San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

What's so special about San Felipe kayaking? Well, kayakers are normally not sailors, yachters or speedboat freaks. They cultivate nothing of the float-gloat vanity evident in other maritime cliques. Kayakers are usually quiet, solitary figures who glide through ecosystems without leaving any fingerprints, without waving any flags. Their kayak is an extension of themselves and its movement follows their unconscious thoughts just like an arm or a leg. The rhythm of the paddle sweeps across distances much as a conductor's baton stirs up a symphonic wave of sound from the empty air in front of him.Kayakers preparing to depart for Cabo San Lucas. Except the kayak wends through Nature's composition --the cyclic palaver of waves rolling across damp sand; the wild collapses of pelicans engulfing their afternoon cuisine; the bark of curious seals and the knifing dorsal fins of patrolling porpoises; seagulls squawking and tangling over fishing boats; scamper of lizards across granite outcroppings.

San Felipe has some of the largest tidal bores in the world. Sometimes the water recedes so far you have to change postal codes just to get your feet wet. And winter winds can be sudden and unpredictable. Given these conditions, planning a leisurely day in your kayak can be a bit of a logistic challenge. A tide chart easily tames the uncertainties of the dry-well syndrome. And keeping your journey close to shore will ensure you don't loose any battles with a fierce headwind.

Below, Ann Clizer of Idaho describes one of her own local kayaking experiences:

The Sea of Cortez is royal blue today, stretching east as far as I can see. Under a bright March sun, horizon blends with sky, and I paddle my turquoise kayak toward that nebulous line, pulling against the tide-drag as it rolls in. My arm muscles rally to the task. Behind the boat a small wake ripples into a V-shape. On the white-sand beach, Carla shapes grainy hills over the prone body of her boyfriend while he naps. Nance and Maya lounge on beach towels, eyes closed under dark glasses. Two other kayaks rest above the high-tide line, but the others have already flirted with paddling, splashing and laughing, tipping off the open decks into the warm sea, swimming and pulling their boats back up onto shore. Now I am on my own. A light sea breeze lifts my hair, and I draw deep breaths, matching the rhythm of my strokes.

The beach crowd shrinks behind me. I focus on the flat sea ahead, settling into the easypaddle-sweep: right, left, right, left. My power is centered squarely between my shoulder blades, my forward motion smooth and strong.

I push east, toward mainland Mexico, so far away I cannot see the shoreline. As I pull away from our beach camp, I think of my North Idaho home, nearly two thousand miles away.

Ann Clizer in her kayak.Greeting the spring season at this mellow latitude and skipping the mud and rain up north each year brings a special flavor to the pattern of my life. For me, any sacrifice is worth the pleasure of launching my boat on this southern shore as the ice only begins to melt on massive Lake Pend Oreille at home. In this part of the Sea of Cortez, the beaches are smooth and sandy, the nearest rockoutcrops lie nearly ten miles away. More than twenty miles out, maybe halfway across the finger of water reaching between Baja and Sonora, a lone island points to the sky. From land, Isla Consag changes shape and color with the light and times of day. Sometimes it resembles a tall mushroom, dark and looming. Other times, the island's frosting of bird droppings transform its appearance into the thrusting spires of a fantasy castle. I know from other outings that the island isn't visible from water level, but before I've paddled five minutes, I can see dark dots ahead. I wonder if they are distant fishing boats or jet skis. They are so far away, I can't tell. I paddle faster.

Long minutes pass and I make out triangular shapes. I know this is not shark country, yet a thrill of fear thumps in my chest, mingling with the steady whomp-whomp of my paddle-pushed heart. Hoping the fins belong to a pod of dolphins, I push on.

I can count the triangles now --seven dorsal fins. If I angle north, I might intersect with them. I have never seen dolphins up close, but I've heard they are as curious as we are, friendly and unafraid of contact. Some say they have helped people who were lost or drowning. I've only observed the antics of dolphins in video footage, but even that second-hand view always left me with a distinctly uplifting impression, one of good cheer and a passionate love of life. As these thoughts ran through my mind, I've already angled my kayak to intersect their path without making a conscious decision.

Before I reach the pod, they slow their pace and turn toward me. Anticipation swells my chest, and I wonder one last time if I am wrong. If I were more knowledgeable in marine wildlife, I could probably tell for sure what creatures I'm approaching by now. I paddle harder with the fresh adrenaline, because I know there is no turning back. My kayak feels feather-light as it skims over the swells, and I draw deeply of the salt air, relishing its clean feel in my lungs.

The pod breaks and four fins go south, three north. I lift my paddle, lay it across my lap and the kayak loses speed. In seconds I see the unmistakable shape of a dolphin alongside the open deck of my fourteen-foot ocean kayak. Then the animal launches out of the water in an effortless leap, startling me. My body shakes with the shock and I turn my head to watch it slice back into the Sea of Cortez. Dolphins circle my kayak, leaping in turn, up and down, around and around, counter-clockwise. Sea-spray from the dolphins' passage splashes my bare skin.

My throat grows thick with emotion. Tears run down my cheeks as the boat rocks in their turbulent arena, but my fear is gone. I open my mouth, and laughter comes out. The dolphins are silent. Or are they?

There are no chattering noises, no shrill calls, no curious looks. The seven dolphins circle, jump, and dive. But the silence is full. I can't tell what it's full of, but it is not empty. I laugh again, letting go of the need to understand and giving myself over to the joy of the moment. Peering into the water, I trace their paths with my eyes. The sea is a rich green at this deep place so far from shore, and I can see the animals clearly except at the low point of their dives. The dolphins are dark grey, and their supple skins glint in the sun with each arc above the water. Their snouts part the water neatly as they slide downward from their leaps. I trail my hand in the sea and feel its texture, imagine it as a conductor, a connection between me and the dolphins.

The air around me feels charged with energy of a sort entirely new to me. My arm hairs stand up in the breeze. It occurs to me I might slip off my open deck and cavort in the water with my new friends. Surely the energy would be even more powerful, more accessible to me if I immersed myself in the sea. And suddenly I crave that connection with every cell.

I lean sideways, still holding my paddle. But in that moment, one dolphin quits the circle and continues north. In seconds, they are gone. Seven dorsal fins cut north through the mild chop, and my encounter is over. Tears dry on my face as I stare at the triangular markers growing smaller by the second. The boat bobs and over the next few minutes, the air around me returns to normal and my heart rate drops. I sit still in the March sun, watching until I can no longer see the pod.
When I glance back at the beach, I see I have come farther than I realized, maybe a mile of water lies between me and the shore. I've never been out this far alone, but I feel no concern.

The dolphins have moved on, but their brief presence leaves me awash in a delicious mixture of joy and serenity more penetrating than any I've experienced on the water before. Still, the beach is my inevitable destination, and I angle my boat toward it, tossing a last look north at the horizon. It is flat.

I paddle west, wrapping myself around those blissful moments with the dolphins, tucking the essence of our confluence inside for closer inspection when I'm back on land. The Sea of Cortez stretches to the sand, at some point making the transition from green to royal blue. I push and pull, right, left, right, left.

My friends on the beach grow larger as I approach. Somehow, I 've grown larger too.

Ann Clizer lives in the mountains northeast of Sandpoint, Idaho. She spends her springs on the Sea of Cortez near San Felipe, Baja California Norte, Mexico.

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