The Cortez Chronicles


In search of solitude in a raging world . . .

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Of Rediscovery

and the Death Cycle of Whales

October 17-19, 2003


Solitude on the Salinas Outer Dune / Cerro Pinacate on the distant horizon - October, 2003

This is our second trip to the Sonoran playa in a week. Not only do we feel a solitude deficit after a year in Tennessee, but last week we failed to connect with the Salinas Outer Dune and feel compelled to return and try again.

We leave the city at 7:15 am on Friday morning, stop at our favorite French restaurant, Jock-In-Ze-Boc, and are on our way at 8:00. We gas up at Why (Why Not, including a gas can), reach the border at 11:00 and Puerto Peñasco at 12:15 pm.

Taking the main Soledad road from pavement's end, we make an effort to get around the potentially locked rancho gate by turning left off the main road at a prominent branch toward a farm. We cross a stretch of wilderness and turn right into cultivated fields before reaching the farm, proceed about a mile, jog left to cross an irrigation ditch, and then continue in the same direction. After another mile or so we reach an irrigation ditch that is not easily traversable. Here we turn right and follow the tracks, winding up back at the main Solidad road.

Next Nav
miles partial
0.0 Begin log. Fence on left. Arrive main road from left. Proceed down main road toward beach. Another fence still on left.
0.2 0.2 Road turns half right, still along fence.
0.8 0.6 Arrive same ranch for a total of half an hour lost time. Reach same locked gate. Crap! So much for this try. The gate is not locked today, though, so we proceed. As we close it behind us we notice a church on our left that we had never noticed before, near the house.
1.0 0.2 Archway with open gate. The name on the archway is Palomas Ranch. It's been here a long time, but a new sign says "Private Property / No Paso." We note the Inglés and decide to pass through, anyway. Immediately, the road forks left through low trees. We know from past experience this branch goes to South Point.
1.3 0.3 Another fork left. We continue on main road.
2.8 1.5 Soledad, and the beach. End.

We reduce tire pressure to 18 lbs before arriving at the Solidad dune and make it to the playa without incident. We must remember to take notes on coming out if we return that way. Once we have all of the possibilities documented it's easy to systematically check them all for the way around that we happened onto a year or two ago.

Driving up the beach to our campsite we come across a dead Sperm whale1 near the high tide line. Although there are many birds, particularly vultures, picking over the carcass, it's still in a fairly early stage of decomposition with most of the hide still intact. It's probably been there some months. We can still see the characteristic lines on his under-chin, and there are strings of sinew stretching in all directions on one side of the body. That part of the carcass looks a little like a dry pile of palm frawns. Also, there are small stalactites forming on the under curvature of the body stretching to the sand. The most amazing part of it is the size. It is huge, maybe the size of a semi truck trailer2. We'll have to keep an eye on it on future trips; there may be some interesting bones in a few years.

There is a new whale rib on the beach a short distance past the whale; maybe about a mile from our campsite. Tomorrow we must go pick it up and see if it's clean and ready to collect. If it is, maybe we can preserve it for a family member.

The Salinas Estuary - October, 2003

We pass more vultures picking over what looks like a deposit of old burlap strings and palm frawns -- dry-looking brown stuff that must be the advanced end of a dead porpoise or sea lion -- and set up camp in a low spot where water actually crosses the dune at unusually high tides to connect with the estuary behind. From here we can see the fishing camp and main entrance to the Salinas peninsula across the estuary, but our camp is mostly hidden by the low dunes. It is our usual camping spot. We have arrived in time to vegetate for a couple of hours in the warm afternoon sunshine and enjoy the surf before setting up camp.

Due to the amount of dew last week, we've brought along the rain cover from our low 10' x 20' tent, and manage to attach it over this somewhat smaller tent in hopes of keeping dew out of the interior. While we are successful, it is a laborious business, and we use twelve stakes and ropes to accomplish the task.

Vindicating our choice of campsites, only a single vehicle passes on the Salinas entrance road across the estuary between our arrival at 2:00 pm and dusk. My soul mate prepares sandwiches, and we eat them after dark.

The already mild wind dies down significantly with the disappearance of the last glow of the receding sun. The humidity decreases at first, but returns with a vengeance as the wind decreases. We have a half moon tonight, so there won't be moonlight for hours, rendering a canopy of brilliant starlight. By 7:15 pm, lounging on the beech under the sunshade to avoid the dew, we've each spotted a meteor, and my soul mate spots another within a few minutes. Studying the stars she spots the big dipper, Ursa Major, and from there we identify several other constellations.

Sitting in the dark we can see the glow of Puerto Peñasco and the Bird Island and Soledad beacons. Also, unfortunately, the lights of an occasional vehicle lighting up the coastal highway to the north, some 15 or 20 miles away as the crow flies, all the way back up to the aduanal checkpoint.

The temperature is optimum for shorts and a tee shirt; however, the heavy humidity continues to keep us hung up on the pending moonrise, which we hope will bring a better breeze.

9:10 pm -- The moon is still not up, but the starlight is quite adequate for getting around, were it not for the necessary precaution of watching for snakes. The glow behind us, thought earlier to be of the moon, may be one of those villages between the playa and the highway, but is more likely to be the glow of Caborca, some 50 miles inland. We decide the moon may not rise for another two or three hours and take bets as to which will arise first, the moon or Puerto Peñasco.

  Things to do tomorrow:
     - Check out a previously buried treasure.
     - Check the precarious tracks around the estuary to Salinas for usability.
     - Measure the distance from opposite the Salinas entrance dune to the whale carcass.

We hope to be able to find the whale on succeeding visits even as it becomes harder to find.

10:35p -- Still no moon; we withdraw to the tent despite the high humidity and lack of ventilation. As we prepare for bed I attempt to pick up two pills I have laid out. One of them crushes into dust between my fingers without any warning, a testimonial to the stifling humidity. I resort to licking it off the plastic table surface and continue my preparations for sleep. As I do so a smooth high speed flapping noise commences outside the tent, which goes on for several minutes. It isn't loud, but it is certainly distracting. I try to locate the source of the disturbance -- it's something brushing against different surfaces of the tent one at a time -- but I'm unsuccessful. It's probably some sort of insect seeking our low intensity overhead light. It eventually stops.

11:00 pm -- Bedtime, and still no moon; we hit the sack, humidity or no.

Temperatures are perfect, and deliciously cool the last half of the night. I awaken once and find the moon has risen to a point where it is no longer shining through the windows. Our rain cover works swimmingly against the dew; all of the effort seems to have been worth the bother.

Next Nav


We awaken around 9:30 am to a noticeably warm tent. Erecting it backward on the beach has definitely helped. Having the awning on the morning side of the tent to shield us more effectively from the early morning sun has allowed us a couple of extra hours of rest. Outside it is for a few minutes again deliciously cool, but that doesn't last long.

As we begin the day with a morning juice a fishing boat passes lazily near shore, apparently trolling. There are three fishermen. They do an occasional loop as they continue up the coast, returning as we start preparations for breakfast. We watch them for a few minutes -- letting out the net, circling and looping, and then heaving it back in by hand. Heavy work. As they pass us the net man throws the steering man a fish. He deftly catches it, then waves to us and holds it up. He does this all with one hand as the frisky pescado tries his best to wriggle free.

They're coming ashore. I meet them at water's edge. One of the hombres jumps out of the boat and approaches, juggling three lively pescados in his two arms.

"Buenos días, Señior!" I proclaim.

The pescados are nice specimens, probably herring, about 16" long and 4" across with rainbow coloring on the sides. They contain much meat. He handles them with ease despite their wriggles; I would no doubt have dropped all of them in the sand.

He offers to sell them to us but we decline without asking the price; we're not into cleaning fish on these recuperative outings.

"Necesito solamente sol y agua," I tell him; "no pescados; mas trabajo."

I describe a ripping and cleaning action with my hands.

"Sol y agua," he repeats, smiling.

"Sol y agua y arena," I note to myself.

The pescadores bid us goodbye and depart. We wave after them.

Immediately after we settle back into our chairs we hear a rushing sound and look up. It is a school of fish jumping in a continuous effort to elude some predator from beneath the waves. We watch the water churning for a moment. It looks like a pileup3 is starting, but then it stops as quickly as it started. The University of Arizona's Tide Calendar - October, 2003

  Things forgotten:
     1 - Toothpaste.
     2 - Everything we forgot last week.

The tide is showing its first signs of stabilizing back into the schedule predicted by our tide calendarB. That is, we're seeing movement again. Yesterday when we arrived it was squarely on the half moon, when there is little and irregular movement.

Breakfast. My soul mate has fixed a deluxe fare of eggbeaters with cheese and jalapeños, diced ham, hash browns, and toast and coffee.

Next Nav

Heyday Of The Bugs

These last two visits have been most irregular -- the most buggy of any we have ever encountered on the Sonoran playa, no-see-ums of the lower Cortez excepted. A week ago we ran into acres of high water left by heavy rains, that created endless miles of lush foliage and thick tall grass over all of the Sonoran Desert, far surpassing any we have seen in the past. Now the water and flora have hosted a bug infestation that is also nothing like we've ever seen in the past. The window screens of our tent are crawling with tiny unidentifiable bugs of various sizes. We've seen the shadows of some giant grasshopper like beasts over 3" long through the walls and ceiling of the tent, their hopping thwarted by the narrow space between tent and rain cover, struggling to free themselves from a world where their only means of defense is useless. But we have not seen a single one of these insect creatures eyeball to carcass.

Last weekend we had mosquitoes on the freshwater backwashes. This weekend we have everything biting on the playa except mosquitoes. We're forced to forsake comfort when there's insufficient air movement to control the bugs by wearing heavy clothing -- long pants, heavy socks and full shoes. Fortunately, the number of bites is inversely proportional to the speed of the wind. Unfortunately, we find it impossible to determine who or what is doing the biting. We suspect no-see-ums, but typically, haven't seen-um.

These last two trips, the first two since returning from Memphis, have given us a new appreciation for the Igloo ice chest4 we purchased for our last camping trips before moving east. When filled with good quality ice5 it will easily hold for five days. We were spoiled over the first half of our lives, the Icehouse years, then have floundered for 15 years using bad ice and bad chests. At this writing, icehouses and crystal 25 lb blocks are a distant memory. Safeway is almost the only source of the large cubes of crystal ice that followed the demise of blocks and was widely available at convenience markets in the 80's for in-town and light use (Crystal brand). Now, considering the state of merchandising, there is definitely a question as to how long anyone will bother continuing to sell the higher priced Crystal Ice cubes when they can make more money selling the lower quality and shorter lasting miniature thumb-nail sized version, and have people in the city coming back three times as often. What in the world are serious campers to do?

12:00 pm -- The breeze kicks up enough to barely ward off the bugs. What a relief! We continue to hear the occasional drone of a vehicle coming and going on the Salinas peninsula across the estuary behind us, but there is no one to share our private stretch of heaven on the outer dune. The crabbers of Salinas treat us well when we must camp on their coastline, but we don't miss them.

A flight of about 12 pelicans, the first since we arrived, passes by in single file inches above the almost nonexistent surf -- gliding, flapping, gliding. . . Our sense of their habits is that pelicans don't much cotton to periods of low tidal movement; they have better things to do in their time off.

With breakfast digesting quietly in my stomach it is time to off-load the remainder of yesterday's feast. I adjust the tent windows for optimum shade and maximum breeze throughput, and proceed to the job at hand. As I sit quietly on the plastic throne I contemplate our first 35 years on the playa, when macho held fast over convenience. Muscles were not so stiff in those days, and squatting behind a dune was all in a day's work, but as we've become more concerned about pollution and the waning availability of wilderness we have taken to prudently hauling out everything we came with rather than just our trash. No more trekking into the wilderness in the middle of the night juggling shovel, TP and flashlight. We now welcome the convenience and sanitation of a port-a-potty.

Laugh as you will, oh macho ones; but it works, and it works well. While reclining there, I often think of the wonderfully courageous design team that developed the modern plastic throne, complete with flushing and fume retardation. How did they get the 3" hole at the bottom of the tiny bowl in so precisely the right location? Did they conduct a program of trial and error, each testing the prototype in turn, using recording instruments and tape measurements from every conceivable angle to record the hit, "bonsai"; and then expand the testing phase to employees from other departments, man and woman, adult and child, until every one achieved a perfect hit the first time? Or did they start design with the profile of a human being reclined on the seat and plot the precise location of all relevant organs, compute the angle of ejection, and then, allowing for the force of gravity, plot the trajectory? And was velocity an important factor? How could they have designed so perfect a device that no user has ever to clean up after a near miss? Then there are the usual development questions such as effectiveness and durability of gaskets, mean number of flushes between failures, strength of materials against 100-, 200-, 300-pound body weights. The problems go on and on, but I hold the port-a-potty to be one of the world's most challenging high-tech developments, perhaps the most important of the twentieth century. Surely, it will soon be considered for a Nobel Prize now that the full effect of the device on society has been so widely digested and so completely appreciated.

I return from my endeavor to the comforts of our sunshade to join my soul mate in vegetation.

2:30 pm -- We decide to break the doldrums of a stifling afternoon by checking out the tracks around the estuary at water's edge. This has always been a treacherous drive. Successful navigation usually requires that others have recently used it utilizing lighter vehicles. We head down the beach, checking out all of the places that look as if they may have accommodated the tracks we're looking for, but fail to find the road. Driving further, we come across tracks leading away from the beach. Although they're poorly defined, it is easy to see that there is a good road ahead, where they pass straight up and over the dune. We are past the end of the estuary, but not at the end of the depression in the landscape that is caused by it. To our surprise, we know instantly that this is a way around the estuary that does not involve the treacherous beach road. We follow it for a couple of miles, then turn around when it is obvious to us where it is going and return to the beach. This is the best news and the worst news that we could have hoped for. Now we have a way to the outer dune without going all the way to Solidad, without going through locked gates, etc. Now, also, the outer dune will be penetrated by a lot of riff-raff, and we will never have the kind of peace on it again to which we have been accustomed.

Road to the Outer Dune - October, 2003

Next Nav

Mileage in the following picks up at the last turn of the road before reaching the beach. The road approaches the fence at a slight angle to perpendicular. The log starts where the road meets fence:
miles partial
0.0 Fence. Road turns right, along fence.
1.5 1.5 Road reaches the Beach where the heaviest shelves of ancient reef are found at low tide. End.

Mileage along beach from entry road:
miles partial
0.0 Road enters beach.
0.8 0.8 Road half right through opening in dunes leads across estuary. It veers half left at edge of estuary. Must skirt around washout at beginning of visible road through the ice plant covered estuary flat. This is the original road "around" the estuary.
0.9 0.1 Whalebone at high tide line on right; mostly buried in sand, and too heavy to pick up.
1.0 0.1 Windbreak frame set in sand among dunes on right (unoccupied).
3.0 2.0 Beached whale / Large bone on beach above. Dozens of vultures picking at carcass.
3.4 0.4 Whale pelvic bone photographed numerous times over the past few years. It's been turned over since we last photographed it in May, 2002.
4.1 0.7 New whale rib. It's ready for collecting; we pick it up to take back to camp.
4.2 0.1 Vultures picking over the scattered remains of an old porpoise or sea lion carcass (Ref. also, 10/10/03 visit).
4.4 0.2 Our standard campsite across from the Salinas entrance dune. End.

4:50 pm -- Back from our excursion, we observe two or three porpoises playing around a few hundred yards from the beach.

A Solitary Camp - October, 2003

Next Nav

Buried Treasure

Before darkness, we find a suitable spot and bury our treasure near our campsite. To find it, follow pictures starting with the shot inland from the beach taken through the sunshade. From the shovel, take 50 paces around the right base of the left-hand dunes, pathway per the pictures. Next, turn left 90 degrees and take 19 paces straight up and over the dunes toward the sea. Look for flotsam and jetsam at the base of a small dune. It is anchored behind the lower end of the treasure, which is buried in the sand around the right hand base of the dune.

I finish off my roll of 35mm film and then resort to the digital camera for the remaining pictures, including those of the rich foliage along the new road we found -- Cholla cactus, Saguaros by the thousands, barrels, creosote, Palo Verde, and others.

7:55 pm -- We've just finished a banquet supper of steak and beans. The breeze now appears to have humidity and bugs under control, although we got bitten several times immediately before supper and were driven into the tent to eat.

The stars are brilliant again tonight and the air is cooling down nicely. Life is good, except for the fact that we have to leave in the morning. I try hanging out under the sunshade after dark while my soul mate elects to stay in the tent. I'm bitten several times, though, and it doesn't take long to change my mind. This bug thing is hard to believe on the Sonoran playa. After moving into the tent my itching settles down, but rather slowly.

The wind reverses direction for a while, and you can smell the fish of the estuary for a time; but it doesn't last. We reach a point where we can feel no air movement at all, but despite this the breakers are much louder than usual. That doesn't last long, either. We strip down to let the air at least touch our skin and sit in the dark (except for the infernal light of this handheld display). Once our eyes adjust to the decreased light in the tent we are able to watch the landscape and horizon around us despite looking through muy pequeño tent windows. By 10:00 pm I'm slipping on clothes to maintain body temperature. My, soul mate, on her cot, has not moved. Like last night, the moon has not yet appeared. The surf maintains a backdrop of gentle white noise to calm us in the continuing humidity.

We are lucky to have made it to the beach on this occasion, and luckier still to have found a permanent way around the estuary to the outer dune without opening gates and ignoring warning signs. It is not for us to know how much such a road around the estuary will shorten the usefulness of this lonely playa as a place of solitude. It hurts a little because the outer dune is one of the last stretches of wilderness left anywhere on the Sea of Cortez and we don't know what we will do when it has been overtaken by the masses.

10:30 pm -- Bedtime.

Next Nav


We arise a bit earlier than yesterday, about 8:00 am. The morning air is deliciously cool both inside and outside the tent, and there is sufficient breeze to suggest that no bugs will bother us. In view of our recent experiences we none-the-less elect long pants and shoes with socks. When we emerge from the tent there are flying insects everywhere, large and small; but none biting.

We prepare the vehicle to accept our belongings and immediately clean out the tent. Oops, no broom; not even a whisk.

Breakfast of hot oatmeal and coffee. The sea is a sheet of glass this morning. As we partake the wind comes to a dead stop, the sun reflecting brightly off the smooth surface. There is nothing biting us, but the bugs are fulfilling their namesake, bugging us unreasonably.

A large school of small fishes goes by just under the glassy surface; we can see the change in reflectivity of the water where it passes, and a few unruly classmates jumping, sailing from beneath the surface and re-entering with a slap. Incredibly, it continues to pass for almost five minutes.

We leave our campsite at approximately 11:30 am, put the playa behind us via our newly discovered access road, and pump up tires at the end of the fence. New road out:
miles partial
0.0 Begin. Log from zero point where incoming road meets fence.
2.2 2.2 Road off at half left; keep right. Immediately thereafter road turns half right.
2.8 0.6 Saguaro on right with 12 arms all twisted up.
3.4 0.6 Road crossing; continue straight ahead.
3.5/3.6 0.1 More roads crossing; continue straight ahead.
3.7 0.1 Road turns quarter left.
5.5 1.8 Salinas road. Blue gate in fence across road. Turn right toward village.
6.4 0.9 Village; turn left along fence.
7.0 0.6 El Socorro entrance; turn right.
9.5 2.5 Highway at Coloñia Cuahuila. End.

Just before reaching the main Salinas road we come upon a bright pink snake some three or four feet long. He is slithering at a good rate of speed and is just starting to cross the road. Our vehicle surprises him as he crosses the first wheel track. In panic, he abruptly raises the first half of his body upward in an arc and swings it back over the remainder, something we have never seen a snake do before, reversing direction in the process. He disappears in a flash, body shrinking into nothingness in snakely fashion without any apparent forward motion.

We reach pavement at 1:30 and Sonoita by 3:25 pm. It's the border wait from hell. We take to the right hand lane just outside the normal roadway; shame on us. A blazer follows; shame on him. After a mile or so we're blocked by a vehicle straddling the lanes just to prevent our passing. Eventually, we tire of waiting and pull into the ditch to pass, with the Blazer following. This maneuver cuts a good third to half out of our wait, and before we reach the border the Mexican officials are motioning for others to get into the left hand lane behind us, intentionally splitting traffic into two lanes. We knew they would.

Although we've seen the Mexican side split traffic into two lanes many times before, this is the first time we have actually taken to the right lane ourselves. Even so, we've still lost about an hour in the ordeal. And now, unpredictably, the lanes must merge to get through the border gate despite adequate space for two lanes. There appears to be no reason for it -- that's just what they're doing today.

We finally cross the border at 4:25 pm and arrive home at 7:05.

October 17-19, 2003


1Many whales have the lines under their lower jaw. This one was not nearly big enough to be a Sperm whale, but was probably a Humpback.

2While the whale was large, five to six feet in height lying on the beach, this was an unintended exaggeration.

3A fish pileup is a frenzy of larger fish and birds feeding on smaller fish. Sometimes predator becomes victim as many species join the fun. Read Slaughter In The Sea, in Ray Cannon's The Sea Of CortezB. Though out of print for many years, this book is still traded online and is a must read for anyone interested in the region.

4In the first half of our lives, we always bought Coleman products when available, because we always felt that Coleman quality was higher than many of their competitors. But five or six years ago we noticed our ice chest wouldn't hold ice. When we inquired, a Coleman representative told us that they now design their products for the pop throw-away market and no longer make an insulated, quality chest which will keep ice. Our Igloo chest is durable, heavy-duty, and well insulated. It will keep large, clear cube ice for a week; how long do you suppose it would hold a couple of 25 lb blocks of clear crystal ice?

5Good quality ice in the Icehouse years consisted of clear 25 lb blocks which would last days if kept in an insulated container. Unfortunately, no one in the cities needs such ice anymore, and the serious ice houses died out during the 80's, replaced by mass-manufactured cube ice for short-lived city environments. In the beginning, the cubes were at least large and clear, but since the 90's even such good quality cube ice has been disappearing in favor of miniature chips, cubes, and compressed pellets, which are really not of much value at all. The most popular manufacturer of such is Reddy Ice -- ready to buy in one hour, and ready to replace in another hour. Such ice will not make it through a two day weekend on the playa in the winter in a Coleman un-insulated ice chest, let alone during the summer and 120° temperatures.



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