Home Waters

Life in the Channel Islands

This story is featured in the December 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine, on newsstands now.

By Chuck Graham
Photos by Chuck Graham and Dave Costello

We hunkered in the lee of an eroding bluff, our faces covered in kelp flies and raw from the stinging blast of wind-driven sand. The weather radio repeated its warning until it blended into the background, a mélange of pummeling surf, shrieking seabirds, incessant wind and that damned robotic voice, telling us over and over again that this northwest gale was going to blow for three more days, at least.

I couldn’t take it anymore. “C’mon,” I said. “We’re getting out of here.” Dave Glaser and I had been marooned on this windblown strip of sand for nearly 24 hours, having made the eight-mile crossing from Santa Rosa Island in sit-on-top kayaks the previous day. The wind came without warning late that afternoon, forcing us to take refuge near the west end of Santa Cruz, the largest of California’s Channel Islands.

Glaser stared at me incredulously with sand-caked, bloodshot eyes. He had no interest in paddling around the island’s exposed west end. I told him we didn’t have to. “All we have to do is portage our kayaks across this finger of the island, and launch from the next cove,” I said confidently. He nodded dubiously, and we began the first of two grueling carries to a slightly more protected cove a half-mile to our north.

We packed our kayaks at the deepest part of the cove, squinting into the wind, which funneled straight toward us at 35 miles per hour. Then we charged straight into the gale, smashing through 6- to 8-foot wind-waves. We could have turned and paddled with the wind at our backs, traveling southeast along the island’s exposed front-side, but the down-coast current was so strong we feared it would drive us into the 400-foot-tall cliffs on the west end of the island. So we paddled straight out to sea, fighting the wind for more than an hour to bank a mile of hard-earned sea room between ourselves and the looming volcanic cliffs.

The route took us into the Potato Patch, a place near the west end of the Santa Cruz Channel where currents from as far away as Alaska and Mexico collide, creating roiling underwater eddies and other extraordinary aberrations of nature. We tried to put our nervousness aside, making slow and arduous progress until we cleared the cliffs and turned away from the wind. Then we negotiated big, sloppy seas pushing us along the edge of the impact zone, where the waves heaved themselves against the cliffs and sent backwash rebounding hundreds of yards toward us. We faced six miles of this before the first conceivable landing point, and Glaser’s kayak already had taken on a lot of water. The hull sat low in the turbulent water and was becoming dangerously unstable.

“We need to find someplace to land, soon,” he said nervously, but all we could do was keep paddling. Finally, after about two miles of white-knuckle paddling, we came across a rock outcropping where Glaser was able to haul his kayak out of the water to pump out his hull, balancing precariously on slick rock encrusted with razor-sharp barnacles. He repeated the exercise twice before we reached a nameless cove where we stopped to regroup. With Glaser’s boat dried out and the gale at our backs, we began to make great time. I felt the tension in my shoulders loosen, and my vice-like grip on the paddle relax. Glaser and I were grinning widely when we surfed into Scorpion Anchorage, where we caught the ferry to the mainland.

The Fox and the Eagle

Two days later, I was back in the lifeguard tower at Carpinteria, California, looking across Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands, and replaying my latest adventure. The beach I’ve guarded for the last 19 years lies just beyond the Los Angeles megalopolis, the birthplace of urban sprawl, home to 18 million people and an apron of concrete 100 miles long and 50 wide. I spend my days with my back to all that, staring at the pristine wilderness offshore. Channel Islands National Park is less than 20 miles from the mainland, but worlds apart in biodiversity and natural history. The park’s five islands are best explored in a kayak, and over the last 15 years I’ve used mine to find hundreds of hidden coves and beaches not accessible on foot or by motorboat. I’ve gotten to know the islands intimately, but they never fail to surprise me. It seems that if you return to a place often enough, the subtle changes build on one another until the familiar begins to feel new again.

Take the island fox, one of the 140 species of plants and animals found in the Channel Islands and nowhere else. A cousin of the mainland gray fox, the ancestors of the island fox floated across on storm debris about 20,000 years ago. They thrived and evolved on the three largest Channel Islands, so that the foxes on San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz are genetically unique from each other. If a population were lost on one of the islands, that subspecies would be gone forever.

The foxes of San Miguel Island were close to that fate in 1998, when I paddled between sheer cliffs teeming with seabirds, passed through the largest seal and sea lion rookery in the United States, and pulled my kayak onto the beach at Cuyler Harbor. By coincidence, I met a team of biologists who had come to the island to trap the rare island fox for a captive breeding programmdash;part of a National Park Service effort to restore the island’s biological equilibrium, which had been altered by 150 years of ranching. Pigs escaped from the ranches and prospered so much that by 1980, when the NPS took over management of the islands, the feral pig population had reached 5,000. Golden eagles came to the islands and stayed for the foxes, which hadn’t been preyed upon for 20,000 years. The golden eagles quickly hunted them to the brink of extinction. By that late-summer day in 1998 only 15 foxes remained on San Miguel Island. The Park Service’s aggressive restoration plan was controversialmdash;it included the eradication of the wild pigs and the forced relocation of the golden eaglesmdash;but it was effective.

Years later, slammed by powerful northwest winds on the backside of Santa Rosa Island, Craig Fernandez and I sought shelter in the lee of Cluster Point, where we discovered a growing northern elephant seal colony. Approaching the massive, motionless mammals were two bald eagles, one mature, the other a juvenile. A bald eagle’s diet consists of fish, but they do scavenge on marine mammal carcasses, and this pair was investigating a potential food source. From our kayaks we watched the mature eagle creep up and give a 6,000-pound bull elephant seal an exploratory peck on the snout. Suddenly, with amazing speed, the bull rose to half of its 15-foot length, scaring the raptors skyward where the howling wind immediately caught their wings and flung them beyond Cluster Point.

Bald eagles are native to the Channel Islands, but DDT poisoning decimated them, and for 50 years no one saw a bald eagle in the islands. Then, each year from 2002 to 2006, the NPS, The Nature Conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies released 12 juveniles in the islands. Those eagles and their descendants are now hatching chicks on their own. The bald eagles keep golden eagles at bay, and they don’t eat island foxes.

Arlington Man

It was a funny place for déjà vumdash;a slideshow in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural Historymdash;but when curator John Johnson clicked the slide into place and an image of a windswept beach filled the screen, I knew immediately that I had been there before. A freshwater spring flowed into a flotsam of bleached driftwood, punctured buoys, tattered fishnets and tangled mounds of kelp strewn across a steep, cobbled beach.

The scene was characteristic of the Channel Islands’ wave-battered shores, but I quickly recognized the unique details of Arlington Spring on the north shore of Santa Rosa Island. I’d stopped there during a solo circumnavigation of the four northern islands several years prior. It’s a tough place to get to, guarded by a series of shoals, and lying straight down-wind from Point Conception.

Years after I stopped there to rest, Johnson’s slideshow revealed the extraordinary secret of this narrow canyon: Its sandstone cliffs house a trove of fossilized remains, from pygmy mammoths to giant mice and flightless geesemdash;all of them, like the island fox, the descendants of shipwrecked mainland ancestors. This remote canyon was also the final resting place of “Arlington Man,” whose 13,200-year-old femurs are the oldest human remains ever found in North America. There’s no evidence that a land bridge ever linked the Channel Islands to the mainland, meaning that Arlington Man got to Santa Rosa the same way I had. He paddled.

When the slideshow was over I made up my mind to go back. I wanted to return to the place Arlington Man had lived. I imagined him exploring what is now Santa Rosa Island, perhaps crossing regularly to the other islands and the mainland, as the Chumash people did for generations. I imagined him fishing the rich waters of the estuary, and perhaps even hunting the pygmy mammoth. Most of all I wanted to paddle where he did and land my kayak on his cobbled beach.

Craig Fernandez agreed to join me on this quest, and I paddled over from Santa Cruz Island to meet him at the ferry landing in Becher’s Bay. By early afternoon, we whizzed around Skunk and East Point along the southeastern tip of Santa Rosa Island, aided by a moderate northwest wind and downcoast current. The weather report called for continued fine weather, but the backside of the island had its own tempestuous microclimate. In just a few minutes, the moderate northwesterly that pushed us around Santa Rosa’s southern fingers had mutated into a full-on gale.

Winds swept over Santa Rosa’s 1,500-foot summit, gathering momentum as they descended through cattail-choked canyons and springs, eventually spitting unruly gusts onto the ocean. The powerful drafts forced the water into dark rippling, cobalt blue sheets lined up at the mouth of every arroyo. I almost capsized twice, and the wind nearly stripped the paddle from my grip on several occasions.

We paddled a delicate line, staying just outside the cresting surf, and taking care not to let ourselves get blown out to sea. After 14 miles of these challenging conditions, we reached Jolla Vieja’s long, cobbled shore, ran the surf-zone gauntlet without incident, and then laughed at each other as we walked off stiff legs.

We camped in the lee of a sandstone bluff. At first light, the air was dead still. Before the sun cleared the horizon we were paddling in sheet-glass conditions, aiming for South Point, protruding from the island like a knobby nose. Thirty minutes after rounding the point, a headwind began to rise. It grew as we passed the wreck of the Chickasaw, a freighter that ran aground here in 1962. The ship’s barnacle-encrusted remains were barely behind us when the building winds forced us to wait out the wind yet again. We huddled against a gritty bluff all that afternoon, and through the night.

The next morning was eerily still. Fog hugged cathedral-like pinnacles and concealed the rogue waves breaking on unseen reefs, their thundering claps periodically shattering the calm. We paddled into the mist, steering by compass and the sound of the surf toward Arlington Canyon. As we drew closer, the fog cleared and I recognized the freshwater marsh. We dragged our kayaks up the steep, cobbled beach and thick clumps of seaweed swarming with kelp flies, then laced our trail shoes and hiked up the canyon. A trickle of freshwater flowed between the fossil-rich canyon walls.

About a half-mile farther up the right canyon we came across rows of tiny multi-colored flags marking the excavation where Arlington Man once dwelled. We stayed back not to disturb the site, instead viewing the dig from the trail.

“A good place to live,” Craig said after a while. “Everything he needed was right here in this canyon and the ocean.”

Arlington Man possessed a fine vantage point with the ocean to the east and the rest of Santa Rosa to the west. The freshwater spring flowed to the cobbled shore where he would have feasted on fish, seals, sea lions and shellfish. With some form of watercraft, he could have traveled across the channel. Craig and I debated what he might have used to build his boat as we descended the canyon to our bright plastic kayaks and shoved off from the same beach Arlington Man had surely launched from so many millennia ago.

Downwinder

The juvenile brown pelican was simply searching for a place to get out of the piercing wind, close its eyes and forget about its problems. With my beanie pulled down tight against the biting cold, I could certainly sympathize. We were wind-bound again, this time on a barren beach called Frenchy’s Cove on West Anacapa. The weather radio wouldn’t shut up about 47 mph winds gusting to 60. Fraser Kersey, Garrett Kababik, Mike Wathan and I were on our way home, a route that would take us east along the six-mile chain of islets collectively called Anacapa Island, then 11 miles across the Santa Barbara Channel to the mainlandmdash;a gauntlet of oil platforms, squirrely currents, shifting weather and one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. But at the moment, we were in the same boat as the pelican.

Nobody bothered to try setting up a tent in this wind, so as the sun sank toward the sheer face of West Anacapa, some of us napped, read and ate. I watched the juvenile pelicans trying to adapt to their windblown habitat. Takeoffs and landings were comically awkward. Instead of diving from the air to spear their quarry, they sat on the surface and stabbed at the rippling waters without success.

Once the sun sank behind the treeless isle, we made a fort out of our kayaks. The temperature dropped as we curled up in our sleeping bags passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels, and slices of sausage and cheese. Another beleaguered pelican waddled between me and the edge of the bluff a few feet away, spread its wings for balance, and whacked me in the eye.

Sometime that night, two of our kayaks blew down the cobbled beach. We crawled shivering out of our sleeping bags, tied the kayaks to each other and to any available driftwood, fortified the structure with the biggest rocks we could find, and tried to go back to sleep. Then, as if someone had shut a window, the wind suddenly stopped around 4 a.m. We tore out of our sleeping bags, frantically stuffing gear into our boats. We were on the water by 5, paddling east toward our first landmark, oil platform Gail. Bracing and bobbing in the leftover wind-swell, we crossed four miles to Gail then veered right, heading southeast three more miles to oil platform Gina, then four more miles across the shipping lanes to Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, surfing wind-waves with a small pod of common dolphins.

The next morning, back in my lifeguard tower, a dense blanket of fog cloaked the islands. Finally, by the late afternoon, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands revealed themselves in the haze. Almost immediately I began planning my next trip.

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