A description of Mexico's Baja peninsula -- the 800-mile-long finger of desert extending south from California -- in John Steinbeck's "Log From the Sea of Cortez" is what really sold me on the place: "The very air here is miraculous, and the outlines of reality change with the moment. The sky sucks up the land and disgorges it. A dream hangs over the whole region ..."

Nobody ever writes that way about Ocean City. I sent my check in to the sponsor of a sea kayaking trip in the Sea of Cortez -- or, as it is more commonly known nowadays, the Gulf of California.

I soon found out that Steinbeck, like most writers, is a liar. I never once saw the sky suck up the land or disgorge it. The only thing I saw disgorged was a bunch of dyed-blond women and men in ostrich-skin cowboy boots whom the plane burped up when the connecting flight from Tucson stopped in the Mexican city of Guaymas. They have a Club Med there. I needed a stronger antidote to civilization.

A few minutes later, as we descended into the town of La Paz in southeast Baja, an island a few miles offshore caught my eye. Its stark ridges and valleys looked like the backs of a small flotilla of alligators all pressed together and burnt brown by the sun. The shoreline was scalloped with small, protected bays guarded by barren cliffs, a hard-earned strip of white beach inset deep into each bay. The shallows around the island were an aqua green, the shade people want but don't usually get when they are having their swimming pools painted. Farther out, the water turned a warm, ultramarine blue -- what the fishermen of the gulf call "tuna water."

We landed three minutes later on a desert runway where wisps of sand chased each other over the tarmac. I didn't know it at the time, but the island we had just flown over -- actually two islands, Espiritu Santo and Partida, split by a shallow tidal passage -- would be my home for the next week.

Sea kayaking is catching on from the Arctic Circle to the Galapagos among people who want a different way to tour. The boats, plastic or fiberglass updates on the original Aleutian sealskin kayaks, are seaworthy, sleek and quiet. To burnt-out backpackers, they are freedom from carrying an extra 50 pounds with each step, since on most trips a motorboat (called a panga in this part of the world) follows within sight but out of earshot, carrying luggage and supplies and supplying backup in an emergency. Those tired of viewing the ocean over a rail or through a porthole find that sea kayaks put them waist-deep in the water, where you meet the seascape on its own terms. Anything closer to the water is probably breathing through gills.

The one- and two-person sea kayaks our group used were broader of beam and more stable than the white-water boats one sees in the hands of daredevils below Great Falls. As a consequence, we didn't need to learn Eskimo rolls or other tricky maneuvers. If you tip over, you slither out, stay with the boat and wait for the panga to come to your rescue. (Only one person in our group tipped accidentally the whole week, and that was done getting in the boat in 12 inches of water.) Sea kayakshave rudders controlled by foot pedals to make steering easier. The technique is basic: A 45-minute lesson was all we needed to get started on a closely supervised trip.

I am rocking gently in a two-person kayak with other members of my group, staring up at the Espiritu Santo's rock walls. Our fleet of kayaks consists of five doubles and three singles, plus two singles for our guides. We look like amphibious centaurs -- men and women to the waist, sleek boats below.

In the shallows off the beach where we have been ferried by a fishing boat from La Paz, we practice the one safety drill every novice must undergo: flipping our kayaks and obediently drumming the sides three times while underwater before exiting. The idea is to accustom ourselves to the feeling of being upside down so we won't panic if it happens for real. It looks strange from the beach: the underside of the hull turned skyward, smooth as a porpoise's back, a hand sticking up from the water and patting its ribs.

The sun beats down strongly enough to burn until just before it sets. Frigate birds, which have a greater wing span in relation to their body weight than any other bird, ride the updrafts off the island's mountains hundreds of feet above our heads. Below them, black vultures sail in circles, responding to wind changes with nothing more than minute adjustments in the angles of their wings. Pelicans skim the surface of the water, then rise and smash awkwardly into it after bait fish. Except for us and our school of bright boats, the landscape looks the same as it has for the past 10,000 years.

That night, as every night for the next week in our 40-mile paddle around the island, we camp on a beach in a cove. Our four guides offer us geodesic dome tents, and show those who accept how to set them up. Others sleep out under the stars. Although the night is warm, I reach instinctively for a tent. My stone-age ancestors must have come from the north, for each night I begin compulsively setting up my tent almost as soon as my kayak scrapes into the beach.

The sun sets promptly at 6. The interval between sunglasses and flashlights is just over an hour. A dinner of fresh fish, tortillas, Tecate beer and guacamole follows. By 9 there is no point in staying up any longer, no sound but the waves lapping at the beach.

One of the youngsters on the trip, I am assigned a single for our second day of paddling. Under the unblinking sun, my world exists at 49 beats a minute. Dip-pull, a rhythm without beginning or end. The blades move in elliptical circles at the ends of the paddle; my hands echo them in smaller circles just in front of my chest. The blades don't need to go deep into the water -- just below the surface is best. With each stroke, the boat rocks smoothly from side to side; even your hips become part of the motion. After a while, I begin to imagine the 49 strokes, the 60 seconds in a minute and the unknown beats of my heart as a machine, as three geared wheels driving this kayak. Around 3,000 strokes an hour -- 12,000 over a good day's travel. It is labor, but it's rhythmic labor, a meditation. I find myself thinking of people and things I didn't even know I remembered.

The sun is the central fact in the Baja. On my early walks it gets warm even before the sun clears the horizon. It's as if the desert begins heating itself as soon as it detects the darkness lifting.

I am wearing a canvas hat, and plenty of sunblock. Headgear is not optional. Our guides wear cowboy or baseball hats with bright bandannas tucked up underneath to shade their necks, a variation on the French Foreign Legion theme. Periodically I stop long enough to fill my own with water and dump it over my head. Sunglasses, caked with salt, hang uselessly from my neck. Strapped onto the hull in front of me is my water bottle. It's half empty already. By the time we stop for lunch it will be dry.

Already I gauge the wind and water with an interest surpassing any ever known while lying on a beach. If there is no wind and the sea is calm, you can hum along at the equivalent of a brisk walk. If the wind is behind you, it's heaven's broom sweeping you before it. But today -- with a steady breeze in your face -- you begin to feel like Sisyphus had it easy. At least he made it to the crest of the hill once in a while.

I can see the panga in the distance cutting toward shore and know from its angle that we will be stopping on a beach about three-quarters of a mile ahead. But the wind has stiffened, whipping up whitecaps and a four-foot swell. I work the paddle steadily, but the foam on the water says that I am making almost no headway. When I pause for a hatful of water, I lose not feet, but yards. I am simply running out of gas, and the motion of the swells is making me queasy.

Although I'm a decent runner, my upper-body conditioning for this trip consisted of nine push-ups the day before getting on the plane. Pride has gotten me this far, but pride is not muscle. Finally I stop, stand my paddle on end -- the signal for assistance -- and wait for one of the pangas. It comes immediately and I climb in, pulling my boat up after me.

I am both ashamed and relieved to be riding in the panga, as I watch the other members of the group sticking to it in boats all around me. Finally, one of them, a woman in one of the other singles, reluctantly raises her paddle. It is Liz, a no-nonsense personnel administrator from Cupertino, Calif. We tow her to shore behind the panga.

That night we celebrate her 65th birthday.

The next day I find a partner. We are camped at a beach with a freshwater well nearby, and all troop up to take showers. The well is hidden up a ravine, dug straight down through rock. We take turns pouring water over each others' heads from a five-gallon bucket. Janet, a nurse, world traveler and expert kayaker, drops the rope and bucket into the well and hauls it up -- full -- as if it contains so much styrofoam. I sidle up to her as casually as I can and say, "How 'bout we paddle together tomorrow?"

Just north of Espiritu Santo lie Los Islotes, a year-round rookery for California sea lions. We motor out from our midday resting point in the panga with snorkeling gear to pay them a visit. There are more than 100 sea lions scattered about the two tiny islands, and our approach is greeted by universal barking.

There is something about a sea lion's bark that is impossible not to imitate. You hear it and your throat involuntarily begins making the same noise. The guides, who have seen these animals regularly for months, do it. I do it. A surgeon from Redding, Calif., does it.

The sea lions range in size from 60-pound pups to adult bulls weighing more than 500 pounds. Most of the bulls gather at one end of the island, sunning themselves and yawning at each other. Others guard the nursery, a small protected lagoon, and check out the intruders.

These are not the beach ball-balancing comedians of Sea World; some bear scars from encounters with predators or other seals. They tolerate but do not welcome our presence. One member of our group approaches the nursery too closely to take pictures. The guardian bull barks harshly and a loud instant later the sheltered lagoon is empty.

That night, Ricardo, our head guide, takes me, Janet, and Roger, a doctor from Idaho, out trolling in the panga. Janet quickly hooks into a 10-pound mahimahi, and though she is a novice, plays the fish well for several minutes. It explodes from the water six times, stripping line off the light freshwater reel at will. When it gets close to the boat, the fish makes one last surge and snaps the line. With our trout and bass tackle, we are outgunned by these fish, which are built for power and have the endurance to swim long distances for their food.

We switch to the Mexican method -- trolling hand-held, 86-pound-test lines. This is less sporting but more effective. While we would have enjoyed the sport of playing one of the bonito, sierra mackerel or mahimahi we boated, we are also fishing for our dinner.

My lure snags on a rock as we round a point. We double back and yank from every angle, but it won't budge. It's nearly dark and getting cool quickly. I tell Ricardo it's okay, I don't mind losing it. He shakes his head, puts the motor in idle, slips off his shirt and dives over the side. Forty-five seconds later he surfaces with the lure from a depth of perhaps 20 feet. "No problem," he says, gunning the motor.

On the way back I study his face while he watches the water and the sky. He is reading it the way I read a newspaper.

I wake mornings in my domed tent with stiff muscles, but do not worry about the day's paddle. I am beginning to master the stroke. When I pass my boat on the way to breakfast it looks at once ultramodern and primitive -- astronaut and Eskimo. And the satisfaction from working a kayak, likewise simple and mysterious, is one that needs to be experienced firsthand.

The worries you had before coming here are a virus that finds no host. You sit encased in your craft all day, gathering the water with the cupped hands of your paddle, arm over arm over arm, and when the sun goes down you are in a new place. You have paddled your own canoe.

There is nothing here but rock, sun, sand and the shifting blues and greens of the water. A kind of asceticism or economy is at work that weeds out what is nonessential. The things that matter here -- a sound boat, a water bottle, enough food, a hat -- matter terribly. Without them, you would soon end up like the eerie moray eel I found grinning on the beach: a spinal column, shriveled skin, teeth. But the things that don't matter terribly hardly matter at all. They're like the watch ticking away absurdly in your toilet kit at night.

When the sun comes up, you know you have only a little while before it's too hot to stay in the tent, and time to go in the water. At midday, we all wade into the shallows and simply sit down, or the guides rig up a tarp for shade. When the sun starts to go down, you'd better get started squaring your gear away unless you want to do it holding a sandy flashlight in your mouth. By the time it's dark, everything that's going to happen has already happened.

On our final day and longest paddle, the last leg is straight into the setting sun. Janet and I are paddling together. I am in the front, paddling with my eyes shut against the glare. We have been going for five hours and conversation ceased long ago. I want only to hear the scrape of the bow against sand and to uncurl my fingers from this paddle. I open my eyes to check our heading and distance and see silver darts flying at us from my left. I panic for a moment, then realize that they are baitfish, maybe sardines, leaping from the water to escape a predator. They are in a frenzy, covering yards at a time in the air, suspended gleaming against the blue water. It is an odd moment -- strikingly beautiful from my perch on the food chain, the end of the world for some of them.

That night, Amy, one of our guides, gives us each a hermit crab that Jesus, a Mexican guide who speaks little English, has collected but is too shy to present himself. He has also drawn an artful scroll in the sand and stuck a seabird's feather next to it -- a guest book for us to sign that the sea will wash away in the night.

The next morning the fishing boat arrives at the beach to take us back to La Paz. For the last time we perform the rituals of breaking camp, of forming a bucket brigade to load gear onto the pangas. One last swim and we're aboard for the two-hour ride back to La Paz.

That afternoon I am in a hotel room, dripping from my first forced-water shower in a week. The windows are shut and I am listening to the air conditioner hum.

It is strange to be sitting on a bed, to be in a place where there is no sand. It is strange not to know where the sun is.

Bill Heavey is a Washington area writer.

See related map, Page E10. WAYS & MEANS

BajaExpeditions runs nine-day kayaking trips around Espiritu Santo from October through early January and mid-March through May. No kayaking experience is required. Cost is $695 plus air fare, and includes accommodations at a hotel in La Paz the night before and the night after the trip. Baja Expeditions, 2625 Garnet Ave., San Diego, Calif. 92109, (800) 843-6967 or (619) 581-3311.

Baja Expeditions offers another sea kayaking tour to Magdalena Bay, on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula, where migrating California gray whales may be seen in winter months. Quiet, mangrove-lined channels offer excellent birdwatching, and there are sea lions and porpoises in the area. The trip, offered January through early March, runs nine days and costs $695, plus air fare.

Sea Trek Ocean Kayaking Center is another outfitter offering kayaking trips in the Sea of Cortez (the Gulf of California). Its expeditions leave from Loreto, about 150 miles north of La Paz. The eight-day trip covers about 30 miles, from San Basilio Bay to Rancho San Bruno, with two layover days en route. There is ample time for snorkeling, fishing and exploring. No motorboats accompany this trip, meaning that evacuation is difficult and that all gear is carried in the two-person kayaks. Cost is $725 per person, excluding hotels. Sea Trek Ocean Kayaking Center, Schoonmaker Point-Liberty Ship Way, Sausalito, Calif. 94965, (415) 332-4457.

Bill Heavey