Meet Steve Garro, a 48 year old part-time metalworker and full-time adventurer from Flagstaff, Arizona. He’s also a T-11/12 incomplete para, the result of a bicycle versus vehicle crash 11 years ago when he was hit by a truck on the way to a friend’s house. “That’s why they call it trauma,” Steve says. “I got busted up real bad, broken back, ribs, shattered femur, lots of internal damage, but I lived. When you get to the hospital and they tell you the least of your problems is a broken back, you know it’s bad. Well, that’s what they told me.” Steve was in and out of the hospital for six months following the accident. It was really hard on him and his wife Denise, but they made it through.
Steve was 37 at the time. He was an avid bike rider, endurance racer, hiker, fisherman, hunter… you name it. To say he had a passion for the outdoors would be putting it mildly, so something as ‘minor’ as paralysis wasn’t going to stop him.
When Steve was a boy, he was introduced to fishing just like most young boys his age were, by his dad. They’d go out together to all the lakes, streams and rivers in northern Arizona, primarily to scenic Lake Powell, to catch bass, crappie, stripers, catfish or whatever else they could get to bite a hook. He and his dad hunted together too, of course, but back then fishing was king. At a very early age, Steve knew the outdoors was where he was meant to be.
Ever the adventurer at heart, he’s still biking today. Naturally, he’s had to adapt, so instead of the typical leg-powered model, he uses a handcycle. “Before I was injured, I biked everywhere. Everywhere. We’d take bicycle trips down to Baja California along the Sea of Cortez,” Steve recounts. “We’d go down there for weeks at a time, camping and catching fish whenever we needed dinner. We’d just fish off the bank for food. I loved it!”
Life is a never-ending struggle for Steve. For the past ten years, he’s had to endure multiple surgeries stemming from the accident. His legs are so stiff in the mornings that he has to take baclofen just to limber them up enough to be able to climb out of bed into his chair. Having an incomplete back injury also means nerve pain, mostly in the form of tight spasms and violent shocks, but life goes on. It’s still good and fishing is still the king.
In 2003, Steve started a one man operation making custom mountain bikes, doing all the design and fabrication in his house with his own hands. Named Coconino Cycles, Steve produces about 20-25 bike frames a year, all from scratch, built to fit the precise needs and measurements of each rider. “I pride myself on perfect fit, ride quality and durability to provide you with the best cycling experience I can,” he boasts. (If you want to know more details on his business, you can check out his web page at http://www.coconinocycles.com/)
Steve works hard so he can play hard. It takes all of about two seconds of talking to him to tell he’s a very driven man.
At least twice a year, he and Denise will load up the kayaks, fishing poles and camping gear and head south to Baja. “We kinda just pack up and go,” Steve says. “I’m an amateur meteorologist when it comes to fishing, so when we see the right weather coming… we go.” It’s a 1,500 mile round trip down to Bahia de Los Angeles, or L.A. Bay as it’s known to American tourists, in Baja California. “We’ll hit several spots along the way, depending on the water temp, the tides and the wind. Those three things decide what we do, and if we get all three we’ll stay right where we are.”
Bringing tents to sleep in at night, Steve and Denise will set up primitive camps at one of their many favorite locations along the coastline. And according to Steve, a 4X4 truck is mandatory in Baja. “The only thing I bring that could really be considered adaptive equipment is a field toilet,” he says. “Everything else is normal camping gear.”
Being a self-proclaimed dedicated kayak fisherman, Steve’s kayak of choice is called the Kraken made by Jackson brand. It’s a sit-on-top vessel designed for fishing and “a real badass boat for disabled fishermen,” he attests. “It’s stable, like a wheelchair that floats, and it has the most comfortable seat I own on anything.” Carried around on the roof of the truck, kayaks are the easiest vessels for do-it-yourself outdoorsmen. Steve claims he can hop onto the tailgate where he can untie the kayaks and slide them down to Denise so she can drag them to the water’s edge. From there, depending on the terrain, Steve will either roll down to the water, use his crutches to walk or do whatever he has to do to get to the boat. “Sometimes you just gotta crawl,” he asserts.
That’s when the ‘reel’ fun begins. The Sea of Cortez has some 900 species of fish, and Steve has caught about 80 of them so far. On any given day, you never know what you’re gonna catch. “It’s what I love most about fishing Baja,” he says. “It’s also why you have to take a guide book with you to help identify what you just caught. Some of those things have poisonous spines.”
“The way we normally fish is to set up rods and paddle around pulling artificial baits, kinda like trolling,” Steve explains. “Live bait is too much trouble to mess with, plus it’s hard to find down there.” During a three week trip they’ll fish 15-16 days, and on windy days they’ll either move to another location or spend the day going to town for groceries.
On the high seas…
One of the best things about a Baja trip is the serenity. If you’ve never been to that part of the world, there’s something special about a desert region sandwiched in between a mountain range and a deep blue ocean. Life seems to slow way down there, so getting away from the stresses of life, the noise, the busy… is a natural occurrence. And fishing the Sea of Cortez is, quite simply, fantastic. For long-time fishermen, it’s a lot easier to get up early every single morning when you have no idea what you might catch that day. It’s exciting! “I reckon my favorite fish to catch is one I’ve never seen before,” Steve admits. “It keeps it fun. But I love the big ones. The biggest I ever caught from my kayak was a 45 lb yellowtail jack. That thing pulled me all over the place before I got him in. I’ve caught tuna and a 36 inch snook. ”
Denise fished before she ever met Steve. She also loves being on the water. It’s one of the things that brought them together. “We fish together a lot,” Steve says. “We also like fishing the shallow bays down there. The water is calmer and there are different kinds of fish in them. Sometimes if the seas are too rough, Denise and I will load up both kayaks, with a little platform on the back for our dog Osa of course, and hit the flats and mangrove shorelines. That’s where one of my favorite fish to eat, the Cortez Halibut, lives.”
They fish for food, of course, but there’s so much more to love about being on the water “sur de California.” First off, fishing on the sea is challenging. That’s why knowing the weather is so important. You have stronger currents and waves to contend with too, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to try to land a fighting fish in the middle of all that. “To me, the ocean is peaceful,” Steve says, “even when it’s trying to kill you. It’s good to be a little scared all the time while you’re out there, or maybe I mean staying hyperaware – there’s no place for all out fear on the ocean – if you’re that scared you should stay on the beach.”
Then there are those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Like when you’re on the water and you literally bump into the largest fish on the planet, a whale shark. “Even though I know it’s harmless, a plankton-eater, having a 30’ long, 15 ton animal come at you is startling,” Steve confesses. “They’re such majestic creatures. Amazing how fast they can sneak up on you. I had one come up and before I knew it he lifted my kayak up on his back as he passed under me. Then he gave me a ‘little’ tail slap to the face as he cruised away. It’s thrilling being next to something that’s the same size as a dinosaur, and, it makes you think maybe we should work a little harder about saving this earth – if you ever want to see stuff like this in your lifetime, stop using so much plastic… or at least recycle. It’s amazing how much of it ends up in the ocean.”
“You are going to work for it on a trip like this… it’s hard. But don’t let that discourage you. It’s 10 times more rewarding. And make sure you have some good footwear like rubber booties from NRS,” Steve advises, “or you’re going to go home with infections on your feet from every little cut. I learned that lesson the hard way.”
Besides a passion for fishing, it’s the overall challenge that Steve loves about these impromptu trips to Baja, and the peace of mind they afford. It’s the neat little out-of-the-way places that time and progress have forgotten, and the good people that keep them running. They check all the boxes of an adventure trip. “Some of the most difficult things are getting to the water to fish and getting to the bathroom, if you can find one,” Steve concluded, and when asked what the next hardest thing was to do, he replied, “Come home!”