A Little Good, Clean Fun In Baja

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, January 1993

A Little Good, Clean Fun In Baja

...but I liked it anyway
By Tim Cahill

Martine Springer was tall and tan, fit as a broadcast aerobics instructor, and she was waist-deep in the resort pool, demonstrating how to get back into a sea kayak once you've fallen out of the son of a bitch. A guy could, Martine said, muscle his way back in, maybe. "Just remember," she said, "if you go over, you've probably been battling some heavy water. You'll probably be tired."

The proper technique involved blowing up a little bag to place on one end of your kayak paddle. Martine laid the paddle out in the water, with the unbagged end on the kayak itself, then lifted a long leg to the shaft and slithered back into the kayak like a badger into a burrow. She pumped water out of the cockpit with a bilge pump and glanced up at her five clients standing poolside.

"You guys try it," she said.

I looked over the fence and across the road to where a heavy morning wind was whipping whitecaps across the surface of the Gulf of California.

"Is this," I asked, "one of those deals where a guy ought to know how to swim?"

Baja California is a fierce, sun-blasted land, a narrow strip of desert nearly 800 miles long that separated itself from the Mexican mainland in a slow tectonic slide about five million years ago. The Pacific Ocean rushed in to fill the void, forming the Gulf of California, the youngest of the world's deep-water gulfs. This vast arm of the Pacific, two miles deep at its mouth, was once known as the Vermilion Sea, and indeed, under a rising sun, the warm, tranquil water shimmers like pale blood.

The mountains are stark, ridged and crenellated and bare. The land supports a variety of obdurate and malicious flora: There are thistles underfoot and cardon cacti towering overhead. It is little given to agriculture or ranching. Every growing thing, or so it seems, sticks, stabs, or stinks. There are red-dirt roads branching off the paved road that bisects the peninsula and that was built to attract American tourists. The rutted secondary roads lead to dusty towns where generators provide electricity for two hours a day.

The eastern coast, north of the town of Loreto, is unpopulated, undeveloped (for the most part), and harshly serene. A vast, ringing silence owns the land, except where the sea, driven by afternoon winds, explodes against rocky headlands and points.

The sea itself is an exuberant celebration of life. Swarms of bait fish go about their business, pursued from above and below by all manner of predators. Pelicans and blue-footed boobies attack from the air; pods of killer whales roll and breathe on offshore patrol; colonies of sea lions strike out from rocky points. Manta rays, some weighing in excess of a thousand pounds, erupt out of the shimmering sea: great stealth-bomber-shaped plankton-feeders that look like images seen in some inexplicable dream. The water cascades off their huge black wings in iridescent sheets.

The Gulf of California, this great arm of the Pacific Ocean, is a giant fish trap, a fecund sea in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. It is this contrast--the living sea beside such harsh, unforgiving land--that so intoxicates the Baja traveler. Especially if he's in a kayak.

These days, sea kayaking along the coast of Baja is big business. I had chosen to paddle with an Alaska-based outfitter called Ageya, primarily because its trip seemed less structured than those of other operators. The company was new in Baja, didn't have a lot of clients, and its itinerary wasn't set in stone. My friend photographer Paul Dix and I could go off on our own, provided the guides felt we weren't putting ourselves into potentially mortal waters.

Sea kayaks, it should be noted, are not at all like river kayaks, which are tippy and meant to be rolled. Sea kayaks are stable in the water--they have been used as amphibious landing craft in wars--and are pretty much idiotproof. Almost anyone who can do five jumping jacks in a row can learn to handle a sea kayak in calm water. It takes, oh, about ten minutes to get the hang of it. Maybe less.

Paul and I, for our part, had kayaked the Alaskan coast alone. We had surfed our craft on waves thrown up by calving tidewater glaciers in Glacier Bay and camped under the northern lights while wolves howled mournfully through the night. More to the point, we owned a two-person kayak. Neither of us had much experience enduring organized tours.


If we went on our own we'd have to haul our boat, which was not of the convenient foldable variety, on top of a car. It was a four-day drive from our homes in Montana to Baja. We would have to buy food, pack tents and sleeping bags, inquire as to legalities of various campsites, scout the coast ourselves, and arrange for someone to watch our vehicle and to pick us up at our eventual destination. A private expedition might cost us three weeks in return for one week of paddling. With Ageya, the monetary cost would be about the same, but we'd spend all our time--seven days--on the water. In and out, just like that.

The drawback, as I saw it, was a dismal lack of adventure. I don't much care to have someone else in charge, someone who knows what he or she is doing. The trip goes too smoothly, stuff falls into place, and you never end up, say, swimming for your life through savage seas. You never wake up half drowned in some small Mexican village where there are no telephones, no electricity, and, of course, no doctor. On organized trips you seldom find yourself being nursed back to health by a beautiful Mexican woman whose long black hair brushes your sweating chest as she feeds you another spoonful of mashed bananas. Her large, dark eyes burn with desire and...

Naw, what happens on organized trips is good, clean, safe fun. That was my supposition.

After our morning orientation in the motel pool, we clients, five of us, piled into a van driven by a Mexican cab driver who drove with staggering caution (yes, staggering caution) about 40 miles north along the paved road. We turned onto one of the red-dirt paths that led to the coast and stopped at a broad, curving beach that served as a camp for the fishermen of Loreto.

We set up our tents near a place where the fishermen gutted their catch. Sea gulls shrieked in the dump and strutted among feeding vultures. There was a bad odor when the wind shifted.

Martine said that this would be her first outing as head guide. Kimmer Ball, who usually took the head guide's position, was coming along in an advisory role. Kimmer, like Martine, was in her late twenties. She looked like she might have pumped some iron in her time, like someone who did a lot of reps for tone. Both women were strong and confident. They seemed competent and likable, thoroughly professional, achingly attractive, and sadly unavailable.

As we set up our tents for the night, Martine warned us to check for scorpions in the morning. The little bastards were nocturnal hunters, and when the sun rose they sought any available source of shade: a shoe, a pair of pants on the ground, a sleeping bag containing a sleeping human being. In the day, the scorpions tended to be in the bushes, which meant that a person had to watch where he walked.

One other thing we should know: The Gulf of California could be a killer. It tended to be tranquil from the hours before sunrise until about noon, when the wind picked up and made paddling hazardous. You only had to look at the sea to know. A ten- to 12-mile-per-hour wind whipped up widely scattered whitecaps, but such waters were negotiable in a sea kayak. When the whitecaps were more closely spaced, the wind was probably blowing at 15 to 20 miles per hour, and you didn't want to be out paddling in that.

The most treacherous waters were found around rocky points, where currents and winds collided. Here the sea was choppy, confused, dangerous. Sometimes you found yourself paddling out of a placid bay and around a point to discover that the wind on the other side was howling at 25 miles per hour. A well-known outfitter had lost two kayakers in such a situation several years ago.

The sun rose over the vermilion Sea, and a wispy pink fog drifted up off its mirrored surface. It was our first morning on the water, and we were paddling north, just beyond the breakers, heading for a point about three miles away. It would have been faster to just cut across the bay, but Martine wanted us to hug the curving coastline. I was in a two-person kayak, paddling with David Risley, a geophysicist from Anchorage, Alaska. We were both sealed into cockpits, which were covered over with spray skirts to prevent a freak wave from swamping the craft.

In the distance, a raft of grebes bobbed on the gentle swell. There were several hundred of the small, drab birds. The paddling party, which included Mo Hillstrand and Eric Hall, two emergency medical workers also from Anchorage, approached them cautiously. The birds dove, all at once, and disappeared for what seemed like several minutes. And then they surfaced, all at once, a few hundred yards away. We were between them and the sun, and their eyes were an unworldly laserlike red.

There was a set of foot pedals in my cockpit that operated the kayak's rudder, but the craft was mushy on all but the fastest turns. Dave felt it as well. We had probably overloaded the rear storage compartment to compensate for the fact that I outweighed Dave by 20 pounds or so.

"We should put both tents in the front," Dave said.

"Food's heavy, too."

The grebes stared at us with their laser eyes, suckers for an existential conversation, I supposed.

We were paddling in a sure, steady rhythm that had tired me for the first half-hour or so. Now I was on automatic pilot and sensed I had hours left. My forearms felt as if golf balls would bounce off them.

Just before noon the wind began to pick up, and we pulled up on a wide beach protected from the wind by a high, Gothic-looking point two miles to the north.

We swam and snorkeled and set up our tents. Kimmer came over to give me a hand, and I waved her off--something about being a human male that has never been very clear to me. I never ask directions when I'm lost, either.

There was another boat in our party, a 12-foot motorized sailing craft that carried provisions and was available in case of emergency. Steve Audett, the captain and a sometime musician and electrician out of Anchorage, had brought his family along for the ride. His wife, Shine, was a midwife. Their son, Loghan, was six, and their daughter, Oceana, was three. The family seemed beneficent and happy, like Deadheads at a picnic, and indeed Shine had once taken the Grateful Dead on a wilderness tour of Alaska.

I ran into Loghan down near a lagoon and tried to show him how to skip stones, but he waved off my instructions. "I know how," he said in some pique. Human males.

Kimmer said that her company got all kinds of clients. Some people had never been in a kayak before; others were experts. The experts, she thought, came along on organized tours for the companionship, for the people they would meet.

And so, sitting by the fire after dinner, with the sun setting behind the coastal mountains and purple shadows spreading over the beach like great puddles of ink, we chatted amiably. Loghan sat by Martine and explained that he had six girlfriends in school. He named them off in the order that he liked them best, and the women around the fire reacted with amused horror. Human males. They raised their eyes to the sky, which was a dark, red-black bruise.

Loghan misinterpreted the gesture, put his arm around Martine, and explained that she could be his girlfriend on this trip. Since she was here.

"It's in the genes," Martine said of human males.

Oceana was sitting in my lap. "I don't have any boyfriends at all," she said in some sorrow.

"Then," I said grandly, "I'll be your boyfriend."

Oceana laughed a tinkly little laugh that went on for an uncomfortable length of time.

"What's so funny about that?" I asked, aggrieved.

"I can't be your girlfriend," Oceana said. "I'm too little."

The next morning I rose early and walked down a gravelly wash lined with cardon cacti and bushes that were still green in what had been a wet spring for Baja. The wash led into a box canyon whose walls caught the light of the rising sun. In the clean, clear air they looked like pale pink watercolors rising on all sides. Above, the western sky was still blue-black. There was a sound I had been hearing for some time, a distant buzz, as if hundreds of people were murmuring softly, but now the buzz took on a sharper, harder-edged resonance.

The canyon ended in a kind of expanded horseshoe shape, and I could see green trees and bushes standing along the reddish walls that rose 150 feet on all sides. The buzzing reverberated against the stone and filled me with an as-yet-unspecified dread. Two more steps and I saw them: thousands upon thousands of long, thin wasps swarming around a single tree in such numbers that it seemed to be covered with a thick mass of shifting yellow flowers. In the half-light of early morning, in the cool shadow of the canyon, the wasps seemed slow, nearly somnambulent. They moved on the tree in turgid masses, like viscous globules of some thick liquid. The buzzing seemed to be getting louder, and I abandoned the rest of my walk.

That day we paddled against a brisk wind, north to the point, which projected out into the sea like an immense stone podium and was, indeed, called the Pulpit. Dave and I were paddling well together, and we seldom clacked paddles.

There was a small sea stack ahead of us, a spire of rock that rose from the water like the twisted battlements of some ancient fortress. A dozen or more pelicans had taken up positions on a series of ridgelines, and hundreds of western sea gulls were interspersed among them. Dave and I studied the current a bit, then let the kayak float near these populated spires. A few gulls circled overhead and shrieked at us in their self-righteous manner. Two of the pelicans stood atop the spire, facing the north wind with their wings extended. When the evaporative effect of the wind had dried them sufficiently, they leaned into the wind, fell two full feet, and then swooped into the air.

"Look down," Kimmer called from her kayak. There was a school of bait fish moving under our boats. A pelican crashed into the surf ten feet away, then rose into the sky with its neck bulging and something jumping under the skin there.

The sea gulls on the spire were calling to one another in a voice I'd never heard before. It sounded like mad laughter, and the pelicans lifted off the rock, one after the other. On all sides they were plunging into the surf, sometimes sending up five-foot-high plumes of spray.

And then the current drove us on, toward a lonely, white, glittering beach on the lee side of the point. We pulled in for lunch, basked in the afternoon sun for a time, and decided that this beach was a good place to set up a base camp for a few days. A trail led to the summit of the Pulpit, which looked to be about 700 feet high. The late afternoon wind was fierce up there, and I watched a small fishing boat rounding the point. It was pitching violently and rolling from side to side. Wouldn't want to be down there in a kayak, I thought.

There were dark moving spots on the sea stacks that fronted the point, and I could hear the echoing bark of sea lions. There must have been another school of bait fish in the area, because the sea lions slid off the rocks, pelicans crashed, and blue-footed boobies dove like fighter planes. I could just make out the boobies' neon-blue feet as they folded in their wings, hit the water, and left a slanting trail of bubbles 15 feet deep.

The next day, we paddled north along the beach, in the wind shadow of the Pulpit. Presently we reached the point. We stayed close to the rocky base of the Pulpit and peeked around it, to the north where there was a lot of roiling water being pushed around in frothy whitecaps by a stiff wind out of the northeast. Sea lions basked on half-submerged rocks and regarded us with the sort of mild curiosity that humans might reserve for cows ambling across a suburban lawn: I know what that is, but what's it doing here?

There were several perfect arches jutting out from one of the sea stacks, but they were a bit north, close to the nasty water at the tip of the point. Martine and Shine, in a two-person kayak, paddled near the arch, timed the rush of water through it, then paddled through. Fast.

Dave and I watched from cowardly safety. Several of the sea lions were circling our kayak. One was floating on its back, flippers in the air. Two others stared at us with dark, impenetrable eyes. They had the friendly faces of golden retrievers. Perhaps half a mile out to sea, a series of black fins rolled one after the other. Killer whales will attack sea lions, but this pod seemed to be moving south at about 30 miles an hour.

The point was the most dangerous place we would have to negotiate in the kayak. It was also a great confluence of life, and this combination of risk and spirit, peril and substance, sent the soul soaring off into various ethereal regions in which a man might be tempted to commit philosophy.

As the days passed, Oceana did indeed become my girlfriend. She sat with me at night around the fire as the adults talked. Her father, Steve, warned me never to get her excited after eight o'clock. "She'll sleep then," he said, "but if you get her going, she'll be up all night, and it'll be a horror show, guaranteed."

Dave, the scientist, seemed to think that our campsite was something of a geological juggernaut. He could see upthrust and erosion, all of it looking as if it had just happened yesterday, by which he meant in the last two and a half million years, in "the Quaternary."

"What's that?" I asked.

"The most recent geological period. It includes the Pleistocene and the Holocene."

"Oh," I said, "that Quaternary."

"I used to have me one of those," Steve said. "I never could keep a clutch in it."

We played a game in which a person told two truths and one lie about himself. Kimmer said that in the sixth grade she could throw a ball farther than anyone in the school, that at age 19 she had won an arm-wrestling contest, and that she had a twin sister who had died at birth. We all nailed the twin as the lie. No one picked out Martine's lie, and she had to explain that no, the Czechoslovakian climber hadn't actually proposed to her near the summit of Denali. He had only propositioned her. Both versions were 100 percent believable.

It was getting late and Oceana was fading, but she was so sweet lying in my arms, so fresh, that I couldn't help asking her if she remembered what it was like in the time before she was born. Oceana misinterpreted the question to mean did she remember being born. "I was borned," she proclaimed--everyone was listening intently--"and I went wah wah wah wah wah wah..."

After the 25th wah or so, most of the adults had absorbed the point.

"...wah wah wah..."

"But Oceana," I said (here Steve caught my eye and shook his head--Please, no--but I was too far into my question to stop), "do you remember anything else?"

"I was borned"--she was enjoying this immensely--"and I went WAH WAH WAH WAH WAH WAH WAH WAH..."

The adults shot me looks of loathing and animosity.

Several days later we reluctantly packed up our gear and prepared to leave our campsite in the lee of the point. The wasps that had been confined inland invaded the beach. They were all over everything, like a biblical plague, and they stung the children and the adults without mercy. Dave and I jammed our gear into the rear storage compartment without regard to weight distribution. I had been stung on the right forearm and would have felt intensely sorry for myself except that poor six-year-old Loghan had been stung twice, once on the neck.

Out on the water, a good distance from shore, we lost the last of the great horde. A few stragglers crawled over the kayaks, settling on the brightly colored spray skirts buttoned around the rims of the cockpits. We had a long paddle ahead of us, four straight hours I figured, and the exertion was pumping poison into my stung forearm. I had begun to swell, visibly. I didn't want to think about the awful...sensation... on my leg. It felt like, well, like some kind of...bug...crawling up my leg. Under the spray skirt. On my knee. Up my thigh...

It was all in my imagination, of course. I was acutely aware of wasps only because my right arm was beginning to look like Popeye's.

And now, on the way back past our first campsite, we had to round another point. It was late for paddling, about noon, and the wind had picked up to the usual noontime 15 miles an hour. Large, regular waves about four or five feet high were washing in toward the beach at an oblique angle, so that the kayak wanted to take them broadside. Which was what Martine called a "capsize situation." Dave and I had to paddle fast in order to keep our poorly packed kayak maneuverable. My right forearm was bigger than my biceps. It felt like a water balloon.

There was no stopping now, because the point was ahead of us and the water was getting choppy. Paul was paddling alongside us, but I could see him only in slow-motion, stroboscopic bursts. He'd sink into the trough of a wave and disappear. Then suddenly the bottom would drop out from under our kayak and there was Paul, on the crest of a booming wave, towering eight feet above us.

And goddamn it, if there was a wasp under my spray skirt it was crawling up my shorts. This was intolerable, it could not happen, and in the mushy-handling kayak, between what seemed to be monumental waves, I pulled off the spray skirt, and yes, a long yellow wasp crawled out onto the deck of the boat just as a wave hit us broadside and splashed up onto the deck and washed the wasp into the Gulf of California. There was a wave of adrenaline, a shot in the belly, that sensation of falling before you actually fall...

We leaned over close enough to kiss the sea but managed to right the kayak and work up enough speed to regain control. We headed in, lickety-split, toward shore and the campsite. The point had given everyone else some trouble, too, and we were all talking at once on the beach.

"Dave," I informed the company, "was crying the whole way."

"Tim," Dave pointed out, "kept using his bilge pump for something."

And then people had to laugh about the wasp in my shorts for entirely too long a time. It wasn't that funny at all.

"Tim," Dave said, "knows some very colorful language."

"Latin terms for wasp," I explained.

Some time later I opened a plastic sack containing several different kinds of cheese. A wasp staggered out onto the rock, woozy from the heat. It was so full of cheese that it couldn't fly, and I stomped it flat.

"Popeye my arm, will you, you son of a bitch!"

I jumped up and down on the wasp, and screamed at it and cursed it and stomped on it in a mad jig of murder and vengeance. It occurred to me that there might be people about and that I could be overreacting. Indeed, Loghan and Oceana were staring up at me with large, innocent eyes. They looked like children painted on black velvet.

"Wasp," I said, nodding at a yellow smear on the rock.

"It's dead," Oceana pointed out.

"It was dead a long time ago," Loghan added.

"What's a basser?" Oceana asked.

Our campsite was set on A beach that fronted Bahía San Basilio, a remote inlet shaped like an hourglass. The water in the inner bay was calm and blue-green, and it had intersected the geological juggernaut that was plowing its way out of history and into the future. A sloping flat-topped rock perhaps 70 feet high stood in the middle of the inner bay. Grasses and shrubs and cacti grew at the top, but the rock was crumbling away on all sides. Arches like flying buttresses framed the sea beyond.

There were four Mexican fishermen camped nearby. Paul and I went over to talk with them, and they offered us fresh clams with salt and lime. You dive for these brown-shelled clams at low tide, the men explained, out near the rock. One of them said that eating such clams made a man very virile. We all laughed at that, as men are supposed to do. I translated the phrase "lead in the old pencil," and we all laughed some more, though I found myself wondering what good it did to have lead in the old pencil if you had nothing to write on.

The fishermen gave us a large yellowfin tuna for our dinner and we invited them to share it with us. Long after sunset they still hadn't come over to our camp.

"They're very shy," Paul said.

"We'll fix them," Steve said. He had brought along some bottle rockets to amuse the children this last dark night on the beach. We set them off one at a time, and called out the names of the fishermen: Jorge--boom--Mauricio--bam--René--kabloom--Ramón.

The fishermen could hardly refuse. After dinner, Oceana abandoned me for Mauricio, a handsome, curly-haired young man. She sat on his lap, half under his jacket, and made him hold her doll. You had to be careful with a baby, Oceana explained. And sometimes they pooped. Did Mauricio know about the poop? He nodded his head gravely. Mauricio couldn't speak a word of English. Oceana prattled on for over an hour.

Jorge said he drove the catch all the way to Mexico City. It was a scary place, and he never went out after dark there.

We passed around a small bottle of tequila, but Mauricio shook his head when I offered it. He didn't want to disturb Oceana, who was asleep in his arms.

The next day, the same Mexican driver we had had earlier pushed his groaning van down the red, rutted road, and we packed up our gear in a little less than an hour. When we hit the paved highway, I suggested that we stop at the first roadside cantina for a cold beer. I wanted to say good-bye before we hit Loreto and scattered.

The cantina was a porch, open to the wind. We were sipping beers and reminiscing already, as if the trip had happened a decade ago. What about those sea lions near the arch? And the fishermen: great guys. That last sorta scary point. The wasps...

Oceana said she would not come back to Montana with me and be my little girl. Her parents might cry if she came with me.

"I have to go back to Alaska," she said seriously.

It felt like the last scene in Casablanca.

"We'll always have Paris," I said.

"I like you very much," Oceana said. Human females, I thought; it's in the genes.

"When you go back to Alaska," I said with what I thought was a good measure of nobility--Oceana nodded seriously--"don't eat the yellow snow."

"Why?" She cogitated on the matter for some moments. "Because of pee?"

"That's right," I said, and then we all had to pile into the van, go back to Loreto, fly north, and face up to the various varieties of yellow snow in our lives.

Tim Cahill, Outside's editor-at-large, wrote about Irian Jaya's Korowai tribe ("No Cannibal Jokes, Please") in the October 1992 issue. His latest collection, Pecked to Death by Ducks, will be published next month by Random House.

See also:

Access & Resources: Sea Kayaking Baja

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