Saturday, February 14, 2015

Baja Reprise: Seeking Cetaceans on Three Wheels and Two Wings

A tale from The Back Burner (March 2013)

March is a time of year when I have to schedule in my showers, and decide which I have time for on any given day, brushing either my hair or teeth. Days off are few and far between (if any) for weeks at a time, so making a trip to a remote lagoon in Baja to pet whales is really not something that comes up.  Except sometimes.

A group of riders, including Phil, from my recent Baja Unadventure, are heading down to the San Ignacio lagoon at the end of the month, and – what? is it possible?- due to some freak alignment of the planets (and jobs), my days off from my four different positions actually coincide this month! Wumph! I sit down hard in my chair in disbelief.  It must be too good to be true.  Of course, it is. Too good to be true. I look at my calendar again, check the map... Arghhh! I don’t have quiiiite enough time to ride the miles, pet the whales (requiring at least one, possibly two, overnight stays), and get back to Tucson before the clock strikes midnight.  But I was so close!!

Sometimes, good things just need a little adjusting to make them true.  Pilot Guy, who has been courting me these past two months*, says coolly, slyly, “Yanno, we could fly down to pet the whales.”  I raise an eyebrow.  It might be a bit early to be hopping in his Bellanca Super Viking for an overnight, but I don’t care. I’m in!  I was so in, I even agreed to get up at 4am** to begin our adventure.

Our wheels are up before the sun,  and we watch it rise as our little aeroplane crosses over the international border.  Immigration and customs laws designate that we must first land in an international port of entry.  Guaymas is beautiful from the air!  Can you believe this? I’m flying in a private plane to Baja to pet whales. I really can’t wrap my brain around it.  I may be wearing sensible adventure appropriate footwear, but I check my feet for glass slippers, just in case.  Nope. I'm good.

Guaymas Aerial View

Negotiating customs and immigration in Guaymas is a bit of a trick. I speak (some) Spanish, but don’t speak Pilot. Pilot Guy, although obviously well versed in Pilot, is less capable in Spanish. We dance round and round, from window to window, each no more than ten paces from the other, seeking this stamp and that document before we can proceed. I’m not entirely sure, but it sounds like the official at one window is telling us we aren't allowed to fly from Guaymas to the San Ignacio Lagoon.  Huh?  It's something about flight plans, and towered vs. non-towered airports, but I can't discuss the topic intelligently in any language.  We're stumped.  Pilot Guy plays his ace - a call to a pilot friend, who flies to Mexico regularly.  Aha! The the wink and nudge system that, in the US, might have a curious military jet alongside us in no time, wasn't published in the airport directory. Wink and nudge we can, and soon, we’re on our way!

"What do you mean the landing gear won’t go up???"  I suppose this is better than the alternative, but mechanical failure in the air is not the sort of adventure I had in mind when I signed up for this trip.  Pilot Guy starts to circle, and checks in with the folks on the ground.  But before we’ve landed to investigate the problem….Oopsy!   Pilot Guy was right when he said you don’t so much get in a Bellanca as wear it.  During my clumsy entry when departing Guaymas, I’d inadvertently deployed the emergency landing gear switch.  It’s always good to test your equipment, I suppose.

Traveling by private aircraft is part glam rock star…

Bellanca Super Viking Sedona
Feeling glamorous in Sedona, AZ

… and part grubby safari.

Bellanca Baja Laguna San Ignacio

Today was definitely the latter.  This is an airport?  It’s simply a little dirt landing strip and a shack of sorts. But it works for us!

Final Approach Laguna San Ignacio Aeropuerto

Laguna San Igancio Aeropuerto

Our boat is also more safari than rock star.  Our captain pulls it to shore.

Pulling in the Majiben I

Majiben I

We set sail…

Laguna San Ignacio Shoreline

… and before long the whales show themselves. A flipper here…

Grey Whale Flipper Baja

… part of a tail fluke there.

Grey Whale Fluke Baja

Ahoy!  Friend or foe?  Dolphins, too, are leaping about, twice as high as I’ve ever seen them do at Sea World.  I’m spellbound and nearly mute with emotion.  Still, I have no idea what I’m about to experience.

Whale Breaching

They are so friendly and curious, that they mob our little boat. There are 3, 4, 5… all within reach, nearly too close to photograph. Who’s watching who?, I wonder.

Grey Whales Baja

Indeed, I am petting whales - whales far bigger than our little boat. They roll beneath my fingertips, we look each other curiously in the eye, and breathe the same air.  Mothers push their calves towards us, as if for our inspection.  “They feel just like olives!” observes Pilot Guy. He’s absolutely right!

Whale Adoration Experience

Whoosh! I catch a direct blast from a blowhole and sputter.

Whale Blowhole

They roll out of the water and look us. I try in vain to catch their eyes with the camera lens.

Grey Whale Eye Baja
Look carefully - you can see an eye near the center of this photo, if you use your imagination!

Our captain’s wife prepares lunch for us. Eight hours bottle to throttle, says the law.  We’re not flying again until tomorrow, so a beer is perfectly okay, too.

Lunch Laguna San Ignacio (6)
No whales were harmed in the preparation of our seafood lunch, I hope.  It's a bit salty, but we're simply too elated to care. Our meal disappears quickly.

A reconnaissance flyover before landing at the lagoon revealed that the airstrip closer to the town of San Ignacio was obscured with shrubbery. We would be okay to land there, but the Bellanca wouldn't!  Perhaps it's best we hire an SUV to take us across the strange landscape and into town.  There are things to see there, too…

Ride from Laguna to San Ignacio palm trees…

San Iganacio

… and banana blossoms.

Bananna Blossom

And the cathedral.

San Iganacio Church

San Ignacio Church Inside

We try to hunt down the riders at Ignacio Springs, but communication is too difficult here. We savor an amazing date shake near the oasis, instead.

The next morning, we're pretty sure we can spot whales from the air.  The watery loops below us are mesmerizing, like misty contrails melting into the sea.

Laguna San Ignacio Flyover (1)

Bye, bye, lagoon!

Laguna San Ignacio Flyover (2)

Hello moon!

Full Moon Returning to Tucson (2)
Wheels touch down back in Tucson

This is as good as it gets, I think to myself.  Without a motorcycle, anyway.
A fascinating article in the New York Times describes the behavior exhibited by these mysterious creatures, specifically when nursing their young in the San Ignacio Lagoon.   I encourage you to read it. When I came across this poignant story back in 2006, eyes nearly brimming over, I had no idea one day I would experience it all myself.

*Pilot Guy was quite the patient man when we met. Dating during the busy season? Hah! I literally said things like “I can meet you for coffee for 20 minutes a week from Wednesday, if that works for you.”  Not to mention the fact I was ready to ditch him for a motorcycle ride to Baja on my first days off since meeting him.  Lucky for me, he stuck with it.
**No small feat for the work weary sleep deprived musician who was working mornings and nights.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

To Hell and Back Again: Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area (What I Did Last Summer)

Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area has always been a teensy weensy bit out of reach for me while working in northern Utah. But this summer, thanks to a work-free span of unprecedented length, I tagged it.  We should not have been surprised to have to negotiate a few Circles of Hell along the way…

“I’ll toss it in the top box and deal with it tomorrow,” I said of the Go Pro camera.  It was mid-morning, we were still packing the bikes, and I was getting impatient. “Today’s not going to be a pretty ride, anyway.”  The straight red line on the map that connects Blackfoot to Challis was not particularly alluring to this motorcyclist.  The twists and turns are few to none, and there are no little green dots alongside it to indicate a particularly scenic route, although upon closer inspection, one can note that the road does pass by the highest point in the state.  That ought to qualify as scenic.  But for a reason I’ve already forgotten, I chose this route to our first camping stop near Stanley, ID, anyway.  I’m not sure who has to make the terrible choices in the map making world as to which route is scenic and which is not, but I can tell you they were dead wrong on this one.  This portion of the Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway (someone realized it was scenic) caught me off guard.  It was so majestically beautiful, and I have not one single photo of it.  The stunning Big Lost River Valley and Lost River Range of towering craggy peaks are spectacularly laid out before the lucky traveller along this stretch of Idaho 93, and when we stopped in Challis for gas, I was nearly trembling with joy.  After the long motorcycle drought of 2013-14, I’m finally out exploring the Great American West on two wheels again.  It is so very, very good.

It still feels right, despite the black cloudburst overhead, now. It's Pilot Guy's first street tour, his first time riding in a downpour, and a serious crosswind is adding to the excitement. We take it easy, and he's doing fine. Isn't motorcycle touring fun, Pilot Guy? It's a brief event though, and we smile as we shake off the rain and make our camp. 

Pilot Guy does not have the campsite dish washing aversion that I do, so we dine a bit more generously when he’s around.  We have a lovely division of labor. He manages the feeding arrangements, I the housing arrangements.

Flat Rock Campground Idaho
Appetizers at Flat Rock Campground

Kielbasa Dinner

The next day, as we pass through Stanley, ID, I’m missing photos again.  The Sawtooth Mountains are well named and as craggy and sharp as they come.  These wild looking peaks are deserving of a proper photography stop, but I’m stuck between enjoying the ride and stopping for photos.  I’m missing turnouts, turning around, missing them again, enjoying a corner,  and doing everything except getting a good photo.  I had a chance to get those jagged broken teeth of mountains with green grasses and a charming split rail fence in the foreground.  Or happy grazing cows. Or a glimmering creek.  And I missed every single opportunity.  It’s positively disgraceful.  Even worse, I’ve been to the area twice before, and I don’t have any good pictures from either of those trips, either.  And so, until I have a chance to go back, get good photos of both the Big Lost River Valley and the Sawtooth Mountains, and bathe in the Sunbeam Hot Springs* that have intrigued me for so long, you can enjoy a few photos by a friend.

Photo by Steve Madancy. Thanks, Steve!

I can always count on Steve for a great photo.

On the way home, we managed to document our presence near the Sawtooth Mountains.  When I clomped into my house upon arrival from my 2014 Return Migration, I found a 20 x 30 version of this photo hanging in my house. Thanks, Pilot Guy!

For a motorcyclist, any road named Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway prickles the heart with fear.  Wildlife encounters move me to tears**, but I’ve no interest seeing any on or near the road while I’m in motion.  But in this case, it almost doesn’t matter, since we are stuck crawling across the all-too-rugged pavement in the summer heat behind RV after lumbering RV.  Circle of Motorcycling Hell Number One!  Relief comes in the form of free iced tea refills and a big slice of surprisingly good pie at the Route 55 Café of Cascade, ID, and an unencumbered run across the smooth pavement of Idaho 55/the Payette River Scenic Byway.  The Payette river is all that a mountain stream should be – sprightly here, threateningly roiling there, ever engaging to watch when you’re not busy doing other things, like riding your motorcycle. Idaho, Idaho!  How did I forget how beautiful you are??

Idaho 71 is a wonderful surprise, and I feel like Alice in Wonderland, instantly transported to California wine country, except there aren’t any actual grapevines. It’s beautiful and the road is eminently sportable . But Pilot Guy is a bit too close behind me.  Sporty riding involves aggressive braking, and his proximity is unsettling. As I ride slower and slower, he gets closer and closer.  On our first street tour together, we’re a bit like awkward lovers; unsure of what the other needs. Too far apart, too close together, not communicating as well as we could… well, we have a thing or two to figure out in this department.

It's been a hot day of riding, and the showers at Woodhead Park Campground are a welcome surprise. But even the shower water is too hot.  Friendly camp neighbors offer provisions, and I am not shy about eating at least half of their refreshing, cool watermelon. We found ourselves a party!
Friendly camp neighbors seem to be everywhere. Note the deluxe motorcycle parking on the right!

As we approach our target the next morning, we have new road challenges to contend with.  Enter Circle Two, deer blinking at us from the side of the road.   With another sighting every few miles, we start feeling a bit jumpy.  We pull over for Circle Three, an angry stinging insect inside my jacket. Somehow it's worked its way inside my riding jacket and under my clothes. I leap about, trying to free it, squash it, somehow stop it, but no... There's an painful, quickly swelling welt where my belly button should be.

Oregon: a first for both Pilot Guy and my Kawaski!  (For this trip, my trusty Kawi made more sense than his Suzuki Dual Sport.)

Evidently the road to Hell is lined with cherry trees.

Hell's Canyon Scenic Byway Roadside Snacks

If this is Hell, I'm stayin'!

Hell's Canyon National Recreation Area

It hurts to just tag this beautiful place and leave, but no musician is going to risk getting to the show on time, no matter how beautiful her motorcycle camping trip happens to be.  We probably  have time to run up the tempting squiggle on the map known as ID 95 to White Bird, and ride the Old White Bird Grade Road, reportedly positively riddled with switchbacks, as suggested by Pete the Cheese Guy, but, but… well, I’ve always struggled with the phrase, “It’s probably fine.”

So after Circles of Hell Four, riding directly over the jagged necks of broken beer bottles in the road*** (an immediate tire inspection followed), and Five, the sickly sweet salad dressing at the Gateway Store and Café  (to be fair the rest of our meal was quite good), we take a route home that actually heads, you know, toward home.  But there’s still plenty to see on the way!
Pilot Guy and I are riding better together, now, and I take the opportunity to speed ahead and enjoy ID 71 properly this time. Lean, left, lean right!  Hard brakes! Harder throttle!  All as fast as I am able.  Lovely landscapes aside, this, too, is good for the spirit, and brings a sense of balance to our little tour.

Make no mistake, sweltering construction delays really are a Circle of Hell (Six, if you're counting) for motorcyclists.  It’s a hundred degrees or more. We’re stopped, waiting, waiting… waiting for the slow, winding, interminable snake of oncoming traffic to end, signifying that our turn to creep down the single open lane of several miles of roadway is nigh.  We are, as always, dutifully wearing our 20lbs or so of safety gear: helmet, leather and carbon fiber gloves, boots, over pants and jackets made of durable, heavy fabric or leather, complete with armor covering elbows, spine, shoulders, hips, knees…  Our heads and bodies droop with the passing minutes.  The gear is so heavy, so hot, it even feels difficult to breathe.  The principles of the venturi effect, which bring blessed breezes through our jacket vents, do not apply when we’re at a standstill.  Will this be 45 minutes?  Five?  It’s hard to say.   There are certain advantages to being at the head of the line when we finally do receive permission to depart, so the question becomes a game of heat stroke chicken.  Is there time to dismount and pull off gloves and helmet for a drink of water?  What about a half unzip?  Do we fully deconstruct, only to have to scramble to get dressed again two minutes later?  Tough it out?   We all have our own strategies, but it’s simply a miserable situation, regardless of the tactic chosen.  Finally - thank God, finally! – the construction worker flips her sign and waves us forward.  Our bodies and mind perform a 0-60 feat of sorts, leaping to action after our heat induced near coma.  Put away the water! Gloves and helmet on!  Ooops, zip jacket!  Gloves back on! Start bike! Ack, why can’t I find neutral?  Ack!  Forgot to secure helmet strap!  Gloves back off!  But it’s all just a tease. We’re rolling, but barely enough to (occasionally) lift our feet off the ground.  Slowly, slowly, we creep after the pilot car, the hot smell of asphalt wafting over us and into our open helmet visors.  So we go for miles.  The breeze does not come, and our hands, ever on the clutch, ache…

This was just one of the many we suffered through. Another kept us held a good 30 minutes next to a sign “eggs for sale.”  I really should have fried one on the sidewalk for what would have surely been a successful Eating on Two Wheels diversion.  It seems our decision to forgo the extra 200 miles for a White Bird run was the right one.

We camp on the banks of the North Fork Payette River, at Big Eddy Campground. Despite all the water rushing by us, there is no water spigot at camp, and it’s too dark for me to leave to find more.  We wring out the last drops from our supply to test my Eating on Two Wheels proprietary instant Creamy Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup Mix.  It needs refining, but I am clearly on to something!****

Forest fires areas are not all that fun to ride through, either.  Nor is a hot, sweltering, and smoky construction delay.  Consider the Whiskey Complex Fire, Circle of Hell Number Seven.

Eternal Damnation

Just a few days ago, Garden Valley Airport (U88) was full of happy little Cessnas, each with a cheerful tent pitched next to it. Not so today!

 A few pilots seem to have made their getaway using alternate methods.  We stood by and watched a helicopter towing buckets of water to douse the fire. I wonder if it felt as hopeless as it looked.

While the pizza may have been simply serviceable, the lemon sorbet at Leroy's stand in Ketchum, ID is the perfect remedy for our throats, so irritated by the wild fire smoke.  But the crowds of Sun Valley vacationers are unsettling after the wide open spaces of motorcycle touring, so we escape by climbing the nearby Bald Mountain Trail. It feels good to get some exercise.  We close our day with a pleasant sunset walk at nearby Boundary Campground, after securing the last available site, and Pilot Guy’s sharp eyes spot what could only be an abandoned grass runway.  I never would have noticed it.

Craters of the Moon National Monument must have been, during its creation at least, the very definition of Hell on Earth.  My nose wrinkles at the thought of the smoking, acrid lava flowing over anything and everything in its path, and my heart sinks when I reflect upon the barren and lifeless wasteland it must have been for years after these volcanic events.  But time and nature have transformed it to a more hospitable, yet no less fascinating, land.

The crumpled and cracked waves of dark, hardened lava call to mind a chocolate glaze that has been, in a bold stroke of avant-garde confectionery destruction, worked with a palette knife after it has already begun to set. 

The porous rocks look as crunchy, light, and sweet as the honeycomb toffee center of a Violet Crumble.   My mouth waters, and it occurs to me that they are both made in the same way, with gasses creating bubbles in a quickly hardening substance.

It's the first day of work for the girl at the Mountain Man Trading Post, in Arco, ID. She doesn't know how to make our sandwiches, so phones the owner for a long distance consultation. That's okay with us.  This funny out of the way store has a roomful of culinary oddities to explore while we wait.  I wish I had a way to carry back some of the locally made sausages. 

I watch the sun move in the sky. I sigh. It's time to roll. Our trip is ending, soon, too soon.  Five days of heat, smoke, fire, construction and RV caravan delays, road hazards, bee stings, questionable salad dressing...  One could ask, was it worth it?

Hell, yes!

*They are right next to, no, really, sort of in the Salmon River, so the hot water mixes with the cool river water to make the temperature just right. Facilities are limited to a little historic bath house next to the river.
** Not exaggerating. I positively sob aloud. It’s more than a little embarrassing.
*** This was an shamefully amateur riding error, and a gentle reminder of where not to position yourself when riding behind a car. Stay back, so you have more time to react to a road surface hazard that may be hidden by the car, and ride in one of the car’s wheel tracks, not between them, where road debris is more likely to occur.  Honestly, I really do know better.
**** I dare you to try to find an instant soup that does not include sweetener. And just so you know, "evaporated cane syrup" is a code word for sugar.  Sugar in soup?  Ew. I'll invent my own.