A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about dunes

Adventures On The Great Sand Dunes

Visions of Sand, When Adventure Starts, Moonlight Dune Climb

sunny 94 °F

Sand Lands
The View From My First Campsite.
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Velvet Buck.
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Pine Meadow.
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Prairie Sun Flower.
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Self Portrait.
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Sex.
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The Edge of the Dunes.
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Sand and Pine.
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“Ha ha ha…. Wheeeeeeeeeeee! What a Predicament… ha ha ha…”
It was hot. The sun blazed overhead turning the dune landscape into a sandy broiler. I felt like a twice baked potato. Temperatures on the sand of Great Sand Dunes National Park can reach up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit during midday. The park service warns against walking on the dunes during this time, but there I was, padding along in the deep sand just after noon (a mistake). I began to feel woozy. I stopped to take another swig from my water bottle. I still had enough water, but the next creek was three miles further along the trail. I had long way to go to get there, if I got there.

My pack felt exceptionally heavy. I chose my food and equipment poorly for this trek. The problem was that I had made the plan to hike deep into the mountains after I had gone shopping the day before. Therefore, I was stuck with too many heavy food items. I love my new pack, but the weight dug into my shoulders and drove the load down my legs and into my feet, which sunk into the dune a good four inches. I could feel a moving pocket of sand inside both of my hiking boots. It was annoying, but that was the least of my problems.
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My left leg began to hurt. With each step in the sand, my left hip ached. Then I began to feel an aching knot in my calves as well. I rarely feel any soreness in my body. When I do, I know I am straining my body too hard. I kept going, though I was noticeably slower than when I started this trek. The sand was going to be my downfall. Thinking back to my planning in the Visitor’s Center, I remember the ranger didn’t mention the first ten miles was through sand. He must have assumed I’d know. At the time, I felt good about my chances of hiking ten miles on the first day. Out on the sand, I laughed aloud at my stupidity.
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On the trail in front of me, were fresh footprints of a black bear. The bear seemed to be following the trail. I had first noticed its huge prints in the mud near the last creek I crossed. I had not yet seen the bear, but I sang out once in awhile to avoid a surprise encounter. Bears don’t like surprises, and I don’t like surprising bears. Sure, it’s exciting, but the outcome in never certain.

An ominous roll of thunder sounded off to the west. The hazy bluish clouds of the front were building on the far side of the valley and moving east. The thunder was a subtle reminder of the power of a storm. The park service also warns hikers that “lightning can kill.” They go on to recommend leaving the dunes area immediately upon seeing signs of a storm. I looked at my GPS again. The elevation read just over 9,000 feet, which meant I was nearing the high point of this section of trail. Damn.

I took another twenty steps along the sandy trail before I stopped again. I was panting, and I bent over to rest my hands on my knees. I felt lightheaded. I took another swig of water, and realized that there was no way in hell I was getting to the Sand Creek campground. It was still six miles away, and I was feeling like crap. I had to get out of the sun. Ahead of me were some pine trees that offered a bit of shade. I left the path, and crossed two hundred yards of sage covered flatland to the pines. I dropped my pack in the sand, dug out my other water bottle and sat down in the shade with a plop. I was beat.

Now I had to decide what to do. I grabbed some food, and while I munched I took stock of my situation: I was five miles out on the edge of the dunes. I was showing signs of heat exhaustion. My left leg hurt a lot. I was following a bear. The nearest water was a mile and a half back down the trail, or three miles ahead of me. There was a thunderstorm approaching from the west. And I was fairly exposed high on top of the dune. Mulling this, I decided that, “Yes, this was a good one.” I had not been up against adversity in awhile, and this was a pretty good pickle.

Yvon Chouinard once said that, “Adventures start when everything goes wrong.” It was safe to say, this trek wasn’t going according to plan. But what to do? I know my limits, and I’m good at recognizing bad situations (and good ones, too). To continue would be foolish. If I decided to stay where I was to avoid the heat, my water would run out, and I would be exposing myself to the thunderstorm. I knew I was close to a campground, but since it didn’t have water, I couldn’t stay there either. I decided water was the key. I needed water to stay hydrated, and the nearest source was back the way I came. I also decided that though I was very tired, that it would be in my best interest to get off the exposed dune. My leg was sore, but there was nothing to do about that. The bear would show up, or it wouldn’t. I’d deal with it if I had to. Satisfied with my rational thinking, I heaved my pack up on my shoulders and started back down the trail.

As I walked, the thunderstorm passed by me to the north. It rumbled a bit, but it didn’t rain. Nor were there any terrifying lighting bolts to dodge (as if I could). The heavy clouds blocked out the sun, and I relished the cooling change. My trek back to the creek was uneventful. I was still sore, but I would heal. I drank the last of my water before I pumped more into my bottles. I continued on to Little Medora Campground where I set up my camp. Easing into my hammock, I contemplated the day and laughed. I had just enjoyed yet another near life experience.

Starlight Dune Climb
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I looked up at the stars to check my orientation. The North Star was still off to my right, and I could still see one of the two bright stars I had been using as a guide ahead of me. Not that star navigation was necessary, the dune field was directly west of the campground. All I really needed to do was walk toward the giant blob of sand. But I like to practice navigation, and stars are an easy guide to use at night.

I chose to hike the dune at night for several reasons. It is much cooler at night than during the heat of the day. I wanted solitude, and nobody else was getting up at 3:30 in the morning to climb the dune. I wanted to watch the sunrise from the top of the dune. I wanted to photograph the dunes with good light. Finally, I figured it would be an awesome experience to hike the dune at night, then watching the day dawn over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado.
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My feet made a “Hisssssk-Hissssk” sound with each step I took on the cool sand. I couldn’t see the definition of the dune I was climbing due to the almost total darkness. The moon had set two hours ago, and the only light available was starlight. I had a flashlight, but where was the challenge in that? The dune began to climb again, and so did I. I was more or less climbing this dune by brail, only instead of using my hands, I used my feet to sense the changes of the dune.

The dune I was climbing was the highest sand dune in North America. At its highest point, it rose seven hundred and fifty feet above the valley floor. My calves began to throb with the increasing pitch of the pyramid I was climbing. This dune isn’t one giant wall of sand. It has twisting ridges, valleys and pits. Just when I reached the top of one ridge and followed to a peak, I found that I had to descend down into a pit and climb an even higher pyramid. It wasn’t easy, but it was enjoyable.
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The stillness and silence of the desert was complete. I’m not sure I have heard a silence as deep as that anywhere else on earth. It was so quiet, I swear I could almost hear the energy of the sand. It sounded like a very low hum on the lowest frequency that I can hear. Maybe I was imagining things. At any rate, I felt a strong connection to the earth and the dunes.

I started the final climb. I could only take thirty steps before I was gasping with the effort. The dry air parched my throat. After my breath settled, I took another swig of water. Then I would climb another thirty steps. There might have been easier ways to climb the dune, but I couldn’t see them. I had a sure fire way of getting to the top, which was simply to keep climbing up.

Then, with a push, I was on top. I rested my hands on my knees and let my heart and lungs slow down. Then I looked about at the expanse of the sand plateau all about me. It was amazing. I went in search of the perfect spot. My perfect spot needed to meet the following criteria: It needed a view of the dune field below me. It needed to be photographically interesting. It needed to be a good breakfast spot. After wandering another two hundred yards, I found it. Satisfied, I pulled out my breakfast (an orange and a Clif bar), and settled in to enjoy the start of the day.

The Dune Field In Pictures
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"Behold, The Sands of Thom!"
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Posted by Rhombus 11:03 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes parks flowers hiking colorado adventure sunrise sand insects photography dunes Comments (1)

2000 Miles in Twenty Two Days: Taking The Long Way

The Beauty of the American West: Sand Surfing, Western Landscapes, Elk, From Moorcroft to New Castle, The Black Hills

Over the course of one day, I came to the realization that the first part of my trip was over. It had been a great first week meandering slowly through the hinterlands of central Idaho. However, I realized there was more to this journey then indulging in my own self-satisfaction. It was time to reconnect with some good folks I had not seen in a long while. I was missing my people.

To get to my people, I had four days of steady driving to enjoy, and I made a fairly straight forward approach to the road back to the Midwest. To me, “fairly straight forward” is dictated a lot by general direction and roads I had not driven before. If I fail at finding new roads, then I settle for new parks and places I haven’t explored before, or roads I haven‘t traveled in some time.

I love driving. I love Marvin (my van) and making steady progress with her across the spacious lands of the American west. The following photos are from my journey east. I am often distracted by magnificent scenery, and if I see something that interested me, I stopped to enjoy it. My stops usually vary from five minutes to five hours and sometimes five days. I usually let spontaneity rule the day, and I’ve yet to be disappointed.

Sand Surfing at Bruneau Dunes
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The dunes of Bruneau rise 470 feet above the valley floor. In years past, I have thoroughly explored the many charms of this small park in South Central Idaho. However, despite all my efforts, I had never taken a board to the top of the dunes to attempt surfing them. Over the last two years, I thought about this every time I would review my pictures from these explorations.

I returned to the dunes to give it a try. After all, it was practically on my way (which is dangerous logic), and I had a long board that would probably work very well for the attempt. On my first day at the park, it was very windy, and looking up at the dune through binoculars, I could see a long cloud of sand blowing over the crest of the dune. I would have to wait it out. I spent the time taking my long board apart, reading, slack lining, and staring up the dunes.

The next morning, my alarm went off at 6:25 a.m., and by some miracle, I got out of bed and onto the trail well before dawn. The sky was pale pink with golden bands to the east as I began trekking toward the tall dune. It was over a mile away, and I saw the crack of dawn just as I rounded the lake. I stopped to smell the fragrant leaves of fresh mountain sage (“Ahhhhh”). Everybody should start their day like this.

I began to climb. Walking up a sand dune is not easy. The slope steadily became steeper and the sand harder to walk through. With every step I took, I lost six inches sinking into the sand. However, I made it most of the way to the top before I had to stop and take a breather, I was pleased with my efforts.
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I made it to the crest and stopped to appreciate the panoramic view of the high desert plain all around me. It was splendid. The breeze was picking up a bit, but not too bad. I sat in the cold sand and ate a small breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and an orange with tea. The sun was still low to the horizon in the east, and I welcomed its warmth. It is funny how such a simple thing as breakfast in a beautiful place can make such a difference in one’s day.
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I spent the morning attempting to find the right combination of sand, slope, and gravity to allow me go surf down the dunes. At first, it was a complete failure, the sand was too wet, and I barely slid more than a foot. Eventually as the day warmed and the sand dried, I was able to make a go of it, and had fun surfing the sand. In truth, it was not as epic as I imagined it, but I had fun, and caught a couple of fun rides. The best one was the last one, when I rode down the dune from the top, some 400 feet, to the valley below.

Idaho Road Scenes

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Mountain Lake Scene, US 20, Idaho

Craters of the Moon, Idaho
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This black, barren landscape was once an active lava flow from several volcanoes that once erupted here. I spent the afternoon hiking through it, and exploring several lava tubes.

Craters Along US 20, west of Idaho Falls
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The clouds began rolling in from the north in the mid afternoon. I had just finished my explorations of Craters of the Moon, and this scene opened up before me. The thick clouds held snow, but I wouldn’t find that out until I passed over the rocky passes in northwestern Wyoming.

Elk In Winter Pasture
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This was a quick roadside scene that I stopped to enjoy. These elk just north of Jackson, Wyoming spend the winter down low in the flat grassy meadows. I’d never seen so many elk in one place, and stopped to take a few pictures. Those heavy clouds I saw earlier had caught up with me, and the temperature dropped into the twenties. It began to snow as it always does when I drive this section of Hwy 26, and I made it up and over the pass before any accumulation made the driving hazardous.

Wyoming Road Scene
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This road is somewhere south of Thermopolis, Wyoming. This road headed into the mountains and into a rugged river canyon. The western US is full of views just like this one. I can’t seem to get enough of them. There is something soulful in being surrounded by grandeur. My life seems to slow down and I like to take it easy.

Driving these long roads of the American west, I find myself day dreaming a lot. To be fair, I am not only daydreaming, but also thinking about events from the past, some from the future. I like to try to stay in the present, but it’s not always possible. I’ll be listening to my book, then as the narrator drones on and I’ve just passed my 200th mile for the day, my mind wanders off and I’ll be lost in my head. “I wonder what it was like to travel these plains by wagon. Wyoming… Why not, Whyoming? Wyoming’s Motto should be: Up, Down, and Brown…” And so it goes.

From Moorcroft to New Castle

To some, the hinterlands of Middle America are a never-ending hell of monotonous driving. Picture an endless day of straight roads, and billboards; the roar of passing semis, sticky fast food, chain-smoked cigarettes and boredom. I feel sorry for these people, they just don’t get it. Like any landform, the plains have a beauty all their own. They have landscapes that you will see nowhere else on the planet, and though I may not make the plains a destination, I love driving through them. My advice? Appreciate where you are at, while you are there. I can find good things to say about almost every place I have traveled to.

There is one stretch of road that runs from the small town of Moorcroft, Wyoming southward to the charming town of New Castle, Wyoming. It is a wide two-lane highway, driven fast by almost everyone who uses it (except me). I had left Moorcroft just as the sun was beginning its final show for the day. The grasslands were lit up by that magical light of late evening, which lasted roughly an hour before the sun finally set.

I pulled over numerous times, sometimes turning around to go back to view the scene again. It’s hard to appreciate something you only get to see for a hundredth of a second before you have cruised past it at 67 miles an hour. I have never regretted stopping along side of the road to watch something beautiful happening.
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The larger of these two pronghorn antelope was chasing a smaller one across the prairie. It was obviously some act of male dominance, a show of force to prove to the young buck that he ought to leave town before things became ugly. I watched it all happen just on side of the road. I was hoping the antelope would try to cross a fence. I was told by Tommy and Dal (see Beginnings and Central Idaho) that antelope will not jump over a fence, but will dive under it. I wanted to see if it was true. They didn’t cross the fence. Ah well, perhaps another time.

The Red Horse
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This was another roadside picture. I turned around to see if I could get a nice picture of this horse. I was lucky, and I shot this picture just before the sun past below the western hills. This was the last light of the day, and it made this horse glow. Simply gorgeous.

The Black Hills
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Many people hold the black hills of South Dakota sacred, and I am one of them. The Lakota have always held these lands as sacred, and I can see why; there is a powerful peace to these lands.
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I don’t know where to begin in giving a historical description of the black hills. There is too much to tell, and I’m not an expert on its history. I will say that this region has been a very contested piece of real estate between our Native Americans and those that wanted to take the land from them (and did). In truth, it is a very ugly history, and not one of our bright spots in our nation’s promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
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With that being said, I am going to focus on more positive themes for this narrative. Namely, my expedition into the heart of the hills. I pulled into Custer State Park at mid-morning in mid April. I was the only car in the lot. I pulled on my hiking boots, grabbed some food, camera, the usual, and set off. I walked around Sylvan Lake. Sylvan Lake is a beautiful mountain lake, flat and serene, with giant boulders bathing in the shallows of the north side. I walked around to the north side, and climbed up on one of the giant granite islands that make up a lot of the scenery of the hills.
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A red wing black bird sat on a branch high above me, and sang a pretty song. I took it as a welcome. I set off with visions of tagging the top of South Dakota’s highest point known as Harney Peak (elevation 7,244 ft). I figured this would be easy enough, and a good way to get a feel for the land.
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The land was powerful. It consisted of a pine forest that grew around a changing landscape of steep rolling hills, ridges and valleys. From these hills, jut giant granite islands into the sky, some of them hundreds of feet high. Over time, they eroded, and formed massive twisted phalluses and sharp spires of intricate shape and delicacy. In and around these wonderful lands are crystalline rivers and small mountain lakes, water for birds, beasts, and man. Beyond these great hills is a sea of grassland that stretches far to the east and west. Immediately to the north and south lie the badlands, a region of great beauty and hard passage. See High Plains Drifting from March 2010 for my adventures in the badlands.

The ground on which I walked was covered in shiny metallic wafers. I don’t know what mineral it was I was looking at, but walking into the sun made the ground glitter as if there were thousands of tiny diamonds scattered about. I marveled at the giant rock formations. They were amazing, and I could feel the solemn power of the place just by sitting with my back to them for a while.

As I climbed higher onto the ridge, I saw a spur trail leading off to Little Devil’s Tower, and I decided that was where I wanted to go. I figured the high point would probably be a well-visited place, and I was looking for some solitude to sort out my thoughts concerning these sacred lands I was trekking through.

It didn’t take me long to make my way to the top, and I knew I had made the right choice. In every direction, the hills spread out before me, with the twisted spires and rock formations in the near distance, the endless plains far in the background. It was magnificent.
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I spent a lot of time up on that tower of rock. I was really digging the vibe of the place, and the views were superb. I sat down to take it all in. I had found the perfect perch, with my legs dangling over the edge of the cliff. I opened a can of almonds and peeled and orange. It was time for lunch. It wasn’t long before I realized I had a guest. A small chipmunk began to silently scale the rock wall near where I was sitting. I wondered if it would be interested in sharing an almond with me, and I held one between my fingers. It climbed cautiously, testing for trouble, scurrying close, and then retreating. Finally, sensing no danger, it climbed up on my hand and began to eat.
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I smiled and asked if it was the “Little Devil” and if this was its tower. I complimented the chipmunk on its choice of homes, it seemed a palace. It was a fun lunch, and I ate my food, and admired the view with the chipmunk. It’s not everyday you get to share your lunch with a chipmunk.
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Then as we digested our meal, an elk bugled somewhere far below in the valley. An elk bugle is a shrill high-pitched snooty sounding blow. I had heard them before in other magical places (the south rim of the Grand Canyon), and this made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was really cool.

Then, a Red Tailed Hawk soared by not more than fifty feet away. It was level with where I was sitting, and it streaked by so fast and so effortlessly, I almost missed it. Given the fact I was perched up high on one of the best mountain views I have seen in such a sacred place, I couldn’t help but feel humbled. I am a very fortunate man.

After awhile, I moseyed on, saying thanks. I still had a long way to go if I was going to make it to Minnesota any time soon.

Stay Tuned!

Posted by Rhombus 21:21 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes mountains lakes wildlife hiking roads sunrise sunsets sand photography dunes Comments (1)

The Best of a Mexican March: Part 1

A Vagabond's Last Takes On A Winter in Mexico.

sunny 79 °F

With only just over a week left here in Mexico, I feel a bit overwhelmed thinking about all the writing and photography I’d like to share about this remarkable peninsula. The problem lies in the fact that I want to get out and play, savoring my last week before starting the long ten-day voyage back to the United States and Alaska. Once again, I’ll solve this problem by offering a photographic journey through some of the desert and ocean scenes that I’ve enjoyed so much.

Sperm Whales
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Sperm Whales were on my list of whales I really wanted to see while down here in Mexico. I had visions of Melville’s classic ‘white whale,’ and I wanted to see one for myself. Sperm whales have a very different shape than the other whales I’ve seen, and their spout is distinguishable from others as it comes out diagonally from their blowhole

I witnessed three separate pods, and a huge solo male. Sperm whales are very social; the females tend to stay together with calves and it almost as though they are synchronized swimming. They would rest on the surface in between dives, and it was during this time when I could get a really good look at them. When at last they had rested enough, they would take a final breath, and begin the long slow process of diving. First, the head would go down, and like a cracking whip, the rest of the body would follow. I could see the dorsal bend and submerge which would lift the huge flukes of the whale’s tail to a near vertical position. Seeing the humungous fluke lift out of the water is amazing. It is among my favorite views of the whale, any whale. It’s as though they are waving goodbye before disappearing into the depths for several minutes.
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Animal Prints
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The desert is full of nocturnal animals. They come out at night to eat, drink, and be merry--avoiding the harsh light and heat of the day. I was lucky enough to get out at first light, and spent the golden hours of the morning admiring the simple beauty and design of animal prints on the sand dunes.
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Two Sunrises
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I told Clay our Chief Engineer that the sky would light on fire this morning. He was skeptical, and impatiently called me out when at first the clouds remained unlit by the rising sun. I told him to be patient and wait, that it would happen. Ten minutes later, the sky smoldered and caught, briefly highlighting the large gray clouds in sunrise orange over the ocean and Isla San Francisco. Sunrise orange is hard to describe, it’s not pink, orange, or gold but some amazing mixture of them all.
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It was a cold, windy morning on Magdalena Bay. It was brisk. I watched a panga of anglers slowly work their lines in the choppy seas. I thought about the life of an angler here in Mexico; the long hours, the hard work, for not very much money. Two things stuck in my mind. One was that I was more or less living the same life, working all night on a boat to watch the beauty of the rising sun and cloud. The other thought I had, was that to work outside for a living is a good life. To immerse oneself in the golden glow of a sunrise for its entire duration is better than the best corner office with a good view in the world. Money is worthless in comparison to a life lived well.

Desert Plants and Landscapes
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What do you think of when you think of a desert? Perhaps you think of a flat, bare, plain, rocky, desolate with the odd scrounging a living here and there. The desert of Baja is a lush desert full of desert plant life. It’s varieties of plants, cactus, shrubs and flowers is quite impressive for how little water falls here.
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Boojum Trees
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We took a field trip in buses to a Boojum Tree forest. The Boojum tree is a funky looking tree, with a white trunk and hundreds of think twig like branches extending about a foot from the trunk. It grows tall; maybe thirty to forty feet high twisted and bent high into the desert sky. It looks like a tall inverted white carrot.
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The desert where these trees are located was superb. It was full of a wide variety of flowering plants and cactus. I loved the silence of the desert solitude. The only sound was that of the occasional bird, or the buzzing of giant bumblebees, and the cursing of your absent-minded author as he accidentally thrust his foot into an extremely sharp ball of needles that punctured deeply into his foot. This marked the first time I had received a puncture from a cactus spine in four and a half months of sandal wearing wandering. I was due, and didn’t let it slow me down.
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Snorkeling at Isla San Marcos
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The island of San Marcos is a geological gem, and an amazing setting to don your snorkel gear and see what’s going on below the surface of the water. The shoreline was a jagged rock wonderland of arches, sea caves, overhangs, spires and coves. The water was cool and refreshing, and as I made that first lunge into the darkness of the sea cave, I gave a little yelp as the water reached my sensitive areas. I don’t dive with a wet suit, as the water temperature here is about the same as Lake Superior in mid July.
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I swam deeper into the dark water, heading underneath a giant arch and to the greenish glow of sunlit water some distance away. It was very cool to swim through the darkness of that cave, and to emerge into the bright sunny water beyond. I saw at least ten varieties of fish swimming lazily through the coral covered giant rocks and boulders. The water was warmer in the sunlight, but occasionally a cold current would swirl over me, mixing warm and cold water over my body leaving my skin tingling in delight.

This was among the best snorkeling I’ve done here in Mexico, and I hope to return one more time before I leave.

Dolphins

Dolphins are good for the soul.
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Desert Insects and Animals
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The desert is full of life. The best advice I can offer is to walk slowly, take your time, and look at each rock and plant before you move much. Often these insects, birds, and animals are lazily sunning themselves in the heat of the day.
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So Ends Part One. There's more to come this week, so stay tuned!
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Posted by Rhombus 11:06 Archived in Mexico Tagged cactus plants whales deserts oceans insects dolphins photography dunes Comments (0)

To Kiss a Whale

Coyote Encounter, Humpback Whale Aerial Show, Kissing a Gray Whale

sunny 75 °F

Coyote

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The parallel sand lines were crisp and perfect. They led off into the distance as far as the eye could see over the never ending the sea of dunes. These lines were unblemished, except by that of the paw prints of roving coyotes. To be fair, my own yeti like footprints marred the surface of the dunes as well. I try to walk a path of little impact- trying not to wreck the more beautiful sand art pieces nature has patiently etched into the sand with unceasing wind.
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I was admiring the dunes and the delicate sand features found upon them, when I noticed high up on the rise of a dune a coyote scanning the horizon. I saw it before it saw me, and the wind was blowing my scent away from it. I crouched down, and swung my camera out, and started shooting. As luck would have it, it didn’t run away. Instead, it seemed curious and comfortable with the distance between us.
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I crouched behind the dune I was on, and keeping hidden from view, I circled around and higher up on the dune I was on. Then I popped up slowly, more not to startle it, and found a better composition than my quick attempts. It still hadn’t really moved, and had sat down, obviously enjoying my amateur “sneaking” attempts, and taking notes to tell his buddies later. It wasn’t long before it became bored with me, and moved on, trotting west into the lumpy bumps of sand that separate the dunes from the western beach of Isla Magdalena.
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Later that night I heard the long lonely howls of several coyotes coming from the dunes, and I smiled.

Humpback Whale Aerial Show

My friend Kathy, who is the BIGGEST fan of whales you’ve ever seen or heard about, started pounding on my door one morning as we were sailing south towards the tip of the peninsula. “Whales, Thom! They are breeching, and fin slapping the water right outside of the boat! Come on, come on, come on, I want you to seeeeeeee.” She said, while hopping around my room shaking me. Kathy tends to get excited when there are whales around. As the whales get more animated, so does Kathy, and it is hilarious.

One afternoon, the entire crew was sitting down eating lunch in the dining room when Kathy detonated a sonic boom of a scream. When we recovered from the initial concussion of the blast, we looked to see her pointing out the window as she bolted out of the room to the fantail of the ship. All of us thought she cut off her finger, witnessed a horrible tragedy, or saw one of the Beatles, but when she came back, she sheepishly informed us that she say a baby whale breeching. Then she started laughing hysterically about her amazing scream, and when Kathy laughs hard, you can’t help but laugh right along with her. The whole room was laughing, and it was a great moment. Long live Kathy Miller and whales.
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When I came upstairs and saw the mother and calf humpbacks pectoral slapping, and breeching, I grabbed my camera, and headed out on deck. The whales were only a couple of hundred feet off our portside, and to me it looked like they were playing a game of follow the leader. One would roll on its back, and begin slapping the water with their extremely long pectoral fins. Humpbacks have the longest pectoral fins of any of the whales, and they stretch out to near 20 feet in length for an adult. After mom would roll, the calf would roll, and do the same thing. Then the calf would dive down showing its characteristic tail fluke as it dove. Then mom would dive, and it would be a few seconds before they both launched themselves skyward breaking the surface of the water and into the air in an amazing display of power.
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The calf was completely airborne. To see a whale launch itself like a surface to air missile is awesome. Emphasis on AWE. To see the size of the splash when they land into the water makes me feel like my half ass “cannonballs” into a pool seem pathetic.
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The whales didn’t do this just once; we spent the better part of an hour watching them play. It was a terrific way to start the day. I shot over 80 pictures, most of them I deemed exceedingly crappy, but I did get collect a few gems. If you missed the shot today, you might as well have set down your camera for good. It was that easy to get a fantastic shot.

Kissing a Gray Whale

My friend Ame woke me after only 5 hours of sleep, informing my clouded mind that I should get up and come on a whale watching tour. I mumbled something about door locks, and said thanks. She let me be. I immediately went into the time honored bargaining session I hold with myself every time I have to wake up earlier than I want to. “They’re probably not any whales out today anyway, and you are dead tired. Wouldn’t you just rather sleep here in this comfortable bed? You can go next time. It’s probably cold out, and man, you sure are comfortable.” I happily talked myself out of going. As I shut my eyes and was about to walk into dream land again, there was another knock on the door.

I decided against my better judgment to open it. My buddy Paul was there, telling me there was a whale tour leaving in a few minutes. I asked him how many minutes I had, and he said just a few. I told him I was going, and jumped out of bed, put in my contacts, put on my comfortable jeans over my shorts, grabbed my toque (my warm winter hat), and was out the door in about 2 minutes. I’m not sure why I changed my mind, but I think I decided that if my friends are going to put this much effort into getting me to go, that I better go. I have good friends, and I’m damn glad I chose to go.

As we rode south in the bright overcast of a passing cloud bank, I wondered if I made the right decision. I decided to make the best of it, and breathed in the fresh ocean air, and looked out at the peaceful watery scenes all around me. It really was gorgeous out, and I began to enjoy the ride.

We followed a mother and calf pair around for awhile, and since they were on the move, we passed them by. Grays on the move are cool, but we were in search of a pair that wanted to play. We motored towards a pair that looked like they were just hanging out, and when we got close and slowed way down, they indeed came over to check us out.

The mom stayed near the surface and out of reach, keeping a maternal eye on the calf that was having a ball rolling off the side of her, and coming to play with us. It bumped our zodiac’s bow, moving it around like a bow thruster. Then it popped up along side, and after our clients had a chance to touch it, I took my turn.

My first touch of a Gray whale was an opportunistic passing touch that wasn’t fulfilling at all. It left me vaguely disappointed. After all, I didn’t make the connection with the whale. It didn’t really know I was there, and it felt like I stole the touch. But technically, I touched a whale. That thought made me smile, and I got more excited by my chances. I hunkered down on the side of the pontoon, and began splashing at the passing whales, and sure enough the calf came right up the boat, and popped its head out near enough to make a solid touch, and I petted its eggplant like body as it cruised by.

That was really cool. The scene was beautiful. I saw the mother’s humongous eye just underneath the surface of the water as it came up to breathe. It was a huge whale, an adult gray grows to a length just over 50 feet, and has a mass of over 35 Tons. To see one up close is awesome. Everyone onboard our zodiacs were very happy, and moved by the experience. There were many smiles, and a feeling of peace fell over all of us.

I was already satisfied with touching one. I am very easy going, and make no demands of what I can’t control. Some days the ocean will provide you with its bounty, and some days it won’t. The nearby zodiacs were leaving, and I made sign language with Ame who was onboard that one. We both had made the connection and we were both smiling. Her boat motored off, and everyone on my boat was watching the mom on the far side of the boat. Just then, the calf popped up right next to me, spy hopping high out of the water. I didn’t even think, I just reacted, bowing my head maybe 8 inches and I kissed that whale right on its head. It was a good kiss. I didn’t French kiss it, like my friend Taylor did, and it wasn’t a peck on the cheek, it was not too long, and not too short, in a word: perfect. It was like kissing a salty eggplant. My friend Ame saw it all and screamed, “Thom Kissed a Whale” to which she received some confused looks on her boat. She told me that immediately after I kissed it, I raised my arm in triumph, like I had just kissed the prettiest girl in the world. I don’t remember that, but I don’t doubt it. Whenever I kiss pretty girls, I like to celebrate a little, who doesn’t?

The most charming moment was when we had to return to the ship. The whales started swimming after us, trying to get us to stop and play for while longer. I don’t think it was mere coincidence, I think these whales wanted to stay with us. It was cute, and a friendly gesture. It was really hard to want to leave them, after such a moving experience.

I was surprised at how moved I was by the experience. I still smile at the thought of it. To touch and to actually kiss a whale is one of the highlights of my life. It seems like I say that a lot these days, but it’s true. The Baja Peninsula has a lot of magical qualities to it, and to experience these moments has made my life a little better with each one.

Posted by Rhombus 15:07 Archived in Mexico Tagged whales deserts oceans sealife photography dunes coyotes humpbacks Comments (2)

Infatuated With Isla Magdalena: Beware of the Stingrays

Exploring the Amazing Sand Dunes, Sand Dollar Beach, The Stingray Episode

sunny 75 °F

Magdalena Bay is located on the southwest coast of the rugged and beautiful Baja Peninsula. The town of San Carlos is the only real town of size in the area, and one can reach this small, dirty, fishing town by bus, auto or by sea. What San Carlos lacks in charm, is offset by its location. It’s a great staging point to access the beautiful natural areas that make up this unique and often bypassed region of Mexico.

Aficionados of good sand would do well to consider the splendor of dunes and beaches that Isla Magdalena has to offer. IIsla Magdalena is a long skinny barrier island that protects Magdalena Bay that provides a home to countless species of wildlife including a wide variety of birds and the gray whales. I’ll write more about close encounters with the Gray Whales in a future post.

I’ve been fortunate to make two forays onto Isla Magdalena (which I’ll refer to as IM from here on out) so far. You could have just as easily called it a jaunt, or stroll, or a ramble- They all end up the same. My treks of late have simply been open ended, spontaneous walk over places I’ve never been to before. My explorations rarely last longer than a couple of hours or a day at most, and they are very enjoyable. It’s a way to focus on a little slice of the big picture, an introduction to an area, but not covering everything there is to see. A mini-exploration if you will.
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On my last exploration onto IM, I started out by exploring the beautiful dunes that undulate across the eastern side of the skinny island. It was mid morning when I stepped ashore, took off my life jacket, stepped out of my sandals and looked out over the rolling dunes before me. “Where to begin?” I thought to myself. Initially, I started walking though the ankle deep moist sand towards a high point, but as soon as I crossed the main trail that leads to the other side of the island, I quickly chose a different tack. One that would lead me astray from the road more traveled, and onto my own path of serendipity and chance.

I am very thankful for my delight in finding artistic beauty in nature wherever I roam. One man’s sand dune is another man’s treasure, and on this trek, I found several satisfying scenes.
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Check out this Desert Beetle.
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Sand Verbena is quickly becoming one of my favorite flowers. They grow in clumps on bumps of sand, sporting thin ivy like connection over the sand. The plant produces tiny, vibrant purple flowers with yellow centers. While composing some photographs of the verbena, I noticed a few water droplets had formed and saturated the flowers. The morning dew that forms very thickly on the west side of the peninsula and these tender little plants take advantage of this phenomenon, enjoying a satisfying drink every morning.
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I finally crossed the dunes and made my way onto sand dollar beach. My co-workers had been raving about this place for weeks, and this was my first chance to see it. Usually when someone brags about a place, I tune them out preferring to make my own judgments about it. Yeah, I’ve been burned too many times with other people’s elevated opinion of places.
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Sand dollar beach lived up to its billing. It’s a wide, flat sand beach, caressed by the curling waves of the pacific. The air is fresh, and cool. The sand is home to many different types of animals, some preferring the dry sand of the upper beach and others burrowing deep under the tidal range living their life underground.
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I ran into my friend Ame, who had taken advantage of her free time as I had. We walked along looking at all the cool stuff there was on the beach. Including a hairy legged hermit crab , and other bits of interesting sea phenomenon that washes up on shore, and lives there. I think I could beach comb Sand Dollar beach everyday for a year, and not get bored with it.
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We met up with our friend Edd, who I had made a plan of meeting the night before, and we decided to go body surfing in the beautiful curling waves that were rolling onto the sand bar out in the water. Ame declined to join us, as she’d been up all night walking the decks. Ed and I bid her farewell, and ran out towards the water, turning cartwheels (sort of), and yelling out, laughing and jumping until we hit the water. Then our laughing and yelling turned to high pitched, voice cracking shrieks when the water hit various parts of our anatomy. The water was a bit cool, but once submerged I got used to it rather quickly.

It was some of the best body surfing I’ve ever done. I’ve been body surfing all my life, mostly on the fine sand beaches of Lake Superior. I was curious to see how the oceans curls would compare.

Comparing Lake Superior and the Ocean
What I discovered was that ocean waves are more consistent, and once you figure out the wave pattern and set, it’s easy to time your jumps.

Lake Superior is nice because of its fresh water. The ocean is nice because the salt keeps you slightly more buoyant. The ocean is nice because the waves are consistent and strong. Lake Superior often has a very strong rip that pulls you along the shore away from your starting point. The ocean (here at least) didn’t pull us in any direction. To get big waves on Lake Superior, the wind needs to be howling from the correct direction. On the Ocean, the waves are there regardless of wind strength and direction. Swimming in soft breezes is more enjoyable than swimming in gale force winds.

I made several successful rides of over 50 feet and more, just by timing my jumps perfectly to catch the wave. I don’t like to swim with the wave before surfing it. To me, it seems like a lot of unnecessary work and not true surfing. My technique is to simply wait until my instinct tells me to go, and dive horizontally with the wave. I flatten and hold my body in a flying superman style and try to think like a surfboard (I think it helps). My technique works very well for me.

Body surfing perfect waves is akin to skiing down mountain slopes with a foot of fresh powder. It brings out an adrenaline-tinged euphoria that leaves me smiling all day long.

Edd was having as much fun as I was, then he yelled out in pain. I asked what was wrong, and he said that he thought a crab had bitten him on the foot. Having not felt that experience before, I didn’t question him. After all, he grew up by the ocean, and I didn’t. However, he was having a lot of pain, and he held his foot out of the water to check it out. A big drip of blood burbled up thinned out by the salt water and dripped into the ocean. Not good. Not good at all.

We started back to shore, and I was contemplating our situation. Edd was hurt, and we were a long way from the ship. I knew we had staff with radios somewhere on the island, but I wasn’t sure where. I knew that would have to be the first step: finding someone with a radio who could call the ship and the doctor.

Once on shore, the pain really started to hit hard. Edd sat on the sand, and I began to ask him the usual questions tapping his foot to see where the pain was. I wanted to keep him talking, as I didn’t know how bad it was, or if he would have an allergic reaction to the toxin. Knowing I’d have to go for help, I looked around and luckily saw our Video expert a couple hundred yards away. I sprinted over to him, and luckily he had a radio. He called the doctor, and I ran back to Edd. The doctor was only a couple of hundred yards further down the beach, and he made it to Edd and I relatively quickly.
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Edd had been jabbed by a stingray. He had a small laceration on his foot, but luckily there was no stinger in it. The bad news was that the doctor had left his medical kit on the other side of the island. He radioed other staff members who were already halfway across the island with our guests, and in no position to turn around. I knew I could get the kit faster than they could anyway, and I volunteered to go and get it. I’m not sure why the doctor left his gear on that side of the island when everyone was going to be on this side. I didn’t really think to ask, I just started running.

Isla Magdalena is roughly three quarters of a mile wide where we anchored and walked across. It’s covered in sand of varying consistency, from hard packed, so soft ankle deep mush and flowing dunes. There are beds of old sharp and brittle shells that occasionally peek out, unearthed by the strong winds. These are not ideal conditions for a jog by any means; running in sand is hard work, and exhausting. I was up for the challenge.

I figured Edd would be ok, but he was in some serious pain and that thought gave me all kinds of energy to make my crossing. I hadn’t run in a long time, but I took it as a test to see what kind of shape I was in. It was a trial by fire, if you will.

I have long legs, and I’m in good shape from all my adventures. I ran hard, pushed on by my task, and I made good time. I alternated between running hard where the ground was good, and jog/fast trekking over the bigger dunes and through the deep moist sand. I was wearing only my tan shorts, and I was moving fast. I’d like to think our clients (most of them European) only noticed a pale blur gasping into the distance, but I’m probably wrong. I reached the other side, grabbed the kit bag, and started back. I was tired, but game, and continued my fast pace back over the dunes. It was a little harder to run while carrying the bag, but it wasn’t too heavy.

I retraced my steps and made it back to Edd, the doctor, and a few crewmembers that had shown up to offer Edd support. The doctor got busy making Edd more comfortable, and I drank some water, and caught my breath. I deemed myself in good shape, passing my physical challenge for the day.
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After the doctor cleaned and bandaged Edd’s heel, it was time to try to get him back to the ship. With two people as crutches and two others carrying gear, we made a slow caravan over the dunes. I’m taller than Edd is, so I had to stoop to let him use me as a crutch. It probably looked fairly ridiculous, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Edd was really in some pain, and the toxin was spreading up his leg. We climbed to the high point on the dunes, before we stopped to let him rest. At that point, we decided to call in the cavalry.

We have a good emergency response protocol in place, and it was good to see that the system worked, and worked well. The ship was aware of our predicament, and standing by ready to assist as needed. They sent over a stokes litter, and five people to help us carry him. After we made the call, it became a waiting game. I had my friend Daisey stand on top of the dune as our guide, and I ran back across the dunes one more time to meet the reinforcements. My friend Daisey had the presence of mind to grab my camera and start taking photos. These pictures are hers, and used with permission.
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The cavalry and I trekked back to Edd, put together the litter, loaded him up, and started carrying him out. We knew he’d be fine, so we teased him as we went, cracked some jokes, and made the best of it. We loaded him in a zodiac, and brought him to the ship where the medical team was waiting with a big bucket of hot water. Stingray venom is made of heat-labile proteins. The hot water acts as a neutralizer, making the venom less effective, and keeps the toxin from spreading further. In a couple of hours, Edd was feeling a lot better, though he was a little gimpy for a day or two.

One final comparison between the ocean and Lake Superior: Lake Superior doesn’t have stingrays. Don't let this little episode scare you away. Isla Magdalena is worth the trip, and I wouldn't hesitate to catch more waves on my next visit. Even Edd said it was worth it.

Adios, amigos!

Posted by Rhombus 07:20 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches islands flowers medical waves oceans sand surfing ships photography dunes body emergencies Comments (0)

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