In mid-December I was heading out the door for a one day trip to Boise, Idaho for the annual Idaho Outfitters & Guides Association meeting. Betsy, my wife of 30 years, asked me “How many nights do you think you’ve been gone this year?” “Maybe about 70-80?” I responded. “137” she said. Pause. “Are you complaining?” I asked. “No, just observing.” I have to say I was quite surprised, almost shocked, until I thought about it. Here are a few highlights of my year of travels.
Baja Sur California, Mexico. We have quite a large operation in Baja from October to April and each winter I head south at least once to check in on things. In early February I flew to Cabo and bussed to La Paz to check up on our sea kayak tours of Espiritu Santos Island. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the island is a protected park with superb sea kayaking and big white sand beaches.
All was well there, and I continued north to visit our whale-watching camp located at Magdalena Bay on the Pacific Coast. Each winter Pacific gray whales come from the Arctic to four lagoons, or bays, in Baja to give birth to their calves. Magdalena Bay is one of these critical protected areas where over 300 whales gather each winter.
Our camp is located on an island, under Federal permit, and is a magical place. Set among the sand dunes, it’s easy to walk to the Pacific Coast side of the island to watch the crashing waves and beachcomb. Our camp is set on the protected side of the island, facing the bay and, sitting on the beach you can watch whales and dolphins swim by within 20’ of shore. It is an amazing location where we offer three- and four-day stays in comfortable stand-up tents with cots. Our cook, Rosalia, prepares delicious meals and our naturalist guides are eager to share their knowledge.
Each day we head out for two two-hour whale watching sessions aboard small motor skiffs or “pangas” captained by local fishermen. The mother whales generally calve in December and early January, and by mid to late January they are ready to share their babies with us. We approach with our boats to within about 100 meters of the whales, and then put the motor in idle. At that point it’s up to the whales to choose if they want to interact with us or not. A certain percentage of the population displays what is known as “friendly” behavior and will swim close to us. Some come right up to the boat, even nudging their calves towards us. The whales get within arms’ reach. Looking into their eyes is truly a powerful, and for many, a spiritual, experience. Here is a species hunted to near extinction 150 years ago, that now, for whatever mysterious reason, seems to enjoy interaction with humans. Today the eastern Pacific gray whale population has recovered to over 22,000 individuals. Watching them swim, spyhop, breach and blow is one of life’s most fabulous wildlife viewing opportunities.
"Looking into their eyes is truly a powerful, and for many, a spiritual, experience."
After a couple days at our whale camp, I continued two hours east back to the Sea of Cortez and the harbor town of Loreto. This is our base for kayaking tours to the Islands of Loreto National Park. It’s a lovely town with a historic mission and peaceful waterfront promenade. I had good visits with a number of our guides and support staff while in Loreto.
Next up was new trip development, one of the best parts of my job! I headed north with Carlos Mendez, our head of business operations in Mexico (where we operate as a fully registered Mexican company, Aventuras de Kayaks, SA de CV) to visit another of the whale calving lagoons, San Ignacio. We first passed through the historic mining town of Rosalia where there is a small metal church designed by Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. Then on to the mission town of San Ignacio where missionaries planted huge groves of date palms centuries ago. A new paved road leads from the town about two hours to San Ignacio Lagoon where we spent the next two days visiting other whale camps and ultimately striking a deal with a local land owner to set up our own San Ignacio whale camp that opens in February 2015. Set on the edge of the lagoon with fantastic views to sea, it’s a superb location. Operations will be very similar to our camp at Magdalena Bay, but with the added option of basic, but comfortable hotel rooms for those that would prefer those to tents. The focus of each day will again be two-hour whale watching sessions aboard local motor skiffs.
Continuing north we went next into the mountains called the Sierra de San Francisco. Located within the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest protected areas in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, our goal was to visit little-known prehistoric cave paintings. We loaded up a couple mules with a local cowboy and walked to the edge of Santa Teresa canyon. The landscape is very similar to the desert canyonlands of southern Idaho. Deeply incised basalt canyons that are rugged and dramatic. Only here, unlike in Idaho, there are also towering cactus and groves of date palms.
Sometime in the last 500 to 12,000 years, a prehistoric people lived here and painted larger-than-life figures of humans, animals and symbols. I have been fortunate to see some of the world’s other famous prehistoric painting areas such as Lascaux and the caves of the southern France, and the fabulous Tassili d’Ajer on the Algeria/Libya border. The paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco are equally impressive! Painted in reds, black, and a bit of yellow and green, these paintings are hidden in these deep canyons, painted on the walls of shallow caves. Many are at a height that must have required scaffolding.
Under special permit from the Mexican Archeological Institution, ROW Sea Kayak Adventures will offer our first hiking tours to these spectacular treasures in late February/ early March of 2015. I will personally lead the first tour and invite you to join me for what promises to be a trip rich in both modern and ancient history mixed in with the fascinating culture of the modern Mexican cowboy. With mules to carry our camp, we hike about four to six miles each day, camp under the stars and see a corner of Baja that is scarcely visited. The trip is designed to combine with a whale watching tour at San Ignacio, but may also be combined with sea kayaking from Loreto.
"With mules to carry our camp, we hike about four to six miles each day, camp under the stars and see a corner of Baja that is scarcely visited."
Back at home in late February it was time to catch up on various office projects until mid-March when I flew south with my daughter Mariah to another ROW first – swimming with humpback whales in the Dominican Republic. From the town of Puerto Plata we joined 14 others and motored 10 hours aboard a 130’ ship to the Silver Banks. From January to April, the northern Atlantic population of humpback whales come here to calve and it is one of only two areas in the world where people are allowed to enter the water with snorkel gear to float with these gentle giants. We spent six days at anchor, and twice each day boarded two small 20’ boats to observe the whales. Much of our time was spent in the boat watching as whales breached, swam and even frolicked. When we found a mother/calf who were exhibiting the appropriate behavior that would allow us to enter the water near them, we did. This only happened a couple times each day, but as you might imagine, was thrilling. To be within 100’ of a 40-50’ whale with her two-ton calf was incredible. It was a great week with a fun group of interesting and curious people as well as a wonderful father/daughter travel experience.
Next up was a trip to River Dance Lodge, our outdoor adventure resort in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area, to get ready to open up for the season. Then, in mid-May, we launched our first raft guide training trip of the season on the Salmon River, an annual event that brings our returning guides together with some of our new hires for a week of learning and discovery. Right after this was a trip on the isolated canyons of the Jarbidge & Bruneau Rivers on the Idaho/Nevada border. Formed of volcanic rhyolite from explosions thousands of years ago, these deep canyons seem like knife-cuts into the earth. We had an exciting week on the river.
"Formed of volcanic rhyolite from explosions thousands of years ago, these deep canyons seem like knife-cuts into the earth."
June was spent on guide scheduling and trip logistics, some day trips out to the Moyie and Spokane Rivers, and juggling a staff of 50, working to pull off as many as eight different trips, all in different locations, in four states. Not to mention trips going on in other parts of the world! It was a busy month indeed. In late June, I was an instructor on our second guide training trip of the season, fucusing on the nuts and bolts of multiday rafting trips.
In mid-July I jumped on a five-day Salmon River Canyons trip with my son Jonah, who is a fifth year guide with ROW. In late July I guided one of our six-day trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, one of the world’s most beautiful rivers. Hot springs, hiking, Indian rock art, fun rapids and majestic Rocky Mountain scenery puts this trip on many people’s “must do” lists.
"Hot springs, hiking, Indian rock art, fun rapids and majestic Rocky Mountain scenery puts this trip on many people’s “must do” lists."
The third week of July I flew to Quebec for a relatively new sea kayaking program we have there in the Saguenay Fjord where belugas, those small white whales of the sea, live. Lucky for me, my daughter Mariah had just finished an internship at the Office of Environmental Quality in the White House and was able to join me. We had a group of 12 altogether, and paddled and hiked by day, with nights spent in lovely local inns. Quebec is such a great place to visit and really much like going to Europe. French heritage is strong with good food, wine and French language all in abundance. We had good weather and on our last day, good luck with whale sightings.
In early September every year we have our annual office retreat at a nearby lake cabin and it’s always a good time for capturing what we learned from the year and plans moving forward.
A few days after the retreat, I flew west to Mongolia for another ROW first. We have a wonderful group of men from Texas who love to go on cutting edge adventures, and this year (their fifth trip with ROW), they wanted to go to Mongolia. It’s a country of staggering dimensions with miles and miles of open space. There are roughly three million people and 50 million animals including sheep, goats, yaaks, horses and camels. Many people are still nomadic, moving seasonally to graze their animals. They sleep in gers, which most of us know as yurts. While more and more now have vehicles to move their camps, there are still many that depend on their animals to pack their belongings.
We arrived in the capital of Ulunbatar, where over a third of the entire population of Mongolia live. After a day of exploring we flew further west, to the border with Russia and China to hike in the Altai Bogd National Park. A camel can carry up to about 450 pounds of gear, so two were loaded with our gear for a three-night trek. This is remote country and we were the only ones on the trail. Snow was already falling and nights were cold. The peaks surrounding us, at 11-14,000 feet, were spectacular. From our trek we returned to the town of Ulgii and then to an annual Golden Eagle Festival. Mongolians still hunt with golden eagles that they take from the nests when they are young, train and then release after ten years (in an estimated lifespan of 30-40 years for an eagle). The festival we attended was started about a decade ago to help keep the tradition alive and share it with others from around the world. About 300 Mongolians and 30 tourists were in attendance. There were several events all of which included flying the eagles and seeing if they flew to the master or to the “prey” (such as a dead rabbit on a rope). Some did, and some headed off in other directions, never going too far and soon retrieved by the falconer. The atmosphere was a lot like a small county fair, with food and craft stalls, many families and a relaxed, mellow mood. There was quite a bit of horse riding showmanship as well.
"A camel can carry up to about 450 pounds of gear, so two were loaded with our gear for a three-night trek. This is remote country and we were the only ones on the trail. Snow was already falling and nights were cold."
From Ulgii we flew back east to the capital and then into another protected area where we hiked and learned more about Mongolian culture, visiting a local family and sharing some of their daily life. Our 17-day adventure came to an end and my Texan friends returned home. I boarded an Aeroflot flight to Moscow, and on to Paris where I spent a few days traipsing around pondering some new travel ideas that ROW travelers might enjoy. I also visited the small village where my family and I lived for five months about 12 years ago.
From France I took a short flight to Ireland to attend the annual Adventure Travel Summit. Part of this was a three-day pre-conference adventure kayaking and hiking in the southwest of Ireland. After the conference Betsy flew over and we went to visit my family, the Grubbs of Tipperary. We came to Ireland from England in the 1500’s and my grandfather was the last of ten children and the only one to be born in the United States. Suffice it to say that I still have lots of family there, including those that make the rather famous Cashel Blue cheese. We had a great visit on my family’s farm, then drove much of the west coast for the next few days, arriving home October 20. I’d been gone 42 days in total!
I had a brief two weeks at home, then flew south to Ecuador and the Galapagos to lead a new kayak-focused itinerary we have there. It was an action-packed week of wildlife viewing, paddling, camping on three different beaches on two different islands, and an overall superb experience. If you haven’t been to the Galapagos I hope it’s on your list! We offer several options for visiting the islands including both land-based and boat-based adventures.
After my time in the Galapagos, I spent another 10 days in Ecuador, including a few in the highlands. From there I went on to the Amazon to visit two lodges we offer to our guests, but that I had not personally been to before. The first was the Huaorani Lodge, a community owned and operated lodge in the heart of the Huaorani Territory. The main highlight here is learning about the culture, visiting local families , and canoeing on a small river that flows through the jungle. From here we traveled through a part of the Amazon that has been developed for oil extraction and it was such a contrast to see the difference between the virgin forest and the oil fields. Our use of fossil fuels is making profound changes in the Amazon.
Next up was La Selva Jungle Lodge where the focus was wildlife viewing. Located on a blackwater lagoon, and surrounded by a primitive forest, the sightings were abundant. On our first canoe excursion on the afternoon that we arrived, we saw three species of monkeys – howlers, squirrel and Capuchin. The next day we saw three huge, 18’+ anacondas. Even though I’ve spent the equivalent of two or three months in the Amazon, I’d never seen an anaconda, so this was a thrill for me. Over my four-day visit we also saw dozens of bird species, many insects and other reptiles and amphibians. The lodge itself is very nice with excellent food. A boat ride and short flight got me back to Quito in time for a midnight departure for home.
"The next day we saw three huge, 18-foot-plus anacondas."
I arrived home a few days after Thanksgiving, ready to sit tight for awhile. Which I did….. until that day trip to Boise.