By Chuck Graham
When I landed my kayak on the sweeping white sands of Cuyler Harbor on the north side of San Miguel Island, the thought of stepping on unexploded ordnance never crossed my mind. After all I had just paddled from neighboring Santa Rosa Island to the east and I was fairly stiff and the northwest winds were chilling me to the bone. I needed to walk around on the deserted anchorage.
I never had any fear of stepping on a bomb on the windswept Isle anyway, and now, to a certain extent that potential has diminished. After a two-year closure San Miguel Island, the westernmost isle in the Channel Islands National Park, reopened to the public May 17. I could easily guarantee myself that notion by simply staying put in my kayak, but this is San Miguel where more seals and sea lions dwell than anywhere else in North America, where pygmy mammoths once roamed and where the seafaring Chumash Indians thrived for thousands of years, island hopping in their dugout canoes known as tomols.
In the interest of public safety, the U.S. Navy shut San Miguel Island down in April 2014. Once a bombing range during WWII through the 1970s, the Navy expressed concerns over unexploded ordnance, so they conducted a thorough sweep of high-use areas across the scenic, windswept islet. San Miguel spans 14-square-miles and the Navy’s survey covered 1 percent of the total area.
Those areas included 18 miles of marked hiking trails leading to remote places like the massive seal and sea lion rookery at Point Bennett and ghostly caliche forest to the west, rugged Harris Point to the north, the steep bluffs at Cardwell Point to the southeast and of course breathtaking Cuyler Harbor.
San Miguel is home to over 100,000 seals and sea lions that use the island to breed and haul out on its remote beaches. The island flora is particularly sensitive with over a dozen plant species that are endemic to the chain occurring on the island. Also sensitive are the many archeological sites. The island and its surrounding rock outcroppings and islets support one third of breeding seabirds in the National Park.
“It was a process the Navy had to go through,” said Yvonne Menard, chief of interpretation and public information officer for the Channel Islands National Park. “The reopening of San Miguel was not influenced by the centennial of the National Park Service. It’s great though it’s happening this summer.”
No high explosive items were discovered in the high-use areas, but 125 pounds of munition items such as practice bombs, bomb fragments and fuses were removed. To set foot on San Miguel today kayakers and day-trippers must now sign an access permit and liability waiver. Permits will be available at the boat and air concession offices and at a self-registration station located at the trailhead of Nidever Canyon at Cuyler Harbor on San Miguel Island.
The 8-mile-long, 4-mile-wide island will not be open when a ranger is not present or if other National Park Service (NPS) personnel were to be unavailable. Since San Miguel was added to the National Park in 1980, visitors were always required to be escorted by a ranger beyond the ranger station. Despite the sweep of unexploded ordnance that practice will remain in place.
“Only high-use areas were surveyed,” continued Menard. “They didn’t go off established trails, so hiking across the island with a ranger will remain status quo.”
The NPS is however allowing visitation on a trial run through the air with Channel Islands Aviation located in the Camarillo Airport. This service was identified in the 2015 General Management Plan for the Channel Islands National Park. An already established landing strip is located next to the old Lester Ranch site near the ranger station.
—Read more about Alaskan paddling adventures by Chuck Graham on C&K