Mammoth Proportions: Paddling through the Pleistocene in Channel Islands NP

Santa Rosa Island is home to the oldest human remains discovered in North America and it's best accessed by kayak

A pygmy mammoth skull in Channel Islands National Park.
A pygmy mammoth skull in Channel Islands National Park.

Story and photos by Chuck Graham

I noticed the archeologist on the Island Packers ferry, and I knew what he was there for. He and his team were going to excavate a recently discovered mammoth skull with tusks attached on Santa Rosa Island. The Channel Islands National Park was keeping its whereabouts under wraps to stymie any would be looters, but realistically who would make such an attempt? It's not an easily accessible place to begin with, kayaking to this eroding canyon being the most viable option.

With a persistent drought hanging tough across a parched Southern California, all we wanted from our paddling trip was to find fresh water. I had paddled to this specific canyon on Santa Rosa Island several times in the past and it's always been one of the more reliable water sources throughout the Channel Islands National Park.

There are a couple of other things about this particular canyon though that will take one back to the Pleistocene Era, but only if you arrive by paddle. Not that it’s the easiest place to kayak; there is a lot of exposure to the northwest where wind and swell can ruin a paddling trip around the islet. Broad offshore shoals extend at least a mile off the island, which can make it tricky for launching and landing, especially on the exposed north side of Santa Rosa.

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On this day though, we would gratefully have calm weather while paddling four miles east from neighboring San Miguel Island. It was very calm as myself, Craig Fernandez and Danny Trudeau hugged the craggy bluffs of Santa Rosa Island, paddling downcoast and looking for any hint of water. When we reached the canyon we pulled our heavy, gear-laden kayaks up the steep berm of cobble, splintered driftwood and twisted kelp. Unfortunately it was the first time ever that I didn't see water in the freshwater estuary, so I had my doubts about squeezing any water out of the remote canyon.

As we moved up the canyon it wasn't long before we ran into a gurgling spring. Above it was the dig site of the oldest human remains discovered in North America. Two femurs of a man were found in an eroding bluff by Dr. Phil Orr in 1959. Those remains have been dated to 13,200-years-old.

Dig site on Santa Rosa Island.
Dig site on Santa Rosa Island.

We continued up the canyon and after a half mile further we ran into several strands of caution tape clinging to the bluff and coyote bush. Someone was digging in a deep hole in the dried up creekbed. Then I saw the archeologist that was on the boat ride to Santa Rosa several days earlier. We looked at each other and sort of laughed at the situation. After all, there are lots of canyons on the island, so what were the odds it would be this canyon?

"I'll take a wild guess," I said sarcastically. "This must be the mammoth site?"

"Yeah, you can't be here," he said, shaking his head while waving us off.

"Fair enough," I replied. And with that we headed back down the canyon to our kayaks carrying enough water to finish our trip.

Camp on Santa Rosa Island.
Camp on Santa Rosa Island.

The mammoth skull and tusks were eventually excavated from the creekbed, helicoptered to the pier at Bechers Bay and then boated off the island to the Park Service headquarters. It was the most significant discovery of mammoth remains on the islands since 1994, when a complete skeleton was discovered and placed in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

It's also been determined the mammoth is roughly the same age as the man discovered in 1959. One of the bevy of things scientists are now trying to determine is if this man of the Pleistocene Era actually killed this particular mammoth. There's never been a kill site discovered on the volcanic archipelago so it would be significant.

It's already known this Pleistocene Era man was resourceful. Whoever he was, he knew how to build some type of watercraft. At some point he stood on the coastal mainland in what is now Santa Barbara County, and decided to paddle his crude raft/canoe from the mainland across the Santa Barbara Channel to what is now also known as "the Galapagos Islands of the north.”

More from C&K

Paddle the Parks: Channel Islands National Park

Photo Gallery: Slide Film is Bliss by Chuck Graham

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