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Kayaking Baja; on the Gulf and Pacific sides, nearly 60 guided trips, now through April.

Kayaking Baja Adventuresome people who love to see wildlife up close in natural surroundings might consider heading to Baja California to join a one- to three-week kayaking expedition. More than 50 such trips are offered now through April; see listings starting on page 84.

You need to be in good physical condition, but no prior kayaking experience is necessary; the operators make sure novices get good instruction in how to handle the sturdy--and surprisingly stable--craft.

Guided by experienced naturalists, the tours head out to remote beaches and islands on both of Baja's coasts. Many start in Loreto on the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) for outings to offshore islands or down the coast. One gathers kayakers in Mulege, however, for trips in this area. Two operators meet their groups in La Paz for kayaking to Espiritu Santo Island or in Magdalena Bay.

Teamed--usually--in a double-cockpit boat with rudder, you paddle with your group for 3 to 4 hours each morning, except for layover days. After lunch, you'll have time for whale-watching, hiking, beachcombing, snorkeling, fishing, bird-watching, or kayaking in the surf. At night, beach dinners of seafood and Mexican dishes take advantage of fresh local specialties, grilled over mesquite fires.

Before venturing out, each group learns paddling techniques and how to capsize safely--a necessity, since occasional winds, whitecaps, and rolling surf can create hazardous conditions (trip itineraries may be adjusted accordingly). On some trips, a support boat traveling nearby carries all participants' personal gear, food for the trip, and first-aid supplies, but usually, everything is carried by kayak.

Last winter, we joined a whale-watching expedition on Magdalena Bay and an excursion on the Sea of Cortez. These trips are typical of Baja offerings.

Magdalena Bay. After a dusty 4-hour drive from La Paz to Magdalena Bay, a quick skiff ride took us past lush mangrove estuaries filled with frigate birds, snowy egrets, and great blue herons to the long barrier island--the first of three camps--where our kayaks were waiting.

From camp, we could watch mature whales breaching and newborns testing their blowholes, practicing for the long springtime journey north. Over the next few days, the trip provided us with many more opportunities for close observation of whales, porpoises, and estuarine birds.

Sea of Cortez. Our tour here began with a van ride from Loreto to a remote fisherman's camp. Next morning, all food, gear, and water for the next six days were packed into waterproof bags and boxes and stowed in the kayaks.

After instruction, we headed out. Cruising close to shore, we saw blue-footed boobies, grebes, pelicans, and noisy colonies of sea lions basking on rocky islands.

To reach the trip's first beach camp, we had to paddle in place in the rolling waves while the guides carefully ushered each kayak through the tricky surf. In camps, we could relax, hike into desert canyons or to nearby coves, snorkel, or spearfish for lobster, red snapper, or cabrilla (sea bass) to add to the dinner grill.

Of course, the day-to-day pattern will vary with the operator. Study the brochures carefully; don't hesitate to ask questions.

What to bring--requirements, options

The operator provides kayaks (usually double-cockpit), life vests, and sometimes tents (or else you sleep under the stars). And the operator typically provides almost all meals, though you'll likely be expected to pitch in and help with cooking and cleanup duties.

You need to bring your own light-duty sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and any special equipment such as binoculars, snorkel, mask, fins, and hiking gear; on trips between mid-December and March, avid snorkelers should bring along a wet suit--at least a top. Rubber-soled sandals with ankle straps are best for walking in sand and surf.

Expect bright sun with temperatures from the high 80s during the day; you'll need sunscreen and a hat or visor. As soon as the sun sets, temperatures can drop quckly to the low 60s; bring warm clothing.

Photographers may want to buy or rent waterproof cameras (a half-dozen excellent and inexpensive choices are available). Zip-lock plastic bags and water-proof boxes (available at water sports stores) will protect film and equipment.

The guides will teach you paddling techniques that minimize effort and the risk of muscle strain, tendinitis, and blisters. But to get in shape for your tour, you may want to start a moderate regimen combining swimming, running, and upper-body exercises well before trip time.

When flying to meet one of these tours, hand-carry your bags to avoid delays or lost luggage, since the group will probably leave right from the airport. You won't need a passport to travel in Mexico, but be sure to obtain a Mexican tourist card (free) before departing. Your travel agent or the kayak firm can help you get one.

A half-dozen Baja outfitters

Outfitters offering sea-kayaking trips along Baja's two coasts recommend you make reservations as soon as possible; they usually require a deposit. Except where noted, they provide only double-cockpit kayask, and 16 is the minimum age to join. Prices don't include air fare.

Baja Expeditions, Box 3725, San Diego 92103; (619) 297-0506 from California, (800) 843-6967 from other states. november 22 through January 10, six eight-day trips visit Espiritu Santo Island in the Sea of Cortez. January 10 through March 7, seven eight-day trips go to Magdalena Bay. All trips cost $650 (includes one night in La Paz hotel). Groups, maximum of 15 in each, meet in La Paz. Outfitter provides support boat, two-man tents, some single kayaks.

National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Box AA, Lander, Wyo. 82520; (307) 332-6973. Trips in the Sea of Cortez include classes on kayaking techniques, wilderness skills, map reading, navigation, and natural history (college credit available). November 29 through April 22, NOLS offers seven three-week courses ($1,395); in December, three two-week courses ($1,195); in February and March, two two-week courses for ages 25 and up ($1,295). Groups, 14-student maximum, meet in Mulege. Some single boats.

Northern Lights, 5220 N.E. 180th St., Seattle 98155; (206) 362-4506. In February, a 7- and a 10-day trip ($550 and $750) take kayakers on the Sea of Cortez; in March, the trip is 12 days ($895). Tours, with a maximum of 12, meet in Loreto.

Paddling South, 4510 Silverado Trail, Calistoga, Calif. 94515; (707) 942-6347. November 6 through April 25, 11 trips of 7 to 14 days each go between Mulege and Loreto, and between Loreto and La Paz ($385 to $595). Sturdy two-person folding kayaks are used. Tours, with a maximum of 10, meet in Loreto. Ages 11 through 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

San Juan Kayak Expeditions, 3090 Roche Harbor Rd., Friday Harbor, Wash. 98250; (206) 378-4436. November 15 through April 30, on the Sea of Cortez, five eight-day trips take you to Punta Pulpito and San Juanico Cove ($560), and three five-day trips go to Danzante Island ($395); groups meet in Loreto. Two eight-day trips to Espiritu Santo Island ($560) start in La Paz. Groups have a maximum of eight.

Sea Trek, Schoonmaker Point (foot of Spring St.), Sausalito, Calif. 94965; (415) 332-4457. Decembe 21 through March 28, trips between Loreto and Bahia Concepcion offer a choice of three 7-day tours ($695) and one 10-day trip ($795). Groups, with a maximum of 10, meet in Loreto. Some single boats are available.
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Date:Nov 1, 1986
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