By Lori Saldaña
The moon was waning that night at Laguna Ojo de Liebre, and clouds from a freakishly warm winter storm still blocked the stars. The sunset was beautiful, but all day heavy rain had fallen in towns near the camp: roads near Vizcaino were flooded, Ejido Benito Juarez had mud running through its streets. Yet here at the water’s edge, only a few drops had made it to the ground.
For all these reasons- chance of rain, clouds blocking the stars- most of us camping near the whales went to bed early. We could hear the whales breathing across the lagoon, but the clouds made it impossible to see their backs shining in the moonlight and determine where the loud exhalations were coming from. Not much to see- good night to read in bed and get to sleep early.
I slept soundly the first few hours, then was awakened shortly after midnight by the jingle of the poodle’s dog collar. She was scratching, and restless, then scratching some more. Between scratches she panted, as if anxious or ….poisoned?
I woke up and worried. I knew from experience that 12-year old dogs are more susceptible to skin ailments than younger animals. Or perhaps something had bitten her? Was she having an allergic reaction? My own skin was dotted with bites from various bugs and spiders- had something worse gotten through her curly thick coat, and was this an allergic reaction?
She couldn’t settle down and began to walk on top of me inside the camper, panting and scratching. Sleep was impossible and my efforts to comfort her failed. I considered my options: 45 minutes to Guerrero Negro, no idea if a vet would be around… I began to realize how isolated we were in case of illness, human or poodle.
So I decided to take her for a walk in the dark night. If it was “just” a bite, perhaps the exercise would help. If it was something more, and she refused to walk or got worse- well, I would have to make a decision to head to town.
The moon was a tiny sliver, partially hidden by clouds, as were the stars. I didn’t turn on a light in the camper while pulling on shoes and a jacket- good night vision can take up to 20 minutes to develop.
I took a small LED flashlight, attached poodle to her leash, and we hopped out of the camper doorway into the palapa.
My biggest fear at night was the camp coyotes. The previous night we had sat outside and listened to one very close to camp, barking continuously in the strange, rapid-fire cadence that coyotes can develop- very different than domestic canines. I kept the light off, and the poodle close, and started walking. Poodle strained to pull me behind her- I knew she wanted to run, but I had no intention of letting her off leash so she could get away from me and into the waiting jaws of a hungry coyote.
We walked through the camp, into the parking lot near the dock, the white bones of the whale skeleton on display glowing in contrast to the dark sky. We walked up to the patio of the Interpretive Center.
Whales exhaled behind us, echoing off the walls of the building that loomed ahead. We walked around the patio into the lot at the rear.
Still the poodle pulled hard on the leash, agitated and eager to get…. where?
We circled around the lot and made our way down the road back towards the water and our palapa. Poodle was still not ready for bed, but had stopped scratching during the walk. We settled into the camp chair I had left outside at the edge of the palapa- the poodle jumped into my lap and peered into the darkness. Her panting had also eased. Perhaps she just needed some exercise…?
It was then I realized we weren’t alone. Perhaps 20 feet away stood a coyote- tall, long legged, and curious. Had it been there all along, outside the camper where we had been sleeping? Or had it been attracted by our 1 AM walk through the parking lot?
I strained to see it more clearly in the near total darkness. It was slender, but looked healthy and sleek- no doubt well fed from careless campers who threw food into the bushes, and the “liebres” the camp is named after. It dropped its head to look at us in the chair, and took a few steps in our direction.
Poodle produced a low, deep growl. I strengthened my hold on her alongside me. It would be no contest if she leapt down and rushed the larger dog, and she seemed to realize this and made no effort to leave the “safety” of the chair.
I didn’t want to shout and awaken other campers, so I growled also.
Then, holding 20-lbs. of dog under 1 arm, I stood and waved the other arm overhead. Isn’t that what you do when confronted by a “wild animal”? Try to look large and intimidating?
The coyote didn’t move or even seem to react. My bluster wasn’t going to work. I almost laughed at my futile gyrations.
I remembered the LED in my pocket, and reached for it. The coyote was calmly observing this, but when I aimed the bright lights into its shining eyes it retreated a few steps- then lay down. Had I knocked out its night vision? Was it waiting for us to make the next move?
I sat back down and watched and waited. The coyote gazed in our direction, then simply curled up and tucked its nose under its tail, sleeping in the middle of the camp road, 15 feet in front of our palapa.
I settled into the chair, poodle in my lap, holding her firmly with one arm though she seemed to realize this was no time to leave.
Her scratching had stopped. Her breathing was more normal, and the panting had been replaced by deep sniffs of the air in the direction of the coyote.
The three of us stayed like that for several minutes. The coyote didn’t move. I remained in the chair. The poodle stayed with me.
Under the intermittent starlight penetrating the clouds, the coyote had an almost luminous glow- silvery and ethereal. I could see why so many cultures respect their presence, and some consider them “God’s dog.”
Poodle settled down. I stretched out my legs and looked out towards the water, over the back of the dozing coyote, keeping its curled form in my line of sight.
In the water, whales kept breathing, the “whoosh” traveling across the calm lagoon. Occasionally a bird would call from the shoreline. A sea lion croaked just off the beach, splashing in an attempt to grab a fish.
I began to realize how active the nights were at the lagoon. It was nice to be a part of it.
Finally, the coyote rose and ambled off down the road, its exit as soundless as its arrival. Trickster, indeed.
We went back to bed in the camper, and slept soundly until sunrise.
Photos of camp at Laguna Ojo de Liebre and whale skull by Lori Saldaña.