Cedros Island, Baja California, Mexico

by Bill Finch

It was early summer, 1973, and I was working at my first job as a geologist. My wife Karen and I had just graduated from California State University, Fresno, with degrees in geology. Considering the tight job market for geologists, we felt very fortunate to have landed jobs actually working in our chosen field. My job was with an office of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) that was doing research on groundwater recharge. Karen was working in groundwater also, with the California Department of Water Resources.

About two weeks after I started the job, I got a call from Don Ptacek, graduate advisor at San Diego State University (SDSU). He asked me how would I like to do some field mapping in Baja California for the summer. The deal would include mapping relatively unexplored territory and I could use the results toward a master's thesis. The offer sounded interesting, but when Don said I would receive $1000 per month salary, an expense account, use of a four wheel drive vehicle, and would have a field assistant, I found the offer too good to refuse. The first thing I did was go to my bosses at ARS and ask them what they would do if they were in my position. Their reply was to ask me when I would be leaving. When I broke the news to Karen, I received the same question from her but both of us tearfully realized that it would be our first separation in two years of marriage.

The remainder of June and all of July, I mapped about 600 square miles of territory in the southern Vizcaino Peninsula. In August, we moved south to the Magdalena Basin. Our five field crews caravanned south to Penjamo where we set up camp next to the roadside cafe which was the village's main structure. Since we shared communal meals at our camp, I got to know John Robinson, one of the other geologists on the team. During the school year, John and I shared our desire to explore Cedros, the largest island off the west coast of Baja California. Very little had been published about the geology of the island and both John and I wanted to see how its geology compared to that in the areas we had mapped on the Vizcaino Peninsula.

Late summer, 1974, John and I filled our backpacks and headed for Cedros. After being dropped off at the border, we proceeded to the bus station to arrange passage to Guerrero Negro and its airport from which we would take a plane over to the island. We spent a little time in Tijuana trying to find the right bus station. The first one we went to was for local transportation only. Finally, we found the right station and were on our way. In the middle of the night we stopped at the tourist check point where we were supposed to get our visas signed. No one was there, so we proceeded to Guerrero Negro without the signatures. Neither one of us had ever had our visas checked while in Mexico, so we didn't think it was a big deal.

As we were lounging in the shade of the plane at the Guerrero Negro airport waiting to board, a young immigration officer skidded up in his WWII vintage Jeep. He asked for our papers then told us to come with him. We were taken to the jail and asked to empty our wallets. Visions of wasting away in a Mexican jail cell danced before our eyes. He asked us why our visas had not been signed. Why were we going to Cedros? He told us that we didn't have enough money to stay on Cedros. We told him we were college students and couldn't afford to stay in hotels and eat out. We said we would be hiking and carrying all the food and shelter we needed on our backs. We could tell he had a hard time believing us at first, but finally he signed our visas and drove us back to the plane.

We flew to Cedros on a DC-3; goats, chickens, fruit trees and baby carriages to the left of the aisle and passengers to the right. We hitched a ride from the airport to Cedros town and checked out return travel arrangements to Ensenada. Then we walked to a spot near Bahia Sur (South Bay) where we camped for the evening. I was hoping that southern Cedros would look like Punta San Hipólito, the part of the Vizcaino Peninsula where I was focusing my studies, but there was little resemblance. Instead of the cherts and carbonates of the San Hipólito Formation that I was hoping to find, southern Cedros was made up of spectacular outcrops of tectonic melange.

The next morning, after a little body surfing in Bahia Sur, John and I walked up the west coast of the island. We stayed close to the beach and passed many huge logs that had drifted down from the northwest United States. Also, we saw several boat wrecks and a variety of other garbage and debris. We saw some concretion-bearing sandstone that had been shaped by the surf. A little less than a mile from Arroyo Vargas, we set up camp. We had enough water for the rest of the day but it was obvious that the next day we would have to find water in this barren desert. A map I had found in the library when I was researching for our trip indicated that there were fresh water springs ahead in Arroyo Vargas, so we weren't worried about dying of thirst.

John's worn out boots had turned his feet to hamburger, so the next morning I hiked up Arroyo Vargas by myself to replenish our water supply from the Arroyo Vargas springs. I drank from all of the springs in the arroyo but all of them were brackish, so I pushed on to the spring on the flank of Mount Cedros that supplies Cedros town. By mid-morning, my guts were completely cleaned out. The purging, brackish waters of Arroyo Vargas had done a thorough job.

A little before noon, I arrived at the Mount Cedros spring(s). The spring caretaker was loading his burro to go to town. Since he was anxious to get on the trail, our conversation was brief. I did find out that he knew Frank Kilmer who had been studying the geology of the island since the early 1960's. I filled our water jugs from the excellent Mount Cedros spring, then hiked above the spring house and took some photos of the area.

When I got back to camp that afternoon, I found that John had not been lazing around while I was gone. He had found a small rocky outcrop on the shore that was home to hundreds of abalone, an abalone parking lot. That afternoon, I learned how to harvest abalones without beating them to death. I popped dozens of them off the rocks with my hunting knife until my technique was perfected. All but a couple of the abalones were returned to their rocky home. We cleaned and prepared them for dinner. They were a little tough since we didn't really have a good way to tenderize (pound) them, but they were quite tasty.

The next morning, we headed up Arroyo Vargas, stopping to examine outcrops on the way. There was a very thick section of Valle Formation. We saw about ten times more Eugenia Formation than had been described in the literature. John found belemnites in the Eugenia Formation, the first noted occurrence of that important Jurassic index fossil. As we got closer to Mount Cedros spring, the trail left the flat part of the arroyo and climbed steeply through melange which contained abundant light gray limestone inclusions.

We took a break at the pump house and gauged that the springs flow into the cisterns at a rate of five gallons per minute. When the cisterns are full, the spring keeper pumps enough water into the two inch pipeline to start a siphon over Mount Cedros to the town. Once the siphoning starts, the pump is turned off and the siphoning emptys the cisterns. The pipeline must be at least five miles long. A small diesel engine powers the pump that starts the siphon.

John's feet were still hurting so we were forced to pass up a trip to Gran Canyon, an area with outcrops that were mentioned in the literature. We continued up Mount Cedros, passing through what appeared to be a very limited recharge area for the springs. Eventually we arrived at a pass just below the crest of Mount Cedros. John's feet still hurt, so I hiked to the summit by myself. The view was spectacular and I took lots of photos.

The trail down to Cedros town was steep and gave John a lot of problems. However, he walked the entire distance without any complaint. Both of us were glad to make it into town. We bought our plane tickets for a flight out to Ensenada the next day. Later that day, we met the captain of a local fishing boat who offered to take us to Ensenada on his boat but we declined. We spent enough time in the small town to get a little feel for it. One of the most interesting things I saw was the town's bakery. Bread and cookies were baked in a large adobe, wood-fired stove. The baker put his wares on a large board, rested it on his head, and walked the street shouting about his wares.

Later that afternoon, we hitched a ride to the airport with a mechanic who worked at the salt storage facility near the airport. He invited us to his home where we met his wife and their two small children. He filled us with facts about the Guerrero Negro salt works, third largest in the world and told us why the salt was barged across to Cedros from Guerrero Negro. It turns out that the island provides the nearest deep water port capable of handling the huge cargo ships which carry the salt to market.

We hiked over to Bahia Sur and set up the last camp of our trip. John brought some special soap, guaranteed to lather up even in sea water. We proceeded to wash up for the return trip and soon found that the lathering claim was a slight exaggeration. Instead of lathering, the salt water turned the soap into a greasy coating which were able to wash off our bodies with sand but that would not come out of our hair regardless of what we did. Our hair formed a matted helmet. At least it wasn't fly-away.

The return trip to Ensenada by plane was an unforgettable experience. We flew over the northern Vizcaino Peninsula on our way there. The woman in the seat behind mine had a horribly painful abdominal ailment and periodically she would grab the back of my seat, pull herself half way out of her seat, and scream in agony. She was so sick that her skin was literally green. Well at least we were flying in a more luxurious plane, a DC-4, I think.

The bus trip from the Ensenada Airport to the border was a little tense after my heavy backpack tumbled out of the overhead rack and hit a woman on the head. At that moment, I was sure glad my Spanish wasn't that good. If looks could have killed . . . The border guards were going to take our mangoes away so we ate them as we went through customs inspection. We called Karen, and she drove down to the border and picked us up in the '51 Plymouth. As soon as she saw our "helmets" she started laughing and then we remembered how ridiculous our matted hair looked. The scene was repeated when we got to John's house, this time with John's girlfriend, Diane, getting in her laughs.