Friday, April 13, 2018

Baja 2018 - Part One

Bahia de Gonzaga

Frank and Laurelle crossed off another "bucket list" item this year: Baja road trip!

Frank and "Truckamo" at Punta Cabras
We had both been to Baja California before, but not together. This time we shared visions of an adventure together in our trusty truck/camper rig, "Truckamo," which has been our home on several long-distance trips.

Frank's priority was checking out surf spots he had long dreamed of surfing. Laurelle's priority was exploring Baja's unique natural environment: the geology, the flora and the fauna of the southernmost reaches of the Sonoran desert.

Along the way we criss-crossed the peninsula, which is approximately 760 miles (1220 km) long and 25 to 150 miles (40 to 240 km) wide, depending on where you are. 

We explored the Pacific and Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) coastlines, went whale watching, did some hiking and visited friends.

Sunrise Bahia de Los Angeles
Click on this interactive map of Baja to find many of the places I'll be mentioning in this blog post.

Baja is a long skinny peninsula, so you're never far from a beach. In fact, you can wake to the sun rising over the Sea of Cortez, drive a few hours, and later that day watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.

Sunset Laguna de San Ignacio
Traveling in February, we encountered many cool, windy and even a few rainy days. At times the wind was so strong that we just hung out in the camper. At night we became accustomed to the sound of the pop top shuddering in the gusts. And, entering or exiting the camper, we learned to open the door cautiously and hang on tight before the wind slammed it open or closed.

Bahia de Los Angeles

Our first stop on the Sea of Cortez was Bahia de Los Angeles. I'll let the photos speak for themselves.
We stopped to take in the view over Bahia de Los Angeles at a spot where crows and vultures were riding the thermals. We stayed the night at an eco camp called Archelon (among the white specks on the shoreline) which was once a sea turtle research station.
Breakfast view Bahia de Los Angeles

Surf Camp at "The Wall"

We drove a long way on a marginal dirt road to get to The Wall - Punta Rosarito - a Pacific surf spot known for the quality of its peeling waves.
We saw ospreys nearly everywhere we went in Baja.
This one we encountered on the drive out to The Wall.
Frank took this shot out leaning out the window.
Laurelle shot this picture
through the dirty windshield
as the osprey flew away with its fish.

The water was about 20 feet from our door
 at high tide. You can just make out Frank
paddling for a wave in the center of the photo.

Our campsite at The Wall
Although the waves were not exactly "epic" during either of our stays at The Wall, Frank had some satisfying surf sessions. He also bonded with the other dozen-or-so other surfers camped nearby, and got extra points for playing guitar and singing at a Friday night campfire party. Frank plans to return to The Wall in a different season to see what it's like on a bigger swell.

Punta Conejo

Punta Conejo is another remote, hard-to-get-to beach on the Pacific coast. A bumpy dirt road leads to a ranch and a rag-tag fishing camp consisting of about 20 shacks. A beacon flashes at night from the point, and surfers camp among the dunes and surf - some of them staying for weeks at a time. 
Punta Conejo

It turns out that Laurelle is not a huge fan of wild camping at remote beaches, but she enjoyed the stay at Punta Conejo more than at The Wall for a few reasons: the wind was a little less brutal; there was less visible impact from prior campers - perhaps due to the presence of a not-too-scary open-air outhouse; and the beach, being sandy rather than cobbles, was highly walkable.
There are some interesting sandstone formations
about an hour's walk south of Punta Conejo.

San Ignacio

Although dominated by coastline, our trip was not entirely about beaches. Smack in the middle of the sere Vizcaino Desert is the lovely mission town of San Ignacio, inhabited for centuries thanks to a fresh water oasis called Kadakaaman (arroyo of the reeds) by the Cochimi natives.
San Ignacio palm oasis

San Ignacio is also notable for its Jesuit mission founded in 1728, the 11th Spanish mission in the Californias. 

The town is the jumping-off point for adventurers seeking a guided trek to the ancient cave murals of the Sierra de San Francisco, or to see the grey whales in the Laguna de San Ignacio.

Mission San Ignacio de Kadakaaman

Whale watching at Laguna de San Ignacio

Crossing the salt flats
Grey whales make one of the longest migrations of any mammal on Earth. Every year they swim more than 10,000 miles round trip between their winter nursery lagoons of Baja California and the cold waters of the Arctic where they feed in the summer.

The road is now paved for about half the distance from town to the whale watching eco camps of San Ignacio Lagoon. First you pass palm oases with ranch houses and small settlements, then the road drops down and crosses the salt flats.

A salt evaporation pond

Antonio's Eco Tours was our host, which is among a handful of licensed outfitters on the lagoon, part of the larger Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve (click for map). All the outfitters offer basic accommodations and guided tours of the lagoon for to observe grey whale mothers and babies in a protected zone.

We parked for the night at the eco camp in order to be ready for the panga's departure at 9 a.m. the next day.
Pangas coming to shore

The tour was ~2 hours long, with probably 20 minutes each way spent motoring to the outer lagoon where boats are allowed to linger.

Getting the panga ready for boarding

According to the weekly count by the biologist observers, there were about 120 whales in the lagoon that day. Spouts were visible all around us, and several came close to our panga.

For unknown reasons, some whales who winter in San Ignacio Lagoon will approach boats and even allow themselves to be touched. Although we didn't experience the thrill of touching a whale, another boat nearby was so fortunate, much to the delight of its passengers.

Our boat did, however, observe three adult whales in the act of copulation (much to the delight and shouts of "cola, cola" from our skipper and our student interpreter), another important grey whale activity among those females not already pregnant. Our tour took place on the day before Valentine's Day, resulting in many jokes in both Spanish and English regarding whale amor.

Cola! Cola!

Tune in next week for the next installment of Frank & Laurelle's Excellent Adventure in Baja (Baja 2018 - Part Two)!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Summer memories: Ross Lake by kayak

I was reminded recently (at Christmastime) about last August's five-day exploration of Ross Lake, and why hadn't I posted anything about it on my blog?
Yours truly approaching Green Point with the Colonial Glacier basin and surrounding peaks above.
Well, the reason is simple: For the second summer in a row, our lives were interrupted by wildfires, which were already wreaking havoc in the area as we rolled back into the valley from our vacation. News reporting duties, an evacuation and a power outage took precedence, and I never got around to sharing our memorable lake adventure.

Ross Lake is a 23-mile-long reservoir within North Cascades National Park. It fills the glacially carved upper Skagit River valley, which was flooded after Ross Dam was completed in 1949. The Canadian border crosses the lake about 20 miles north of the dam. The only road to the lake is accessed from Hope, British Columbia.

"What?" you ask, "There's no road access to the lake in Washington state?" It's true. To access Ross Lake on our side of the border, you must either hike in from several trails in the national park -- the most direct being the Ross Lake Resort trail off Highway 20 -- or boat in from Diablo Lake and pay the resort to portage you and your gear over Ross Dam.

Until last year, my experience of Ross Lake had been limited to views from highway pullouts more than 700 feet above the water. Friends' stories of boating and backpacking trips in the area did not prepare me for the wondrous possibilities of discovery, adventure, and natural beauty on Ross Lake.

Diablo Lake: the beginning and end of the adventure.
Prior to the trip we talked to friends, looked at maps, read trip reports online, and looked at the North Cascades National Park website, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife website, and the Ross Lake Resort website. We planned to paddle no more than four hours per day, having learned that wind is often a problem for boaters in the afternoon, and we noted our preferred campsites accordingly: Night 1, Cougar Island; Night 2 & 3, Lightning Creek; Night 4, Big Beaver.
The morning before our departure we were at the Winthrop ranger station at 8 a.m. sharp, where the officer on duty called over to the national park office and was able to reserve our preferred campsites for the nights we requested. We found out later that other parties had been unsuccessful in getting reservations at the Marblemount ranger station on the morning of their planned departure, so they were forced to delay their trip by a day.

Thursday morning, August 13, we drove west on Hwy. 20 over Washington Pass to Colonial Creek campground on Diablo Lake: 60 miles from our home. We had the boats off the car and loaded in no time. We were on the water by 9:30 a.m.

We paddled 3 miles on the famously turquoise water of Diablo Lake and through the narrow river gorge up to the floating park service dock near the foot of the dam. A telephone in a wooden box instructed us to call for shuttle service, which we did. With some effort we muscled the kayaks up the gangway and onto the bank above, and within minutes a flatbed truck crept down the steep service road in low gear.

The driver helped load our boats onto the flatbed and we scrambled up onto bench seats, each steadying a boat with one hand as the truck lurched up the switchbacky gravel road, 520 feet over the dam and back down 120 feet to the level of Ross Lake. We were surprised to see a man and woman carrying their loaded canoe, on foot, up the same mile-long incline. They saved $20, but we heard later that they had to stop every 10 steps, put down the boat, and rest before taking the next 10 steps.

Once over the dam we launched again and headed for our first night's camp on Cougar Island, where we landed around 1 p.m. As predicted, the wind began to blow steadily out of the south, and we were glad to be off the water. It was a hot afternoon -- in the low 90s -- and increasingly smoky from the Wolverine Fire on Lake Chelan, 35 miles away as the crow flies, so we did the only logical thing: jumped in the clear warm water for an exploratory swim around the island.

Paddling into the submerged mouth of Lightning Creek. Several flooded creek canyons invite exploration.
Now, I won't bore you with every excruciating detail of our trip, but a few points deserve mention:

  • A dramatic thunderstorm on Day 2 forced us off the lake early due to wind, waves and lightning, so we felt justified in making camp early at Dry Creek, from which we watched several dramatic beach landings by other boating parties. We found out later that the same storm traveled eastward across the mountains, sparking the Okanogan Complex Fires.
  • We paddled into Lightning Creek camp on Day 3, in the rain, where two brothers invited us to share their tarp-sheltered picnic table. Note to self: pack a portable shelter next time.
  • We took a side trip around Cat Island, where we talked to a boatload of Park Service firefighters who were keeping an eye on a lightning-caused fire above the remote west shore of Ross Lake.

Mergansers on Cat Island didn't seem to mind the rain. Loon calls echoed across the lake at dusk.
Devil's Creek -- my favorite place -- merited two separate explorations, on the way up lake as well as on the return trip.
  • A short hike up the Big Beaver Trail took us along silt-clouded Big Beaver Creek and into an ancient grove of enormous red cedars.
  • We docked at Ross Lake Resort on the return trip in order to walk around and check out its charming floating cabins. Must be reserved a year in advance, but it would be so fun to rent a cabin with a group of friends!
The trip was a delight. We have already begun talking about a repeat visit this summer (2016), hopefully with our pals Lisa and Garrett, with whom we backpacked part of the John Muir Trail two summers ago. They'll be able to rent a nice double kayak at Ross Lake Resort and -- who knows? -- maybe we'll rent a boat too and skip the portage over the dam next time.
Frank approaches Cougar Island from the north on the final morning of the trip.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Death Valley detour

A happy couple take in the breathtaking view from Zabriskie Point.
Note the rare sight of water on the valley floor below the Panamint Range.

Morning light in Golden Canyon

In mid-November, Frank and I took a little detour off US Highway 395 in order to drive through part of Death Valley National Park. I had always wanted to visit there, so, since our itinerary was fairly loose, we hung a left at Lone Pine and drove east toward the Panamint Valley.

Prior to our visit, I had heard about flood damage in the area from what officials are calling a "one-thousand-year rainfall event" that had occurred a month earlier (video footage of the floods may be viewed here). So we weren't surprised to hear that road closures were going to make a good portion of the park - Scotty's Castle, the area south of Badwater, and Artists Drive for starters - inaccessible to us.

But the area is vast, and since we were only going to spend one night in the park, we decided to get a campsite at Furnace Creek and explore the nearby Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch loop trail the next morning.

Here are some images from our early morning walk in the canyon:

Flowing water over the eons sculpted these canyons in what is the hottest, driest part of North America. And evidence of the most-recent water event is preserved in mud - at least until the next rainfall washes it away.

The sublime quiet of the Mojave Desert paired with the majesty of its geology made me a very happy girl indeed!

Monday, March 23, 2015

A lovely Kauai sojourn

Frank captured the iconic Hanalei pier gilded by the early-morning sun.
Frank and I just returned from a much-needed holiday on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Our vacation spanned the first 18 days of March, and was marked by stormy weather, outdoor adventures and rich cultural experiences.
My new best friend is Petie, an Eclectus parrot.
Luckily for us, our trip dates coordinated with the vacation of Frank's old friend, Ted Hackie, who lives in the community of Princeville, Kauai, with his wife, Josephine. Ted and Josephine were due for a rare trip to the mainland, and were happy to have us stay in their house in exchange for pet care while they were gone.

We were in charge of Petie, a bossy but entertaining Eclectus parrot; Kola, a sweet and smart cream-colored golden retriever; and Kitty Boy, a low-maintenance ragdoll cat. I don't have any images of Kitty Boy, but you can watch a short video clip of the dog-and-bird game.
Petie gives me a kiss.

So, we had use of a comfortable and conveniently located house, a "local's" car (better, in our opinion, than a rental), a variety of recreational toys, and 2 ½ weeks of unscheduled time. What better?!! Adventure ho!

Paddling the Wailua River
One day we paddled Ted's sit-on-top kayak up the Wailua River, stopping for a hike through the jungle to Secret Falls (a bit of a misnomer, but nice), a visit to Fern Grotto (meh), to the upper reaches of the Wailua's paddle-able waters.

Another day we drove three-quarters of the way around the island to Kekaha, where Frank surfed a swell that traveled to us from the South Pacific. Brilliant sunshine and strong offshore winds produced some stunning ocean images.
Kekaha Beach with the island of Niihau barely visible on the left.
Kekaha Beach
Hula students in Hanapepe
On the way home from Kekaha we stopped in the historic town of Hanapepe for its Friday evening art walk, where we nibbled our way through the excellent food vendors, and watched some young hula dancers practicing on the lawn. Hanapepe has retained the Old-West look of a sugar plantation town, while the local economic alliance has encouraged artists, craftspeople and value-added producers like Anahola Granola and Lappert's Ice Cream, to set up shop there.

The famous and photogenic Queen's Bath is just a five-minute walk from Ted's house. Signs are everywhere warning visitors about dangerous surf conditions and rogue waves that will wash people out to sea, yet every year several numbskulls are killed there.
Queen's Bath
Laurelle at Queen's Bath
Frank at Queen's Bath

We hiked the first section of the Kalalau Trail on the roadless Na Pali Coast, stopping at wind-swept Hanakapi'ai Beach and turning up the Hanakapi'ai Valley to the stunning 100-foot falls, where fairy-like white-tailed tropic birds circled before the vertical basalt cliff faces.
Frank and Laurelle on the Kalalau Trail
Hanakapi'ai Falls
On the beach at Hanakapi'ai
Other birds we were pleased to view (but didn't photograph), most of which are not "loggable" in our Sibley app, include the Laysan albatross, red-tailed tropicbird, red-footed booby, and great frigatebird - all at the Kilauea Lighthouse National Wildlife Refuge, a breathtaking spot and the northernmost point of the main Hawaiian Islands. In the wet taro fields around Hanalei we saw the endemic nene goose, the Hawaiian moorhen, also endemic, and the endemic Hawaiian stilt. We encountered the friendly little 'elepaio, a wren-like forest bird, on more than one hike, as well as two kinds of introduced cardinals, several species of doves, cattle egrets and of course, the ubiquitous red junglefowl (aka chickens).
I say goodbye at the airport with a Blue Hawaiian.

Cacao pods (red) growing along with the vanilla orchid
Poi making in Waipa
Two of the major highlights of our Kauai visit were cultural experiences: poi making with a community group dedicated to furthering Hawaiian culture, and a "tour de chocolate," which covered the basics of growing cacao and turning it into chocolate. I have so much to say about those two activities that I'm going to address them in a second blog post: Stay tuned, more to come.