Sea Kayaking from Loreto to La Paz, San Luis Obispo Tribune June 2004| June, 2004
By Rob Mohle - Special to the San Luis Obispo Tribune June 4, 2004 Baja Sunset Do you ever get tired of reading about someone else's travel adventures? Tired of just dreaming about exploring endless miles of deserted beaches, snorkeling in emerald green water, and sleeping beneath a canopy of twinkling stars. Well dream no more, most sea kayak guided tours require little or no experience on your part, just the desire to have fun and immerse yourself in the beauty of the great outdoors. My latest sea kayak adventure began in the quaint Mexican town of Loreto, just a two-hour flight from Los Angeles International Airport. Located on the Sea of Cortez, about two-thirds of the way down the Baja peninsula, Loreto was the first Spanish settlement in California and the original capital of Spanish-ruled California. Unlike many modern and busting Mexican tourist destinations, Loreto has retained most of its old-time charm and character. Two years ago I spent a week kayaking the Islands of Carmen and Danzante just off the coast of Loreto. This trip was to be a ten-day, sixty five-mile expedition from Loreto to La Paz. After checking into the Hotel Villa de Loreto, our group of thirteen guests and 3 guides (Terry, Hayley and Mario), gathered to review the itinerary and logistics of the trip. Terry handed each of us three small dry bags for our clothes and personal items, everything else necessary for the trip, including tents, sleeping bags and pads, food and water was provided. The next morning we traveled by van to the put-in site at Agua Verde, a small fishing camp south of Loreto. It was a breath-taking ride on an unpaved and precarious road with stunning views of the rugged Sierra Giganta Mountains. Following lunch, we loaded the seven-double and two-single kayaks with all the food, water, and supplies for our trip, then our guide Hayley, a native New Zealander, provided instruction on the basics of sea kayaking. We carried our heavily laden kayaks to the water's edge and pushed through the gentle waves. A light breeze was blowing out of the north and the air temperature was a comfortable eighty-five degrees. I removed my watch and tucked it safely in the bottom of my dry bag. For the next ten days, the sun and stars would serve as my timekeeper. The coastline between Loreto and La Paz is one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas in all of Baja. The steep mountains rise abruptly from the sea, effectively isolating the area from the rest of the peninsula. There are no villages or towns and the only access to the occasional fish camp is by sea. I began each day with a refreshing swim. While it was cool enough for a sleeping bag at night, as soon as the sun appeared the temperature warmed quickly. Coffee was served at 6:30, followed by a hearty breakfast and we were usually on the water by 9:30. The pace was leisurely as our flotilla meandered along the desert coastline. The sea was calm with no open-ocean swells and the water a brilliant emerald green. We passed towering volcanic peaks, sculptured rock formations, miles of unexplored beaches, and forests of giant cardon cactus. Prehistoric-looking frigate birds circled high above while formations of pelicans glided across the glassy water. An osprey eyed us warily from the safety of its nest, and the cry of gulls filled the air. Offshore, a fin whale spouted, a river of dolphins over a mile long snaked its way south, and a lonely sea lion could be heard barking in the distance. Angel Fish By mid-afternoon we had usually reached our destination for the day. After unloading the kayaks and making camp there was time for relaxing, reading, snorkeling or hiking. The water was a comfortable 75-80 degrees and crystal clear. We explored sea caves, vertical ledges of rock, and shallow reefs decorated with a colorful display of corals. I spotted a sea turtle, moray eels, giant florescent parrot fish, needle fish, angel fish, lobster, scallops and countless other varieties of colorful tropical fish. Happy hour began at 5:00 followed by dinner at 6:00. I had hoped to lose a couple of pounds during the trip but with a menu that included Mario's fish Vera Cruz, lobster, Chili Rellenos, a variety of salads, and Terry's pineapple upside down cake fresh from the Dutch oven, dieting was not an option. Day 6 was a layover so we didn't have to break camp. We spent the morning restocking our water supply and took an afternoon hike to Mission Nuestra Senora de los Dolores del Sur Chilla. This remote Jesuit outpost was built in 1721, and is now in ruins except for a single standing wall with an arched doorway. Our final campsite was at Arroyo Verde, a white sand beach enclosed by steep walls of green volcanic rock. After dinner we sat around the campfire and shared our experiences of the trip, then Hayley read a selection from John Steinbeck's book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez. By 9:30 the campsite was still. I stared up at the star-filled sky. My eyelids were heavy but I couldn't let myself fall asleep, not yet. Finally, a burst of light streaked across the sky. I made a wish and closed my eyes. Rob Mohle lives in Shell Beach, California and is author of the book Adventure Kayaking, Trips from Big Sur to San Diego.Loreto to La Paz Expedition
Paddling with God in your Pocket, Wild Isle Magazine Summer 2004| June, 2004
By Marie Savage - Special to Wild Isle Magazine Summer 2004 I was just back from a week-long white-water rafting/camping trip on the Snake River in Idaho when a friend called in a panic. Her husband was sick and she wanted to know if I would take her place three days later on a week-long sea kayaking trip off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. I hesitated, thinking of my sand-laden sleeping bag and dirty clothes not to mention my sore muscles. "It's lodge-based, and they have hot showers," she said. Three loads of laundry later, I was on my way to Port Hardy to meet the outfitter, Terry Prichard, of Sea Kayak Adventures. I found him and the rest of the group on the public dock. We were a mixed bag of ages from 14 to 64 and some people had never kayaked before but as we loaded the kayaks aboard the "Hurst Isle" for the hour-long trip out to God's Pocket Provincial Marine Park, Terry explained we'd be paddling in double kayaks with lots of opportunities to stop and look at things. Our planned four to five hours on water each day included gawking time. Bill Weeks, our captain, and co-owner of God's Pocket Resort on Hurst Island, filled the trip across with stories of previous guests. More than one film crew had used his services while exploring the world-famous delights of cold-water diving in and around Queen Charlotte Strait. During the spring and fall, when the visibility is the best, God's Pocket runs custom diving trips for groups of up to ten people. Bill's stories were so amusing I forgot to be seasick. Safely delivered to the dock at God's Pocket Resort on the north side of Goletas Channel, we were invited to drop our gear in our rooms before having lunch in the communal dining room. The lodge didn't look all that big, just a couple of small buildings hugging the rocky shore, so I wasn't expecting much more than a camp bed in my room. I couldn't have been more wrong. Every room had hardwood floors, closet and shelf space, two beds, and a private bathroom complete with the promised showers. Lunch was the beginning of a love affair with Bill's wife and partner, Annie Ceschi. Pleasant, funny, and determined to make our stay memorable, Annie made everything from scratch with obvious enjoyment. The camaraderie around the table each night thereafter was almost as much fun as the kayaking. Our trip covered both July 1st and 4th so our group celebrated both in style. Americans tried to trip up the Canadians with trivia questions and the Canadians reciprocated in kind. "Where did Wayne Gretsky grow up?" "Brampton!" "Bramelea!" "Brentwood!" "He's a hockey player. Did he grow up?" Terry and his crew joined right in and our group felt like a team very quickly. Every morning Terry gathered us together and discussed the day's plan. Typically, we'd paddle out to some small cove, an interesting island, or the local lighthouse. Safety was Terry's first concern and we had a thorough introductory lesson before heading our the first day. Even for the newbies, it was a completely comfortable experience. Lunch was always punctuated by a short talk on plant and animal life or the geologic formations we were sitting on. Evenings in the lodge's clubhouse gave us more time to explore questions we had about things we'd seen. Terry made sure his resource library was available to us and we knew where to find the videos too. The day we visited Browning Wall completely blew our minds. White anemones danced down the wall deep beneath the kayaks. But everyday offered some kind of surprise. Eagles soared over our heads, we spotted a deep eagle nest (aerie) in the crook of a tree, seals lounged on a rocky island, oyster catchers and harlequin ducks startled us with their colour. The lodge-based trip was a great introduction to kayaking for the newbies among us. In fact, it was brilliant the way the more experienced paddlers brought along their less experienced family members. One 20-something paddler has his mom along, in another kayak was a 45-year-old dad and his 14-year-old son doing some serious bonding. With so much packed into our five days on the water, the list of highlights is lengthy: Orcas swam by; we climbed up a native midden, the result of hundreds of years of use by local peoples, we enjoyed wine on the porch every night before dinner, and once, deep into the dark of a hot summer night, we paddled a short way form the lodge to watch phosphorescent marine creatures dance wherever we disturbed the water. And hey, you know what? I came home without any laundry. Bill does a communal load at the end of every day so your stinky socks and sweaty shirts are lemon fresh even after a week of top-flight sea kayaking. Yeah, I'm going back.
Gray Whales- A Symbol of Hope, Times News April 2004| April, 2004
By Al Zagofsky - Special to the Times News of Carbon County Pennsylvania April 17, 2004 petting whale Since whaling was banned in 1946, the California Gray Whale population has rebounded from near extinction to a population that has been estimated to be as high as 27,000. Gray Whales are a symbol of hope for the world's endangered species. The Grays make an annual 10,000 mile migration along the California coast from their Bearing Sea feeding grounds to Baja California's protective lagoons where they mate and birth their calves. I joined Sea Kayak Adventures, Inc. for a weeklong kayaking expedition in the longest and most remote of these lagoons, Magdalena Bay. Our group of eleven adventurers and three guides met in Loreto, midway down the east coast of the peninsula and Spanish California's original capital. Early the next morning, two shuttle vans arrived-one for people and their belongings, the other loaded with supplies and towing a kayak trailer. Three hours later, as we descended the 3,000-foot high cactus-covered Giganta Mountain range, we had our first glimpse of the Pacific coast of Baja and Magdalena Bay. After unloading the kayaks, supplies, paddling equipment and personal bags, we ate our first lunch of cheese and local vegetables as we watched pelicans dive for fish. Following a sea kayaking orientation, we launched our tandem kayaks and were off on a journey that would put us out of touch with the commercial world for five days. As we paddled the mangrove-lined channel, flocks of snowy egrets, blue herons and cormorants lined the trees, waded in the shallow water or flew low over the water. As it was low tide, both the roots of the mangroves and the sand bars were exposed, forcing us to get out of our boats and pull the kayaks across the sand bar into the deeper water. We paddled passed a pod of dolphins and saw a sea lion and pup resting on shore before we made camp on an unnamed sand-duned island. We dined on fish Vera Cruz as we watched a red colored full moonrise follow a Kodak moment sunset. Though we woke to an overcast morning, by the time we set out to paddle the mangroves, it was sunny and comfortable. One island served as a rookery for hundreds of sea birds-cormorants being in the majority. rookery Returning to our camp, we lunched and then walked across the narrow island to view a herd of sea lions on a beach of surrealistic emptiness. The next morning, the seas were choppy as we crossed the channel. Waves crashed over the hulls and occasionally, water from the waves sprayed into our faces providing the grandest thrill of the trip. After covering twenty miles and paddling nearly thirty miles that included side trips and circuitous routes around sand bars, we arrived at the southern tip of Isla Santa Domingo, the bay entrance frequented by Gray Whales. As the Mexican government does not permit kayaks in this part of Magdalena Bay, the outfitter hired captained motorboats for the whale watching. The Mexican government has specially licensed these skiffs so that the whales are not inundated with boats. These captains are sensitive to the whale's moods and leave if the whale shows signs of discomfort. Within minutes, our captain called our attention to a rising form just left of the boat. It was an enormous figure, perhaps twenty-foot long and, we feared that it would flip our boat. This, it turned out, was the calf. Nearby, the mother watched. She was more than twice as large. When the calf came along side the boat, everyone went to that side wanting to touch the calf-nearly swamping the boat from the shifting weight. Everyone got to pet the calf while the mom watched from on the other side of the boat. Our captain said that only one in fifty calves allowed itself to be touched. "It is spectacular to have a whale come up to the boat," said an expedition member. "It was very moving though I'm having second thoughts about it. It was beautiful for us but I wonder how it impacts the whale calves to have people so close." As its natural wonders draw more people to visit and relocate to Baja, a building boom is anticipated. Will the Gray Whale's success become the beginning of its next crisis?Magdalena Bay Whale Watching
Kayaking Inside God's Pocket, San Luis Obispo Tribune August 2003| August, 2003
By Rob Mohle - Special to the San Luis Obispo Tribune August 8, 2003 "Look," I said, pointing to the sky, "I see blue." "That's not blue," laughed Mary-Anne our guide, "That's a sucker hole." After four days of rain we were all ready for some sunshine. But in the Queen Charlotte Straits off the west coast of Canada, sunshine can sometimes be a rare commodity. It has been said that in British Columbia the sky has more shades of gray than you could ever imagine. At the same time, the forests have more shades of green than you could ever imagine. All in all, it's a worthwhile tradeoff. In all my life I have never visited a place with fresher air, clearer water and a more peaceful setting than the coast of British Columbia. My adventure began at the Vancouver airport, where I caught the one-hour flight to Port Hardy, a small fishing village located at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. From my window seat, the view of snow-capped peaks, narrow fjords, and endless miles of green forests was captivating. Vancouver Island is 282 miles long, 60 miles wide and is separated from mainland Canada by the Inside Passage, a system of glacier-carved fjords and waterways that extends all the way from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, Alaska. Ever since my father gave me the book, Cruise of the Blue Flujin, a true story about four Sea Scouts who paddled the entire length of the Inside Passage in 1936, I have always wanted to kayak these waters. Now, the opportunity had finally arrived. Early the next morning, our tour group of nine assembled at the Government Dock in Port Hardy. Following introductions by our two guides, Mary-Anne and Paul, we boarded the 40-foot Hurst Isle for the one-hour shuttle to our final destination, God's Pocket Resort. God's Pocket is located on Hurst Island a remote, otherwise uninhabited island in the heart of God's Pocket Provincial Marine Park, a chain of small islands just off the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The rooms are rustic yet very comfortable with private baths and delicious meals are served in the 100-year old lodge. If you are interested in kayaking the Inside Passage, but have no interest in camping out, God's Pocket is the place. After a brief but thorough safety orientation, we set out for a leisurely paddle along the shoreline of Hurst Island. A light rain was falling but the water was smooth as glass. The air was cool and had the fresh scent of pine. Bald eagles soared across the sky, a curious harbor seal eyed us warily and white-tailed deer grazed along the rocky shoreline. Next day we got an early start on the water and headed southeast around the island chain that comprised God's Pocket Provincial Marine Park. The Park is noted for its extreme clarity of water and is a favorite for scuba divers as well as kayakers. The sky was overcast with intermittent showers and the air temperature was in the sixties. We stopped for lunch at an ancient village site of the Kwakwaka'wakw speaking peoples who first occupied the area 8000 years ago. On our third day we spent the morning hiking through the rain forests and kayaked to the Scarlett Point Lighthouse for the afternoon. To reach the lighthouse we had to cross Christie Passage, a narrow waterway with strong tidal currents. In British Columbia, tidal fluctuations of up to 17 feet can generate tremendous currents through the narrow channels and straits. To navigate safely through these currents requires skill and planning. Two couples staff the remote lighthouse alternating the twelve-hour shifts. Darlene, who gave us a tour of the station, and her husband Al have resided at Point Scarlett for twenty-eight years. Darlene seemed to love the seclusion of the remote outpost and explained that to "get away", she and her husband spend their vacations at a cabin they built which was about a mile away. A hot shower followed by the evening "happy hour" and a satisfying meal left me just enough energy to crawl into bed. I fell asleep listening to the soft rain and gentle sound of waves lapping on the shore. It was at that moment that I realized why storm-weary mariners referred to this protected cove as God's Pocket. We spent the next day exploring Browning Passage a narrow waterway with a vertical wall of granite rock along the western shoreline. At low tide the Browning Wall offers a fascinating display of inter-tidal sea creatures. The wall is also a favorite spot for scuba divers. Our final day consisted of three relatively short excursions, culminating with a night paddle. Since we were so far north, it didn't get totally dark until about midnight. The sea was calm and only the occasional screeching of an eagle broke the evening stillness. As the darkness progressed, the water splashing from our dipping paddles erupted in a shower of glowing phosphorescence. Early next morning we boarded the Hurst Isle for the return to Port Hardy. I focused my binoculars on the passing shoreline-so many places to go, so many things to see. Someday I will return. Rob Mohle lives in Shell Beach and is author of the book Adventure Kayaking, Trips from Big Sur to San Diego.
Exploring Nature: Black(fish) Magic, by Matt Davidson July 2003| July, 2003
By Matthew Davidson, Sea Kayak Adventures, Inc. Blackfish, aka Orca, or, more commonly, killer whale - a creature that inspires awe in we land-bound humans. "Blackfish" is what the coastal Kwakwaka'wakw band (First Nations peoples) in British Columbia call these sleek hunters, which are actually mammals. Technically, Orcas are very large dolphins - with much larger teeth. Whales have always been important to BC's native people. Killer whales especially were believed to possess great powers and were never to be harmed. As 12 of us kayakers paddled out into Canada's Johnstone Strait one calm September morning, we all knew what we wanted: to see some Blackfish up close, to experience some of the magic. But I'm sure that everyone was also asking themselves the same question - how close do I really want to get? Johnstone Strait is the northwest portion of the body of water separating Vancouver Island from mainland British Columbia. It's part of what is sometimes referred to as Canada's Inside Passage. From July through early September, the northern resident group of Orcas, numbering 250 individuals, ply the strait in their quest for the multitudes of salmon migrating from the ocean to the many pristine streams and rivers in this area. Members of a kayaking group that had just returned from a similar six-day trip had regaled us with thrilling tales of numerous encounters with large family groups of Orcas, called pods. We hoped that we would be so lucky. Expectations were high that first morning as we set out from Bauza Cove for our first night's camp on Hanson Island. But wouldn't it be too much to ask to see Orcas on our first day on the water? I had always felt that experiencing wildlife close up was a privilege that had to be earned. Luck was with us so far at least in regards to the weather: clear sky, no wind, calm water. We set our course and headed for the island, focusing on our paddling. After about an hour, within 10 minutes of reaching sheltered Sunset Beach and our first night's encampment, we saw them in the distance. Thin mists of water were popping up from the surface of the water - Orcas expelling water from their blowholes and taking a breath before submerging again. After a few more minutes we heard the sounds of the spouting. One of our Canadian guides, Tim, instructed us to point the bows of our boats towards the oncoming whales and stop paddling. The pod consisted of about seven or eight animals and was heading right for us. The excitement and anticipation was palpable. How close would we get to them? At this point, the Orcas would be deciding that. We sat motionless, watching the huge black fins rise up and then plunge beneath the glassy surface. Within moments they were passing right through our group, to the left, to the right, and directly beneath us. My heart was in my throat as I saw the six-foot dorsal fin of a male adult about 20 yards in front of me disappear beneath the water. I looked down and to my left as the huge black silhouette of the Orca glided by. I could have reached down with my paddle and touched him. As the pod swam off into the distance behind us, we all collectively exhaled. We had just experienced some Blackfish magic! Matthew Davidson is a free-lance writer/cartoonist living in Sandpoint, Idaho.Blackfish Waters Orca Kayak Tour
Kayaking the Sunset Sea, San Luis Obispo Tribune June 2002| June, 2002
By Rob Mohle - Special to the San Luis Obispo Tribune June 7, 2002 Baja sunset It was a cold, dreary December day. The room was dark and the only sound was the gentle pitter-patter of rain. I stared vacantly at the gray computer screen deleting the junk email that had accumulated over the past week. Being an outdoors person, this was not my idea of a fun way to spend a Saturday. As I scrolled down the seemingly endless list one email suddenly caught my eye. "Imagine paddling your kayak with blue whales, hiking through forests of giant cardon cactus, swimming with colorful tropical fish and camping on remote beaches. Join Sea Kayak Adventures for seven days exploring the Sea of Cortez." Wow, this sounded just like the trip my wife Amie and I had been dreaming about. We made our reservations and over the course of the next several weeks received all of the information outlining the trip details. Everything would be provided except for our clothing and swim gear. No previous kayaking experience would be necessary but everyone was expected to be in reasonably good physical condition. As an added attraction, we arranged in advance for an optional one-day whale-watching trip to Magdalena Bay on Baja's west coast. Our adventure began in the town of Loreto, just a short two-hour flight from Los Angeles International Airport. Unlike many other Mexico destinations, Loreto was quiet and uncrowded. It was the first Spanish settlement in Baja and the original capital. Just one block from our hotel was the oldest Spanish-era mission, Nuestra Senora de Loreto, founded in 1697. Early the next morning we boarded a comfortable tour bus for the whale-watching excursion to Magdalena Bay. From the narrow coastal plain, the winding two-lane highway climbed the towering volcanic escarpments of the Sierra de las Gigantas Mountains. The contrast of the red-hued desert colors against the vast blue water of the Sea of Cortez was spectacular. Our tour guide pointed out that the Sea of Cortez actually has three names: the Sea of Cortez, Gulf of California and its original name Mar Bermejo which means the "Sea of Sunset." Magdalena Bay is a large coastal lagoon, nearly 90 miles long and one-half to two miles wide. Each winter, hundreds of California gray whales migrate from the Bering Strait in Alaska to bear their young in these protected waters. Almost immediately after leaving the dock we spotted our first gray whales-a mother and calf pair. For the next three hours we saw literally hundreds of whales, some almost close enough to reach out and touch. Whales were sounding, breaching and even spy-hopping, an unusual behavior where the whale will hold its head 8-10 feet out of the water sometimes turning slowly to scan the horizon. Our seven-day kayak adventure began the next morning at Puerto Escondido a small harbor several miles south of Loreto. After introductions, Terry Prichard, owner of Sea Kayak Adventures and head guide for the trip gave a safety orientation and instructions on the basic skills of kayaking. After loading a-weeks worth of food, water and supplies for ten people into the four double and two single kayaks we were on our way. blue whale The first day we paddled to Isla Danzante, a small uninhabited island about three miles offshore. We made camp and spent the remainder of the day snorkeling and exploring the island. From towering cardon cactus that can grow up to 60 feet tall to the fragrant mesquite, the desert was in full bloom. Colorful hummingbirds dashed from flower to flower while an observant vulture circled cautiously overhead. Terry pointed out that the desert was unusually green due to a late season hurricane that dumped nearly 13 inches of rain last November. That's more rainfall than may normally occur during a ten-year period. Happy hour began a 5 o'clock followed by a delicious dinner of fish Veracruz, rice, steamed cauliflower, Chilean salad and a Pineapple Upside Down Cake cooked to perfection in a Dutch oven. I must say that every meal served during the entire trip was home-cooked and delicious. The next day we made another three-mile crossing to Isla Carmen where we spent the next three days. During the crossing a blue whale (the largest animal on earth) circled us several times, sounding repeatedly as it dove to great depths in search of krill, its primary food source. Magnificent frigate birds, osprey and squadrons of graceful pelicans soared overhead and the clear water was alive with brightly colored fish of all shapes and sizes. Isla Carmen is a spectacular island with jagged volcanic peaks, gorgeous white sand beaches and turquoise water. We spent our days paddling, hiking, snorkeling and tide pooling. It was late February and the temperatures during the daytime were in the mid-80s and at night in the comfortable 60s. The water temperature was about 70 degrees, a bit cool but okay with a wetsuit. On our final evening, Amie and I sat on the beach watching the sun set behind the Sierra de las Gigantas. The sea was calm and the air was still. The hollow, swishing sound of a spouting blue whale echoed across the brilliant crimson water. Now we knew the true meaning of Mar Bermejo. Rob Mohle lives in Shell Beach and is author of the book Adventure Kayaking, Trips from Big Sur to San Diego.
Wilderness Sea Kayaking in British Columbia's Johnstone Strait, Westjet Inflight Magazine May 2002| May, 2002
By Elle Andra-Warner - Special to Westjet's Inflight Magazine "Airlines" May 2002 It was one of those baby-boomer "I-can-do-anything" moments that landed me in a kayak, traveling through British Columbia's Johnstone Strait and Inside Passage. In a surge of daring adventurousness, I signed myself up for a six-day summer kayak trip, momentarily ignoring the fact that I had never kayaked before. Our paddling group consisted of eight novice urban adventurers, and three professional guides from Sea Kayak Adventures. We first gathered in July at Port McNeill on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. The next morning, we slid our bare feet into slithery wet-suit booties and selected our kayaks. Everything needed for 11 people's complete self-sufficiency was packed into our six Sea ward kayaks. We had enough delicious food for a week of three scrumptious meals a day, and packed an unbelievable 40 duffle bags worth of gear into our six sea-crafts. After fitting ourselves into the kayaks, we fastened our waterproof kayak skirts, and pushed off into the Johnstone Strait. For the next two hours, we paddled close to the Vancouver Island shoreline, learning the necessary strokes and building up confidence for our pending kayak adventure. But the relaxed pace and light chatter belied the one subject on everyone's mind: How would our paddling skills hold up as we crossed the giant moving waters of Johnstone Strait? After a lunch at shore, we lined up side by side in our kayaks and fixed our gaze across the Strait to our beach campsite on Hanson Island, two nautical miles away. "Stay together as a group, paddle steady and focus on our landing site," guide leader Jacqueline Holmes instructed. "The guides will be out front and on both outer edges. Everyone ready? Let's go." It was raw, heart-racing adventure! Tense and apprehensive, I chewed gum vigorously as we pulled away from the comfort of the shore. The sun was shining and the water was relatively calm. No one spoke, and paddles rhythmically dipped through water reaching depths of 440 meters (1,500 feet). Two-thirds of the way across, someone shouted: "Paddle like crazy!" just before a churning rip tide crossed our path. Fueled by an instant adrenaline rush, I paddled ferociously, and soon we were through it and back into calmer waters. It took us an hour of steady paddling to complete the crossing. We hauled the kayaks to higher ground to secure them against the night's tide, and then set up our tents in the old growth forest just behind the beach. As the guides prepared a delicious dinner of salmon, tortellini, broccoli, salad, and peach cobbler, we sipped wine, nibbled hors d'oeuvres, and made toasts to each other on our first incredible day at sea. The next day, we visited the abandoned Kwakiutl village of Mamalilaculla on Village Island. We started the morning with a delicious breakfast of French toast, bacon, grapefruit, and fresh coffee. As we left our campsite an early morning fog settled over the water, and soon the silver-white mist gently enveloped the brightly colored kayaks. We floated silently through the mystical and surreal landscape, waiting for tide to come in. The route was almost five nautical miles, paddling the protected inland waterways of the Indian Islands. Along the way, we passed ancient pictographs on rock walls that marked sacred, Native burial grounds. An unscheduled stop at a rock outcropping (bathroom break) yielded a treasure of intertidal life. We kept busy examining rock crabs, clams, carpets of bladderwort, and a massive colony of acorn barnacles cemented to the surrounding rock. The sun was rippling along the water when we arrived at Mamalilucula and pulled our kayaks ashore. Seemingly out of nowhere, a boat landed to deliver the famous storyteller and guardian of the island, Tom Sewid. The grandson of a former Chief, Tom is the keeper of the island's Kwaitkul culture. Dressed in his Native regalia, he spoke to us from in front of weathered longhouse posts. Tom explained that Native people have inhabited the island for over 8,000 years. At one time, a summer village that harvested candle fish was located here. The harvest was made into prized eulachon oil, and stored in long kelp tubes for trade and winter use. With his easygoing style punctuated by big, friendly grins, Tom enthralled us with stories of Native history, totem poles, potlatches, and legends. Paddling back to our campsite, we were contemplative as we weaved through stunning scenery with the snowcapped mountains of Vancouver Island's Coastal Range in the distance. During another day's adventure, guide Laureen Macintoch led us on a mid-afternoon hike to Eagle Eye Lookout on West Cracroft Island. Located on a high ridge, it overlooks the world-renowned Robson Bight Ecological Reserve for whales on Johnstone Strait. It is a 2.5 kilometer trail, traversed through a rugged rainforest terrain of fallen timbers, sword ferns and giant trees. The magnificent panorama that greeted us at the lookout was worth every grueling step. At the very edge of the ridge, sitting on a weathered wooden stump searching for whales through binoculars, was David Briggs. The tanned, curly-haired researcher from California has lived on the ridge in a tent every summer since 1984, studying the whales and boat traffic. After welcoming us with a big smile, he enthusiastically shared some of his vast knowledge of whale society. "Whales have the most stable family groups. They are the only mammals in which all the offspring, even adult males, stay with their mothers for their entire lives. They help babysit the young, and when different family groups meet, there is much socializing. They are a dynamic society with strong social bonds. Each family has their own dialect, or set of calls, they use as part of their vocal repertoire." We remembered his words the next day when we experienced a close encounter with several whales on our return crossing to Vancouver Island. Midway through the Strait, guide Antonio Monzon sighted three large male orca dorsal fins coming towards us. We quickly rafted the kayaks together to appear as on large object on the whales' sonar, and positioned ourselves to face the oncoming whales. Jacqueline lowered a hydrophone into the water so that we could hear their vocalizations and sonar clicks. We waited as they continued their approach, maintaining a straight line toward our stationary kayak flotilla. About 100 meters (300 feet) in front of us, the whales began to surface and dive in close synchrony, finishing less than 15 meters (45 feet) to our right before continuing down the Strait. It was an awesome event that instantly became our new benchmark for adventure. Our final evening was spent amid beached logs at Blinkhorn Peninsula. We looked rougher than we did on our first night, and we sat around the evening campfire musing about our many adventures. We credited our trip's success to the skills and leadership of our excellent guides. They were dedicated professionals who cheerfully provided personalized attention, helping each of us find our individual comfort levels…and they were incredible cooks. In six days the expedition had honed us into modern-day explorers. We had paddled between three and four hours everyday and covered over 44 nautical miles. Amazingly, I never tired. Each day was an adventure in new and spectacular surroundings. Our spirits soared at the accomplishment. For me, the adventure was a journey of learning and challenge. It would be an oversimplification to say that I conquered the apprehensions of a novice kayaker. The fears were there every morning but I acknowledged them, then climbed into the kayak and paddled. If I had let these fears stop me, I would have missed the thrill of wilderness sea kayaking and an opportunity for personal growth. I took a risk and the rewards were priceless. On the last night, I gazed at the gorgeous sunset and reflected upon what had brought me there in the first place. After much contemplation, I vowed to act more often with my baby-boomer, "I can do anything" attitude, at heart. Would I do this again, You ask? Without hesitation, the answer is YES.
Where the Boys Aren't, The Washington Post April 2001| April, 2001
On a women-only kayaking trip in Baja, it's easy to shed your inhibitions. And your clothes. By Victoria McKernan Special to The Washington Post April 29, 2001 view from tent door It is a rare and wonderful thing to be in the middle of nowhere in a very small boat, to have no destination but the island ahead, no agenda but joy. When I rested my paddle across the cockpit of my kayak and looked over the side, I saw fish grazing on rocks through the clear water. Frigate birds sliced the sky above, sharp black silhouettes, all angles and attitude like bad boys at the prom. A string of pelicans soared low over the water, rising and falling in unison over invisible currents. There was no sight or sound of civilization anywhere. And to think I almost didn't come. When a friend invited me to join an all-female kayaking trip in Baja, my first thoughts were: I don't do group travel, I don't do women's group stuff and I especially don't do guided tours, unless I am the guide. But my experience mostly had been on dive boats and expedition cruise ships. There was the minor fact that I knew nothing about sea kayaking. What I did know, however, was the amount of work required to plan, organize, shop for and equip a week-long expedition for 14 people. I knew I did not want to do this. I did not want to make out menus and lists and shop and stow. I did not want to chart a course and pack a truckload of camping gear, especially when everything for the whole trip, including all the food and fresh water and the toilet, had to be packed into boats slightly bigger than lipstick tubes. But that's what outfitters are for, my pal Patty pointed out. And now that we were all semi-responsible adults earning semi-living wages, we could actually pay someone else to do all that. We could just show up, dab on a little sunscreen and paddle away. This was a new concept for me, a veteran of the backpacking/hitchhiking/work-your-way-around-the-world sort of travel. It was also a suspicious concept. I had visions of some wretched guide shepherding us along like miserable ducklings. No, no, no, Patty insisted. The guides were cool, the structure minimal, the food fantastic, the last places going fast -- did I want to come? What was it like, I wondered, to be on the other side? The side where, after your daily rugged wilderness experience, you get to sit in the shade with a frosty drink until someone calls you for dinner? Except, this being the Mexican desert, the drinks would not be exactly frosty. But the rest of the deal, well, maybe I should give it a try. But the women's group part . . . I still had my doubts. The only real reason for mucking about in the wilderness, after all, is to hang out with big, muscley half-naked men. I had visions of being stuck around the campfire discussing Oprah's Book Club selections and journeys to personal fulfillment. The couple of women on the trip I did know were great (and already fulfilled), but what about the others? The fact that they were game for a week without showers gave me some reassurance, but I have in fact gone on camping trips with women who brought along three pounds of cosmetics. My fears began to ebb in the Los Angeles airport. Of 11 women, only two checked bags. One woman had brought a carry-on smaller than the average PBS tote bag. We had come from California and Belgium and all points in between, with a large Wisconsin contingent. We ranged in age from 27 to 49, with most of us hovering around 40. It was a sporty group, I soon discovered, with plenty of campers and canoers, a marathon runner, a fly-fisherwoman and a rugby player. There were various boyfriends, husbands and children in the assorted pictures, but they were (sorry guys!) largely forgotten by the time we landed in Loreto, Mexico. I was used to arriving in foreign countries alone, wading out into the turgid swarm of humanity and crowding onto a public bus to the low-rent side of town. But this time an air-conditioned coach was waiting to take us to the kind of hotel they stick on travel brochure covers, all bungalows and bougainvillea by the sea. Okay, this tour business was pretty good so far, but what about the guide part? Remember that feeling of relief on the first day of school when you discovered that you had the really nice, pretty, fun teacher? That was the feeling when we assembled around the pool that evening for orientation. Marta, our lead guide, had the full-throttle personality of the rough-and-rowdy best friend to the sissy Debbie Reynolds character in one of those old pioneer movies. You know, the gal dancing on tables with the lumberjacks while Debbie is off singing somewhere, all moony-eyed. Ginny, Marta's sidekick, had such an easy good nature and sweet personality that it was hard to hate her for more than five minutes for her supermodel body, perfect tan and long blond hair. We also had Cecilia, a Mexican naturalist who was well-versed about every bird, plant and lizard in Baja, and was eager to share. It was like paddling through the Discovery Channel. Thank God she was weak on fish. While Marta gave us a brief overview of the trip, Ginny handed each of us three waterproof bags for our clothes and personal gear. Cecilia spread out a giant satellite map of the area. The Parque Marino Nacional Bahia de Loreto protects almost 800 miles of shoreline and offshore islands. Two of these islands, Isla Carmen and Isla Danzante, were to be our home for the next five nights. On the map, they looked like barren rocks. Early the next morning, a van took us to Puerto Escondido where our kayaks were waiting in a colorful row on the beach beside a mountain of gear. It seemed impossible that all of this would fit, but somehow, about an hour later, it was all in there. Sleeping bags and mats were jammed into the pointy ends, bags of water were tucked behind seats, buckets of produce rested between the steering pedals and snorkeling gear was strapped to the decks. The toilet was hoisted unceremoniously into the center hatch of the yellow boat. We picked out life jackets and wiggled into spray skirts. There isn't a whole lot to sea kayaking in calm water. You sit. You paddle. The person in back has pedals for the rudder. Marta and Ginny zipped around in their solo kayaks checking posture and fine-tuning our strokes. Then we paddled out into the Sea of Cortez. sea kayaking It is called the Gulf of California now, the name wrested, as would be politically correct, from the taint of European conquerors. But once it was called the Sea of Cortez, and I agree with John Steinbeck that it is "a better-sounding and more exciting name." The Gulf of California encompasses a body of water formed about 25 million years ago when two tectonic plates began separating, cracking the mountains and wrenching aside a chunk of western Mexico, leaving a long narrow sea in the middle of the desert. The Sea of Cortez, however, describes a magical place -- a world of harsh contrast and seductive beauty. In the peculiar light of the latitudinal sun, the water has the laconic roll and metallic sheen of mercury. The land that had looked so barren on the map now proved to be rich in life and color. Fantastic twisted cactuses grew on the beaches and century plants shot their dagger blooms out of rocks. From morning to night, a thousand colors shifted across the sheer peaks of the Sierra de la Giganta; steely gray warming to rust, then ochre and chanterelle yellow, and in between, colors I would have to make up names for -- burtesh and sossrum, ruzz, tumdill, aldore. We paddled about an hour the first day, then beached in a little cove for lunch and snorkeling. Here is where the reality of this trip actually sunk in. There was gear to be dealt with, food to be prepared, snorkeling equipment to be adjusted and drowning to be prevented, and I didn't have to do any of it! Before I even got my wet suit on, Ginny and Cecilia had set up a table and were slicing avocados. Marta snorkeled around, helping to adjust masks, subtly checking out skills and diving down to bring up sea urchins and starfish for closer examination. In all my years of scuba and snorkeling, I have rarely been in the water without having to mind people. For a few strange moments, I actually didn't know what to do with myself. The days fell into a comfortable rhythm. We woke to the smells of fresh coffee and breakfast cooking, then loaded up and paddled somewhere new, stopping to snorkel in isolated coves or along the rocky shore. We watched manta rays leap out of the sea and pelicans dive for fish. One day we swam with dolphins, another day we watched Cecilia autopsy a dead one that had washed ashore. We poked around in tide pools, accompanied by scrambling, scarlet Sally lightfoot crabs. We climbed the desert hills, where one woman found a beautiful skull of (we think) a crested caracara. Outside of my acute jealousy over that skull, I found, to my surprise, that I really liked being exclusively with a bunch of women. Yes, there was a lot of girl talk, but there was political talk and science talk and quite a lot of "sailor" talk over bottles of tequila. There was no sense of competition, no one wanting to paddle faster, hike farther, drink harder, last longer. Women, I realized, work together quite differently than men. Except for Marta or Ginny giving necessary instruction, there was almost no one "directing" anybody. When we beached for the night, the boats simply got carried up and unloaded, the sun shelter erected, the washing buckets filled. We all worked together, our various strengths and weaknesses easily accommodated. Of course, not having all that much work to do may have had something to do with it. (Though Marta said we pitched in a lot more than the average group.) If some of us were packed and ready to go while others were still dawdling, it wasn't a problem. The other great thing about an all-female group was that modesty is totally unnecessary. Except for the occasional fishing boat in the distance, we saw no other humans for the entire week. By the second day, we had abandoned most clothing, and swimsuits, altogether. There are no mosquitoes on the islands, no bothersome gnats. The company provided tents, but no one used them. It was good to sleep under the stars every night and wake to find your sleeping bag framed in the tracks of puzzled hermit crabs, to whom we were only obstacles, a sudden Stonehenge interrupting their nightly crawls. I was strafed one morning by what I first thought was the world's most enormous bumblebee, until I saw it was a hummingbird. This was no dainty thing flitting about tropical flowers or swilling at the suburban feeder. It was as big as a rhinoceros and buzzing with attitude, nipping its nectar from a devil's bouquet. Yeah, I'm bad. After dawdling on a glassy pond for a week, we finally had a taste of adventure on our last day, when a fog bank suddenly blew in, bringing stiff headwinds and choppy seas. Marta and Ginny bunched us all up within sight, and Marta led the way by compass. Conditions were not exactly perilous. It was, after all, daylight, with the mainland somewhere in front of us and no large ships likely to mow us down. But we did have to paddle with some vigor, or at least not slack off entirely and space out on the scenery like we usually did. When we finally broke out of the fog and found ourselves dead on course to our final beach, we felt mildly triumphant. We all thought that after a week without showers or any sort of creature comforts we would be eager to return to civilization at the end, but we lingered on that last beach, reluctant to give up this world we had experienced, this time out of time. Plus, it took a while to find our clothes again. Victoria McKernan is a mystery book writer in Washington.
The Land Time Almost Forgot, Baja Life Magazine Spring 2001| April, 2001
By Linda Ballou - Special to Baja Life Magazine Spring 2001 I am certain that the sights that surround me are much the same as those experienced by John Steinbeck and his crew of naturalists when he explored the region in 1941. As I recall their early adventures, our head guide Jackie, brings me back to reality as she tells us that we are about to be introduced to muscles we never knew we had. Our group of twelve, all in varying degrees of physical fitness, receives instructions to push, not pull the paddle, so as not to become overtired. We are to use a flat palm, and a loose thumb on the paddle, ore else suffer from tendonitis. As I donned my life vest, I began to fear that I might have made a terrible mistake. Much like the pelicans I had been watching just moments before, I too was an awkward disaster just waiting to happen. I prayed that like them, I would acquire grace once in action. I remembered the outfitter's literature, promising that by merely practicing a few exercises prior to the trip, any reasonably fit person could enjoy the thrill of gliding over serene waters in a sea kayak. None-the-less, my stomach churned as I contemplated the fact that within moments, nothing but a thin shell of fiberglass would separate me from the deep blue waters of the Sea of Cortez. Before I could further consider my fears, we were off. At three miles an hour, it would take us an hour to reach our first stop at Danzante Island. I soon found myself enjoying a unique sense of freedom. There I sat, balanced neatly on the bow, watching as swarming shoals of fish darted below and pelicans scooped dinner into their fleshy pouches. I felt like a dolphin riding the crest of the waves - finally fearless! By the time we stopped for lunch, I was thrilled at being in this vast ocean wilderness. As we cruised across the waters, the brilliant sun beat down upon us. I was eager to escape the heat and experience the underwater world of marine life. Clad in snorkel gear and fins, I prepared to enter the waters Steinbeck had dubbed, "ferocious with life." Biologically the richest body of water on the planet, the Sea of Cortez supports over 900 species of marine vertebrates and over 2,000 invertebrates. As I slipped into the transparent waters that lure outdoor adventurers from around the globe, all that was visible was the rust color of the cliffs surrounding our beach camp and a few darting electric blue fish. The sea shelf dropped off abruptly to depths where there is no visibility, so I headed back to my group and the lunch that awaited me. Just moments after leaving the water, a fin whale the size of a city bus emerged, arching its great girth. Stunned that I had been just feet away from this behemoth creature that swills krill by the ton, and has a heart the size of a Volkswagen, I realized I needed to be more alert during my explorations! The second day, we slid into the opalescent water early in the morning to beat the afternoon winds and were welcomed by a comfortable eighty degrees with a teasing breeze and rocking swells; it was a perfect paddle day. The deep water crossing from Danzante to Carmen Island is a wide stretch of open water that can present a challenge. Fernando, our local guide from La Paz, was paddling in perfect rhythm in the cockpit behind me, so I enjoyed a great sense of security. The cliffs on the backside of Danzante display red sandblasted arches carved by ferocious Chubasco winds. Fernando pointed to a window in the rocks several stores up that navigators use to get their bearings. There are no beaches or trails on this side of the island, so kayaking is the ideal way to explore. We slipped up close to the cliffs to get a closer look at the sea caves. It was there I spied the nest of an osprey. On the water, the natural flotsam consists of moss algae, sponges and the occasional jelly fish - the size of a dinner plate. We glided over boulders populated by magenta starfish and spiny purple urchins. Because there is no engine noise in a kayak, the wildlife doesn't scatter upon your approach. It allows you the sensation of being part of this translucent water world while remaining safe from the dangers of the deep. The Sea of Cortez is the youngest sea on earth, a mere 25 million years old. It is cradled by rugged lava-rock cliffs that are embedded with numerous sea caves. Earthquakes generated from the San Andreas Fault created deep water canyons and separated the peninsula from the mainland. Strong ocean currents continually mix and lift food and nutrients from the deep ocean canyons, making this the perfect feeding ground for all types of marine mammals. We quickly made the crossing to Punta Baja, where gulls greeted us with what sounded like hysterical laughter. A troop of pelicans flew close to the water in a "V" shaped wedge, webbed feet lowered for a splash landing. A lone, great blue heron held his station on the point, undisturbed by our arrival. The littoral was thick with shells, big corkscrew spikes, small orange cones and bivalves of every description. The shells in the fossil bed at Punta Baja are said to be as old as the sea itself. Just as quickly as the ball drops on New Year's Eve at Time Square, the sun slid behind the windblown mountains, leaving a chill in the air. While others chose to sleep under the star speckled skies, I unraveled my tent poles and set up house. When I unzipped my bedroom at sunrise I was greeted with the sight of soft, muted mauves and purples draping over the Isla Montserrat. I watched the sun lift its warm face over the shimmering mirrored surface, turning the sky to an opalescent pink. In the distance, dolphins did somersaults. It was time for breakfast; eggs with cactus, tomatoes and guacamole. We were a tribe now, accustomed to each other's morning face. We were becoming deeply immersed in the peaceful and unhurried rhythms of Baja. At Arroyo Roja, we enjoyed a view of lava cliffs. A row of rock fingerlets, where Sally Light-foot crabs scuttled at my approach, made for fun tide-pooling. Underwater, I spied on Sergeant Majors, parrot fish, stickfish, and Rainbow Wrasse as they flitted in and out of the oatmeal-colored algae. I floated over boulders peppered with starfish and anemones. I felt light years removed from my ever-present thoughts of danger and worries and from the question that eternally plagued me, "what's for dinner?" Early the next day, we headed out from Punta Baja. Just as we crested the point, we saw a blue-footed booby and a pod of about thirty dolphins. The dolphins churned past us in a steady rhythm, making a beeline up the channel. After a brisk paddle into the wind, we were gliding on shallow turquoise water again, so clear I could see to the white sand bottom. The beach was composed of whited powdery sand, wrapped in white cliffs with fat, chalk-colored stalactites dripping from the ceiling of the sea caves. Standing on the cliffs were black cormorants with their wings spread in the sun to dry, looking like scarecrows. A deep blaze of aquamarine green, so intense it glowed like a laser beam, shot across the width of the passage. A week of yoga before breakfast, several of hours of paddling prior to lunch, a siesta and then a swim, left me feeling amazingly fit. So when our group was challenged by another cluster of kayaks to a race across the idyllic glide to Honeymoon Cove, I was game. I poured on the steam, gave it all I had and applied all the technique I had learned that week. Having arrived at the tranquil Honeymoon Cove, I climbed to the top of the red bluffs that sheltered it. I peered down into water so clear that from several stories up I could see schools of fish. From this perfect vantage, I let my imagination run wild wondering what treasure might have been left behind by pirates who had come to this part of the world looking for a sage harbor. My trip sadly came to a close, but I was very happy that this unique land that time almost forgot is only a few short hours from home. "I'll be back," I promised myself.
Paddling Among Porpoises, Out Bound Travel Sept. 2000| September, 2000
By Tan Chung Lee - OutBound Travel Magazine September 2000 A pristine wilderness of cactus gardens, fossilized islands and a marine environment where whale, dolphins and sea birds call home - that's the Sea of Cortez. The best way to explore all this is to get close to the water - by kayaking- and enjoying good old-fashioned exercise to boot. A flock of pelicans stood on a rocky shoreline, eyeing us as warily as we were surveying them. Above us, frigate birds glided gracefully looking for tell-tale ripples on the ocean surface. The moment they spotted fish, they would dive in a vertical swoop to grab their prey. At the same time, we kept our eyes peeled for ospreys and blue-footed boobies. If we were lucky, we might also spot dolphins or sea lions and even hear a fin whale or blue whale nearby. We were paddling on the calm cobalt-blue waters of the Sea of Cortez alongside Isla Danzante (Isle of Dancer). The sea birds were not the only natural wonders that greeted us, up-close and personal, on our first day of kayaking. The wrap-around scenery of jagged mountains, with their dark folds and sharp ridges, was also a spectacular sight. Our first stop at a picturesque spot, called Honeymoon cove, on Punta Arena on Isla Danzante was a prelude to what we would encounter the rest of the week: Clear waters, views of the sharp jagged features of surrounding volcanic isles and birds on the hunt for prey. We saw a flock of seagulls in a feeding frenzy, pouncing on squid and fish in the water just a couple of meters form the beach. Walking to the top of the headland that sheltered Honeymoon Cove, it was easy to see how it had earned its name: The pristine beauty of this cozy alcove was breathtaking. Except for a lone yacht anchored in the middle of the ocean, there was no other boat or soul in sight. Somehow, the scenery reminded me of the Galapagos Islands, with similar volcanic island and bird species. Only the giant tortoises and marine iguanas were missing. There were 16 of us on a one-week sea kayak expedition to explore, close-up, the famed wildlife of the seas off Baja California. We comprised 12 guests, led by four guides, including Terry Prichard, the owner of Se Kayak Adventures, the trip's outfitter. At first, I had started out with some trepidation as it was several years ago since I had kayaked. But I need not have worried. An hour-and-a-half of instruction at Puerto Escondido, south of Loreto, Mexico, from where we launched our expedition, was sufficient to ease my doubts. We were taught how to paddle, maneuver our fiberglass two-seater kayaks and what to do in case we capsized. A number of my fellow kayakers were novices. Kayaking the entire week proved to be a breeze. It was astonishing how stable - and compact - the kayaks were. They carried our personal gear, camping equipment and all the essentials needed to operate a mobile kitchen, complete with stove, Dutch over, tables and chairs. Even a portable loo was stored in one of the kayaks. If there were any limitations, they never showed as our guides surprised us night after night with delicious meals. Our menu included grilled fresh fish, lasagna and Mexican specialties like tacos and chili rellenos and there was always a freshly-baked cake every night, courtesy of the Dutch over. And every evening before dinner was served, there was a cocktail hour of margaritas allowing us to reflect on the glorious sunsets or to exchange notes on the day's kayaking. The Sea of Cortez is recognized as of the more rewarding places to kayak. Just off the coast of Baja California, it is one of Mexico's national marine parks, rich in fish and other marine life. Also known as the Gulf of California, the Sea of Cortez was made famous by John Steinbeck in his book, Sea of Cortez. Like Hemingway, he had long discovered the joys of fishing in Mexican waters. So have many American angling enthusiasts who flock here regularly on deep-sea fishing expeditions. The other lure is sea kayaking. Yet, despite the pull, there are not many kayakers here. Apart from ourselves, there was only one other group and we saw them only once. Nor did we see the deep-sea fishing boats. Most of the time, there was only our group and we had plenty of opportunity to commune with nature. There was plenty - on land and at sea. For a start, the Baja landscape is striking, comprising volcanic mountains with multicolored layers of volcanic ash and lava. Each island in the Sea of Cortez is different, Isla Danzante, for instance, is a place of high volcanic cliffs while Isla Carmen, another island where we camped, is full of fossilized shell, which shed some clues to the Sea of Cortez's origins. It is believed that some 20 million years ago, the Baja Peninsula, that finger-shaped piece of land stretching down from California, was connected to the rest of Mexico and the Sea of Cortez was non-existent. Then came the shift of geological plates which rendered apart Baja peninsula from the mainland, creating a rift that became filled with what is now known as the Sea of Cortez. This ocean is incredibly rich in marine life, with as many as 800 species of fish, dolphins, whales and sea lions. Our expedition saw us paddling from Puerto Escondido to Isla Danzante and Isla Carmen and around parts of the two islands and back. Our typical day started with breakfast, kayaking for two to three hours before arriving at beach for lunch, some exploration and , perhaps, snorkeling. Because of its pristine environment, the Sea of Cortez's coral gardens and fish could even be viewed, in some spots, right from our kayaks, so clear is the water. Rainbow wrasse, stone fish, trumpet fish and the multi-armed purple gulf sunstar, a starfish variety, were some of the natural wonders to be seen. Another bout of kayaking would follow for two hours or so before ewe would beach again, set up camp for the night, perhaps go exploring a sandy canyon have cocktails, dinner, chat, play games or observe the stars. Although we were all provided with tents, many of us preferred sleeping under the star-studded sky, cooled by the gentle sea breezes. Isla del Carmen, where we spent two nights camping at different spots, is a geologist's dream. This 120,000-year-old fossilized limestone island was once a living coral reef and we whiled away hours of pleasure roaming the shell-encrusted beaches and admiring the rocky formations offshore. One of us even found a small arrowhead, which was used probably by on of three tribes that had once settled here and must have been oh, centuries old, it was turned over to the museum in Loreto. Beyond the pebble beach of Ensenada de Marques, still on Carmen Island, we explored the various cactus species endemic in the Baja -barrel cactus, cardones (which looked like candelabra) cholla and galloping cactus, which can stick onto your clothes if you are not careful. The cardones are the world's largest cactus species, soaring to heights of some 10 meters. The Baja Peninsula was home to an astonishing 120 varieties of cactus alone. Another highlight of our expedition was seeing a massive fin whale swimming just a few meters from our campsite on Ensenada de Marques. We heard it long before we saw it. It was 6 am and there was heavy panting in the air-it was the fin whale breathing. We observed about half an hour. Although it did not breach, it surfaced several times to show us its dorsal fin as it glided by. We later say the same fin whale while kayaking in the open sea. Our other reward was seeing a pod of dolphins. Marine life, plants, geological formations…the Baja certainly surprised us with its diversity, and to think it is essentially a desert. But, then, that is the magic of the Baja.