The Grateful Dead

Kayaking Day 5, November 2, 2018

Another day, another glorious sunrise.

Mario had told us the night before to prepare for an early start and a long day. We would be paddling along a stretch of coast with limited opportunity for landing, so we wasted no time getting on the water. About a mile south of Ensenada la Laguna, we passed a spectacular un-named headland; Mario, on point, followed by Scott:

Barb just behind, in good form, as always.

We were soon upon the small community of Los Dolores and its ruined and abandoned Jusuit mission. I had been looking forward to stopping here since I had neglected to visit the mission in Loreto, the first and oldest on the peninsula, but to my dismay, Mario ruled the beach at Dolores too rough for landing today, so we passed it by.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m going to miss the opportunity to delve into the colonial history that the ruins at Dolores represent:

The first serious European expedition to Baja California was undertaken by the infamous Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortéz, conquerer of the Aztecs, 42 years after Christopher Columbus had made the first recorded landfall in the New World. Others had preceded Cortéz, but failed to return. The settlement established by Cortéz in 1535 foundered and four years later Cortéz commissioned a follow-up expedition to the area to be undertaken by Francisco de Ulloa who had accompanied Cortéz on his earlier voyage. Ulloa established that Baja California was a peninsula, rather than an island as Cortéz had believed, and named the gulf the Sea of Cortez after his patron. Only one of Ulloa’s boats returned from the journey; Ulloa, himself was never heard from again and Cortéz retired from the scene.

For the next 50 years, the Spanish ignored the Baja peninsula and the Sea of Cortez, exploring further north along the (Alta) California coast as far as the modern-day states of Oregon and, possibly, Washington (ie., Strait of Juan de Fuca, the entrance to Puget Sound).

It wasn’t until 1683 that the Spanish once again focused on Baja California, sending Admiral Isidro de Antondo y Antillon, accompanied by Jesuit padre, Eusebio Francisco Kino, to undertake a serious attempt at establishing a colony there, which they did in the vicinity of present-day Loreto. Although they were able to build a fort, church and several other buildings at that location (which they named San Bruno), the settlement was unable to endure. Reporting back upon the demise of the settlement, Antondo and Kino noted that the area was already well-settled by peaceful, friendly natives, likely subjects for Catholic conversion without military intervention. The Spanish treasury, however, was not then in a position to fund further exploration and settlement, so the project was abandoned.

In time, Padre Kino was sent north to reconnoiter Alta California, but not before passing on his passion to establish a mission at San Bruno to another Jesuit missionary, Padre Juan María de Salvatierra. In 1697, Padre Salvatierra was licensed by the Catholic Church to proceed and by the end of that year he had established the Misíon Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó just south of San Bruno at the present-day location of Loreto, the first permanent European settlement in the Californias, thus ushering in the Jesuit missionary period in Baja California.

In the years following the building of the mission at Loreto, the Jesuits established 19 more missions in Baja California, the ninth of which was the one at Dolores, the Misión Nuestra Señora de los Dolores del Sur Chillá, founded in 1721 and abandoned in 1768 when the Jesuits fell out of favor with the Spanish King, were expelled from the Americas, and ordered to return home.

One of my favorite modern-day commentators, George Friedman, has noted:

All religions try to reshape memory, turning what had been noble into something blighted and imposing a new nobility on the old. When the Hebrews conquered the promised land, they obliterated those who were there before them. When Islam surged out of Arabia, it sought to impose its truth on the memories of those it encountered.

And so it was with Catholicism in the Spaniards’ New World.

Six miles south of day’s starting point, we reached the San José Channel between Punta el Cerro (photo below, right) and Isla San José (left). The mainland here, beginning just north of Punta el Cerro, is owned by a nature conservancy, Sociedad de Historia Natural Niparajá. This 18,000-acre stretch of coastline, acquired exclusively for conservation purposes with funds provided by international foundations in 2001 was its first purchase.

Rounding Punta el Cerro, the light reflecting off water made it difficult to see at times and continually interfered with my ability to take photographs. Sunglasses required.

By now, with 45 miles under our belts, we had each established our own unique paddling rhythm, a repetitive twisting of torso to maximize leverage and forward motion. I took note of my own tempo – one stroke per second. At an average speed of 2 mph, I would make this motion more than 100,000 times before trip’s end (I tend to make mental calculations like this; reading Kayaking the Vermillion Sea after the trip, I noted that Jonathan Waterman has this afflication, too).

After this much time in a small boat, essentially sitting on water, I could smell, taste and feel the saltiness and fluidity of life in the wild. It was delicious.

We continued paddling along the rocky shoreline between Punta el Cerro and Punta Alta.

As we rounded Punta Alta, the fisherman settlement of La Cueva came into view.

Lino had stopped to visit old friends at La Cueva, then gone ahead to scout a campsite for us on the thin, stony shore under a ledge at the southern end of a place shown on the charts as Nopoló. Arriving before us, he had already begun unloading the panga…

… then trotted over to help us make our landing, our legs numb and unsteady after two long, 12-mile days in the kayaks.

On shore at Nopoló, we explored the derelict fisherman’s camp on the south end of the beach next to where we had beached the kayaks, while Lino prepared a lunch of tacos with machaca (shredded, dried beef).

Today was “Hump Day;” we had reached the halfway mark having now paddled 5 of our 10 kayaking days. But we had paddled 48 miles, more than half the total distance by water from Agua Verde to Punta Coyote, our take-out point.

Dale and I decided to go for a walk on the rocky beach to explore what looked to be an estuary midway between our camp and a lone fisherman’s house at the north end of the cove.

But it turned out not to be an estuary. The body of water trapped in the valley here has no outlet to the sea and is, consequently, a stagnant and pungent breeding ground for mosquitos that soon descended on us.

We turned around and quickly made our way back to camp to go snorkeling in the cove at the point.

Scott, who had walked the beach before us, suggested that on our return we take the side trail where he had found what appeared to be a dugout, a primitive ancestor to the panga. We followed the trail and found the boat, but didn’t linger, the mosquitos and biting gnats being more than we could endure.

In the afternoon, we all went snorkeling. The water temperature in the Sea of Cortez this time of year is around 75° F. Raised in the cooler waters of the Pacific, Barb and Scott stayed in the water longer than Dale and I could manage. We grew up diving in the more tepid waters of Florida, influenced by the Gulf of Mexico, where any water temperature below 80° F gives us the chills.

In the setting sun later that day, we watched the eclipse of Isla San José across the channel.

Under the lookout of a lone Elephant cactus above us on bluff, we had a one-pot pasta dinner and discussed the fact that our provisions were getting low and that we would need to stop at the village of San Evaristo, 7 miles to the south, to resupply.

But, today was Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and Mario had a surprise for us.

The National Geographic Society describes Día de Muertos this way:

Dia de los Muertos honors the dead with festivals and lively celebrations, a typically Latin American custom that combines indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism, brought to the region by Spanish conquistadores. (Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, minor holidays in the Catholic calendar)….

Dia de los Muertos is actually Dias de los Muertos – the holiday is spread over two days. November 1 is Dia de los Inocentes, honoring children who have died. Graves are decorated with white orchids and baby’s breath. November 2 is Dia de los Muertos, honoring adults, whose graves are decorated with bright orange marigolds.

Having retrieved a potted Marigold from the panga that he had brought along, Mario explained that it is traditional in Mexico to build an ofrenda for Día de Muertos – a small altar to honor deceased relatives – and he invited us to help him to prepare his. He said that the Marigold is one of the essential parts of the ofrenda, its strong scent and vibrant color helping guide the souls of the deceased to the celebration.

Explaining how the ofrenda is to be erected, Mario said it should contain objects symbolizing life’s four elements: water, wind, fire and earth. He then produced a bottle of Tequila for the first (water); tissue paper cut-outs for the second (wind); candles for the third (fire); and, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a type of sweet roll shaped like a bun and topped with sugar, for the last (food, symbolizing earth).

Throughout the trip, Mario was a constant source of Baja lore and legend. Although not a Baja native, his ancient soul undoubtedly has a connection to this place, engendering in Mario the desire to preserve and share his adopted land. At dinner, he told us about his efforts to start and run a non-profit organization, FISA-AC, dedicated to educating the youth of La Paz about the environment and encouraging them to share that knowledge by becoming guides and stewards of Baja California Sur.

Undoubtedly, the Dead are grateful for Mario’s efforts, and so are the Living.

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