Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Untamed in the Untamed

What is it like to be with nature? How does it feel to be far away from the maddening crowd, the shining electricity and of course, the buzzing and bugging cell phone? How does it feel to sleep under the stars? The normal answers are "Wow! enticing, peaceful!".

So, here goes the second set of questions.

How does it feel to be away from the humanity, so away that the trip to civilization would be tough, and sometimes impossible? How does it feel to be stuck somewhere where even if you were hurt, the ambulance or the nearest person would come to help so late, that you've already passed off? How does it feel to see something moving in the dark that you have no idea of, from which you want to run off, but there isn't a place to run? There you go.. you've got second thoughts about getting close to nature.

And that's really why some trips are pure relaxation and others are real test of the senses; of courage; and of course of great self realization.

One fine Wednesday I and a very old partner in crime, Abir , were confused about what to do with the fast approaching long weekend.
Las Vegas? Nah.. too crowded.
Sequoia National Park? Hmm... Too far and too little to do..
Yosemite National Park? Are you crazy? There's a wildfire on!
Where to then?.....
Catalina Island.. maybe? Okay... What other choice do we have really..

So we started looking up if we should do a trek or road trip in the rocky, somewhat arid terrain.. Didn't have an SUV, like the Safari Storme Explorer edition and we didn't want to spend on renting a car that eventually we'd break..
Being the typical ignorant but ever enthusiastic city boys, we thought, let's go camping; would take all the stress off the shoulders.. And we can chat all night, munching chips, in the dark...
So be it.. The camp ground was booked and we bought all the ration for the trip..
But, there was something that we were excited about but should have been scared of.

The camp site was at a remote beach(Italian Gardens), north of Avalon(One of the two harbors of Catalina). Surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides, hidden in a cove, the only way to reach it was by the sea. Catalina sits about 18 to 22 miles off the California coast. The weather due to its position has it's typical, unpredictable nuances, that we didn't know of and couldn't have ever imagined.

We reached Avalon at around 10 AM on Sunday. It was not very crowded but wasn't deserted either. People had come over for the long weekend, having fun on the small sandy beaches and the open ocean. We quickly grabbed some lunch and went looking for Kayaks for boating off to our camping spot.
Kayaks rented, bags waterproofed with twin trash bags, and tied well to the rear of the kayaks, we were all set to say bon voyage to each other. When we started out, the sun had slowly started coming out of the clouds and there was a noticeable change in a distant star spangled banner, on top of an anchored ship. We were told that as the sun comes out, a wind starts blowing from north to south... we thought, it's just the silly wind.

We kayaked happily, singing and chatting northwards, hugging the shoreline, somewhat aiming towards Long point. Once we were out of Avalon cove, the distant Long point didn't look distant, although it was 5 miles north of Avalon. It was a piece of the island, jutting out into the sea, and looked as if the Catalina island ended there. Italian Gardens, our camping spot was just a cove away from Long Point, hence all the more we wanted to reach it fast. Little did we know of the power of wind and water...

After about 3 and half hours of kayaking, with the sun looking angrily down and the motors of some boats creating inconvenient waves, we decided to rest our aching muscles. My left shoulder was getting fatigued and it needed some rest. We pulled ashore to some rocks, our kayaks rested precariously on some rocks jutting out; we didn't care. As I sat down, massaging my shoulder an my arms and munching on an energy bar, gulping down some gatorade, I noticed, something was trying to shoo us away. A high pitched shooing sound was coming from up the cliff. I craned my neck up and there I saw the first spectacle of the remarkable journey.
A couple of bald eagles were nesting on a nearly dried out tree and were perched on the top branches. One of them, probably the female was looking in our direction and was probably asking us to leave. True, it was their piece of territory, they were the rulers and we were some pesky trespassers, intruding in the privacy that the couple needed. Refreshed to some extent and longing for a place to lie down, we pushed off our kayaks and bid farewell to the nice cosy rock. As I rowed towards the open sea, I looked back at the majestic birds, expecting a customary, courteous goodbye; but they perched nonchalant, somewhat relieved... Rude birds!

Within half an hour, we were crossing the long point and jubilating about the approaching place to rest our heckled bones. As we crossed Long Point, we noticed a number of caves and rocky outcrops. I wanted to see some harbor seals deep within, but they were not there; probably hiding somewhere from the scorching sun and the din created by the frequent motor boats.

As soon as we cleared off Long Point, we realized what a mess we were in. The Long Point had been shielding us from the north south wind all the time! With it gone, we were exposed to its fury. The waves were getting higher, the current in the water was pulling us off our course. We had to keep our kayaks somewhat facing the waves to avoid the chances of capsizing in the rough waters. There was no place to escape. We were exposed, wet and rowing with all our strength to keep ourselves above water and alive.

As we  neared the cove that had the Italian Gardens, the waves were already too high for comfort. During that time, I realized the power of human mind. My aching shoulder ached no more, my hands were suddenly strong and mind super alert, but deep within I was scared, very scared. Balancing the current, waves, wind and direction of the beach, we rowed hard at a constant pace. Finally, we were pushed ashore by the current and quickly we pulled the kayaks out of water. As we flopped down on the pebbled beach, we realized it had taken 45 minutes to cross a stretch of less than 150 meters. Hopeless... We thought, if this remains the condition, we could never return.. The six and half miles of journey had taken us more than five hours to cover.

After a long time lying motionless on the pebbled lonely beach, we eventually got up, unpacked and changed. I was hungry. With the sun going down behind the cliffs, I munched on a couple of sandwiches. I was too tired to move. But then, in the partly cloudy sky, the setting sun gave us the spectacle of a lifetime. As the diffused light reflected against the clouds at various angles and then bounced off the glistening sea, a technicolor display of light of shades of yellow, orange and red ensued. With the shadows playing around the cliffs with the light, I jumped around for some good shots. One of the shots is right at the beginning of this post... Be jealous!

As we were chatting ourselves to sleep amongst a cloudy sky, watching the distant glow of California mainland in the horizon, we started noticing each and every silhouetted detail. There were the waves to our left, the rocks to our right and.. something huge, like a wall, distant, but right in front of us. We noticed, it was moving very slowly towards us. Our minds started thinking of all the possibilities. Was it just a shadow? Was it an illusion? What was it? And then the dreadful thought of a tsunami wave came to our minds... We jumped up our feet and started thinking of scrambling up the cliff. It was ominous, huge and scary.. We were scared.. We didn't want to die like this! There! On a long weekend! With just two kayaks! As we stood there confused, logic got back to us and we realized, had it been a tsunami, we would have been dead an hour ago. It was too slow for a tsunami.. We were noticing it for an hour! It was a wall of fog!! Silly us city boys! Feeling foolish, we stretched out on our sleeping mats and dozed off, watching the distant dolphins having their supper... So merry.. so at home..

The wall did reach us at around 4 in the morning. It was a thick fog. But it saved us on the way back.

The sleep was good but we wanted to go home. The cruise from Avalon to the mainland was at 10 AM and since we couldn't start at 5 due to the fog, we thought, we had already missed the cruise. As the fog cleared a bit and we had had our breakfast, we started off at 7 AM. My left arm was aching and was not moving much at the shoulder. Still, longing for a good coffee and a comfortable bed, I pushed on. The fog was still there, blocking the sun and by God's grace the wind hadn't picked up! The stretch till Long point took about three quarters of an hour! In the calm sea we were making good progress! As I struggled with rowing, a few sea gulls flew by, giving me the sea gully squawking laugh! Annoying birds, they seem to mock you with their show of agility, when you're struggling. I ignored them..

As we cleared Long point, we were rowing through a forest of giant sea kelp that floated at the surface with their roots very deep down in the sea bed! nearly 20-25 feet kelps. Numerous orange Garibaldi fish could be seen in the clear waters. They seemed so relaxed and somewhat lazy. I would have loved to watch them up close when they were young. They get bright blue spots on them which fade off when they grow up. As I watched them, something splashed to my right, as if a bullet had ricochetted off the surface of water. Then again it happened. As I searched for the source, I saw a few flying fish trying to save themselves from something. They fly really fast! Beautiful fishes.. Didn't know what they were scared of.. There was no dolphin visible... nor any bait ball, created by them... I rowed on...

I started singing, felt happy seeing so many creatures up close, and rowed hard in the calm waters to get back fast, before the wind started again. The brunt of the nightmarish journey of the previous day was still fresh in my mind and body...

As I started getting tired and slowing down, I heard a snort and a sniff to my left. Then after a few seconds, a whiskered droopy eyed, funny face came out of the water just a few feet away from me. Yes! It was a harbor seal! I regained my energy and rowed parallel to its path. It rose, grunted, sniffed the air and went down  in the water. It was having its breakfast and somehow was a great company. Watching, following and laughing at the seal, I rowed on and I really didn't realize when I could suddenly see the Avalon harbor not too far away. As I neared the harbor, the seal disappeared. Good companion for the broken soul of mine. It had kept my mind off the pain and had entertained me when I needed a distraction the most. Thank you seal!! As I reached the shores of Avalon, I was feeling relieved, happy, but like an arthritis patient... I just couldn't move. All my muscles were aching! But we had made it back! We clapped at our achievement, cursing and appreciating each other for the  courage and the foolishness..

We had dozed off on the cruise, that we hadn't missed, and didn't realize when we were on the mainland.. The next whole week, my mind was thanking the seal that kept my spirits up when my body just couldn't push!

It's all in the mind.. It's a powerful thing... Fear, joy, hope, curiosity and the sense of accomplishment can defeat any pain..
They kept me moving...
The accomplishment of something that was impossible for me at every step, kept me enthused...
The joy of experiencing unknown sights, kept all my senses tingling...

Perhaps, that is the spirit of adventure...
Perhaps, that is what keeps us moving ahead as the great human species...
Perhaps, that is what makes us humans..

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