leave no trace of their visit. Paddling for about four hours a day provided a balance for exploration by kayak and by foot. Killer whales were tops on everybody’s learn-about list. And we were disappointed. They both teased us from far away by blowing plumes of mist and by getting up close. “Keep watching and listening,” guide Serina Bain reminded the trippers each day as they paddled, and each evening at camp. Paddling through this marine paradise was a mesmerizing adventure even without whales. Dall’s porpoises, seals and sea lions were constant companions. Oyster catchers and marbled murrelets winged past. The paddlers often ventured out on foot to explore beaches, tide pools and the rainforest. Driftwood campfires brightened the evening conversation. One night, for those willing to venture out at 11 p.m. in the envelope of total darkness, Bain led a short trip so paddler’s could thrill at marine bioluminescence. With each stroke, phosphorescent plankton gave the illusion of molten metal dripping off their paddles and swirling by the boats like a million underwater camera flashes. Back on shore, one tripper stayed up long after the others had drifted to sleep in their tents, skipping rocks on the water. With each rapid-fire set of splashes, Tinkerbelle seemed to be tapping her magic wand to create a necklace of little sparkling explosions in the sea. The real magic began on the fifth day. Camped on a rocky point along the strait, the group had just finished another delicious dinner when they heard whales blowing in the distance. Two humpbacks. They came within a hundred yards of shore. Cool. Soon, more blowing could be heard. A pod of orcas including a big bull, cruised past somewhat randomly 200-300 yards off shore. When they disappeared around the bend, the kayakers cheered and gave each other high fives. A few even headed to their tents, satisfied. Fifteen minutes later, Bain yelled, “Their coming back! They’re right on shore.” The big male had paired with a female. Like two lovers holding hands and strolling on a beach, they swam virtually touching each other, surfacing in a perfect rhythm. First the female would blow, then the male. They would duck underwater only 20 or 30 feet before repeating, over and over as they paralleled the shore. Several of the paddlers had scrambled down the rock outcropping and stood at water’s edge as some younger orcas cruised by just below their feet. One whale turned on its side, trained an eye on the slack-jawed onlookers and flapped a pectoral flipper at them. Another orca slapped its tail flukes on the surface four or five times as it went by. These socially developed and highly intelligent marine mammals were clearly putting on a show. Tears dripped from the Floridian’s eyes. Darkness finally drove everybody to the tents, giddy, fulfilled, and without a clue this was just a warm up. Mirror-smooth seas and sunshine greeted the kayakers for their last day of paddling and return to Telegraph Cove. The Chinese Olympic Committee could not have planned a more thrilling finale. Out of nowhere, orcas appeared in the distance, porpoising and exhaling with booming sighs. “They’re coming right at us,” somebody called. Following whale-watching rules, Bain told the paddlers to raft the eight kayaks together in a kelp bed. While a commercial whale-watching vessel idled in the distance, the pod of killer whales soon was milling around the kayaks. One orca was flipping kelp into the air with its flukes. Then, as though the kayaks were an orca magnet, another group of five killer whales could be seen coming right at the paddlers from two miles across Johnstone Strait. In the next several minutes, the dorsal fins got bigger and bigger. They sliced like knives through the sea surface directly at the paddlers. About 100 yards away, the whales dove. Surface ripples melted away. Everyone stopped breathing. A few dozen tons of fins, muscle and teeth torpedoed under the suddenly small and unsubstantial shells of fragile fiberglass. Then the orca’s blew the paddlers’ minds, surfacing one by one around them. “It doesn’t happen like that every time,” Bain said later, after everyone’s heart rate had slowed to a purr. “But it will never happen to people who don’t make the effort to be out here.”
Whale Watching by Kayak in British Columbia, National Geographic Traveller August 2008| August, 2008
By Norie Quintos, a senior editor at National Geographic Traveller Magazine August 2008 Kayaking British Columbia Whale-Watching by Kayak in British Columbia Senior editor Norie Quintos edits Traveler's annual Tours of a Lifetime issue, which selects the 50 best guided tours of the year. So what did she do on her family vacation? She took two tours out West. This week she blogs about sea kayaking in British Columbia; next week, rafting on Idaho’s Salmon River. And the following week, she'll share tips on planning a great family trip. It took three flights and an hour-long boat ride from northern Vancouver Island to get to Hurst Island, in the heart of one of British Columbia’s newest provincial parks, God’s Pocket. There, a charming seven-room lodge at the water’s edge served as our base for exploring the area by kayak. I’ve kayaked before, but no way was I going to do it in unfamiliar (not to mention sea mammal-laden) waters, and with two kids in tow. This was a job for an expert outfitter and the one I called on was Sea Kayak Adventures, which has been guiding trips to this area since 1993. The Couer-d’Alene-based company also runs trips to Baja in winter. The kids weren’t so keen on encountering Shamu up close, but I was fixated on seeing orcas. So it came as a bit of a shock that during the entire five-day trip, we saw not a one. Not. A. One. Apparently, wild orcas, unlike their unfortunate caged brethren at SeaWorld, don’t perform on a schedule, which is why all whale-watching tour operators in the region, including ours, never guarantee sightings. But we did spot something else in the water. And that something else turned out to be just as awesome and thrilling. Huge humpback whales, hunted to near extinction and a rare sight in this former whaling area, have made a dramatic comeback in the last decade. We spotted several humpbacks, including a mother and calf that entered the cove at the entrance to the lodge. However, the encounter that made chills run down my spine was kayaking on Browning Passage and hearing behind us the forceful exhalation of air through the blowhole of one of these otherwise silent creatures—like Darth Vader, but friendlier. Is there anyone who can listen to the breath of that gentle giant (which might have gone the way of the dodo) and not become an instant environmentalist? Sea CucumberOther wildlife sightings also lessened the sting of the orcas’ absence. Bald eagles were as common as robins back East. In the water we encountered various porpoises, dolphins, and seals. Marine invertebrates were also wild and wonderful, especially when interpreted by one of our expert guides. Sea cucumbers, which squirt when held (pictured, left); voracious sea stars, which push their stomachs out of their mouths to eat; tiny dinoflagellates that glow fluorescent when you churn the water. Human legs get restless when they’ve been in a kayak all day. The cure was hiking through mossy, forested Hurst Island. Here and there we’d spot a massive old-growth cedar tree that early 20th-century loggers had left behind. Our guide was Lewis, the irrepressible chocolate Lab owned by lodge co-owners Bill Weeks and Annie Ceschi; Lewis led us to a kitchen midden, a great mound of discarded shells left by the First Nations people who once lived here. Another day, the dog took us to Harlequin Bay, on the northeast side of the island. For Sasquatch believers, this is Ground Zero. Over the years, there have been numerous sightings of Sasquatch (i.e. Bigfoot) in the area, and Native American residents of neighboring Balaklava Island are said to avoid the northeastern part of Hurst Island. And even lodge co-owner Annie Ceschi has had enough unexplainable experiences that she can no longer discount its existence. “Let’s put it this way: I’m open,” she says. And that is what is so great about travel. It opens your mind (perhaps even blows it) to ideas you would never, ever, have considered before. Sasquatch lives? Having kayaked these waters, walked these forests, heard the stories, the kids and I, well, let’s just say we’re open to it too.
Close Encounters of the Whale Kind, Travel World June 2008| June, 2008
Head to Baja to See California Gray Whales By Nancy Schretter Travel World Magazine May/June 2008 The parade started at sunrise. I was standing on the bluff watching the inlet's colors turn to violet when I heard the first "phoof." A mother California Gray Whale and her baby calf were making their way through the water, less than a stone's throw away. Suddenly, the colors of the sunrise took a backseat to what I was seeing before me. Our little group of campers had front row seats for one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring shows on earth. In less than an hour's time, four pairs of mothers and calves slowly made their way past our campsite. Some were surrounded by schools of dolphins, jumping and frolicking together. Others put on an acrobatic display, breaching multiple times and then spy hopping as if to make sure we were watching. The last pair came within several feet of the shore, so close that we could almost feel the fine mist from their blowholes as they exhaled. Our group stood, cameras in hand, watching the magnificent spectacle. Every fall, hundreds of California Gray Whales leave their cold Artic feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas and journey more than 5,000 miles to Baja California's shallow lagoons to mate and bear their calves. From our campsite along the shores of Baja's Magdalena Bay, it was quite common to see young calves swimming next to their mothers. These newborns are anything but tiny. According to our guides, the calves weigh close to a ton when they are born and are approximately twelve to fifteen feet in size. When viewed next to their forty-foot mothers, however, the young calves do look quite small. The whales usually remain in Baja's estuaries from mid-January through mid-March before returning back to Alaska. Sea Kayak Adventure's Gray Whales of Magdalena Bay trip offers outdoor-loving families the chance to get up close and personal with wild California Gray Whales. Tour participants arrive and overnight in Loreto on Mexico's Sea of Cortez before journeying across the Baja peninsula to Puerto Lopez Mateos on Magdalena Bay. Small skiffs called "pangas" ferry group members to the Isla Santo Domingo campsite and on daily whale watching trips. Tours range in length from five to seven days, and sea kayaking is usually included as part of the six- and seven-day itineraries. This trip is well-suited for adventurous families with teens and college-age children, although kids as young as eight are welcome. Although comfortable two-person dome tents and warm sleeping bags with extra thick self-inflating pads are provided, kids should have prior camping experience and be able to "rough it" at a campsite with no running water or electricity. The Sea Kayak Adventures campsite has a solar shower and a porta potty in a shelter, but there are no fresh water sources on the island. Tour guides prepare three meals daily and special dietary needs can easily be accommodated if notified in advance. On our recent trip, we spent our days whale watching, sea kayaking, beachcombing along miles of deserted beaches, and hiking in the sand dunes. The daily itinerary varied and was based on the interests of the group. Some days included two sessions of whale watching, while on other days we went whale watching in the morning and sea kayaking in the afternoon. Our group also enjoyed a full day of sea kayaking and birding in the mangrove areas of the Bay. Gray whales came close to our boat on every one of our group's whale watching sessions, often with babies in tow. We watched countless spy hops, a behavior in which the whale pokes its head out of the water, as well as a number of impressive breaches. All of them were fantastic, but the best was saved for last. On our final whale watching excursion, one mother whale and her baby calf lingered in our area for a long time. The two meandered slowly from one panga to another, occasionally coming up and spy hopping right next to the boat as if to get a good look at its occupants. The mother went under one of our group's two boats to scratch her back as her baby enjoyed being stroked. Then, they turned in our direction and the mother seemed to shepherd her baby towards our skiff. We collectively held our breath. At last, the mother surfaced next to our panga, almost like a house rising out of the water. Her baby was right next to her. The two of them hovered there, close enough for us to reach out and stroke their smooth, silky skin. It felt soft and rubbery under my fingertips, almost like a wet inner tube, and my hand lingered in the water. The mother turned, and for a moment, her luminous eye caught mine. Then, the baby turned slowly and rolled on its side, one flipper out of the water, as if to say goodbye. They moved away, splashing and churning the water, before returning once more for a final pat. We were very lucky to have such a close encounter with a pair of whales. Panga operators in Magdalena Bay abide by strict rules prohibiting them from chasing whales, so whales approach the skiffs only when they choose to do so. Although the gray whales of Magdalena Bay are known for their friendly behavior, these gentle giants certainly do not perform on command. Sea Kayak Adventures also operates kayaking trips on the west coast of Canada during the summer months. There, the close encounters are with whales of a different kind. Orca whales are often seen on Sea Kayak Adventures' Johnstone Strait and God's Pocket Provincial Park trips. "Johnstone Strait is the best place in the world to paddle with orcas, due to the fish funnel found in nature," says Sea Kayak Adventures' co-owner Nancy Mertz. Salmon come in from the Pacific Ocean to the narrowest part of the Inside Passage, called Johnstone Strait. The "northern resident orcas" in that area eat only salmon, and they converge on the area to feast on the fish in the summer months. In late August of last year, Nancy Mertz says she saw about a hundred orcas in just a couple of hours in Johnstone Strait. According to Mertz, "All the family pods get together there from mid-July through early September to feast, socialize and hang out in the Strait – making it a wonderful place to kayak." Kids over 14 are eligible to participate in the Canadian sea kayaking trips and teens ages 14-18 receive a 10% discount on their tours. Participants must be at least 5 feet tall and weigh 100 pounds or more in order to paddle in their double kayaks. Special family teen trips are also held each summer. For more information on Sea Kayak Adventures' trips, visit their website at www.seakayakadventures.com or call their office at 800-616-1943.
Baja at Sea Level, Houston Chronicle January 2008| January, 2008
By Kari Bodnarchuk - an award-winning freelance writer and photographer. Brought to you by the HoustonChronicle.com January 18, 2008 Sea of Cortés, Mexico — "Dolphins at 2 o'clock," said Melissa, a fellow paddler, and we all glanced over to watch four gray dolphins come splashing by, arcing out of the water, flipping, and slapping their tails playfully on the ocean's surface. A flock of pelicans soon followed, flying single file just inches above the water, riding the air currents on their way stage right. "OK, cue the whales," joked Rob, another kayaker. As if in a comedy sketch, whales soon appeared, spouting a misty funnel of spray in the distance, just to the right of the chiseled brown hills at the base of the Sierra Giganta mountains. This scene repeated itself daily as we kayaked around Mexico's Sea of Cortés, though sometimes we spotted a fin whale, rather than a blue whale. Or maybe a great blue heron or osprey stood in for the pelicans. The day my friend Cathi called to suggest a "girls' getaway," temperatures in New England — where I lived at the time — registered as much as 30 degrees below zero. I was game. She wanted to do something active and outdoorsy, requiring little thought, preparation or extra gear, and preferably a trip she wouldn't do with her kids, ages 2 and 5. I wanted something a little more adventurous, in a spot where temperatures were a good 100 degrees warmer than at home. Baja fit the bill on all counts. We weren't big on guided or organized trips, but sea kayaking around an unfamiliar area as wonderfully remote as Baja's offshore islands was not an activity we would have tried to do alone. Seven of us had signed up to spend a week paddling around two uninhabited islands in Bahía de Loreto, a newly established national marine park. This would be a wilderness adventure, we were told — no showers, no civilization (we saw only a few fishermen, two other kayaking groups and a lone tour boat all week), and we would carry a week's worth of supplies in our kayaks. The outfitter, Sea Kayak Adventures, would provide all camping and kayaking gear, plus guides who, it turned out, could field even our silliest questions and also whip up the most mouthwatering meals — a mix of Mexican and U.S. dishes. We kayakers, in turn, were expected to pitch our tents, wash our dishes, paddle and have fun — quite opposite the high-stress, rigorous pace most of us usually experienced. The paddlers in our group ranged from 26 to 52 years old and had flown in from St. Louis, Denver, Boston and Wisconsin, as well as Vermont and Oregon. We had a recreational therapist, two writers, a former submarine officer and three "computer people," including Rob, who confessed that despite living at the foot of the Rockies, the closest he gets to nature is looking at a scenic screen saver on his computer. Several of us were experienced kayakers, while others had never paddled before, but there were no prerequisites. The trip began in Puerto Escondido, half an hour south of Loreto, the oldest settlement in Baja and once the capital of California, when this Spanish-ruled area stretched from Baja to San Francisco. (The town still has a 300-year-old mission to explore.) Loreto lies 600 miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border, and it maintains an easy pace. It has roadside vendors selling silver jewelry, Mexican blankets and other handmade crafts, a few small hotels, one supermarket and several outstanding hole-in-the-wall restaurants. It's less than three hours by air from Houston. After a safety talk, during which we learned basic paddling and rescue techniques, we set off in our two-person, 21-foot kayaks. Each fiberglass boat weighed about 200 pounds, had specially designed foam-padded seats and adjustable backrests (a big plus after a few hours of paddling), and was named according to its vibrant color: Mary Kay (bright pink), Winterfresh (light green), Piña Colada (a dusty yellow), and so on. That first day on the water, we kayaked alongside Isla Danzante, where the jade-colored water was so translucent we could see hundreds of sea creatures below us: starfish, orange sea horses, sergeant majors and parrotfish, plus mounds of coral. A few feet offshore, the water turns deep blue and plunges 1,200 feet, making it an ideal spot for a mammal the length of a Boeing 737 to feed the blue whale. Off the east coast of Baja, Bahía de Loreto national marine park encompasses about 800 miles of coastline and offshore islands, including the two we called home for six days, Isla Danzante and Isla Carmen. This area was formed when tectonic plates split apart, cracking open mountains and severing a part of Mexico from the mainland. This left behind a 1,000-mile-long finger-shaped stretch of land known as Baja California and one of the earth's youngest seas. That was about 25 million years ago. Later, as the area was split open along the San Andreas Fault, intense volcanic activity repeatedly sent lava flow upon lava flow, forming the mountains seen here today. Jacques Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortés "one of the world's aquariums." It is considered the richest body of water on the planet, biologically speaking, because it has more than 3,000 species of marine life. It's a bird-watcher's paradise, too, and heaven for anyone who needs a stress-free escape or is simply in search of good waterborne adventure. My compadres and I spent two to five hours on the water each day, paddling by cliffs where white trees (palos blancos) grew out of cracks in the volcanic rock, past valleys full of towering cordon cactus and sage-colored scrub, and around rocky headlands where birds perched on rocks and held out their wings, like a mother's welcoming arms, to let them dry in the sea breeze. Although the Sea of Cortés can be choppy, we had four days of glassy or just slightly rippled seas, resembling nothing more than a corduroy surface. The calm water helped preserve our strength and also made spotting wildlife easier. As we kayaked along Isla Carmen, past sand and coral beaches, blue-footed boobies and ospreys soared overhead. We spotted a manta ray with a 6-foot wingspan just floating on the surface, a green sea turtle about twice the size of my kitchen sink, dozens of blue and fin whales and three strange logs sticking out of the water. Lino, one of our local Mexican guides, identified these as the head and flippers of a sleeping sea lion (another good reason to go with a guide). For lunch, we stopped off in wineglass-shaped bays with names like Honeymoon Cove, White Beach and the Aquarium. Here, we snorkeled around angelfish and wrasses, and explored tidal pools where we found hermit crabs the size of a baby's fingernails. Or we walked along rock ledges that lined the shore, occasionally spooking big, scarlet-red crabs that went clicking across the rocks as they scurried away. Some had simpler ideas: "OK, today I'm working on tanning my thighs," someone said, and that's about as ambitious as our goals were by midweek. At night, we sat on the beach in our camp chairs and rested after a day of paddling. This required dipping tortillas into the ceviche bowl and watching the sun dip and the moon rise simultaneously. Often, there would be a repeat of the day's matinee: pelicans skimming the surface, dolphins swimming past and the occasional, familiar poofing sound of a whale in the distance. Those of us with extra energy played Frisbee, while others went for a walk. And some took advantage of the on-board library: In a red dry bag, our guides had packed books on whales, birds and area history. A natural bonding goes on after the sun sets, the "tequila sunrise" comes out and seven strangers and their guides sit on a beach, staring at lunch bags filled with white sand and burning candles (our pseudo campfire, since fires were recently banned in the marine park), and talk about everything from geology to relationships to pedicures. Then the evening's real entertainment began: name games, brainteasers and a much funnier and wackier version of charades. Several of us slept in spacious MSR tents on the beach. We were given three-person tents for doubles and two-person tents for singles, meaning we had plenty of room to spread out. Others, however, chose to fall asleep under the shooting stars and bright moon, spreading their tarps on the sand and their sleeping mats and sleeping bags on top. With temperatures in the 40s or 50s at night, my beach-sleeping compadres did don fleece hats and jackets. By the end of the week, we'd shared adventures, secrets and lots of laughs, kept talk of work to a minimum and enjoyed the simplicity of living in the outdoors for a week with nothing more than the gear we could stash in our kayaks. Cathi and I fully thawed out from the subzero New England temperatures, Rob captured dozens of photos for his new screen savers, and we were all recharged and ready to get back to kids, jobs and cold-weather lifestyles. After six days on the water, covering about 37 nautical miles, we returned to Puerto Escondido, the sheltered takeout where a van would be waiting to whisk us back to civilization. As we paddled the last few miles from Isla Danzante to the mainland, a pod of more than three dozen dolphins crossed our path and put on a final show, flipping, leaping and slapping their tails on the water's surface, while pelicans flew overhead waiting to scoop up morsels of fish stirred up and left behind by the feeding dolphins.
Kayaking With Killer Whales, The Spokesman-Review May 2007| May, 2007
by Andrew Bill - Special to The Spokesman Review May 2007 “It’s interesting to note that killers have a short, thick snout, similar to that of the Tyrannosaurus Rex,” explained Terry Prichard, with all the matter of factness one might expect from an ex-geologist. “Then there are the teeth. Fifty-two of them. Exactly the same number as the Dakosaurus Andiniensis, a giant sea crocodile with the head of a dinosaur, so savage, so ferocious, it dominated the seas 135 million years ago.” These similarities might be “interesting” to someone sitting at home or in a doctor’s office reading a magazine, but they make a far deeper impression when you’re bobbing up and down on the gentle swells off the northeast edge of Vancouver Island, just a few kayak lengths from three enormous killer whales. Roiling the waters in search of food, they were swimming backward and forward in a slow rhythm, periodically stabbing six-foot-high dorsals through the surface, exploding vaporous breaths that hung in the suddenly silent air, then disappearing with the grace of precision swimmers into the opalescent depths for where-have-they-gone, heart-pumping minutes. Just when I was beginning to feel like the last succulent shrimp on the buffet table, Terry was greeting them by name, as casually as if they were family pets. “Judging by the shape of their dorsels,” he said, “those boys are Cracroft, Plumper and Kaikash." Some people might consider sea kayaking in search of killers an eccentric choice for a summer vacation, a foolhardy pursuit akin to rough housing with Grizzlies or snorkeling with Great Whites. Yet it has undeniable attractions, starting with rare bragging rights. At a dinner party, when it comes round to the inevitable “What’s new?” question, there aren’t too many people who can trump an answer like, “Oh yes, I’m off kayaking with killer whales.” Besides, I reasoned, there wouldn’t be commercial kayaking trips offering killers as a main attraction if there was any danger. Right? And if there were, if killer whales actually did what their name suggests, surely Google would know about it. Right? So, last summer, reassured by the Internet oracle, I booked with Sea Kayak Adventures (SKA) and traveled across the continent on two planes and two taxis from my home in urban New York to Port McNeill, at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Starting from this quiet logging port right on the edge of nowhere in particular, SKA runs six-day trips paddling by day through the channels of Johnstone Strait and camping on its beaches at night. The price was right ($990 US - inclusive of food, dry bags, camping and kayak equipment) and killers were all but guaranteed. Orcas, as they are more decorously named, live in all the world’s oceans from the tropics to the polar ice pack, but Johnstone Strait - a 2-mile wide, 50-mile long slit separating northern Vancouver Island from British Columbia - is one of the best places to see these endangered creatures in the wild. It’s as remote a spot as you’re likely to find below the Arctic Circle, inhabited until recently only by a handful of xenophobic fishermen and subsistence loggers. The Mainland, as the surrounding scatter of inlets, tide-torn passages and pine-pricked islands are known locally, still only holds a handful of very seasonal and none-too-sophisticated lodges. The currents demand respect, the weather is wild for eight months of the year, and the water is cold enough (averaging 48 degrees) in those other months that swimming for pleasure is something you try only once. But it has fish. Johnstone and its feeder channels are a giant fish run, teeming with Pacific salmon from mid-June to late fall when they zero in like nature’s smart missiles on the narrow, forest-choked streams in which they were spawned. And this giant fish course attracts a similarly rich crowd of diners. Snow-headed bald eagles bend the uppermost branches of waterside firs; harbour seals lie like satiated slugs on the rocks; Steller sea lions, Dall’s porpoises and lone humpbacks linger in the bays; and around 220 “Northern Resident” killers return like clockwork, year after year, making these waters their summer home. And, God knows, Johnstone has beauty. I say “God” with reverence, because there is something of the divine in this breach of sea and sky. Oh sure, it’s partly because of the wildlife and because there is an old pantheist in me eager to have his say. But it’s also because of that great and awful silence that every writer from Jack London to Robert Service has tried to capture with a net of words. It’s a beauty bestowed by harsh nature, by the syrupy swells and climbing tides that play with the kelp beds and rake the shingle beaches. It’s the rigid walls of pines, and the slanting light that filters down to a forest floor, springy with loam. HEADING STRAIT TOWARD ADVENTURE The gateway to this land of wilderness and water is Telegraph Cove, built in 1911 as a remote telegraph station and now, to its surprise, in the summer spotlight, the “put-in” site for fishing boats and kayaks bound for the Strait. And it was here, on a boat ramp slippery with seaweed, that my party assembled on the morning of the first day, dressed in bright Gore-Tex and splash covers (an oval of waterproof fabric, worn around the waist like an immodest and unfashionable skirt, that seals off the hatch of the kayak against rain and spray). There were 13 guests and three guides in all - a typically broad mix of age groups, professions and characters that, after a few days in the crucible of nature, ends up being one of the great rewards of an adventure trip. Divided into pairs, we stuffed our 21-foot Seaward fiberglass doubles (only two of the guides had singles) as tight as drums with essentials, including personal belongings, tents, food, water, wine and even an ingenious sealed toilet. Under the keen eye of a bald eagle in a nearby tree, we then carried the laden kayaks down to the water and paddled in a tight but graceless flotilla out of the Cove. There is something about sea kayaking that is satisfying, not just physically, but on a deep-down visceral level. Sitting right at water level, there is an immediacy to the whole experience that just can’t be replicated in a bigger boat, as though you are meeting nature close to its own terms. There is the purity of propelling yourself forward under your own steam. And the Zen-like repetition of strokes combines with the stillness (no motor noise or vibration) to induce an uncommon level of introspection. In a sea-kayak you are part of the scene, not merely viewing it. Hugging the rocky shore for a couple of hours, we stopped for lunch at a broad beach of pebbles turning into rocks then tangles of tree trunks before ending at an almost impenetrable back wall of trees. The kayaks were hauled up to await the climbing tide. Then we set off again, more at ease now with the motion and, for those paddlers in the rear cockpit, the foot pedals that controlled the rudder. In the long shadows of late afternoon we arrived at our campsite on Little Kaikash Beach and made camp. Dinner was served in the thickening light and we sat on the immense trunks of sea-bleached trees looking out across the empty water. So far, no killers. KILLER WHALE 101 The next morning, we broke camp, re-stuffed the kayaks and paddled away from the mountain-backed, pine-walled shore of Vancouver Island, crossing the Strait to Hanson Island. And it was here, in the shadow of the island’s rocky cliff, that we met up with Cracroft, Plumper and Kaikash, and Terry shared his knowledge of dinosaur dental work. Despite his measured tone, Google’s reassurance and the killers’ pet names, all I could think of were those TBS specials. The ones with killers launching themselves up a beach to snap a sea lion like a sweet pickle, or exploding an ice floe from underneath and gulping down its cargo of seals in a blood-stained sea. “Today it’s killers who rule the oceans,” Terry continued, unreassuringly. One of our guides, he’s also a co-owner of SKA, and our expert on all things from sea mammals to volcanic lava tubes and native lore. “They are the largest member of the dolphin family, growing up to 30 feet and 12,000 pounds, making them easily the world’s largest predator. And their appetites are proportionate. Big guys like these three eat around 550 pounds of food a day.” That’s equivalent to three of my fellow kayakers, stripped of their fiberglass shells. The killers surfaced in unison, and turned, this time swimming directly toward our cluster of kayaks. That’s OK apparently. The local rule of thumb is that nobody can go within 100 yards of a whale, but, if he decides to come to you or swim under your boat, well, that’s considered a bonus. I looked around for signs of flight, but the other two guides, Paul and Sarah, just sat there casually, lowering hydrophones into the water so we could listen to the whales’ highly evolved language of staccato snaps, clicks and pops of echo location. When the pod dived again, Terry returned to Killer Whale 101. “Equal opportunity eaters, they’re fond of all kinds of seafood from small seabirds on up. Hunting like wolves in synchronized packs up to 40 creatures strong, they’ll even attack 60-foot Blue Whales, the world’s largest animals, herding them into shallow water so they can’t dive out of reach, then darting in to tear off chunks of flesh with their neat rows of three-inch conical teeth.” Sitting in my kayak, I was as close to the water as one can get without swimming. The black, sun-shafted depths below my boat swirled with shadows. “Their name comes from their appetite for other whales. ‘Orca’ sounds better. Unless of course you’re a Latin scholar and you know ‘Orcinus Orca’ means ‘barrel from the land of the dead’.” Thirty feet to my right, the three males broke the glassy surface once more. Unaware of the stir they caused, they headed out into the Strait. WATER, EARTH & SKY We had lingered with the whales for half an hour or more and, even here in the great unhurried “now” of nature, we were late. There was a tide to catch. We grabbed a quick lunch on shore, then, just as the current slackened at high tide, darted through narrow Blackney Passage, and skimmed across Parson’s Bay to Red Point Beach, our camping site for the next three nights. Over the following days, we paddled round West Cracroft and Harbledown islands and through their labyrinth of coves and inlets. The going was easy and, even though we were in the kayaks for five or more hours a day, nobody from the grandmother in the group to the pair of young fresh-out-of-college teachers, showed any signs of fatigue. One day we pulled the kayaks up on the beach of Village Island to stroll through the ruins of Mamalilacula, once a thriving settlement of the Kwakiutl tribe and now deserted, abandoned to the weeds and moss since 1969. After changing out of his blue jeans into ceremonial robes, an elder walked out of the tall grass to tell a creation story in a quavering, echoing voice. Although a paid performance for tourists, it had a sweetness to it, a strange melancholy that came as much from the scene as from the words, from the decaying timbers, the midden (a 10-foot bank of discarded oyster shells) and a ceremonial (totem) pole, left to rot its way back into nature according to custom. One great advantage of kayaking over, say, hiking, is that the kayaks are big enough to haul great coolers, filled with fresh vegetables, fruit and other foods you wouldn’t expect to find on a beach far, far from the nearest light-bulb. There was an innovative spin to the menus that never gave out. There were fresh eggs for breakfast even on the last morning. Paul turned out fluffy chocolate cakes from the Dutch Oven. Sarah grilled fresh-caught salmon over the campfire using a hand-whittled griddle in the native tribal tradition. CATCH ME WHILE YOU CAN One afternoon, after returning early to our campsite on Red Point Beach, we climbed a forest path that wound through shaggy-barked cedars to a lookout point where, judging from fresh scat, a cougar had recently been enjoying the view. Each night, we clambered along the rocky shore to catch the sun dipping in colorful fanfare down into the Pacific. On one occasion the resident humpback breached repeatedly, throwing his leviathan body effortlessly into the air, silhouetted against the gaudy sky. Nature is a lodestone that quickly changes strangers into friends and, after dinner, as the sunset gave way to a small circle of firelight, conversations and sophomoric games delayed the flash-light-stumble to the tents embedded in the darkness of the forest at the back of the beach. Most memorable of all, we saw over 20 killers in the course of the six-day trip. Several nights, as we sat around the campfire we heard them blow, tantalizingly close in the darkness. And day-by-day, encounter-by-encounter, my preconceptions faded. Despite their name and reputation, killers pose no threat to humans. On the contrary, there have been reports of them saving drowning men and even working in concert with Whalers, herding blubber whales within harpoon range in return for a share of the spoils. They are disturbingly intelligent, the Mensa member of the animal world, with a brain four times the size of ours. They are the only animals other than humans to have dialects in their language. It turns out the antisocial behavior in the TBS specials comes from “transient” pods that travel unpredictably and great distances. Thanks to research conducted over the last 20 years right here in Johnstone Strait notably by late Dr. Michael Bigg, the Jane Goodhall of the killer world another group has emerged. “Resident” pods return to sheltered waters like Johnstone year in and year out, acting like they’re on try-outs for a remake of those sappy Free Willy movies inflicted on us in the mid-90s. Shunning the transients, they hang around in family groups, nurturing their young until well into maturity and eating nothing larger than fish. Showing a cat-like indifference to humans, they like nothing better than scratching their bellies against the stones of shallow beaches. Unfortunately, the killer story doesn’t end there. In a strange irony repeated throughout the natural world, we only begin to understand certain species as we begin to lose them. Just 50 years ago, the United States Navy was given instructions to shoot killers with machine guns. Today, despite mounting conservation efforts in Johnstone Strait, the links in the food chain are losing their strength, the water is growing more and more toxic thanks to fish farms and runoff caused by over-logging. The arguments between environmentalists and those who depend on natural resources for their pay packet continue, at best only slowing the inevitable. The Northern Residents are now a firm fixture on the endangered list and, if nothing changes, they will soon have one more thing in common with Tyrannosaurus and Dakosaurus. By the time we paddled back into Telegraph Cove on the sixth day and climbed out of the kayaks for the last time, I felt changed. Not just by the cleansing power of nature, spending six days close to the earth and sea. Ignorance had given way to understanding, fear to concern. Instead of shouting “glory in my unchanging beauty,” the Strait and its famous residents seem to be whispering “catch me while you can.”
Whale Watching in Baja California, USA Today Sept 2006| September, 2006
Whale watching in Baja California, Mexico By Josh Roberts Brought to you by USA Today, September 2006 Grey Whales Baja "It's the moment of a lifetime," says Terry Prichard, president of Sea Kayaking Adventures. Prichard is referring to the moment when friendly whales swim up and nudge the hulls of his company's motorized skiffs, which happens frequently during the four-day Gray Whales of Magdelana Bay trips that head into the deep waters of Boca de Soledad in Baja California, Mexico. Sea Kayak Adventures has an exclusive permit to use the campsite at its Isla Santo Domingo base camp, located in the heart of a whale-calving area in Baja California. "As whales breach and spy-hop just offshore, guests can explore whalebone-littered beaches and look for herons, egrets, dolphins and spouting grays," adds Pritchard. "Boca de Soledad has the highest concentration of gray whales of any Baja lagoon, and our camp is situated at the edge of a deep channel where the whales cruise mere yards from the beach." The "Gray Whales of Magdelana Bay" is a bargain at $799 ($719 for kids ages 17 and under). It includes camping equipment for two nights at the base camp, naturalist guides, meals, daily motorized skiff excursions, airport transfers and two nights' hotel accommodations. "There was good food, good leadership and a variety of activities that included whale watching, bird watching, hikes and swimming," says Gary Rogers, a 66-year-old traveler from San Luis Obispo, California. "Of course seeing the whales was a highlight. They came right up to the boat and we were able to touch them." "It was a very enjoyable and educational trip with a nice balance between free time and organized activity," agrees Susie Gillatt of Tucson, Arizona. "Great guides and good food, too." For a few hundred dollars more, the $930 six-day Quick Adventure from Sea Kayak Adventures is a great value for travelers who want a bit more action. It includes four days of kayaking, snorkeling and hiking in the Sea of Cortez; three nights' camping; and two nights' hotel. A similar trip from Mountain Travel Sobek goes for $1,390, or almost $500 more.
A Kayaking Adventure, The Associated Press November 2005| November, 2005
By Justin Pope - The Associated Press CNN, November15th, 2005 Grey Whales Baja ISLA CARMEN, Mexico (AP) -- Across the channel, the setting sun turned the sharp, desert mountains of the Baja Peninsula a dusty red as they plunged into the placid blue and turquoise waters of the Gulf of California. Darkness brought a brilliant, starry sky and perfect quiet, unmarred by artificial light and sound. This was why I had traveled so far from my home in Boston. This was truly "getting away." But not quite "leaving it all behind." I sipped my cocktail and devoured the succulent fish and tomato-and-avocado salad our kayaking guides had prepared. Few are the scenes in nature unenhanced, I thought, by a few carefully selected trappings of civilization. Preparing to celebrate/mourn my 30th birthday last winter, I was eager to treat myself to a vacation, but one reflecting my station in life. That meant something vigorous -- to demonstrate my ongoing vitality -- but not overly so. It was vacation, after all (and frankly I wondered if my 30th might be accompanied by spontaneous frailty). Money was an issue, but this was a good time to formally close the book on the bare-bones, broke-recent-college-grad chapter of my travel history. Camping was fine -- it's the only way to get off the beaten path -- but I was willing to pay a premium to upgrade to a cut above rice and beans, and to avoid the stress of planning a trip in a foreign country. In short, I was ready to graduate to a category of travel I'll call "camping plus," and after a fair amount of research settled on a guided sea kayaking trip in Mexico. No, we didn't get massages or pinot gris with dinner; we paddled ourselves, slept in tents on rocky beaches and shared an outdoor bathroom behind a boulder. But we ate well and didn't have to cook, or worry about missing the best sites. I settled on Sea Kayak Adventures, which runs trips in the Pacific Northwest during the summer and relocates to Baja for whale-watching and sea-kayaking trips during the winter. Other companies seemed to offer comparable trips and deals -- we paid $1,195 per person for a weeklong trip -- but Sea Kayak's schedule worked best. I was probably also swayed by the company's emphasis on good food in the promotional materials. My girlfriend Maria and I arrived on a nonstop flight from Los Angeles on a Sunday afternoon in Loreto, a dusty but pleasant and unpretentious town on the Gulf of California about 700 miles southeast of San Diego. Baja California juts into the Pacific like a finger off Mexico's West Coast; the area was not affected by the recent hurricane that devastated Cancun and other areas on Mexico's eastern Yucatan Peninsula. There, we met our guides and our group: six gabby but contagiously enthusiastic California schoolteachers on a much-appreciated spring break; ourselves, and the Sikorskys, a delightful Wisconsin family of four. Six days later, they would all feel like close friends. Sharing an outdoor bathroom has a way of bringing people together. Leisurely routine We savored our last restaurant meals and showers, and on Monday morning drove south to the put-in. There, we stuffed the company's two-person kayaks with their tents, sleeping bags, food and water, plus the three small sacks of clothes and personal items we were allowed. Our Canadian leader, Mary-Anne, and two local guides, Mario and Alex, gave the safety lecture and led an icebreaking game. And we were off. Sea kayaking can be hard work, especially when the wind is stiff, but we never felt unduly exerted (and we were hardly a group of jocks). On long stretches we stopped to rest frequently, and even on the busiest days were out for no more than a few hours. The routine was leisurely. Moving around an area protected as a national park between Isla Danzante, just a few miles from the peninsula, and Isla Carmen, a larger island still farther out, we woke up early, took coffee and breakfast and then would paddle or hike to another beach. There we would set up the sun tarp, relax, follow the guides on an exploratory hike -- my cactus knowledge expanded exponentially -- and snorkel in the brilliantly clear water of the Sea of Cortez (as tourists call the gulf). After lunch, we would head to camp in time for happy hour and dinner. This was the time of day when the "plus" in "camping plus" became most evident. I wouldn't order tequila and Kool-Aid in a bar back home, but it tasted mighty fine on Isla Carmen. Even mediocre food seems to taste better outdoors, but Mary-Anne, Mario and Alex stuffed us with grub I would have been pleased to eat most anywhere: breakfasts of pancakes and oatmeal, dinners of fish and chicken the first two nights, and after that, vegetarian dishes that were satisfying even to a skeptical carnivore like me. Succulent tomatoes and avocados were part of practically every meal. There were some snags. We had planned to move to a new spot each night, but the wind whipped up on Day 2 and Mary-Anne wisely turned our flotilla back to our first night's camping site. We crossed to Carmen the next day, but wind kept us at the same camping site there for three nights. Nobody seemed to care; both sites were beautiful, and staying put meant we didn't have to pack up camp each day. Utterly empty We visited too late for the area's whale-watching season of January through early March. But we settled for dolphins and colorful tropical fish in the water, and a lovely assortment of gulls, pelicans and more exotic birds above. There were also a few creepy-crawlies (five scorpions scurried out from beneath my tent one morning), but the lack of fresh water means few insects. Mary-Anne had warned us the greatest danger was the sun, especially for fair-skinned visitors like me. I went into bunker mode, wearing a hat, plus light long-sleeve shirt and pants almost constantly -- but I still got slightly sunburned. To me, eager to escape harried office life, the setting's greatest virtue was its utter emptiness. Here and there during the week, we encountered another kayaking group, and every day saw a handful of boats in the distance. But mostly I was amazed by the emptiness of such a beautiful place. Our group's quarters, on the other hand, were fairly close. The downside of the steep mountain setting is that beaches are small. During the day, we crowded under the tarp together to avoid the sun. The emptiness was there, somewhere, but at times like that, it was difficult to experience it. One can only hope the quiet persists. The national park status offers some protection from development, but Isla Carmen is privately owned, and there are some plans to develop it as a hunting destination. Finally, on Saturday morning, we packed up one last time and made our longest paddle, about five miles, against a current, to the mainland. After one last snorkel near the take-out site, we loaded up the boats and hopped in the kayak company's van, stopping en route for a cold beer and finally in Loreto for warm showers. We gathered for a final dinner with the group at a restaurant in town. My vegetarian tolerance had run its course; I ordered at 16-ounce rib-eye, medium rare. The next day we were off, our plane turning and banking as it took off from Loreto to offer one last view of Isla Carmen -- utterly, wonderfully empty. Sea Kayak Adventures: http://www.seakayakadventures.com/ or (800) 616-1943. Guided kayaking trips in Baja, Mexico, late December through early May. Seven- and eight-day trips, including camping gear, guides, meals and two nights in a hotel, $1,095-$1,280, per person, double occupancy. Single supplement, $65. Some shorter and longer trips available at lower and higher rates. Some trips include whale-watching or yoga. Getting there: Alaska, AeroCalifornia and AeroMexico airlines fly to Loreto from Los Angeles or San Diego. Delta and other airlines also partner with these airlines. Some flights operate only certain days of the week. Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Parents and Teens Pull Together, Seattle Times August 2004| August, 2004
By Linda Hagen Miller - Special to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer August 19, 2004 Sea Kayak Adventures We've paddled our kayaks to Little Kaikash Beach on Vancouver Island and are sitting on the rocks eating lunch when one of the guides shouts: "Whales!" A group of orcas appears in the distance, then another and another, rolling, splashing, black and white, the big dorsal fin of the males knifing the waters of Johnstone Strait. We jump into our kayaks and paddle out, bunching together as our guides have instructed. The whales are surfacing and blowing across the strait, gliding between fishing boats, when one group veers toward our cove. They're really coming this way ... they're within 100 yards ... they're so close we can hear them blow. I feel an intense surge of adrenaline. These are such beautiful animals. Suddenly a big male cuts toward us, a creature bigger than our boats. Out of nowhere a purse seine boat barrels between our kayaks and the orca, chasing him away. It's breathtaking, maddening, fulfilling. The teenagers in our group have lost all trace of blase cool and the parents are full of juvenile reactions -- everyone's whooping and high-fiving and oh-wowing at the display. This is why we came on a guided, six-day family kayaking trip with Sea Kayaking Adventures in the strait between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island, a place known for orcas. The geography here is a bit like the San Juan Islands on steroids. The mountains on Vancouver Island look massive enough to sink it, and across the channel, mainland B.C.'s snow-dusted peaks hunker in the distance. The water is lapis lazuli blue and the clear sky is competing for attention. But, unlike the San Juans in the summer, the beaches often are empty, the tourist-toting ferries are preempted by fishing boats, luxury hotels and inns are scarce, and fishing lodges are plentiful. This Canadian passage is an orca freeway to the Robson Bight/Michael Biggs Provincial Ecological Preserve, a favorite summer destination for the black-and-white whales that like to rub their bellies on the rocks in the bight's shallows. Hundreds of the "Free Willy" look-alikes make their way through this strait, feeding on salmon and playing along the way. The night before the adventure began, we met our guides and paddling companions in Port McNeill. Leading us were Sarah Hauser, Eric Reid and Paul LaPerriere, all in their late 20s with years of outdoor and kayaking experience. Their clients include three families and a solo woman. Lucinda Olson, her 21-year-old daughter, Camille, and 17-year-old son, Reid, are from Sedona, Ariz. The Kaplans, parents Ann and Larry, Carl, 14, and Alex, 15, are from Los Angeles. Our photographer, Ilona (who goes by one name), lives in Idaho. My husband, Bob, our 16-year-old daughter, Leah, and I live in Spokane. No one has sea kayaking experience, everyone has camped or backpacked, most have been whitewater rafting. Adults and kids are in good physical shape. There wasn't a wimp among us. The adults have one thing in common: teenagers, which is one of the reasons we chose a guided adventure vacation. Family trips are harder to organize as take-me-anywhere children grow into teens. They have a point-and-click attention span and general intolerance of adults, especially parents. Not to say any of our kids are like that, but each has been known to slip-slide in and out of adolescent moods and attitudes. We are also three families who strongly favor independent travel, and it wasn't easy for the alpha males and females to give up the leadership role. Once under way, however, we realized that as inexperienced paddlers unfamiliar with the terrain, weather and tides, we couldn't possibly have executed this trip on our own. Safety and paddling issues aside, who would have organized, packed and cooked all the food? A Dutch oven, propane stove and three chefs/guides effortlessly produced hot breakfasts, plentiful lunches and one surprising dinner after another -- fresh salmon (donated by a passing fisherman), chili rellenos casserole, pineapple upside-down cake, brownies and more. Eric called it "float and bloat." By the end of the trip, Lucinda thinks Sarah, Eric and Paul could be professional party planners. Family dynamics kicked in on the first day. We met the guides at our put-in, Telegraph Cove, picked a boat from the fleet of jelly-bean-colored Seward doubles. The 21-foot-long, 30-inch-wide kayaks carried enough food and fresh water for 14 people (including three teenage boys, remember), tents and sleeping bags, an entire camp kitchen, three small dry bags per person and a portable potty. It took over an hour to load the mountain of gear into the six double and two single kayaks. The laborious process was peppered with a few PG-13 words and parents admonishing their kids to "pitch in, don't just stand there." We donned our new wardrobes: yellow, red or blue personal flotation devices, goofy-looking neoprene boots and even goofier-looking spray skirts (attached over the cockpit to keep us dry). "Ha-ha, you're wearing a skirt!" Carl Kaplan taunted his older brother. "Well, so are you!" Alex replied. "Yeah, but ..." This back-and-forth banter was the infinitely comical background of the entire trip. Paddling out of picturesque Telegraph Cove past a whale-watching boat loaded with tourists, we felt pretty smug that we were orca-hunting under our own power, just a foot above sea level. The unearned cockiness dissipated when we hit the strong wind and foot-high chop in Johnstone Strait. The guides kept us in a fairly tight group, there was always a spotter in the rear, and everyone paddled hard. Carl and Alex maintained the lead, steaming ahead like outrigger canoe racers. Their parents stroked in unison, long, lean bodies belying the fact that they spend most of their time as a schoolteacher and an executive. They were the only couple who didn't switch partners, and we nicknamed their kayak the Love Boat. Our first sighting wasn't whales, though. "Porpoises!" one of the guides shouted. They swam by in unison, their dorsal fins gliding through the chop. "See the white patch on their fins -- those are Dall's porpoises," Eric shouted. Tidbits of information like this came from all the guides as we poked through tide pools, hiked in the woods or watched for whales. The gee-whiz tone worked well with teenagers whose brains were on summer vacation. Paddling, eating and camping together are instant icebreakers, but the guides helped by instigating summer-camp games whenever there was a lull. Eric organized beach baseball and bocce ball, Paul taught us Ichi-Mini-Hoi, a rather hilarious game that involved walking like a penguin, and Sarah suggested Two Truths and a Lie. "OK, you have to guess which of these statements is a lie," she said. "I was once on the cover of a magazine. I broke my collarbone when I was a kid. My brother and I stuffed our little brother in the clothes dryer." All were totally plausible. We quizzed her on each one and were pretty evenly split on our guesses. (It was the dryer.) The adults played, too. Or we found a log in a sunny spot where we could read, or a patch of sand where we could nap. Toward the end of the week, the guides taught us the magic of seaweed. In Seaweed 101, we learned its medicinal and edible qualities, but little did we know you could make music with it. Chop off the end of the long, tube-shaped bull kelp, put your lips on the slimy opening and blow. Once again, adults and teens blundered hilariously onto common ground. The orcas put on a final show the day we crossed Johnstone Strait to Hanson Island. We were lazing around, letting lunch settle before a hike, when someone saw them. It was a veritable orca freeway. The massive bulls, which can weight up to 10 tons, saluted with 5-foot-high dorsal fins. The calves surfaced as if glued to their mothers' sides, and the juveniles spy-hopped and waved their tails -- at us, I'm sure. The last night the parents compared this physically demanding vacation with previous family holidays that had included long plane rides, foreign countries, first-class hotels, history, culture and total independence. "Being outdoors 24 hours a day is a lot different than a car or plane trip," Larry offered. "A lot of stuff gets flushed out, gets out of the way." "The large group worked really well," Ann added. "The guides have great skills; they know when to hold back, when to play games." "We live in a small town and I want my kids to see more of life's possibilities," Lucinda said. "This trip probably opened them to questions they would not have asked." "Leah needs to find out what she's capable of," Bob said of our daughter, who is tentative in all things involving large animals, speed and big water. "Exposing her to a new and fairly demanding environment does that." By week's end, Larry and Ann had seen their rambunctious sons stilled at the sight of purple starfish and sea urchins. Lucinda proudly watched Camille help carry the 150-pound kayaks across slippery rocks and hold her own paddling in choppy surf. She recognized a new maturity in Reid, who hung out with the guides and seemed to feel the convergence of his lifelong Eagle Scout skills and this adventurous lifestyle. Bob and I realized that Leah is physically stronger than she or we ever imagined. Braver, too. For the teens: the whales were awesome, meeting new people was fun, trying and succeeding at kayaking made them proud of themselves, getting away from home and having fun with their parents was "cool." A life-changing experience? No one was ready to go that far, but it was clear that sea kayaking, camping, whale-watching, family time and working as a team with strangers added valuable experiences to all our lives. As if to illustrate the point, Reid hauled his sleeping bag to the bluff, distancing himself from the campsite. On our last morning, I overheard him say he wanted to sleep in the open and stay awake to see all the stars come out. After nearly a week of paddling, it's a struggle for any of us, kids included, to keep our eyes open past 9 o'clock, but Reid managed. And I'll bet he saw a shooting star.