ESPIRITU SANTO ISLAND, Mexico — Morning: We lie on the beach in our sleeping bags, listening to the mixed chorus of canyon wrens and gulls.
The bay is a pale sheet of satin. We deserve this--for two days we have paddled in blustery winds, our kayaks slapping the waves, our arms aching.
The change in weather is fortuitous. Today we are headed for the offshore rocks known as Los Islotes, where the sea lions play and the brown-footed boobies nest and the snorkeling is legendary.
After breakfast we pushed off in our fleet of seven kayaks and skimmed across the tranquil bay, our white blades flashing in the sun. Below in the clear waters we could see a colony of garden eels swaying in the current. At our approach they quickly withdrew into the bottom sands.
We slipped around the point and turned north. The breeze was gentle at our backs, the only sounds the rhythmic dip and drip of the paddles.
A Splendid Week
Our small group of city dwellers was enjoying a splendid week of kayaking and camping in the Sea of Cortez. We ranged in age from early 20s to early 70s, and none of us had ever been in a kayak.
Baja Expeditions of San Diego, which organized the trip, provided kayaks, instruction, five guides (three Americans, two Mexicans) and very good food. We were accompanied by a motorized skiff that carried our camping gear and was available in case of emergency.
The boats used are sturdy two-man kayaks, longer and more stable than one-man river kayaks. Foot-controlled rudders help with the steering. We also took turns trying two single kayaks.
Our group flew from Los Angeles to La Paz, capital of Baja California Sur. From there we set off in the skiff for the five-mile run to Espiritu Santo Island, where the kayaks waited.
Before paddling to our first camp we received some basic instructions in technique and safety. Everyone was required to go through a practice wet exit--quickly getting out of an overturned kayak.
We also learned to right the kayak, empty out the water and climb back in. That wasn't easy, but everyone managed to do it.
From a distance Espiritu Santo appears stony and mean, a forbidding ridge of desert that rises like a dinosaur's back out of the sea. But up close it is full of stark beauty and rich with life. Morning glories bloom in the shadowy canyons, rainbow-colored fishes dart among the offshore reefs, myriad birds wheel and cry in the skies.
The island's curious jet-black jack rabbits hop down to drink in rare springs, and feral goats scramble among the rocks. After midnight an occasional ringtail cat will creep into a camp kitchen, scouting for chicken bones.
Espiritu Santo's western, leeward shore is a convolution of desert arroyos that slope down to turquoise coves and beaches of dazzling white sand. Its eastern coast is a wall of cliffs that drop into emerald swells.
Just north is a smaller island, Partida; the two are connected by a sandy isthmus sliced through by a thin tidal channel. Together, the two islands are about a dozen miles long.
No Permanent Settlements
There is no permanent human settlement here, just a few leavings of the vagabundos , those transient fishermen of the gulf.
For a week we paddled around this remarkable pair of desert islands, putting into a different beach each night. When we weren't in the kayaks--a few hours each day--we swam, snorkeled, gathered shells, watched birds, hiked up the rugged canyons or just lazed around on the beaches.
At the end of the day we'd draw the kayaks high onto the shore, tie them together and weight them with rocks in case the wind rose during the night. Then we'd haul out a bag of sweet little Mexican limes, mix a quantity of margaritas and settle down to watch the pelicans diving in the sunset.
Meanwhile, the guides would be preparing a superb camp dinner over smoldering mesquite. We feasted on such fare as ceviche, garlic shrimp, marinated octopus, broiled snapper, steak and chicken.
The skiff's icebox kept vegetables and fruit fresh (and beer cold) for the whole week.
After dinner we would talk a while around the campfire, then crawl into our sleeping bags and track the shooting stars down the desert night.
We were also learning something of an exciting new sport--ocean kayaking.
Riding there at the interface of water and sky, propelled by your own paddle, fellow traveler to dolphin and gull, you are subject to wind and tide. And there can be no better place for it than the warm southern Sea of Cortez.
After a day or two we fell into the steady rhythm of pushing and lifting the paddles, working our legs for balance and leverage. We grew accustomed to the whims of weather. Sometimes we slid across glassy bays; sometimes the kayaks rose and fell in scary swells; sometimes we struggled against stiff winds.
Once we rafted five of the kayaks together and, rigging a giant tarp for a sail, made a speedy crossing of a large and windy bay in our makeshift "pentamaran."