July 3-4 2000
Isla San Martin is a great Baja destination for a quick 2 day paddle being not too far from San Diego. The volcanic island is only about 5-6 miles offshore, and one of the easier island crossings on the pacific west coast. My friend Scott McGuire and I decided to hit the island while he was in San Diego for the 4th of July.
We drove down Sunday night, stopping about an hour north of San Quintin to camp at Pt. San Jacinto where there is a not so old shipwreck just off the beach, and when there is swell - good surf. Monday morning we woke up to the standard grey gloom of Southern California summer mornings and headed south to the "city" of San Quitin, which like many cities in Baja is a rambling strip development along the only paved road running down the Baja peninsula. The gravel road to the launch beach from the San Quintin is well graded but heavily washboarded which leads out to a village on the coast where the road drops down onto the beach. The surf was not huge, which was good because we were short one skirt and had to come up with a makeshift skirt from an old cockpit cover. I have seen the surf pretty big on this beach and it can be one of the trickier parts of this trip.
We launched about 10am with still grey skies and a slight onshore breeze. The paddle was pretty straightforward, we saw a few sooty shearwaters (pelagic birds) but as far as crossings go was pretty uneventful. The landing on the island is very protected. Its a lagoon on the protected side of the island, the mouth of which may not be obvious until you are relatively close to shore. At extreme low tides the lagoon can be dry, and the entrance can be rocky at even a standard low tide - if this is the case, you can always paddle around to the north and land on the beach that the fish camp uses, which is just around a natural spit of land from the lagoon entrance.
The lagoon is a hangout for seals who were of course very curious, especially the younger ones, to see us paddle into their lagoon. There were also 3 larger seals of a different type, that I think were female elephant seals. We dragged our boats above the high water mark and snarfed down a snack lunch then proceeded to soak up some of the now uncloaked sunshine. We had both brought snorkelling gear, and it was only about 1 O'Clock so we decided to go out and take a short swim around the mouth of the lagoon. The water, even in the lagoon, was MUCH colder than the water in San Diego, or off the channel islands (the two locations I had been most recently), but my light wetsuit sufficed for the quick swim. The young seals would approach pretty close in the lagoon, but the water was very murky. In the entrance to the lagoon, the water started to clear somewhat and there were a number of small schools of fish hanging out in the rocky entrance, with long wavy fields of eel grass. Once outside the lagoon the water was clear enough to see the seals as they approached although the visibility was still not great (maybe 10-15ft). At one point a young seal was so fixated on Scott swimming and kicking, that he swam right up and hung under me perhaps not really noticing that I was there because I was so still, and he so distracted. Scott had a similar experience and reached out and gave the guy a friendly tug on his flipper.
After returning from the swim we turned our attention to the short hike up to the crater of the volcano that makes up the island. The trail starts from the SW corner of the lagoon and may take some traversing around to find, but once you see the trampled path of volcanic stones its pretty obvious, at least most of the time. The slopes of the island are a bizarre and harsh mix of rock and plants. The entire island is covered with volcanic rock - very similar to the kind you find in a gas grill. It ranges in size from huge slabs, to the golf ball sized chunks that make up the trail, to the black sand of the beach in the lagoon. This rock on land never has a smooth edge and is super abrasive. A furry green-yellow lichen covers the porous lava rock resembling large and grotesque chia pets with a punk and dehydrated hairdo. The thankfully not too common cholla cactus can be found here, and nailed both Scott and I. The most striking plant by far, at the time we were there, was a powder pale green rosette succulent plant that was in full bloom. This plant was so smooth, pale, and velvety in texture in contrast to the harsh dark red and black of the volcanic rock it was like a bunch of geisha girls dropped on Mars.
The crater of the volcano was still clearly discernable, and the trail continues all the way around the rim. The now bright sunny day was quite windy, gusting probably upwards of 25-30 kts - a reminder that its best to make the crossing early, and that even short crossings can turn ugly as the water was now chock full of steep whitecaps.
On an earlier trip I had decided to climb down the volcano off trail and I had found that a part of the flank of the volcano still had some intact lava tubes. These are formed when lava flowing down the hill starts cooling on the outside of the flow, and then acts as an insulator for the hot lava within to drain out leaving a tube. You just have to poke around and find these. Most are pretty short sections opening up where the ceiling had crumbled. In a few the walls had very smooth and still liquid looking dripping lava. There were a couple of these that were dark enough that we didn't poke all the way in without headlamps (next time!).
On returning from the hike, one of the three larger seals was still on the beach, molting its winter fur. It seemed either dog tired or sick as it would let us walk right up to it without putting up much protest. The beach is a pretty grim place to hang out as a seal because it is littered with seal corpses, including a number of seal pups. But this is part of the charm of Baja for me, it a rugged place and although harsh, its harshness gives it its beauty. We were visited a couple times by the fisherman that were living on the island. On one of my earlier trips out to the island there were 16 guys out there, and I joined in one of their volleyball games. Now, due to depletion of the the fish, there are only 4 guys out there at the small camp. They would come by offering (for sale) some fish and crab from their catch. They had a couple dogs that liked to mess with the seals and get "friendly" with us. One of the guys had lived for a while in Seattle, but didn't have the greatest experience - which really says something about the living conditions of illegals in the US. One of the guys I had met here on a previous trip had actually grown up in LA and then moved back down here to fish. He suprised me when I struggled to ask a question in my broken Spanish and he replied in perfect English.
We had a cloudy but warm and dry night. The other times I had been to this island in late fall or winter, the night and morning alway brought a heavy saturating dew, which then collects sand getting everything coated in fine sticky sand/mud - but this trip we remained bone dry. At a pretty leisurely pace we packed up and headed back. There was only a light wind, but already some of the following chop was getting big enough to surf when you paddled hard. I didn't do too much of this as my makeshift skirt wasn't really keeping out much water when the deck got swamped. The surf landing was pretty mellow, and I was lucky to get one wave that took me most of the way in. I felt I had a pretty good chance of getting swamped if I got turned sideways in the middle of the surf zone. But this didn't happen till I was almost ashore, where I did get pretty swamped but was able to jump out into knee deep water. Scott hung out for a few moments in the surf zone trying to get an ender in his Necky touring boat, but soon gave up. Although we didn't do it on this trip, I have combined the island paddle, with a return trip around the peninsula, and a paddle up the bay and then up the marsh that is adjacent to the beach we launch from, with a moderate drag back to the car for a complete loop.
I'm sure I'll be returning to this spot again in the future.