Magical Sea Cave

_DSF7623 (1)

Part of upcoming story written for SIDETRACKED magazine

After five hours of smooth paddling, a couple of dolphin pod encounters, and several mobula ray breaches, I rounded the north end of the island and started looking for my next campsite. San Marcos, an island in the Gulf of California, off the Baja Peninsula’s Santa Rosalia, has plenty of beaches where I could land. Inexplicably, as I was paddling toward a desirable looking spot, my attention was pulled to the end of a giant rock formation where a tiny beach on the side of it was partially exposed. At first glance, there was no justification for me to explore this beach. It didn’t even look big enough for a camping site, but a little voice inside my head kept whispering that it might be something special. As a longtime solo traveler, I have learned the value of gut feelings, about the importance of listening to the intangible, about believing and accepting the signs when the world speaks to us. So without much mental resistance, I shifted my weight and edged the kayak on its right side, stroked hard with my paddle, and turned left. Little did I know what treasures lay just ahead.

_DSF7179 (1)

Gliding around the edge of the rock formation, my first glimpse of the hidden beauty behind it came at the very last moment when the tip of my kayak reached the beach. The back side of the rock revealed itself to be a remnant of a sea cave, a sort of half-shell amphitheater that faced the beach and sheltered a tiny lagoon filled with water that flowed in from the sea through a small porthole in the back of the cave. At the center of the lagoon, where the half-cave’s roof gave way to the sky, was a boulder surrounded by water at high tide. The boulder acted as a focal point, collecting the energy that seemed to bounce from every angle of the cave’s walls. The force was seriously strong in this place. No wonder it had called me, pulling me away from my trajectory. This cave was like a magical giant planet with its own gravity. Perhaps a portal to another world? My stay there would lead me to believe that yes, indeed it was.

_DSF7504 (1)

After setting up camp on the beach, I put on my fins, snorkel, and wetsuit, grabbed my spear gun, and went fishing. Stepping into the water, I walked knee-deep into the lagoon toward the porthole. I took a deep breath, dove, swam out into the sea, and entered a world full of fish and wonders. An hour later I was back with my meal, a large smile on my face and a blue mind of enchantment that comes from being in the water. I was at peace after spending so many minutes holding my breath, 20 feet deep, mesmerised by the life swimming around me.

At day’s end, the wind was nowhere to be seen or heard. Everything was quiet; even the birds that had so far chirped without a break. The gulls stood in silence, each balancing on one leg on the rock and on the beach. A deep stillness permeated the air, as if time had slowed down. It was similar to the excited feeling I get before something grand happens, in that precise moment before the show starts, before the curtain rises, when everybody stops and directs their attention to the stage, waiting for the magic to appear. I felt my attention drawn to the middle of the cave, onto that boulder surrounded by water. I walked to a rock near the beach, faced the cave, and sat. Taking a deep breath, I felt my energy spreading outward. Interestingly, it didn’t feel like my energy was escaping, but instead stretching far and connecting with every other molecule that surrounded me—the rocks, the animals, the water, the wind. Closing my eyes I could see the giant web that was being formed. It reminded me of the neural patterns in the brain, the filaments that stretch in all directions, connecting, transmitting, unifying, constantly evolving.

_DSF7303 (1)

As if on cue, two things happened at once. The small cave entrance that squeezed between the water and the rock lit up with a burning glow like a mini-sun, radiating with such intensity that for a second I had to cover my eyes. The sunbeam was in perfect alignment with the arched porthole, and the water acted as a giant reflector, focusing the light into one small opening and blasting it to the other side. It was as if I was
witnessing the birth of a star.

The tide had reached a height where even a little ripple, the tiniest of movements on the surface of the water, pushed enough air through the cave’s hollows to create a gurgling sound that felt like an ancient language. The spirit of the cave was talking. This elder of ancient times had awakened and was sharing its wisdom. It was a privilege being here amongst the birds, the rocks, the water, and the wind. But unlike the powerful things that surrounded me, I was only a guest, a passerby, someone whose species has disconnected from the magical thousands of years ago and has since stopped seeing what is now un-seeable.

At this moment, in this place, I was the one who felt primitive, simple, lacking depth and unable to understand the grandeur and connectivity of the universe, of life. Staring at the water, listening to the cave, feeling the silence around and in me, I realised that it was our species that needed saving, not the other way around. My eyes were not seeing a world where humans were the chosen ones and stewards of this planet, but rather that we were the ones who needed to be brought back home, from the darkness, returned to a world of love, compassion, and humility.

The serenity of this place convinced me to extend my stay—certainly not one of my hardest decisions. For another day I fished, read, relaxed, listened, and soaked in the energy that was offered to me. The following morning, after packing and tucking myself into the kayak, I took one last moment to reflect. Dipping my hands in the water and closing my eyes, I thanked the cave and promised to return—but I would bring others so they too can know its marvels.

_DSF7419 (1)

The Power of the Voice

The black bear stood tall, mounted on his hind legs, only 15 feet away from me. Its nose was covered with long grey hair, some remnants of a deer carcass it was just feeding on. Its front paw claws hung in front of him while the ones on its back paws were firmly dug into the ground. Its nostrils grew larger, then smaller, with a rhythm, inhaling the air with vigor, deciphering what the emptiness around us hold secret. Its fur was wet and looked heavy and scrubby – the weight of winter hibernation still buried deep into him. Our eyes, these marvels of evolution, so similar to each other despite belonging to such distinct species, were locked and engaged into a staring contest. As if on cue, the birds stopped chirping and the forest became silent. Just a slight cold breeze bristling the needles of Pacific Northwest conifers. In some distant corner of my memory, these iconic musical notes for a duel in a Western movie were coming out of the closet.

_MG_7539

I had left Telegraph Cove earlier that day. The tiny historical village was located at the north end of Vancouver Island, about 6 hours from Victoria. I had paddled south for about 5 miles and set up camp. The plan was to spend the night there then cross Johnstone Strait the next day, visit the famous Orca Lab and circumnavigate Hanson Island. With the tent up and food hoisted up in a tree, I grabbed the camera and went on a hike to investigate the area.

No more than 20 minutes had passed when I heard a sort of crunching noise, somewhere not far, over to my right, through the thick green canopy. The sound puzzled me. My hearing over the years has become attuned to strange things, the wilderness is always full of weird melodies, but this in particular was forcing me to search my repertoire of possibilities.

With binoculars in hand, I crouched and moved forward, slowly and silently, like a lion stalking its prey. My blood started to rush, my pupils dilated and my senses became super sensitive. My ancestral hunting mode had just turned itself on. I was aware of everything – the ground beneath me, the air around me, the trees surrounding me. Every step became a thoughtful process, assessing the sturdiness of leaves and branches, before I delicately lay my foot or hand over. When I photograph an animal, I make a point of not hiding, but this was different. I didn’t know what was on the other side of the curtain and before I announce myself I wanted to know what or who was there.

Inching my way closer to the source, a change in the pattern emerged. What was supposed to be green, now was black. It took only a fraction of a second to realize what it was – a black bear. But what was it doing? It was not really moving. It fact it was in one spot, its head low and slightly moving upward from time to time. Its body was mostly stationary and its focus was concentrated on what seemed to be one single task. But what was it? On the ground around was nothing in particular and yet, through my binoculars, the bear seemed to be tearing something from something else! I still remember the thoughts running through my mind – what is it that this bear is doing? It was certainly not digging. There was really no sign of a carcass, no bones sticking out, there was really nothing that would give me any clue. So I inched my way closer.

At this point, having identified the culprit, the hunter in me subdued itself and the photographer in me rose. So I took a branch with my two hands and broke it. The cracking sound reverberated through the air and the bear abruptly stopped, its ears aiming on me. Its eyes locked on my position and without any hesitation, it interrupted itself and started walking towards me. At that moment, I took my camera out, took a deep breath and connected with the inner power within me, from a species that has evolved and successfully spread its reach to almost every corner of the earth. For thousands of years, my ancestors stood where I stood, when two predatory species face each other and judge what is at stake and the possible outcomes. I was not a threat and it was my responsibility to communicate and transmit my intentions. As the bear maneuvered its way through the trees covered in moss, I let the moment sink and kept contact with the wild animal. The wilderness demands to be respected and honored. I was a visitor and my intrusion was nothing of a farce. I had imposed myself onto the bear, disrespecting its intimacy. Now I had to answer for my actions in a humble and respectful way.

Kneeling on the ground, I announced my stand. I was not to disrespect the bear no more, but I was also not going to give away the control of this situation. When wild animals meet, and right now I was one, it is all about the bluff, who holds the fear and who owns the moment. The bear in theory and physically had pretty much all advantages over me. And yet, I had to show him that I was not afraid and convince him that an attack on its behalf would be a waste of energy and not worth the effort.

_MG_7534

As it walked, I started to talk: “Hello Bear, I am not here to take anything away from you. This is your territory and I apologize for the intrusion. I will respect you as long as you respect me.” My words filled the silence. While they communicated my intentions and presence, the tone and calmness of the delivery reassured me. The voice carries a lot of energy. The sounds that emanates from our mouth, the air that originates from inside our lungs is pure vibration. It is alive. It has a power, and yes it can also announce a lack of it. From the dawn of life, every single species has used its vocal capacities to communicate with the world. And right now, my words were carrying my intentions and making a stand.

The bear stopped. It studied the situation. Its ears, eyes and nose were in overdrive. What was I? Was I a threat? Was I a threat to its territory? To its food? Whatever I was, I was certainly not something it was happy to have around. So it moved forward and closer. Continuing talking to him, my tone and assertiveness changed drastically when he got off the mount of dead tree and found itself no further away than about 25 feet from me. At that moment, my voice got deeper and sturdier. I remembered that scene in the Lord of Rings when Gandalf stood on that ridge, hitting the ground with his staff and loudly spoke:”You Will Not Pass!” I didn’t have a gray beard nor I had a staff, but my command to the bear resonated and echoed across the forest. As my words faded into the distance, the bear stopped, stared at me, turned around and went back to the place it had come from. The dynamic had been established. While I had taken control of the moment, from the bear perspective, it felt that I wasn’t a menace and it resumed at tearing whatever it was tearing before my interruption.

With a mix of curiosity and pride, I decided to stay where I was and kept observing. I was still clueless on what the bear was eating and perhaps deep down, some dominant species behavior was forbidding me to leave. So I sat there, not moving for another 20 minutes, glued to my binoculars.

The bear must have felt the annoying stalking cause it came back. And this time, everything felt different. I could see it in its eyes, they were defiant and had a purpose. Its stride was solid and grounded. It was not charging but it was coming with an intent. As it passed the dead tree, my Gandalf move fell into dead ears and I had to suddenly change my strategy. So I stood up.

As we faced each other, eye to eye, predator to predator, mammal to mammal, survivor to survivor, I reached down into my inner core and connected to a primal place I am not even sure existed in me. I don’t carry any firearms but I do have with me ways to defend myself. Attached to my belt was a long machete with a velcro wrapped around the handle. Pulling a John Wayne, my hands hovered at my waist and I told the bear that if it wanted to come at me, I would not go down without a fight and that if one of us would end up beaten, I swore to it, it sure wasn’t going to be me. With my lips closing on that last word, my fingers slowly pulled the velcro and as the stripping sound of the fabric tearing away filled the air, the bear slowly lowered itself back to its four legs, its ears showing sign of defeat and its eyes avoiding contact with me. It throttled back to its spot, then proceeded with much energy at tearing something. To my surprise, I gazed at the bear running away with half a leg of a deer. It had indeed been a carcass hiding there beneath the tree and all this time the bear was protecting an important source of food. The adrenaline still pumping into my veins, I sat down once more on the ground and took a deep breath. I thanked the forest and my ancestors for their protection and apologized to the bear for the trouble.

Our voice and words have tremendous power. Our culture of technology and science might have reduced them to simple  phonetic products, but the truth is that they carry much more. They are vessels filled with subtleties, nuances, emotions, and intent. If the roar of a lion can rule the Serengeti, if the howl of wolf can conquer the forest and if the unique sound of a baby penguin can be recognized by it mother amongst millions of others, imagine what your voice can do.

“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more.” Confucius

A Challenging Return

DCIM102GOPRO

The road is my home. It is where I feel alive. It is where I breathe and nourish myself. The road feeds my craving for discovery. It calms my restless mind hungry for new experiences. My dreams are blank canvases that paint themselves as I move forward towards new destinations. I am like a mountain river that needs the movement to fill itself with air. Let me dawdle in a pond and I start to suffocate. It is not that I can’t stay in one place it is just that my energy vibrates to the rhythm of the unexpected and continuous change – endless journeys filled with discoveries.

But two months ago, my 9 months of traveling came to an abrupt end (Alive and Stronger) and since then I have been feeling the weight of inertia. It wasn’t until last week, while trying to find clarity on a beach that I realized just how much of a recluse and grouch I had became, overwhelmed by loss (camera equipment stolen) and sensory overload. It was not only that I felt my energy stuck in a perpetual loop of nothingness, but that my vision and optimism had became clouded with a dark and asphyxiating curtain, like algae chocking a river until nothing lives, transforming a once thriving ecosystem into a dead zone, leaving behind this empty liquid – a ghost.

And these last few months, I have been nothing but an angry ghost, snapping at everything and every one.

So returning from the beach after Thanksgiving, I decided to write about it. I needed a catharsis. I needed to feel the sun again and find peace in the moment. I needed to be grateful for what I had and stop chocking on the things I was missing. I needed to STOP . BREATHE . RELAX and LISTEN. So nature brought me back from the dead.

On that same day I started writing, Becca Skinner posted on Facebook the following:

“There’s a part of me that woke up this morning with a wild heart and restlessness in my bones. And I craved the road and traveling to the point of near tears. So I sat down and wrote about it, drank cups of coffee and told the restlessness to hold on a little bit longer. After spending so much time traveling, it’s often difficult for me to stay in one place. It’s something I’m working on.

Reading her intimate thoughts made me realized that most of us who explore and seem – judging from all our social media feeds, to be living a life of dreams and adventures, all come back and crash. So I reached out to my fellow travelers and explorers and asked them to share with me their thoughts on the topic.

Scott Rinckenberger, is a professional photographer and adventurer specializing in capturing the most wild and pristine places his legs, skis and bikes will carry him. His commercial clients include REI, Patagonia, Red Bull and Intel.

“There is something that we earth-bound explorers share with those who venture into the open reaches of space. We have both experienced altered gravity. Theirs is a physical experience, ours is mental and spiritual. When adventuring I feel more energy, more strength, more speed and more clarity. For a time I attributed this to how my body was reacting to the environment, but I’ve come to realize that it’s my mind reacting to the change in constraints. It’s become clear to me that daily life in the city has a density that can weigh down and suffocate those who have tasted a lighter way of being. Our lungs expand less readily, our eyes see less distance, our minds have less clarity of purpose, and our bodies struggle under the increased burdens. It is so easy to succumb to the pressure, to opt for depression or escapism. Sometimes I let myself settle for this weakness for a short time. But I strive with all of my being to keep my ears open to the voice that reminds me how fortunate I have been, how much love I’ve been blessed with, how minor are my burdens in comparison to so many. And I force myself to go to my office, fire up my computer and update my status to read: “Stoked to be back home with family and friends.” And I try with all I have to really mean it.”

Jeremy Collins, is an illustrator, storyteller, film director, exploratory rock climber and founder of Meridian Line

It has a name. I call it the PTD, or Post Trip Depression. It comes on soft, posing as nostalgia or phantom warmth, then WHAM it hits like a glass wall. I crash through and land back in real life, whatever that is. I check the mail, mow the lawn, or whatever normal people do to play the game. It’s never easy, coming home. The landing is rough, the tarmac crumbled, and I land in the bed with a blazing heap of metal, luggage and memories.”

Sarah Outen, a British adventurer, ocean rower. She is currently part way through her multi-year expedition ‘London2London: Via the World’ – an attempt to row, cycle and kayak a continuous loop of the planet, starting and finishing at Tower Bridge.

“I work with a psychotherapist and we identified after my Indian Ocean row in 2009 that transitioning back into ‘normal’ life was really hard – and then through L2L that each transition in and out of different phases is the same. The biggest challenge for me came after my rescue from the North Pacific in 2012. Suddenly there was a huge trauma to deal with as well – I had experienced something very intense, threatening in total isolation and lost my boat in the process. People expected me to be happy and to slot right back in at full speed. In fact, I really, really struggled and it took a while to realize the depth of that struggle and seek proper help. It’s something that I have spoken about with many fellow adventuring pals and I would say that many are not that open about it. And I guess that’s not just in our adventuring expeditioning realm either – there is such a stigma around mental health that struggled often get brushed under the carpet or hidden from sharing. I wrote a blog post about my depression post Pacific 2012 and it was one of the most heavily commented posts of my entire trip. I think that acknowledging there may well be a settling in period after a trip is important. We often prepare for the going away, but thinking about the coming home is useful too and how to structure what happens next. Or even just acknowledging that it is OK, it is normal and we don’t need to charge back on with ‘normal’ stuff right away. Be gentle with yourself – that’s one of the best things I have learned on my trip.”

Krystle Wright is an adventure photographer, Canon Master, Red Bull Illume Top 50 finalist, F-Stop Gear Ambassador, SanDisk AU, and global traveller in search of unique images

“I am a child of the universe, officially a non resident of any country. My camera leads me to the far corners of the earth as I try to fulfill my insatiable desire to document expeditions and disconnect from civilization. I crave the escape. I thrive in the extremes, seeking the freedom and liberation that comes with completely disconnecting from modern luxuries. Yet at the same time I am more connected than ever to just being in the moment. Though inevitably I’ll return periodically and jump into the city scene for brief moments. I can only handle it for a short space of time before I feel the urge to get going again. I haven’t had a home for 3 years now and I have come to just embrace the nomadic lifestyle. It’s not that I hate cities, I just know that its not where I belong. There are many wonderful things that can happen in all types of scenarios including the hustle and bustle of the city, my biggest concern is that people become lost and engulfed and probably forget to disconnect and just simply be outside. Ultimately, it’s all about finding balance.”

Cristian Dimitrus, a cameraman, photographer, biologist and tv personality specialized in wildlife and natural history, his work has been featured on major television networks, including the BBC, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, TV Globo, History Channel and Animal Planet.

“Some people say that a true adventure means “get out of your comfort zone”. But when I am back in the city I am definitely out of my comfort zone. So for me being back in town is an adventure in its own way. Not the most enjoyable one but its the place where I have the opportunity to dream out loud, visualize and plan new adventures. This is the way I found to cope with the craziness. My mind takes me wherever I can imagine and sooner than I realize, I am there, back in the wild, where I belong, in Flesh and Blood.”

Catherine Yrisarri, is a documentary storyteller who has produced environmental, political and social stories in over 40 countries. Her clients include National Geographic Channel & Creative, PBS, Oprah, New York Times, The North Face & many others.

“I’ve lived in New York City for the past 6 years which is a strange dichotomy to my life & work on the road where I typically pilgrimage to places of immense natural beauty like the Himalaya, Indian Ocean, Peruvian Andes to capture stories about the culture or environment. In these places, you feel the majesty of the diverse ecosystem that exist in this fragile, beautiful world. It is spectacular. Then I return home to an epicenter of culture and diversity where humanity exists so closely knit here, but there’s a lack of nature. It’s a hard to return to and reconcile at times especially growing up in Colorado so closely tied to rivers and mountains. I find myself pushing toward projects that bring me back to these spaces because they lack in my daily life at the moment. There’s definitely a need in us all for the wildness, untouched beauty. I feel lucky enough that I get paid to escape to these recesses of the world that are slowly closing in by population dynamics and other human impact needs like mining and resource extraction.” 

Skip Armstrong, an award-winning director and cinematographer. His client list includes Boeing, Air New Zealand, National Geographic, Camp4 Collective, BF Goodrich Tires, The North Face, New Belgium Brewery, NRS, Patagonia and many more. His films have been awarded at major film festivals including Banff and Telluride.

“I’ve always been struck by the perfection of undisturbed wilderness.  The plants, animals, rivers – they are all in a state of balance.  I’ve found that after a few days I can’t help but personally take on the same feeling, of being balanced.  When returning to cities and the busyness of day to day life the stark contrast between the two worlds is remarkable. I wish and hope that we all prioritize and embrace the value that only wild and undisturbed lands can offer.”

Winston Ben Wolfrider, a British explorer who just returned home after traveling coast to coast across the USA for World Land Trust. He covered over 25,000 miles on just $6 a day, via a hoard of natural checkpoints.

I call it Re-entry. It’s hideous, and often welcomes me “home” or dumps me somewhere after a journey whilst handing me “plane flu”, a man-cold or a repetitive strain injury, at the same time as most people are ignorant to the fact that I might be jetlagged or in a version of shock. Ending any trip is the most awesome feeling of elation and accomplishment, yet immediately after the smiles, it’s possibly the biggest anti-climax and strongest feeling of loneliness I have ever felt. Many Olympic medal winners feel the same, so I’ve heard. There’s only one thing for it… start seeking the next one!

Sarah Menzies, a filmmaker based out of Seattle currently working on Afghan Cycles, a feature length documentary about the brave women riding bike in Afghanistan. Sarah founded her production company Let Media in 2012.

“Since I was a young kid, I knew I wanted to see the world. I’ve figured out a way to make those dreams come true when I became a filmmaker. My job takes me all over the world and I love it. The first few years of this work had me living on the road, out of a bag. I felt free. I’m actually renting a place right now, which I’m still getting used to. I’ve never looked at drawers the same way. I can actually unpack my bag now! While life with a home base has been an adjustment in and of itself, my recovery time from trips has totally changed. Life used to be one big trip that I was on. I like the balance of renting because it allows me to nurture a community and my relationships. I just got a dog! But I lack balance in the coming and going. When I get home from a production, it takes me a few days to find my normal again. I miss the sights, smells, conversations that I have when I’m on the road. It’s hard to tell stories from those experiences to my loved ones who were not with me, so I often feel lonely after a trip. Loneliness also comes in the form of missing all the people I met on those trips. My brain easily wanders as I think about those new friends and wonder if I’ll ever get to see them again. But as a filmmaker, I’m in a unique position because I get to relive those experiences (again and again!) as I work through an edit and share the final piece. As I edit something near and dear to my heart, I can almost feel those places, people, and even smells wrap around me and give me a big hug. It lessens the blow of re-entry, and helps give me closure with a trip and strength to move on to the next one.”

Cristina Mittermeier, is a Mexican-born photographer and conservationist, former President of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and a SONY Artisan. Her work has been featured in museums, art shows books and magazines, including National Geographic. She was recently assigned as a judge for the World Press Photo Award.

“The work of the photojournalist is exciting and stimulating but make no mistake, it also requires tremendous sacrifice. It demands infinite energy, tireless enthusiasm, a spirit of adventure, the ability to survive under difficult circumstances and the courage to confront danger. It can be all consuming, which makes for lonely spouses and neglected children. So, I confess. After so many years of being a nomad, all I want these days is to be home. Without a doubt, when the next assignment comes, I will be as excited and ready to go on another adventure, but for now I crave the comforting routine of a small, uncomplicated existence. I know it won’t last long and pretty soon I will be packing again, so while I am here, I like to pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exist and I savor the beauty of the simple, everyday stuff.” 

Chris Burkard, is a photographer and World Explorer of cold, remote places. His clients include American Airlines, Nikon, Volkswagen, Apple, Fuel TV, Burton, Volcom, RVCA, Poler Stuff, Pacifico, among others, as well as having work published on over 35 national and international covers of magazines including Surfer Magazine, The New Yorker, National Geographic Adventure, ESPN.com

“I live for some of these adventures.  It is what gets my blood pumping and the hair on my skin to stand up. At the end I am happy to come home to see my family, but there are nights where I am kept up thinking about my next journey or dreaming about where I just was.  Sometimes I’ll go to a rock climbing gym to clear my mind, but I’m always thinking about my next step.” 

Flemming Bo Jensen, official Fuji X-photographer, traveler, filmmaker, has lived as a nomad for the past 5 years.

“It is always hard to come down after the high of a long road trip and adventure. The freedom of roaming through stunning landscapes, having new experiences and a new horizon every day is bliss for my soul. But after many years as a nomad I have realized everything must happen in balance. The time between adventures is equally important. It affords time to organize and fund the next adventure, time to have a daily routine, time to reflect and recharge. And most importantly, it reminds me how fortunate I am to have the freedom to do these adventures.”

Cody Howard from Huckin Huge Films

“Coming back from an adventure or trip of a lifetime to the hustle of the city always reminds me of an important mantra: everything in moderation. Moderate your time away from city and moderate your time in the city, you’ll grow to appreciate both. Burning out is real, moderation and healthy balance is what I strive for. Back to hills for me!”

Roei Sadan, is an Israeli adventurer that cycled around the world.

“Crossing the world on a bicycle for 5 years and coming back to the same place was the hardest part of the journey. I felt like it was a dream and that I would wake up. But ultimately I didn’t have to because the journey was inside me. The world is inside me, every challenge I faced, every desert or high mountain range I crossed became a part of me. Every project that we do stays inside of us and makes us better people. I feel like I know a secret that not many people know. But I will tell you my friends, you don’t have to do a big journey or a great challenge to feel great with yourself, the things that make my day are the things that are free and open for everyone. A great day is a day that you can enjoy the miracle of the sunrise and the magic of the sunset, simple and special. You can enjoy that if you are in the middle of the city or in the middle of a wild place. Enjoy the simplicity and dream with open eyes!”

STOP . BREATHE . RELAX . LISTEN

STOP . BREATHE . RELAX . LISTEN

Salsa

salsa

One of the beauties of sea kayaking is the pace – fast enough to cover some distance, yet slow enough that you can feel and experience all that this world has to offer. There is something primal and satisfying about feeling the elements, the rain, the wind, the sun. You can smell the fragrances of the ocean, the distinct aroma of a bay, the seaweed, the breath of a whale, the stench of ammonia from a bird colony. There is also something exhilarating about experiencing the vulnerability felt when encountering wild animals that are bigger than you, in a vessel that offers almost no protection.

Biking is kayak’s earthy equivalent – in every way possible. It is a lifestyle and a way of experiencing life. It is the desire to slow down and honor the beauty around us.

So it is with great pleasure that I am announcing my new partnership with SALSA Cycles. As I plan on spending as much time on the water as off the water, my Fargo TI will give me the perfect vehicle to explore the remote dirt roads of North America. Equipped with THULE gear, I will be able to carry all my gear and photo equipment and continue reporting from the field.

“As a modern-day explorer, it’s hard to differentiate yourself; Daniel Fox, through his unique lens, has found a powerful way to do just that. His vision is innovative, his passion palpable. It’s exactly these characteristics that speak to (and inspire) his audience, which at Salsa Cycles, we feel is the same as ours—adventure enthusiasts, addicts and ambassadors. His talents, particularly in the photography department, match his lofty ambitions, and we’re excited to see what next peak he can summit!” Justin Julian, Salsa Cycles

#GetOutThere Nature Valley

GetOutThere_1

I am extremely proud to announce that December will mark the beginning of my new partnership with NATURE VALLEY. Reaching beyond being a simple company of granola and protein bars, NATURE VALLEY understands the power and reach it has to promote a healthy lifestyle and our need of nature to restore our human spirit.

Their campaign #GetOutThere, their project TrailView and their recent involvement with Erik Weihenmayer is only the tip of what they have in plan for the future and I am extremely thrilled that I am going to be a part of it!

By becoming one of their official contributors, NATURE VALLEY gives me an incredible platform from which I can expand my mission of bridging the teachings of the wilderness to the public and my campaign STOP . BREATHE . RELAX . LISTEN.

Make sure to follow their INSTAGRAM and FACEBOOK page as my content will appear on their feed periodically, starting in December.

GetOutThere_7

GetOutThere_8

Alive and Stronger

I have a story to share with you.

It is a story about the power of nature to shape your character.

It is a story about how being able to STOP . BREATHE . RELAX . LISTEN can make all the difference in any given moment.

It is a story about hope, humility and focusing on the things that really matter in life.

After completing my paddle on the coast of Washington State and stopping in Portland to talk with several groups about my W.I.L.D. campaign, it was time to continue my journey to San Francisco.

In the days prior to my departure, I was keeping track of the weather. The forecast now was the same for the week ahead … strong southerly winds would blow 15 to 25 knots, rain would be consistent and the swell from the West would increase as the week went by. The weather system was due to calm down beginning the next weekend.

I had my waypoints marked down and even though I had many challenging paddling days ahead, I was excited to get back on the water. In my head, the song “Against the Wind” by Bob Seger was already playing on repeat.

My departure time from Astoria was set by the tide. I didn’t want to fight the tide coming in and leaving with the ebb tide meant that I would get a double push – the river and the tide. So at noon, slack time, I left the marina.

DCIM102GOPRO

The conditions were much different than when I paddled in the Columbia River several days ago. I was now doing 6 knots in speed and to my right there were big breakers stretching for miles. The Columbia Bar was living up to its reputation.

Keeping my distance, I rounded the danger zone and passed the South Jetty. My plan was to tuck in right after. The jetty would offer that protected path I needed to land on the beach. But the swell was coming dead on and pounding my landing spot full force. I had two choices: to go back into the Columbia River against the current, avoiding all the breakers and finding my way to the shore or to keep going.

Seaside was 17 miles away. There was a little spot that offered a possible landing; then after that, about 6 miles from there, around Tillamook Head, was Indian Beach. It was a protected cove that, after looking at the marine and aerial maps, offered a safe stop. In the worst-case scenario, I would most likely be landing in the dark, but with the current conditions, a West swell, the cove would be fairly flat … or so I thought. I decided to go forward and paddle.

It was a hot day. There was not a cloud in the sky. The sea was almost metallic due to the absence of wind. Sooty Shearwaters flew all around me, gliding over the water with ease, the tip of their wings just slightly touching the surface. These birds have truly evolved to become a perfect oceanic flying creature.

It was 7pm when I reached Seaside. The swell was still pounding the shore with massive surf and now my chances of landing before sunset were disappearing. I looked for an opening somewhere – anywhere. I saw one. Not too far, there was a place where the surf seemed to be dying down. After timing the sets, I started paddling in. And then at the last minute, just before reaching the point of no return, three massive waves appeared, breaking just 10 feet ahead of me. I looked at the clouds of white seawater rising up into the sky, the roaring of the waves crashing and suddenly it became clear to me that there was no way my feet would be touching sand this evening. The sun had disappeared over the horizon and in about an hour it would be totally dark.

sunset

My next waypoint, Indian Beach, around the Tillamook Head, was about two hours away. I reached behind and opened my day hatch to get my headlamp out. The thought of spending the night on the water was starting to be a reality. It was the last thing I wanted to do but my chances of finding my way into a sleeping bag were fading.

With still no clouds, the sky was filled with stars. The Milky Way was intense and imposing. A shooting star crossed the sky. And then another. The bioluminescence was showing strong. The kayak left stark glowing white trails on the black surface. My paddle cut through the water and created explosions of glitter. Every time a drop of water fell on the kayak, it scintillated. I wonder for a second if I really wanted to get to shore. If I was to spend the night on the ocean, these were the be the dreamiest, prefect conditions. This could actually turn out to be one incredible night!

I checked my phone and I looked at my location. The cove was only a mile away now. I would be there around 9pm. The weather forecast had predicted 20 knots winds but up until then they seemed nowhere to be found.

As I approached the area and shortly after dreaming of a nice night landing, staying up late doing photography of this magical bioluminescent evening,  I passed the point and found myself battling the expected headwinds.

One more check on the map and my safety zone was supposed to be right ahead. But the only thing I saw and heard were the glowing whitecaps of thunderous surf. How could this be? The swell was coming from the west and the sheltered bay entrance faced south. How was it that the swell was now heading straight into the cove? Aside from this waypoint, there was nothing around for at least 20 miles that could offer relief. I remembered from the map that there was a path into the cove, but it was dark. I couldn’t see anything but the crash of waves. I looked at the map again and oriented myself. There was a series of rocks ahead that should offer protection. So I went for it.

Just a minute into my push, I heard this massive roar behind me and within seconds, I was upside down being pummeled from all directions. Suddenly, my paddle snapped in two. I come back up in time to take a breath before another one came over. I capsized again and this time I couldn’t roll back. The beating and the broken paddle left me no choice but to wet exit.

Lucky to have a break, I managed to get back in, grabbed the spare paddle from my stern, tucked the skirt over the now-filled-with-water cockpit and pushed my way forward as hard as I could. Now more than ever, I knew I would have to spend the night on the water and the under the Milky Way, but by at this point the stars and glowing oceans were the last things on my mind.

Out of the surf zone, I pumped the water out and assessed the situation. I had been paddling for 10 hours, covering about 38 miles. I was tired and my hands hurt. Despite the drysuit, the cold from that unfortunate dip into the Pacific waters was seeping into my body. I had to keep moving. I had to keep my muscles, my body producing energy and heat. I hadn’t had dinner – besides the food I had consumed during the day. I had an emergency ration of jerky and bars but in these conditions I could hardly stop to eat. So I pushed forward. I looked ahead and the irony of the situation hit me. Lights of Cannon Beach were almost within grasp, perhaps no more than half a mile. I pictured the people in their houses, watching television, enjoying a glass a wine, and kissing their children goodnight. And here I was, in a totally different world where my life, my existence was on the verge of being questioned. How could this be? Within such close proximity to be finding such extreme different realities?

I had no choice but to keep paddling. Even if I was barely making progress, the options were simply not there for me. How would I make through the night? I didn’t know and I couldn’t stop to think about it. My only way to survival was to take one minute at a time, find comfort in that minute passed and focus on passing the next.

And then my worst fear happened. I started to shiver.

I know my body. I have always been pretty tolerant of the cold. I grew up in Quebec with winters in the minus 20’s. But the moment that my body shivers, it is only a question of minutes before I start to tremble and loose control of my shaking muscles. The option of spending the night on the ocean was no more viable. There was no way I could stay in this kayak for another 7 hours and not go into hypothermia.

There are risks you can afford if you are with other people. But when alone, the last place you want to find yourself is in a cornered place with no exit, no possible call for help. I did have my SOS button, a cell phone and a VHF as a lifeline but I felt I I hadn’t yet played all my cards.

Looking over to my left, I noticed a campfire on the beach and was surprised to see how close I was to it, perhaps just 40 yards. Despite the light of the houses further away, I was really not that far from land. Still, between the beach and myself was a wall of crashing waves. Between my current predicament and the safety of landing was a world of horrible possibilities, each with the power of turning my situation to the worst. There was no way for these people to see or hear me. And even if they had, there was nothing they could do. For me, there was little I could do but start looking into confronting the surf.

My eyes focused on the silhouette made by the water line, trying to figure out the rhythm of the sets. To be honest there was not much to decipher in the dark. I took a deep breath and relaxed for a second. I closed my eyes and asked the ocean to keep an eye on me. I started paddling toward the surf. A wave crashed. I stopped. I hesitated. I went again. And like a “deja vu”, I heard the roaring mounting behind me, like a giant monster rising from the depths and about to engulf me with one bite. Grasping for the impact I filled my lungs with as much air as I could.

The weight of the Pacific landed on my back with such tremendous force that I felt the kayak breaking in two. It was not like trying to rip a piece of fiberglass apart. The kayak literally snapped in two halves like a dry twig. The ring of the cockpit was broken but my skirt was still around it. I was in the water being ravaged by the surf, tied to the waist with a piece of the kayak on each side of me.

All this time I was thinking I had to get out of there as soon as possible. I didn’t like the idea of finding myself in between two loose 8-feet long pieces of broken fiberglass tubes filled with gear. It wouldn’t take much for them to crush my ribs and cut my waist. I tried to pull on the handle of the skirt but it was not working. I was simply pulling the loose cockpit ring toward me. Still, wiggling it non-stop I finally managed to get it off.

Free from the kayak’s entrails, I swam around it. The kayak was still held together by some rope and some stripes. My last paddle was now gone. Putting myself in-between the in-coming surf and the boat, I started swimming and pushing one of kayak pieces forward. You never want to find yourself with a kayak, or a board, behind you in the surf! There has been too many accidents where people were knocked unconscious by flying objects. Every wave pushed me and the kayak closer to the beach. About 15 minutes later, I felt the sand under my feet.

I got up and grabbed the bow handle in one hand and the stern handle in the other and started pulling the wreck as far up passed the tide line as I could before collapsing. I opened the back hatch, pulled out the bivy and sleeping bag. Slipped out of the drysuit and into my sleeping quarters.

It was midnight. I didn’t care for food or anything else. My hands were bloody with cuts all over. All I wanted was to lay still and warm myself up. I was safe, in one piece and that was the most important thing at that moment.. Nature had reminded me of the fickleness of life and how little control we have over it.

Over the last 5 hours I had experienced sheer beauty, joy, happiness, deception, pain, frustration, and had faced the indifference of a world that was bigger than me. Laying on the sand next to my wrecked kayak, I was not angry nor was I afraid. I was simply grateful to be alive. As I pulled the zipper up leaving blood marks on the fabric, I thanked the ocean for its protection, closed my eyes and went to sleep.

wreck1

These experiences, as unfortunate as they may seem, are defining moments in your life. They form your character and change your perception of the world around you forever. My crash happened on Sunday the 21st at midnight, exactly one month to the day after I departed from Victoria. I can’t help but smile at the fact this paddle was for my W.I.L.D. Campaign raising money to send under-privileged youth to a “month” long immersion wilderness camp.

Life is not about avoiding the crashes but rather finding ways to get back up and transform these seemingly negative events into positive, productive experiences.

These are the discovery and leadership lessons nature provides us when we open ourselves to the experience.

Although this 1,000-mile paddle to San Francisco has come to an unexpected, abrupt end, the W.I.L.D. campaign is far from over; my commitment to the campaign is stronger than ever.

More to come on that in the following weeks.

Patience

Breath, Relax, Listen

Breath, Relax, Listen

It has been 15 hours since the heavy rain started. Tucked into my sleeping bag, the sound of the water droplets falling on the tent like an endless drum roll, the clarity of what has been happening these last two months just dawned on me and I just can’t help myself but start laughing. The fact that I had planned to be in Hawaii at this time, diving and kayaking with the humpback whales makes this spiritual awakening even more ludicrous. As much as I would have wanted the reality to be different, the message was clear and all around me – patience needed to be embraced. In our culture of instant gratification, the meaning of this word has almost become taboo. Still, from time to time, we are forced to confront its undeniable necessity. And once again, my time in nature was responsible for brining me perspicuity.

 In our Western society, the word patience denotes a more negative etymology, finding its root in the latin patientia, from patient– ‘suffering’.  But in Asia, the meaning takes a completely different approach and tries to bring forward the ability to wait and find peace, acceptance and dignity in the unexpected and uncontrollable. In China, the pictograph for patience is composed of two symbols – REN which illustrates the Blade of the Knife and XIN for Heart. The meaning being: “The sword blade is poised, ready to slice. Backed into this corner, we cannot move. When we don’t know which way to turn, or where to go, any movement at all can not only further muddy the water but can also bring disaster: the sword blade severs the heart and all is lost. Thus, the value of patience.” (Nonin Showiness) In Japan, the word is NINTAI which can be translated as an “obligation to take another direction”. GAMAN, “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity” is one of the teachings of Zen Buddhist. 

IMG_4985

A day in the tent

The plan was to leave in the morning – paddling back to Tofino. A combination of misjudgment on my behalf and the missing of an adapter to charge my batteries had left me with no more power for the camera. Being on Vargas island to photograph the wolves, my presence here now was simply leading to nothing – I would rather leave than facing the possibility of being presented with a perfect photo opportunity and having no camera to photograph with.

A wolf had appeared to me on the very first day of my arrival – his prints were on the beach, fresh from the morning. After setting up camp, the lone wolf had ventured around my tent. I am always perplexed on the timing of things. How and why we get to be at a precise place at a precise time, precisely when someone or something else happens to be there. Coincidence? Meant to be? A bit of both? In this case, I had been hiking the beach, collecting mussels for dinner when I decided to get something from the tent. Grabbing what I needed, I stood up zipping the tent flap when I noticed right in front of me the wolf coming out through the trees. He was brown and black, tall, the size of a huge dog. But his pose was not aggressive – more like an intruder trying to sneak his way in – this was not an dangerous predator imposing his rule on a newcomer. Maybe it was because he was alone without his pack – we know how humans act differently when by themselves, alone, as opposed to when they feel protected from being in a group. My guess is that the law of collective courage is no different independently if you are wolf or a human. Anyhow, when he saw me, he retreated and I knew in the back of my mind his next destination – the food cache. I silently followed the ruffles of leaves and hid behind a tree. As predicted I saw him coming around to investigate the metal box where my food was stored. Slightly moving to get a better view, I stepped on a branch and the unfortunate breaking noise scared the wolf away. I was not to see any of him for the next five days.

Now that I wanted the leave the island, the weather was not allowing me. And this is how these last two months came to be summarized into this precise moment – in a tent battered by the rain, realizing that all of this was beyond my control. Like the fog lifting and suddenly revealing the unexpected landscape, I was forced to accept the moment. There was nothing I could do but find peace in the unforeseen. Not just about the fact that I was being held captive on Vargas island, but that I had to accept that all my plans for the beginning of 2014 were totally at the opposite of what had actually happened – sheltered from what I had taken from granted, I was being reminded of the fragility of what I had and the price that I had to pay to keep it.

The rain and wind came to pass and the next day, a heavy fog took over and assumed the role of deciding on my captivity. I was not be allowed departure. Only the next day did a window present itself. With a strong northerly wind, my original idea to circumnavigate the island had to be put aside. Pushing with all my might I departed from the beach, turned the point, beating the wind and finding myself in a favorable position, riding the tide and wind, only having to deal with the exposed Pacific.

I don’t know what the future has in store for me. What I do know, is that from sitting into my kayak riding a wave, a river, or the ocean swell, I have control on how to react to the unexpected. I can not predict or even anticipate the unforeseen but  I can be ready to adapt to whatever is thrown my way and have trust in my capacity to handle the flow. The key is to patiently wait, breath, relax and know when to move.

“Adopt the pace of nature:  her secret is patience.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

WS_AT_14_Daniel_Fox_Banner

Along the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness

On July 18th, my expedition partner Nathaniel Stephens and myself will undertake an 11-day kayak expedition following the pacific coast of the Chichagof Island. Our journey will start in Juneau where we will take the ferry to Sitka. From there we will voyage our way north to Hoonah. This 140 miles journey through Alaska’s pristine waters will have us follow the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness. We will pass south of the Kruzof Island, around the Yakobi Island, through the South Iniah Passage, South of the Lemesurier Island and finally around the famous Point Adolphus.

Image

The West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness is part of the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States with most of its area part of the “perhumid rainforest zone, Earth’s largest remaining temperate rainforest. Made up primarily of western red cedar, sitka spruce, and western hemlock, the land spreads over thousands of islands and is home to animals that are barely found anywhere else in North America, including a group of brown bears more closely related to polar bears than to other living brown bears.

Besides being of great environmental value, the area is extremely rich in cultural history – more than 10,000 years ago, the  Tlingit people settled here.

Our expedition will be tracked with the Delorme InReach which can be viewed here. We will try to post updates on Twitter, but most likely all the content – photos, videos and stories, will be published upon our return at the beginning of August.

Make sure to connect via Facebook or Twitter to receive the latest dispatches.

This trip wouldn’t be possible without the important support from

The Crossing

We were anchored in the Bay of Chaguaramas, just on the other side of St-Peters Bay, in Trinidad. Around us, the surface of the water was oily and with a metallic shimmer. The wind wandered around slowly and in all directions, and every time it came our way, it brought with it a diesel smell whose origin I couldn’t pinpoint. Maybe it was the exposed shipyard on the shore, where they were grinding metal all day, letting the iron dust fly and land on decks all around, turning into rust in just a few hours. Maybe it was from one of those beat-up boats that decided to empty its bilge in the water to avoid paying the legal fee and doing it the professional way. Who knows? Looking around the bay, I didn’t have enough fingers to count the possibilities where the leak could come from. Garbage kept floating by, pushed by the strong current, heading somewhere around the bay and out of sight. Trinidad was really not what I expected! During the taxi ride the day before, from the airport of Port of Spain, the island had looked like many other Caribbean places that struggle with too much growth and not enough structure. Everybody was driving a car, alone, and there were shops everywhere where one could buy any piece of plastic imaginable. Sadly, the whole place was looking rickety and dirty. Staring through the back seat window, I had wondered if this was really the promised land of economic growth?

I had flown there to join John, a friend of my girlfriend Jas, who owns a sailboat and with whom we were sailing across the Atlantic, to the Azores. Although we were to pick her up in St-Maarten, along with another guest, I had offered the captain to fly in a little earlier and help him sail from Trinidad. As I sat in the wheel-house and looked around at this dump, I was not sure anymore it had been such a good idea! The reason why we were down there, since the boat had been already in St-Maarten last week, was because of fuel. The captain had a connection, someone at a commercial station who would let him fill up his boat at the discounted price for locals, saving him more than half of the regular price. If you were ready to spend the day going back and forth in a little dinghy, carrying loads of heavy canisters of fuel and becoming all soiled with diesel, then you would be rewarded with savings in the thousands. Fortunately, this chore had been done before I arrived and to be honest, I don’t think I would have participated in something that in Trinidad & Tobago could result in jail time. John had told me that the plan was to spend another day or two here before heading back north to the Dutch Antilles. Looking over to the series of grungy marinas, I couldn’t say that I was thrilled of spending a night there, even less at the prospect of spending a couple of days, so I went down below into my cabin, put my headphones on and started dreaming of the Atlantic.

The first time I crossed the Atlantic was back in 2001 onboard M/Y Talithat-G, the Getty family’s private yacht. We had left London and were heading to St-Maarten when a gale forced us to take refuge in the protective bay of Corunna, in Spain. We sheltered there for a few days, waiting for the storm to pass, and once the forecast showed promising days ahead, we carried on and the rest of our 14-day crossing was smooth and flawless. My second crossing was again on a motor yacht, M/Y Leander, belonging to a friend of the Queen, Sir Donald Gosling. That time though, I headed east from St-Barth’s to Antibes in the Mediterranean. This third crossing was to be my first sailing trip across the Atlantic and it was something I was really looking forward to. The owner of the boat was an old friend of Jas’ with whom she had sailed through Magellan Strait and the Beagle Channel, around the island of Tierra Del Fuego, Patagonia, many years ago. His boat was a 54ft full keel sloop, custom made in Asia. Even though she showed signs of age, her new teak deck managed to shave years off her appearance, and gave her a much needed rejuvenated look. Overall she appeared to be in good shape.

While I lay in my bunk reading the first pages of a book I had chosen for the voyage, called “Seventh Journey” by Earl de Blonville on his expedition to Greenland, a nice aromatic smell of jasmine rice told me that dinner was being prepared. I took the cue and headed to the aft deck to set the table when a small dinghy appeared from the shadows and drove right up to us. Tying his little inflatable to our port side, the driver, without asking permission, hoisted himself onboard, then lit the cigarette that was hanging half wet, off his lips. After a long and almost endless drag, he finally exhaled a huge cloud of smoke that literally made his entire face disappear. The man wore only shorts, which were dirty of engine grease and scattered with holes made from, I could only assume, the burning ash of falling cigarettes. His belly, inappropriately disproportionate to the rest of his body, was the result of many decades of heavy beer drinking. His head was shaven and the light from the salon sparkled on his seemingly polished skull. His nose was not big, but edgy and pointy. Without a beard or mustache, his smoke-colored teeth blended with his dark,tanned skin. Slapping his abdomen with strength and pride, like a keg full of beer, he let out a blaring burp that resonated all the way down to the galley and announced his arrival. The captain peeked his head outside of the entrance and looked at the man who was now again lighting up his wet cigarette. “Hooyyyt!” the man said in a strong coarse Australian accent. John nodded slightly and disappeared to attend more important matters – like making sure that the rice didn’t burn! Taking another long cigarette drag, he looked at me and, his words chasing the smoke away said: “Hoyt! Did’ ya tell him?” “Tell him what?” the captain answered from inside the boat. “ ‘Bout thy Gold!”

Billy was an old sailing pal of the captain, the kind of friend you keep bumping into around the Caribbean anchorages. He and his family had been living on a 50ft boat for years. His last child, a boy, had been born on his boat, his wife giving birth on the kitchen table. “Me son’s strong wit broad shoulders lik’ mine, and you know why? Cause am th’ one who, sticking me fingers under his teeny arms, pull’d him out!” Although I gave him credit for his achievement, I had difficulties chasing this troubling image out of my head. While he constantly cursed, smoked like a chimney and had the manner of a pirate, his children were “home schooled” because, as he said: “thy system’s shite mate!” Not only didn’t he trust the system but he also disapproved of the values inculcated in school. Their sailboat was fitted with several flatscreen tv’s on which the children keep watching movies and playing video games. The several generators onboard kept breaking and were a constant source of endless stories on how the new repairs would boost superpowers which would make them so “cool”! Like a child who had just finished his first lego project and was full of pride, he told us that the freezer he had been working on lately would be able to go as low as minus 17 degree Celsius! I was not too sure why such freezing cold temperature was that important, but for Billy, it sure seemed to be. Deep down though, Billy has a big heart and will do anything for any stranded soul in need of assistance.

As he sat at the table, puffing one cigarette after another, flicking the butts overboard, Billy went on to tell me that I needed to convince the captain of going gold hunting off the coast of Guiana. Apparently he knew of a secret spot, that he had learned of from a drunk man in a bar, and kept the treasure location and coordinates locked in his boat. It sits at 60 meters, and is where a Spanish ship sunk hundreds of years ago, taking along with it several dozen bars of gold. When I told him that the story sounded a bit too much like an old fairy tale told amongst pirates, he rose up to his feet, slapped his big round belly and pointed the finger at me. While staring me straight in the eyes, he told me: “I knew tha’ old man. When he took hy knif’ out in thy bar and point it in me face telling me ain’t nothing more sacred than thy sailor’s word, I knew in me heart he was no shit’in me!” Realizing this conversation was going nowhere, I told Billy that unfortunately, we had guests waiting for us in St-Maarten and a work assignment in the Azores, and sadly, although we would have loved to buy a $10,000 sonar and comb through miles and miles of ocean for weeks, we would have to take a rain check and perhaps partake in the next gold rush. Since I was not going to help him in his sacred quest, he got up and took his pack of cigarettes out. When he found none, and realized it was empty, he scratched his head then said: “Argh! Bunch of wussies! Don’t come crawling to meself when I have all me gold!” And with those last words, he jumped into his dinghy and disappeared in the dark.

Sunset over the Caribbean

The next day we were ready to leave. The forecast showed good weather all the way to the Dutch Antilles and after motoring past Scotland Bay, we left behind Billy and the Bay of Chaguaramas (the two went really well together!) – hoisted the main sail and got our bearing north. Our next stop was St-Maarten!

For the crossing, besides the captain, Jas and myself, our fourth crew member was Liz – a girl from the UK in her early thirties, who several years ago worked as a stewardess with the captain while chartering the boat. She now owned a little vintage boutique in the Portobello district of London. All of us were seaworthy, at different levels. John had over thirty years of sailing experience around the world, from Antarctica to the South China seas. Along with my two crossings, I was what you can call an amateur sailor – someone who knows his way around without knowing much! I tremendously enjoyed sailing and didn’t have trouble with sea sickness. Jas had sailed the Raging Forties and Furious Fifties around infamous Cape Horn and LeMaire Strait, where the Atlantic and Pacific meet and the conditions are some of the worst in the world. But that was over a decade ago and she hadn’t set foot on a sailboat since. Liz’s experience was more with holiday sailing in the Caribbean, but having worked with the captain, she knew her way around the boat.

The morning before our grand departure, we all went grocery shopping. The captain was to buy the basics and most of the food, and we would only have to buy particular things we would want to snack on during the trip. Simple enough you would think! Crossing the Atlantic in a sailing boat takes anywhere between 14 and 30 days, depending on the wind and if you chose to motor or not. As a basic rule, you always want to have more than enough food, fuel, and water. So if you are planing for 17 days, you need to have adequate supplies for at least 21 days. Without asking the others if anyone had any dietary requirements or preferences, John took off and came back much later with his own interpretation of “adequate supplies”: enough rice, pasta and flour for at least 2 months, 6 liters of water (!!!), just enough veggies for a week (no frozen vegetables), a couple of loaves of bread and a pretty big bunch of things we were not allowed to touch. The “Caribes” beer was to be given away in the Azores, not really a problem since the crossing was dry. The cheese was for himself, as was the chocolate, the couple of french baguettes, the cereals, and the yogurts. The sausages were not for us but for a friend. We did have a freezer full of fresh fish: tuna, wahoo, and dorado, caught the week before, but to imagine that we would only eat white bread and fish with rice or pasta for two weeks was not really our idea of a pleasant trip. As we soon found out, this was only the beginning of a long and disagreeable voyage.

As captain and host, there were two things we were expecting from John: to keep us safe and make our trip enjoyable. Everybody onboard believed that these requests were far from being too demanding. Of course this was no luxurious cruise, like the previous two I had been on, but neither was it a boot camp! We were only four people on a 54ft boat and there was no reason why we should not be like a small family, sharing everything – chores included, dining together, laughing, and playing games. God were we wrong!

By mid-afternoon, it was obvious there were two sides, theirs and ours. I was not sure if it was because the captain had had a crush on Jas 15 years ago or something else, but he was really getting annoying and plainly rude. He was in his mid 60’s and from the United Kingdom. Both Liz and Jas remembered him being a gentlemen, a wonderful person to travel with, a man of class and a great host. But over the limited amount of conversation he and I had had between Trinidad and St Maarten, I had come to understand that life had not really turned out the way he had wished. The chartering business hadn’t been too good these past couple of years. As boats constantly demand maintenance and are very expensive to keep, his savings had over time disappeared. Now he was caught in a vicious circle of having to scrape together what he could from chartering just to keep himself afloat. His idea of retiring and enjoying sailing had unfortunately disappeared along with his good humor and manners. This season, he had originally wanted to dry dock the boat in Trinidad and make some repairs, but didn’t have the funds to do so. So he was left with no choice but to cross to the Azores and stay in Horta where rates were much cheaper, saving himself a return airfare and the cost of hauling the boat out during hurricane season.

Red-billed Tropicbird

Liz, Jas and I had all made special arrangements to accompany the captain on his trip to the Portuguese islands. Of course this was something we all wanted to do, but it was rather the idea of spending time amongst friends and doing something exceptional together, that convinced us of taking part in this adventure. We knew John could do the crossing on his own, but were sure that he would appreciate having a little company! Now in hindsight, I think we would have been better off staying home watching Chevy Chase’s “National Lampoon Vacation”. At least we would have laughed!

After doing our own proper groceries and buying toilet paper, since there was certainly not enough for both women onboard, (it is really incredible the amount of toilet paper women use compared to men!) we expected the captain to convene the group and go over the safety protocol, to refresh our memory on seamanship and lay out the ground rules. It was in the end his boat, and it would have been normal procedure for him to tell us where everything was, what we could and couldn’t do, and how we should handle an emergency at sea. Instead, as he made himself a sandwich, he simply said: “Watches will be 2 hours. You guys eat whenever you want. I eat whenever I want! If you are not happy, then get off my boat!” We all stood there in shock as he went up to the wheel-house. We hadn’t even left the port and already we were threatened to leave! Zen my man! I don’t care what personal issues you have and to be honest, I am not interested in finding out the bugs you have twitching up your rear, but you can’t simply treat people who have flown in from three continents and travelled over a day to be with you like this! Even more so when you are the captain and host!

Without a safety brief, without being shown where the life vests were, without being told what bearing to take, without being told what to do if someone fell overboard – his answer to this question was: “You only have five percent survival anyway, so what’s the point?” – without pretty much anything other than his bad manners and ill temper, we set sail for the Azores. We could have indeed left the boat on the spot, but it would have meant a lot of trouble and to be honest, we all wanted to believe that his bad mood was only temporary. Most likely, this was the case of a really bad night’s sleep and, in a couple of days, this would all be over and turn into a happy and pleasurable cruise.

Alas, our hopes and wishes were never to be granted. Not long after leaving the island behind, the wind started to increase. Within an hour or two, the ride became really bumpy and the girls were soon lying down by the wheel-house and seasick. Being sick on board is always to be expected when you spend most of your life on land. For the majority of people, after a couple of days, their bodies become accustomed and the nausea goes away. Aware that both Liz and Jas had known worse conditions than this, their state was not really of concern, but I was mindful that perhaps John and I would have to split the watches until the girls got better. When I suggested to John that, for the first night or two, and for the safety of everyone, we should let the girls recover and share their watch, he waved his hand at me and bawled that my “princess” had to work like everybody else! Looking at Liz who was throwing up over the rail, I felt bad for her knowing that her night watch was coming up soon. As to my “princess”, I told her to take a pill and go to sleep, I would cover her sailing duties.

As expected, by the next day the women were back in shape and everyone had their routine down. But the captain hadn’t mellowed at all and the atmosphere onboard was now officially toxic. Everything was calculated, every word was measured and it was clear that our every move was being watched and judged. Jas and I ate together, while Liz – who hadn’t bought her own food – was forced to eat what John was willing to share. Everyone kept to themselves and secretive conversations amongst the divided group became focused on the drama at play.

Dead Calm

I have always found the ocean vast yet teeming with life. There is always something happening. Terns, gulls and shearwaters keep you company, dolphins ride the bow-wake, whales spout and then disappear, startled flying fish glide unbelievable distances away from you. Civilization is never far away with tankers the size of football fields rushing to their delivery and plastic “works of art” floating past endlessly on their destination to nowhere. This time though, the ocean felt like a giant desert and was irritably silent. Days into our crossing, we had yet to see a dolphin, or a turtle. We hadn’t seen a bird for days and our fishing lines had been idle from the beginning. Was this silence a reflection of what was happening onboard, a mirror to our own tiny, egotistical and secluded world? Everything was so surreal that I couldn’t stop imagining we were acting in a scene of Kevin Costner’s apocalyptic fiasco “Waterworld”. Much effort was being made in trying to change the mood, but we all had to come to terms with the unwanted truth, that this crossing was going to be long and painful. Loneliness was going to be the theme of the voyage! Come to think of it, getting off the boat in St-Maarten would not have been such a bad idea after all!

For many, to think of sailing is to think of adventure, with the wind in your hair, the sun high above, or in the company of friends racing in the Hampton’s or at Cowes. Perhaps for you it is pure relaxation, to be anchored in the crystal clear waters of a secluded bay with white sandy beaches and palm trees sipping a Mai-Thai. Or the exhilarating thrills of exploring the unknown. But in reality, and above all else, sailing is about mastering the passing of time. Whether with wind or without, whether in the most beautiful place on earth, or the worst, one must learn how to be comfortable with – well – doing nothing! Unless you are ready to motor whenever there is no wind, you will spend a great deal of time waiting. Waiting for the wind to come or waiting for the gale to go. Sometimes you will wait for days, even weeks until the right forecast finally comes. Sometimes the ocean will rage with fury, and with no end in sight, you will pray to the gods for calmer days. Sometimes the ocean will be still like a mummy. Days will pass, blending into another seamlessly and the total calm will drive you to such insanity that you would kill for a little breeze. Just think of what the mariner’s of yesteryear must have suffered in the “doldrums”! These long moments might be easier to handle when you hop from one island to another, but while crossing from one continent to another, they become tremendous exercises of meditation. And if, for some unfortunate reason, you are caught on a boat where the crew doesn’t get along, then be prepared to delve into your most powerful mantras.

Plankton bloom from the boat

It was two in the morning one night when I climbed the stairs to the wheel-house to relieve Jas from her watch. Usually, she was ready to go to sleep by the time I arrived. But that night, she was still, sitting on deck looking out over the water, seemingly mesmerized. When she saw me she smiled and gestured that I come quickly. The plankton was in full bloom, and the wake of the boat was creating a wonderful luminous spectacle over the black ocean surface. The incredible light display reminded me of the day when during my youth in Quebec I first saw the Northern Lights dancing in the sky during a silent winter night. As the hull cut through the dark liquid, the water displaced and ruffled, activating these bioluminescent wonders that wove together light blue trails that slowly rippled away – ephemeral manifestations of the invisible world. Like a comet that travels the infinite space, burning itself to its ultimate death while leaving behind a fleeting trail of its existence, so were we.

As if trying to avoid our platitude, the group found a common interest and focused on coming up with theories that would explain the lack of ocean activity. We all knew the seas were overfished and that many species were disappearing rapidly, but there was something else to the mystery. It is only when looking at the log and entries from previous crossings did the explanation come to reveal itself. Seven days into our voyage and a thousands of miles away from the Caribbean, right in the middle of the Gulf Stream, the ocean was still warmer than a city swimming-pool. Three degrees more than the average of years before (according to the captain’s log), meant that the tuna, dolphins and others had most likely traveled north in search of more productive, colder waters, bringing along with them the birds. By the tenth day, we started to see a gently but significant dip in the water temperature. As if to confirm our global warming explanation, late in the afternoon, a small pod of spotted dolphins came and greeted us as the sun went down over a colder Atlantic.

Small pod of spotted solphins

Now that the mystery had been solved, the team spirit rapidly dissolved again and the crew fell right back into its divided and individualistic mode. Our only source of joy now were these little daily visits from the dolphins, sometime in the morning but always around sunset.

One day, shortly after lunch, about five hundred miles from our final destination, the tell-tale spout of a sperm whale appeared on our starboard side. This was something we had all been waiting for. These magnificent toothed whales are year-round residents of the Azores and known to hunt for giant squid along the volcanic ridges that surround these islands. As we were slowly closing the distance to the islands, we were anxiously calculating the days when we would have our first whale sighting. The whale was floating immobile not far away, and judging from its size it appeared to be a single, lonely calf, which was quite unusual. Calves and juveniles are cared for by the females for more than a decade, and when the adults go hunting into the deep abyss the nursery pod is left behind as a group. An abandoned calf would be the perfect meal for a passing pod of Orcas, Pilot Whales or False Killer Whales. So either the rest of the group was nearby, or something bad had happened.

Swimming in the middle of the ocean

The ocean was flat calm, with barely a ripple. The sun was high and the wind almost non-existent. The conditions were perfect to go for a swim and investigate. The problem was that I had never been a big fan of swimming in the middle of nowhere. I grew up watching “Jaws” on the big screen, and am part of that generation that suffered from the “Jaws Syndrome”. I could be swimming in a lake and still would feel afraid of what lurks beneath the surface. Scuba-diving is different, because seeing below the surface automatically eliminates my fears. But for now, the idea of snorkeling my way towards an animal of several tons, that I had never encountered before, with thousands of miles of ocean in all directions demanded a giant leap of faith. Grabbing my snorkel and GoPro, I looked at Jas and told her to keep an eye on me. She had absolutely no idea how frantic panic was spreading through my body! Nevertheless, I summoned all my courage, sat on the diving platform, took a deep breath and jumped!

As I swam in the direction where I thought the whale was, I tried with all my might to stay calm and breathe. The combination of seeing endless blue everywhere, with the borrowed snorkel that was leaking badly and made me sniff salt water, certainly didn’t help me relax. I tried to stay focused, but it was really hard. I didn’t know where to look. Below, to check again that no pre-historical sea creature might suddenly appear from the depths and engulf me. Above and ahead, to see where I was going, but while doing so, I would abandoned my watch of the “under”. Or towards the boat, which seemed to get smaller and smaller. What an ordeal! Alas, the whale finally came into sight. But every time my head was under, salt water went up my nostrils. This was pathetic, I was pathetic! How many people have the chance to swim with whales in the wild, and here I was hardly able to keep my senses together! So much for an explorer! What a lamentable performance!

the dot on the right is me!

In the end, I did manage to control my breathing, and filmed a little, before the calf twisted sideways to look me over and finally swam away. But when I found myself alone again, my delusional feeling of being powerless “live bait” returned, and I swam for life, turning my fins into a small engine! As I returned, I saw Jas on the deck making big signs, like one of those airport ground controllers who direct the planes. What was I to make of her primitive attempts of communication? Was I being followed by a shark? Was there something else coming? Did the captain suddenly decide to leave me behind? All this was not making me feel any better! Grabbing the ladder, I quickly pulled myself up, only to have the exhaust bluster into my face! How pleasant! Jas came to greet me and decoded what she had been waving about. The rest of the whale-nursery was right off the bow! I was not really ready for another round of torture, but those were four more calves. So I exchanged snorkels and quickly jumped back in. This time however, as if on purpose, the captain drove the bow of the boat right into the middle of the pod of calves. Great! Of course, by the time I had swum within sight of the whales the boat had scared them off.

On the two orcas passing by

Later that afternoon, a couple of orcas, in their black and white “tuxedos” dove right underneath the boat. They passed so close, and the ocean was so clear that we felt like looking through the glass of a big aquarium. These were the predators the calves we left behind would have to fear and I was glad they were not alone. Sadly, the orcas had no further interest in us, and quickly dove away.

There are advantages to having days with no wind; albeit not for sailing. For one, you can perfectly see whatever is swimming or floating at the surface. For sailing though, it is horrible. No wind equals no speed and no speed equals motoring. But today with a flat ocean, it wast the perfect day for reconnaissance. The water seemed to be filled with jellyfish and standing at the bow, looking down, I could see in all directions and to great depths, countless of brown jelly fish of medium size, with yellowish, fluffy tentacles gently puffing their way around. Turtles feed on them and so it was no surprise of seeing them in large numbers. I looked up to see if there would be any turtle big enough to justify going back into the open ocean. Since the sperm whale episode, I had had several swims in the ocean and was now way more relaxed. In fact, I was desperately waiting for any opportunity that would request my presence off board! Suddenly, I noticed a strange big fin flapping about just ahead, one that resembled way too much to the fin of a shark. Our bearing was directly towards whatever it was, and unless one of us was to move, we were going to hit it. So I shouted: “Sharks, sharks, stop the boat!”

As we drifted towards the fin, the mystery was revealed – it was a Mola! Molas are pelagic fish that can reach up to 13ft in length and weigh as much as 3,300lbs. The English call it Sunfish while the French have named it the “Poisson Lune” (moonfish). They drift sideways close to the surface, pecked at by a regiment of small cleaning fish, and feed on jellyfish, explaining its appearance here today. A Mola was precisely what I had waited for. This time I was ready; and quickly and inconspicuously slipped into the water. The bizarre looking fish first dove to about 30ft before coming back up and allowing me to stay with him for a while. Looking at the bulgy eyes and roundness of the body, I could definitely see why the French had opted for the moon. Which left wandering, how on earth the English could find any resemblance to the sun in this weird looking flat oval shaped sea creature? My bet was that they had named it this way just to annoy their European neighbors in the usual anglo-french competition!

The mystery is revealed – a Mola!

For 15 minutes, the “Sun/Moonfish” and I eyed each other with mutual curiosity, and then it probably decided it was time to carry on with the task that had brought him here: to gorge itself on stingy, juicy jellyfish. Reluctantly I paddled back to yet another rice and fish meal aboard the “loveboat”.

On the seventeenth day, the Azores appeared. Our ordeal was about to end. Pico island’s black volcanic peak rose into the sky, piercing the clouds like a giant beacon, guiding the desperate seafarers seeking land. Although we could have tacked our way in, slowly and gently, no one onboard was in the mood of stretching our lamentable and suffocating team assignment even by an hour or two. All Jas, Liz, and myself wanted to do, was to get there and head straight to Pete’s bar for a cold and refreshing pint so that we could finally, and in unison, let the steam out. But this was not the end of it: The captain had yet another surprise in store for us.

Back in St-Maarten we had agreed to share the expenses such as the cost of fuel. John had done the crossing many times before and had a good idea of how much it would cost. Obviously, he had been quick to remind us that depending on how much we would motor, the price would go up or down, which made sense to all of us. But at no time during the trip did he let us know how much we were racking up. Instead, he watched the hours on the engine accumulate, without saying a word. Docked at the fuel station in Horta, the pump finally clicked, indicating that the tank was full, and John came to us, gloating, with the arrogant look of a taxman who had finally cornered his quarry. With a big smile on his face and no apologies, as if this was the most normal thing to ask, he told us that the bill was now twice his pre-departure estimate.

Paying our dues, the three of us got off the boat and walked away wondering in silence what had happened to this man to become so bitter. As if on cue, and as if life didn’t want us to ponder on the insignificant, just then, out from his kiosk came the legendary Norberto Serpa. This little man with his iconic red bandana, long auburn hair and beard bleached by the sun and salt is the famous whale watching guide “ocean guru” who takes out National Geographic, the BBC and all of the world’s most famous underwater photographers. And, lucky for as he was also an old friend of Jas! With a huge grin he hugged Jas and greeted us like his own family. “Jasssssssmiiine! It has been so long! Come quick, all of you, come for lunch at my house on Pico, right now, you will adore!” What he had forgotten was to tell us that we were going whale-watching first with a group of tourists, then to his home and that lunch would be more like dinner. So within 10 minutes off the boat after 17 days we were on a boat again. But without our cameras and dressed for land – not for the sea! Liz had put on her best “going out dress” a vintage crochet thing that barely covered the necessary above her skimpy little bikini and she soon found herself shivering like crazy. But that afternoon, and to the privilege of our eyes only, we saw sperm-whales breaching again and again, while dolphins kept us company, riding on each side of our boat, all the way up to Norberto’s “Adega” a little stone house made of volcanic rock on the flank of the Pico volcano overlooking the ocean. That evening, we left behind all our bad memories and feasted on local delicacies and fresh tuna grilled to perfection by the most warm-hearted, smiling, and generous host.

On the way to Noberto’s house on Pico

Common Dolphins coming along!

Pages and pages could be written on the things that were done and said during the crossing, how appalling John’s behavior evolved and how his neglect of safety would be worthy of a lawsuit. But, in the end, thankfully, the crossing passed without any major incidents. I prefer not to think what could have or would have happened, had a major storm hit the boat, or any other predictable event that can happen during such a long voyage at sea. In retrospect, this trip was a great occasion for my partner Jas and I to test our capacity, as a couple and as a team to deal with situations like being stuck on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic, with a madman as a captain. Although we would certainly not repeat this trip, we are glad that we did it. Life can be lived resenting these mishaps and misfortunes, and wishing we had the power to foresee and avoid them. But I prefer to focus on the positive and the opportunities for growth that such unwanted events bring along. As Shakespeare wrote:

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”

Our itinerary

Atlantic Crossing 2012 from Daniel Fox on Vimeo.

The Last Explorers 2

Thanks to James Cameron’s recent extraordinary journey to the bottom of the ocean, and other personal events, I felt the  need to write a second part to my previous post “The Last Explorers”.

Although I could have used a series of other excuses to justify continuing explaining my point about the declining of the spirit of exploration, it was a report on the BBC’s website that got me all itchy.

Journalist Rebecca Morell, on site in Guam, was doing an update right after Cameron had came back from the deepest place on Earth. The short interview featured on the web was so unprofessional, I asked myself if I had mistakenly switched to Fox News.

The other voice in the clip, a man at the BBC studio, started by saying: “This is supposed to be a bit of a race involving a team from Google and one sponsored by Richard Branson – but it is over before it really begun hasn’t it?”

Did anyone brief this person before he went on air? The race to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench has been on for years – the last five mostly in secrecy. Tens of millions have been spent and three other teams have planned expeditions this year alone, DOER Marine, Virgin Oceanic and Triton Submarines. The race is not over before it begun, the race has been won!

Morell continued, cordially, informing him that it had indeed been a race with a winner. She then told how Cameron wanted to inspire a new era of ocean exploration. The man reciprocated: “It is a puzzling point though, if it has been done before because of a US navy team which reached the bottom of the Mariana trench 50 years ago, to what extent is it a pioneering dive that he has just completed ?”.

Seriously?

If that was not enough, they concluded the segment by pointing out that: “Some scientists question whether you actually need to have humans at the bottom to explore when you can do things like drop down underwater robots”.

This should have been a “walking on the moon” moment with the entire world (and most importantly the entire exploration community) celebrating. If this is true that some scientists really question the need to “Physically” explore the unknown, shame on them! Why go to Mars if we can send a robot? Why meet and talk to people in the flesh if you can do it online?

The other surprising fact was the almost total absence of two of the most legendary exploration clubs, the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers Club. Founded in 1830, the RGS enshrines such famous names as Livingstone, Stanley, Scott, Shackleton, Hunt and Hillary. There was not a word about the expedition from them, not on their twitter site, nor their News site. The Explorers Club has members including the first man to reach the North and South Pole, the first to climb the summit of Mount Everest, and the first to step on the surface of the moon. Captain Don Walsh, former Honorary Club President, who was part of the first manned expedition to the bottom of the Trench was actually onboard with Cameron for this historical feat. Sadly, the Club only tweeted little bits about this groundbreaking event, and nothing was written on their News/Bog site. A pity and shame for these institutions who have the responsibility of carrying on the flame of exploration.

As many of you know, I am in the process of putting together a large expedition, a 6-year around the world sailing expedition, called E.P.I.C. Aboard two 35m aluminum hull sailing boats, with retractable keels, we will visit over 250 of the remotest islands in the world. Doing documentary film making, photography, conservation campaigns, and science projects, this endeavor is reminiscent of the Golden Age of maritime exploration. The budget is obviously huge and the challenges seemingly impossible. The reactions I usually get could be summed up in three words: “Really? Why? Good Luck!” No worries, I do get my share of encouragements, but last week I received a couple of comments that reminded me why I was sacrificing everything to make this project of mine happen.

The first one came from Prince Michael of Kent, whom I had the honor to meet in his office at Kensington Palace in London. Listening carefully to my presentation, his eyes opened up and I could see a glare in them. He looked at me and said: ”Finally! It is so refreshing to see that the real spirit of exploration, the one I grew up with, these big dreams of exploring the world, of not being afraid of leaving the comfort zone behind, do still exist. I am glad to know that the flame is not extinguished and is being carried on. Thank you”

The second comment came from Bill Vartorella, who is a fellow of both the Explorers Club and the Royal Geographical Society, and a member of the Overseas Press Club and Rotary. In his email, Mr. Vartorella said: “This is a gutsy expedition that cuts to the heart of grand exploration tradition (something abandoned by some organizations, as per vote of membership several years ago, re: grants), while embracing high-tech, with the ocean as central theme/connective tissue to past and present.   The intro and feel of your 30-page brochure are riveting. This is a great expedition!” 

It is always difficult to explain why I want to commit the next 10 years to a project that seems impossible. It is hard to find people that “get it”! When I see projects like Cameron’s journey to the ocean depths and when I get comments like those two last week, I am reminded that I am on the right track and that I don’t always have to explain my reasons. I just have to listen to that little voice inside of me that tells me to keep on going, and to keep pushing the envelope. One day, when I am on the boat, sailing the oceans like the great explorers of yesterday, all this hard work, all these days where I was left without a single penny, all this hardship, and all these days where I felt like abandoning the project, yet kept on going, to the disbelief of many, all this, will have been worth it. Because that is what these grand-scale expeditions are for, to remind us that everything is possible, that our dreams are never too big.

The Last Explorers

“That is the exploration that awaits you! Not mapping stars and studying nebula, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.”  Leonard “Spock” Nimoy

A new show on BBC has left me with a sour feeling. It is not really that the show is bad, or that the host is annoying. It is not that the topic is stupid nor that the episodes are not interesting. It is rather the title that is raising a red flag in my unconscious explorer mind. Neil Oliver’s new show “The Last Explorers” tags itself as “a series on the golden age of exploration, charting the routes of contact that drew together the farthest reaches of the world”. They could have called the show “The First Explorers”, “The Great Explorers”, or simply “The Golden Age of Exploration”. Instead they chose to epitomize these men as the last of their kind, placing them in the same category as any other extinct species. Unfortunately, and sadly, that knot in my stomach, that needle in my brain, is there because I sadly agree with this statement.

A little bit more than a year ago, I attended the Royal Geographical Society’s Explore weekend and was enchanted by the speech of Arita Baaijens. As she described her journey through the desert with its violent sand storms, she concluded with one of the most sincere and refreshing types of advice I had heard in a very long time:

“…there’s a tendency to cover up expeditions and journeys with noble aims. Either to attract sponsors or to give the expedition a sexy or good feel. But most first timers GO without knowing why they want to follow the Amazon River or reach the North Pole, or cross the biggest desert. It’s an inner drive, and it’s quite a normal thing to do – that is why there are so many legends, myths, fairy tales about the Journey of the Hero (Joseph Campbell). Young people want to test their strength, find out who they are, and what their place in he world is. Those journeys are directed towards your inner world, about WHO am I and WHAT is my place in the world, see Tomson’s words. And when you have learned more about yourself, your motives, your prejudices and opinions, your place in the world, you are better equipped for another type of expedition, journeys of discovery directed towards the outside world, characterized by WHY & HOW. “

I think what “The Last Explorers” means is that the “spirit of exploration” has changed tremendously in the last decades, and for some, including myself, it is more of a loss than a gain. And nothing could be more evident to support this fact, than what is happening at the Explorers Club in New York at this moment.

During my first visit to this historical club – with legendary members such as Roald Amundsen, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Neil Armstrong, I was struck with disbelief when at the entrance to the main saloon, I saw a scale model of the ultra luxurious cruise ship “The World”. Was I at the right place? In the right building? Or had I mistakenly entered an Upper East Side travel agency for wealthy retirees? The latest events that have unfolded in the media seem to be zeroing in precisely on this existential issue. What is exploration? On one side are the “New School Explorers”, to whom exploration is a blend of commercial adventures surrounded by rich people that can pay their way. R.L. (his name is obviously not revealed) precisely embodies this new genre. He is a hedge fund manager from London who made good money and now can afford to “collect“ exploration badges, making him an “explorer”.  The man, who is more at home in Michelin star restaurants then in a bivouac, pays ridiculous sums to be taken into the wilderness by experts, then claiming the credit for himself. His latest adventure was in Antarctica, where he dished out close to £100,000 to get up and supposedly baptized an unnamed peak (needless to say, with a lot of help). His brashness goes so far, that he now gives talks to children on how to be an explorer! For this type of person, the Club is doing really well, befitting these “modern” times. The Club’s supporters defend their position by illustrating how the revenues have increased by adding new members like him – money much needed to renovate the crumbling building, suitably located between Madison and Park streets, on the chic Upper East Side, rather than funding new, real adventures.

On the other side are the “Old School Explorers”, who care more about the “Spirit of Exploration” – It is not what you do, but how and why you do it. The debate is surprisingly similar to what went on in the wine industry – old world wines which were generally subtle and complex, versus the new world wines, usually described as bold, sweet, simple, and with great emphasis on the packaging. At the end of the line, the core of the issue, whether it is exploration or food, is quite the same: Quality versus Quantity. Local or Global? Small or Big? Does exploration have a “Spirit” or is it an industry? And if it is an industry, then how can we commercialize it, make it grow and become more profitable? Herein lies the core of the question: Is bigger really better? – Which brings me back to Arita‘s statement.

Present day exploration could be divided into three categories:

  • A rich pastime
  • A personal ego-trip – the desire to break a record or make an environmental statement
  • A vague, virtual idea of discovering the planet from behind ones’ computer (see Nature is not in your computer).

It is no longer about wanting to disconnect from overbearing city-life to experience the unknown. It is no more about wanting to escape the crazy modern world to seek true, pristine wilderness. It is no more about a journey to discovering your inner self. What it is today, is a business! The magic of new discoveries has given place to self-centered claims of saving the planet.

I explore because for me, the world makes more sense out there, than here. I explore because nature humbles me. I explore because it reminds me that there is something bigger in life, something sacred and mysterious. I explore because it makes me a better person. And, I really wish we would hear the same narrative from other explorers more often. I just hope I am not part of a dying species!

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  Marcel Proust

Patagonia 2011

This land has been many things to many people. For Magellan and Drake, it was the land of giants. For FitzRoy, it was the beginning of the end. For Darwin, it was a trip that would change his life. ForJeremy Button, it was his home, then his curse. For St-Exupery, Patagonia was his muse. And forChatwin and Theroux, it became their salvation. For me, this vast land, this million kilometer square of mountains, rivers, canyons, steppes, ocean coasts, and unbelievable skies, Patagonia is where my story began.

For more than 10 years, I tried to follow a path that was unfortunately, doomed from the beginning. You see, back in my childhood days, I would either spend my days on the shore of the St-Lawrence River, meticulously examining each and every tide pool or roaming the forest in search of small and bizarre critters. I was always down on my knees, my head in the water, or digging under a tree or a rock. On my 16th birthday, I received two of my most cherished childhood gifts, two photos, framed, from the famous photographer Talbot – “Flight”, the iconic photo of two dolphins jumping in front of a cargo ship, and “Megaptera”, the amazing tail of  a humpback whale. Back then, if you would have asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up, my answer was, and had been the same for a very long time: “I want to sail around the world and study whales”! In fact, the first time I applied for university was in Marine Biology at the University of British Columbia. On a funny note, I used to watch “Miami Vice” in the late 80’s and envy Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) because he lived in a marina, on his Endeavor sailboat.

Then, like so many young dreamers, I was told to “Wise Up” and get serious with my life. Listening to the senior council, I put aside those “infantile” ideas of traveling the world’s oceans looking for swimming mammals and enrolled in business and marketing! I still regard that day as the day that I sold my soul. I spent the next 15 years pushing my way into a world that never seemed quite right for me. Every time I felt the weight of the system bringing me down, I would leave everything behind and escape for months on end, disappearing somewhere, closer to nature. Closer to what deep down I was longing for. One time, I spent a summer at Isla Guadalupe in Mexican waters, diving with white sharks.

The last and final straw happened in New York in 2008. After a disastrous short-lived marriage, I finally did what I should have done a long time ago. I was 34 years old and had wasted enough of my precious life. It was time to set the clock back, rewind the tape and press play again. I sold everything, geared up with camping equipment and picked a destination – a far one, far far away! Although initially I wanted to land in the Falklands, with my budget, Patagonia was more of a realistic choice. So on January 2009, I arrived at the Valdes Peninsula, in the Chubut Province, located in northern Patagonia. There, for the first time in over 20 years, I felt alive. And then the most bizarre thing happened. I remember standing on the beach, facing out, it was a particular windy day and no one could be seen anywhere. I started to feel chocked and out of air. So I took a real deep breath, like none I had ever taken before. I felt the air travelling down to my lungs as if it was the first time I was breathing. I felt my lungs opening up, as if it was for the first time. And this sudden feeling of awareness, as if I was unexpectedly waking up after decades of hibernation.

Since then, I have been back every year to this “lugar salvaje”. And as it turns out, precisely every 14 months!! Don’t ask me why, I don’t know, it is only a coincidence…. I think so!  Anyhow, this year, I went back with my partner, photographer Jasmine Rossi. Her own story with Patagonia is also quite something. Working in the financial world of London, she developed a chronic tendinitis and reluctantly took a year off. Fluent in spanish, she decided to visit South America. As she says: “I wanted to get as far away as possible from the intrusions of what we call “civilization”, so I canoed through jungle rivers and rode along Andean trails from Venezuela to Chile…”  Two years later, Jasmine published the first ever in-depth book on the wildlife of the Valdes Peninsula, “The Wild Shores of Patagonia”.

Jasmine needed to photograph certain winter landscapes for the re-edition of her book “The Spirit of Patagonia”. So after persuading Volkswagen to lend us their new Amarok, we drove south for another 6 weeks of adventure. Overall the trip was a success. We got the shots we were after. But the disappointing part was, and it is always the case on most of my trips, to see Man’s impact on Nature.  Read “Land of Savages” and “Polyethylene Sculpture

Mate Expedition

There is a toasty aroma in the air. A strong yet delicate fragrance with a hint of fresh grass, tinged with roasted nuts. This smell, unknown to my olfactory receptors for most of my life, was now a familiar one. The wind is carrying it from the giant rolling ovens that are drying the fresh yerba leaves, brought in from the fields only minutes ago. The process, rudimentary, is still the same one as 50 years, ago. The only difference is the science of time. Branches with the leaves still attached, are carried on a moving mat and dropped in a rolling  cylinder where the open mouth of a scorching furnace tumbles them across to safety. The secret lies in the timing. Years of minute observations, trials and errors, has led to the perfect equation, genius of physics and math, a precise number of seconds, spent under a precise temperature, to give the perfect roast. The result is a partially dried leave, full of flavors and healthy benefits, ready to be crushed and packed.

I was back at Las Marias, wrapping up a 3-month assignment. Sitting on the front porch of La Majoria (main house) I was doing a ritual that had now become daily routine: pour loose yerba into a gourd, cover the top with my hand, turn the gourd upside down and shake it several times. The goal is to bring to the surface the “Polvo” (powder). Then pour water on one side, not too much, just enough to soak the leaves and keep the other side dry. As an old man said to me once: “You are not simply pouring water, you are feeding the yerba so that it can breathe”. After a couple of minutes, sip the water through the Bombilla (straw). Refill and sip. Repeat.

Mate is more than a drink. Comparing it to tea or coffee would be more than an understatement, it would be an insult. It is more like wine. It is a lifestyle statement. One that says that time and relationships matter. One that says that speed and singularity are not a priority. It is a ritual that invites for sharing and trust. A reminder from the Native Indians passing the pipe around, as a sign of welcome and humility. It is a ceremony that invites strangers and solidifies friendships.  In Argentina, it is almost a religion and when offered to you, it is impossible to refuse.

Together with renown photographer Jasmine Rossi, based in Buenos Aires, our assignment was to travel to the birthplace of Mate, where it is grown, more precisely to the northern provinces of Misiones and Corrientes, and find out more about this cultural phenomenon. We decided to call our trip, the Mate Expedition!

The result is now available online20 interviews, 4 diaries and hundreds of photos. Sit back, relax and let the people from Argentina tell you a story, their story. In our ever faster society, Mate is an antidote. It is a reminder that life is more than running after our next achievement. It is an effortless social meditation that emphasizes on our need for interaction. It is a pause, a long one, that forces you to absorb the beauty that surrounds you. One that forces you to listen and to watch. Mate is not only a celebration of time and friendship, but it is a tribute to Life. Enjoy!

Patagonia 2010 part 2

After two weeks in Esquel, working the details of the coming expedition, I was ready to head back to Buenos Aires. The plan was to drive through the Los Alerces National Park by the Ruta 71. Then get on the Ruta 258 until Bariloche and spend two nights at Estancia Arroyo Verde. From there head north to Copahue then east through the Wine Road of Neuquen, the Rio Negro Valley and La Pampa. I needed to be back in B.A. no later than Monday, as I was meeting the director of Fundacion Vida Silvestre and the director of Parques Nacionales on Tuesday. With the kayak strapped tight on the roof, provisions in the cooler and a full tank of gas, the buildings of Esquel gradually shrank in my rear-view mirror while the mountains in front of me, caped with fresh snow, became a bit more giant every minute.

The park was beautiful with a lush green forest of Alerces. Those trees, often called the Redwoods of the South, are one of the longest living trees in the world. From the Cupressaceae family, some trees are even 3,000 years old. A network of green emerald crystal clear rivers bordered by Arrayan trees connects several lakes. The sight was pure beauty, and passing by all this water, I couldn’t stop wishing I had more time to kayak it all. But with a deadline hanging over my shoulder, I watched the rivers come and go.

By lunchtime I was in El Bolson, just outside of Chubut Province, now in the province of Rio Negro. It is known for its fruits, as the place is a pure contrast to the industrialized fruit farms of the valley of Rio Negro. The inhabitants, mostly from a series of European immigrations, still practice a simple and sustainable lifestyle. Aside from finding exquisite jam, the town is a jewel of craftsmanship and food delicacy. Smoked trout, home-brewed beer, chocolate and ice cream are only a sample of the local specialties.

The day was coming to an end as I drove through the Enchanted Valley past Bariloche. Volcanic rock carved by millions of years of Patagonian rain and wind have transformed the slopes into architectural marvels. Unfortunately, with the sun going down, I watched them disappear rapidly–first becoming silhouettes and then totally vanishing in their surrounding shadows. Engulfed between giant black walls, I watched the sky above illuminated with a carousel of blues and oranges. The dark blanket from the valley soon extended its reach and before I could finish absorbing the beauty of it all, the night was now reigning. Shortly after, I was arriving at Estancia Arroyo Verde.

Nestled between the Andes and the famous Traful river in  Nahuel Huapi National Park,Estancia Arroyo Verde is pure wild fly-fishing and horseback riding country. I am here because the world is really small (in Argentina) and once you know a person or two, you start to be invited everywhere. The land has been owned by the Lariviere family for more than 70 years. Although the place was originally a summer retreat (which over the years saw the likes of President Eisenhower, King Leopold of Belgium, the Infanta Cristina of Spain), in 1987, Meme Lariviere opened it to the public, making it the first official destination Estancia in Patagonia, and only the third in all of Argentina. Today, the lodge is known worldwide for its top-notch fly fishing.  With over 10 miles of fresh water river, rainbow and brown trouts coexist with the legendary wild Land-Locked salmon. The place is such prime real estate that the owner across the river is no other than CNN tycoon and fly-fishing fanatic, Ted Turner.

The morning after my arrival, with the sun still hiding behind the mountains, I took a stroll to the pond. While the water was perfectly still, mirroring every tiny detail to such a degree that it was easy to forget which way was up, a kingfisher perched on a branch, looked with a fierce eye for any slight movement, a minuscule ripple or a small moving shadow. Winter was showing signs of arrival, the golden grass in the field was covered in crystallized dew. The minutes passed. And passed.

The sun was now warming up the entire valley when I suddenly heard a giant rumble. It didn’t take me long to know what it was. I sprang up and started to run toward the source and there they were, coming in full force… horses. The gauchos had gone to get them in the morning from roaming the land so they would be ready for tomorrow’s big event–rounding up all the cattle for winter. Since I was leaving on that day, the best I could do was ride them in the afternoon. That evening, I sat in the living room and wandered through family photos, fishing trophies and shelves filled with history. I had been blessed by Meme’s hospitality and it was such a privilege to be welcomed in her house. The next morning, sitting at the breakfast table, enjoying the Larivieres for one last time before I departed, they handed me the big day log and told me to write my name in it. I was only a guest of a friend, yet they were asking me to be part of a long legacy that featured some of the most influential people on the planet. I profoundly thanked them, took the pen and on the fifth page after Ted Turner’s visit on April Fourth, I wrote my goodbyes. On the way out, Meme took my arm and told me that on May fourth, she was having her birthday in Buenos Aires. If I could come, she would introduce me to the Senator of the province of Corrientes–where the Ibera Esteros are located, and she knew it would be beneficial for me. I told her it would be an honor.

The Nahuel Huapi National Park is another amazing park with a mixture of razor-edged mountains, evergreen rain forest and vast land of deciduous trees, which at this time of the year turned the park into an endless sea of red, yellow and orange patches. It was with no hesitation that I decided to take the road less frequented, the one that would take me through the prettiest part of the park. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. Sinuously wending through the park on the dirt road, leaving behind a cloud of red dust, abrupt walls leading to a series of high peaks on my left and daggered rock formations to my right. Taking sharp turns, driving up the hill over another, then down again, huge pebbles spat out from underneath the tires, I have to admit I didn’t really feel confident in my small Ford EcoSport, with an 18-foot loaded kayak on my head. My mind sat on the edge of anxiousness, torn between the magical scenery and the potential hazards of back country driving with a rental car. I crossed all my fingers that I would make it without a scratch, a flat tire, a broken strap or a cracked windshield. Being able to count all the cars seen in one day on one hand, this was not the place for emergency stops. It was such a relief when the wheels hit the paved road at San Martin de los Andes!

The next stop was Caviahue, near the Copahue volcano. Another friend of a friend was waiting for my visit, the last one before my return to the big city. The landscape around the Andes is so drastic that by going just 10 miles east, you’ll go from rainforest to steppes. This was direction in which I was driving. Miles and miles of flat land, cut with stratified hills and deep canyons. Over the horizon, to my left, the Lanin volcano, with its 12,300 feet, stood tall and alone, its peak poking at the blue sky. The schedule for the next two days was to have a look at the natural hot springs, photograph the Salto del Agrio and scout for locations for a potential winter photoshoot, when everything would be covered in snow except for the Monkey Puzzle trees. The area has been visited by the natives as a therapeutic destination for centuries. The name Copahue means sulfur in Mapuche. In 1865, an argentinean doctor reached an agreement with the local chief and started bringing his patients. He brought international recognition to the springs and himself after curing a patient with tuberculosis. According to local information, the springs are one of just three hydrothermal centers in the world.

The Agrio river finds its origin in the volcano and flows across the Province of Neuquen before it merges into the Rio Negro. With its milky water, due to high concentration of sulfuric acid, the river cuts through a steamy snowy plateau before cascading down through a series of seven falls (Cascada del Rio Agrio) and into the lake. From there, it journeys down onto an intense red bedrock and between the prehistoric Araucarias–living fossil trees with scale-like leaves. Falling 200 feet down at the Salto del Agrio, the river continues to flow in an impressive valley 1,000 feet wide and at a least 3,000 feet high. But after a mud bath in the wild, and an algae wrap at the village, it was time to hit the road once again.

With not much time left, I decided to drive straight to Buenos Aires. In all honesty, there were two things I wanted to avoid; driving through the Pampa during the day, and arriving in the city during traffic hours (the place is mad!). Driving non-stop would take me to B.A. around 4 a.m. The perfect time! The only problem was that I was empty on gas and learned that there were no gas stations in the village. The closest one was Loncopue, 40 miles away. I barely had enough. Thank God the road was going down all the way! Arriving at Loncopue, I pulled in the station, relieved. A young man standing by the pump started to wave his finger in the air as if to insinuate that I had no right to be there. Beside another man who was standing next to him and a school bus in the other lane, I didn’t know what he meant. I pulled my window down and asked him what the problem was. “No gas,” he answered!!

WHAT??? How could this be? I mean, this was a fairly big village, with a modern gas station, how could there be no gas? The main tank was empty and the next re-fueling truck would not show up before Tuesday! Great! And apparently this happens every single week! I started to explain my situation but nothing I would do would change this seemingly unrealistic fact. After explaining over and over again that I needed to find gas (modern world dependency!), the gentlemen who was standing by, and who happened to be the village school bus driver, offered to sell me 10 liters, which he told me would be enough to get Las Lajas, where gas would be available. I followed him to his house. There, he opened his parked car trunk and pulled out a long hose. With one end in the car tank, he drained two big jars, which he poured back in my car. After thanking and paying him, I drove away hoping that the next village would finally have gas. Another 40 miles later, I wiped the sweat off my forehead as I stepped out of the car, took the pump handle and filled the tank with super!

I drove the next 1300 kilometers non-stop and was happy to arrive in Buenos Aires at precisely 4:30 a.m. The city was quiet, with no one in the streets. I could have not asked for more. Unloading everything and managing to put the kayak in the hall, nose down, I headed straight to bed. After a quick nap, I stepped out to do some errands. The car was parked right in front of the building and I had enough coins in the meters to last the afternoon… so I thought. When I came back, the car was gone. No way! Asking around, I found out that it had been towed because the meter ran out during the last 30 minutes. Beautiful! Here, since no one pays their tickets, there is no warning, no ticket at all. The minute the meter expires and you are not there, towing trucks are waiting, counting the seconds, and as soon the red marker appears, your wheels are gone. I will spare you the details of the adventure, only to say that the week was one I wish could be erased. Aside from the car being towed, I eventually returned it with not a single scratch. Except that while driving on the dirt roads, a rock shot through the rear bumper (if we can call that a bumper… Nowadays, they are just big pieces of plastic that break from anything) and made a hole. The rental company had no choice but to change the entire thing:damage $700US!

Patagonia 2010 Part 1

Once again, almost a year to the day, I am back in Argentina. This time, under the special invitation of the Consulate General of Argentina in New York. The plan is to kayak the Ibera Marshes (the equivalent of the Florida Everglades) and hike the jungle of Pinialito and Iguazu (known for the famous huge falls) in the hopes of photographing Argentina’s endangered and threatened wildlife. But before all of that, I needed to travel south, back to the Valdes Peninsula, where I had left my equipment in storage. Although it would have been quicker to simply drive down, load the car and head straight back up, the temptation of exploring was a bit too much and I decided to take a month and wander my way around Patagonia, taking the long way back.

Estancia San Miguel

Nestled between Bahia Camarones and Bahia Bustamante, San Miguel is your typical Patagonian Estancia (ranch). Bordered by 35 kilometers of ocean front, thousands of hectares of pure steppe house a little bit over 3,500 sheep. Ricardo is the gaucho (cowboy) who takes care of everything. On the day of my arrival, shortly after settling down, he invited me to join him and some guests for an asado (Argentinean barbecue). With a huge smile, I gladly accepted. Little did I know that a big surprise was in store for me. In the Quincho (barbecue shed), fresh made pasta was hanging in the corner on a broom stick, and the fireplace was warmed to perfection. Thick bricks of charcoal had been lit hours ago and were now producing a nice bed of hot ashes, slowly cooking the lamb. The world is incredibly small, and as it turns out, the other guests were in fact friends of mine from Puerto Piramides. Gerardo, Vicky and Santiago, owners of the ACA (where I had stayed last year) were also friends with the owner of the Estancia. They had taken a week off and were on their way back when they decided to stop by for the night. As if this was not enough, also sitting at the table was renowned photographer Jasmine Rossi. Rossi and I had been communicating for some time but our schedules had always been impossible to coordinate. Rossi also knew the owner of the Estancia and was on her way to Valdez to photograph the Commerson Dolphins. Unfortunately, the dolphins were no where to be seen, so she decided to swing by for a couple of nights. My ACA friends knew Rossi by reputation from her time at the Peninsula, but as we found out during dinner, they were all from two blocks away in Buenos Aires. Small world indeed!!

The next day, Ricardo set our horses and off we went. During last night’s dinner, Ricardo had mentioned two whale carcasses on the beach and we wanted to find out more. At just about one kilometer from each other, a small minke whale and an old male orca laid on the rocks, their skin leathered by the sun. Ricardo told us that they appeared last September. It is quite common to find stranded whales, but the orca was something else. This was a huge and powerful male orca, at over 25 feet in length. There was no evident sign of trauma or wounds, and we figured the orca must have died of old age. We later learned that close to 50 pilot whales had been found, also in September, stranded in the nearby bay at Bahia Bustamante. After talking to locals, we realized that those three events coincidentally happened at the same time Pan American Oil was conducting seismic surveys in the area. If this was the case, it would not be the first time oil companies’ activities would be responsible for massive whale strandings. This could also be the cause for the massive stranding of 400 whales in the same area back in 1991.

Cordero

The next day, we were invited over to Estancia La Ernesta where the owner, Gonzalo, was in the process of inseminating a 1,000 sheep. Sheep farming in Argentina is big business and Gonzalo took the time to explain every detail of it. Argentina is one of the best producers of merino wool in the world, the top one being Australia. And Australia makes huge money by selling the sperm of its champions. So every year, Australian frozen sheep sperm is sent all around the world! Now female sheep are inseminated as to assure they only give birth to the best offspring. Gonzalo uses both the sperm from his own champions (one came second in “Best Wool” and the other has been a number one in genetics for several years!) and sperm from Australia for insemination. When ready, estrogen is given to the female so that they are all ready at the same time. Vasectomized rams are brought in with little harnesses. The vasectomy is really important here. You don’t want to castrate the male. You want those hormones still alive, you simply don’t want them to reproduce. Those males have a specific and important mission, to identified which female is ready to be inseminated. The harness on the rams is fitted with a red chalk so that when they mount the females, they leave a big red patch on the female’s back. All females with red on their buttocks are then lined up and inseminated. It is not only in the “reproductive” realm that science is applied to sheep farming. The correct exact amount of sheep a size of land is capable to handle is also a matter of mathematics. Australia has one of the best ratios, with eight sheep per hectare. (Now please DON’T quote me on this, the information might be wrong and there are many other realities that may affect the numbers!) Argentina has anywhere between 0.1 to 3 sheep per hectare. Meaning that in Patagonia, if you have dry land, you might need as much as 1,000 hectares for 100 sheep. This data is carefully tracked and managed by the farmer. They rotate their sheep according to the weather and amount of food available. Gonzalo has definitely been doing good work because his wool is one of the best in the world and is sold to Ermenegildo Zegna.

Bahia Bustamante

My next stop was Bahia Bustamante, where I had briefly stopped by a year ago, while kayaking my way down to Comodoro Rivadavia. The place is an amazing little piece of paradise surrounded by 25,000 acres of pure Patagonian nature. With one of the greatest biodiversity of seabirds in Patagonia, Bustamante is home to sea lions, 60,000 penguins and orcas. In December 2008, the area, consisting of 100 kilometers of coast and totaling 600 kilometers square, was declared Marine Park.

The Bay became prime real estate in 1953, when Don Lorenzo Soriano was searching the coast to harvest seaweed. The plant was used in the production of hair grooming products. The place was known then as the Bahia Podrida (Rotten Bay). On the pebble beach, tons of seaweed would accumulate after each tide and rot under the sun. This was the perfect place to collect the marine plant using only horses and wagons. Back then, up to 500 people populated the little village. Times have changed a lot since the good days of seaweed. Nowadays, the industry has been greatly reduced and the rest industrialized, leaving Matias, Lorenzo’s great-grandson, to turn the village into an eco tourism destination.

On my first morning, I witnessed the sunrise turning the sky and clouds into a hot burning furnace. It was as if the sun had decided to explode and Armageddon was upon us. Deep hues of orange and yellow with dark purple edges, the ocean looked like a big piece of hot charcoal. Gradually, the intensity went away, and the sky filled itself with watercolor strokes. By 9 a.m., all clouds had disappeared and the blue sky reigned once again. Matias then suggested that we visit the petrified forest nearby. Dating from the Paleocene era, 60 millions years ago, those mineralized trunks are a visual reminder of a period when Patagonia was ruled by dinosaurs and was surrounded with active volcanoes. (If you’re interested in reading more about the Bahia Bustamante, click here.)

To Esquel

With little time left and much work to do, I needed to find a place where I could work — meaning have access to internet. I had several invitations to go spend some time in various Estancias, but none of them had cell phone coverage or internet. Fortunately, a connection came through from a friend, and Esquel would be my next stop. There, was a house waiting for me.

Welsh people have played an important part in Patagonia’s colonization. In 1862, coming aboard the ship named Mimosa, 1,500 of them founded the town Puerto Madryn. In 1865, Rawson was officially founded. The settlement was named after Dr.Guillermo Rawson, an Argentine Minister who supported the Welsh establishment. In 1885, a group known as Los Rifleros ventured west, following the Rio Chubut and establishing a new colony called “Colonia 16 de Octubre,” which later became the town of Trelevin and Esquel. Every year, their 700 kilometer horseback riding journey, from Rawson to the Andes, is reenacted with dozens of original descendants. Their itinerary was also going to be my way to Esquel.

The Rio Chubut is followed by Ruta 25 up to Paso de Indios. There, it turns north where Ruta 12 sidelines her all the way up past Piedra Parada. On one side of the dirt road, the river banks host green lush flora, while on the other side, steep cliffs and tall canyons block any attempts of escaping. The weather was perfect all day with just a tiny bit of clouds. As I got closer to the mountains a stormy system started to invade the sky. Wind began to blow from all directions. Around 6 p.m., I reached Piedra Parada (Standing Stone). This huge monolith stands tall and imposing. At 100 meters wide and 240 meters high, the piece of rock was at the center of a volcano extinct for thousands of years. It has since become a landmark and inspired thousands of photographs and paintings. That evening, this giant looked ever more impressive under a canopy of never-seen before, black and blue clouds. The sky looked like a giant battlefield where unknown forces fought for their dominion.

Punta Chivato

Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you gonna get!” That scene from Forrest Gump plays in my head as I sit at the point, watching the sunrise over the Sea of Cortez, spouts of blue whales out in the open leaving me with a small feeling of jealousy, wishing I had a way to reach them. Still, I could not ask for more. During a stay at Angel Azul B&B in La Paz, during the kayaking trip with AMG (Alaska Mountain Guides), I met one of the owners of a development in Punta Chivato, a point just north of Bahia Concepcion in the Sea of Cortez. After looking at my book, the gentlemen asked if I would be interested to visit the location and photograph it. They were opening a small hotel and were in need of a bank of images. I was just about to leave sailing with Hayden and had not bought my flight for Argentina. I told the man that I could do it upon my return from the sea. That evening, we shook hands and agreed on the terms. My friend Hayden was about to grace me with his hospitality for the next ten days, I didn’t hesitate one second and invited him to tag along.

The east coast of Baja California is majestic and dramatic. Squeezed between the Sierra de los Gigantes and the Sea, the land is a mix of desert and oasis. The sea brings moisture and the red mountains act like a giant heating system. There is more green in this landscape than you would expect; a forest of thousands of cactuses. Dried riverbeds lined with palm trees, orange trees and mango trees. Somehow, the flora has evolved and succeeded in surviving this extreme environment. It is almost deceptive and for a moment you forget how harsh this arid place can become when the wind dies and the sun toasts the soil like a giant oven.

The hotel faces south, looking into the mouth of the Concepcion bay. About two miles offshore, three small islands hold refuge to a broad range of life forms. One hosts a colony of sea lions, another hosts a colony of terns, and the last one, the biggest of the three, is the domain to an osprey. To the west is a point, made of black twisted striated rock and has an almost lunar aspect. Around the point are a series of beaches offering amazing snorkeling. All around are hordes of brown pelicans and Heermann’s gulls. Several ospreys patrol the waters. On land, finches and orioles fill the air with their melodies. The bushes are homes to lizards and black-tailed jackrabbits with their tall big ears. Elephant trees, Cordon cactuses and numerous others complete the scenery.

The first days were spent driving around to neighboring towns. The wind was blowing strong from the north and the sea was too agitated to go kayaking. We drove to Santa Rosalia, an old French mining town, with the original 100 year-old refinery open as a museum. The hill populated with plantation-like houses, much like the ones found in New Orleans, was a reminder of the origin of the early settlers. Mountains of slag, byproduct of melting copper, still dominate the view. Later in the afternoon, we drove all the way up a mountain on a tiny cobblestone paved road. Both Hayden and I were perplexed by how such labor had been invested for such an unfrequented road. We got the answer much later when we were told that these kinds of roads needed the least maintenance, the water during the hurricane season simply rolling down and leaving the road fairly intact. It was during that drive that we saw a couple of roadrunners. Although I looked for him, the coyote was nowhere to be found!!

The next day we drove to Loreto, down south, and headed for the mountains, our destination was the Mission of San Javier. This mission is one of the most important in Baja and is still visited by thousands of people during the pilgrimages. The backcountry had amazingly several dried up rivers with hundreds of ponds filled with still water. Little forests of palm trees were scattered around, contrasting the red cliffs. Small creeks seemed to flow from nowhere, producing lush greenery along their banks.  Paintings from early natives decorated the walls, their meanings left to our own interpretation, were proof that this place had been a hub of life for centuries.

The rest of our stay was spent kayaking around, snorkeling or exploring the land. We would wake up at sunrise and watch the dolphins play in the bay. Some mornings, they would simply pass by without making much wake. On others, they would be more playful and jump around. Every time we felt so privileged, able to watch this big ball of fire rise above the sea, while the dolphins graced us with their acrobatics.

Pelicans were another subject of our fascination. Masters of gliding, these birds are simply amazing. Barely inches above the water, their wings fully extended, they float on that thin layer of warm air. They form squadrons, sometimes with up to 50 individuals, all lined up. No one will start flapping its wings before the leader does. And when he does, it creates this chain reaction, a mini wave of perfect aerodynamic engineering.

There was a Great Blue Heron stationed in front of the hotel. There was an osprey couple nesting at the top of a navigating tower, up the beach. There was another one down by the boat ramp, their nest up an electricity pole. More than once, on our way to breakfast, one of them would be perched on a big wooden structure, holding a big fish, obviously proving the mastery of his realm. It was stunning to see him one day flying with a yellowtail, about his length in size, tightly gripped between those huge black claws. For this bird to catch such a fast and big fish was just another confirmation of his apex predator status. From time to time, exploring the cliffs, either from above or below, a kingfisher would be quick to fly away, always eluding our sight… and my camera. A group of four ravens, one afternoon, gave us an amazing show. Whether they were courting in the air, or simply playing, they would fly after each other, turn upside down, plunge a hundred feet at full speed and come right back up just a couple of feet off the ground. They would glide their way back up and proceed to do it again, and again. Their prowess leaving us in awe. We would spend hours with our heads down studying the tide-pools, scanning for critters. Those miniature ponds, sheltered from the sea, dug in the rock, hold a surprising wide range of life: tiny transparent shrimps, anemones, soft corals, countless hermit crabs, long zebra worms, tube worms, sea slugs of stunning colors and many kinds of tiny fish animated those mini waterholes.

On our last morning, we witnessed another incredible phenomenon. The day had started like it had the day before; quiet waters and pink sky. But out in the open, a wall of clouds was stretching for miles and was coming toward us fast. It didn’t look like a typical storm. In fact, that line of clouds was perhaps only a hundred yards high, and above it, the sky seemed undisturbed. It was only when our faces were almost in it that we realized what it was. A huge fog system rapidly trapped everything in its way. The world became white and the visibility plummeted down to barely 20 feet. It is fascinating how a world of long distances can be reduced to the size of closet, with no point of references, all within minutes.

Our stay was coming to an end and we felt we had only scratched the surface of all the secrets Punta Chivato has. But like anything in life, the best never reveals itself at once. So it was with happy hearts and smiling faces that Hayden and I drove south, by the sea, through the mountains and back to La Paz where the next day we were flying away.

My time in Baja California has been absolutely incredible. I came down here originally for ten days and now, after a little over a month, I leave with dozens of new friends, amazing photographs and unforgettable new encounters. This part of the world is filled with so much wildlife and stunning geography. No wonder why Cousteau loved it so much and compared the Sea of Cortez to the World’s aquarium. As for me, now sitting in the plane, looking through the window, the land that I have been kayaking, sailing, hiking and driving, now looking more like a map, I smirk and think at life, and how, when you let it guide you, it will take you to places filled with treasures and loving people. Don’t force it, be like the water and go with the flow.

Sailing Matilda

Sailing earth’s waters has always captivated and fascinated man. The vikings sailed to America way before the Europeans. Peruvians explored and helped colonized the Polynesian islands. Darwin discovered the Galapagos and the Falkands onboard the Beagle. There is something about setting out on this vast blue liquid and only navigate with what nature has to offer – wind. My friend Hayden had sailed down from Los Angeles and I was to meet up with him in LaPaz. His sailing boat is a 1967 29ft Columbia MK II named Matilda. And she certainly bears her name correctly. “Matilda” has its origin in Old German and means “mighty in battle”. She was indeed mighty. Built like a tank, she may have been short, but she was heavy and steady. The plan for the next 10 days was to sail to Isla San Jose and spend time at Isla Espiritu Santo. I was certainly not sad thinking of spending time going back to the “Sacred Island”.

I love being in a marina. To be honest, I love living on a sailboat. It is my dream. There is a sense of freedom that reigns. There is sense of connectivity with nature’s biggest element: water. There is a sense of efficiency where everything, every little square inch, is maximized. There is a sense of community where no matter what your boat’s size is, almost everyone around you is here for the same reasons. Finally, sailing is humbling. It is not up to you. The weather and the winds are your master and you must be flexible. You must be like water and go with the flow. As much as the mountains speak to some people, for me, it is the water, and to live on it, there is simply nothing better.

The winds were pounding on our departure date so we decided to postpone it until the weather was more permitting. Coincidentally, one of Hayden’s sailing friends had fallen in the water while coming back from the island and was lost at sea. The Sea of Cortez is actually known to be one of the toughest. It is often unpredictable and the frequency of the swell can be so short that even a 30-foot boat will have her stern cresting one wave while her bow is smashing another one. That was the case that day. Waves of 20 feet and huge winds called for all marinas in La Paz to close and not allow any boats to leave. It was not long that the community gathered and organized the rescue. It was with great relief that five hours later, at 5pm, the channel 16 on the vhf announced that the man had been picked up by the Mexican Navy. He was safe and was on his way back to La Paz. That night, I was onboard the man’s boat, cheering his rescue.

The days were filled with encounters with dolphins, jumping rays, dinners of fresh fish, amazing sunsets, snorkeling, and music. It was also filled with some memorable bumpy nights, jellyfish stings, and windless days.

It is not until I came here that I learned about flying rays. During my first kayaking trip, what I thought were dolphins jumping, turned out to be modula rays. Sometimes reaching 20 feet in height, it is not rare to see them back flip several times in the air before landing back in the water with a big splash. No one knows for sure why they do it, but hardly any day goes by without the sight of one or several rays winking their big white bellies.

One afternoon, while snorkeling, Hayden was deep below, around 20 feet, when I was busy catching my breath on the surface. He came rushing up and spitting the snorkel out like a mad man, told me that the whales were singing. Blowing up my lungs, I tipped forward and kicked my fins. At about 15 feet, I took hold of a rock and held steady. And there it was. This time, it was much different. It was not the long melody, but rather a complex mix of rolls, high squeaks, loud bumps, and even sometime what sounded like scary scream. Needless to say, we spent a while going back and forth, up and down, listening as much as we could before we got too cold.

Towards the end of our trip, while sailing back from Isla San Jose, we noticed a large group of black fins ahead of us. Those were definitely not dolphins. As we got closer, the mystery just kept growing. We could actually recognize some dolphins swimming amongst them, but we had no idea who the others were. Their fins were bigger and rounder. Our questions were answered when one sky-hopped. A round shiny head rose from the surface and sent us a series of clicks, echo-locating us outside the water like I had never seen before. They were a group of pilot whales. I told Hayden that I was jumping in the water. As soon as I was in, I started to regret my decision. The visibility was barely 5 feet and the water was full of tiny, stinging jellyfish. I hadn’t taken the time to put my top on, so here I was, bare chested, in shorts, getting stung mercilessly. Hayden was not sure what to make of me waiving at him telling him I was coming back on board just when the whales were all around! Since the visibility was so bad, I couldn’t see anything! Back at the boat, Hayden told me to hang in the water a bit more because the whales were coming. He threw me a line to tow me. The wake from the boat acted like a shield and protected me from the jellyfish. Still I couldn’t see anything. I suddenly received a tap on my head and looking up, Hayden told me that one was right behind me.  I turned around frantically and for a mere three seconds this long massive black silhouette was barely 5 feet away from me. To be honest, it was a bit spooky! I could not see the eye or anything else, but only the shape, enveloped in a dark green liquid. And then it disappeared. Breathing heavily, I was looking everywhere. I was filled with excitement, curiosity, joy …. and fear. The whole lack of visibility was getting to me! I decided to get back up in the boat and photograph and film them from the dry. We spent the next 30 minutes with them. They would come by and swim really close to the boat. One male in particular was huge, at least 17 feet. Many of them slapped the water with the tails, over and over. At one point, both dolphins and whales together were sky-hopping and slapping the water.

Dinners were either spent on the Matilda, or on another boat, invited by new or old sailing friends. It is quite common among the boating community that misfortune creates new friendships – a floating sleeping bag or a lost dinghy will turn unknown neighbors into the best drinking buddies. Our meals consisted of fresh fish caught during the afternoon. One night, onboard NordicV, we dined with the crew of Misty Moonlight on snapper and lobster, saturated in butter and garlic. Delicioso!! As if food was not enough to bring happiness, most of the time, after dinner, one would bring the guitar out and there began hours of singing and laughing!

All was not always paradise. Winds turn on a dime and transform a perfect sailing day into a stand still. A perfect sunny afternoon anchored in the most beautiful bay will turn into the bumpiest night where you sleep your toes stuck in cracks, hands on the wall, bracing yourself every minute. Not a day goes by without a bump on the head or on your toes. Spills are daily and bathroom times are no place to ponder. Sitting on the toilet is as comfortable as sitting on tin can in a two square foot closet. Lastly but surely: seasickness. Although I have no trouble on the water, it was not the case for a fellow canine we had onboard. On a particularly afternoon, after a sleepless roller coasting night, the furry four-legged creature threw up twice, a substance that goes way beyond what is permissible to write. Ironically, those moments became the funniest stories!!

On the last stretch back from Espiritu to La Paz, a group of bottlenose dolphins escorted us for a good twenty minutes. Sitting at the bow with those majestic animals two feet, sometime only a foot away, it is hard not to be moved. It is hard not to feel connected. Here you are, looking into the eye of another mammal, living in a different world. The other mammal is also looking into your own eyes. There is no doubt. You scream of joy but they don’t understand. They click at you but you don’t understand them. Yet, in this infinite world, you both share the same place, the same moment, you are connected.

Bahia Magdalena

It is said that their migration is the longest one amongst all mammals. Each year gray whales leave the cold nutritious waters of the Chukchi Sea, above Alaska, and head south to Mexico for breeding. Once called the Devil Fish, because of their resistance when harpooned, the gray whale is a 36 ton baleen mammal, recognizable by a unique set of white scars left by parasites and also by a series of knuckles on their midline, instead of a dorsal fin. One of their favorite destinations is Magdalena Bay, located on the Pacific Coast of Baja California Sur. It was also our rendezvous point with them.

After an amazing time around Isla Espiritu Santo, we loaded the van with our kayaks and gear and drove across the peninsula to Puerto Santo Carlos, one of the major fishing villages on the Bay. After unloading our equipment from the van and loading it again onto the panga, we crossed the channel and set up our first camp on a spectacular sand bar. The bar is part of Isla Magdalena and is what protects the bay from the Pacific. We pitched our tents, walked across the dunes and went for a swim.

The next day, we pushed our kayaks on the mirror like waters of the bay and proceeded towards our first point of interest, the mangroves. Once again, these tress offer amazing protection to a broad range of critters. Several species of herons and egrets were perched on the branches amongst the pelicans, while godwits and whimbrels combed the receding waters for food. We saw dolphins passing by in the channel and on a couple of occasions, whales would spout and disappear, teasing our constantly growing curiosity. In the water, stingrays were a common sight. We set up our second camp site past a Mexican fishing camp and that night, as the sun went down, we sat on the beach with our binoculars and watched dozens of whales spouting and breaching out in the main channel.

The morning held an even more amazing surprise. As the sun rose, a group of at least forty whales were still spouting and breaching. The light was magnificent, reflecting through all these water droplets pushed up in the air through the whales’ blowholes. From our location, it almost looked like the fountain show at the Bellagio in Vegas. The day was certainly going to be a great one!

It didn’t take long to reach our next campsite, tucked in the little rocky bay, just before the Pacific. We were now at the main entrance of the bay, where whales hang out. After setting up our tents and eating lunch, we paddled out around the point and ventured along the high cliffs battered by the Pacific and played in the rock gardens. The force of the Pacific waters was so impressive. On the rocks, the water line would rise up and drop 20 feet, exposing seaweed of amazing colors. The swell would hit the daggered wall and rolled onto itself with great big white breakers. After getting our share of excitement, we decided to paddle back and head towards the middle of the channel and see if we could meet the whales. This short trip would have been impossible if the weather was only slightly bumpy, but for now, it was perfect. Midway through, I looked down in the water and was amazed at what I saw. Thousands and thousands of pelagic red crabs were drifting in the current. Those little shrimp like creatures, are known to be a food source of the blue whale. They congregate in such vast swarms, thick enough that they color the ocean surface red. They also wash ashore and litter the beach by the thousands. Besides tunas, dolphins, rays and pinnipeds feeding on them, birds have been observed to gorge themselves so much that they can’t fly.

Shortly after, a couple of whales were coming on port side. Their blows announcing their presence, they swam towards us and right before our bow, dove and disappeared. They started to play Hide & Seek with us. Showing up in one place long enough for us to try to reach them only to once again disappear. After zigzagging for 20 minutes, we were satisfied and started our way back to camp. The change of tide was coming and we didn’t want to be in the channel when the weather turned.

On the way back, we stopped by a fishing panga and asked if we could buy some fresh calamari. They declined our offer to pay them and handed over a 15-pound piece. Another panga nearby saw the transaction and came over to see if we were interested in buying two fresh yellowtail. Their request for exchange was a pack of oreo cookies! We gladly accepted and kayaked back to camp, gave them the cookies and proceeded to prepare the fish sushi and ceviche style. With only lime juice and cilantro, the ceviche was pure gastronomy.

The next day, we were picked up by panga and spent a couple of hours with the whales. As it turns out, the whales here are less afraid of boats then kayaks. I guess kayaks are too quiet and the whales are not sure what to make of them. Or maybe kayaks are simply not big enough for them to care. Anyhow, it didn’t take long before we were surrounded by at least four whales. Gently bringing their noses within arm’s reach, they floated up like quiet submarines and spouted in our faces. They bumped the boat, waved hello with their flukes and swung their tales on the surface with great force. At some point, the entire boat starting to laugh, looking at me, although I was not sure why. They all pointed their fingers behind me and as I turned around, a giant head slowly sunk back in the water. The whale had sky-hopped right behind me, close enough that if I had turned around, my nose would have touched her, they say! Apparently, her eye was at the same level as mine. It became quite evident that they were having as much fun as we were.

Isla Espiritu Santo

The Mexicans call it the Holy Spirit. Sitting on the beach, my eyes fixed a few miles offshore on a group of humpbacks jumping, their tails and flukes slapping the water, much like a baby would do in a bath, I start to understand the sacred spirit of this location. Cliffs made of thick layers of black lava and volcanic ash surround a series of protected bays with crystal blue water and sandy beaches. Its waters are rich with nutrients and host year round pelagic species – gray whales, humpbacks, whale sharks, dolphins, hammerhead sharks, and many more.

I am here with Alaska Mountain Guides (AMG), an adventure guide service that provides kayaking trips around the world. Our group has just been dropped on Coralito Bay. The plan for the next 5 days is to paddle north, on the east coast of the island, go up and around Isla Partida and back. We will then spend a night in LaPaz, drive across to the Pacific, to Bahia Magdalena and paddle for 2 days to the mouth of the bay, where gray whales are found by the dozen at this time of the year.

As soon as we are settled into our camp, we get our snorkeling gear on and swim to a nearby little coral reef. I am amazed! For someone who scuba dives, I am used to see damaged snorkeling spots, either fished out, or trashed, big fish and big mollusks gone, an unhealthy and unbalanced ecosystem left behind. But this one has a strong coral growth, lots of nudibranchs, big snappers, clams, oysters, many little fish and millions of juveniles. That afternoon, I see three eels and two scorpion fish. Every where I look, I see life thriving, in all shapes and forms. So refreshing! But the most amazing moment of that afternoon was still to come. And it was not something that I saw, but something that I heard. As I took a deep breath and swam down, I heard a long whining sound. A sort of music. It is the humpbacks, singing, miles away in the channel. The sound was exactly what I had seen on Planet Earth when the whales are floating motionless fifty feet deep, their heads down, and producing this long whine. I picture them, perfectly still in the water, as I hold onto a rock to listen to their song. Simply magical!

Back on the beach, changing clothes, we put our hiking boots on and go for an afternoon hike. The place is spectacular. Red volcanic rock all around us, which millions of years ago trapped countless of air bubbles, now exposed by time make the landscape look like the inside of an Aero chocolate bar. A little bit of rain two weeks ago was enough to transform this arid terrain into a green miracle. A few drops of water suffice to bring the plants and trees out of their hibernating mode and sprout bright new leaves. Reaching the top, we are welcomed with another surprise. Down below, in the bay next to ours, a full bird feeding freezing is happening.  Hundreds of birds are going crazy on a shoal of bait fish. Although the scene is happening a few miles from us, the sight is still incredible; countless black silhouettes flying and diving in the water, turning the surface into boiling water. Watching the sunset at the top of a high cliff was nothing short of everything else that day. Sitting just a few feet from cliff, two hundred feet above the sea, we watched a big orange sun disappear behind the mountains. If this day was any indicator for the coming 10 days, we were in for one amazing trip!

Our first destination the following day is the hidden lagoon in the bay south of us. Only accessible at high tide, the place is a little piece of bird paradise. A sense of stillness reigns. Brown pelicans, frigates, black crown heron, great egrets, little blue herons, all are holding refuge in the mangroves – the perfect spot!

As we exit through the shallow narrow passage and start paddling north, a small pod of bottlenose dolphins crosses our path and heads out. Later that day, we come to our second camping site, a secluded alcove, guarded by a group of brown pelicans, keeping a tight watch on the water, looking for their next target. After a nice lunch and putting our tents up, we get back in our kayaks and head across to Isla Ballenas for a quick paddle. Blue foot boobies are flying around, topped way above by a group of magnificent frigates, gliding the warm air.

That evening, after another incredible hike, which revealed, out on the water, a group of rays jumping so high it was hard to believe, I sat on the beach and photographed the brown pelicans in action. The light blue sky behind them was the perfect background. As they flew in circle before twisting and falling like an arrow in the water, their bodies created the most amazing abstract shapes. It was as if a calligraphy master had just decided to write in the sky. Later, during dinner, a ring tailed cat is seen sneaking around our camp, looking for any opportunity.

I wake up at dawn and notice a group of bats still flying around catching the last remnants of nocturnal insects. After breakfast, we pack our gear and paddle out once more. A single male sea lion passes as an eagle ray leaps out of the water, ten feet high before landing with a big splash. During lunch, on a beach, I see something purple floating nearby. I walk in the water, up to my knees and inspect it closely. It is a Portuguese Man O War with two weird little fish swimming in its tentacles, immune to its venom. I approach carefully, keeping an eye on those long blue strings, famous for their painful sting. What I didn’t see was another colorless jelly fish, that manages to hit me right on the knee. I let out a big scream and rushe to the shore. Damn this is painful! Within minutes, my skin turns red and swells. Isis, one of the guide, gives me some white vinegar and tells me to apply it on the wound. The vinegar destroys the proteins from the venom. Needless, to say, even after an hour, the pain is still sharp. As I write these lines, 8 days later, the sting is still visible, a red mark across my knee.

The stingingly jellyfish print on my skin was no concern by the next morning, as we set out for the sea lion colony.  This was surely going to be one of the biggest highlights! Just barely out of the kayak and into the water, I had three pups pulling my fins and playing with me. Two females swam around, passing extremely fast, opening their mouths and releasing a big stream of bubbles while never letting me out of sight, those big giant inquiring black eyes following my every move. It felt like I was playing in the grass with a bunch of dogs. From time to time, a huge male would come by and insure that everything was under control. His massive and intimidating presence was a reminder to all, us and the sea lions pups, that we still needed to behave. It was so amazing! At some point, one leaped and landed on my back, grabbing my shoulder. I turned around, holding his flippers and the two of us proceeded in a series of rolls and twists. I was just a happy kid playing in the water with them. And like any kid, I was called back to reality when after twenty minutes, it was time to climb back into the kayaks and continue our paddle.

I navigated for the rest of the day with a big grin on my face. We went around to the west side of Isla Partida and through the channel. After having lunch in the pass, we paddled a little bit more to our last camping site, just a few hundred yards away from our pick up location for our ride back to LaPaz the next day. That afternoon, we did one last big hike, up through a fantastic Arroyo filled with big boulders. The sight must be absolutely incredible when the entire valley flash floods in this creek. On a rock, bathing under the sun was an eastern collared lizard and flying high, screeching, a red-tail hawk patrolled his domain. As I scroll down back to the camp, I could only marvel at the last 5 days. This place was really sacred and the trip was only halfway done. Tomorrow was the beginning of our second half, this time, on the Pacific side, with the gray whales.

Holiday Snowshoeing

It is said that they earliest record of snowshoes goes back to several thousands years ago. For me, growing up in Quebec, they were simply part of the winter package. The snowshoes I had back then were not the fancy, technical ones found today, but instead the classic Native American model, made of wood and rawhide. My grandparents had a cabin that was easily accessible by car during the summer, but during the snowy season, we had no choice but to leave the vehicle behind and snowshoe our way in. One of my most memorable moments from those years was a night when we arrived way past sunset and found ourselves carrying our luggage, ankle deep in white powder with the Northern Lights filling up the sky. Liquid blues, greens, and reds were dancing in a magical way.

The winter holidays were just around the corner, and with no snow coming, or on the ground, I was getting the jitters and felt it was perhaps time to organize a trip to the mountains. If the snow wasn’t coming, might as well go seek it out!! A couple calls and a couple days of preparations and we were on our way to Mt. Rainier, Washington. More precisely to Ashford, were we would hike the snowshoe/cross country ski trails maintained by the Mount Tahoma Trails Association.

The MTTA is a great initiative. Roads and trails used by the Forest Service in the summer are open to the general public for exploration in the winter. It is a win-win situation. The Forest Service makes use of its land year-round, and the outdoor community has access to places that would otherwise be too complicated to get to. Over the years, with the amazing collaboration of countless individuals, an extended and incredibly well maintained network of huts and trails came to be.

Our itinerary for our 4-day trip was to hike to the furthest hut, the Yurt, spend a couple nights there, then hike back by way of a different trail, to the High Hut for one night. With some luck we would see Mt.Rainier. After taking the train from Portland, we drove from Tacoma to Ashford. The weather was not particularly promising. Even though it was raining on the coast, which it always does, by the time we arrived to the village, at the foot of the mountain, unfortunately, it was still raining. With the cloud ceiling hiding the peaks, we were not able to see if it was snowing higher up. We had to believe the clerk at the gear store who tried to reassure us that there was indeed snow up there. After getting the map and information on how to get to the snow park, we watched the rain falling on the windshield hoping for the best.

Due to the rain, the road had cleared up and allowed us to drive up to Sno-Park A, @3,400ft. The scene was not the one we wanted. It was pouring down. Needless to say, we were not here to turn back. So we geared up and started our hike. Good thing there was at least 5 feet of snow at the top. Even with the rain, we should be able to get the white scenery. But for now, there was no need for snowshoes. About a mile up, we came across a couple who was coming back from the High Hut. Bad news – it was even raining there!!! Well, not much to do, but cover up and continue. Shortly after, the snow became too deep to continue by foot, so we put our snowshoes on. Wet and heavy, we trudged along, our next three hours quite dreary. Our sight aiming down, the landscape became a messy mix of snow, mud, pine needles and branches. Even though we were dressed for the weather, rain managed to find its way in. It wasn’t long before we were all soaked. It took us four hours to reach the Yurt. I can’t imagine pulling out a small tent after such conditions. The hut looked like paradise. Nestled in a small valley, surrounded by pines, and shadowed by Mt.Griffin, we rushed the last few hundred yards.

To call this camping is a major understatement. The hut was pure back-country luxury: propane fireplace, propane oven, lanterns, mattresses, and a kitchen ready for the biggest of feasts! Not that it wasn’t welcomed, but we could not put away the thought that it was way more than we had anticipated. We dropped our gear, got out of our wet clothes and got the fireplace running. With the rain still drilling the Yurt’s canopy, we warmed ourselves with dry clothes and hot tea.

It rained all night. In the morning, it was still raining. By noon, the temperature dropped slightly and the rain turned into slush. With some luck, the temperature would continue dropping and we would have real fresh snow by the end of the day. We attempted to venture our way up Mt.Griffin, but the conditions were simply not pleasant. So we stayed inside. We found a cranking radio that we had to power up every 15 minutes. I have to say, shame aside, that it was really funny being in the middle of the wood, and listening to NPR. Snow really started by the end of the afternoon. That night, we went to sleep dreaming of a white morning.

And so it was! The timing was perfect. On the ground was 5 inches of fresh snow. Our hike to High Hut was going to be magical! And it was! There is something incredible about being the first one to lay tracks on fresh snow, whether it be skiing down, cross country skiing, or snowshoeing. But the most amazing thing is to realize that you are not alone. What seemed like a quiet forest with only a few souls is transformed into a frenzy of tracks. Rabbits, mice, deer, birds, and many more, each leaving hundreds of prints. You realize that all this time, this place, that at times seems almost too quiet place, is filled with life. One of the biggest surprises of the day came from a particular set of tracks. For almost an hour and half, we followed a set of prints left behind by a couple of bobcats. Active at dawn and at dusk, bobcats will cover many miles every day, investigating their territory. This couple, which had recently paired up, would be mating in spring and later, would each go their separate ways. The female, would give birth sometime in April and raise her cubs alone. Mostly following the groomed trail, their tracks cut in the forest only to reemerge higher up. More than once, we came across urine marks and one time the bobcats had left their feces. It was like a glimpse into the life of a rarely encountered wild creature. You could see where they played, where they laid, where they rested. Most of the time they would follow each other almost too perfectly. Other times, one would wander out slightly and come back while the other kept a perfect line.

The landscape was beautiful. This was finally what we had come for. The sky cleared up and the contrast between the blue from above and green and white from below suddenly erased the last 30 more or less miserable hours. We stopped once for a quick lunch – hot chocolate, salami, brie cheese and apples. We certainly needed the energy since then we would go up 600ft in one mile.

Around the 4,500ft mark, the snow changed. Even the trees looked different. The snow was more … frosty. When we arrived at the High Hut, the scene was definitely not the same it had been at the Yurt. This was a cabin at the top of the mountain, exposed to the wind. Although much colder and buried in a whiteout, the rewards would come to be well worth it. Once again, the hut was pure luxury. Solar power supplied a battery, which generated the power necessary for LED bulbs inside. Propane oven and fireplace as we had found them at the Yurt. The face of the hut was made of 3 huge windows, which, on a bright day, would give full panoramic view of Mt.Rainier. We settled ourselves, made some tea and proceeded reading some left behind magazines from January 2009 and 2006. The sun went down without giving hope of unveiling Mt.Rainier. But late at night, magically, its peak pierced through and under a blanket of stars I was only allowed enough time to take one quick photo.

The next morning, we woke up to a total whiteout but within minutes, everything cleared up and out of nowhere, the most amazing sunrise rose. As if on cue, the fog lifted, and Mt.Rainier emerged triumphant. The sky filled itself with hues of pinks, oranges and blues. Rainier took an almost romantic pause, looking suddenly less threatening. For no more than five minutes, the world opened up and shined heaven. On the sixth minute, the fog took over and everything became nothing more than a vast white curtain. We looked at ourselves, feeling blessed, allowed to see the unseen.

As the morning proceeded, the fog came and went. Creating some really interesting play of light. Close trees were lit from one light, while the ones below received another kind of light. Looking at the photos now, it almost seems as if the two were manipulated through photoshop, but I can assure you they were not.

After breakfast, we geared up once again and headed down the mountain for our last hike. On the way down, we came across a couple in their 60’s, on their way for a quick snack at the High Hut. Three more ladies, this time in their 70’s, were also on their way up to spend the night at the hut. (You have to admire when people keep fit!!) Down at the snow park, the car was covered in snow, proof we had been gone for some time. We carefully drove down to Ashford and stopped at the Copper Creek Inn for a well-deserved juicy hamburger. Soooo good!

We Love Clean Rivers

This past Sunday, I went to meet the folks of WeLoveCleanRivers for a “Down the River Clean Up”. The weather was perfect! And unfortunately, there was plenty of trash to pick up. From a truck top, to a disabled parking sign, over 380 people joined to clean the river from what did not belong there. Everything that was collected will be showed at an event on October 24th, through art installations. Read yesterday’s event recap on Wend Blog 

Century Paddle

On August 31st, Rivers in Demand explorer and fellow Wend ambassador Andy Maser and I led a group of kayakers for a week long paddling trip on the Columbia River, from the Willamette Falls to the Pacific. The aim was to scout and investigate what would be needed in preparation for next year’s big event: bringing a large group of Disabled American Veterans on an unforgettable paddling experience. The event would be done in collaboration with Team River Runner, an organization that “gives military veterans and their family members an opportunity to find health, healing, and new challenges through whitewater boating and other paddling sports. The benefits of TRR have as much to do with social support, finding emotional strength and re-creating personal identity as they do with athletic activity.”

The other goal Andy and I had, was to see how we could maximize the use of social media tools to promote the importance of such event. It is one thing to do so at an event, on land. But when you are on the water, in a kayak, it is slightly different. It is common knowledge that connectedness nowadays happens everywhere – political and news events have seen their dynamic turned upside down with social tools such as Twitter. Would it be possible to do the same with an outdoor event and spread social awareness? We wanted to find out!

Real time reportage is coming of age, and to bring this new reality into this short expedition was for us an exercise on how to raise the interactivity both Andy and I seek with our followers and viewers. It is important for us to communicate this sense of adventure that drives us. For this to succeed, we brought with us the necessary communication devices. Andy was carrying a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, an amazing GPS tracking system with a great online structure that allows people to follow in real time ground progress. Our iPhones, protected by Aquapac waterproof cases, would allow us to post content on Twitter and upload realtime photos, while sitting in our kayaks. Our GPS coordinates were also trackable through iPhone’s Google Maps and my Suunto watch. Granted, for all these devices to work, you need to have cell phone or satellite coverage. But in a world where GSM coverage reaches 3 billion people in more than 212 countries, these new technologies bring a brand new dimension into content consumption. I wonder how Cousteau and Attenborough would have used them in their nature journalism?

The itinerary itself was a testimony to the nature vs. urban reality that our world faces. In our ever expanding number, nature’s necessity is constantly requestioned. To kayak from Portland’s industrial waters (Portland’s port is the largest in Oregon and the number one auto import gateway in the Western U.S) to the Pacific, on the the fourth-largest river in the U.S., the Columbia River, was for us an occasion to see first hand how the two worlds cope with each other. Was the river clean? It was important for us to see how bird and fish wildlife was adapting and living, or struggling in a natural world highly influenced by the industrial landscape.

On our first day, from Willamette Falls, we paddled 27 miles and established camp on Hayden Island. From the massive expensive houses on the river in Milwaukie, under the bridges of downtown Portland, to Swan Island industrial terminals, to under a long dock supported by hundreds and hundreds of cement pillars, our first stretch was straight through human’s industrialized achievement. Yet, in the midst of this urban world, we saw sturgeon breaching, salmon jumping, cormorants, Canadian geese, Pilgrim geese, Great Blue herons, ospreys and several species of ducks. We saw countless people enjoying the river banks and of course we saw a great number of motorized boats – but also many, many non-motorized ones. The Fire Department, in their red jetskis and red speed boats kept zipping up and down the river, keeping a vigilant eye, always ready to rescue, assist, or reprimand misuse of our precious river. Our campsite could have not been more anachronistic. Behind us was a wall of trees, with birds singings. In front of us, across the river, were eight giant cranes, at least 300 feet high, surrounded by a sea of lights, containers and cars. The site, which was lit up all through the night, was a constant reminder of the urban industrialized presence.

On our second day, we encountered a phenomenon that neither Andy nor I had ever seen before. Just before lunch, we came across a group of floating bees. Some of them were dead, but most of them looked like they had just fallen in the water. What started like one bee here and there rapidly turned into a massive number of stranded bees. Hundreds of them, scattered all over the water surface. It felt like we were going through a city that had just been bombarded and devastated. Not sure what to make out of all this, Andy and I started to scoop them out of the water, dropping them on our sprayskirts. At one point, I had more than 20 of them buzzing their wings around my torso, trying to dry themselves. I have been following the strange disappearance bees are going through right now (Colony Collapse Disorder) and honestly, I could not witness this scene without doing something. I am not sure if those 40 something bees we rescued that day from the water survived or will make a difference, but at least we tried. That evening, prior to joining the others at our next campsite on Sandy Island, Andy and I went to Kalama to do some work. After securing our kayaks at the marina, we walked to the little town, dressed in our paddling gear, and our laptops under our arms. Going down the main street – occasionally getting the double look from passerby, not too sure what to make out of us, we stopped at the Public Library, the only place with free wifi in town.

On the third day, Andy went along with another kayaker to see a man on Puget Island, who lives directly across from Bradwood, where a Liquid Gas Terminal has been proposed. The issue has been extremely controversial. Beside the obvious problem of turning wild lands into industrialized ones, the project is filled with red flags. This plan is to facilitate the import of natural gas from around the world and to deliver it to the State of California. Previous attempts in Long Beach and Mexico have been refused and now Oregon would like to give it a go. If such project would go ahead, every house in the neighborhood would lose any value. Waters around the site would rise up considerably, disrupting the local fish life. The ships used to transport the gas are enormous and would require dredging the river even deeper; once again disrupting the fish life; today the majority of the new ships are around 120,000 m³ to 140,000 m³, but there are orders for ships with capacity up to 260,000 m³. Imagine a 1,120 foot long floating leviathan carrying gas, going up and down the Columbia River. Once in place, the plant, being a high risk location for attack, would necessitate high security both on land and on the water, disrupting all local activity. The topic is so controversial that Long Beach and Mexico have refused to have them in their backyard. A similar project is currently in the works in New York, but faces major opposition from the likes of Hillary Clinton and other New York Senators.

But back to the kayak. In the meantime, I had decided to paddle ahead and search for our next campsite. Along with another kayaker, we reached Eagle Cliff and to make sure the rest of the group would know exactly where to find us, I texted Andy our GPS coordinates taken from my watch. With them he was able to locate our position on his iPhone with Google Maps.

The next morning, we woke up at 5am. The full moon was in total display and the idea of paddling under the moon light was too good to resist. The river was like a giant mirror, with not even a ripple. Our kayaks slid on the surface like diamonds cutting glass. As the moon lowered over the horizon, the sun arose behind us. At one point, both sky and water turned into a metallic blue and suddenly, the horizon line disappeared; looking ahead of us, there was no demarcation whatsoever between what was above and what was below the horizon. The current and tide were pushing us downstream and in only three hours, we reached Astoria. We paddled a little bit more to Warrenton and after securing our kayaks at the marina, we walked over to the Serendipity Cafe for a well deserved American breakfast! Coincidentally, on the very same day, the local newspaper, The Daily Astorian, was running a story on myself, Andy and our paddling trip.

Driving back, Andy and I reflected on our original task – to see how we could use social media tools to benefit an outdoor event carrying a social cause. Not only did we feel that we succeeded – Century Paddle was featured on several blogs and in local news sources, and its Facebook page and Twitter hashtag both saw huge traffic – but we also felt that we had discovered a new way of sharing our expeditions. To get people to follow our adventures in the wild in real-time is for us one of the most intimate and efficient ways to spread our message. Someone that sees our videos, our photos, or reads about us, will have a desire for and connection to nature for a limited amount of time. With tools such as Twitter and Facebook, the same person is constantly reminded of the power and treasures of the outdoors. Therefore their desire is sustained. This will certainly become extremely interesting as both of us are preparing to leave in November for Argentina and Brazil.

Accompanying us on this little journey was Don Smith, Executive Director, Disabled American Veterans, Chapter #1 Portland, Sam Drevo, owner and operator of Northwest River Guides and founder of We Love Clean Rivers, Hayden Peters and Ralph Bloemers. You can find more about information online by visiting the Century Paddle Facebook page.

Nomades del Mar

To explore, to investigate, to wander – from the latin explorare, which means “search out”. The subject has been captivating science for decades, with researchers trying to seek its motivations. Why do we explore? Why do we surmount our fears and wander beyond the boundaries of safety? Do we explore by curiosity? By necessity? Is it driven by boredom?  What motivates all of us Explorers to seek adventure in chartered and unchartered territories?  It was discovered that mice with damaged cerebellums exhibit low levels of interest in exploring their surrounding, suggesting that the brain plays an important part in our motivation to explore. Is it then biological? Since 1990, we have come to agree that it is part of our inherent ability to survive. Exploration is now viewed in evolutionary terms, as a combination of motivations, leading to a strategy of survival – locating food, avoiding predators and stimulating learning.

Ever since I was a young boy, I have always been drawn to the unknown. I have always looked at the fence in the backyard as an invitation to seek new experiences. When I was 17, I left home and hitchhiked across Canada. I threw my compass away, and never looked back. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: ”A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” After 17 years of traveling, I still live by his words and my desire for exploration is stronger than ever.  As Humans, as Individuals, as Explorers, are we defined by the places we have been, or by the places we are going?

We had been driving for almost 3 hours when we left Ruta 3, the National Road, and took the Provincial Road 30, direction east. Driving south from Puerto Madryn, the landscape was borderline hypnotic. Endless flat plains, or as Darwin described it in 1833: “…the view is generally bounded by the escarpment of another plain, rather higher, but equally level and desolate; and in every direction the horizon is indistinct from the trembling mirage which seems to rise from the heated surface.” The change of scenery was much welcomed, and for the next 70 km, the road sinuously took us closer to our departure point. From the pebble beach in Camarones and for the next 12 days, we were to kayak to Comodoro, a 300 km journey.

Camarones is a village by the ocean rich in history. In 1545, Don Simon de Alcazaba y Sotomayor, a Portuguese sailor under the command of Charles I of Spain, was the first to anchor in the bay. Following the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain had sent Alcazaba to access the new territory. Camarones, which is a word for shrimp in Spanish, was declared part of Provincia de Nueva León. During the heyday of the wool industry, the village was known for the quality of its wool and soon became an important port. Don Mario Tomás Perón, who owned two nearby estancias (ranch), Porvenir and Maciega, would also bring the small location international visibility. His son, Juan, became President of Argentina in 1946. His second wife was Eva, also known as Evita. The estancia Maciega is now restored and is a museum.

Along with Pablo and Sofia from Patagonia Explorers, Sandro and Eloise were joining the expedition. Together, the four of them form the group called Nomades del Mar. Since 2004, they have been paddling with the objective to explore the entire coast of the Chubut Province. This trip will complete their first mission and will set the stage for their next goal – continue to Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego. Nomades del Mar is more than a simple name. It stands for a set of values that all four members carry in their paddling and lives. Nomades are known in human history to have the most sustainable lifestyle: following the seasons and being in harmony with Nature. Kayak is for the group, the best way to learn and respect the environment, wildlife and history and to share them with friends. As Pablo said to me: “Nomades del  Mar perfectly sums up our feelings and emotions about Nature and describes best our way of living.”

By 2h45pm, we had finished loading our kayaks with food and equipment. Each of us were carrying 20 liters of water. I had all the dinners onboard my kayak, Pablo and Sandro would carry the lunches plus cooking gear, and Sofia and Eloise had the breakfasts and lunches. We would only need to replenish our water supply once in Bahia Bustamante. The weather forecast was generally good for the next 4 days. After that, we would use the satellite phone to call and get updates. After a quick lunch and a final check, we pushed ourselves on the water and headed to Isla Blanca, our first point of interest. The sky was clear, not one cloud, a light breeze, this was a great way to start our adventure.

In 1880, a steamship called Villarino was commissioned by the Government of Argentina. Her inaugural trip was to bring the remains of General San Martin, liberator of Argentina, whom had taken residence in France, back to be interred in Buenos Aires. After her delivery, she began a career in transporting goods along the coast of Patagonia. On March 16 th 1899, after 19 years of service and 101 trips to the south, Villarino sunk on the reefs of Isla Blanca during a stormy night, it was her 202 nd visit to Camarones. While her wreck lies at the bottom, (though her prop is on display by the beach in Puerto Madryn) the rocky island thrives with life. As we got closer to the reef, Antarctic Skuas began to fly over our heads. Skuas are known for being pretty territorial, flying extremely close to anyone venturing on their turf. With one just a couple of feet over my shoulder, I suddenly remembered the images of Sir David Attenborough, reporting on penguins, Skuas harassing him – although those ones were just investigating. Isla Blanca is populated with various marine bird colonies and Sea Lion colonies. On the rocks, groups of Dolphin Gulls, Rock and Imperial Cormorants, and Oyster-catchers:  Magellanic, Common and Blackish, each owning its little piece of rocky real estate.  In the water, inquisitive eyes with long whiskers popping up and disappearing keeping tab on our whereabouts. After rounding the island, we paddled away, heading to our first night stop. We settled in a little bay, not too far south from Camarones. After dinner, although some of us wanted to sleep outside, we had to forfeit our wish and raise the tents. With 92% humidity and 13 degree celsius, it was going to be a wet night.

I woke up as the light started to fill the sky. Out of my sleeping bag and into my warm jacket, I got out of the tent and marveled at the beauty of how this day was starting. On the horizon, a thick pink line was stretching from north to south. In the bay, on the water, a large group of Crested Ducks looked like japanese Kage-e (shadow pictures from the Edo period) floating on a dark blue metallic liquid. In the sky, the absence of clouds created a giant blue gradient, starting with a hint of red and ending with a deep black. While the others woke up, Pablo put the kettle on the stove, it was time for breakfast with mate.

Mate is for Argentina, what coffee is for France or Italy and tea for England – beside being the national beverage, it is a sacred ritual. You drink it in the morning and in the afternoon. The leaves of Yerba, a species of holly, native to South America, are poured loose in a calabash gourd. Once the leaves have steeped in warm water (it is important that the water is not boiling), the tea is drank with a Bombilla, a metallic straw. According to the Guarani legend, when the Goddesses of the Moon and of Clouds came to Earth, an old man saved them from the attack of a Yaguarete (jaguar). To reward the brave soul, the Goddesses gave the man a new plant from which could be prepared a drink of friendship. Mate was born.

Our second night stop – a little pebble beach nestled between small cliffs, protected from the wind, finally allowed us to enjoy the warmth of the sun and within minutes, everything felt like a hot summer day. We braved the cold water of the Atlantic and all went for a swim. While some could only manage a quick dip, others, myself included, stayed in and took the occasion to gather mussels and lapas. Fresh from the sea, with garlic and butter, followed by Argentinean beef grilled over fire, dinner was exquisite. That night, I stayed late and sat by the fire and watched the flames dance against the rock. For a moment, it all felt like a scene from a John Wayne western. With some imagination, I could hear the coyotes over the hills and the harmonica playing “”Rio Bravo”.

Isla Leones (Lions) was our next destination. Originally named Isla Barela, after its discovery by Don Diego Barela sometime between 1745 and 1746, the island was renamed Leones. Captain Tafor, from the ship “San Sebastian” decided that the name was better suited due to the constant barking from the high number of sea lions found on the island. After the sinking of “Villarino”, it was decided to build lighthouses along the coast to ensure safe navigation. In 1916, the crew of the ARA Mackinlay began construction of the lighthouse. Its light lit for the first time one year later. In 1968, the “faro” was shut down and replaced by the San Gregorio Lighthouse. Located on the main land, consequently much easier to maintain, its light still guides navigators today.

As our kayaks landed on the beach of Caleta (inlet) John Woddal, on the north side of Leones, an armadillo was seen walking through the remains of old machinery used when the island was occupied. On the water, a curious event was taking place. A large group of cormorants was swimming in a tight circle while another large group of Kelp Gulls, surrounding them, was squeaking. It seems that the birds were in a territorial dispute – one wanting to intimidate the other. It almost looked like a choreographed ballet. In fact, I started to laugh at the resemblance to Michael Jackson’s video “Beat It”.

After visiting the “faro”, we got back in our kayaks and paddled around the point, to Bay of the French, located on the south side of the island. The place was simply an eden filled with marine birds and sea lions. In front of me, a giant petrel was preening herself, spreading her huge wings wide open and looking at me with a mean look.  A crested duck closely swam by and puffed his feathers, sending an arch of water droplets over him. In the water two male sea lions in my wake, playing hide and seek. On the shore, snowy sheath-bills, egrets, and gulls and oyster-catchers cracking mussels open.  A colony of penguins going up the beach, their little bodies, in tuxedo costumes, lumbering side to side in unison. Every thirty meters, a steamer duck couple swimming, their heads low, giving them a stealthy look. Chubut Steamer ducks, native to the area and are known for their unique and entertaining way of escaping. This flightless species of waterfowl uses its wings like propellers, producing a lot of noise and making them look like old steamboats. That evening, shortly after going out for a swim, a group of Peal’s dolphins passed in front of our campsite chasing bait fish, trailing a flock of birds hoping to get any leftovers.

Our next stop, and campsite for the day was Isla Valdez. The small island is famous for its rabbits, brought by early European settlers. With the absence of predators, the rabbits now rule the land. The terrain is fairly similar to the one found in Provence, France, home to the culinary delicacy “Lapin de Garrigue”, a rabbit with a particular strong herby taste. We didn’t have anything to go hunting with, but we decided to try our luck anyhow.  Hunter-gatherer was a way of living for millions of years, prior to the practice of agriculture. There is actually a deeper level of connection, understanding, and respect of Nature when you harvest from the wild. You take part in an act that has been practiced daily, by all living creatures on Earth since the dawn of Life.  You understand the value of food. You understand what it takes to get it – lots of patience and great skills. It is not done for sport or fun, but to feed yourself. Rabbits are no easy catch. When facing danger, they will react in two ways. They will run as soon as they see you, in which case a little furry ball with long ears and a white fluffy tail will be seen darting behind rocks. Or they will stay still and hope to be missed. Their fur blends incredibly well with the landscape, and on more than one occasion, I almost stepped on one, before it sprinted with a giant leap inches from my feet and scaring the heck out of me. Our hunt was a big failure. Not only did we not come back with any rabbit, but we did not even got close. Our lack of technique was by far outmatched by their capacity to escape.

Isla Valdez was fascinating in another way. Beside the rabbits, it was the Land of the Small Creatures. At all the other locations we had been, the usual bird of prey was the Caracara, but here, it was the much smaller American Kestrel. Close to our base camp was an ant nest of a size I had never seen in my life. The anthill was at least 50 cm high. While walking the hills, I stumbled on the legendary Tarantula Hawk (black wasp with red wings, up to 5 cm long) carrying a small numbed tarantula into its burrow.  I had seen them on several occasions on the Peninsula Valdez, but witnessing one after successfully catching a spider was a first.  Finally, the next morning, I discovered that a small scorpion had taken refuge under my tent. It was another first for me. I had never seen a live scorpion in the wild.

On the morning of day 8 th, we arrived at Bahia Bustamante. In 1953, Don Lorenzo Soriano was searching the coast to harvest seaweed. The plant was used in the production of hair grooming products. The place was known then as the Bahia Podrida (Rotten Bay). On the pebble beach, tons of seaweed would accumulate after each tide and rot under the sun. This was the perfect place to collect the marine plant using only horses and wagons. Times have changed a lot since the good days of seaweed. Nowadays, the industry has been greatly reduced and the rest industrialized, leaving Matias, Lorenzo’s great-son, to turn the village into an eco tourism destination. The place has an amazing bio-diversity and is surrounded by 25 000 acres of pure Patagonian nature.  You can visit the Petrified Forest, where old tree trunks have transformed into glowing opal rock. Or horseback ride to the nearest estancia and become a rancher for one day, where you will tend to the famous Patagonia Cordero (lamb), known for its great wool, lean meat and unforgettable taste. If you are an avid bird watcher, then the Peninsula Gravina is your destination where you will find 21 breeding colonies of several marine and coastal birds. If you are lucky, you might enjoy the dolphins and orcas that often swim the bay.

The landscape, up until Peninsula Gravignia, was a combination of cliffs, beaches, hills and rocky islands. But passing Cabo Aristizabal, into Bahia Solano in Golfo San Jorge, was like stepping into a new world. It felt different. It looked different. It sounded different. We were now paddling in a big swell, uninterrupted, from the Atlantic, bringing along cold air from the Antarctic. On the shore, endless steep beaches, the waves rolling on the pebbles with loud roars. It felt strange. It felt like another planet. Even the sheep were different. They were black. With a large colony of sea gulls every 200 meters, it was like the same piece of scenery was repeated over and over, for miles and miles. We went from spending our time exploring, to paddling as long as we could to cover as much distance as we could. Constant 20 knots headwind forced me to raised the hood of my Kokatat jacket and put my Tropo mitts on. Stopping for break or lunch, became an adventure in its own. The shore had a 45 degree angle, and to get on, one had to combine speed, timing, and agility. You had to ride the highest wave to land as high as possible, then get out as quick possible and pull your kayak up to safe ground before the crush of the following wave. A situation that would flood the cockpit and send you rolling. To add to the difficulty, the pebbles acted like rollers, and every time a step was made, your feet would slide down one pace before stopping. Getting back in the water was a total different experience. This time, it was play time. You simply sat in your kayak and slid down onto the water. The trick here again, was timing. You had to make sure to land just before the wave retreated. If not, then the nose of your kayak would enter at the bottom of the crest and you would get the full weight of the wave on your torso. And a mouthful of salt water!

Places to stop were few and far in between. For the first time since the beginning of our trip, that evening everyone was tired – physically and mentally. Our campsite was exposed and the wind kept blowing strong from the land, bringing with it shovels of sand. Everything was crunchy, our food, our drinks. Sand was getting everywhere. That night, I buried myself in my sleeping bag, only a tiny hole over my mouth to breathe. The tent was being hammered by the wind. The sand blasting the fabric. I felt like George Clooney on the set of the Perfect Storm. A huge fan set to maximum, a prop guy next to it with a shovel, pouring sand at the Director’s cue – “More sand! More sand!” In the morning, we woke up covered in sand. Each of our tents had failed to stop the invasion of those tiny particles. We looked like dust covered mummies just awoken from an ancient sleep.

The forecast for the day was not good. It would be long and tiring, with not much ground covered, but is was manageable. We had 30 km left to do before arriving at our final destination. Considering the weather, it would take us 2 days. With wind still blowing strong from the land, I pushed my kayak and dug my Lendal paddle in the water. I took the lead, Sofia and Eloise where in the middle, and Pablo and Sandro closed the convoy.  My Kokatat hood up and jacket zipped all the way, only my sunglasses exposed, I was deep in my paddling. After 20 minutes, I looked over my shoulder and saw that Sofia and Eloise had landed their kayak on the beach. I looked ahead and accessed my position. The shore was made of cliffs with small canyons every 200 meters. In each canyon, the wind coming from the mountains was being funneled and unleashed over the water with great force. I had already begun crossing the mouth of one canyon and decided to finish it. I would stop after and wait for the others. I paddled another 15 minutes, and realized that the conditions were worsening quickly and escalating to a dangerous level. I had only covered 500 meters and the wind had pushed me offshore another 300. I would not be able to cross the mouth and decided to head to the beach right away. Gusts of wind were fierce and now I was far enough from the coast that the waves were getting bigger. I tried for about 15 minutes to turn the nose of my kayak into the wind. Every time I got close, a massive gust would bring me back to square one. And every second, every minute, the wind was taking me further away from the shore. I had to act quickly. I had to act before it would be too late. The thought of capsizing was far at the back of my mind. I could not allow myself such an event. Capsizing would mean my failure in handling the conditions and would seriously diminish my chances of coming out of this in one piece. I turned my Tiderace leeward and proceeded to turn. I crunched down, my full body leaning forward and to the left, putting my entire weight against the incoming waves and the constant push of the wind. I kept a firm grip on my paddle as the wind continuously tried to blow it away. Once the turn completed, I dug each stroke deep in the water and battled my way back. I could barely see where I was going. My glasses were crusted in salt. The thing I knew for sure was that I had to keep paddling, at any cost. I could not stop, not even for one second. Now turned, the wind would bring me back to shore. It would take a long time and I would certainly be far from the others, but I would make it. The night before we had passed some fisherman and I knew that if needed, I could ask them to bring me back. I landed 300 meters before where we had started that morning. Pablo was on the beach, jumping, his hands in the air. He was beyond happy. I, honestly, felt a sense of pride. I knew I had come close to something extremely dangerous, but I had mastered it. I had kept my senses and handled my way out safely. Pablo told me that they had called the Coast Guard. That is how bad it was. That afternoon, I walked up the hill and clocked the wind speed with my Brunton, at 95 km/h. I watched the ocean in fury. Gusts were flying over the water with such wrath, they look like white ghosts going to war. The only ones who were enjoying this moment, were the gulls, terns and petrels, who contrary to us, flew the air with such ease – it was amazing watching them.

We didn’t get to reach Comodoro. The weather forecast for the next 2 days was going to be the same and there was no point in risking our safety. And that is fine. Exploring is not only about reaching a destination, but also about experiencing a journey. Some destinations are not meant to be reached on the first time. They command respect by not giving themselves easily. Limits are meant to be pushed. Barriers exist to be broken and new worlds are waiting to be discovered. But an Explorer must know when to stop and humble himself in front of Nature. Exploring challenges our own human nature – it reminds us that nothing is static and nothing is finite. The world is in constant movement. Life is an endless source of exploration.  In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldin flew to the moon carrying the Explorers Club Flag. As they landed on the lunar soil, Armstrong was able to sum up in one small sentence the essence of exploration – “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Rio Chubut

We had been driving for a while when we left the main road behind. From the fairly flat landscape our eyes had become accustomed, we found ourselves slowly going down a twisted dirt road – high walls on each side, perhaps 50 meters high. The road was cutting its way through red rock. The sun lighting up the mineral, the walls seemed to be alive. Thousands of shadow spots changing shape as we progressed down. It almost felt like we were in a kaleidoscope. Suddenly, the light disappeared. A long tunnel, a gateway to another place.  There were no more walls, only a dim light spot ahead of us. The light at the end of the tunnel – sign of a new world awaiting.

As our eyes adjusted to the brightness, we found ourselves at the top of a dam. To our right, a large reservoir. The red mountains trapped between the blue sky and the blue water. To our left, a river and trees. Their green in total contrast with the surrounding. Down there, passed the buildings from the electrical company, was our departing point. For the next 3 days, we were to kayak the waters of Rio Chubut, a river famous for its fly fishing, that starts in Carreras in the Andes and ends 800km further down in Rawson. Its name is derived from the Tehuelche word “chupat”, meaning “transparent”.

As we unloaded the kayaks and prepared our gear, memories of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It flowed back in my mind. I remembered the scene where the old man, tying up a knot on his line to attach a fly, reflects on his life, narrating the important lessons the River had given him.

“When I am alone in the half light of the canyon, all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul and my memories, and the sounds of the big Blackfoot River, and the four count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

I remembered the importance of the River in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”. Its significance in the story, symbolizing the key to Freedom. There is no better imagery to epitomize our life journey, than the River. It starts from a point, and ends at another. No matter how wild the river is, no matter how unruly it wants to be, it still has a direction, a purpose, to reach the ocean. It flows blindingly to a place where it will cease to exist. It will merge with something bigger, it will become one with the others.

Young rivers are straight – giving more importance in the destination rather than the journey, often missing much of the world they flow in. Their banks offering no protection, the water rushes down, in a hurry. Old rivers meander, understanding that the journey is more important. They turn right and left, sometimes go back up, they explore and wander. There curves offer refuge to others and soon their banks and waters find themselves bursting with life.

Our first day was marked by massive walls, the River flowing at their feet, unimpressed, simply moving along. Flocks of Black-neck and Coscoroba Swans painfully flying away every time they see us. Graceful in the air and on the water, swans need a lot of energy to lift themselves off to fly. Their webbed feet pushing and keeping their heavy body above the water as their wings flap against the wind.  Red-gartered Coot quickly darting in all directions. Awful flyers, Nature gave them large feet that they use to run on the surface, and they do so with great speed and loud noise – rapid sequences of Flap, flop, flap, flop. On the river banks, horses, sheep, and cattle. If you are lucky and have good eyes, you might spot a hare, his ears up listening to any danger coming his way. In the air, Turkey Vultures scanning the vast land for any careless creatures.

Doing photography on a river is quite different than on the ocean. Everything passes by fairly quickly. Animals leave a soon they see you. The ones who don’t, hide themselves, and if you do find them, it is already too late, the current is taking you away. On the ocean, you usually only need one lens, a long one. No need to change since your main objective is to capture animals. On a river, you constantly keep switching between a short and long lens, wanting to capture both the landscape and the animals.  If you don’t make the right decision at the right time, it is too late.

Around mid day, we stop for a break and decide to go fishing. Rio Chubut is home for Brown and Rainbow trouts, and if you have the right gear, the right spot, the right technique, and the right spirit, you might find yourself with a nice big fish fighting you. I tie a silver spoon with a green stripe and cast my line close to a rock big enough that it creates a nice backwash, a perfect spot. Nothing. But something tells me that there is a big one there, so I keep casting in the same spot. My senses acute, I stare at the water, at the rock, precisely right next to it, where I know one must be. My spoon hits the water right pass the spot and I start to reel. The sun flickers on the spoon and in an instant, a big Brown trout goes for it. I dig my heels in the ground and steady myself. She goes upstream, her powerful body pulling my line with it like a fly on its back. We fight for a while until I sense it is safe enough to bring her to shore. But this is where the trout masters in strategy. She faints her defeat and while I joyfully bring her back, she gathers her strength and prepare herself for the big finally. With no net, I can’t simply whisk her off the water,  I have to hold my rode in one hand, give enough line so that the trout does not get out of the water, and reach with the other hand to grab her. Simpler said than done. I finally see my opponent – oh my! That is a big fish! I go to grab her and she darts up out of the water, twist, and as she touches back the surface, she uses the current and goes down stream. With no resistance, her power is doubled. She jumps again, twist again, and again and again. For a moment, I am afraid I will loose her. Her ferociousness is working. I am getting nervous, and careless. But I got her well hooked. I get my senses back and steady myself again. The fight goes on for a while. I finally manage to grab her. With a solid grip, I walk to the safety of the shore, sit down, and look at my catch. I tell her that I am honored by the fight she gave me. I get up, look at the river and bow. I thank her for her gift. That night, in addition to our dinner of Argentinean beef, we cooked my trout much like how our ancestors, and their ancestors did it – over fire.

Our second day camp is nestled amongst red rock hills. As we pull our kayaks to higher ground, a white horse is standing not far, looking at us. He stands tall and looks magical. Lifting his nose in the air, he turns his head sideways and walks away. Before dinner, we hike to the top of the highest hill and wonder at the sight. The river flows through a landscape of green trees and red hills.  The water reflects the sky and look like a long curvy endless mirror. There is no cloud and the blue sky completes this highly contrasted scenery.

On our third day, we come to a small damn. The bad news is that we have to portage our kayaks. The good news is that right after the small fall are little rapids, perfect for a little play time. While the others try their luck fishing one last time, I paddle my kayak to the bubbly waters. The rapids are not big, but it still offers me a moment of fun and excitement. Shortly before our final destination, we come to a big rock, perfect for a swim.  After tightening the kayaks together, we climb up on a small edge. Pablo is the first one to brave the frigid cold water. After filming the others jumping, it is time for me to go. I hold my waterproof Olympus in front of me, wanting to have footage of the actual splash and leap in the air. My body enters the water and goes in shock. The water is so cold.  Unconsciously I cling my fingers, pressing the stop button on the camera. The lanyard slips away from my hand and the camera goes free. My brain is fighting what to panic about – the cold or the fact that I just lost my camera. My hands frantically wave everywhere. Last I heard, camera sinks and current takes things away. I have perhaps 5 seconds before I loose any hope of catching it. My fingers feel the hard case, but I fail to grab it. I feel the seconds passing by. I feel my chances disappearing. By now, the camera is somewhere around my waist line, sinking rapidly. The current is making things worst. With one last attempt, I go for it. I feel the lanyard between two of my fingers. I squeeze them and pray it will be enough. I bring my hand to my chest and grab the camera for dear life. With the camera secure, I reach for the surface. I swim to the rock, my body still in shock. The look on my face must say a lot, cause everyone is looking at me with fear – What happened?

After warming up, we get back in our kayaks and glide the last hour. At our picking rendez-vous, Sofia has  a nice surprise for us, a cooler with some nice cold beers. I take mine and walk one last time to the river. I sit on my kayak, take a sip and repeat the words of Maclean’s:

“I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.”

Against the Wind

We were suppose to leave that evening. The plan was to kayak a couple of hours, pass Puerto Pardelas, and camp before Punta Alt. There, a small cave, up in the mountain, would provide us with a good campsite, and a beautiful scenery. From there, we would paddle for 3 days, hopefully cross the entrance of Golfo Nuevo and make it to Punta Cracker. Perhaps see some dolphins on the way. Although it was a good plan, Lady Nature had something else in her mind.

I am always a bit worried whenever I set out. Will I have something to write about.  Will the pictures be good? Will the videos be ok for editing? Will I have interesting material, or will I come back with nothing? Will I find my theme for the day? For the trip? As it turns out, with some faith and patience, Nature always delivers. It may not be what was expected. It might be something totally different. But there is always a story line, you just have to let it come to you.

Along with Pablo, Diego and myself, Sandro was joining us on this trip. He is Pablo’s long time kayak partner. Together, they have been paddling the waters of the Peninsula for years. Sandro, as I discovered, is the type of paddler that makes kayaking look effortless. Steady, with great technique and years of experience, he cuts through the wind and through the waves like a steamship, never hinting any signs of fatigue or forcing a stroke. One rhythm, tic tac, tic tac, like a metronome. Whether the wind is blowing at 30 miles an hour, or the surface is like a mirror, you won’t notice any difference. Pablo was telling me that he had once paddled for 11 hours straight, never stopping even once for the normal human needs.

The kayaks were packed and ready. We all stood on the beach staring at the sky, then staring at the weather forecast Pablo was holding. The wind was blowing from the north pretty hard and it would do all night long. Out in the middle of the gulf, huge cumulus clouds rose up like a gigantic towers. Although the wind would push us in the right direction, our campsite would be exposed to the fury of what was looking inevitable – a stormy night. The rest of the forecast didn’t look promising either. The wind would change direction the day after, heading south, increasing in the afternoon, reaching 25 miles per hour. This meant that we would paddle pretty much the 3 days with head wind. The chances of crossing to the other side now were close to nothing.  We decided to hold off our departure and leave the next morning. That night, we dined listening to the wind howling and blowing sand from the dunes, hitting the windows like a swarm of bees from a Hitchcock movie. Out on the open, flashes from the lightnings illuminating the clouds giving us a glimpse of what hell could look like.

The morning showed no signs at all of what had taken place the night before. The sky was cloudless and the water smooth like leather. As the tide was rising, we carried our kayaks to the water, pushed ourselves off the beach and paddled out. We knew those conditions were just temporary, but we couldn’t stop ourselves believing perhaps that the forecast was wrong and that the next 3 days would be an easy ride.

When the tide changed, along with it came a new set of rules. The promised wind was delivered. Like adding coal to a train, it gained speed. Soon enough, we were battling 8 foot waves and gusts of 30 knots. Our sunglasses became crusted with salt – all those droplets blown in our face every time our bow hit a wave. Right after Punta Alt, we pulled on the beach and reassessed. We decided to head back. We would camp at that cave and spend the rest of the day hiking. For the next hour, we paddled, gusts of wind pushing us like a stampede. Sometimes, I felt like I was being rushed out by a group of mad security.  With our kayaks secured, and our gear at the cave, we all stared at a sea of white caps and headed for a hike.

Trails of Guanacos, hares and foxes crossing our own, we walked through canyons where walls were made of fossilized shells. Our eyes scanning for historical treasures – a fossil of petrified wood, chipped stones reminiscent of when the natives lived those lands. I felt like walking the corridors of the Museum of Natural History in New York. Behind a dune, hidden by a tall sand bush, the wind had blown away the sand covering the remains of a dead Tehuelche, perhaps 300 or 400 years old. The place was filled with history. Back at our cave, we contemplated the valley in front of us as the sun set and a dimmed rainbow briefly came to life. With our imagination fresh from our discoveries, we were soon looking back in time and saw a tribe a natives crossing the land.

There was no relief the next day. The wind was still blowing strong. Not as hard though. We armed ourselves with patience and paddled our way.

The beach after Punta Alt is long and is a place where many juvenile whale carcasses are found. Bones taken by people, the skin is what is left, even after 6 months. Of all the baby whales born in the golf, ten percent don’t make it. Most of time, they end up here, on this beach, blown by the winds and currents. In the water, a couple of penguins, schools of fish surfing the water and from time to time, a curious wandering sea lion poking his head out would remind us that life still exist.  After a couple of hours, we found this place with some good little surf. There is always time for surf and for sure we took it. For a moment, there was no more wind, no more current, there were just nice little waves to ride.

We stopped at Punta Cormorans. Although we could go for more, there was no good camping site within reaching distance. We settled once more to stop early and go for a hike. But before, with the tide going down, the same fish that we had seen surfing earlier, get often caught trapped in little ponds. Stories go that some people are even able to catch them with their bare hands. With little strategy, we posted ourselves between the open sea – freedom, and the pond – the cage. We looked like bears, sitting atop a fall, waiting for the salmons to jump right into their mouths. Except, in this case, it was more a bunch of tired kayakers with barely any patience left. After unsuccessfully chasing 10 of them and seeing them sprint their way to freedom, we gave up.

The hike this time, had a total different feeling. On the beach, amongst the usual suspects – crab shells, bones of dead birds, fish left overs – hundreds and hundreds of garbage – fish bins used by boats, nets, sandals, plastic bottles, glass bottles, tubes, hats, and the number one garbage found in Nature, the eternal white plastic bag. For a moment, I felt like we were the only survivors on a desolate planet. Those … things, on the beach were what was left from a once flourishing population. Our hike became a search for the most unusual artifact – a boomerang, a plastic red toy truck, glue sticks. On our way back to the camp, we headed for the cliffs, leaving the desolation behind. Away from the reach of water, a sense of wilderness came back, tracks of animals, fresh and old. We found an old Tehuelche settlement, chipped stones, a piece from an old plate used to grind herbs and cereals. Not far, the polished rock used as a crusher.

That evening, as the sun set in an intense gold curtain, a fox passed on the beach, stopping once to look at us. Meeting of strangers in a strange land. At night, tucked in my sleeping back, the sky was impressively beautiful. There were more stars than usual.  It seems like they were everywhere. The Milky Way was bright, a clear white streak crossing a sea of millions and millions of white shining dots. How amazing, that in the course of one day, some many opposites come in conflict with each other – life and death, ugly and beauty, easy and difficult.

Magically, the next morning, the wind changed direction once more. This time, it was blowing from the north, coincidentally the same direction as our way back home. We took a deep breath and went for it.

As if Lady Nature was playing with us, two hours before our arrival, the wind dropped and the surface became smooth again. Exactly the same conditions we had on our departure 3 days earlier. It was hard not to laugh about it as we glided back to shore.

Golfo San Jose

We were at the end of the road. But our journey was only beginning. We got out of the jeep and proceeded to unload the kayaks from the trailer. We were all anxious – like children, the night before christmas, about to open their gifts. The plan for the next 2 days was to kayak west, along the coast of Golfo San Jose.

There is something about setting a campsite. It is like building a house – a little one. You look for the best spot, with the best view, yet protected from the wind. You look to place the kitchen, the bedroom, the dining room. With a little bit of work, you are able to transform what was an inhospitable environment into a warm and cozy place.

Our first dinner was a delight. Sofia cooked ‘bife a la criolla”, a recipe muy kaya-quistica!. We all toasted this moment with wine and shared our most memorable Nature memories. As the sun went down, the stars started to fill the sky. You forget about what a night sky is suppose to look like. Living in cities, blinded by the lights all around you, the night sky is simply a blank black cover. Away for urbanization, the night is alive, millions of stars shining, some more than others. A shooting star prompting a wish. You see the infinity. You are reminded of the “grandeur” of the Universe.

After breakfast and mate (Argentinean tea), we got ourselves ready and paddled out. We passed in front of the place where the Spanish Explorers landed more than 300 years ago. With no wind, the current had drifted them inside the golf. It is only after walking across the land that they realized that this was a peninsula and named the other golf “Golfo Nuevo”. Their faith would be another story. Almost all killed by the natives, only a few survived and walked to the nearest town, able to tell their story.

Our first stop was a place where old whale bones can be found. At the same location, a special kind of green grass that only grows where there is salt water. With no other grass around, you wonder if the death of the whale is responsible for this fertile place where life abounds. After a quick snack, we were back on the water.

After a couple of hours, we passed a point and beyond it was a small sea lion colony. A group of females and juveniles jumped in the water and suddenly we were surrounded by inquisitive big brown eyes. One in particular, distinctive by a patch on his back, surprised us all with his curiosity and friendliness, poking his nose at our paddles and equipment. I am not sure who enjoyed this moment the most, either them or us. That night, we camped and dined remembering this amazing moment.

The next day, we paddled to the Bird Island where penguin, cormoran and heron colonies breed. The place is protected and no one is allowed on the island, giving the birds plenty of safety. It is booming with life. A group of penguins was in the water cleaning their plumage. Others were coming down from the hill. Cormorans, moving their neck, stretched up, to the right, then to the left, all in unison. Seagulls flying high adding their shriek to the cacophony. Our kayaks were followed closely by thousands of small eyes as we drifted just a few feet from the shore.

Leaving a sky filled white and black wings, we paddled toward our pick up location. It was important that we arrive to during high tide. On a low tide, we would have to walk 1km due to the incredibly slow rising beach – certainly not something neither of us wanted!

In the jeep, we were all silent – a bit tired, but also, absorbing those last 48 hours of raw Nature and close wilderness encounters.