Magic Log #3: San Carlos to La Paz

After a couple weeks in the US (mostly spent mountain biking and canyoning in Arizona and Utah) hurricane season seemed to be winding down and Lisa and I headed back south to Magic on October 19. In short order we left the marina the boat had been stored at, returned to the nearby anchorage we had been using in Bahia Algodones, and settled back into our routine.

Temperatures had moderated while we were gone and it was now comfortable sleeping belowdecks. Unfortunately, the water visibility had decreased a lot and was only 20′ or so in most spots. Diving was still good, though, and we did a few around nearby Isla Venados.

Four or five days after we arrived my mom and her husband, Tim, drove south to see us. We had been doing some canyoning with them in Zion before coming down to the boat, and they wanted to visit for a week and do some diving. Overall their visit went really well, but there is a definite learning curve to the whole boat-visitors-arriving-in-a-foreign-country thing. I’d been planning on picking them up at Marina Real, where we had left the boat while we were in the US, and gave them instructions there. On the day of their arrival it looked like there was going to be a strong sea breeze building which could make this dramatic, so we moved the boat to the other anchorage we had used in the area, Caleta Lalo, which was protected from the sea breeze. I wasn’t able to communicate the change in plans very well over the phone, so when they arrived at the marina well after dark I tried to take the dinghy a mile and a half around nearby Punta San Antonio to get to them. This did not work out very well, as the sea breeze had built after all and dinghying into a sizable wind swell at night with no moon is no fun. After getting a quarter of the way there I aborted and returned to Magic. From here I needed to get to my mom’s car so I could guide them to our new location. Rather than walk 2 miles on roads to get to the marina I tried going cross country, and after some thorny desert bushwhacking, friendly flashlight-armed guard encountering, wall scaling, and being-escorted-off-the-premises-ing I finally made it to them. We drove to the beach in Caleta Lalo and after a few dinghy trips had everyone and their stuff aboard the boat, then I drove the car back to the marina to store it and jogged back to Caleta Lalo on the roads. Phew.

Over the next few days we did some diving at the spots we were familiar with around Caleta Lalo and Bahia Algodones. This was nice, but we had our sights set on a new spot. 17 miles west of San Carlos is Isla San Pedro, the main destination for the town’s dive boats. Lisa and I had been interested in this island since we got to San Carlos, and having more people along seemed like it would be more fun and make things go more smoothly. We didn’t know anything about anchoring there and would be figuring it out as we went. Early in the morning on October 25 we left Bahia Algodones for a bouncy motor to the island.

When we arrived we saw cliffs along most of the island. There was one small beach near the southeast tip with some promise for anchoring; we headed over and found it dropping off steeply but were still able to anchor in 50′ of water. I jumped in with a tank and found about 80′ of visibility. I headed down the anchor chain and wrapped it around a boulder to make sure we wouldn’t drift if the wind came up.

The beach was covered with about 50 sea lions. They didn’t seem to care about us and went about their business barking at each other. We were interested in diving with them though, and not long after arriving I went in with my mom and Tim and we swam off towards the wall on the south side of the beach, away from the beach itself, and descended. After a few minutes some sea lions came over and started to play with my mom and Tim. Well, that’s what it looked like to me anyways; they thought the sea lions were being aggressive, and Tim started fending them off with his flashlight. Sometimes it’s hard to read the sea lions’ intents, and I’ve never had a problem diving with them in Mexico, California or BC, but after a few more minutes we aborted and returned to Magic.

We thought we might have been encroaching a little too closely on their beach, and later in the afternoon I went out in the dinghy with my mom and Tim to look for a dive spot further away. We went to the south tip of the island, at a spot we had seen a dive boat at earlier, and which would become our mainstay dive site at the island. This spot had much better topography, with some nice walls and a big cave, and while we had sea lions come along for much of the dive, they were friendlier than at the other spot.

Lisa was concerned about the sea lions and wanted to make sure we found a spot where they wouldn’t be a problem, so she didn’t come along on this first dive. And besides, we only have three tanks on the boat, so we couldn’t all dive at once. After our good time on the first dive, the next day we did two dives with Lisa coming on both. Great diving, with some sea lions, a large variety of fish, an octopus.

We spent three nights at Isla San Pedro, doing seven dives. I went on every dive as the ‘guide’, with Lisa, my mom, and Tim alternating as the the other two. As the days went by visibility steadily decreased, to 30-40′ on the last day. On the second to last day, while I was diving with Lisa and Tim, Lisa didn’t like some sea lions which kept swooping in from the darker water, and we turned around and surfaced early.

To cool off we went kayaking, visiting some sea caves both north and south of our anchorage and watching all the birds and sea lions on the rocks and cliffs. This was a lot of fun, and we went even further out the next day.

Despite her worries about the sea lions, Lisa wanted to dive again, so the next morning we went when there was more light and stayed at shallower depths. This was our last dive at San Pedro, and several sea lions came by which were playful and fun to swim with.

After the dive I was hoping the sea breeze would pick up and we could sail back to San Carlos, but it didn’t and we had a relaxing motor in a dead calm. The day after returning, my mom and Tim drove back to the US, and we were back to our usual routine. We started diving again but found that conditions had gotten worse: the poor visibility we had here previously was due to a plankton bloom, which was in turn causing a bloom of stinging jellyfish. After finishing a dive they would get all over the anchor rode, and if I went out spearfishing they were unbearable in the surface waters.

We pretty much stopped going in the water and started looking for other things to do. One activity we had really wanted to do was go on a nighttime insect safari. When I did the jog to the boat back when our visitors arrived, I came across a walking stick right next to the road and got some crappy photos of it with my phone. Lisa had never seen one, so we went back to Caleta Lalo and went ashore an hour after sunset to wander around in the brush. This was a surprising amount of fun, and there were a lot of insects: spiders, katydids, and so forth. Eventually I found the fabled walking stick, and went back to the boat to get a real camera while Lisa communed with it.

The jellyfish were even worse in Caleta Lalo than they had been at Algodones, so we returned to the Algodones anchorage. We would go ashore to jog and to eat at the Soggy Peso, and I did some more kiteboarding. Very relaxing, and lots of fun.

We started itching to move along, though. The hurricane season seemed to have ended and we felt safe heading further south in the sea. I was hoping to sail, and one evening we left and found pretty rough conditions outside the bay. The autopilot stopped working, and faced with a sleepless night hand steering the boat through chop we quickly turned around and returned to the anchorage. We tried again the next afternoon, when there was a nice but too strong breeze.

We had trouble from the start. The starboard engine wasn’t making water (the engine’s main cooling comes from seawater which is pumped through a heat exchanger and then overboard) and we could only run it a few minutes at a time. We decided to press on anyways since conditions were so nice. Then the autopilot stopped working again. We figured out it was shutting down when battery voltage got too low, so several times in the night we would run the engine for a few minutes to charge the batteries a bit.

Ideally we wouldn’t have to resort to this. The boat has two engines which are almost totally redundant. The port engine wouldn’t start, though, and hadn’t since our San Pedro trip. When Tim was here he played around with it and found that jumping the starter’s solenoid with a screwdriver would start the engine, but recommended against doing this and I forgot to see how he was doing it anyways, and didn’t want to figure this out while we were sailing along at night. We also have a generator, but I couldn’t find the adapter needed to plug it into our battery charger. Poor preparation, I guess.

Anyways, other than the engine drama we had a very nice crossing and sped across the sea, arriving in Loreto bay the next morning. At this point the wind died and we were just kind of bobbing there for a bit. I hopped into the water to see if the starboard engine’s problems were due to the raw water intake being blocked — no luck — and then figured out how to jump the port engine. We motored a few miles east to Puerto Ballandra, to the northwest on Isla Carmen, and anchored.

This was a wonderful anchorage. A small, remote cove with good internet access and great scenery. We anchored in the north lobe of the cove and relaxed from the crossing. Some time later we took the dinghy out to dive at the point marking the southern end of the cove. This was a treat after our recent time in Algodones, with a good 60′ of visibility, no jellyfish, warmer water, and a huge and varied population of fish.

We stayed at Ballandra for a few days, diving at this spot again and at one a couple miles north. I went spearfishing twice; during the second session I shot a couple fish and was done in 5 minutes, as I’d anchored the kayak in a small group of baitfish and the nearby predators were kind of stupid with hunger. We also went hiking on shore, having fun seeing all the life in the area.

We were getting pretty comfortable with the south point dive site, and decided to try a night dive there. I’ve done night dives plenty of times in the past, but Lisa never had, and we wanted to take it easy. The night beforehand, we went to the spot and snorkeled, seeing plenty of cool stuff. With all this preparation, the night dive itself went off smoothly; we stuck to shallow depths and made our way along, poking around. Lots of sea cucumbers and sea hares were out (which we never see during the day), along with many fish lazily swimming in place, several free swimming morays and lobsters.

Before we could leave Ballandra, I had to get the engines working again. I checked the raw water impeller on the starboard engine (which pumps seawater through the heat exchanger) and found it was shredded. I replaced it, picked out some impeller fragments I found downstream of it, then tried the engine again. It seemed to be making water now, so we left the anchorage. As I was watching the raw water flow as we left, it was clear it was still very deficient and the engine was overheating. We turned around and went right back to where we had been anchored. This was pretty deflating; I took the raw water circuit apart again and found another pile of impeller fragments. After removing these we left the anchorage again, and again not long after leaving the engine started overheating. At this point we were determined, though, and switched over to the port engine. I took apart the raw water circuit a third time and found yet more impeller fragments. After removing these, the flow in the starboard engine was finally in good shape and we were able to use it.

We went 20 miles south to Bahia Candeleros, an anchorage we had checked out briefly on the way north back in the spring. We stayed here a few days this time, as we found better internet and could work, and now that we had a compressor we could dive at the nearby Candeleros islets, a well known dive site in this part of the sea. The walls of these islets drop away quickly underwater, which is different from other islands we have seen in the sea, which generally hit sand at 30′ to 40′. We did two dives at the Candeleros, getting down to 60′ or 70′. Deeper isn’t better in diving, but the different nature of these sites was refreshing, especially with some beautiful gardens of soft coral we found in the deeper parts.

After our second dive at the Candeleros we left for a long overnight motor to Isla Partida, 85 miles away, which went smoothly. As we left we started seeing dozens, then thousands of butterflies flying across the water, miles from shore. We had seen some of these while diving at the Candeleros; sometimes they would lay flat on the water, resting, then just take off like nothing had happened. They got all over the boat and would sit in one spot for hours, exhausted from whatever migration they were on.

We were getting close to La Paz and it felt good to be back in familiar waters. We anchored in El Embudo, a small and narrow anchorage near the island’s north end, and went diving at Los Islotes, the sea lion colony a mile away which we’ve been to several times before. I did two long rebreather dives here on a liveaboard trip back in 2008 — the first time I ever went to La Paz — which were great, and I was pretty eager to dive here again.

We anchored the dinghy on the north side of the islets, and during the dive had great visibility and saw a fair number of fish, sea lions and so forth as we swam around a big jumble of boulders. It was nice, though there are some other sections with better topography and corals. After getting back to the boat I went spearfishing and took a dog snapper, one of the largest fish I’ve shot yet. Delicious meat.

We stayed the night, but the next morning found waves from Corumuel winds (a southwest wind frequently seen near La Paz) entering the anchorage and making us uncomfortable about the nearby rocks. We left the anchorage and motor sailed a few miles south to Ensenada Grande, where we found a more open beach to anchor off of. It was still wavy, but such conditions are far more comfortable in a catamaran like Magic than a monohull like Grand Illusion. In the afternoon the wind died and we went diving at Rocas Tintorera, a nearby spot. This was a great dive, with better fish and corals than at Los Islotes, several different species of morays and lots of macro life.

The next morning we went hiking on a trail at the south end of the anchorage. We did this trail back in the winter and wanted to see it again; it goes up an interesting drainage and crosses the island to some nice viewpoints.

In the afternoon we motored south to Bahia San Gabriel, another anchorage which we had been to before on Grand Illusion. We’d snorkeled here several times in the past, and wanted to see how the diving was. Alas, the spot we went to, at the north end of the bay, never got very deep and diving didn’t add a whole lot to the experience compared to snorkeling.

After a couple days we left the anchorage and arrived in La Paz, at last. We had several days here before we would be flying back to the US; we would be north for about a month and needed to arrange storage for the boat while we were gone, but otherwise had time to enjoy the city. I took Lisa in most mornings so she could go to an exercise class with her friends, and we did some jogging. I found some time to finally debug the port engine, and found that a bad electrical connection was keeping the engine from starting. After replacing this with a new wire run the engine started and ran fine.

I also found time for some new engine drama. When we’re in La Paz we stay in the main anchorage in front of town, which is a nice spot and close to the main attractions and all our friends. We would be storing the boat at Marina Fonatur, four miles west of here, which is more isolated but had space for us. The morning after we got in I motored to Fonatur in our dinghy to pay for the slip and so forth. Half way back to Magic the motor flew off the back of the dinghy and into the water. It was tethered to the dinghy so didn’t sink, and I got it back aboard and mounted it. It wouldn’t start, not surprisingly. We had two beat up oars on the dinghy but no oarlocks, and I tried to jerry rig an attachment so I could use them. This went poorly; I was able to paddle a little bit but mostly got carried back towards Magic on the tidal current. I sent Lisa an email to let her know I’d be running late, and she found someone to come and pick me up in his dinghy. We went back to the marina where Lisa had been waiting for me, then I found out she had gotten a separate ride back to Magic, then — still refusing to ask anyone for help myself — I paddled the dinghy back out towards Magic. I was about halfway there when a ferry driver came by and insisted on giving me a tow before I got swept out towards the entrance of the bay. I don’t know if this actually would have happened, but I was getting pretty tired and frustrated and gladly accepted the ride.

Now back at Magic, I had a drowned outboard to deal with. I’d hardly as much as taken the cowling off an outboard before, and after doing some research found I needed to remove and clean the carburetor, remove the spark plug and drain and then add oil to the cylinders. This all went pretty quickly though, then I got the outboard back on the dinghy and it started up after a few pulls. No problems since then with the outboard, thankfully. It’s good to know how to do this, I guess, but also a good lesson about the risks of deferred maintenance. I’d known the screws which attach the outboard to the dinghy needed lubrication, and weren’t as secure as they could have been.

The rest of our time in La Paz went pretty uneventfully, and on November 25 we took a shuttle to Los Cabos and flew to Phoenix.

Posted in Cruising 2014, Kiteboarding, Sailing, SCUBA Diving, Snorkeling | Comments Off on Magic Log #3: San Carlos to La Paz

Magic Log #2: San Carlos

Lisa and I married on September 7, 2014, in Boise. A few days after the wedding we drove down to Phoenix to pick up some gear we were storing at my mom’s house, and then down to Guaymas to get back to Magic. We had visions of a months-long tropical honeymoon on the boat: relaxing, doing sports, having fun. This plan went seriously awry, incredibly quickly.

I worried about Magic all summer. Due to a lack of options and plans falling through (see log #1) we left her in the water at a marina with poor protection from any weather that might roll in to Guaymas. Back in May the hurricane season started setting records for the size and number of huge storms being generated, a pattern which continued through much of the summer. None of these came close to Guaymas, thankfully. However, the historical pattern in the east Pacific is that early season storms go out to sea, while late season storms get closer and closer to Baja, as waters in the Sea of Cortez heat up.

We arrived in Guaymas to find the boat in good shape, with a couple rub marks from a bad job tying up to the dock and a shredded tarp (plastic tarps don’t belong anywhere near a boat!), but little other damage. We started moving new toys aboard — a dive compressor, several surfboards, more solar panels — and getting things ready for cruising. The weather was incredibly hot during the days, and we were motivated to get going.

Then we started paying attention to Odile. At that point a tropical storm, Odile was originally forecast to head out to sea, but the forecast track started sliding closer and closer to Baja. When it eventually made landfall near Los Cabos on September 15, it was one of the most powerful and most devastating storms to ever do so. Los Cabos suffered a huge amount of damage, and while La Paz was not as badly affected, several cruisers who stayed on their boats in the La Paz harbor died.

At that point though, we were at our wit’s end. It’s one thing to look at the power of a storm in retrospect, and quite another to contemplate it as it bears down on you. When the storm made landfall we were 350 miles further north and were away from the forecast track, but there was no guarantee that track wouldn’t change again. We spent all day beforehand reading about hurricanes and forecasting, thinking about contingency plans, and fighting. I had more faith in the NOAA forecast than Lisa, little fear of the hurricane, and wanted to be in a place where I could help protect the boat. This is, after all, what I had worried about all summer. Lisa did not want to be anywhere near the hurricane. We talked about her going north alone, but she could not bear the thought of leaving me in Guaymas as the storm approached. Ultimately, we secured the boat, tied it in the middle of the two slips it was occupying, and drove together to Phoenix the day after the storm hit Los Cabos.

Looking at this in retrospect, I see it mainly as a reflection of my inexperience with being in a relationship. Several other times I’ve proposed us temporarily splitting up as a way to deal with our different approaches to risk, and in each case we’ve found a way to reconcile that difference instead. Ultimately I need to recognize that everything I do affects Lisa as well, even if I do it solo, and I need to accept the hit to my sense of freedom that comes from caring about my partner. I love Lisa more than anything in the world, and Magic is in the end a floating piece of plastic, wood, and metal.

After a week or so in Phoenix, we took a bus back south to the boat. This wasn’t without trepidation: Odile had passed by, but the hurricane season wasn’t over yet, and it was so hot in Guaymas it was hard to get through the days in comfort. We decided we were going to get the boat out of Guaymas as quickly as we could and find a place where we could go swimming and have some fun. If another hurricane threatened, we would store the boat again and return to the US.

And so, the next day we motored out of Guaymas with the boat still only put half together, and made our way to San Carlos, 20 miles to the west. We anchored in Caleta Lalo, a couple miles west of town, and immediately jumped in the water. Swimming was incredibly refreshing. The water was wonderfully warm and immediately cooled me off, and my worries just seemed to melt away.

San Carlos is a popular diving destination for folks from Arizona, and we were eager to use our new compressor. I hadn’t been diving for over two years, and it had been several years longer than that for Lisa. Having done so much of this in the past though I got back in the swing of things quickly, and did a solo dive on a reef near the boat to check out conditions and get used to my new equipment. This went great, and the dive was nice. Several moray eels, lots of stingrays, an octopus in the open.

The next day I did a short dive with Lisa under the boat so she could reacquaint with the sport, then we dinghied back to the same reef and finished our tanks. Lisa did great, and we had a lot of fun poking around and looking at fish.

The next day started out nice. I did a solo dive at a spot further off while Lisa relaxed, came back, and we contemplated doing a second dive in the afternoon. The day had started off clear, then some clouds started moving in. A south wind started blowing, light at first, then stronger and stronger. Then it started raining, light at first, then harder and harder. Within a couple hours the winds built to, I would guess, 40 knots or so (our anemometer was broken at the time), several foot seas and a driving rain that was painful to be out in.

This is the worst weather I have ever seen, and we were totally unprepared for it. The forecast was for fairly calm conditions, and we hadn’t seen any weather at all previously in Caleta Lalo, a cove that is well protected from every direction but the south. We were positioned so that the wind and huge waves were trying to drive us into the rocky shore a few hundred feet away. At the height of things I went on deck and added more scope. Our anchor held, though I hate to think about what would have happened if it hadn’t.

At least the squall passed quickly. After an hour or so of the worst winds they started to tail off, and a few hours later conditions were pretty mild except for the remaining waves.

We went to bed, and the next morning moved the boat a mile north into Bahia Algodones, where we were protected from the south. Lisa wanted to move the boat into Marina Real, which we were just outside of. I wanted to stay out in the anchorage, as I thought our new position would leave us in a safe place should another squall arrive. This precipitated another fight, after which I about completely shut down. I could hardly speak, could hardly think, and did some horrible things I can in no way justify. I felt worse than I ever have in my life.

I’ll get to this in a later post, but several months later in San Blas I had a similar — though not as extreme — episode. Talking to Lisa some time after that, she thought I had been showing some signs of PTSD, and looking at wikipedia (yeah, yeah) I definitely could have had a low grade stress disorder. I felt disassociated from Lisa and even from myself. Both times the episode came on during calm conditions the day after a severe weather event; I can’t say this won’t ever happen again to me, but I’m hoping that just being aware of what is happening to me will help me cope.

At the time, we didn’t know about this. In the moment, it eventually became clear to me that I wasn’t fit to run the boat. Boats need a captain, someone with the final word on where the boat goes and how things are done. I had been the captain since buying Magic, and in Algodones gave this responsibility to Lisa. This is I think the best decision I’ve made about Magic. I trust Lisa’s judgement and decision making more than my own, especially when we combine that with my own experience and consideration of the conditions and weather forecast. This change also defused a lot of tension on the boat, and made Lisa a lot more comfortable with going to sea.

And so we went to the marina, and spent several days there. These were pretty relaxing, and I spent a lot of time propped on a beanbag chair in front of a giant fan, working on my laptop. Each day we would leave the marina in our dinghy to go diving or snorkeling. Nearby Punta San Antonio had good diving, with a series of small, shallow walls, a fair amount of fish, several octopus and many eels.

In the marina we started trying to understand the squall that had hit us. Our guidebook talked of Chubascos, squalls that can strike in the Sea of Cortez during the summer. Some web research led us to the WunderMap, a resource on wunderground.com, and maps from NOAA weather satellites (the two might be based on the same data, it’s hard for me to tell) that show current and historical cloud intensity information. The day of the squall, a large mass of angry clouds that formed near Puerto Vallarta moved up the mainland, and headed right over San Carlos. If we’d had some advance warning we would have been able to react well before we were hit.

I’m still thinking through the best way to make use of this data, especially in regards to our trip to the South Pacific next year. Some parts of that region are squally during the times we’ll be visiting, and I’d like to be able to get these maps, or a facsimile, when we are out of cell range and are sipping from the internet at a few hundred baud through a satellite connection.

Anyways, armed with some knowledge and a website to visit to check for storm activity, we left the marina. We were both getting a little bored, and wanted to see more of the area. However, we wanted to stay close to the marina in case of either squall or hurricane, and went to the other end of Bahia Algodones, less than a mile and a half away. This is now one of our favorite anchorages in Mexico. There are a lot of activities on offer here, at a relaxed, well protected spot.

Isla Venados, which forms the outer edge of Bahia Algodones, had several great dive spots, with varied structure, which we visited most days. Octopus, crabs, some nudibranchs, all sorts of interesting critters. Some large schools of fish. Visibility was hit or miss, but we had one day with 60′ or so.

Further inside was some good snorkeling, and I went spearfishing several days. Other times we would go in and eat at the Soggy Peso, a friendly and relaxed beach bar, or go jogging along the road leading to the bar. It can be pretty hard at times to get regular exercise on the boat, and we’re still figuring out the best way to do this at various types of anchorages.

We were usually the only sailboat in the anchorage, though folks would regularly buzz around in powerboats and jet skis. One was a character. George came up to us one evening, very drunk, asking for gas. I said sure, then we spent several minutes tossing lines around and trying to get him rafted up. At one point, he backed into us hard in reverse, scratching our paint. After getting some gas, he left. This was a good lesson about needing to be very careful about people rafting up. This was the second lesson, actually. Earlier in the year, while we are at Espiritu Santo on Grand Illusion, we went on another sailboat to snorkel with sea lions. On return, it was windy and they crashed into Grand Illusion, destroying a lifeline stanchion. At least neither incident did any real damage, and after the second we named our barely functioning stereo after George.

The last activity we got into at Algodones was kiteboarding. Inside Isla Venados is a narrow, shallow channel that concentrates the northwest sea breeze, creating a small but flat and pretty consistent area for kiting. I hadn’t done this since 2012 but wanted to get back into it, so paddled over to the beach with my stuff. I was pretty apprehensive about flying the kite again, but it was like riding a bike and I immediately got up and going. Not very well, mind, and I was underpowered and wasn’t able to stay upwind, eventually finding myself on the beach near the marina we had stayed at earlier. The walk back to the kayak was long, hot, and complicated, but it felt great to be out kiting again.

I went out kiting a few more times and started getting the hang of things again. Lisa had always been interested in this sport but had never done it. Lessons are really important for kiting safely, but she had some experience flying stunt kites so we went to a quiet section of the beach one day and she flew the smallest kite we had while it was attached to me, to get a feel for it. This went fine, until one time the kite flew from the water and over my head, crashing on the beach just a few feet from a guy walking along. We hadn’t noticed him (he was the only person who came by the entire time we were there), but at least there was no harm done, and we decided Lisa needed to take some real lessons before continuing with the sport.

After a week at the anchorage we had settled into a nice groove. Then, yet again, a hurricane threatened. After Odile, Polo and Rachel had gone well offshore, but the next storm, Simon, looked like it might cross the upper Baja peninsula and head towards San Carlos. It seemed unlikely we would see much wind, but the possibility existed, and rather than continue to deal with the stress of following the hurricanes we decided to take the boat back to the marina and return to the US until hurricane season ended. This would have already happened in most years, but it had been such a big year for hurricanes and they just didn’t seem to want to stop coming. In early October, we took a taxi to Guaymas, then got on the bus north to Phoenix.

Posted in Cruising 2014, Kiteboarding, SCUBA Diving, Snorkeling | Comments Off on Magic Log #2: San Carlos

Magic Log #1: La Paz to Guaymas

In February 2014 we bought Magic, our 1992 Privilege 39 catamaran. Magic is a well equipped, comfortable, capable vessel which we plan to travel well afield on; see the pacific planning page above. I was planning on chronicling our time on Magic, but life and laziness got in the way and now we’re more than a year on. Mea culpa. So now I’m going back and starting from the beginning.

After buying the boat we went for a shakedown cruise of a few days before flying to the US. The boat sat and waited in La Paz, and a month and a half later we were able to return. From here we spent a week and a half sailing to Guaymas, 250 miles north and on the mainland side of the sea, to leave the boat for the summer.

Our first stop was Puerto Ballandra, an anchorage 13 miles north of La Paz which we’d been to several times before. Eager to break free of La Paz, and with Corumuel winds the next morning entering the anchorage, we sailed north, making 35 miles to Isla San Francisco on a broad reach. This was the first passage we did on Magic under sail, a really comfortable time.

On Grand Illusion, Isla San Francisco was the furthest north we got into the Sea of Cortez. And that visit was brief; after a trying evening rolling and bucking our way across from Isla Partida, we left the first thing the following morning to make our retreat back to La Paz (and eventually buy Magic). This time around, it was great to spend a couple days on the island. San Francisco is pretty small, with a beautiful curved bay to the southeast. Winds were entering the bay though, so we went behind it to a smaller anchorage. From here we had some protection, and could still easily go ashore and check out the hiking trails running all over this corner of the island.

Nearby the boat were some areas for snorkeling, which we checked out by kayak. I speared a few small fish. Magic came with a pole spear and a spear gun, and having no experience with spearfishing (I never fished on Grand Illusion) I started out with the conceptually simpler and safer pole spear.

Hunting with a pole spear is a pain in the ass. I’m sure it’s a problem with my technique and/or equipment, but I would have to dive down and get within a few feet of the fish to have enough power to take it. Fish don’t generally appreciate people getting that close, so much swimming, aborted attempts and misses ensued. Which is fine, and the snorkeling here was nice, with several morays coming out into the open after smelling blood, but I needed to do more work on improving at this sport.

From Isla San Francisco we left in the middle of the night to motor to Puerto Los Gatos, 40 miles north. Historically, when I have some distance to make and expect light or adverse winds, I try to get a super early start and time the arrival for the late morning. This lets us get in before the winds pick up, and still have most of the day to explore the anchorage we arrive at. This was the first time I’d done this sort of passage with Lisa, though, and while initially concerned about the idea, after seeing how calm things were she was fine with it and went back to sleep as we puttered north.

Los Gatos is a small anchorage with poor protection but some neat sandstone formations on the shoreline. Having spent so much time in southern Utah this was pretty familiar to the two of us, but we had a lot of fun hiking around on shore and then picking our way through the cactus to the southern lobe of the anchorage.

The snorkeling at Los Gatos was really good, with a great variety and number of fish. I found an octopus out in the open, went down and caught it, and both of us played with it a bit before letting it go.

I went spearfishing again at Los Gatos, trying out the spear gun this time. This is a very different experience from using a pole spear. I’m sure there are a lot of subtleties when using a spear gun to take larger fish, especially in more open water, but using a spear gun to hunt for dinner on a reef isn’t rocket science. I swam around on the surface, hanging out over sandy crevices and taking potshots at fish feeding in the area. My aim was horrible and I kept missing, but the fish really didn’t care as I swam down repeatedly to retrieve the spear.

After doing this a while a small school of large Trevally swam by several feet away. Without hardly thinking I took a shot and watched the spear (my only spear) lodge itself in the fish before it swam off. Hmm. I went in its direction, and started seeing flashes of reflected light from below. I dove down 20 feet and found the fish, which was having difficulty swimming due to the spear in its side. I grabbed the spear, after which the fish was able to get the leverage it needed to twist off and swim away. Oh well. Spearing fish which I’m not able to take is the aspect of spearfishing I like the least. At least this fish was lightly injured and probably survived, but who knows. Since then my fishing has improved and this happens less, but it’s hard to avoid entirely.

After a night at Los Gatos we left the next morning for Bahia Agua Verde, 18 miles away. This is a very popular anchorage and there were a dozen or so boats in our tiny section of the bay, with the beaches around us all packed with people. We eventually realized we had arrived on Easter Sunday, a hugely popular day in Mexico for heading to the beach. We did some snorkeling, but with all the crowds we decided to move on in the afternoon, making our way to Bahia Candeleros, another 17 miles north. The following morning we left yet again, heading eight miles to Honeymoon Cove on Isla Danzante.

This is an awesome spot. The anchorage was in deep water and a bit tricky, but had a gorgeous, quiet setting. Some hiking trails ashore went up onto the bluffs surrounding the anchorage, where we were able to get some nice views and, most importantly, a cell phone signal from the Loreto towers. This was the first internet access we’d had since Puerto Ballandra, which allowed us to stay for several days and work and explore.

Honeymoon Cove is really a pocket of three small coves at Isla Danzante’s northwest point. We kayaked around these coves, and then paddled together down most of the west coast of the island. Lisa returned to the boat while I continued the rest of the way around the island, maybe eight miles total. This was good to check out, and there were a couple small arches on the east side and some other cool terrain but no promising anchorages.

Our favorite activity at the cove was snorkeling, which we did every day. Several spots running up to the north tip of the island had great fish. I went spearfishing almost every day, easily catching a good variety — grunts, chubs, wrasse, one triggerfish. I’ve always loved triggerfish, with their awkward swimming and bizarre diamond shape, and it turns out they’re great eating too. It’s hard for me to snorkel now without thinking about how tasty the fish I’m looking at would be. I’d kind of like to keep the enjoyment of the fish and the hunting of the fish disassociated though, which is one reason I don’t spearfish while scuba diving (other reasons: it’s illegal, and doesn’t seem sporting).

Eventually, we had to leave, and headed north past Loreto and across the sea to Guaymas. This was about 128 miles, by a big margin the longest we’d done, but went smoothly. We started motoring, and after getting into the afternoon we sailed for a while. After dark the wind died and we motored the rest of the way.

This was my first overnight passage with Lisa, and the first time we kept watches on a timetable. After dinner Lisa went to sleep, then I kept watch until midnight, then Lisa took over until 4am, then I resumed and kept watch until we were both awake. “Keeping watch” here means setting an alarm to get up every 10 or 15 minutes, looking around for boats, checking engine gauges (if applicable) and conditions, then snoozing or reading or whatever until the alarm goes off again. In more crowded waters or with rocks and islands around you need to be more vigilant, but if you go the whole night without seeing land or another boat there’s not much to be concerned about.

Late the next morning, about 28 hours after leaving Isla Danzante, we arrived in Guaymas. We had several days at this point before we were scheduled to haul out, and went looking for a quiet spot where we could start preparing the boat for its summer storage. We anchored at a pretty spot with good internet and a lot of frigate birds several miles south of the city, and started working. That night and the next day we started seeing a film drifting by on the water surface, accompanied by a horrid smell. We realized we had anchored near a shrimp processing plant (one of the main industries in Guaymas), and quickly weighed anchor and headed up to the city proper, where we spent the rest of our stay.

Guaymas is an interesting city. No tourism, and very Mexican, we spent a lot of time walking around and taking the bus to various parts of town. We spent more time here than we would have liked, truthfully. There are a lot of things to do to button up the boat when storing it, but no more than three or four days of hard work. We got stuck waiting around for the boat to be hauled, though. We were trying to store the boat at Marina Guaymas, a dry storage yard on the south side of town. The day we were supposed to haul came and went, then a couple more days went, then they hauled another catamaran but not us, then we found out it would be at least four more days before we could haul, then we gave up and left the boat in the water at Marina Fonatur, the other marina in town. (Marina Fonatur also could have hauled us, but we were running short on time and needed to be back in the states.) I don’t want to dwell on this, and Marina Guaymas seems like a good yard and definitely a great place to do your own work on a boat, but they also have trouble with multihulls and I doubt we’ll return in the future.

We were glad to take the final steps with Magic of putting on all the summer canvas, packing our bags and taking an overnight bus to Phoenix. I was already looking forward though to returning in the fall and starting a more extensive cruise, though.

Posted in Cruising 2014, Sailing, Sea Kayaking, Snorkeling | Comments Off on Magic Log #1: La Paz to Guaymas

Adventuring with Lisa

I have a strong independent streak, and a long history of doing sports and trips more or less exclusively solo. So when I started adventuring with Lisa last summer it was a huge, abrupt shift; we were doing and still do more or less everything together. We have extraordinarily similar interests and outlooks on life, though as we started being together we began to recognize our differences too, mainly in our levels of experience and risk tolerance. The process of working past these has seen its ups and downs and I’d like to take the time to try to chart some of these, as part of a summary of what we’ve been up to the last six odd months.

After recuperating from the West Coast Trail hike in Boise, we headed east to Yellowstone to catch the tail end of summer. I’d never been to Yellowstone before (or even Montana or Wyoming) while Lisa had been several times, and had some ideas for trips we could do there. We did some of the standard tourist stuff, hiking around the geysers and watching the big animals, which was all pretty nice. At the same time though we were evaluating whether to go for a bigger trip we were interested in.

There is an almost mythic soakable hot spring in Yellowstone named Mr. Bubbles. More than 10 miles from any road it is only really accessible on multiday trips, and we were originally interested in visiting it as part of a 30 mile backpack that would also go by some other hot springs and waterfalls. After doing some short hikes in the park it became pretty clear that Lisa’s ankle wasn’t going to put up with that, so we started looking for other options.

Another trip was to do a paddle on the Lewis and Shoshone lakes, which are connected by a 3 mile section of almost-flat river, to get to the Shoshone Geyser Basin. Lisa had done this paddle before with one of her friends, and had enjoyed it a lot.

We ended up combining these trips — Lisa’s account is here. While 30 miles was too far to backpack, it is only about 9 miles from the geyser basin down to Mr. Bubbles. So we kayaked to the basin in a two person boat we’d rented, spent the night, left the kayak ashore, backpacked south to Mr. Bubbles, spent the night nearby, then returned to the kayak. This all went swimmingly. Kayaking up was very nice with lots of wildlife and a fun time working our way up the river to Shoshone Lake. The geyser basin was great to explore, and we found a couple nice spots to soak. Hiking to Mr. Bubbles went smoothly, though the scenery was a little dull. Mr. Bubbles itself was amazing, a wonderful pool with a stream of bubbles erupting in the center, essentially a giant natural hot tub. Hiking back the next day was tiring, with the scenery even duller, but we got back to the kayak in good spirits.

From here things went downhill quickly. It was getting into the afternoon and the wind was building on the lake. Our designated site was at the other end of the lake, and while I felt no real compulsion to get that far given the risk and lack of anyone else around, I still wanted to make some more progress, and with several thousand miles of ocean kayaking experience the wind didn’t bother me at all. Lisa was pretty intimidated by the wind though; she had been kayaking a number of times before but had had some bad times with the wind, in the San Juans and also on the very lake we were on.

We started paddling though, and decided to stay near shore where Lisa was comfortable with the risk and could get used to dealing with the wind. This went well for a couple miles, until we reached a spot where we would need to cross 1/3 miles to the opposite shoreline at a constriction in the lake. We went ashore and waited for an hour to relax and see if winds would abate, which they did a little. Then we went back out, to see if we could cross, me steering the boat from the back. It was still pretty windy, but I was still anxious to cross and kept asking Lisa if we could. Eventually I thought she had agreed, when she had really just shut out my nagging, and we crossed. Which for me was fine, and for Lisa was quite traumatic — waves were continually breaking over the side of the kayak as we got away from shore. On the other side we quickly landed, made camp, had dinner, went to bed.

During the night it became clear what a catastrophic error the crossing had been — how could you trust somebody who’d done what I’d done? — and after talking for hours we realized the need for a hard rule to keep this from ever happening again:

Don’t do anything which anyone is uncomfortable with.

I’m not all that risk averse, so this basically means we don’t do anything which Lisa is uncomfortable with. Though I don’t do it much anymore (changing this fall though!) I started my adventuring days with Scuba Diving, and I think I picked this rule up reading about certain technical diving circles there — anyone can cancel any dive for any reason. It’s a nice and simple bombproof rule.

Even so, a rule by itself doesn’t mean much, and after the paddle we decided to dial things back a bit, staying away from multiday or very committing trips for a while. The weather was getting cold in Yellowstone and we headed south, spending the next two months or so roaming around southern Utah and doing various sports.

At first we went to Moab, doing quite a bit of mountain biking. We had similarly unbalanced levels of experience here, as I had done quite a lot of biking in the previous two years whereas Lisa was pretty new to it. This was and is a great sport for us though, as difficult sections can just be walked and mountain biking is still so much fun and such great exercise even on easier trails. We were able to gradually ramp up the difficulty of the trails we rode and, especially once we got to the spring and got new bikes (both of our old ones were stolen from in front of my mom’s house in Phoenix) Lisa got very confident on the bike and we’ve been able to do some pretty tough trails. I doubt we’re going to get into many super hard long technical days together, and on Lisa’s off days I still go out solo to indulge in these myself.

From Moab we headed to Hanksville, doing quite a bit of canyoning in the surrounding areas. We have different kinds of experience with this sport, which complement each other well. Before meeting Lisa I did almost all my canyoning solo, giving me a crash course in the various skills needed to safely make it down canyons. Still, almost all of my Utah canyoning was done in Zion and I knew little about other areas in the state. Lisa has nearly a decade of experience canyoning and knows the Utah canyons extremely well, with almost all of her canyoning done with friends or with larger parties at canyoning fests. Canyoning this way is great fun but it’s hard to pick up on some of the technical parts; usually someone has done the canyon before so navigation is simpler, and at rappels you have to be up front and into it to evaluate anchors and set up rappels before someone else gets to it. Lisa had taken a course and knew how to do this stuff, but didn’t have a lot of direct experience in the field.

Canyoning is a committing sport: once you pull your first rope the only way out is to finish the canyon you’re in. Doing a canyon as a couple requires a lot of confidence and trust in each other, and it took quite a while before we did any canyons together. A lot of this was happenstance, we just kept going to fests and finding other experienced folks to go with, but by the time we did start canyoning together we knew how we would get along pretty well. The first canyons we did were Hog 2 and Hog 1, a neighboring pair of canyons about 30 miles south of Hanksville. This was actually our third attempt to do Hog 2 in the previous couple of weeks — the first time we got the van stuck in the sand on the approach, and the second time we bailed on the other two people we were with at the canyon drop in due to impending darkness.

Done together, these two canyons made for a fun day. Starting at a parking area next to the highway — the van-stuck-in-sand incident was due to trying to use a more convenient spot — we hiked a couple miles of trail to the base of both canyons, hiked the ridge between them to the drop in for Hog 2, finished it, then repeated the ridge hike for Hog 1 before hiking out. Hog 2 is a short but fun canyon with a dark downclimb into a mud pit at the end, the birth canal (hmm). Hog 1 seemed much longer, though maybe we were just tired, with seemingly never ending sections of skinny clothing destroying slots.

Since this trip we’ve done a few more canyons together; canyoning hasn’t been our highest priority as a sport but since Lisa knows the canyons so well and which ones she is or isn’t interested in, and since I’m pretty experienced with getting down them, we’ve been able to avoid friction or other problems when venturing into these places.

The third main sport we did while in Utah was rock climbing. I was pretty new to this, having just done a short course and some solo toproping while in Durango last summer, while Lisa had been out climbing with friends a fair amount. Our skills here complement each other in a different way from canyoning: I’m happy to lead, and Lisa is happy to follow. Climbing is pretty asymmetric in this way. Lead climbing — starting from the ground and placing protection or clipping bolts on the way up — can be risky for the climber, as a fall means falling twice the distance between you and the last protection or bolt, putting a lot of force on the equipment and potentially striking the wall or ground on the way down. In contrast, following — being belayed from the top as you remove the protection which the leader placed on the way up — and climbing on toprope are pretty low risk, as barring any swinging the climber should be immediately caught by their belayer if they fall.

These two approaches fit our mentalities very well, and we had a lot of fun climbing at Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas, near Saint George in southwest Utah, and during a two week stay at Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. The only problem here was that my climbing started outpacing my experience and skills; rather than build a solid foundation through time on the rocks and coursework I jumped right into trad leading. At Joshua Tree I had protection fail twice and took long falls, ending up with scrapes and a mild concussion. Climbing is a serious sport and we haven’t done any since December, though we’re keen on getting back into it with a more levelheaded and cautious approach this summer. Lisa wrote about our experiences at Joshua Tree here.

After the new year, we flew south to Mexico to go sailing. Boating was yet another sport where our interests aligned strongly but our experiences didn’t. Lisa had wanted to sail and see the world for a while but had not spent much time on boats, mainly on some diving and snorkeling trips in Belize and Thailand. I’m not a super experienced sailor but had done a few thousand miles of cruising on my 28′ sloop, Grand Illusion. It had been waiting patiently in Laz Paz since I sailed it down from California in 2012 and our plan was to head up to Guaymas over five weeks and haul out, giving Lisa a better feel for the nautical life and seeing if we wanted to push further.

This trip did not go according to plan. After a few days provisioning in La Paz, we headed north to Espiritu Santo and almost immediately got slammed by a norther. These are storms bred in the Pacific which head down the Sea of Cortez during the winter and can bring strong winds for several days at a time. We knew one was coming and settled into a safe anchorage, but sitting out the storm was still pretty uncomfortable, with two nights of winds gusting well over 30 knots, waves slamming against the hull, the boat walking around at anchor and rolling from side to side, just generally a lousy sleepless experience for both of us. And not a great introduction to boating; Lisa had to sit through the nights not just unable to get to sleep but worrying about our safety. We were anchored securely and even if we had slipped anchor and drifted into the larger waves in the main channel we would have been fine, but it’s hard to trust in that being so new to everything.

After the storm died, we started having a lot of fun: the Sea of Cortez is a magnificent place, with great scenery, tons of sea birds, dolphins almost every day, sea lions at Los Islotes and fish and other critters (octopus!) everywhere while snorkeling. But it was becoming increasingly clear that Grand Illusion was getting in the way more than anything else. It was still difficult to get a good night’s sleep except in ideal circumstances, no real amenities, narrow walkways made getting up on the deck difficult and kept Lisa confined pretty much to the cockpit and cabin. I had a long history with the boat and was used to its quirks, while to Lisa it was a cramped and unfamiliar space, exposed wiring everywhere, basically a floating bachelor pad.

After about a week and a half on the boat, we turned around and headed back to La Paz. This was less throwing in the towel than it was changing tack. When we had originally arrived in La Paz we visited a boat for sale which I had been eyeing online for a few months, a 39′ Privilege catamaran named Magic. Very well equipped and with a far more spacious and livable layout, Magic looked like an enormous step up from Grand Illusion. After returning to La Paz, we went through the multi-week process of buying Magic and were able to cruise for a few days before flying back to the US.

In some ways this was an impulsive purchase, but in the balance I don’t think it was. Grand Illusion was always a starter boat to me, one that I could afford and sail on but not one I was planning to stick with. I took my time to get experience and decide what I wanted next, and for years had decided I wanted a catamaran in this size range, with the Privilege 39 at the top of the list — they are an older style of cat, with a reputation for being well built and able to cross oceans. I’d been planning on buying a cat this fall, but after seeing the exact boat I wanted in such a great place and so well equipped, and after realizing both that Lisa loved being out on the water and that we needed a new boat to really make the experience shine, buying Magic now just made sense. Lisa wrote a lot about this trip here and here.

The few days we spent cruising on Magic were great, but we weren’t able to really get situated before flying back to the US. We had a commitment at the end of February to meet my family in Park City for some skiing. This is the latest new sport we’ve tried doing together, and the jury is still out on it. Lisa has very little experience skiing, and multiple traumatic experiences with it — crashing out of control into a fence her first time out, and several years later seeing someone carried out on a stretcher after being hit by another skier. So when we went we went slowly, at whatever pace she was happy with, and after a week she went from being terrified by the magic carpet to being comfortable on most green terrain.

This is good but not mind-blowing progress, and it’s hard to say how much further we’ll take it. Resort skiing is getting less and less interesting to me with time, and doesn’t really interest Lisa much at all. On the other hand, backcountry skiing is one of my favorite sports, just so pure and engaging and, on good days, downright glorious. Lisa has a lot of experience with snowshoeing and cross country skiing, and is interested in backcountry skiing — her side of the story is here — so maybe we’ll skip resort skiing in the future and try out some low angle ski touring next.

March left us pretty free to wander again. After a couple weeks of mountain biking around Moab, I flew to Toronto for a week for work before we went to a couple of canyoning gatherings in Arizona. In the middle of this we did a canyon together, Big Canyon. This was a great trip, and a good illustration of how far we’ve come in how we work together, being our first overnight trip together since Yellowstone. The canyon was tougher and longer than we expected, but we made decisions and worked through the difficult parts together, and got through the trip smoothly. Lisa wrote about this canyon here.

Big Canyon is a pretty big canyon draining to the Little Colorado River, out in the middle of nowhere west of Tuba City. Following a guidebook, we headed most of the way down neighboring Salt Trail Canyon, traversed over into Big Canyon, and dropped in about a mile up from the confluence with the Little Colorado. The Little Colorado gorge is much the same stuff as the Grand Canyon proper, with 3000′ of elevation between the rim and the river and lots of steep, rocky, annoying hiking. After leaving the salt trail it took us several hours of cross country travel through ledge systems to make it a few miles to the drop in to Big Canyon. I was still doing ok but Lisa was pretty tired, and with it being late afternoon we decided to camp near the top of the technical section rather than at the bottom as we had planned. The next morning we descended the technical section, which is one of the coolest and most unique canyons I’ve seen anywhere. The canyon is dry until the bottom of the first rappel, where heavily mineralized water erupts from a spring in the wall. From here the canyon becomes a wonderland of travertine waterfalls, pools and other formations, an alien and unexpected place.

After finishing up towards noon though, we still had a long hike back to the rim via Salt Trail Canyon. The salt trail isn’t really a trail, and we found ourselves route finding through cliff bands in the lower parts, but by going slowly, taking regular breaks for water, and my taking whatever gear I could manage from Lisa, we made it up in good spirits, arriving back at the van shortly before dusk.

In early April, we returned to Magic for a few weeks to sail to Guaymas, on the mainland, and store for the summer. Keeping the boat in Guaymas is a good option logistically, as we want to drive down in the fall with a bunch of stuff for the boat, mainly a dive compressor and dive gear, and Guaymas is a much shorter drive from the border than La Paz — 5 hours vs. 2 days. Moving the boat here also gave us an excuse to go cruising, and we spent about a week and a half traveling the 250 miles north and staying at various anchorages on the way. It’s pretty remarkable how much the change in boats has improved the experience. Between the much gentler motion, the huge amount of space to spread out, and all the equipment and features we didn’t have on Grand Illusion (swim steps, two kayaks, fridge, watermaker, a real galley, and on and on), Magic really felt like a home to both of us. It will be great to be back later this year and spend the fall and winter in Mexico. As with everything else we do though, it’s critical to make sure we move forward with sailing at a pace we’re both happy with.

Posted in Backpacking, Canyoning, Mountain Biking, Sailing, Sea Kayaking, Skiing, Snorkeling | Comments Off on Adventuring with Lisa

West Coast Trail

The West Coast Trail is a popular backpacking route on Vancouver Island, running between Port Renfrew — two hours west of Victoria — and Pachena Bay — a bit south of Bamfield and only really reachable via several long hours on logging roads. 47 miles, difficult in many parts. I backpacked this back in 2010, when I was in the area for a Mozilla summit in Whistler, kayaked this section on the 2011 west coast paddle (though I was mostly blind at that point) and returned to backpack it again with Lisa after our Vancouver area canyoning.

With Lisa still recovering from her sprain last month this was, well, a bad idea, but we made it through ok with some drama, finishing in 4 1/2 days, a fast time for the trail and one day longer than when I did it in 2010. The problems we had were a combination of Lisa’s ankle acting up, and blisters from using canyoneering shoes that, while providing great grip, are not designed to keep feet dry. As things went on I took on more and more weight from her pack, and for the last half of the trail carried both our packs most of the time. With ultralight no-cook setups this worked out reasonably well, and we both finished the trail in good spirits. Lisa’s side of the story is at http://vanvagabond.com/?p=55.

The West Coast Trail is notorious mainly for its mud and its ladders. The amount of mud on the trail is very conditions dependent; this time there was a lot more than I remembered in 2010, more than any hike I’ve done except on Stewart Island in New Zealand (which this hike still paled in comparison to.) I don’t know if this was because of the big storm which hit Vancouver the week before, or if the coast just got a lot of rain earlier in the summer. But, in the southerly parts of the trail, which we hiked first, the mud just seemed to go on and on. Getting to sections with ladders was almost a relief. There are dozens of ladders on the trail, some of them quite long, but with a lightweight pack they aren’t too difficult and are one of the coolest and most unique parts of the trail.

The inland parts of the trail, where the mud and ladders are encountered, are mostly an ordeal to get through. Nice in parts, and interesting hiking, but the most stunning and awesome parts are along the coastline. Starting from the south, except for one great coastal section the first 1/3 of the trail is inland, and the most grueling hiking of the trip. The trail then joins the coast, and for most of the rest of the trail sticks to it or has both inland and coastal routes.

The coastal parts of the trail shift between beach hiking and hiking on and along rock shelves pockmarked with tide pools]. On appropriate tides the latter are great fun to explore, lots of anemones, crabs, sculpins, snails and so forth in the small pools. Lots of bigger wildlife along the coast too, over the course of the hike we saw five whales, including one feeding in the kelp just a stone’s throw from shore (below), a couple bears, several eagles, and a huge number of sea and shorebirds.

Posted in Backpacking | Comments Off on West Coast Trail

Anklefest!

August was a pretty topsy turvy month. When I did Choprock canyon over Memorial Day weekend the folks I met there talked about a friend of theirs, Lisa, who lives an eerily similar lifestyle to mine, working remotely from a van and roaming the western US. She was on her way up to Alaska for the summer, to do some of the same things I did there back in 2009, and we started chatting by email and I was eventually invited to fly up to Vancouver and meet her and a friend of hers, Kevin, for canyoning when she passed through on her way back south.

This trip didn’t get off to a great start. After a bit of rambling around north Vancouver, we went down Cypress Creek the first afternoon, a really nice canyon with a few great waterfall rappels and a lot of beautiful mossy riverbed walking interspersed with easy downclimbs. About halfway down Lisa hit a rock while sliding into a pool and sprained her ankle. With some difficulty walking she eventually exited out the side to the car while the rest of us finished the canyon. Lisa descending the first waterfall:

The next day Lisa hung out in town while the rest of us went down Monmouth Canyon, an absolutely amazing canyon north of Vancouver, near the town of Squamish. After crossing the Squamish river by canoe and gaining 1500′ vertical on a brutally steep trail through the rainforest, we entered the creek and were soon at a rapid fire series of more than 10 rappels, most over 100′. The rock in this area is mostly granite — Squamish is one of the biggest climbing destinations in Canada — and yet the creek carved through it in spots as if it were sandstone, forming potholes, chutes, vertical walled slots, even a couple of arches. Cold clear water and several good jumps. The following pictures are a difficult downclimb near the top and some of the sculpted drops lower down; the second photo was taken by Thomas Compagne (water got to my camera early in the canyon.)

Monmouth was the last day of canyoning in the area; with the rest of the weekend I went out with Lisa canoeing and driving the Sunshine Coast. I ended up skipping my flight home to drive with her to Idaho for a work meeting she needed to be at. Her van was having transmission problems and I was along to help; there’s a good deal more to this story on her blog at http://vanvagabond.com/?p=4.

After a few days I flew to Durango, and a few days later left Colorado and drove up to meet with Lisa back in Idaho. After several days of logistical prep work and some cool adventures — kayaking/swimming/jumping/snorkeling at Shoshone falls and downriver on the Snake — I moved into Lisa’s van and we headed north, making our way back to Vancouver for more canyoning.

Lisa’s ankle had healed enough at this point to let her back into the canyons, and Kevin was organizing an event, Mossfest, over Labor Day weekend with over a dozen people visiting the area from Utah, Washington and so forth. A lot more fun, and a fair bit more carnage. Vancouver had an extraordinarily dry summer, interrupted the day before the fest by a storm that dumped two inches of rain in the area, throwing things into disarray. On Saturday we were able to do Box Creek as planned. This creek is right next to Monmouth, across the river from Squamish. The flow in Monmouth was monstrous and in no shape for descent, but Box creek drains a smaller area and was just barely doable. A good deal shorter, but gorgeous and even more closed in by the granite walls. A couple pictures from the canyon are below; the second is Lisa descending one of the trickier rappels.

With the still high flow a pretty tough time descending many of the rappels, some of the drops pummeling me to the point of disorientation. Things went well though until the bottom of the last rappel, where one guy took a fall and broke his ankle. He was still able to walk using a stick, and we eventually made it back to the river and a jetboat ride across to the cars.

The next day we abandoned plans to do Monmouth and went down Cypress Creek, again having a great time until the bottom of the last rappel, where another guy in the group hit a rock while jumping and broke his ankle. A long time exiting the canyon, he couldn’t put any weight at all on the foot. The below photos are me with Lisa, then Lisa on the last rappel in the canyon, one of the coolest waterfall rappels I’ve seen and really not as difficult as it looks or sounds here:

I’m still new to this sport and can’t really pass judgment on how easily these ankle injuries can be avoided. At least two seemed pretty preventable, resulting from jumping/sliding into pools, but even discounting these I’ve slipped plenty of times descending the flowing canyons around both Vancouver and Ouray, and need to look some more at my risk assessment going through these environments.

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Ouray Canyons

In early July I headed to Silverton, an hour north of Durango, for a month. Did some biking and other assorted activities up here, but my focus until early August was on the canyons around Ouray, an amazing town another 40 minutes to the north. The town occupies a small flat spot in the Uncompahgre river gorge, and is surrounded by towering mountains in all directions. Lots of hiking and climbing in the area, but the mountains also hold many small streams feeding into the Uncompahgre, and descending these is a huge amount of fun.

All the canyons I had done in the spring back in Zion and the Escalante were dry or had only pools of standing water — south Utah didn’t get much snow over the winter and by April it had melted out. The Ouray canyons flow whenever they’re not frozen, from snowmelt and springs (aka time-delayed snowmelt.) In most years flows are too high for safe descents until August, and with snows starting in September and the monsoon season throughout this makes for difficult trip planning and management. This year the San Juans had an extremely low snowpack which pretty much all melted by early July, allowing for descents much earlier than usual. I took advantage of this and spent a total of 10 days in various canyons around town.

Descending a flowing canyon is dramatically different from descending a drier canyon. All the drops become waterfalls, which many times need to be rappelled straight through, negotiating carefully to manage your footing and pick your way down while being pelted by the falling water. Additionally, the canyon floors are often all wet and slick with algae, making downclimbing and even walking treacherous. A far more dynamic and engaging experience than most dry canyons I’ve done.

Of the canyons I did, my favorite was Cascade Creek. Starting on the east side of town, an approach trail hike of four miles or so gains over 2000′ in altitude before crossing the creek. Descending loses all that altitude in less than a mile, with a ton of downclimbing and ten or so rappels. The last rappel is magnificent, 300′ down a waterfall right to the edge of town, at one of the most popular tourist spots in town. Two other big rappels, of 150′ and 200′ or so, round things out; a long, challenging canyon. The second big rappel, and some of the downclimbs in the canyon’s narrows:

I did Cascade Creek twice: first solo, lugging 700′ or so of rope and cords up the approach, then with a group of three I’d met online, visiting the area for the weekend from central Colorado, Iowa and Georgia. After descending Cascade, the next day we all went down Bear Creek, another favorite canyon in the area. The flow in Bear Creek was substantially larger than in Cascade, the most of any canyon I did around Ouray, but the downclimbing is not so difficult and none of the rappels are terribly long. The canyon is just plain gorgeous, however, with the milky creek cutting its way through layers of Limestone, Quartzite, and other marble like rocks I can scarcely identify. One thing I especially love about the Ouray canyons is how varied the rock strata are and how much the canyons transform when passing through them. One of the prettier drops in Bear Creek, and me during a downclimb:

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Denver to Durango

Over the last week and a half I did a mountain biking trip following the Colorado Trail, starting in Denver, finishing up in Durango and traversing the width of the Colorado Rockies.


View Denver to Durango in a larger map

In all, this was 461 miles of biking, with 287 miles on the CT itself, almost all of it singletrack, 107 miles of dirt roads and 67 miles of paved roads. The total climbing was 60,000′ or so. I started 6/26 at 5pm and finished 7/5 at 12pm, for a trip length of 8 days and 19 hours. Tons of great riding and great scenery, an awesome and grueling trip.

Overall, I was super happy with my performance. Last year I did the middle portion of the trail in a few days and estimated doing the whole route would take closer to two weeks. Coming in well below that was due to several factors:

– I was able to sustain long days on the bike. I usually started a bit after 6am and finished a bit before 8pm, biking and hike-a-biking with few breaks in the interim. I was able to maintain this pace throughout the ride.

– I had great weather for almost the entire trip. I was trying to time the trip to be early enough to mostly avoid the monsoon, yet late enough that most of the passes would be clear of snow. This worked out well.

– Only about 2/3 of the Colorado Trail can be biked. The remainder passes through wilderness areas where bikes or other mechanized equipment can’t even be possessed. These wilderness areas need to be detoured around on dirt and paved roads, which are much faster riding than singletrack.

– When I went through the west fork complex fire had forced closures of two rideable segments of the trail, along with several segments in wilderness areas. The detour I made, over Cinnamon Pass, was a long, tough climb but still a good deal easier than the trail being detoured around, and reduced the percentage of the trail I rode to 60%.

Except for the detour over Cinnamon Pass, I was following the route used last year in the Colorado Trail Race, a self supported time trial held each July. Had I been doing this I would have finished near the back of the pack and more than twice as slow as those at the head. Doing well in this race requires extreme determination, skill, strength, and sleep deprivation, racing nearly 24 hours a day, and only about half of those who start end up finishing. I’m not cut out for this kind (or any kind, really) of racing — these stresses and risks hold no appeal, and I’m happy just to finish in a timely fashion.

Logistically, the lead up to the trip was complicated but went pretty well. I’d been staying in Durango the first three weeks of June, so a couple weeks beforehand had a shop in town (Pedal The Peaks) tune and box the bike, shipped it to another shop in Aurora (Adventure Cycling) to reassemble it, flew in to Denver, took a taxi to the shop and biked the remaining 28 miles to the trailhead.

The eastern trailhead is at the bottom of Waterton Canyon on the south side of Denver, right at the base of the rockies. The first portions of the trail are comparatively mellow. After seven miles of dirt road the trail narrows to singletrack, which it follows for 34 miles before requiring a detour around the Lost Creek wilderness to Kenosha Pass. At 10,000′ this is a relatively low pass, but from here the trail stays above 9,000′ almost the entire way to Durango. Late in the second day, shortly after Kenosha Pass:

For me the trail didn’t really begin until 12 miles after Kenosha Pass, when the trail first climbs up to the Continental Divide. This is at Georgia Pass, which at about 11,900′ is also the first time the trail stretches above treeline. The alpine sections of the trail are my favorite parts, wide open with great views of mountains and, later on at least, many wildflowers. Looking back up the trail towards Georgia Pass, on the descent:

Except for a pretty rocky section on the descent, Georgia Pass is pretty friendly, with a nice gradual ascent and smooth, fun descent. After some miscellaneous minor climbs and riding the trail crosses route 9 between Breckenridge and Frisco, then climbs up and over the Tenmile Range. This is one of the toughest parts of the trail, with 3700′ of climbing to reach a pass at 12,500′ and, for me at least, almost everything above 10,000′ being hike-a-bike.

The San Juans around Durango had a very low snowpack and were clear even above 13,000′ when I started the trip. By contrast, the Tenmile and other parts of the Front Range apparently got some late season storms and were still holding a lot of snow in places. Going over the Tenmile was the snowiest part of the trail, maybe a dozen spots where I had to walk or wade across fingers of snow. Fortunately this never got excessive. Despite my concern at seeing some surprisingly huge cornices lining the range, the trail did a remarkable job of threading up between two impassably snowy areas. The folks who laid this trail out really knew what they were doing. Sighting down the crest of the range:

The Tenmile Range made a good contrast with the next day’s riding. Starting at Copper Mountain, the trail again does a long, 3000’+ climb to reach Searle and then Kokomo Passes, both around 12,000′. This is a wonderful ascent, with beautiful views the whole way up and very little hike-a-biking. Between Searle and Kokomo is one of the prettiest parts of the trail, many streams and abundant wildflowers:

After Kokomo is a first rate, 4.5 mile, 2300′ descent, dropping through the tundra, aspens, forest without interruption. Overall, this climb and descent together was my favorite part of the trip. Looking down from Kokomo:

Another 10 miles on the trail touches Tennessee Pass before reaching the second detour, through Leadville and around the Holy Cross and Mount Massive wildernesses. Past here, I’d done almost all of the next 150 miles of riding last summer. Going through again was nice, retreading some great sections of trail with a new and in some ways very different perspective. I really like the trail around the eastern Collegiate Peaks, there aren’t any big climbs and so much of the route is great, mellow riding. Some sections through Aspens I could never get tired of:

Passing by the Collegiates had the only inclement weather of the trip. Some rain in Leadville when I stopped in town was a prelude to an hour or two of pretty torrential rain the next afternoon when I was south of Buena Vista. Not knowing when this would stop I kept riding through it, still making good progress as the sun eventually came out.

I wanted to get as early a start as possible up Fooses Creek, the climb back up to the divide that marks the end of the Collegiates. Much of this is very nice, before getting steeper and steeper and requiring me to hike the last 1000′ of vertical. Getting to the bottom at noon got me to the top close to 4pm, with sun but an unsettling mix of clouds in most directions:

Along the Monarch Crest shortly afterwards, such an iconic part of the trail:

After leaving the Monarch Crest I was able to make it past some rocky sections to get to Tank Seven creek at dusk. This is a great camping site and left me in a good spot for the next day. Shortly after Tank Seven, from the top of Sargents Mesa to the Cochetopa Hills, was the gnarliest section of the trip. Rocks and more rocks, then rocks plus steep loose hills that I had to hike both up and down. I remembered this as being bad last year but not this bad, maybe breaking this section up by camping at Baldy Lake made it more tolerable.

After more than half the day working through this I made it out to route 114 and crossed for 12 nice easy miles before leaving the trail for the last, long 98 mile detour. At this point I was pretty determined to get to Silverton before things closed up the next day — groceries, real food, beer. Silverton is nearly at the end of the detour and with some massive climbs in the way, so I pushed hard to get as far as I could and leave myself as much leeway as possible. I left the trail around 4pm and continued to bike another 30 miles with 2000′ of climbing to gain Los Pinos pass, reaching it at dusk and coasting down as night fell (below). I camped in what was basically a ditch by the road at 9pm, and set an alarm for a 5am start the next day.

The early start let me finish the first climb, 2500′ up to Slumgullion Pass and highway 149, by 7:30am. All of the detour up to this point was mandatory — it skirts around the trail’s segments that go through the La Garita wilderness. Heading a few miles south on 149 would bring me to Spring Creek Pass, the start of 33 miles of the highest altitude riding on the trail, with all but the first 9 miles above 12,000′ and the highest point on the entire trail at 13,271′. I’d really been looking forward to this section as it seems full of great alpine scenery and is supposed to have some of the most challenging parts of the trail (though apparently not as tough as the area after Sargents Mesa).

Alas, this section was closed due to the fire mentioned earlier. Despite the fire continuing to grow with little containment, this and the other closed parts of the trail were reopened a couple days after I finished the trip, and the closure may have been entirely arbitrary. Grumble. I’ll have to come back and either bike this section or backpack it in combination with the La Garita or Weminuche wildernesses on either side.

In any case, I headed north on 149, descending to Lake San Cristobal to continue the detour up to Cinnamon Pass. The pass is at 12,640′ and the highest point I hit on the trip, with a 20 mile, 3500′ ascent from the lake that took about five hours. The road up to the pass is very nice, but had a very different tone from the other dirt roads I’d been riding. Rough in spots with a need for 4wd, which would usually keep traffic low, but the Alpine Loop byway runs through here and being July 3 the road was thick with Jeep and ATV traffic. This was generally fine (excepting occasional dorks screaming by on ATVs with dust masks on, throwing up clouds in my face) but I much prefer the quiet of the Colorado Trail itself. Looking back, from near the top of Cinnamon Pass:

And me at the top of the pass, before the 3500′ descent to Silverton:

After a couple hours of much needed R&R in Silverton, I climbed another 1800′ up to Molas Pass to finally resume travel on the Colorado Trail. From here there is still 70 miles of singletrack before reaching Durango. At this point I was pretty worn down and having difficulty with the tougher sections, and yet this had some of my favorite riding on the trail. Lots of smooth singletrack, great views and flowers. Looking up at Blackhawk Pass, about 28 miles in:

The last big obstacle on the trail is Indian Trail Ridge, four or so miles above treeline with a good bit of up and down and lots of hike-a-biking. I wasn’t able to make it through before dark so camped at the last group of trees. Below is the view at dawn. Pleasant time finishing up this section in the morning and riding down to Kennebec Pass.

From Kennebec Pass the trail makes its final descent to Durango, over 20 miles and with a loss of nearly 5000′ in elevation. Except for an annoying 1000′ climb in the middle this is essentially uninterrupted, descending from the alpine (below) with a thick aroma of flowers through to forests, dense and jungle-like around Junction Creek, then out from the creek and down into town. Quite a coda for the trip.

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Choprock

Over Memorial Day weekend, I made a trip to Escalante to see a new part of the plateau. The Escalante River runs from near its namesake town down to Lake Powell. Beautiful riparian corridor in the desert, many canyons feeding in from the sides.

There were several canyons in the area I wanted to hike, but this trip ended up mostly consumed by the south fork of Choprock Canyon. A grueling technical hike, recent reports had pegged this canyon as being in good shape — this canyon is easier at low water, and it was a dry winter in south Utah. While a bit apprehensive, I was ok with going in solo.

Using the river as a base camp, the canyon can be done as a loop hike. After getting up onto Choprock Bench, to the south of the canyon, several miles of desert hiking allows one to walk down into the canyon above the technical bits. Some downclimbing and rappels drop into the first of three very different sections, the Riparian. The canyon here is relatively wide and choked with growth, a jungle in the desert.

Lots of fun wading and hiking down. Eventually the trees peter out, some springs start flowing, and the canyon goes through several pools. Water slides, cold clear water, frogs and so forth. This is the Happy section, well named.

The Riparian section took me about 45 minutes to get through, the Happy section took about 20 minutes. The third section is the Grim, and took about two and a half hours. Fortunately, at least at this water level this isn’t the best name, and the Grim was great fun. Much worming through tight slots, stemming over tighter slots, downclimbing, wading, swimming to be had. The only problem being that this just keeps going on and on and on with little abatement. Heading down, doubt started to eat at my mind (is this ever going to end?), and while I don’t think it ever got to the point of being grim, after a while I was certainly ready for it to be over.

After sidling through a slot for the hundredth time the Grim abruptly stops at a 90 foot drop into a pool. A spectacular rappel, especially after such a demanding hike.

Coming back to camp I ran into a group planning on doing Choprock the next day. After filling them in on conditions I spent the evening at their camp and ended up going back through the canyon with them. The second time was even better: no apprehension, a much better knowledge of the canyon, and these guys were great to hike with. They left the following day, while I did a couple new canyons, Neon and Ringtail. These were very nice but not in the same league as Choprock, and left me pretty chewed up and ready to go home (bring knee and elbow pads next time…).

I’ll need to get back to Escalante before too long, there’s just so much in the area I haven’t even touched on, from more technical canyons to non-technical slots, day hikes and backpacking. But, for now at least, Choprock reigns as the most amazing, intense canyon I’ve done.

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Zion Canyons

I was in Zion National Park for a few days back in 2010, when I ranged around Utah and nearby areas for a few weeks between my defense and the start of my work at Mozilla. I had a great time doing the popular stuff like hiking to Angels Landing and up the Virgin River narrows, but it was clear I was just scratching the park’s surface. Zion is basically a giant slab of sandstone several thousand feet thick, riddled with literally hundreds of canyons cut by the spring snowmelts and fall monsoons.

So for years I’ve wanted to see more of these canyons, both in Zion and more generally across the Colorado Plateau. This spring was a good opportunity and I spent April and May near Zion — first Springdale, then Hurricane (great slickrock mountain biking nearby) — getting into the odd sport of Canyoneering. Use whatever fusion is necessary of hiking, scrambling, wading, swimming, downclimbing, rappelling, and some more specialized skills to get from the top of a canyon to the bottom in one piece. Incredible, beautiful, alien places.

Over the two months I spent a total of 17 days in technical canyons — those that involve rappelling or other ropework. Except for three days towards the end (more later), these were all in popular canyons in and near Zion. Since these get done so much, there is a lot of information about them, navigation is straightforward and rappel anchors are usually in good shape. A great environment to learn in. Here I’ll just talk about some of my favorites, in the order I did them.

The above photo is from Pine Creek, one of the most popular canyons in the park. Going in mid-April I had the place to myself, though returning in early June with my mom and her husband was pretty crowded. This is a very user friendly canyon. After parking next to the main east-west road through the park, you drop down a short sandy slope, pass under a bridge and are at the first rappel.

From here the canyon narrows into a beautiful slot. There are five or so rappels, with a couple standout ones. The above photo is of the Golden Cathedral rappel, a drop of about 60 feet down slick walls in a large chamber, with a couple arches overhead and a swimming depth pool at the bottom (drysuit time). The canyon below the cathedral:

After opening up and a great, free hanging rappel into a grotto, the canyon continues down to the exit with a lot of boulder hopping, flowing water (from a spring in the grotto), many frogs and other wildlife. Several exit options, but continuing all the way down goes to a bonus rappel down a nice waterfall, which I don’t think many people do:

A week or so later I did Fat Man’s Misery, aka the west fork of Misery Canyon. Bit of a misnomer, at least at this time of year, the canyon is several linked slots, with wading, some rappelling, and a wild grotto at the finish, with a spring of grey, sulfurous water.

The best part though is hiking from here down into Parunuweap Canyon, the east fork of the Zion river. The route follows this gorgeous canyon for just a short distance, but it left an impression. Alas, the areas downstream are closed to public access (control area for the NPS), though I want to get back and see the rest of the canyon above Misery.

After getting some more experience, in mid-May I went down Englestead canyon. In concert with the canyons it joins, this is I think my favorite day trip so far in Zion. Just a huge variety of terrain. A mellow hike in brings one to a vertical walled, nearly 300′ deep crack in the earth.

Lacking a 300′ rope, I could still get down with a 200′ rope by using a hanging rappel station someone set up about 90′ down the wall. Rappel down, clip into some bolts drilled into the wall over a tiny ledge, pull the rope and set it up on the bolts, then rappel the rest of the way down. Huge mounds of snow piled up at the base of the crack. From here, several rappels through some beautiful narrows end the canyon at Orderville.

Continuing down Orderville canyon is a big change in character. Tons of fun, at least below Englestead (above is a several mile slog), with many small waterfalls, pools, some jumping (with care).

Orderville itself ends at the Virgin River narrows. Comparatively mellow hiking next to and in the river, this area is still great. A couple miles of hiking end at pavement and the shuttle back to the park entrance.

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