Photos from our early November trip to Isla Angel de la Guarda are posted below. I'm working on a trip report as well.
Photos from our early November trip to Isla Angel de la Guarda are posted below. I'm working on a trip report as well.
Trip Report, Part 1
Seven Days in the Sea of Cortez
November 1, 2004 – End of Day One
It’s 8:30 p.m. on Sunday night, now that we’ve moved the clocks back an hour. But Werner ignores the new time with disdain. It’s not right that it gets dark by 5 this far south, so he continues to operate on Daylight Savings Time. Everyone else bedded down an hour ago, still long after dark. My tent is the only one with a light on. We have a long day ahead tomorrow, but I’m not ready to sleep even after the exertions of the day and such a long, uncomfortable night at the trailer at Bahia de Los Angeles. I lie on my stomach writing by headlamp about the last 36 hours.
We are camped on the eastern shore of Isla Angel de la Guarda, a 43-mile long island 20 miles east of the tiny town of Bahia de los Angeles across the Canal las Ballenas (Whale’s Channel). The little bay where we are camped is a mile and a half or so west of Isla Estanque, and about seven miles north of the southern tip of the island. There are no other boats, no structures, no fire pits, no lights on the horizon. Aside from a few bits of litter washed up, we've seen no sign of man here at all. The sense of isolation is exquisite.
I take a break from writing and roll over, and feel my back and shoulder muscles stiffening already. I sit up and fish out some ibuprofen from my kit bag. I take four and force myself to wash them down with a pint of water to help rehydrate. Tiny gnats circle my head. I lay on my back to seek and destroy the no-see-ums that entered the tent with me. In the headlamp’s beam and trapped at the apex of the tent they are easy prey. I extract revenge for what they and their comrades have done to my exposed skin: dozens of raised, red, itching little bumps. What good are these things anyway? What could possibly depend on these tiny pests for food? And why are they only here and not on the mainland?
Outside the waves lap gently on the shore of the sheltered bay. We set up our tents on white sand just a few yards from the boats. The temperature is a balmy 69 degrees, perfect for my equipment. We had a fantastic fish dinner tonight: firm, white cabrilla, speared and caught just offshore, filleted and fried within two hours of being caught. This was followed by a half gallon of margaritas and various other potent beverages.
Our group consists of a registered geologist, a soils engineer, a microelectronics engineer, a couple of research scientists, a lawyer, a couple of building contractors, and a marketing director. Paddling abilities range from expert to . . . what comes after novice and before intermediate? There is a lot of good natured ribbing going on and not a hint of a personality conflict. It’s a good group. Our goal is to paddle the hundred or so miles around this island and cross the channel at its most narrow point, about 8 miles, near the north end of the island. From there it will take two long days to paddle south back to our starting point at Bahia de los Angeles.
While I may paddle slowly, I am smaller than almost everyone else on this trip, and my boat is very heavily loaded and rides low in the water. I know little about the forward stroke, except it is as important to push as to pull, and that I must turn from the waist through the shoulders to employ the muscles in my trunk, and not just my arms and shoulders. Still I am not that far behind the others, and the weight increases the boat’s stability, which is comforting.
The fear that built up in me over the past few weeks has diminished to a cautious respect, though I am anxious to improve my rudimentary bracing skills. I can edge this boat (a borrowed Necky Tesla) confidently on flat water, but I have little confidence I will react correctly to a sudden threat of capsize. I can right and reenter the boat quickly without a paddle float after a wet exit. The long crossing to the mainland, where we will be at greatest risk, is a week away and we gain strength and experience with every stroke. There are also some intangibles gained from my 33 years as a rock climber and mountaineer. Those experiences fostered a tolerance for continuous toil and perseverance through adversity and discomfort that give me a fair measure of survivability.
After writing about the first two days, fatigue overtakes me. I switch off the headlamp, roll onto my back, and pull up the blanket to the sound of the water lapping on the shore.
"Nights at anchor in the Gulf are quiet and strange. The water is smooth, almost solid, and the dew is so heavy that the decks are soaked. The little waves rasp on the shell beaches with a hissing sound, and all about in the darkness the fishes jump and splash. Sometimes a great ray leaps clear and falls back on the water with a sharp report. And again, a school of tiny fishes whisper along the surface, each one, as it breaks clear, making the tiniest whisking sound. And there is no feeling, no smell, no vibration of people in the Gulf. Whatever it is that makes one aware that men are about is not there. Thus, in spite of the noises of waves and fishes, one has a feeling of deadness and of quietness."
From The Log of the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck
October 31, 2004 – Saturday
The day began at 3 am. Dave picked me up at 4 and helped me load my boat onto his truck rack. We were at Steve G.’s by 4:30. Here I learned we would stop at the border for a travel permit. Werner notified us by email that we would need our passports, in addition to the Mexican fishing license. Somehow this escaped my attention. It wouldn’t have mattered because I don’t have a passport anyway. But when Werner reminded us I began to worry, so at ten to five at Starbuck’s, where we met Mark R., Jim W., and Andy P., Dave and I decided to go back home to get some more identification.
At the border I filled out my application with the others, but didn’t call attention to my lack of a passport. I had with me my original 50-year-old hospital birth certificate with my infant foot prints on the back. Not legal proof of birth, but novel and with some potential for comic relief. I imagined the scene: leg crossed over knee, one shoe and sock off, holding up the ancient brown certificate next to my bare foot and pointing out the similarities of my cracked and timeworn sole to the tiny ink imprint. Fortunately, it never came to that and the authorities, bored after a long night shift, happily stamped all of our permits one after the other in rapid succession without reading them or asking to see our passports.
On the drive south we saw evidence of much recent rain: lots of new growth on the hills, and mud puddles along the road. It was overcast and a little chilly when we stopped for lunch in Catavina, a tiny tourist town in the midst of a giant jumble of granite boulders. I was expecting warmer weather. Over lunch we talked briefly to a couple of retirees who were towing a large sailboat to Bahia de los Angeles, and who also planned to circumnavigate Isla Angel de la Guarda. They were going up to Bahia del Rufugio at the north end first. We were going the opposite way. We agreed to look for each other somewhere on the east coast of the island.
"Trying to remember the Gulf is like trying to re-create a dream. This is by no means a sentimental thing, it has little to do with beauty or even conscious liking. But the Gulf does draw one, and we have talked to rich men who own boats, who can go where they will. Regularly they find themselves sucked into the Gulf. And since we have returned, there is always in the backs of our minds the positive drive to go back again. If it were lush and rich, one could understand the pull, but it is fierce and hostile and sullen, The stone mountains pile up to the sky and there is little fresh water. But we know we must go back if we live, and we don’t know why."
From The Log of the Sea of Cortez
The road south of Catavina takes you into the heart of the Vizcaino Region of the Sonoran Desert. Weird Cirio trees, named after the slender wax tapers (candles) of the missions, like pale 50-foot carrots growing root first out of the ground, make their first appearance here. They grow only in an area bounded on the north by the southern end of the Sierra San Pedro Martir, and on the south by the Tres Virgenes Peaks across to Isla Angel de la Guarda. We also saw the first elephant trees squat with heavy, bulging branches, and tiny round, compound leaves.
At the first sight of Bahia de los Angeles, we stopped at a viewpoint just beyond a military checkpoint to take a look. It was blowing hard and although we were about two miles from the water, we could see white caps and heavy surf pounding all the north facing shores. A sobering sight. But the weather would
be better tomorrow, right? Anyway, we planned to do all of our paddling early in the day before the wind came up. Knock wood.
In town we got gas at a little shed, and stopped at the Sammy’s where Werner had reserved three pangas for early the next morning. The pangas would carry us, our boats and our gear across the channel in less than two hours. After he verified that the boats were ready for us, we went to Guillermo’s for beer and margaritas. We sat outside on the porch but pulled the table and chairs into an alcove sheltered from the cold north wind and ordered beer and margaritas. Pelicans bobbed near shore in the lee of a stone and concrete pier. The margaritas were good and strong, unlike the limp imitations served in San Diego.
Over the drinks we talked about the crossing (on the return trip), and the need to stick together as a group. This was viewed sarcastically as a novel and perhaps unattainable ideal. It was more characteristic of our group to leave the laggards behind to fend for themselves, at least on land. But the risks are higher here. Afterwards, we drove the two or so miles south to the trailers near Camp Gecko.
After dinner, Dave, Andreas and I set up our sleeping gear on the porch of the big trailer just a few yards from the shore of LA Bay. Andreas, perhaps overly concerned about going light, brought a bivvy sack, no sleeping bag, and only a yoga mat to sleep on. Werner had promised warm or hot weather and Andreas took him at his word. But overnight the temperature dropped and in the gusty wind he got quite cold.
thnx for sharing…great pic’s…
Trip Report Part 2
November 1, 2004 – Day One (Sunday)
Andreas was so uncomfortable that he gave up trying to sleep around 3 a.m., and went into the trailer. Due to his massive size, Andreas cools at a slower rate (like the ocean), so you know it was really cold. Even with our fleece blanket bags, rated to 50 degrees (on a mattress, well above the floor, in a closed room — maybe), Dave and I also got cold. I stuffed some spare items of clothing between the fleece and my bivvy sack at my cold spots to allow me to doze a little longer in relative comfort. This was troubling because lacking real sleeping bags raised the unpleasant prospect of being cold every night on the island. But it was too late to do anything about it. Werner rose around 4 to make eggs, bacon and coffee for everyone. We packed up and left at quarter to 6 to be at Sammy’s on time.
It was still dark and no one was stirring at Sammy's when we arrived. Someone showed up a few minutes later to show us which pangas to load. It took about two hours to load all eight kayaks (two Necky Teslas and a Looksha IV, an Eddyline Sea Star, and an old Trisiutl double (fiberglass); two Prijon Kodiaks and a Necky Looksha IV (plastic); all boats with rudders) and gear into three pangas and launch from the concrete ramp south of Guillermo’s. Once underway, we enjoyed sunshine, warm air, and little spray. Along the way dolphins appeared and diving birds attacked roils of water stirred up by schools of fish.
Andreas, Dave and I were in the last boat to leave, and the boatman was running flat out to catch up to the other two. When we were well out into the Canal las Ballenas, our engine died. He got it going only to have it die again a few minutes later. I feared the worst. A day’s delay might put us so seriously behind schedule that we would be unable to catch up. We had only one layover day planned (at the north end of the island to climb the highest peak), and we had to make good time every day if we were to return to San Diego by Monday night, nine days later. After finding no kinked or leaking fuel lines or other obvious causes, our boatman discovered that if he kept his speed down a little, the engine ran fine.
It took only about an hour to cover the 20 miles to the island. The western slope of the island rises dramatically from the shoreline, a jumble of volcanic rock ridges and twisted strata in black, brown, ochre, red, orange, pink and purple. Ridges and cliffs make up about 90 percent of the western shore, the rest being rocky arroyos and alluvial fans suitable for camping. The three pangas cruised south along cliffs and steep ridges for a good mile before Werner signaled to put in at a wide cobble beach at the mouths of two arroyos.
"The long snake-like coast of Guardian Angel lay to the east of us; a desolate and fascinating coast. It is forty-two miles long, ten miles wide in some places, waterless and uninhabited. It is said to be crawling with rattlesnakes and iguanas, and a persistent rumor of gold comes from it. Few people have explored it or even gone more than a few steps from the shore . . . ."
From The Log of the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck
We quickly off loaded from the pangas and scrambled to load our boats. I had way too much stuff and had difficulty cramming it all in. It wasn’t just the 10 gallons of water, which each of us carried: I had too much canned and processed food, too much clothing, and too many amenities. Though I had packed and unpacked the boat three times in my garage, and pared down the load each time, I still had too much. For example, my first aid kit was, at first, made up of three large bags. I consolidated this into two bags by eliminating some bulky items like splints and knee braces. Still, the two bags took up as much space as a regular sleeping bag, which I left behind in favor of the smaller fleece blanket because it was going to be so warm.
While loading the boats, we noticed tiny, swarming gnats on our legs and other unprotected skin: the dreaded no-see-ums. I could not find my bug juice, but they were easy to ignore. I wondered what all the fuss was about. We shoved off and paddled south in small waves. As soon as we were in the water, the bugs left us alone.
We headed south along the shore using a couple of prominent cardon cacti on a ridge for a heading. It took an hour or two to get to the south end of the island, but seemed like four in my heavily loaded boat. I tried to keep up with Werner, but could not. I was riding over an inch lower in the water than Werner’s identical boat, and he outweighs me by 40 or 50 pounds. I soon discovered there was no one I could keep up with. But I was never that far behind, so I began to relax and found that this was one of the keys to making good time. The harder I strained, the more difficult it was to paddle efficiently.
We regrouped before rounding the end of the island. With the rest of us singles following like hatchlings, Werner gave the rocky shallows at the south end of the island a wide berth. Waves were breaking on a reef far outside of us, too far away to be of immediate concern. We glided over big rocks, weeds, sandy and rocky bottom on our way around the point.
On the other side, we could see the cinder cone of Isla Estanque about seven miles north. Far to the east rose the mountains of Isla Tiburon. Some made straight for Estanque, taking them far offshore. Andreas hugged the shore, picking up some assist from eddies caused by the outgoing tide, and avoiding the brunt of the head wind. Mark and Jim in their big red-orange Trisiutl put up a sail which could be seen for miles as they tacked far from shore.
At Estanque a few paddlers waited for Andy, Andreas and I to show us where they had crossed the shallows between the big island and Estanque. Waves were breaking here but we paddled through them with ease. We turned west along the shore line. The east side of the island presented a grand view of about 15 miles of coastline up to Punta Roca. The orange mountains forming the spine of the island stood out against a robin’s egg sky.
The water here was so calm that Andreas landed on the steep cobble beach to stretch and adjust some things in his cockpit. I waited just offshore, pulled off my spray skirt and put both feet on deck, arching and stretching my lower back and left groin, which had been giving me trouble for a couple of weeks. About half an hour of paddling took us a beautiful cove with a white sand beach sheltered by rocky hills on either side.
We unloaded and set up tents near the boats in the sand. A mild breeze kept the no-see-ums off. We went diving off the east point just outside the bay and Werner, Steve and Dave all speared cabrilla, the excellent sea bass-like fish plentiful just offshore in water from 10 to 30 feet wherever there are rocks. Werner said it was the only fish he speared here because it was so good to eat. It was also the only fish that would not hold still for a shot, which made it a challenge to hunt.
Werner came to me with a cabrilla he had speared and asked me to take it back to camp so he could continue to hunt. He showed me how to grasp the fish through the gill slits, making a ring with my thumb and index fingers, so that it could not escape. I kicked back to shore and found a plastic milk crate that had washed up, and placed the fish in it in about five inches of water.
I swam back out into the warm shallows to look around. Floating above the bottom in the warm clear water with fish darting about underneath was like a dream. There were some brilliant purple fish with a powder blue head and tail, and a yellow band just behind the head; some silver and yellow fish with black tiger stripes in schools (convict majors?); and a few larger chocolate brown fish with a creamy white stripe dividing head from body, with a bright yellow tail. Most others were larger and colored to blend in with the brown rocks, or the sand: pargo, trigger fish, and the shy cabrilla.
Mark and Jim paddled and sailed their double over toward Estanque and fished from the boat. They brought back several fish also. While Werner cleaned the fish and prepared filets for dinner, I packed my kayak with the numerous items of non-essential gear I had brought along. I hoped this would save time in the morning.
After dinner we sat in our fold-up chairs and passed around the margarita bottle. Among other things, we discussed the tides and next day’s target destination. I had tide tables and maps with me, and shared them with the others. The next day’s paddle was to take us about 15 miles north to a beach just south of Punta Roca. The paddle north around Punta Roca in the afternoon, when the wind was usually at its worst, might be too much for the novice paddlers. So Werner planned to put in at the beach to camp, or at least to rest well before attempting to round the point where there were few, if any, places to put in. If we spent the night there, the next day would be a short three or four mile hop around Punta Roca during the calm early morning to the little bay at Candeleros, a good dive spot.
Trip Report Part 3
November 2, 2004 – Day Two (Monday)
But it was not to be. During the night the sound of lapping waves increased steadily and grew into rolling surf, while our tents bent and shuddered in the rising wind. By morning the wind was scouring the sand off the beach at 25 to 30 knots. Outside and above our sheltered area, the wind was 10 knots higher. North beyond the mouth of the bay was a panorama of whitecaps extending to the horizon.
In blowing sand we loaded the boats hurriedly because Werner was loading his. But we were all anxious about having to paddle into the maelstrom outside the mouth of the bay. Over the wind Andreas said to me: “I’m going to sit here and watch the more experienced paddlers go out into this before I try it. This doesn’t look paddleable to me.” Andreas had developed excellent kayak skills in a short time and, unlike me, could reliably roll his boat. So I took him seriously.
When the boats were loaded Werner hiked to the top of the hill to the west of the bay. He did not hurry back and his body language telegraphed his decision. “We can’t go out there,” he told us. “Outside of this bay it's crankin’ 40 knots. Even if we could paddle it, it’s 15 miles to the next decent landing, and I don’t think we could make it.” So we waited. At first, we stayed near camp not far from the boats, hoping the wind would die, or at least diminish so that we could launch and try to make up the lost time. But eventually small parties began to wander off when it became clear we would spend another night at this camp.
Mark and I set out east on the cobble spit toward Isla Estanque, just for something to do. Others followed. The cobbles formed a high berm 75 yards wide. Although our bay was mostly free of signs of man, this berm was not. In addition to driftwood, fish skeletons, dolphin and pelican carcasses, we passed shoes, bottles, beams, cans, rigging, and all other manner of sea litter. The loose, smooth rounded stones shifted under our weight making each step a chore.
"Here the beach was piled with debris: the huge vertebrae of whales scattered about and piles of broken weed and skeletons of fishes and birds. On top of some low bushes which edged the beach there were great nests three to four feet in diameter, pelican nests perhaps, for there were pieces of fish bone in them, but all the nests were deserted—whether they were old or it was out of season we do not know."
From The Log of the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck
The wind made it difficult to talk without shouting, so we dropped down the south side to a large, shallow pond about a half mile long and 300 yards wide. The pond is below sea level and protected by the berm. Occasionally the wind would carry a sheet of spray from the crashing surf all the way over the berm.
Mark noted that the calm shallow water of the pond looked suitable for wind surfing. All around the edge in a few inches of water was a three or four foot wide mat of blue-green algae. At the pond’s west end is a large expanse of Yerba Reuma of the Frankenia family, one of the few plants able to tolerate such extreme salinity of the soil. We walked along the shore and were careful not to disturb the ancient algal mat.
Near the eastern shore of the island, and just short of the summit of a rocky ridge above the eastern shore, we found two large signs describing the wildlife and pleading with visitors in Spanish and English to be careful with the fragile ecosystem, to minimize impact and litter, and warning against importing non-native species like rats and cockroaches.
We were surprised to learn from these signs that the island has no native rodents, but our experience bore this out. No food we left out was ever disturbed, except by the ravens. We never saw any evidence of mice or rats, or any other terrestrial mammals for that matter. There were lots of shore birds, a few ravens and ospreys, rattlesnakes, small lizards, chuckwallas, and of course, spiders, ants, no-see-ums and scorpions. But every mammal we saw had fins.
Later Andreas, Mark, and Jim set off on a long hike to the west side of the island to fish. They hoped the water would be calmer there on the lee side while El Norte (what the fisherman called the malevolent north wind) bore down on the east. Werner went with them for three or four miles to a point about 800 vertical feet above the western shore, then returned to camp alone. Andreas, Mark and Jim went down to the water and caught and brought back fish, a tremendous expenditure of energy for which the entire group was grateful. Their efforts spared us from having to eat the canned stew, the only non-fish meal Werner planned.
On his way back, Werner saw a large Isla Angel de la Guarda Rattlesnake resting in a crevice above the sandy floor of a wash. Like the Cedros Island Rattlesnake, this species was isolated from its relatives on the mainland by continental drift. Faults separated the islands from the mainland and marooned the island snakes for so long that they are now genetically distinct.
"The general correspondence of flora and fauna confirms the fact that they were a part of the peninsula not so very long ago. On the other hand, there is known to be a sub-species of snake found on one island but on no other . . . . All this must mean, of course, that recent as the isolation of the islands may be, it is not so recent that variation has not begun and that what you have is a very minor parallel to the case of the Galapagos where the presence of a unique species presented the puzzle which Darwin was to solve."
From The Forgotten Peninsula, by Joseph Wood Krutch
With no mammal predators to compete with, and a good supply of fat chuckwallas to eat, Crotalus angelenis has done exceedingly well on its island in the Gulf. It commonly grows to a length of seven feet, over twice as long as its mainland progenitor, Crotalus mitchelli, the Speckled Rattlesnake. Another distinctive difference is that the rattle of the angelenis is much smaller than the mitchelli. It may be that without coyotes, goats, burros, horses, cattle, and other potentially dangerous mammals stalking and stomping the island, the warning function of the rattle is now superfluous.
In the afternoon I looked for another tent site. The sites near the boats had become undesirable by the blasting wind and blowing sand. The knoll on the east side of the bay provided some shelter, but even in the dirt I could not get my tent stakes to bite well enough to resist the strong wind. I decided to sleep in the open in my bivvy sack on the shoulder of a sandy hill near the kitchen we set up at the base of the hill.
Tonight when everyone else was going to bed, I walked along the shore of the bay. The tide was very low. The water’s edge was twinkling with bioluminescence. Moments later the moon popped up over the eastern bluff and lit the western part of the bay. I thought about Steinbeck’s log, and Ed Ricketts collecting specimens decades ago when this place was truly no man’s land, and about the eons over which this island ecosystem developed, and countless transits of the moon over the dome of the sky, its pull on the earth, the rhythm of the tides, and its influence on every living thing.
"We have often thought of this mass of sea-memory, or sea-thought, which lives deep in the mind. If one ask for a description of the unconscious, even the answer-symbol will usually be in terms of a dark water into which the light descends only a short distance. And we have thought how the human fetus has, at one stage of its development, vestigial gill-slits. If the gills are a component of the developing human, it is not unreasonable to suppose a parallel or concurrent mind or psyche development. If there be a life-memory strong enough to leave its symbol in vestigial gills, the preponderantly aquatic symbols in the individual unconscious might well be indications of a group psyche-memory which is the foundation of the whole unconscious. And what things must be there, what monsters, what enemies, what fear of dark and pressure, and of prey! . . . . Perhaps, next to that of the sea, the strongest memory in us is that of the moon."
From The Log of the Sea of Cortez
November 3, 2004 – Day Three
Day Three. We dubbed this place Scorpion Bay after a critter who lived under a rock in our kitchen. On the first full day we had set up our folding chairs in the sand at the base of the rocky, volcanic bluff east of the bay to escape the blasting wind. In the hill’s southern lee we had good shelter and some rocks to put the stove and other items upon. John H. sat for a good part of the day within inches of a rock that Werner later moved to make a platform for cooking. A five-inch scorpion the color of fresh cut lime scurried for cover in a crevice where we could get a good look. We made it the camp mascot.
This morning we didn’t even go through the ritual of loading the boats. The wind continued unabated, or stronger, driving the rollers and whitecaps down the 200 mile fetch to the north. Dumping waves hammered the steep cobble beach to the east. From my seat in the kitchen I had a view to the east down the spine of the cobble berm all the way to Estanque. Backlit by the rising sun, the spray from the thundering surf billowed over the berm like smoke.
After breakfast Andreas unloaded his boat and paddled out into the surf of Scorpion Bay while some of us watched from shore. He made good progress, slowing and accelerating to avoid the closely spaced breaking waves, keeping his boat aligned perpendicularly to the swells. As he approached the mouth of the bay, he slowed to a stop. We wondered aloud if he could turn without capsizing, but he did not try. Instead, he maintained his perpendicular alignment, and let the oncoming water push him back into the bay. He spent over an hour maneuvering around the inside of the bay, playing with the waves and eddies, and eventually working up to turning around and paddling in with the waves.
Andreas’s display of boat handling skill encouraged Werner to try it too. Werner made it out a little further, but still not into the violent water and unhindered wind outside the bay. He executed a turn, and brought his boat back through the surf expertly to a soft landing on the beach. He told us that it was still way too big to paddle outside of the bay, and that we would not be leaving this camp for at least another day. That left us free to plan other adventures.
Andy wanted to explore the interior and was interested in seeing the other side of the island. I wanted to try to find the Isla Angel de la Guarda rattlesnake Werner had spotted on his way back to camp yesterday. Andy persuaded Steve, Dave, and John to come also, and we set out for the abandoned fish camp a mile or two to the west.
The ruins of this failed enterprise are an enigma. A large concrete slab lies just above the beach and near the concrete remnants of a pier. It was suggested that this was once processing plant. But smaller slabs lie scattered over a hundred acres, along with remnants of two wheel track roads, and lots of litter. It looks like the builders had a community in mind, with several small dwellings spaced several hundred yards apart.
We followed a two wheel track for over a mile, wondering how they got a motorized vehicle here. The road wound back through the smaller outlying slabs, and climbed up the gentle incline of an alluvial fan. The fan was cut by two arroyos filled with creosote, mesquite, ironwood, cardon, elephant trees and palo adan. The plateau above the arroyos was covered with low dry grass, and a few scattered creosote, brittlebush and small cacti.
"The difficulties of exploration of the island might be very great, but there is a drawing power about its very forbidding aspect—a Golden Fleece, and the inevitable dragon, in this case rattlesnakes, to guard it. The mountains which are the backbone of the island rise to more than four thousand feet in some places, sullen and desolate at the tops but with heavy brush on the skirts."
From The Log of the Sea of Cortez
As we hiked further up the alluvial fan, I told the others about the species of rattlesnake native to the island, and the need to be extremely careful, especially on rocky south-facing slopes. The Isla Angel de la Guarda Rattlesnake is one of the three largest in North America. In the U.S. only the Western diamondback, which also grows to seven feet, and the Eastern diamondback, which grows to eight feet, grow so large. To be envenomated by a large rattlesnake on this island, in weather conditions that would prohibit a rescue by panga for days (we had a satellite phone), would almost certainly mean death, or if you survived, severely debilitating injury to tissue and organs, and months of painful recovery in a hospital.
We carefully clambered down a south facing slope picking our way around the larger rocks that might provide a warm den for snakes, and eyeing the ground before every step. We crossed the arroyo and stopped in the shade of a big ironwood for a drink. The air was still and warm in the arroyo bottom, and the
sun was hot. We could hear flies and bees buzzing, and bird songs. The shade was welcome, but even more a relief was the quiet stillness in contrast to the relentless sensory assault of the wind.
"The very air here is miraculous, and outlines of reality change with the moment. The sky sucks up the land and disgorges it. A dream lays over the whole region, a brooding kind of hallucination."
From The Log of the Sea of Cortez
We followed the winding wash upstream for another three quarters of a mile until the twists and turns became too tight and choked with prickly acacia branches to efficiently follow. There we struck out directly up slope toward a saddle we hoped would provide us with a view of the mainland. Approaching the
saddle summit, the wind buffeted us more intensely with every upward step.
At the summit we found a huge flat area, and a view of distant mountains on the Baja Peninsula, but no view yet of the water. We walked south on the flat away from the exposed saddle, and stopped for lunch by a large elephant tree where the wind was calm. Nearby was a palo adan, similar to the ocotillo, but smaller, with green, yellow and purple branches. We enjoyed the shade and the light breeze, a welcome change from the barrage of blowing sand back at camp. Here we compared the growing collection of red welts on each other’s legs, and discussed our predicament. Every hour spent not paddling made it more unlikely we could continue north to complete the circumnavigation. We had over eighty miles of paddling ahead of us, and had lost two days.
After lunch we headed further southwest to a view of the Canal las Ballenas and the mainland 20+ miles away. We hiked to a cardon above a steep slope. The channel looked calm from our vantage a half a mile away and 800 feet above sea level. Even from that distance we could tell it was much calmer on the west
side than on the east. The skies were hazier to the west than the east, but everywhere, cloudless. The barometer had been hovering above 30 for two days. Rather than continuing downslope toward the western shore, we turned around.
On the way back, I saw sign of the party from the day before. We decided to follow their course more directly back to the camp. This took us down a ridge line and then east into another arroyo, wider and flatter than the one we had come up, which made for easy hiking. Little whiptail lizards with alternating
black and beige tail bands scampered over sand and gravel for cover at our approach, and we found the dried carcass of a chuckwalla about 18 inches long. We climbed a steep embankment out of the broad wash bottom.
After crossing a broad, flat plain with scattered head-high brush and towering cardon, we came to an area barren of vegetation and littered with red and black volcanic rock with bizarre shapes, probably the result of molten rock being blown into the air at high speed. Our path took us over a few rocky low
saddles and into another narrow arroyo with high steep walls of loose red rock and filled with large, bushy ironwoods and other lush, green vegetation. After only a few hundred yards this opened up to the salt flat directly behind our camp at Scorpion Bay.
In the afternoon Werner was motivated to find fish, but the heavy surf along the north facing coast just outside the bay prohibited diving. He tapped me to go with him to the east side, to the shore south of Isla Estanque, where we hoped to find calmer, clearer water, and a few rocks to provide good hunting.
We reached the rocky beach and walked south to a cliff. The water was turbulent, murky and not too promising. We gathered up our gear and headed inland again briefly, then south around a steep, high knoll. Andreas, Dave and Steve were a quarter of a mile behind us and changed course to follow our lead.
South of the knoll were some crumbling cliffs above a black cobble beach facing east-southeast. We found a spot to get down the cliff and onto the cobble beach, and walked south a bit more to some large rocks. Five minutes after going in, Werner speared his first cabrilla. Dave and Steve hurried to get
into the water. Andreas walked a bit further south and with his pole casted from shore. Soon Dave speared a fish, then Steve. Werner got a few more, the last one about five pounds. Each time a diver speared a fish, he swam close to shore, got some purchase on the slippery rocks, and heaved the fish above the
waterline for me to retrieve.
Out of the water the guys were shivering as they stripped off their wetsuits. The storm had stirred up the deeper, colder water and dropped the temperature several degrees from the balmy 70+ we had on the first day. I took the bag of fish and walked north a few hundred yards to where the sun was still flooding the rocky shore. The others followed, and soon Werner and Andreas were cleaning fish in the afternoon sun.
We had another fine fish feast that night, and drank another half gallon of margaritas, along with some private reserve tequila others had brought along. Jim let us sample an unusual smoky flavored, high proof alcohol. Werner whooped in appreciation. None of us could identify it, and Jim decided to keep it a mystery for a while.