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Don Zante

No matter how many times I blinked, I couldn’t clear the fog from my vision to see the hulking mass that was barreling toward me. Six foot waves were closing in on us from the right side of our kayak. “Turn your paddle into the wave!” cried Maggie. She was the only guide in our crew of kayakers who had seen our vessel drift off. Following her instruction, I jabbed my paddle into the gut of the wave as it toppled over us. Pulling hard on the handle, we sailed up through the top of the wave and rode down behind. Shaking from fear and nausea, I braced myself for the struggle ahead.

Behind me I could hear my father’s commanding voice, “Great job, sweetie! Keep going, we’re almost there.”  I tore my gaze from the writhing ocean around us to look at an island ahead. We were so close to salvation. Bam! An eight foot wave hit us square on the right side and slammed us into the ocean’s dark maw. One command started ringing in my mind: lean. If we could throw our weight into the wave, we might be able to save ourselves from capsizing. In one simultaneous movement, my father and I heaved the kayak into the face of the wave as it toppled over us. An eternity later, we emerged right side up, sea water dripping from our clothes and arms.

Seconds later, another wave, more ominous than the one before, swelled up like an unstoppable sumo wrestler. I couldn’t lift my arms. My neck was swollen and my feet felt anesthetized from the cramped lower compartment. The wave wasn’t going to wait for me to regain my composure. My mind screamed at me to move, but my 14 year-old body wouldn’t respond. This wave was going to swallow us whole.

(Caption: Dad and me before our journey to Don Zante.)

Earlier that morning, waves were grasping at the front of our kayaks as we prepared to launch. My joints creaked and snapped as my body worked the sleep from its system. Our instructions were clear, we were to scoot around the island as far as we could, then cross a short channel and skirt around the next island. The last stretch would consist of powering across a larger expanse of water to reach our final destination, Don Zante. We loaded our gear into the waterproof pockets of our kayaks and strapped on our water skirts and jackets. Each kayak had two seats: one in front where the rider’s job was to paddle and pull the kayak along, the second one was in the back where the rider had to steer the kayak to wherever it was supposed to go. Grabbing the sides of the front half, I hoisted myself up and slid into the seat. I had only been kayaking for four days, but the motion of sliding in and out of the kayak had already become second nature. The vessel rocked a bit more and I knew that dad had settled himself into the back seat. Paddles in hand, we set off on our journey.

There were several islands scattered around the Baja coastline where we were paddling. Each island was covered with dry, arid, desert and prickly, yellow grasses tucked between red rocks. The edges of the islands were dotted with blue footed booby nests and boney left-overs from pelican snacks or fish that had gotten trapped on shore. The ocean was a warm turquoise color, a perfect playground for migrating blue whales and common dolphins during the winter months. My father and I were nearing our final day on a seven-day kayaking adventure with Tofino Expeditions. We had learned the basic elements of ocean kayaking, watched birds dive for fish as the sun set behind them, eaten fresh jicama dipped in guacamole, watched hermit crab race in candlelight, and lost ourselves in the complex flavors of ocean-side fish tacos that would forever set the standard of fish taco fare. Now, on the second to last morning of our journey, we were preparing for a final paddle to Don Zante, the last island before we would be forced to return to the mainland and our unrelenting lifestyles.

Glancing to the left, tiny whitecaps frosted the waves that were dominating the expanse of ocean between us and Don Zante. Tom, our lead guide, had warned that venturing out into the expanse would be dangerous and novice kayakers that had tried before had capsized; therefore, we would be skirting around it. Tingling in my stomach began to spread to my fingertips as we paddled after the group.

As we were nearing the channel, our kayak lurched to the left and made a loud thunk sound. The water turned into sludge and it became increasingly difficult to make the kayak go where we needed it to go. The nose of the kayak continued to turn to the left dragging us out into the waves. Within seconds, we were beyond earshot from the group. We shouted and waved but no one even looked up from their oars. Dad stomped and forced all his weight on the pedal that controlled the rudder. Nothing happened. Every second swept us further into the churning maw of the ocean. The tingling I had been feeling earlier turned to panic and I realized how helpless our situation was. We had never kayaked before this trip. We didn’t have any skills or knowledge as to how to avoid capsizing. Apart from being strong swimmers, dad and I had little else to save us from being swallowed up by the ocean.

“We’ll head for the island,” dad said. I nodded and gripped the handle bar of the paddle and sunk the right oar into the water. 1… 2… 3… 4. Swish, swish, swish, swish.

Through the fog that had penetrated my mind, a voice seemed to whisper over the breaking waves. “Come back to the group!” the voice was harsh and demanding. Not the kind of voice one would expect in hallucinations. I glanced around and saw another yellow kayak coming up behind us. “Turn around now!”

“We can’t!” I screamed. My eyes were stinging with sea spray and threatening tears.

“I think our rudder broke. I can’t steer and it’s all I can do to keep the kayak straight.” My dad shouted out to the woman in the kayak, who happened to be one of our guides.

Maggie studied our kayak for a moment before nodding. “Ok. Here’s the plan...” she and her partner, Mark, paddled closer to us. The muscles strained in my arms as I tried to keep the kayak in one place as they drew closer. “Without a rudder it’s going to take the both of you to steer. Clare, you are going to have to do all the paddling because your father is going to have his hands full keeping her straight. Do you hear me?”

I nodded.

“We are going to head to the saddle right there in the middle of Don Zante.” She pointed to a tiny inlet next to a cove on the side of the island. “If we don’t make that, it’s another six miles to the mainland.” I jerked my head again in understanding. “Let’s go!” Maggie shouted and we pulled off with a great shove of our paddles.

Now, as the sumo wrestler wave hurled itself toward us, a gust of wind whipped at my face and tugged violently at the bill of my hat. Snatching up my hat and securing it between my teeth, I tightened my grip on my paddle and plunged it into the wave. Swoosh. We sailed up and over its hulking mass. Again. And again. I didn’t see the progress that we were making, only the waves that continued to crash into us. An hour later, the waves began to grow smaller. Six feet turned into four then into two. I glanced up to see how close we were to the saddle in the island and was surprised by the view in front of me. Blue-green water lapped around white shell sand. Further up the coast, there were large sharp rocks and various kinds of cacti. There was a cove to the left made of white limestone sprinkled with crystals that reflected the ocean’s surface below. After a few minutes of hard paddling I was within reach of the lagoon and no longer had to paddle but coast into the awaiting sands.

(Caption: The small saddle in the middle of Don Zante island. This lagoon was the only place to land on this side of the island; if we missed it, we had to paddle another six miles to Loreto.)

Collapsing onto the shore, I didn't have the strength to help the others haul the kayaks further up the beach. I crawled to a shady spot next to a gnarled tree and hugged my knees to my chest and rested my head between them. I was shaking from adrenaline. I felt as though my body was going to disintegrate into the sand. My heart was pounding. My mind was spinning in all directions trying to make sense of everything that had just happened. My fingers and toes were twitching but I couldn’t feel them. I couldn’t hear the others by the water or the songs of the birds above, just the pounding of my heart.

After a while, Maggie came up and patted me on the shoulder, “You impressed me today,” she said. She grabbed her pack and hiked up to the highest point of the island where she could signal the group and radio for help. Dad and Mark tried to fix our broken rudder, which was dangling off the back of the kayak. After an inordinate amount of duct tape and wire, they were able to strap the rudder back on. The kayak wouldn’t be easy to paddle, but it also wouldn’t be steering us in the wrong direction anymore.

(Caption: Mark and my father working with duct tape and twine to fix our broken rudder.)

A few minutes after the rudder was fixed, Maggie emerged from the brush and said that a couple of fishermen were on their way to pick us up and bring us to the the group, which was waiting on an island on the other side of the channel. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. After everything we had gone through to get ourselves to Don Zante, we were going to have to leave it, meet up with the group, and then turn around and paddle back. Maggie looked at the expression on my face and shrugged, “that’s just how these things work, kiddo.”

Reluctantly, I boarded the tiny, wooden fishermen’s ponga and watched Don Zante grow smaller as we zipped across the water. As our final destination grew more distant, my will to make the return journey drained. The only thing that kept me from unloading my frustrations on Tom once we arrived at the island was the table of food that stood between us. Our group swarmed us asking questions about the journey and how hard it was. The women made a plate of tacos and lead me to a soft sandy patch of beach where I devoured every crumb and told them about the scariest moment of my life and how I was dreading having to get back in the kayak to do it again. They hugged me and eventually left me to nap in the sand.

Hours later, the sun was starting its descent and we were preparing for our final stretch to Don Zante. “Look!” someone said. Just a few yards from the shore, a pod of dolphins surfaced. Their high pitched clicks and playful jumps lifted my spirits and motivated me to think positively about the last leg of our day's journey. I had never seen wild dolphins so close. Their strength and limitless energy seemed infectious and before we knew it, the whole group was smiling and laughing and ready to get on the water.

Every last muscle in my arms screamed as I lifted myself into the kayak. The next hour was going to be a long one. The kayak rocked back and forth and then shot forward from the beach. I looked back expecting to see dad behind me. Instead, I saw Mark, the burly Alaskan kayak guide who had accompanied Maggie earlier. “You and your dad could use a break,” he said with the world’s most handsome smile. “All I need you to do is hold up your paddle to catch the wind. I’ll take care of everything else.” I would have cried from joy if I hadn’t been worried of making a fool of myself.

The second trip to Don Zante was a dream. The wind softly pushed us to the island and Mark’s powerful strokes propelled us forward like skates on ice. My muscles unclenched and relaxed into the seat and I was finally able to take a deep breath. We glided past Don Zante and the lagoon we had fought to reach earlier. Rounding the corner of the island, we were met by a magnificent sunset. Pausing mid-paddle, we watched as the colors turned from purple and peach to red and orange and pink. The only sound was the gentle lapping of water against the sides of our kayaks.

Suddenly, a strange kind of scream echoed up from the depths of the water. It seemed to echo off our kayaks and the island walls. Goose bumps rose up on my arms and I turned to Tom for an explanation. Tom turned his kayak toward us, a smile spreading across his lips. “That’s a blue whale.”

A blue whale. The world’s largest animal singing in the depths below us. Perhaps he was singing for a mate or celebrating the new year as the night would be New Year’s Eve. Or perhaps he was welcoming us to his winter paradise, a place of peace after a long and trying journey.

June 20, 2016

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