We stood transfixed on a mountainside near the Michoacán-Mexico state border, gazing up at thousands and thousands of monarch butterflies, a fiery ensemble rising into the afternoon sun. The valley below seemed to quiver with life, every branch of every tree carpeted with orange wings. These extraordinary creatures had migrated nearly 5,000 kilometres from across Canada and the United States to congregate here, in a cluster of forested volcanic peaks in central Mexico. They’d survived storms, pesticides and predation to reach their overwintering grounds and would soon begin their multi-generational migration north — a journey their great-grandchildren would complete.
My husband Robin and I had sailed to Mexico in our 35-foot sailboat, and like the butterflies, we were following ancestral lines. In 1988, Robin’s grandparents, Canadian zoologist Fred Urquhart and his wife Norah, were awarded the Order of Canada for solving one of the world’s great natural mysteries. Wondering where the monarch butterflies went during the winter months, they tracked the insects’ migration from their backyard garden in Scarborough, Ont. to central Mexico. In 1976, after 40 years of searching, they climbed to the summit of Cerro Pelón, a mountain in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, along with a National Geographic photographer, where they encountered the same spectacle that we now gazed at in wonderment.
Despite having fewer than 500 nautical miles of sailing experience between us, Robin and I had decided to make our own southbound migration and visit the site of Fred and Norah’s discovery. Our sailboat, MonArk, a 1979 Dufour 35, had been our home for the past two years and while she floated, she was far from seaworthy. We spent that summer plastered in a mixture of sweat and fibreglass in a boatyard, stripping her down to bones and replacing the deck, rigging, and electronics.
We set sail from Ucluelet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in September and hit our first spate of bad weather only four days in. MonArk shuddered as 20-foot waves pounded her starboard quarter. Our only thought was of keeping her upright as we corkscrewed in the 30-knot winds. We were two days from land; all ports of refuge were closed. The thought that a single mistake, like an unclipped harness, could wash either of us into watery black oblivion was terrifying.
After two days of misery, we pulled into Eureka, California with our engine spewing oil, a battered sail, and bruised egos. Humbled, we went about our repairs, trying to ignore the cooling air, an ominous harbinger of the Arctic lows that would soon begin their relentless march down the coast. It was hard to believe that just a few hundred kilometres south of us, tens of thousands of tiny butterflies from west of the Rocky Mountains were now congregating in Pismo Beach, California, having completed their shorter but no less hazardous migration.