September 30th, 1976: Lisa, a Cat 4 Hurricane with 140 mph winds hammered the tip of Baja. Devastation followed. Throughout the state, a variety of death tolls were reported, but officials estimated that 1,000 people had perished … not unlike last year's devastating Hurricane Odile.
Only a few days later in early October, Steve Chism, a gunsmith at Spiegel Gun shop in Oakland, and a few fishing buddies, arrived for his first visit to check out Baja's East Cape.
A DECADE LATER, you might still find him reading one of his dog-eared paperbacks, or standing at his fence in front of his house on the main road through East Cape smoking a cigarette and watching the world pass him by.
Ray Cannon, another notable visitor, also arrived that week to Rancho Buena Vista to see the effects of Lisa first hand according to Gene Kira. It was one of his last columns for Western Outdoor News.
Liking what he saw, Chism returned repeatedly, before finally relocating to Buena Vista in 1980 to work as boat dispatcher for Jesus "Chuy" Valdez at the Hotel Buenavista Beach Resort (HBBR).
A self-described Sacramento River rat, born in Northern California in the small community of Antioch, Chism grew up in the small community of Port Chicago. He fondly recalls one of his early adventures in a 9-foot inflatable on the river with his nephew.
Departing from the Red Bluff Diversion Dam, their trip was filled with wonder. They drifted all the way to Knights Landing where they encountered some tidal effect forcing them to fire up their small outboard engine for the first time. Their plan had been to take the small boat out to the open ocean beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, but the strong winds and choppy waters caused them to end the fourteen day adventure when they reached Berkeley.
Chism settled easily into his new home 1,500 miles south of the sprawling city of Oakland where the closest thing to a traffic jam was a few skinny cows on the road or later, when he began renting tackle on the beach in front of the hotel, there might be burros blocking the path from the tackle cage to the portable pier at the water's edge.
His daily work routine began by greeting eager anglers, dispensing tackle and advice before they boarded their boat for a day’s fishing. Then after a little tackle repair and maintenance, he would drive his rusty, dusty suburban down one of the dirt roads, snaking off in one direction or another in search of anything that caught his eye – birds and wildlife, old artifacts or maybe even a fossil or three.
ONE, A RARE Blue-billed Ani, he discovered near the lagoons not far from the actor Scott Glenn’s home overlooking the beach.
Some of the treasures he found ended up on an old warped board held up by a couple of cement blocks at the front of his “office” in the Tackle Cage. After a mid-morning siesta, he might read one of the many used paperback books which he stored in a discarded plastic milk carton along with other dog-eared Bird and Fish ID books.
Latest finds on the old board elicited questions or comments from guests or locals who wandered by to chat. He always began his response with, "What happened …"
His local knowledge of the beaches, back country and arroyos and everything that resided in them grew as the years passed. His discoveries delighted and disappointed him at the same time because he couldn’t bring many of them back to the tackle cage.
One, a rare Blue-billed Ani, he discovered near the lagoons not far from the actor Scott Glenn’s home overlooking the beach. Racing back to his Tackle Cage, he retrieved his Bird I.D. book, and discovered that according to the book, the Blue-billed Ani had never been reported in Baja, just Mainland Mexico.
Each day he excitedly raced to the lagoon and searching with his binoculars he would find the single Ani that remained near the lagoon. Chism shared his discovery with Ann Hazard, whose father, Togo Hazard, brought his family frequently to Hotel Buenavista Beach Resort. During that glorious two weeks, he also invited others to see his bird. When the Blue-billed Ani moved on its memory was etched in Chism's mind forever.
By the late eighties, ATV's had arrived and Chism was the first to offer guided tours to the rugged backcountry, beach and arroyo to the guests of the hotel.
Another colorful Baja character, Jimmy Smith, was an early Baja pioneer and bush pilot with a vast knowledge of Baja lore, history and culture. Chism and Smith became lifelong friends who enjoyed their friendship to the fullest.
When folks asked Chism why they were such good friends, he replied, "I spend every day from early morning to late afternoon talking about fishing with guests. Smith doesn't know, nor does he give a hoot about fishing … making him the perfect companion for me."
Like his river adventure so long before, his days exploring East Cape backcountry were filled with wonder and awe.
When asked, he struggled with which backcountry wonder to describe first:
Beaches littered with small pinkish ribbonfish; huge oarfish as long as his old Suburban; the frequent turtles nests found on the beach. The time Marguerite E. Cascio Polster, a guest at HBBR, caught a 26-pound rainbow runner that Ted Bonney, the legendary manager of Rancho Buena Vista and an IGFA representative, weighed on the kitchen scale — a record that still remains in the record book all these years later.
With the help of the Valdez family, Chism gained Mexican Citizenship. Days turned to months, then years and decades and he was astounded when the time came for him to retire in 2005, forcing him once again to muse, "What happened?"
A decade later, you might still find him reading one of his dog-eared paperbacks, or standing at his fence in front of his house on the main road through East Cape smoking a cigarette and watching the world pass him by. But Chism still finds himself drawn to Baja's backcountry and often you will find him out beating the bushes with a couple of his buddies on ATV's. And that’s “What happened!"