By Graham Mackintosh
Amazing what you can pack into (and onto) a 12-foot-long sit-on-top kayak… and into a day of Baja adventure.
Carrying over six gallons of water and a handpump desalinator to make more, I set off at first light November 1 heading south from Bahía de los Ángeles. I was hoping I could make it at least as far as Santa Rosalía to access the Transpeninsular Highway.
With my embarrassingly overloaded Cobra Tandem kayak looking more like a top-heavy battleship than a sleek sea kayak, I knew safety meant sticking close to shore and quickly finding a place to land if conditions became too challenging.
First day, after a glorious sunrise, with a moderate west wind blowing, and knowing all wind forecasts suggested no surprises, I found myself pushing my luck and cutting more and more directly across Bahía de los Ángeles. Sure enough, mid-bay, a white-capping north wind kicked in which meant I was battling the waves, bracing with my paddle, and taking water over the side. It was a big lesson! Three hours after I launched I was glad to reach the shelter of Puerto Don Juan.
Later that afternoon, I exited the bay and turned south before paddling ashore on a fine sunny, sandy beach and making camp. Part of the setup was placing all food and water inside the kayak or a large plastic bin I brought for the purpose. Everything not in the tent had to be secured and weighed down to coyote-proof for the night.
Sure enough, as I was inside my sleeping bag listening to a World Series game, I heard a scraping noise outside. A coyote was running off with perhaps the one thing not secured – my tatami mat from the tent door!
I settled into a routine of getting up about 4 AM and making ready to go at or before first light. It took me well over two hours to break camp and get underway. Knowing it would take another two hours to land, set up camp again and coyote-proof for the night I was never in a hurry to finish early.
The water was warm, the air temperature was generally pleasant, and I was able to paddle almost two weeks without needing a day off because of the wind.
Nearly every day was a constant procession of dolphins, manta rays and sea turtles, and all kinds of fish including dorado splashing and chasing. I was surprised to see so many blue-footed boobies. In some areas they seemed to be the predominant sea bird. I had brief but close encounters with two large whales… probably finbacks.
The coast itself was spectacular, with colorful cliffs and sea arches, and caves to paddle in and explore. Some of the beaches and coves invited me to pull out the fishing gear and stay a week. But if it was possible to paddle I would. I knew I might be sooner or later forced to sit out a week or more if a powerful north wind pattern developed.
I stopped just for short breaks, to take pictures and enjoy a few reminiscences from the 1980s and the time I walked that coast carrying a backpack. The few fishcamps and communities there brought back fond memories of picking up water and meeting wonderful hospitable characters: Las Animas, San Rafael, San Francisquito, La Trinidad. I picked up water again at the same places.
I only needed to use my desalinator once, just north of Santa Rosalía, at the notoriously windy Cabo Vírgenes.
On three occasions I launched in the dark to take advantage of a receding tide, which meant needing to paddle a little further offshore than I would like to minimize the chance of colliding with a rock or reef. I reveled in the glowing phosphorescence, but it was always a relief to see the light slowly coming into the world. And some of the flaming sunrises were unreal and breathtaking, portraying cliffs and mountains in the most amazing warm purple and orange hues.
One surprise was the amount of driftwood on some of the beaches. Otherwise fine landing spots were untenable because recent hurricane deposited wood and debris was stacked several feet high almost down to the water.
South of Santa Rosalía, late in the day, I ran into a line of cliffs and every landing spot was rocky and uninviting. I dithered too long. It got dark and I was searching the shore in vain with my headlight for somewhere suitable to make camp.
Beyond the cliffs and following a long, steep cobblestone embankment, I paddled more than two hours by starlight knowing San Lucas cove was up ahead with soft sandy beaches and an RV park. I gladly pulled into the bay after 8 PM and headed for the most likely looking lights. Unfortunately, it was a very low tide and the bay was so shallow I kept running aground hundreds of yards from shore. After an hour of that I retreated to the entrance to the bay and did what I’d been trying to avoid all evening, dragged the kayak up the steep rocky slope and made camp on stones and boulders. It didn’t matter; I was so tired I slept like a log. Next morning, the tide was now so high I was able to paddle away almost from my tent door.
The last place I picked up water was San Bruno several miles north of Punta Chivato. I spotted a kayaker in the bay and paddled over to where he’d landed to find out where I could buy water and maybe some fruit. With wonderful kindness he and his wife supplied both and threw in lunch as well.
Shortly after leaving San Bruno I found myself in a sudden wild and dangerous sea. Less than a mile past the last house I carefully rounded a foaming headland and made a tolerable surf landing. I quickly jumped off the kayak and grabbed the front handle to drag the heavily loaded kayak up the beach. Unfortunately, the handle attachment broke! I had to grab the rear handle and spin the kayak around in the surf and drag it up that way.
There was enough of a gap in the driftwood to get my kayak through and enough sand to set up a comfy campsite. It took considerable skill to get the tent up in the wind. The seas looked horrendous. A ship waiting to take on a cargo of gypsum from Isla San Marcos seemed to be precariously anchored in the shelter of the island. I knew I was stuck for a while.
Even though I was a few yards above the last tide line and the tides were falling, I soon realized with the sea running and breaking so furiously it would be a long watchful night to be sure the tent wasn’t washed away. And sure enough about 2 AM I had to get everything out and move the tent to higher and less level ground. It was only just enough.
Next morning, I got a taste of true Baja hospitality. Ed, who had supplied the water in San Bruno, was so concerned he was out searching for me along the shore. He stopped at a little beach rancho to speak to his Mexican friend Pepe. Pepe said he’d seen me paddle by and he too was concerned. Together they came looking for me with a jug of hot coffee and were relieved to see me there.
And even though Pepe’s place was almost a mile away he walked back every day with more coffee and plates of delicious food that his wife had prepared for me. Nothing tasted better. And Ed returned again to bring more fruit and see if I needed anything. It brought back so many memories of my long walk around the coast of Baja all those years ago. So often I heard, “Out here we are all brothers.” And once again I was reminded of that wonderful generous sentiment and the good folks in Baja who help make it such a special place.
Underway again, from San Bruno I made my way past all the beautiful homes at Punta Chivato and camped alone a couple of miles beyond, at the south end of its gorgeous long shell beach.
Next morning, after a little rain in the night, I enjoyed one final spectacular sunrise and made my way past Mulegé and several shrimp boats anchored offshore into Bahía Concepción and ended my journey at Playa Naranjos where I had friends kindly willing to store some of my gear till I could return.
It was another memorable Baja adventure. I certainly had much to give thanks for at our Thanksgiving Dinner in Mulegé.
Graham Mackintosh is the author of four Baja books: “Into a Desert Place,” “Journey with a Baja Burro,” “Marooned With Very Little Beer,” and “Nearer My Dog to Thee.” You can also read about how he prepared for his kayaking journey in the article Paddling South from Bahía de los Ángeles (part 1).