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A Visit to the California Academy of Sciences

So what does the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, California have in common with Nelson and Goldman and our documentary film, The Devil's Road? Aside from the obvious scientific research and the institution's exploration of our natural world, the connection was formed on a fortuitous day in 1905. Nelson noted in his 1921 book Lower California and It's Natural Resources that he “reached Ensenada on July 5th and found the schooner Academy, from San Francisco, in port on it’s way to the Galapagos Islands with a scientific expedition from the California Academy of Sciences.” Nelson had several weeks’ worth of specimens that he and Goldman had collected from northern Baja, and needed to have them shipped to Washington D.C. The crew of the Academy welcomed Nelson aboard, agreeing to stow his cargo, and Nelson enjoyed a fine supper aboard the vessel.

On July 11, 2017, our film crew had the honor of conducting an interview with several of the California Academy of Sciences research specialists. We were met at the back door of the Academy by Katie Jewett of the Press Office. She would accompany us during our tour of the Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy. In the basement of the museum we entered the climate controlled room full of specimen collections. Maureen “Moe” Flannery, the Collections Manager has been put in charge of the hundreds of thousands of bird and mammal specimens and introduced us to several specimens that Nelson and Goldman collected over one hundred years ago.

The first specimen was a Mexican cormorant that was collected in 1902 by Nelson and Goldman. The bird was incredibly well preserved. Next, we were shown specimens of seaside sparrows. The particular specimen that Nelson and Goldman procured was collected in 1874 in Washington D.C. and was donated to the Academy many years ago. The last specimen was a Bailey's pocket mouse, collected by Nelson and Goldman in December 1905 from a location just south of La Paz, Baja California Sur.

A well-preserved Mexican cormorant. Note the tag states "Nelson & Goldman."

A well-preserved Mexican cormorant. Note the tag states "Nelson & Goldman."

Seaside sparrow specimens, several of which were collected by Nelson & Goldman in 1874.

Seaside sparrow specimens, several of which were collected by Nelson & Goldman in 1874.

Maureen "More" Flannery, collections manager at the California Academy of Sciences, shows us the seaside sparrow specimens.

Maureen "More" Flannery, collections manager at the California Academy of Sciences, shows us the seaside sparrow specimens.

Specimens of the Bailey's pocket mouse.

Specimens of the Bailey's pocket mouse.

Jack Dumbacher, Curator of the Ornithology and Mammalogy Department, rounded off the morning with a well-presented perspective of what naturalists like Nelson and Goldman's fieldwork would have been like. He explained how they would have collected, preserved, and organized their specimens during an expedition. We also learned how valuable these specimens are to science. These thousands of study skins and mounts provide a glimpse into the past, how and where these animals lived, and even what they were feeding on when they were collected. As technology and new research methods change, their value will certainly increase over the next century and beyond.

Interview with Jack Dumbacher, Curator, Ornithology and Mammology Department

Interview with Jack Dumbacher, Curator, Ornithology and Mammology Department

We would like to thank the California Academy of Sciences for their continued support of Nelson and Goldman's work and of our film.

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"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 29

La Purisima to San Juanico

We broke camp as soon as possible for fear of being eaten alive by bugs. Our mission for the day was to attempt to find the "intake" for the aqueduct that runs through both towns (San Isidro and La Purisima) and for a length of maybe 8 miles. This canal de agua is still very much in use today and was built by the missionaries. It is also some very impressive engineering for the time.

After several dead end roads, we were able to find the head of the aqueduct. A dam had been constructed across the entire river and at one side water is diverted into the flume. It appears that an old dam, just upstream several hundred feet, might have been the previous intake point for the canal.

Aqueduct in La Purisima, built by missionaries.

Aqueduct in La Purisima, built by missionaries.

The rio, as we were told, flows all year and keeps the town's crops of corn, nopale, citrus, mango, date palms, and others growing well. This area, although quite fertile, is very slow and tranquil. A few farmers were seen tending to their crops, but most were left to fend for themselves and keep the weeds at bay.

JT and I ended up at the only restaurant in La Purisima and soon found ourselves entertained by four young Mexican boys. They all wanted stickers and were in awe of us and our motorcycles. Then a group of 5 dirt bikers came in and we watched the four boys turn their attention on them. JT took advantage of the situation and asked the boys for an interview. The two youngest stayed quiet and mostly hid, but the other two stole the show. We very much enjoyed our time with them and I think they enjoyed the tricks I could do with their soccer ball, spinning it on my finger, balancing it on my head, and the variety of soccer moves like flipping it up in the air and catching it behind my head. This old guy still had it!

We were told that the old woman that owned the restaurant and the property had lived there her entire life and her family is well embedded with the town and its history. When we inquired about a possible interview, the young man running the restaurant assured us that she would be delighted. He suggested that we wait and it may be an hour or so. Then it turned into two hours more. We were pushing the daylight limitation and had an hour and a half drive to our next stop. So, we passed on that interview reluctantly and headed for San Juanico (Scorpion Bay).

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 20

Bahia de los Angeles to Santa Gertrudis Mission

The day started off as a huge honor for us as a film crew. We had the pleasure of sitting down for breakfast and an interview with author Graham Mackintosh. He was in town and was excited to meet us and generous with his time. Graham is the author of four adventure books about Baja. His first, and most famous, is about his experience as he walked the entire perimeter of the Baja peninsula: Into a Desert Place. Truly an honor to meet him and talk Baja. During our trips over the years we recount his stories, having been to many of the places he visited during his trek. 

Producer Todd and Director JT with Author and Baja Storyteller Graham Mackintosh.

Producer Todd and Director JT with Author and Baja Storyteller Graham Mackintosh.

With a nearly 200-mile day ahead of us, we drove out of town and headed into the hills.

The road to Santa Gertrudis starts with a "straight as an arrow" gravel road from Highway 1 to El Arco (22 miles). It took every bit of concentration that JT and I had to keep the bikes upright and moving. The recent winter rains had created numerous "canyon" type wash-outs that would have swallowed one of us whole without issue.

The Mission Santa Gertrudis is one of the least visited missions in all of Baja. For good reason! It is a long, dusty, washboarded, and rutted drive to get to this mini oasis. Water rises to the surface and flows down the canyon a short distance before disappearing into the sand several hundred yards down the arroyo. Fan palms dominate this spot and at first glance appeared to be paradise as far as a camping spot was concerned. A closer inspection revealed that the local population of cows had taken over.

The bell tower at Santa Gertrudis Mission

The bell tower at Santa Gertrudis Mission

Oasis near Santa Gertrudis Mission

Oasis near Santa Gertrudis Mission

We arrived at "magic hour" as JT likes to put it. For filming purposes, it is the hour leading up to sunset. A quick film shoot about and in the mission was the order and we set off to find a camp spot. We were directed to a spot just downstream and headed out of the mission compound with a tag-a-long, self-imposed, and honorary member of the film crew: a dog named Leroy, a pit-bull terrier with a great disposition that just wanted to hang with us for a while. Leroy had a purpose! His job was to wake up every hour or so and bark at, bother, or just annoy what ever animal or sound was in the arroyo. Thanks, Leroy!

JT with Leroy

JT with Leroy

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 19

Bahia de los Angeles

Jose Mercade was, once again, a host that continues to give and provide. He offered his boat to us for a late morning and early afternoon cruise of the bay. The time between when he opened up the garage door to launch was about 20 minutes. His house sits on the bay and he has his own launch ramp. 

His panga was perfect for our tour and soon we found a small pod of bottlenose dolphins. They played about the bow of our boat for nearly 15 minutes and JT got some great footage of them. They soon tired and fell back to do their thing.

We were on the outside of the first row of islands, just east of Horsehead Island, when we shut down the motor just to soak up the tranquil, windless, and glassy conditions of the water. Suddenly we heard the unmistakable sound of a whale's exhale. We were blessed to experience a single finback whale in a series of feeding dives. After each dive the whale would swim a circle near us with between 10 and 15 surface breaths before diving deep.

In the afternoon, we were lucky to have two great interviews. The first was the great grandson of Dick Dagget Sr. at his RV and fishing camp just north of town. He had invited his mother, Doña Trina Dagget. Dick Dagget was an Englishman that had jumped ship in the 1880s and had made a name for himself in this part of Baja. Nelson and Goldman had negotiated with him in San Quintin to purchase supplies when they arrived at his mine (The King Richard Mine) near Calamajue. When they arrived, the mine was empty and boarded up. Being skilled trackers, they found tracks leading away from the mine and found the party on the beach of a small bay. Their own supplies had run out and a misunderstanding about the timing of the new supply ship caused them to survive on turtle meat, fish, and wild honey for over a month.

Dick Dagget saved the lives of Nelson and Goldman. The younger Dagget was impressed by the story and was happy to connect with us. Doña Trina was a lively and energetic interviewee. She spoke only in Spanish and most of what she said went over our heads. She was missing most of her front teeth so her speach was off a little too. We will have to wait until the translation is complete to really know what she had to say. I can't wait!

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 12

San Quintin to El Rosario

Without a room for the night, we were forced to sleep in the parking lot. The three hotels in the area were full for the night and as it was near dark when we arrived, we were not going to head back into town to find lodging. We woke with all of our gear soaked in dew and commotion about the area. Our only salvation was to quickly pack up and head south (without coffee or breakfast).

We arrived at Mama Espinoza's Restaurant an hour later and were immediately greeted by Elvira Espinoza (Doña Anita's daughter) who now runs the restaurant. She was very gracious and invited us to stay and enjoy the festivities with "This is your house, too!" We were told there was a benefit motorcycle ride the day before and today was an opportunity to give the town’s children beans, rice, and a toy. Many of the children and their parents showed up to receive a gift.

We were able to interview Elvira with interpretation help from her grand daughter, Michele. This is a wonderful and big family that does so much for the community. We met many family members that travelled from as far away as Ensenada and Tijuana to participate in the communal event.  

Shortly after, we headed out of town with the hopes of following the Nelson-Goldman route up the arroyo to find the camping spot they called "the cave." It was a popular spot where the "teamsters" would stop while delivering supplies to the local mines. We were thwarted by cultivated farmland that seemed to not allow us to get to the road into the arroyo. So, we changed course and went to a known campsite our family has always referred to as "Crash Dummy Car." When JT and Bri were young, we would always camp here. It was well off the highway, secluded, and the side road ended at an old overturned car. They loved to throw rocks at it, for the sounds they made were enjoyable.

We had a great evening to film and camp under a full moon. 

Interview with Elvira and Michele Espinoza of Mama Espinoza's Restaurant.

Interview with Elvira and Michele Espinoza of Mama Espinoza's Restaurant.

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 11

Sierra San Pedro Martir to San Quintin

It was cold last night. Sleeping among the snow patches at 9,000-foot elevation usually is not considered to be a warm and pleasant experience.

The moon was nearly full and at this altitude it looked bigger than ever. It was brighter, too. The giant log we threw on the fire had completely burned up and left a perfect bed of coals to restart the fire when I woke. I really did not want to get out of my sleeping bag. I grabbed the camera and went for a walk as the sun was rising over the mountains and spreading across the snowy landscape. It was quiet, the air crisp, and if I closed my eyes I would swear that I was in the Sierra Nevada.

This range is a separate island extension of the Sierra Nevada that broke off hundreds of thousands of years ago. The Jeffery pine, granite rocks, juniper, and other shrubs are all the same. Camping next to us were three young biologists and photographers that were there to photograph and study the environment. So we took full advantage to grab an interview and get to know these three men. One was a marine biologist, the other was a guide, and the third was a herpetologist that specializes in animal rescue where roads are being built. All were very knowledgable about the fauna of Baja California. 

As we were organizing and getting our riding gear on, I noticed a nail sticking out of my rear tire. With a 60-km drive to the nearest town, I was weary about pulling the nail out. My mind quickly went back to the repair seminar that JT and I received from Bob Davis of Davis Moto Works back home in Santa Cruz. How to fix a flat tire in the desert was highlighted, and eventually all the tricks came flooding back into my head. A swift pull with the pliers revealed only a flesh wound. Lucky for us, no air was leaking and we were on our way. 

After a quick stop to drive to the top of the mountain to see the observatory (it was closed and no tours were being conducted) we took a few photos and pointed the front tires down hill. JT and I enjoyed a family tradition of a snow cone! This time it was Baja style: Margarita! 

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to finding a California condor to film. We think we got film of four soaring out over the edge of the mountain range, but they were too far away to confirm. Either way, with only 30 condors here in Baja, the odds were against us in getting a glimpse of them.  

We closed out the day at the Old Mill Hotel and Restaurant in San Quintin.

Looking for California Condors in the Sierra San Pedro Martir mountain range.

Looking for California Condors in the Sierra San Pedro Martir mountain range.

Talking Baja and Blue Mind with Dr. Wallace 'J' Nichols

Today we had the honor of meeting, speaking with, and interviewing environmentalist, scientist, and author Dr. Wallace 'J' Nichols. We had the opportunity to talk in length about Baja, his work and experiences there and how it pertains to The Devil's Road, his Blue Mind movement, and the ways in which he's working to inspire in others a deeper connection with nature. 

His work has been broadcast on NPR, BBC, PBS, National Geographic, and Animal Planet and featured in Time, Newsweek, GQ, Scientific American, and New Scientist. His national best selling book, Blue Mind, gives readers a deeper insight into the science behind why being in, on, under, or near water helps us lead healthier and happier lives, inspiring the Blue Mind movement and the concept of neuroconservation, merging the fields of cognitive science, human emotion, and ocean exploration and conservation. 

Please stay tuned for our full interview to come.

Learn more about Dr. Nichols and his innovative, visionary work here.