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~ Chapter Twenty Three ~
San Felipe to the Colorado River
Amelia Earhart was on the last leg of her adventure when she disappeared on her around the world circumnavigation. She had made it through bad weather, getting lost and many other trying circumstances along the way. When she made it eastbound to the mid-Pacific she probably thought she was home free. She was never seen again.
I had also been through significant adversity on my circumnavigation but I new it wasn't over until it was completely over. Several issues made this last leg of my trip very scary.
During this entire trek I had gotten used to using the shore on the left side of the boat as a kind of safety line. If anything went wrong I could always jump out of the boat and swim or raft to shore. An indeed that theory worked for me when the motor died south of Bahia Magdalena on the west coast. But now, because of the extremely shallow shoreline as I approached the Colorado River delta, I had to stay several miles offshore to be sure to avoid running aground on the sand or shoals. And if I did have to bail out, the shoreline was the kind of thick muck that was impossible to walk on. I had heard of a kayaker who had recently gotten stuck in the delta for several days and almost died.
Also because of the flat terrain I could not judge my progress as I motored forward and landmarks were non-existent. For the first time on my trip I could not see my progress along the passing coastline. It was just miles and miles of open water in all directions. My trusty Auto Club Baja map was now useless. This was a whole different kind of navigation and it gave me a lot of respect for real sailors who actually know how to navigate in open seas.
Another scary thing on this last leg was the clarity of the water. During the Pacific and Sea of Cortez runs of my trip, I could always see deep into the clear water. Reefs, sand and other underwater obstructions were usually easy to spot and avoid. This was not the case in the upper delta. The water looked less like sea water and more like the muddy Mississippi River. The water visibility just north of San Felipe dropped to almost zero, and it was very unsettling not knowing how far it was from the bottom of my prop to the bottom of the sea. And I had no extra prop in case I lost this one.
And to top it all off I remember reading that quiet a few people in centuries past had died while heading up towards the mouth of the river in an attempt to prove that Baja was a peninsula not an island. Although several Spanish adventurers such as Francisco de Ulloa and Jesuit Padres Eusebio Kino and Fernando Consag were individually successful in making it some distance up into the river, many other explorers who made the attempt were never seen again. The allure of proving Baja was an island and in finding a possible shortcut to the Northwest Passage was strong for these explorers, but the unforgiving terrain in the upper gulf was even stronger. Uncharted waters, no visible landmarks, extreme tidal fluctuations and an unforgiving mucky bottom joined forces to bring down some of the best of those who ventured this far north. Who was I to think I could make it and live to tell about it?
So it was with significant apprehension that I headed north the 50 miles from San Felipe towards desolate terrain of the Colorado River under a new set of motoring rules. After all of the drama I had been through over the last 4 weeks I was more nervous today than I had been on the entire trip.
One element I had in my favor was that I had waited for a rising tide to depart San Felipe and that the tide would continue to rise until it peaked at about 1:00 p.m., which is when I had hoped to hit the river mouth.
At first there were a few fishing pangas scattered about in the water and this gave me some degree of consolation. But as I headed further north towards the mouth of the Colorado River these boats disappeared from sight and I was definitely on my own. I guessed that the more brackish the water became the less the fish liked living there.
Isla Montague was a flat island of significant size at the mouth of the Colorado River. On several of the maps I had reviewed it looked possible to navigate north past the west side of island and actually head into the Colorado River itself, leaving the Sea of Cortez altogether. I thought it would be fun to head well up into the Colorado as far as I could motor. But the murky water and risk of getting stuck outweighed the thrill of heading too far north. Sometimes it's hard to know when to stop, and I was getting close to that point.
As I motored north I spotted something unusual. Off to the right side of the boat I began to see hills in the distance. Mainland Mexico! For the first time on my trek I could see a sliver of land off to my left and small dusty hills off to my right. I was getting close to the end of my journey.
As I continued motoring the small land formations of mainland Mexico on my right became more distinct. At the same time the water color had deepened from a light brown to a dark brown. I slowed the Vaka Viti down to about half speed. This was definitely river water and it was impossible to see through it. I had no idea whether I was in 12 inches of water or 12 feet of water and I became very worried that I might get stuck. Common sense got the best of me and I finally slipped the motor into neutral. I didn't dare shut it off altogether in such a remote location. If I did turn the motor off and it wouldn't start again I would be in deep Bandini.
I stood on the bow of the boat and surveyed the horizon. I noticed a group of dolphins to the south of me. They were jumping out of the water and I couldn't tell if they were trying to tell me not to go any further north or if they were just celebrating the completion of my journey. I assumed it was both!
I snapped a couple of pictures of the dolphins and then got back behind the wheel. The air was getting hot and the water was very calm. It was time for me and Tex to go home.
I felt a little bit like the old fisherman in Ernest Hemmingway's "The Old Man and the Sea". I had fought the sea, accomplished my goal, but could I get back to civilization to show the world my catch? Unlike the old man heading back to Havana from his mighty adventure at sea, my luck stayed with me and I met no adversity and I guided my small craft back to port.
We rolled back into San Felipe about 2:30 in the afternoon. I pulled up on the main beach in town right in front of Rockodile, a famous watering hole on the Malecon. I jumped out of the boat and walked across the sand to the street. As soon as my feet hit the pavement I saw my wife, daughter and my good friend Dave Denis drive down the street in Dave's Toyota 4-Runner with the boat trailer in tow. They had just pulled into town! We had planned 4 weeks ago that I would probably complete my adventure on this day sometime in the early afternoon in San Felipe. It was remarkable how accurate that prognosis actually was.
My emotions swelled as I hugged my wife and daughter. I felt very fortunate to have completed this journey safely and be back in their lives again. There's nothing like a good road trip to put some perspective into your life and I had just completed the biggest adventure of my life.
As if to say welcome home nature had a surprise of her own for me that night. One of the largest displays of meteors ever was on display late in the evening and we headed a few miles south of town to enjoy the show. The Leonid Meteor Shower started off with a beautiful display of one or two meteors lighting up the sky every minute and it was quite impressive. But soon the number of meteors increased to 10 or more per minute and the sky was literally filled with bright streaks of light. It was nothing short of spectacular under the dark Baja sky and the perfect climax to an incredible adventure.
It has always been hard for me to look up into the night sky and not think about the Big Picture in life. This was especially true after completing my circumnavigation. Although I really had developed no more insight as to what life is all about after I completed my adventure, I did have a greater appreciation for being alive. Our time on this planet is short, and being here is a gift that we don't always fully appreciate. Deep down we probably know it's a special thing to be alive, but I think we sometimes forget. One of the goals in life might be to remember more often how fortunate we are to be here on this spinning blue planet.