The Outer Banks of Baler

by Olag Selaznog. With new pictures.

Beach along the outer bank.

Fifty-one years ago, my ambition took me out of the Philippines to gamble my life into an uncertain and unfamiliar world. I matured in cold environments and lived most of my life in places that endured the seasonal assault of winter. But it had been in 1964 that I’d experienced a full-fledged winter of 150° below zero temperature. That was when I was assigned and stationed in the South Pole, where the only other population besides us, were penguins and polar bears. After the initial astonishment had passed (along with an impulse to shovel a mountain of snow), one thought remained and haunted me¾ the enchantment of the tropical climate. My longing for warm weather resurrect my memories of Baler seventy-four years back. I used to stroll along the shore of the Outer Banks; an island a kilometer away east of town¾ Sabang, Labasin, and Buton. The hamlet of Castillo at the southern tip was once a part of it. But that area was transformed and relocated by the tidal waves on the other side, east of Kinalapan-Pingit river during the seventies.

Watchtower in Castillo.

It was in 1847, that castillo (fortress) came into existence. Two were built, one was located atop Point Baja (Ermita), and the other was by the outfall of Kinalapan-Pingit River. The construction was an innovation of the parish priest, Fray Jose Urbina de Esparragosa assigned in Baler from June 7, 1840 to 01 May 26, 1853.

Accordingly, the fortresses were built as an observation post or a watchtower. It served to warn the community of marauders/pirates coming to Baler Bay, which happened on occasions. The most severe and catastrophic occurred in the summer of 1798. Marauders from southern Philippines plundered and swept the towns along the Pacific seaboard. In Baler, they had taken prisoner Fray Benito Zambudio or Zamudio, the parish priest, and held him for ransom.


Grotto of the Blessed Mother at Ermita

Today the fortress of Ermita no longer exist it was rooted out by Mother Nature. But on the site where it once stood, a grotto of the blessed mother was erected with the surrounding complimented by modern picnic facilities.

Ermita New Picnic Facility

With the influx of people from the nearby towns of Casiguran, Infanta, Polilio, as far as the Bicol regions, the fortress by the outfall had grown into a thriving fishing community. The inhabitants that settled there named the community Castillo, the fortress.

Consequently, during the tidal waves of the early seventies, the community of Castillo was cut off from the Outer Banks and shifted on the other side of Kinalapan-Pingit River below Ermita. The people renamed the eroded area, Tibag. The Fortress that was moved by the tidal waves survived the destruction. It was now 164 years old located at the back of the chapel engulfed by fig trees and other undergrowth. Regrettably, nobody notices and pay much attention to it. It had been unfortunate that such historical entity was neglected, overlooked and forgotten. I fervently hope that some concerned and wishful politicians from Baler will pave the way for its renovation and preservation. This magnificent landmark should be preserved as part of the history of Baler, a legacy for the future generations of Aurora province to comprehend.

Outfall of Baler (Kinalapan-Pingit) River

On the other hand, the shore of the Outer Banks where tropical splendors are both enticing and alluring has a history both disastrous and heroic.

It was one Sunday on January 1886, after mass, when Fray Venancio Angulo, the parish priest of Palanan who was in Baler vacationing went for a dip in Labasin. He was accompanied by eight years old Manuel L. Quezon, who at that time was living at the convent with Fray Teodoro Fernandez, the parish priest of Baler, and the Sacristan mayor his cousin, Abdon Poblete, and another relative. Both were excellent swimmers. It was during the months of November thru March that the northeast monsoon blows tremendously on the east coast of Luzon. The waves propelled by the wind velocity across the vast Pacific were gigantic, as they always are during the monsoon seasons, almost mountainous on occasion and the riptide was powerful. A huge wave knocked down the priest and little Manuel and the undercurrent carried them out to the Bay. However, his cousin Abdon was able to grab Manuel by the hair and dragged him down the beach. They came back for Father Angulo, but lamentably their effort was unsuccessful. They were not able to find him or his body. It was washed ashore before darkness enveloped the light of day. This pathetic incident had deleteriously impacted the people of Baler that lasted for some time.

Similar incident happened on Sunday, 11 o’clock on 17 May 1948. Father Herman Esselman after baptism decided to go for a dip in Labasin and invited Brother Vincent Scheerer to come along together with the altar boys and other kids of town. Some of us were resident of the convent, also came along; Senyong Novicio (Sacristan Mayor), Ruben Sindac, Ernesto Gonzales, Arming and Rudy Valenzuela, myself, Jorge de la Torre, and Ezer Gonzales.

On the beach we were drawn out into our own personal activities. Ruben, Senyong, and I wallowed on the beach and built sandcastle. We did not concern ourselves about the others chasing talikakas (fiddler crabs). Father Herman with Ezer and Ernesto went for a dipped straight into the bay followed by Brother Vincent. They were just floating and gliding through the rolling waves while enjoying the foamy surf breaking through surface. All of a sudden a big rolling wave swamped on them and carried them further out to sea. They tried to swim back ashore but the riptide was so strong they were held back. Ernesto was able to hold on to Brother Vincent. When the undertow receded Brother Vincent, with his last strength dragging Ernesto with him struggle back ashore catching his breath. For a moment, we on the beach were unaware of what was going on in my surroundings. I kept on chasing the tampalpuki (flounder) flapping through the receding tide struggling to go back at sea. Suddenly, we heard someone yelled, “nalulunod na sila!” When I looked around towards the ocean, I could barely see them. Father Herman with Ezer clinging to him were waving their hands and yelling for help. Brother Vincent still recovering, enervated and tired gasping for breath, jumped back to the sea. When he reached them, he slowly dragged them ashore. Without words from everyone and with Father Herman still throwing off the seawater he ingested, knelt and prayed to thank God saving them from this unexpected tragedy.

On October 17, 1897, transport Cebu (ship) disembarked hundred men of the Spanish Army on the beach of the Outer Banks from Manila, under the command of Captain Don Jesus Roldan Maizonada; they were the relief requested by Don Antonio Irizarri, to quell the Filipino insurgents that massacred Lieutenant Mota’s men the evening of October 4-5, 1897. Maizonada’s men did not make it to the garrison for two days. Novicio and his men held them back, until they were overwhelmed, and eventually retreated back to the hinterland.

Sabang-Labasin Beach - 16 November 1941

On the morning of April 11, 1899, the USS Yorktown, United States navy gunboat anchored at Baler Bay under the command of Commodore Charles S. Sperry on assigned mission to enact the attempted relief of the Spanish garrison of four officers and fifty men besieged in Baler Church from June 27, 1898 to June 2, 1899 by Filipino insurgents.

Commodore Charles Sperry, & The U.S. S. Yorktown (PG-1), 11 April 1899

Immediately, Commodore Sperry directed Ensign W. H. Standley to go ashore with a message to be delivered to the Commander of the beleaguered Spanish garrison. Ensign Standley promptly dislodged a whaleboat from the ship with assistance from the ship’s crew, and paddled his way ashore under a flag of truce. As he was turning the bow of the whaleboat toward the bay, he did not notice that squad of Filipino insurgents were already aligned on the beach awaiting him. An officer of the Philippine insurgent in uniform, Major Nemecio Bartolome approached the boat. Standley met him and through an interpreter informed the Major of his mission to deliver a letter intended for the Commander of the Spanish garrison. Major Bartolome retorted that he could not allow him to communicate with the garrison and stated further that no one could approach the church without being fired upon. Also, he warned him that in view that the Americans were fighting the Filipinos, he doesn’t have any further communication with him, and that should he approach the beach again, he would be fired upon.

Sabang - Labsin Beach, 11 April 1899

Ensign Standley returned to the ship despondent and reported the outcome of his mission to the Commanding Officer who after assessing the situation, decided that another attempt to contact the garrison should be made. He therefore instructed Standley to go ashore again, but as foretold he was fired upon. He retreated back to the ship.

An hour after returning back from ashore, Standley stood watch on the bridge as an officer-of-the-deck. The commodore approached him with binocular in hand scanning the beach and conversed with him about the importance of their mission. He concluded his statement by saying:

“I hate to go back and report to the admiral that I have been unable to carry out his order. On the other hand it seems nonsensical to attempt to force our way through when we have no information whatever as to the location of the church, or can we obtain any information from the highest lookout station on the ship, as nothing is visible from there.”

Pondering on the thoughts of the commodore about the situation, Ensign Standley suggested the possibility of obtaining the needed information about the location of church by getting up to the summit of Point Baja, fringed by Baler Kinalapan-Pingit River south of the town. The commodore expressed doubt of the possibility in reaching the summit without being spotted by the Filipino insurgents. Nevertheless, he stuck to his idea and assured the commodore that he felt sure it could be accomplished.

At dinner, the commodore summoned Ensign Standley and Lieutenant James C. Gillmore at the poop deck. When they reached him, he was conversing with his executive officer. Seeing Ensign Standley and Lt. Gillmore, the commodore diverted the conversation and said: “Standley, I have been contemplating over your suggestion and I would like to know if you think you can make the trip.” He asserted without much ado.

LT. James C. Gillmore, USN

Lieutenant James C. Gillmore, boarded the USS Yorktown in Manila, a day before it went underway for Baler as the ship’s navigator.

The briefings for the returned expedition were again quickly put into action. At dawn, April 12, 1899, a whaleboat was lowered from the starboard side of the Yorktown with Lt. James C. Gillmore, plus fourteen crews. They took off and ferried Ensign Standley and Quartermaster J. Lysaught by Munting Gasang below Point Baja (Ermita). After the two disembarked, Gillmore pulled away. Standley and Lysaught made their way up the summit and map the area where Baler church could be seen and located. Standley accomplished his mission with no incidents and returned to the beach. They were picked up by another boat from the ship. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Gillmore with fourteen crews: Paul Vaudoit, Sailmakers Mate, William Walton, Chief Quartermaster J. Ellsworth, E.J. Nygard, Gunners Mate, W. H. Rynders, Cockswain O. W. Woodbury, Seaman, O. B. M. McDonald, Ordinary Seaman, D. G. A. Venville, 2nd Class Apprentice, John Dillon, Landsman, C. A. Morrissey, Landsman, L. P. Edwards, Landsman, Fred Anderson, Landsman, Silvio Brisolese, Landsman, and Albert Peterson, Apprentice.

Gillmore pressed onward to their assigned area, the mouth of Kinalapan-Pingit River as diversionary taking soundings of the water depth. For no apparent reason Lt. Gillmore decided to go upriver despite a warning from an onlooker, a portent of much to come.

Graphic Photos of Lt. Gillmore Captured & His Men

About a kilometer from the outfall of the river on its sharp bend (known then as Ubbot), Gillmore and his crew were befallen by misfortune. The Filipino insurgents ambushed them.

John Dillon, sitting on the bow beside Layman Edwards was shot right in the forehead. Two crew member Morrissey and Nygard were mortally wounded. McDonald was also killed. When Lt. Gillmore finally ordered to raise a white flag, the firing ceased. Had the Filipinos been good shooters, they could have been all killed. After the commotion, everybody was ordered off the boat with the exception of the dead and the wounded. They were lined on the beach for execution. However, before the command for execution was given, a man on horseback came galloping along the river bank yelling to stop the onslaught on order of the presidente. They were marched to town and kept there for three days, then preceded to San Isidro, Nueva Ecija. From Nueva Ecija they were taken further north to the Ilocos region. On the middle of the jungle their captors deserted them. Colonel Luther Hare and his party rescued them on 28 December 1899.

Since that historic event, the serenity of shore along the Outer Banks remained undisturbed. The only tedious activities taking place were the dehin tinik (residents of the Sabang) snaring fish for livelihood. But in late 1943, the tranquility of the shore was once again disrupted. This time, it was the Japanese occupying force.

Sunrise at Baler Bay

Captain Hatori the commander of the Japanese garrison in Baler, ordered to commandeer every able-bodied man to work on the construction of fill-boxes along the shores, extending from the Outer Banks to Ditale in Dipaculao. Those were in anticipation and preparation for the return of American forces to reclaim the Philippines, should they land in Baler bay. It never materialized.

About mid-March 1945, some Japanese strugglers captured by 205th Squadron were liquidated on the beach. This was to avenge the horrible death of seven Balerians beheaded by the Japanese. Those Japanese that did not die instantly were left to the mercy of the Ilongots.

While my upbringing are not directly related to my experience, the fact remains that images of the tropics are powerful antidotes to frigid temperature, the Outer Banks of Baler offers warmth and beyond, and always a source of an imaginable ideal tropical Shangri-la.

Its arching bay offers the most important nesting habitat for varieties of marine life. Walking through the beach, one would experience the ocean breeze with the warmth of the shores. This could accurately be described as a Utopia of ecstasy. Break away from your usual daily grind and enjoy the excitements that the Outer Banks has to offer, the incredible natural wonders, the most exciting nightlife, the uniqueness of its people and the landscape so spectacular.

Surfing Watchers

The Outer Banks offers inexpensive resorts, as well as affordable digs for tourist. On the beach, you can sun and dive at posh or laid-back seaside shacks.

During my visit in 1998, I checked out both the upscale and the down-island, and found that the Outer Banks is equally accessible to those of us who just want to get off life’s treadmill for a week and relax.

At first glance, the Outer Banks—two kilometers long, stretching about a kilometer at its widest point—seem a bit underwhelming. It’s scrubby, flat-island whose primary beauty lies in its shorelines. Its principal industries traditionally were fishing (still revenue producer) and agriculture. Tourism now is the Outer Bank’s minor source of support, especially surfers from out of the Philippines, has become a prominent economic force in the past four years.

Surfing Competition

While the Outer Banks has been an off-beaten-track destination for travelers in search of peace, quiet and near-deserted beaches for scores, its transformation into a glamorous spot is relatively recent. The tourist revolution started when Baler became the capital of Aurora province.

Just as big a plus as Outer Banks’ peaceful atmosphere are its locals. Residents go beyond being merely polite or pleasantly cheerful, easily inviting you into their lives, and showing you around.

Amid all this down-home reality is Outer Banks popular beach, Labasin-Sabang and Buton, a lovely spot dotted with barbecue shacks and restaurant. Most popular is Bay’s Inn restaurant.

Sabang-Labasin Beach Resort
Sabang-Labasin Beach Resort

Along the shore sprouted several inexpensive inns and discotheque, where nightlife will ease the evening from one’s daily drabness. The most popular are Bays Inn, Maharlika Resort, Baler Guest-House, and MIA Surf and Sport Resort. To gallivant and ease the evening out, one has to try the Majarajah. It would be an experience of a lifetime. It is well maintained, immaculate and cozy. It has a dining hall closed to the beach area. Others like it included; Angara’s Inn, Amihan and Villaluz Inn.

Not far from the discotheque areas is the Headquarters of the Philippine National Police (HPNP). Half a kilometer away, northward is the vacation house of Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, Governor of Aurora province. On the northern tip, is the outfall of Aguang River (Kabilang Sabangan), better known during the founding of old town Baler as the river San Jose. This area was setting of Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” filmed in 1976-79. Off the western side is Duongan River, a tributary of Pudok River emanating from the hinterland. Duongan merges with Baler (Kinalapan-Pingit) River to the south and out to Baler Bay by the inner-loop of Munting Gasang.

Beaches Along the Outer Banks

Stretching from the estuary of Aguang to the outfall of Baler (Kinalapan-Pingit) River only about two kilometers apart, These beach resorts overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is a paradise known to have existed as early as the late 16th century until the town was engulfed by a Tsunami the eve of 27 December 1735, that made it nearly as old as Baler itself. The panoramic vistas it offers have always been popular with locals and outsiders of Aurora province sightseers.

Surfing is an unfamiliar sport in the Philippines as I am aware of, until lately. I know about the sport, but have no idea it became popular hobby in Baler, until Noel Duaso, the Aurora Surfing Cup judge related it to me. He claimed he was the first surfer from Baler. That was 1982, after I had been gone away from Baler for eighteen years, just to return to attend the funeral service of my beloved mother.

During my teen years, surfing was nil and unheard of in Baler. I only became familiar with sport when I was in San Diego during the late 50s. I enjoyed watching the surfers gliding thru the waves, but did not catch on me as hobby. There, it was a routine.

Cemento Cove, & Rock of Dimadimalangat-1948

Apparently, the birth of surfing in Baler have taken place August 1997, when the first Aurora Surfing Cup were conceived and organized through the combined efforts of Olin G. Duaso; Contest Director, and Vangie Palacios; Adviser and Director of Beach Social Events, with supports from the political machineries of Aurora province, and sponsorship’s of Promotional Media from Hawaii; Action Asia Magazine, etc. The first event had taken place September 18-22, from the shore of the Outer Banks and the delta of the Aguang River. The main events took place at the shoal of Malaking Gasang the site where Dapang Bato was located, on the coral reef of Puntian. That site is about a kilometer away from where the vacation house of the late President Manuel L. Quezon and family stood. Today Surfing Cup is an annual event in Aurora.

When the Franciscan missionaries discovered Baler, the shore had been a kind of back alley running between coastal missions. Today, the shore is as popular as ever and draws many visitors, especially frolicking kids that make the beach a lovely¾place along with, and of course the astounding vistas of the Pacific Ocean dominated by silhouettes of the blue-green mountain of the Sierra Madre extending from the foreground, San Ildefonso peninsula west-southward to the promontory of Point Encanto(Pokpok-na-Bundok), where Pagasa weather facility is located.

Sabang-Labasin Beach in 1940

Medievally, the Outer Banks of Baler is what was left of Kinagunasan, a footprint of old town Baler that vanished on the night of 1735.

The view depicted above was a picture of the shore of the Outer Banks taken during the late 1800s. So much has changed since then.

The Outer Banks of Baler is the kind of place where a man can be gone for 51 years and still feel the call to go back. It has a certain welcome about it¾a welcome built around people, all surround with healthy doses of panoramic scenery and tranquility. Whether you’re rekindling the romance of a lifetime or just starting out, you’ll find the honeymoon of your dreams on this tropical island of splendor.

About kidlat

Joseph T. Gonzales, aka Kidlat is the creator of Batangbaler, the website and online community of all the scattered Balereños and Aurorans on Earth. He is based in Baler.

4 thoughts on “The Outer Banks of Baler”

  1. Poppo Olag…. you’re creating something which adds joy to many especially to the Balerianos. Your creative work is truly fantastic. You’ll be leaving a wonderful legacy .. and hopefully by God’s grace there will emerge a highly talented fellow like you; who’ll continue your wonderful ability. It’s a gift from God… let’s give Him praise and thanks above all things. Be blessed Poppo !!!

  2. i wish all the politicians in aurora will comprehend and give thier full attention to preserve the historical entity of aurora. a wonderfull appreciation to poppo olag. all aurorians put our hands together to pull our politians or anybody has the will and power to preserve and protect the historical entity of aurora.
    it create attractions to foreingers and boost our economy for the near future
    diba?

    MABUHAY PO SI POPPO OLAG KAILANGAN KA NAMIN PARA IPAMULAT AT ISIWALAT ANG MGA KAALAMANG NAKATAGO PARA SA MGA KABATAANG AURORIANS. SALAMAT PO!!

  3. For non resident of Baler Aurora Philippines it is very nice to know what is going on .
    I always appreciate what you are doing , and i always learn something new.
    keep up the good work Poppo. many thanks!

  4. Father Herman Joseph Esselman was my favorite uncle. I was born 5 years after the ‘swim’ in your story.
    Every 6 years he would come back to America. Usually by ship. During one of his short vistits to Wisconsin (his birth place) we asked him when he would be able to stay home permenently. He replied ‘the Philipines are my home’. He spent the rest of his life there in his adopted home.
    Thank you for the memory.

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