Paddle to Isla Coronado

By Graham Mackintosh

The cone-shape volcano at the north end of Smith Island, or Isla Coronado, is a familiar sight for visitors to Bahía de los Ángeles. I’d been around the five mile-long island several times by boat enjoying multiple finback whale encounters, but I’d never set foot on the island.

I planned to put that right, paddling out there on my sit-on-top Cobra Fish n’ Dive kayak and camping for a few days. The island, like all the islands in the Gulf of California, is protected and one needs a permit to be out there. I paid a visit to the “Islas del Golfo de California” Biosphere Reserve office on the main street in town. Normally, one pays for a permit for $4 or $5 US a day. But I had an annual pass, a credit card sized “pasaporte” that covers all the national parks and protected area in Mexico—it costs about $20 US and, as well as money, saves a lot of messing with registration and wrist bands.

Kayaking Smith Island Graham Mackintosh collage

At my request the office staff provided the wind and weather forecast for the days I’d be out there. I’d already consulted two other online forecasts. They were all in agreement. I planned on heading out Saturday, April 27 when winds should be moderate, as they should still be for most of that Sunday, but Sunday night through Monday the winds were forecast to be strong and westerly. By Tuesday, April 30 it should have calmed down enough to allow me to paddle back to the peninsula and make my way to my point of departure a mile south of town.

I took comfort from the concurring forecasts, but I never totally trust weather forecasts in the Bahía de los Ángeles area; experience has taught me that there can be huge disparities in conditions just a mile or two apart. And west wind conditions can be particularly unpredictable and dangerous for boaters and kayakers.

So I set off Saturday morning for La Gringa which would be my point of departure for the island. The two-mile crossing would be sobering. I was prepared to spend the night at La Gringa and head over on Sunday if necessary.

By the time I got to La Gringa, the winds were already coming from every direction but that forecast, and vacillating from almost calm to surprisingly strong.

For safety, I had a SPOT satellite device and a VHF marine radio instantly at hand on the deck. After sitting in my kayak five minutes off Punta La Gringa looking across at the Island I decided to go for it, heading for a low point about three-quarters the way down the island which would give me access to a sheltered lagoon.

Crossing an open body of water always makes me a little nervous. My overloaded kayak was more suitable for coast running—I’d paddled it from Bahía Gonzaga to La Paz mainly by keeping less than 200 yards from shore and watching continuously for any sign of an incipient blow.

After half an hour of hard paddling I started to relax as I approached the island and the lagoon which is hard to spot from the water.

It was almost flat calm as I entered. At low tide the entrance was narrow and shallow. But inside, the lagoon opened up and seemed to reach to the other side of the island. The number of large bat rays in the water got my attention. When I checked out a sandy campsite at the lagoon’s head I saw it was also on a beach in a lovely sheltered bay facing Guardian Angel Island. Perfect. Even though the lagoon didn’t completely bisect Smith Island, I liked having options. I could easily launch my kayak in either direction.

It was a warm, calm, “shorts” evening with just enough breeze to keep the bugs away. I enjoyed lovely views east across the Canal de las Ballenas, and west, back through the lagoon to “mainland” Baja.

I slept soundly and uninterrupted in my tent. I’d forgotten to ask the island office staff if there were any coyotes on the island, so I secured my kayak and gear as if there were. However, I didn’t see a sign of coyotes while out there.

Next morning was also delightful. I watched the rich morning light falling warm and colorful on the mountains of the peninsula. A busy reddish egret chased small fish in the shallows of the lagoon.

It was so peaceful and there was so much to see and do I would gladly have stayed there every day I was on the island. But I decided to move on because there was no shade, and I was mindful that the next day strong winds would come sweeping through that low point across the lagoon.

After breakfast, I paddled back out the lagoon and continued exploring the beautiful, rugged west side of Isla Coronado looking for a more protected spot. There were several fine beaches between the cliffs. I enjoyed the calls and the company of ospreys and oyster catchers, and was amazed by the number of eared grebes, or diving ducks. It was great to be getting a superb workout and be free of motor noise and fumes.

I toyed with the idea of climbing the island’s volcano if the next day was too windy to paddle. The views would be spectacular. But by Sunday afternoon when I considered camping on a beach at its base it was already blowing hard enough to make me think a climb was out of the questions. I would need to remain close to my kayak and campsite.

I set up camp in a delightful small canyon on a mixture of sand and gravel. It offered shelter from everything but the wildest, full-on, west wind… and deep recesses in the nearby cliffs offered day-long shade.

Kayaking Smith Island Graham Mackintosh collage

As I explored nearby beaches, there was no doubt a storm was about to hit. Fast moving belts of fog moved across the island and out in the channel. Clouds gathered. It was soon dark and ominous above the peninsula, and the wind came stronger from the west. By sundown, increasingly mindful it might rain, especially when I saw lightning flashes above the peninsula mountains to the west, I put the rainfly on the tent.

Trying to sleep I was increasingly buffeted as the night wore on. I slept off and on wondering how bad a storm this would be.

It was bad. There was no escaping the wind which did come blasting as a “full-on, west wind.”

Next morning, gusts came sweeping across the sea and howled into my campsite. Concerned the tent might blow away or be ripped apart, I dropped it to the ground and loaded dozens of stones and pieces of heavy wood on top. I placed the kayak broadside in front of it to give added protection. But that didn’t work. The kayak was being blown toward the tent. I had to face it into the wind to stop it moving.

A short hike on top of the cliffs made me glad I wasn’t attempting to climb the steep 1500-foot volcano—I could barely stay upright.

By nightfall I tried to erect the tent properly but gave up and just crawled inside the wildly flapping “body” bag. At least it would keep the mice and the scorpions off. During a lull an hour later I emerged and got the tent poles in place. No pegs would hold. With the tent being continuously tugged and violently snapped I rolled over to the door side and got what sleep I could, using my body weight to hold it down.

Supposedly the wind would ease in the night and be moderate by morning. I hoped so, but I began to imagine the “what if” the wind blew for days. I hadn’t seen anyone on the island or even close to it. I began to wish I’d brought more water. Normally I kayak with a hand pump desalinator, but I’d left it thinking it unnecessary if I take four gallons of water and several beers and sodas. The water I carried was finite. To make it last, there’d be no more tea and coffee, and I’d be cutting down on what I ate.

Mercifully, the wind did ease in the night and by Tuesday morning I was packing and loading, ready to face the passage back. There’d be a bit of a headwind but I was motivated. I paddled south for a while, staying close to the island, getting a sense of the conditions and ready to run into the lagoon if necessary.

Then I decided to go for it and “sprint” back over to the peninsula. Head down I paddled non-stop. It was blue and clear above me but I did notice a huge dust cloud covering the south end of the bay, and hoped that didn’t portend violent weather soon to hit.

What I most feared however, especially as I approached the peninsula, was finding the headwind too much to paddle against and being forced to return to the island.

Forty minutes of hard paddling and I was safely over, rounding Punta La Gringa. When I headed out there were about six vehicles at La Gringa. Now it looked deserted. No doubt the wind had driven all the campers away.

From La Gringa I worked my way seven or eight miles south towards town. I followed close to shore back past the military base and all the familiar hotels, homes, and camping areas. The wind had shifted to the east, occasionally sending waves of warm water in my lap. I hardly even noticed. I was ecstatic… knowing I could pick up drinking water if necessary.

My last rest stop was in the calm waters inside the sand spit at the lighthouse at Punta Arenas. Then I ran with the wind back to where I’d set out from, south of town, four days and about 30 miles earlier.

As incredible as Smith Island was, I was going to really appreciate having a house securely around me, a nice shower, and a good night’s sleep.


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