Thursday, December 18, 2008

Blog From The Sea Of Cortez - Part Five

The surf was rough again today; the trailing edge of the storm was now affecting the weather about the same way that the leading edge had a couple of days ago. Crashing waves meant it was too hard to safely put the two person kayak into the ocean, so I opted to take my single person Folbot Cooper out into the estuary for some peaceful paddling.

This boat is really ideal – it can easily be carried by a single person, well, a big strong person like me, it has great performance in the water and it’s even easier to put together than the two person Greenland. It’s a bit more of a challenge in terms of handling, acting much more like a traditional sea kayak in terms of speed and stability, but in idle waters, it’s simply a nice boat to float around in.

My Lovely Wife was kind enough to help me carry it around back, and even though I could have easily just thrown it over my shoulder, big strong guy that I am, I welcomed the help knowing full well I’d be lugging it alone on the return trip. I launched into the little side bay that pokes up against the back parking lot, immediately scaring off a couple of Bufflehead that were doing nothing but looking for a morning fish snack.

There is something very special about being out on quiet waters, and quiet is the word for it. Gliding along in complete silence, the only noise being the occasional dip of the paddle into the water is about as good a soul recharger as anyone could ask for. Deep green mangrove forests on both sides, a few egrets sleeping off their night’s feast in the dense thickets, gliding along in peace - words can’t help but come up short in describing just how nice a feeling comes from this.

On a whim, I took an easy left into a small cul de sac and immediately faced a grove full of birds – Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Reddish Egret, an Eared Grebe in the water and in the middle of this was the elusive Roseate Spoonbill, sitting there in its soft pink splendor. I stopped paddling and just glided along, fumbling to get my little camera out of the baggie where I had stowed it in my life vest. I took a few pictures and watched the birds, watching me. One or two of them could not tolerate my proximity and so off they went, squawking in protest. The Spoonbill stayed until the very last moment before launching itself into the air and up and over the grove across the water. The Great Blue let out a harsh yell as if to tell it to ignore me, knowing I would be gone in a moment or two. But the Spoonbill would have none of it and it disappeared over the tree tops, not to be seen again this day. It’s amazing to me how hard such a big and bright bird can be to locate – in this environment they could be ten feet away and you’d paddle right past none the wiser.

I decided to retreat before putting the rest of the birds to flight so I zipped up my camera in its bag and headed back down the inlet.

A large group of Brown Pelicans accompanied by a handful of shorebirds was parked on the sandbar at the mouth of this leg of the bay, the same sandbar we’d crashed into a couple of days ago. This time I took the wide path around, close to the trees where the water is always deeper and escaped without hitting bottom. I passed a couple of men in boats paddling in from the sea side, one riding with his boxer sitting in the front of the cockpit, its chin resting on the combing at the front. We exchanged greetings and I fell in behind them as they headed down water towards the back of the bay.

I’m always a bit leery of other boaters in these parts, especially those with dogs in their kayaks. In general, they don’t seem to care much about the wildlife and think nothing about getting out on a sandbar and walking over towards groups of birds, putting them to flight. It irritates the heck out of me, but these guys were talking about birds as I gathered from eavesdropping and so I followed, figuring they were okay.

Coming out to the intersection of this inlet and the main body of water, I was immediately taken aback by the sight of White Pelicans resting on an emerging mudflat. Over the course of the past few days, our count of them had increased from seven to twenty-eight, a pretty amazing change compared to what we’ve seen in previous years. But this was something completely unprecedented and I purposely grounded my boat to take a moment to count them – seventy-eight, an incredible number for this spot. The other two boaters had realized there was no path around due to the shallow water and so had back tracked and taken the outside route along the groves. I followed and while coming around into the deeper water had a chat with one of them about the birds, where he lived (north of Eureka, California) and the cost of having kids in college in Colorado. I left him once I hit the deep water and headed along the mudflats, stopping again to count the Pelicans – ninety-three once the full flock was in view.

I was now out on open water and paddling into a stiff head wind. That special smell that accompanies estuarine environments that have had significant human intervention made the moment very special, but I paddled on taking in a big flock of Red-breasted Mergansers and another mixed bag of Bufflehead and Scaup. The surface of the water was that same beautiful mix of gray, white and blue that I saw out on the ocean, two days ago. When I reached the midpoint of the bay, I decided to turn around and enjoy the wind from the other direction and so I simply stopped propelling myself forward and allowed the stiff breeze to turn the boat around like a giant wind vane. Once about, the world assumed that wonderful silence you can only get from a direct tail wind.

Heading back, the kayaker I’d been talking to was out of his boat dragging it across the shallows and this put the Pelicans up in the air. I watched as they wheeled around and around, half landing in the water and half assuming a position a bit further up on the mudflat. Nice for me, they were closer and so I stopped paddling and let the wind take me to them.

They were pretty wary, some taking flight and others paddling off as I drifted by. I took some photos, trying my best to move slowly and deliberately in order to not scare them any more than they already were. They were compliant – posing both standing on the mud and paddling in a direct line back to their friends. A few didn’t take well to my presence and took off, landing off in the open water. The others just pulled themselves up to their full height and watched me drift past.

It was now getting late and I decided to start back, choosing to take the long way around the island in the middle of the bay if only to extend my trip by a few more minutes. My idyll came to a quick end though when I ran aground in about 2 inches of water, thus is the incredible flexibility of my Cooper that it can carry my bulk in almost no water at all. I got out and dragged it behind me towards deeper water; a small flock of Willet standing there in the shallows chose only to walk away, obviously feeling little threat from someone dumb enough to have to walk his boat through their neighborhood. I reached the deep stuff – twelve inches at least – hopped back in and was on my way.

I paddled past a group of Double-crested Cormorants, some still in breeding plumage who were not nearly as trusting at the Willets back by my grounding. They went off as I went by.

The silence I had been enjoying ended as soon as I came around the island and came within line of sight of the outlet to the ocean – the pounding of the surf was remarkably loud. It was quite a contrast to come from such a peaceful place to one where nature was having its way. I thought for a few seconds about braving the rough exit out into the sea, but thought better of it as the only peril I faced along my planned path was having to get out and walk, and the associated disapproval of the birds.

There used to be a fish camp here which has now also disappeared along with the oyster farmer mentioned yesterday, the only remnants being some blown down shacks, piles of shells, trash and four barking dogs. We first encountered these canine nuisances a couple of days ago when they stood across the inlet barking at us as we combed the shore for shells at the lowest tide. At the time we wondered how they survived without food or water, yet there they were looking quite healthy and judging by their barking and aggression, feeling well too. Now though, they stood on the strand and barked endlessly as I passed by. Realizing this was too good to be true – I mean, being chased by dogs in a kayak? – I pulled up and egged them on while getting a good look. It appeared as though we had one old mom dog, white muzzled and only capable of barking for a minute before getting hoarse, in league with what was probably a generation or two of offspring. Two of her sons supported her in protecting their range while the third kept running up and trying to interest his siblings in going off and barking at something else. I sat there laughing out loud and barking back at them which only served to tune them up even more. I splashed them with my paddle and they simply closed their eyes and kept on barking. As the breeze was now across my boat, I was slowly inching in closer to the shore which got me thinking what was going to happen when I got really close to them. They figured that out too and started wading into the water, getting closer to the bow. Figuring that barking was bad enough, but actually being attacked was far worse, I put the boat in reverse and backed off a bit. They stopped at chest depth and a couple of more paddle splashes sent them back to dry land.

The tide was continuing to head out and the mud was appearing in more and more places so I went back to my paddling and made my way back down the side bay to the parking lot. Along the way I took some time to drift along and push a Great Egret in front of me for five or ten minutes. It would let me get close, take off and fly ten yards and then settle back in. I watched it as it worked its way in and out of the branches, at one point spearing a small fish and then squeezing the life out of it before swallowing it whole.

A nice day all around, but the highlight had to be the dogs. Buddha continues to put those four legged monsters in the way of my salvation. First, the never ending noise of the dumb German Shepherds in our neighborhood. Second, the yapping lap dogs outside my apartment window in China. Then the endlessly barking dogs in the hills above Da Bei Temple in Haicheng, and now dogs on the beach chasing my kayak. I’m beginning to think that the message is simple – nirvana is just the other side learning to ignore our loud four-footed companions.


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