Saturday, February 15, 2014

Return to the Island in the Sea

I decided that I had to go back to the island. My little landfall on the tiny beach at the base of the cliffs was satisfying enough two days ago, but not enough to allow me to abandon my dream of walking on the top surface. I knew the approach would be from the far side -  the steep rocky beach that I'd come close to before but couldn't fathom a way to land the boat. I decided I'd paddle out there, brave the submerged reefs and figure it out when I had to. No point in planning it, I simply lacked enough data to do anything but worry needlessly.

The plot on Google Earth said it would be close to 2 miles. I packed a bottle of water, being recently informed of its necessity by watching Robert Redford's recent movie All is Lost on the way back from Paris. He survived by building a makeshift condenser, I didn't have the materials or the time so better to plan than have to improvise. I took the time to install and inflate the sponsons, two triangular air bags, one fore and one aft that use their air volume to displace any water that gets in the boat. If I did tear a hole in my hull, the boat would be swamped but would not sink. In this case I thought a bit of prevention was worth 10 minutes of being hyperventilated from filling them up.

Gear ready, sunscreen applied, I started out.



The water was not that friendly, there was a stiff onshore breeze and the surface was that oily kind of chop that makes you think you're paddling in mercury instead of water. Two or three crabbers were out tending their traps, and sea birds were bobbing and diving on both sides of me. 

Paddling on the open sea is an interesting mind game. You set a point on the horizon and paddle away, correcting as necessary. Even something as big as an island seems to remain the same size despite your effort and the time that's passing. Your best indication that you're closing in to a guano island though is the smell. Which is pretty unpleasant, like the rankest public latrine in a Beijing hutong on a hot August afternoon. The breeze helps a bit, but that acrid smell settles in the back of your throat and stays there for the duration of your approach.

Getting in close, I could see hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants roosting on the lee side. Years ago this island used to be covered from end to end every night by birds coming in to their nighttime roost. For a long time though it was empty, and only in the last few years have they returned. It was nice to see, Nature clawing its way back just a bit. 

I decided to approach the island in a counter-clockwise direction, and had to pick between rounding a small sea stack or going between it and the island itself. I chose the former, figuring it was the safer route and consistent with why I was taking the longer way around - I knew from experience that the clockwise route meant dodging a lot of submerged rocks.
Coming around I watched an Osprey sitting on the cliff edge staring into the water below, hoping something edible would swim by. Having made the corner unscathed I had time to plan my approach. Unlike the front side beach, this one was all agates and tiered in a couple of different levels. I considered my options and steered towards what seemed to be the least steep section, away from some jagged rocks. I came in slow and inside of plowing straight ahead I turned slightly to the right and let the surf bring the side of the boat up against the lowest level. And miraculously I stopped without getting pitched out. It wasn't easy to push myself up and straddle the boat while it was bobbing in the surf but I got my legs out and thankfully the water was shallow enough to allow me to stand. Agate beaches are hard to walk on and it was a bit of a struggle to haul the boat up a plane of moving stones, but I got it up and out of the water and stowed the paddle. I was there!




The smell wasn't as bad as I expected, probably because of the breeze. The place was desolate, covered with dead vegetation (no doubt due to the nitrogen levels in the soil) and every single rock was white - covered in dry sandy guano. A rough path climbed up to the summit from the beach so took off on the brief climb. At the top there was a white cross, similar to the descansos you see along the highways, commemorating someone's death on the road. Someone had left a bouquet of fake pink flowers. The color was shocking in this almost monochrome place. The view though was spectacular, back to the Condominios in one direction, Tetakawi in the other. Yellow-footed Gulls wheeled overhead, clearly unhappy at my visit. I reached the top and spooked the Cormorants, the whole flock waddled down the slope and took flight off across the bay. I felt bad, I'd hoped to avoid putting them up. But you could see that look of terror in their faces at finding an interloper coming up behind them. I took a few photos and enjoyed the vista. Heading back down the hill I stopped and build a small cairn, a non-destructive record of my short visit.





Small as it is, it didn't really offer much of an opportunity for extended exploration so I walked to the far side and then returned to the boat. Getting it back in the ocean was actually easier than getting it out and I was underway almost instantly. Before leaving though I reached down and grabbed on shiny rock to bring back as a memento. I took few more photos from the boat and spent way too much time fiddling with my gloves before getting serious about avoiding the rocks. I gave the sea stack a wide berth and headed back the way I'd come.


About halfway back I spotted a couple of kayaks approaching. I said "Good morning" as the close one came across my path and he responded in Spanish. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised being in Mexico but I was. We exchanged formalities and he said something I couldn't quite hear so I told him I only speak a little. He smiled and gave me a funny look so I went on, passing his friend in the next few yards. When he closed in, I nodded at him and while he stared, he didn't respond which I found odd. Until it dawned on me - pirates! Now that conclusion might have come from the other movie I watched on my last plane trip, Captain Philips, but the vibe in the air was weird enough that I thought I might be about to be mugged. How that could happen on the open sea was beyond me, but having decided I was pretty far from shore I metaphorically put the pedal down and decided to be an Olympic kayak contestant, at least for as long as I could hold it up. 

I set a track and applied my shoulder muscles and got up a good head of steam. Lacking a rearview mirror, I couldn't be sure if they were closing in or not. My halfway glances suggested that something was there at my 6 o'clock but I didn't want to let up on my speed to check. When I got within a safer distance of the shore I slowed down and took a look back - no one there, I'd probably been seeing the island in my peripheral vision. I took the rest of the trip easy, stopping to talk with a fellow about the benefits of folding kayaks and enjoying the pod of Dolphins that he had been chasing with some friends.

All in all a big day for me. I've stared at that island for more 20 years and vowed time and time again that one day I would land on it. I've come close on 3 or 4 occasions, only to be turned back by the seas or being in the wrong boat. Today the conditions lined up and one more thing is now checked off my "to do" list.





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