Friday, April 26, 2013

Little bugs that light up

After paddling in Lake Superior amongst the ice flows and then in Lake Red Rocks less than a week after ice out, we managed to get in a bit of warm water paddling in the northeast corner of Puerto Rico.  I get down there once a year for business and this year the VOR flew down and we had a little extended vacation.  About 15 years ago I had paddled in the Fajardo area in my Feathercraft Big Kahuna, before the 9/11 security BS ended that particular mode of kayak mobility.  There is a bioluminescent bay near Fajardo, one of five in the world and one of the top two for density of the plankton that provide the light, roughly one million individuals per gallon. I remember being absolutely amazed when my paddle, hand, or eventually my entire carcass moved through the water and things lit up.  When the plankton are disturbed they light up and for we elderly readers the best way I can describe it is that it looks exactly like the stars that come off the tip of Tinker Bell's wand in the intro to the old Wonderful World of Disney show on Sunday nights in the '60's.  It has to be seen to be believed and seeing it was the plan for Saturday night.

Fajardo is about an hour east of San Juan, just north of the old Roosevelt Roads Naval Base which has been shut down.  It is both a fishing port and the embarkation point for the ferries that leave for the islands of Culebra and Vieques.  It also is only about a five mile paddle out to the La Cordillera island chain.  It would seem to be a great paddling spot but the only kayaks we saw were the 12 or 15 boats each owned by the half dozen outfitters that ran trips into the lagoon.  After about five minutes of instruction and explanation we were helped into an Ocean Malibu Two double.  From an instructor standpoint I thought it was probably just enough information to allow people to make the boats move forward but not enough so the glazing of the eyes began.  It appeared that about 75% of the group had paddled before. Both the VOR and I cringed a bit when shown the double since as first borns we couldn't even agree on who should be in the front.  My two hundred plus pounds of ballast finally tipped the scales to the back seat and our group of about a dozen doubles, with three guides in singles. set off up the narrow channel through the mangroves to the bio bay.  It was an interesting though uneventful trip.  I've never had to worry about hitting my knees with my paddle before, much less the flailing paddle in front of me but things went OK.  All ages and all skill levels made the wallowing Ocean doubles the perfect platform for this two hour trip.  The destination was Laguna Grande, the Big Lagoon, where limited tidal flow allowed the bioluminescent plankton to concentrate.

It had gotten darker as we pushed up the twisting mangrove channel to the lagoon.  We noticed the streams of light coming off the ends of our paddle blades as we entered the lagoon but there was still just a bit too much ambient light from the nearly half moon to get the full effect. The VOR and I paddled over to the edge of the lagoon where the mangrove trees hung well out over the water.  I wanted to make a smart remark about monkeys, snakes, and iguanas up in the trees just waiting to pounce on ignorant kayakers but decided that would be a counterproductive comment if I really wanted to get into the dark area.  As soon as we got under the trees I heard the 'Oh my God!" from the VOR.  In the total dark the plankton are simply amazing with the amount of light that they give off.  Swirls of light off the paddle blades, fingertips, and even the mangrove roots that hung into the water as they moved with the slight current.  Back in my college Haight-Asbury type days I may have altered my state to view a phenomenon like this but it was spectacular enough without any chemical enhancement.  After about 20 minutes of playing around we reassembled for the trip back down the channel to Fajardo harbor.  The tide was going out so about all we really had to do was steer the great orange whale down the twisting channel to the launch area, with its numerous food stands and virtually unlimited supply of Medalla cerveza and Barrelitos rum.

It was a nice trip and at $45 a person pretty good value as well.  The guides were professional, friendly, and had VHF radios and knew what they were doing and handled the diverse group expertly.  For we spoiled paddlers of fine closed cockpit sea kayaks, the big sit on tops were ponderous and unwieldly.  The paddles seemed to weigh a ton, nothing like our carbon fiber Werners or sleek carbon fiber or cedar Greenland sticks. That being said, all the snow down in Puerto Rico had melted a few thousand years ago during the ice ages, the water was balmy, and we both remarked how refreshing it was to sit in an outdoor bar in our swimsuits after dark and feel completely comfortable. While there were several outfitters running tours into the bay they all seemed to be coordinated to keep contact and confusion to a minimum. The overall ambiance was great. Here in the Twin Cities the decision to have a food stand along a lake or in a park is an endless city council and park board debate, angst filled, hand wringing, and swayed by the self righteous demanding some sort of wilderness park purity in the city.  In Fajardo, PR there were endless small open air stands selling every thing from mofongo, grilled meat skewers, and empenadas to full meals with rice and beans and plantains.  They all had beer and liquor.  Families were having a great time, the music was playing, and no one appeared to be unruly.  If we wanted the unspoiled wilderness feel we could, and did, drive up into the rain forest, El Yunque for hiking among the waterfalls.

We both can highly recommend the experience.  Head in with an open mind, a 'let the chips fall where they may' attitude, and you will have a wonderful time in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, both in town and in the outdoors.

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