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Dancing With Death

© 2019 Jean-Philippe Soulé

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A tale of adventure, sacrifice & physical endurance.

 

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Central American
Sea Kayak Expedition 2000

Paddle into the Past with an Eye to the Future!

The sunrises and sunsets are spectacular, and so is our pain…

Our first paddling week has been a combination of beauty and intense suffering.  The sunrises and sunsets are spectacular and so is our pain.  All of our Thailand conditioning disappeared during the months of inconsistent training before departure.  Fortunately, for the first three days, we paddled on glassy water and encountered neither wind nor waves; although those conditions make the heat incredible, they are good things since our kayaks are so overloaded they barely clear the water.  The water line on mine is two inches from the cockpit rim and from a distance, all you can see are the large blue, green and red dry bags lashed to the front and rear decks.  We must look like two colorful, giant snails inching our way along—and we’re not paddling much faster than that, either. 


In training we found we could maintain a pace of four and a half knots in choppy conditions.  Here, even on flat water with no wind, we struggle to paddle at less than three.  Our soft, wet hands chafe against the paddle shafts, opening a mess of split and bloody blisters.  The joints of my fingers feel arthritic: they’re not used to hours of constant gripping pressure.  We have started slowly, covering 75 miles in seven days, only paddling an average of four hours a day but I am suffering incredible lower back pain.  The stress of pulling so much weight with each paddle stroke exhausts our upper backs, shoulders and triceps.  I know that it’s only the first week, but I hope my body adjusts quickly.  As it stands, I can’t function without the five ibuprofen pills I take at each meal. 


Every morning we start paddling slowly for 30 minutes to warm up our sore muscles.  My back is so stiff when I wake up in the morning that I can barely move.  When the pain becomes unbearable out on the water, I accelerate and focus my mind on something else.  A faster and more powerful stroke takes more effort and as a result my body creates more endorphins, which help kill the pain.  After an hour of sustained high-level paddling, I no longer feel anything and the pain only returns after I stop, so I don’t take many breaks.  I know from my exhaustive mountaineering training that the body shuts off past a certain level of pain and exhaustion, leaving the mind in full control.  My deep-snow experience of walk or die is quite different from Luke’s training as an elite cross-country skier, where one responds to body fatigue and plans rest days as part of the training schedule.  Luke can’t comprehend my tactic for pain management.  It’s counter-intuitive to him that, at the moment I start complaining, I paddle harder and leave him behind.  On calm seas, with all our bags piled high on deck, we can see each other more than a mile away.  I often wait for Luke and when I lose sight of him, I jump in the water to cool off and stretch my back.


Both of us were paranoid about getting stranded without supplies in the desert; we figured we had to be completely self-sufficient for up to three months.  Like a couple of car-campers, we completely over-packed.  The Sea of Cortez isn’t as cold as we thought it would be so, on our very first day, we unloaded my thick wetsuit and sixteen pounds of lead weight from my diving belt on the Schorks.  We now have a growing list of equipment we wish we didn’t have.  At the top of that list is a ridiculous wheeled cart that is lashed to the stern of my boat.  We expected to use it to tow our boats up and down the shoreline but now that we are here, we realize that it is completely useless.  In the shallow northern waters of Baja, the beaches are rocky and uneven and the huge tides control when you can launch and land.  The only thing we can do is time our arrivals and departures with the tide’s cycles. 


On our second day, we learned a hard lesson about the speed of northern Baja’s tides.  We stopped for what should have been a short break and partly unloaded our kayaks.  We left them on the large slippery rocks covering the beach with sterns still in the water.  By the time we decided to resume paddling, the water had already begun to recede.  We raced to finish loading, but it was too late: the knee-deep water just behind the sterns drained away at high speed.  In less than five minutes, the beach dried up into a wide rock garden and we found ourselves hundreds of yards from the shoreline.  Again, the cart was of no help.  The only thing we could do was to wait for the high tide to return.  Stranded out in the open, we quickly learned our second lesson: we need shade.  In Baja the nights may be cold, but the days are deathly hot.  We stuck our paddles into the sand and used them as poles to rig the tarp into a tent.  It gave us protection from the sun, but not from the heat and we baked for six long hours while waiting for the rising tide.


I had anticipated that paddling long hours would drain us and that we owed ourselves some comforts but it has taken us only a few days to realize that most of those “luxury” items I brought are useless.  We know that we can’t leave them as garbage on the beach, so it might be a week or two before we can unload them.  Christmas will be arriving early this year for the first people we encounter in the few isolated fishing camps and settlements along the northern coast.  We will be in danger in the waves if we don’t lighten our loads…

Dying to find out what happens next? Download Dancing With Death now, Free with Amazon Kindle Unlimited!

 

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