Clayton Herrmann is a Jackson Hole-based adventure photographer who is always on the search for the next wave to surf, couloir to ski, and trail to run.
Lilly is pumping water out of her kayak from today's crossing and now sand with each passing gust of wind. It's the first day of our six-day sea kayaking expedition in Baja California. We're hunkering down on Isla La Ventana, one of many small islands in the Gulf of California near the quiet town of Bahía de Los Ángeles, as what seems like the entirety of the beach sweeps through our camp. The day before, we crossed the US-Mexico border and drove south for more than 10 hours, navigating narrow, shoulderless, pot-hole-filled roads through the desolate desert.
It's late November and our team of 11 are island hopping our way through the area by sea kayak. Many of these islands are protected by Mexico’s national park system, and as such, are incredibly rich in biodiversity—there are different species of cactus and agave, sea birds, sea turtles, whales, sharks, sea lions, fish, and even whale sharks depending on the time of year. A multi-day sea kayaking expedition is the best way to take it all in, so our plan is to explore and camp on many of these islands over the next week.
In years past, this trip has been a reunion of sorts. Trip leader and primary instigator Jordy organizes it annually as an opportunity for friends to get together and spend a week communing and adventuring on the water. But it’s been two years since we’ve traveled down here and this particular trip has taken on a different meaning. During those two years, Jordy had been taking care of his wife, Cat, as she battled ALS. A few months ago, she passed away.
I've always found it difficult to grieve, and Cat was an exceptionally important person and friend in my life, which makes it harder. I struggle with expectations and understanding how to express my emotions. It feels like a performance and so I detach, pushing all my feelings down until they're nearly nonexistent. Two years ago, when I last came to Baja, Cat was still with us. Her signs of ALS were already present then, but she loved these islands off the coast of Mexico and wasn’t going to miss out on the adventure.
A faint ukulele tune carries over the crash of the waves and seagull squawks wake up camp as the sun hits the higher parts of the island. Cat loved listening to Jordy play and I like to think it’s his way of saying good morning to her. I opted to forgo the tent last night—the winds had finally settled down and the stars were out as I stretched out on my sleeping pad, nestling into a slightly dug-out sandy pit. There’s no escaping the sand here and the sooner you fall in love with it, the better.
After a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal, granola, and Nutella, we pack the boats and set off in search of sea lions and a new place to call camp. We spot 20 or so of the marine mammals basking in the sun, flippers pointed skyward to catch solar rays. As we continue to paddle Jordy stops every now and then to raise a finger to the sky to call out a new bird sighting.
Weather reports in Baja are fairly unreliable, but one thing is certain: the best time to paddle is early in the morning. By noon, there's a good chance you'd rather be on shore than bracing against the wind and waves that can break over your boat. So with midday approaching, we set our sights on a lagoon on the southern end of Isla Coronado.
The lagoon is well sheltered from the wind, and the Gulf side of camp offers great opportunities for fishing. Nick, Ben, and Vanessa spear fish, while Mollie and I build a fire. The bounty makes for a tasty evening snack of fresh ceviche and grilled fish with a squeeze of lime.
I spend the remaining hours of daylight climbing around the island, camera in hand. Cat was keen on exploring all the nooks and crannies of the islands and I almost expect to see her standing next to the cactus I'm photographing, peering up at it and admiring its resilience and beauty. This is why I'm here: to remember our nature walks, and the dancing around a makeshift campfire howling like coyotes, and how each night Cat would motion for us to get up and exclaim, "Dance bitches!” It's in these surroundings that, with the help of my memories and camera, I’m able to look for her and find her. It’s healing.
"The chain of islands we've been traveling through stretches out in front of us to the south; to the north, there's nothing but water."
Our camp on Isla Coronado is, technically, on the flanks of a volcano that rises over 1500 feet above the ocean. Nobody knows just how old it is, but geologically speaking, it's young, and believed to still be active. Our plan for the day was to paddle over to the northern end of the island and hike to its top, but high winds keep us hunkered down for a layover day. Andy takes me spearfishing for my first time. The water is cold and clear, and the fish are abundant and lively. After a little hunting and a long breath hold, we both spear a fish, a California opaleye and a sheepshead. We make ceviche with our catch, hoping the weather tomorrow will allow us to paddle.
Today is Thanksgiving, and Jordy packed instant mashed potatoes and some cured ham for a traditional feast complete with Hawaiian bread and cranberry sauce. The wind is refusing to rest tonight, and to a degree so am I, opting to bed down under the stars again. The wind hammers my face and my sleeping bag is quickly filled with sand but at least the stars are beautiful.
Today, we paddle towards the volcano with hopes that after we climb it, the afternoon winds will be in our favor and push us to our next camp at Isla Pata (meaning foot) or Isla Bota (meaning boot). Nick fishes along the way and catches a bonito. We land at the beach, put on our hiking shoes, and climb roughly 1500 feet of loose scree to the summit. The chain of islands we've been traveling through stretches out in front of us to the south; to the north, there's nothing but water.
We return to our boats, put the wind to our backs, and paddle south, riding the waves. At camp, Nick filetes the Bonito he caught and I sear it over the fire. We eat it with a hint of salt and pepper (it could use a dash of soy sauce, but it's still delicious). At night, we listen to a playlist that Jordy made in honor of Cat's love for dancing, complete with tracks from Buena Vista Social Club and Ranil.
It's a calm day with crystal-clear views all the way to Puerto Don Juan, our last camp before making our way back to Bahia de Los Angeles. We skirt the eastern side of Isla La Ventana on our way there. In Spanish, ventana means “window,” and we paddle by the natural formation that gives the island its name—a beautiful rock arch that forms a window looking out to the Gulf.
At camp, Jordy lights a fire on the beach. Tomorrow, we'll be back on the mainland. We talk about the possibility of seeing tiburón ballenas, whale sharks. Baja is only a handful of places to see and swim with these beautiful creatures but it's late in the season and the water is too cold for them to still be in the area. Still, it's fun to think about.
On our final day, we paddle all the way back to where we started, past the islands and the campsites and the sea lions. It's quiet and contemplative going—none of us are sure if or when we'll ever find ourselves back here. It's been an exceptionally hard trip for Jordy, and without him, we can't really see ourselves coming back. Somewhere along the way, a gray whale comes to the surface in the distance and spouts.
In total, we paddled 37 miles, explored four different islands, caught two bonito, had five campfires, and saw 21 different types of birds.
It's easy to chalk up a trip to these sorts of tallies and figures, but they don't really get at what the whole thing really meant. For me, the trip was my way of remembering and celebrating Cat. I saw her in the cacti and agave plants that she had identified during our walks around the islands, I felt her in the excitement of Jordy as he pointed out the birds and the waves lighting up with bioluminescence, and I heard her in the laughs that my friends shared all along the way. Maybe the mileage we covered isn't anything to write home about, but the quality of the paddling and the company is.
Back on the mainland, we shower at a casita, put on fresh clothes, and head to dinner, where we all order tall margaritas, toast to Cat, and say goodnight to the bay and the islands.
Scroll on for more 35mm film photos from sea kayaking Mexico's Gulf of California