Bobbing in a kayak in the middle of a 700-foot-deep channel in the Gulf of California, I was growing nervous. Dusk was quickly descending, and we were at least a 30-minute paddle from the Baja peninsula, our intended camp for the night. We had left our prior camp on the small island of Danzante after a heavy, day-long wind had finally ebbed, opening a window of paddling opportunity. But now the swells were about five feet.
True, the swells were not breaking, but they were fearsome anyway as they marched across the darkening horizon and rolled under our boats, popping us up like corks on a disturbed bathtub. The darker it got, the larger the billows seemed as they loomed over us 12 seated kayakers in a sea that is famously full of whales, sharks, various stinging rays and other larger-than-thou animal life. We were nine customers accompanied by three guides on a five-day sea kayak and camping trip between the islands and shores near Loreto, Mexico, 700 miles south of the U.S. border. We were due in Loreto the next day, which is why, wisely or not, we were not waiting out the wind overnight on Danzante.
My anxiety was compounded by the notion that if the moment was worrying me--a reasonably fit 32-year-old with a taste for aquatic adventure--then a few of the others must be quivering, too. Among us were two couples, Cam and Lynn and Don and Denise, with an average age of about 60, a thirtyish guy named Ken, my friend Lisette, and a hale thirtysomething couple, Eric and Janette. Ten of us were tucked into two-seat kayaks, slender, 21-foot rigs, and two of the guides paddled single-occupancy boats.
Aside from Eric and Janette--who live in Snowmass, Colo., and King Salmon, Alaska, respectively, and looked like outdoor enthusiast photo models--we were all basic office park escapists seeking beautiful but safe adventure, and for the most part we had not been disappointed. Again discounting Eric and Janette, our sea-kayaking experience ranged from none to slim, which is one reason I was in the hands of guides rather than a group of pals. Yet as dark shrouded the shores and the swells grew, I was quickly concluding that we might be passing quietly beyond the "safe" category. I cringed in anticipation that someone's fear-driven breakdown would spur chain-reaction panic.
Normally I travel with like-minded buddies in a loosely organized fashion that permits whimsical adjustments of pace and itinerary. I had done a guided trip once before and was bothered by intragroup personality conflicts, the guides' paternalism and schedule rigidity. Further, I have an inherent disdain of prepackaged "adventure" itineraries because, for me, adventure entails encounters with the unexpected.
The Baja trip, from the outset, was a welcome surprise. The outfitter staff was friendly and informative and made sure I knew exactly what they meant by "adventure" (although they never mentioned traversing a stirring sea at night using the distant blink of a lighthouse as a reference, so I guess the trip eventually fit my concept of adventure, too).
Once I had committed to the trip, they stayed in touch, answered questions and mailed a well-organized information packet. They even asked about food allergies and aversions, and took my fickleness to heart. I didn't see or taste one mushroom the entire week.
My optimism was reinforced when we met our guides the night before we launched. Martha, the 35-year-old leader, impressively mixed experience, authority and good humor and, in her raspy drawl, skillfully slipped details of the drudgery of the excursion (carrying boats, setting up tents, obeying the hierarchy) into vivid descriptions of the fun we would have. Our other guides were Liz, a cheery 25-year-old from British Columbia, and Adan, a 21-year-old Mexican, who said in gross understatement that he was "pretty familiar with the area."
He turned out to be a human encyclopedia, about plants, fish, birds and geography. Co-guiding kayak trips was just one of Adan's professions, which included teaching biology, helping researchers study whales and running a Pacific surf camp during summer.
Martha gave us each three waterproof bags--our total luggage allotment--and coached us on how to best pack, illustrating another advantage of package adventure, benefiting from others' wisdom rather than learning it all yourself. "I bring one set of shorts and a shirt to wear on the water and another set of clothes to wear in camp," Martha offered. "And you can skip the biodegradable soap, because it doesn't work in salt water." Hmmm. Five days, two outfits, no soap. The term "favorite shirt" took on new meaning.
One drawback of packaged travel--but, to be fair, it's a drawback typical of almost any communal experience--is that the pace of the group tends to drift toward the slowest common denominator. And the more people involved, the more distance between the fastest and the slowest. If one couple takes 15 minutes longer to pack their kayak, the launch occurs 15 minutes later than it otherwise would. Or if a few boats are puttering along at nightfall while one is pumping to reach shore before all vision is erased, the lead boat must pause while the slower crafts catch up.
As an easygoing group blessed with great weather and no real emergencies, we were spared major conflicts. Nonetheless, bundled group travel suspends normal vacationing rhythms because big groups of strangers move slower than small groups of friends.
Once we shoved off, the splendor of our milieu drowned frustrations. Within minutes, we rounded a point and were on the calm, sparkling sea, aimed at the island of Danzante. A flipper broke the surface nearby and lingered--a sea turtle, Adan said.
Lisette and I slept tent-free under the stars the first night, but endured an annoying dew soaking. But the next night we achieved camping nirvana: sleeping in the tent with our heads at the open door, enjoying warmth, comfort and virtually unobscured views of the celestial curtain, punctuated regularly by shooting stars.
On another day of paddling, Adan heard the steam valvelike breathing of a school of dolphins from hundreds of yards away. They came within 20 yards of us before diving, then reemerged 20 yards beyond us and performed tail-flashing pirouettes before swimming off. Along with common and bottlenose dolphins, the Gulf of California-- aka the Sea of Cortez--hosts more than 800 species of fish, all six great whale species and sea lions, plus legions of birds including frigate birds, brown pelicans, blue-footed boobies, American oystercatchers, osprey and cormorant.
Snorkeling in coves revealed a kaleidoscopic bonanza of life approaching Caribbean caliber: Sergeant majors, king angelfish, parrotfish and porcupine puffers loitered in abundance, as did starfish of dramatic colors and sizes. We also saw devil rays, moray eels and cornetfish, with their flute-shape bodies and bizarre snouts, as well as sea worms, urchins and more.
We camped on the dreamy sands of Isla Carmen, one of the sea's bigger islands, below a fossilized coral reef. The reef had been jarred 20 feet upward--or the water had receded, scientists are unsure which--20,000 years ago, leaving a two-mile-wide, flat pan of crusty shells and weathered coral nubs among newer desert growth.
On a walk of the reef, Martha used Norman Roberts's "Baja California Plant Field Guide" to identify dozens of plants that I would have called either "cactus" or "bush." There were elephant trees, named for their wrinkly appearance and soft, pulpy trunks; creeping devil cactus, with tubular ground-level stems laden with spines; Palo Verde bushes, with green stems that catalyze photosynthesis so the plant needs no leaves; and the aptly named "old man" cactus, with bat-thick stalks topped by a fuzz humorously resembling a bristly mane and beard.
Climbing one Danzante ridge, we saw Liz, Adan and Martha preparing lunch hundreds of feet below as others read or napped in the sun. The scene captured another advantage of guided tripping: Freed of duties like menu planning and food prep, you have more time for play. On all but the most luxurious trips, customers carry some of the load, and there can be frustrating variance in what different guides consider to be implicit assistance. Novice group travelers should be very clear going into an expedition what will be expected of them once they hit the trail. Though it was no major annoyance, we were expected to set up our own tents, wash our dishes and occasionally haul or set up gear around camp.
In Baja, our one-guide-to-three-client ratio undoubtedly spared us some minor tasking that we otherwise would have felt obliged to assume. I can't conclude it was a symptom of that ratio, but we also were well fed, with healthy food variety, daily happy hours and carbo-heavy dinners--layered lasagna one night, rice and beans another. Martha even brought coffee to our tent door on the last morning.
On a prior guided trip, 11 of us had only two guides and the pressure of serving so many people wore on the leaders, resulting in shortened tempers, bickering between the leaders and more work for us. Plus the food, in comparison to this, was lame.
Logistical wins and losses aside, packaged travel opens doors to stories you don't get from old friends. Martha and I bonded over weirdly similar music tastes and one night, the group played a game in which each player says three things about himself, two of which are true, and the others try guess the falsehood. We learned that Don once performed cataract surgery on the last living descendant of the prophet Mohammad, Liz had paddled a kayak off an 18-foot waterfall, Lynn proficiently played the viola da gamba and that I had, um . . . well, you had to be there.
As we finished our anxious crossing at dusk, the swells eventually subsided and the stars beamed. Our reward was an unusually vigorous display of phosphorescent plankton, which glow briefly in electric-green beads when stirred in the water, for example by a kayak paddle. The thicker the plankton, the more glow per stir.
After dinner, we stared from the beach as feeding fish sparked green flashes in the water. I crawled into my tent giddy about the whole scene, but later got a far more indelible memory to take home. Awaking at 3:20 a.m. I watched in amazement as dolphins feeding just yards offshore tore after schools of fish, with predator and prey leaving iridescent fingers across the bay like underwater lightning. I watched for 90 minutes, beneath a crescent moon suspended in a web of stars, and was so enchanted that I vowed a return to Baja.
Maybe--who knows?--on a packaged trip.
I booked through Sea Kayak Adventures Inc. (1315 Indiana Ave., Coeur d'Alene, Idaho 83814, 1-800-616-1943, www.seakayakadventures.com), which also runs tours in British Columbia, Canada. Baja trips leave from Loreto, Mexico; Aero California (1-800-237-6225) flies daily from Los Angeles. Seven-day trips, with five paddling days, are $940, including gear, food, tents, sleeping bags and airport transportation (but not air fare).
John Briley is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.
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