Published April 15, 2012, 12:00 AM

Bayfield woman enjoys the sights kayaking Mexico's Yucatan

Bayfield’s Gail Green pioneered sea-kayaking along the Yucatan coast south of Cancun, offering creative expression along with the paddling.

IAN KA’AN BIOSPHERE RESERVE, YUCATAN PENINSULA, MEXICO — You know you’re coming to a good place when the palm fronds start slapping the windshield of the van. The limestone road was narrow and winding, so pocked it had taken us an hour to travel 18 miles of it.

“And the road’s in really good shape right now,” said Gail Green, a sea-kayaking guide from Bayfield who’s driving the van. “It’s usually a lot worse.”

We were on a skinny peninsula off the Yucatan coast of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea rolling in on one side, a labyrinth of channels and expansive lagoons on the other.

Green, 60, has been leading kayaking trips on this peninsula for the past 18 years, the past nine as part of her own sea-kayaking company called Living Adventure.

During summers, she and her husband, Grant Herman, operate sea-kayaking trips in the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior. In winter, they head south to a secluded rancho on the Yucatan called Caphe Ha (KAH’-pay hah), where, depending on the week, their clients can blend sea-kayaking with painting, Mayan cooking or ceramics.

Or, like our informal end-of-the-season group, they can simply paddle — and swim and snorkel and go birding and walk the empty white sand beaches for miles. Or watch the waves break a half-mile out where they crest the Palancar Reef, the second-longest barrier reef in the world.

Our group included Duluth’s John Anderson, who is part owner of Living Adventure; Steve Bade, Washburn; Bob Bohac, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; Leslie Appling, Joshua Tree, Calif.; Kevin Caufield, St. Paul; and my wife, Phyllis.

Caphe Ha — “two waters” in Mayan — is simply among the most idyllic places one could ever hope to get sand between his or her toes. Tall coconut palms sway in the breeze. The ocean rolls to shore just 30 steps from your room. And in the kitchen of the palapa lodge, Manuela, who lives on the site with her husband, Roberto, probably is turning out another meal that you will feel compelled to photograph before eating.

“The customers, they get in shock the first night when they arrive and see all of this place,” said Ruben Lopez, the Mayan chef who has taught cooking courses for Green.

Lopez has joined us for a couple of days to work his magic with mahi mahi, shrimp, lobster and beef tenderloin. He has watched Green, a stained-glass artist herself, mix the arts with the art of kayaking, awakening her clients’ senses and letting the natural world inspire them.

“The people,” Lopez says in English, “sometimes I think they get more than they pay.”

North of here a couple of hours lie the throbbing bass beats of Cancun and Playa del Carmen — the “Mayan Riviera” — where posh hotels stand shoulder to shoulder and the beaches teem with tourists.

But on the peninsula, where growth is limited by the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, tiny ranchos like Caphe Ha are miles apart. Water and electricity have not made their way here, so Caphe Ha runs on solar power, wells and water trucked from town.

The place has the feel of a remote tropical island. Once you are here, you feel far away from the rest of the world.

Off to Bird Island

That first evening, we carried kayaks across the road and paddled a quiet lagoon to Bird Island, a cluster of mangroves no larger than a couple of acres. At sunset, hundreds and hundreds of water birds arrived to roost. Vibrantly pink roseate spoonbills. Elegant white wood storks. Dashing reddish egrets. Boat-billed herons. Snowy egrets. White ibises. Brown pelicans. Frigate birds. Black vultures.

They all seemed oblivious to us, sitting just offshore in our kayaks, madly snapping pictures or just listening to the cacophony of hoots, croaks, clacks and grunts.

One evening, on another visit to Bird Island, I asked Appling, a Living Adventure guide, how many birds come here to roost every night.

“I’d say at least a thousand,” she said.

Which is exactly what I had been thinking. When the squadrons finally stop arriving and the birds had all found a place to settle in, we paddled back to Caphe Ha in the gathering dusk of another tropical day.

Nature as art

It was Green’s dream to blend sea-kayaking, one of her passions, with art, another passion, at Caphe Ha and as part of Living Adventure. She could see the potential for personal growth when people permit themselves to slow down and be inspired by the elements, and to be coached by masters at their trades — chefs such as Lopez, artists such as potter Kevin Caufield, painters and dancers and singers.

It has played out just as she had hoped.

“I’ve seen lives changed,” she said one evening on the veranda. “I’ve seen hope renewed.”

Appling has been leading Living Adventure trips at Caphe Ha since 2009.

“(Gail) has been visionary about mixing art with adventure,” Appling said. “Direct contact with nature is such a powerful experience. She wants people to have artistic venues for giving meaning to that interaction. That’s really unique.”

Green seems to know everyone from the guards at the Biosphere Reserve gate to the man where she buys barbecued chicken at a tiny hut off the main highway in Tulum. She met two women from California on her flight down to the peninsula and invited them to join us for dinner in Playa del Carmen. She and Grant, 58, are godparents to 4-year-old Eymi, Manuela and Roberto’s daughter. Herman and Green consider Manuela and Roberto partners in their winter business.

“She is committed to the Yucatan and to its people,” Appling said. “She believes in people and in empowering people.”

On white sands

We paddled most mornings, often winding our way through narrow channels on the lagoon side, spotting bare-throated tiger herons and arctic terns, or looking for the baby crocodiles that spend their formative years here.

One morning, we paddled a few miles north to where a river system met the ocean. The water flowed aquamarine over white sands, snaking its way around a point to deliver itself to the sea. The sea itself was turquoise, then a deeper blue where the eelgrass grew. Beyond lay the reef, a subtle ribbon of life, and massive cumulus clouds pillowed against the blue.

It was the kind of place where a bride in a white dress and a groom in rolled up blue jeans and a tropical white shirt might want to have their wedding photos made. And that’s what seemed to be happening just across the channel from where we took a short break, as two photographers scurried about the embracing couple.

Either that or Bride magazine was doing some kind of photo shoot. In either case, the setting couldn’t have been more striking. Our kayaks, yellow and orange and red and green, were pulled up in accidental symmetry on the sand. Washed up fan coral peppered the beach. A couple of brown pelicans napped on a nearby wooden bridge.

Without warning, a colony of arctic terns rose in flight from the beach, swirling briefly over the matrimonial couple before carving themselves in close formation against the sky. Against all of those shades of blue, the terns’ wings were as pure and white as a wedding dress.

For more info

For more information on Living Adventure sea-kayaking trips in both the Apostle Islands and the Yucatan, go to www.livingadventure.com.

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