Editor’s note: It’s always something. If it’s not dumping rain, it’s swarming biting bugs. If it’s not a broken rudder, it’s an incoming thunderstorm replete with 30 kt. winds. If it’s not a kamikaze vulture it’s a horde of Baja 500 aficionados screaming by on their motorcycles and Baja buggies. This is the Log of the Sea of Cortez, the Rangers’ 2019 retreat in which all kinds of shit happened and we still managed to return in style.
The Mission: Meet up in Loreto in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Circumnavigate Isla Carmen, a 50-mile endeavor with 2 additional 5-mile crossings and return in one piece.
November 6: Day One took me to Guerneville where I met Jim and spent the night. On our second day out from Guerneville we hit Villa Jesus Maria, deep in the desert. Just before sunset we took a random road into the desert to camp. Apart from a gnarly construction zone in the hills on Mexico Highway One where we were rerouted onto an uneven dirt road and rambled around through the rocks for a while following big rigs until we got back onto pavement and a few military checkpoints to negotiate the journey was uneventful. Oh yeah, there was that routine patrol stop right after we crossed the border where Jim got frisked for weapons in Tijuana.
November 7: The further south we went the more beautiful the country. More military checkpoints too, looking for drugs and weapons. We presented identification and the soldiers looked in the back of the truck and tapped the boats, presumably to see if they were empty, and let us go. We negotiated a total of six of these stops on the way south. The soldiers were decent, sometimes even friendly. As we drove I thought about Baja versus Eastern Oregon: the lava flows, the basalt, the washes, and the stunning vistas of dry lake beds and mountains are very similar to the Oregon outback.
Baja even has its own indigenous pronghorn antelope. And rattlesnakes and scorpions, of course. Baja has more cactus and also palms, especially some cool blue ones around Catavina, but Oregon has juniper. Baja has the Sea of Cortez, but Oregon has abundant lakes, rivers, and hot springs. I guess I was a little homesick. The sketchy weather was also a common denominator. The sky was moody and it was windy with bits of rain.
November 8: This was our in between day. The others were gathering food and meeting with Ginni Callahan from Sea Kayak Baja Mexico to arrange our permits. Apparently we did need those stinking badges. But four days of driving had taken their toll and I needed to be physically active but also to rest. It felt weird. I also felt far from home and uncertain about the trip. We gathered in the evening for dinner and had an early night.
November 9: The weather was cool and windy. We launched from a beach near Loreto and paddled a little less than 2 miles to the island of Danzante where we took a break and had a snack at a low spot named El Tombolo because of the tumbling conditions. Conditions were mild on the way to Danzante but when we crossed to Carmen, about 3 miles, the seas increased 1 – 1 ½ feet, and there were some breaking waves due to a tide rip at the north end of Danzante which was making the wind waves stand up. The wind was blowing from the NNE at roughly 10 to 12 knots. This crossing was more exposed (more fetch) but the ambient air temperature was about 76 degrees and the water roughly the same so it wasn’t bad. Warm water is friendly. We saw a turtle, lots of Brown Pelicans and Blue-footed Boobies, and some Magnificent Frigate birds.
The first campsite was a wide, white sand beach. Our friend Ginni came along and spent that night with us. She made margaritas and there was much rejoicing. After we set up camp, Michael, our Shaman, read to us from his Rune Book. Regarding the trip he had cast the rune for “Wholeness” and it was meaningful. After the reading we took turns saying what the retreat meant to us. For me and Steve, it was our first time paddling in Baja. Then Jim told us to close our eyes and listen to the waves. I immediately noticed how the soft sound stood out now that we were silent.
Jim came around with his Tibetan chimes and rang them over us again and again, letting each sound fade away before the next began. The chimes had a lovely reverberating voice that combined with the gentle lapping of the little waves. It was a wonderful beginning to the journey. Later there was howling at the moon and we shared our love for each other and for the team. Wholeness. There is nothing like a good team and any uncertainty I had about the trip melted away with the sound of the sea and the chimes and the voices of my friends.
November 10: This day was cloudy, but it was a gentle way to begin our circumnavigation, better than having a hot bright sun burning down. We were easing nicely into the adventure. Ginni walked up to the overhanging bluff at dawn and played her flute. My favorite piece was “Morning has Broken,” but she played many others. Then we breakfasted and broke camp and Ginni generously offered to take what trash we had accumulated back to the mainland, leaving us augmented with water and food.
We paddled off on glassy seas and headed toward the east side of the island. This day we travelled about 8 miles in roughly 4 hours. The swell was from the NNE with light wind at times. We saw more pelicans and more frigates, the males red-breasted with mating plumage. After a leisurely paddle we found our beach for the night. We stayed two nights at this campsite.
For me it was good to chill after being on the go for 6 days, but I also got out and explored. El Rey alerted us to a big fat 3’ Moray Eel swimming along the beach in about a foot of water. Then he went fishing. He hooked a trigger fish and promptly made ceviche. Our first 2 days on the water had remained cool and cloudy with spots of rain, but on the second night I woke at about 1 a.m. to find the clouds gone. The stars were out and the moon was nearly full. In the quiet of the night the sea sounded more active on this easterly side of the island.
November 11: I was sleeping really well each night until the moon rose over the tent. Always affected by a full moon, I was wakeful most nights on this trip. Nevertheless I felt reasonably rested. During those long nights in the tent I read, journaled, and practiced savasana for longer than ever in my life. Now that the sky was clear I also spent time looking at Orion lying on his left shoulder and just thinking about stuff.
On this, our first day off, Don Miguel and I took a long hike up the arroyo and went to the headwall. There were purple flowering shrubs and a white-flowered honeysuckle that looked like a morning glory until I got closer and smelled the flowers and saw the rounded leaves. There was lots of greenery on the island, a lot of flowers, and a surprising amount of broad-leaved plants. Baja had received the most rain they’d had in ten years and there were times when it looked like we were paddling in Hawaii.
After the hike I helped put up the Batwing, which we only used three times on the trip but was an extremely necessary piece of equipment, twice to keep us cool and once at the end of the journey to keep us warm and dry. Then I went snorkeling. There were lots of little fish schooling in the bay and close inshore I spent some time floating face down watching the schools move dreamily back and forth above the sunlit rainbow patterns on the sand. Later, sitting alone under the batwing, I had an epiphany. A kaleidoscope of yellow butterflies fluttered around our camp and I thought, how lovely. Just like a blessing. Normally I’d be getting stoned to “enhance” the experience. The drugs and alcohol I’ve used recreationally all my life had been a vain attempt to find bliss and since the Event that happened to me in May I don’t need drugs or alcohol any more. I’ve got that natural high going on at last.
After that Event, I involuntarily stopped smoking weed for the first time since I was 14 years old. It wasn’t a choice. It was something that happened to me, something I was given, a true blessing. When I went to India in October my teacher told me I didn’t recognize the bliss. True bliss is unfamiliar but now I know it’s always with me and I can summon it up at any time. I lose sight of it because it’s not common to my experience. I forget. But I can remember.
At that moment under the batwing watching the butterflies I realized that I always walk in bliss and the difference between knowing it and not knowing is simply a matter of remembrance. Tears of gratitude filled my eyes as butterflies surrounded me and I completely blissed out. Then Deb and Jim joined me under the batwing and we had a productive and fulfilling Tarp Talk that sealed the deal. We celebrated with a smidge of tequila and spent the rest of the day doing as we liked. Bliss.
November 12: The previous night I only slept about 3 hours thanks to the bright moon and some angst about today’s paddle. On the other hand I had the longest savasana of my life, which was pretty cool. Yesterday we talked a lot about the Plan, paddling about 10 miles, including a 5-mile crossing which could be quite rough. One thing about the Rangers, we plan. And we are collaborative. Everyone who wants to puts in their two cents and then the Captain makes the final decision, complete with options and bail out plans. Interestingly, during the night I spent a lot of time thinking about life, working on my ever-evolving Life Plan complete with options and bail outs. It was as if my inner life was reflecting my outer life as they both evolved.
We launched at 6:04 a.m., probably the earliest launch the Rangers have ever accomplished as a team on retreat. The full moon was setting and the sun rising when we hit the water. We had easy conditions most of the day. The predicted wind never manifested. In fact for most of our trip the weather report we received nightly was wrong, usually about a day off. On this day we had times of light breeze alternating with periods of glass. The sunrise was lovely, and we saw more pelicans and frigates. We also stopped a few times to snack and rest.
We had planned to cross Bahia Salinas at its narrowest spot but Don Miguel saw the white sand beach at the head of the bay and took off, so the rest of us followed. It worked out perfectly because A. the beach was beautiful, B. Jim wanted to see the abandoned village he remembered from back in the day, and C. even though it put more miles on the day we got help from the current which was running at about 1 ½ knots as we paddled back down toward the mouth of the bay to the point.
This is where I learned about eating. I don’t typically eat much in the morning, although I’d been good about eating breakfast on the trip. And I did snack. But I was paddling more miles than I ever had in my life and as we rounded the point and headed up the exposed eastern side of the island, I got Hangry. Big time. We’d already paddled 10 miles and now I found myself heading straight into a brisk wind from the NNE at about 10 to 12 knots with 1 – 1 ½ foot chop breaking over the bow and plenty of white caps. Capt. Deb and Paula were submarining in the heavily loaded X-3, submerged in water up to their waists. Everyone instantly got energized and my team mates were whooping and hollering as their kayaks bucked through the waves but I just got pissed. This was probably the best thing that could have happened because I didn’t miss a beat. I put my head down and pounded to the next beach, landed with everyone else, set up my tent and promptly ate a 16-ounce can of pineapple, a 15-ounce can of tortilla soup, and a 3-ounce can of albacore tuna. Suddenly everything was groovy. A bit ashamed at myself for losing it I passed around my treasured Cava de Oro Anejo tequila. I shared it out each time we landed at a new spot and as everyone took their shot I resolved to eat more thoughtfully in the future.
Total distance for the day: 12 miles in 6 hours not counting breaks. So far we’ve made 25 miles in 3 days of paddling. At this point I’m laughing because we have ONLY 9 miles to go till the next camp site. For the others this is no big deal, but the farthest I’ve ever paddled in a day was 8 miles during the Bataan Death Paddle a few years ago so this was a new experience for me. And never in my life had I done point to point paddling day after day. Tsunami retreats typically involve paddling to a remote beach, setting up camp, and spending the days exploring and playing in local features, staying up late and starting each day slow and relaxed. Not this time!
November 13: Reveille at 5:30 a.m. We launched at 7:00, motivated by the no-see-ums that had manifested in fierce numbers the night before. I had retired early, thus missing the onslaught. I was pretty sore in my abs and back and tired from the longest paddle of my life, so I took ibuprofen and in the morning felt fine. Also, I’d been using the Werner paddle we rented from Ginni as a spare. It was shorter than mine and gave me a quicker turnover rate.
With Deb’s guidance I had adapted my forward stroke and the shift was making my paddling more effective and body-friendly. Jim and Deb both agreed that the Werner paddle is better for me and though it was taking a bit of adjusting I was picking up the new form pretty well. But I was still sore that night.
On this, Day 5, we found a beautiful white sand beach. Our first camp had been on white sand, but we weren’t there long. This one was going to be a two-nighter. I felt grateful for many things: A. I had cooked a really good breakfast in my tent thus avoiding the hordes of biting bugs. B. We made 9 miles in 4 hours, aided by currents. C. There was no wind and the sea was pretty much glass all the way. D. We took 2 breaks to rest and fish and snorkel and eat. E. We had bright sun, blue sky, turquoise water, and tons of fish once we got to the campsite. F. We were getting a day off. G. There was enough wind to keep the bugs at bay during the day. H. The night before I had slept a solid 9 hours, undisturbed by the moon or anything else.
Also, on this side of Carmen the land features were spectacular. It was awesome paddling around the northernmost point. There were stately rocks, gentle swells, and a few small reefs. We took lots of photos. After setting up the tent I went snorkeling. It was some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever seen. It was lovely hanging out in the clouds of small bait fish. The fish were divided as to size: small, medium, and large fish each in their own appropriately-sized school. There were forests of fish, walls of fish. You had to be careful not to swim into the cliffs because the huge numbers of fish were so dense it was hard to see anything other than the swirling, swaying masses. I also saw a Scorpion Fish as big as a paddle blade!
Later we had more fun Tarp Talks under the batwing and a beautiful evening watching a large flock of pelicans and blue-footed boobies dive for dinner. Unfortunately, the no-see-ums came out around 6:30 p.m. as the breeze died, so I went into the tent and tidied up, but it was still a great day.
November 14: Condensation appeared for the first time on the inside of the tent in the morning. Unexpected. I had slept well for nearly 5 hours. We were at the half-way point on our circumnavigation and it was getting a bit old doing a combat roll into the tent every night at the witching hour when the bugs attacked. Everyone else was covered with welts, and though I did get bites I was cooking in the tent and holing up in the morning till the breeze picked up and the bugs departed. Also I was finding the long days in the saddle a bit wearing. The bugs were bad again in the morning, so I went for another snorkel. There were fewer towers of fish (due to the predatory birds?) and I could see more of the larger fish, many I had never seen before.
The breeze eventually picked up so I did my tai chi form but messed it up pretty badly. When I don’t practice regularly, that happens. I made a mental note to practice more when I got home. Then Jim, El Rey, and I hiked up to the bluff at the point. Someone (or some many) had built a low wall along much of the cliff line. It was intriguing. There was also lots of borrego sign. The bighorns on the island are imported for hunting. In the afternoon I had a chat with Deb over the map and discussed the next few days. We had a couple of 9-mile paddles coming up and then an 8-mile paddle to get back to the mainland. We hoped we would have that northeast wind at our backs when we paddled south down Carmen’s west side.
That night I cooked breakfast instead of dinner in my tent because I had laid out my breakfast things ready to go but neglected to get the dinner stuff together and once safe in the tent there was no way I was going back out in those bugs. I will say, I was getting pretty good at unzipping the tent, hurling myself in onto my right shoulder while pulling my knees up, and then zipping that puppy back up as fast as I could. This procedure kept most of the bugs out of the tent, and it only took a short time to locate and kill the ones that got in. Everyone else was alternately standing in water up to their knees, which helped a little, or suffering on the sand.
We devoutly hoped we could escape the insects at the next campsite. That night, in spite of the bugs, our intrepid Vice Admiral gave us all a nice surprise. He got out the chimes and walked around our tents, making those lovely clear sounds. I went into a blissful meditation, feeling at one with the world. Looking at the stars through the tent, seeing the Milky Way, hearing the soft sound of the sea and sensing the team camped in their tents nearby, I thought it doesn’t get any better than this. I was so happy to be there and at the same time was looking forward to writing this post, hosting Thanksgiving, and having a quiet Christmas with my son. The outer and the inner worlds were dancing together.
November 15: Good conditions today. We launched later than usual, around 8:00 a.m. The sea was choppy and sloppy but not bad. We paddled around 2 significant points, the last one where there’s a lighthouse on Isla Cholla. The island gave us some protection from the prevailing wind and as we moved south conditions improved. After Cholla we had the wind at our backs and something close to a 2 knot current pulling us along. It took 4 ½ hours to go 9 miles. We paddled past our planned campsite because there weren’t a lot of tent sites and there were a lot of yachts sheltering in the bay. Further along we found a better beach where we set up camp in the blessed wind. We learned to love the wind on this trip because it kept the insects at bay.
Later however, this site too manifested the dreaded hordes and no wonder. We were camped next to 2 marshes full of brackish water. There had been so much rain that nearly every arroyo ended in a small lake of standing water. We had got lucky at the first arroyo, which was dry. This time the bugs were so bad that though I’d cooked dinner on the beach, I ate tentside. For the first time I sprayed myself from head to toe with OFF. I was also using Boss Frog’s mask de-fogger to salve the bites on my ankles, and I felt sticky and unclean. Seeing the lights of Loreto across the way I thought longingly of hot showers.
And yet, damp, sticky, bug-bit and sleep-deprived I wasn’t unhappy. I heard my team mates snoring and farting away in their tents. I saw the twinkling town lights and knew the journey was near its end. I thought about the Rangers and how they started so many years ago, Jim and Eric camping in a mud hole, talking fantasy and philosophy and big plans for the future, conjuring up the image of the Tsunami Rangers that would go so far.
I felt grateful to be a part not only of this particular journey but also of the greater journey that was born in that mud hole and had spread out over the world and touched so many people. I was surrounded by friends, my family of choice, my tribe. Life isn’t just about comfort. These are the times that try our souls, I said to myself. These are the times when you learn what you’re willing to put up with to be with these people who are taking all this in stride while I whine in my tent. And I laughed, grateful to have these friends, people who will stick with me in good times and bad, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as my life shall last.
November 16: We launched in leisurely fashion and paddled slowly through doldrums most of the day. Glassy seas with very light zephyrs. It took about 5 ½ hours to go roughly 9 miles, but we did stop to mess around. At last we found a cobble beach with no arroyo so no standing water so we hoped for no bugs. It worked; there were very few no-see-ums and a mosquito or 2 but nothing like the previous nights. I cooked dinner outside the tent and we all sat on the beach resting our backs on the berm, talking and looking at the stars. I saw a green meteor go streaking across the sky, and more meteors followed as to the northwest lightning flashed. At sunset we had seen a huge pod of dolphins. We’d seen smaller pods patrolling the coast for a couple of days, but it seemed they’d all come together for one last grand show. There were probably about 50 of them.
Later I thought about the Wholeness rune Michael had shared at the beginning of the trip. I hadn’t felt whole since Eric died almost 8 years ago, but this year things had shifted in a big way. It was a beautiful and perfect evening. To top it off, on this night Steve El Rey King was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. There was much rejoicing, and Jim let me ring the chimes. I loved swinging them together to make the magic. Sitting on the cobbles with my friends, I was whole. Ironically we had a somewhat dire weather forecast for the next 2 days. The Plan was to make it to the mainland, but the forecast was for rain and big winds all day on the 17th increasing to 23 – 31 knots the day after. We were all ready to head home, but we had our Plan, with options and bail outs. We also had plenty of food and water, as well as our team dynamic which never wavered. We didn’t know what would happen but we were prepared for anything.
The beach was very exposed, basically a bunch of cobbles pushed up against some cliffs. We prepared to bail in the middle of the night if we had to. Capt. Deb said that if anyone heard anything change in the night that suggested we needed to move, that person should alert the others. We pulled the boats up as high as we could. I packed most of my gear in my kayak and battened the hatches. Plan A was to leave at first light, and scamper down to a safe harbor where we could weather the storm if necessary. Plan B was to cross to Danzante and camp there if we couldn’t go further. Plan C was to go south and ditch at a large beach that could provide shelter and wasn’t too far away. Plan D was to go back around the corner to the north to a smaller beach if the shit hit the fan and we needed a quick bail out. At least there wouldn’t be any bugs in that wind.
November 17: I slept well the first part of the night. I’d put the wetsuit under the Thermarest and brought in food for breakfast. I felt relaxed and ready to go. Later there was a gentle tapping of wind and a gentle patter of rain on the tent. I’d clipped the fly onto the back side ready to go and so it was an easy fix. Then I went back to sleep but woke up again to hear the sea saying “gloop-gloop”. So it begins, I thought. I put a few more bits of gear into the boat and put on the wetsuit, then went off into a kind of doze, dreaming with one ear cocked. Soon the sea was saying “swish-swish”. It was 1:38 a.m. and raining hard and steady. I looked out and saw the sea was rising but the water was still well away from our gear. I ate my pre-cooked breakfast and composed myself to rest until go time. In the night the dolphins came close to the beach. We heard them breathing. It sounded loud and strange but later I would think of it as a good omen.
Around 5:00 a.m. the voice of the sea was so loud I could hear it roaring over the rain pounding the tent. I poked my head out, immediately getting soaked. Blessing the wetsuit, I saw a light in Capt. Deb’s tent and went over to get the word. She said get ready to move. I walked down the beach to alert Steve and Michael. Jim had heard me taking the tent down, and asked from his shelter, “You packing your boat?” “Yep, Deb says it’s time.” He grunted and got up.
I have never seen the guys move so fast. In short order we were ready to go. Just before launching I saluted the sea and as I reached up to touch the sky I saw a seagull winging its way south. Another good omen. Michael said a heart-felt prayer for the team and we scrambled. The surf was ready to breach the berm. The boats bob-sledded down the cobbles and shot into the chaotic surf. The waves were about 1 ½ – 2 feet and the wind was blowing around 15 knots.
We battled our way around the point. Slowly the light increased. As we proceeded down the coast conditions eased a bit and we set our faces to the south and settled in for a long slog. We rounded point after point. At each point conditions got sportier but then eased. We pushed on taking every advantage of cover. Finally we paused to rest and snack on one small beach and on the launch El Rey got stuck between a rock and a wave and broke his rudder cable. Michael had forged ahead and I was with him. We wondered what was taking the others so long. Turns out that the X-3 was towing Steve and rudderless in the wind and the heaving seas he was struggling to stay upright.
As we passed the lighthouse we saw a group of kayakers huddled under a cliff. Jim spoke to them but they weren’t responsive. They seemed okay though so we continued. At last we reached Playa Blanco, where we had camped 9 days ago. We had officially circumnavigated the island! The beach was unrecognizable in the storm. The surf was up and the broad beach had become a narrow strip of sand. We put up the batwing in the shelter of a cliff and boiled water so everyone could have something hot to drink. I searched for firewood, with little luck. El Rey, Jim, Deb, and Michael got on to the rudder repair job. There were still 2 significant crossings with current and beam seas and a disabled boat to reckon with, and there were white caps out there.
We jury-rigged the rudder cable with vice grips and Gorilla tape. Gradually the rain stopped and the seas calmed. We discussed our options, and it was obvious everyone was for getting off Carmen while the getting was good. Capt. Deb and Vice Admiral Jim went around the corner and had a long palaver. When they came back they gave the word. We packed up and paddled back to the lighthouse. The other kayakers were still hunkered down under the cliff, but we were looking out to sea. By the grace of the gods we had a wide open window.
Although the rain continued to fall, the wind was practically nil and there was only a gentle swell to rock our boats as we paddled back to Danzante. The crossing was actually a lot easier than when we’d paddled to Carmen on the first day of the trip. I kept looking north but all I saw was light, a big bright opalescent window. You couldn’t see the landscape behind the window and the northern peaks of Carmen were covered in darkness but I knew we were safe. It took about an hour to get to the northern tip of Danzante and from there it was clear sailing. It would have been dumb not to continue, and a little later we landed safely on the mainland.
I’d like to mention several key points about this trip. First, the TEAM. Everyone brought their observations to the Captain and then stepped back, allowing her to collect data and make a decision for the group. Second, I’ve never seen us work together like we did on that last day. It was impressive. Third, we totally made the right call because shortly after we got back to Loreto Carmen was overwhelmed by a massive thunderstorm complete with extreme wind and rain for several days. In fact, the next day the streets of Loreto were flooded and heavy rains dogged our heels most of the following 2 days back to the border. The drive home was in some ways a more dramatic adventure than the 9-day circumnavigation. A wrecked big rig, a kamikaze vulture, and a suicidal SUV in Tecate were some of the highlights. Deb and Paula weren’t able to fly out later as planned, and for all I know I they’re still down there. Baja got creamed. But like I said, it’s always something.