Two Months on Guardian Angel Island
By Graham Mackintosh
Published in Discover Baja
Over forty miles long and almost ten miles wide in places, Isla Angel de la Guarda is the second largest island in the Sea of Cortez. Separated from the Baja peninsula by the deep and treacherous Ballenas channel, it remains uninhabited apart from a few temporary fishcamps.
The island has been little explored biologically. It is home to numerous endemic species and sub-species of plants and animals and, no doubt, more remain to be discovered.
I had long wanted to spend time out there, alone, hiking, beachcombing, bird watching, exploring, and meditating beneath the stars. And I had long wanted to undertake a Baja kayak journey.
So… I bought a used kayak, a stable but slow two-seater “sit-on-top” that bore the scars of a former life as a fishing and duck hunting platform on the Colorado River. It was bright blue with a thin camouflage of streaks of gray paint. Like me it had seen better days, but with a 600 lb carrying capacity it would do for my purposes of coastal exploration.
Confronted by sudden blasting winter winds and swirling currents, boaters regularly get into trouble and occasionally lose their lives inside LA Bay, so I had no intention of kayaking fifteen miles out to Angel de la Guarda.
My plan was to arrange a panga ride and spend about two months exploring from one or more base camps: to get to know the island, its history, natural history, the people who come and go, to photograph it, to experience it and, if the spirit moves me, to make it the subject of my next book.
I was not looking for trouble or any kind of wild adventure. If I never had a dangerous or unpleasant moment I’d be a very happy man. But I did have the equipment, know-how, and common sense to survive alone on the island if necessary.
The islands of the Sea of Cortez are protected reserves and one needs a permit to be there. I visited the “Islas del Golfo de California” office at LA Bay, and paid my fees, 40 pesos a day.
After celebrating New Year 2006 at the hotel Villa Bahía, a few miles north of the town of Bahía de los Angeles, I had to wait there over a week for a day calm enough to attempt the crossing. Baja has taught me patience. I put the time to good use garnering information from locals familiar with the island. The same warnings were repeated over and over: winds, currents, tides, rattlesnakes, noseeums, feral cats, and drug runners moving their shipments up the coast at night.
On January 7, I helped load my kayak, gear, two months supply of food, and fifty gallons of fluids, mostly water, into a local panga. Basilio, the skipper, quickly whisked us across a near flat calm sea.
I ended up camping at my first-choice location—the sheltered north end of a mile-long bay within Humbug Bay. My only means of communication would be a marine VHF handheld radio. There was an abandoned panga there above the high tide line which I incorporated into my campsite.
The beachcombing was great, and I immediately began gathering crates, planks, buckets, and lengths of rope and net to add to my camp comforts.
The first evening on the island was warm, still, and spectacularly colorful. It augured well for the days ahead, and I retired to my tent and sleeping bag feeling deeply privileged to be there.
However, about 1:30 a.m., after the moon had set, I was surprised to hear a panga approaching. The occupants began shining a powerful light on my tent. Having being primed to the possibility of drug runners, I was frantically getting dressed but I thought it best not to emerge so they wouldn’t know it was just me inside. Fortunately, after a few minutes, they went elsewhere. I slept fully dressed the next several nights.
A couple of weeks into the trip an intrepid Canadian kayaker paddled into my bay. His name was Gary Doran. He was a kayaking instructor from Victoria, BC. Real nice guy. We spent two days hiking and exploring together, me in boots, him in sandals. We reached a point in the middle of the island offering a fantastic view of both coasts.
Gary was clearly anxious about the return journey to LA Bay. There is no way I’d kayak across that much open water—I rarely went more than a half mile from shore, and that under the most perfect conditions.
Even though the seas hadn’t fully settled from three days of strong northerly winds, Gary started back before dawn and was well gone by first light. Sharing his anxiety, I climbed a nearby peak and willed the wind to stay down for his crossing. By the time he would have been close to Smith Island, we managed to exchange a few words by radio; I was jubilant to know he was safe. What a courageous young man.
A few days after Gary left, I hiked alone across the island. It was only about five miles in a straight line, but maybe twice that meandering along ridges and through valleys. I marked the GPS positions and took digital pictures of all the strategic locations to be sure I could find my way back. After allowing just an hour to beachcomb on the east coast, I still barely made it back before dark, and was grateful that everything was as I’d left it.
It took a little faith to leave my kayak and all my possessions unattended. Just in case, I hid three gallons of water around my campsite, and took a large bag of important equipment, food, and basic survival gear into a dead-end canyon and buried it beneath brush and rocks.
January was delightful: not a mosquito or a no-see-um, no scorpions, no rattlesnakes, hardly even a fly or an ant. And it was surprisingly warm—the thermometer rarely dropped below the fifties at night, and often climbed to around eighty in the day. When not hiking or kayaking, I generally sought the shade of a large cardόn cactus on the slope above my campsite. If the wind wasn’t too strong, I’d rig up a shade with a tarp. I tended to intersperse an active day hiking or kayaking with a “rest” day bird watching, turning over rocks, or just reading and thinking.
Any calm day was an invitation to kayak up and down the coast. Several times I found myself surrounded by schools of yellowtail. Sea lions were plentiful, and I saw several turtles and fin back whales. Some of the whale breaching activity out in the appropriately named Canal de las Ballenas was spectacular. Huge simultaneous explosions of spray often gave the impression of salvoes of naval gunfire.
Ravens were a real nuisance, checking out everything with their sharp beaks. I quickly learned to “raven-proof” my camp when I was away. Even so, they managed to puncture my solar shower bag, peck apart a foam pad, and scatter all the batteries in my solar charger.
On the other hand, I particularly enjoyed the company of oyster catchers. They often waddled along the shore in pairs just a few yards away, prodding beneath the rocks with their long orange-red beaks. Conspicuous by their absence were vultures; I don’t remember seeing one. And there are probably no coyotes on the island.
The evening of February 6 was memorable—after having drunk my last can of beer about ten days before, I thought I was dreaming when I found myself looking up at a lovely moonlit 1.3 gallon keg of Heineken. A few hours earlier it had been dropped via parachute into the sea by pilot Mike Essary. I didn’t even have to kayak out to get it; some wild wind and waves drove it quickly to shore. All it took was a half-mile hike around the bay. And suddenly I had a care package of beer and mucho chocolate.
Ironically, I found myself with almost as much beer as water! I’d spent most of the previous three days making drinking water by distilling seawater—a slow and tedious process providing about a cup an hour and necessitating constant tending and supervision of the still. Fortunately, there was an abundance of driftwood for fuel.
February 9, my cozy month-long routine of exploring, beachcombing, and looking at life through various lenses came to a sudden end. I was climbing north into the mountains when I noticed two pangas racing purposefully towards my campsite in Humbug Bay. I dashed the two miles back and found myself dripping sweat in the presence of about seven rather rough-looking pangueros.
With the whole of Guardian Angel Island to chose from, they had elected to set up their camp right beside my tent and tarp-covered possessions. They explained that they were from mainland Mexico, and were night-diving for lobsters, clams, sea cucumbers and such, and I'd have their company for four days "mas o menos."
I tried going with the flow but witnessing my clean, well-ordered campsite degenerating into a typical temporary ecologically-challenged fishcamp, and finding myself totally out of sync with neighbors working all night and then sleeping all day, I knew the time had come to move on. The need to move became urgent when two more pangas pulled in.
One of the pangueros agreed to take me to the beautiful sheltered bay of Este Ton, about 9 miles south. The kindly fishermen gave me 5 gallons of water and promised to drop off any extra they had on their way back to the mainland.
Este Ton, is probably the finest anchorage on the west coast of Isla Angel de la Guarda. Ringed by high, colorful mountains it was seemingly protected from every direction except south.
However, it was too windy to put up my tent. I tried kayaking inside the bay and found the paddle nearly ripped from my hands as I struggled to keep from being blown out into an increasingly wild and dangerous sea. The tides were running at their fullest and the currents were intimidating. I was seeing Este Ton at its worst. The protection it offered was relative.
With some difficulty I finally made my campsite in the mouth of a little canyon. That night the wind shifted and came blasting from the northeast down the canyon threatening to rip my tent to shreds. Unable to sleep, I had plenty of time to wonder about the smartness of my move.
Next morning with the wind moderating, and better able to appreciate the stunning beauty all around, I busied myself cleaning up the beach and again started to collect driftwood, rope, pieces of fishing net, and other useful stuff. Needing shade, I cut down some agave stalks and began making a sturdy framework for a little structure that I could cover with the netting.
I had many new neighbors. There were several large endemic chuckwallas (Sauromalus hispidus) on the slope above my tent, including the one pictured here.
Across the bay a pair of nesting ospreys conducted a constant battle with two and sometimes three ravens; more than once when I was shouting and gesticulating at our tormentors the ospreys flew over to launch a joint attack.
A belted kingfisher was a regular visitor to my side of the bay. Having studied his antics through my binoculars and gotten to "know" him, I looked up one morning when I heard his cries of distress and was saddened to see the poor kingfisher being chased by a hawk. The hawk dived at it continually. The kingfisher stayed over the water and dropped into the sea just as the hawk lunged with its talons. The splash seemed to confuse and deter the predator. Amazingly it was the hawk that tired first and broke away to land on the rocks. The gallant kingfisher merited his escape. I couldn't help but cheer.
I had seen cat tracks and scat all over the island, but so far I hadn't seen a feral cat. At Este Ton, I came across three of them, all dead. And these hairy beasts were not cute kitties. Grotesque in death, with ugly protruding fangs, they looked like little werewolves. I wondered what had killed them.
As the days warmed, the bugs began to wake up and I saw my first rattlesnake and scorpions. The intimidating mountains and the thought of the rattlesnakes emerging curtailed my walks somewhat. I preferred to kayak and hike the coast and enjoy fishing and beachcombing.
In spite of the fishermen dropping off a few gallons of water on their way back to the mainland, and Roger Silliman of Villa Bahía kindly undertaking a supply run on my behalf, I eventually ran out of water again.
Spending a good part of my day boiling seawater and condensing the steam, I was ready when one fine morning in March, Roger returned with the Villa Bahía launch to pick me up.
And so my Guardian Angel Island adventure was over, at least for a while. I returned to San Diego in great shape, almost fifteen pounds lighter.