May 15, 2013
The Channel Islands
[Posted Jan. 17, 2015, incorporating writing from 2013]
While working on my MA in journalism, I was still doing a few things here and there for UNAVCO. One of those things was school visits. In May or June of 2012, when I was originally supposed to be done with my master's, I headed to the Ventura area north of L.A. to visit a school to talk about the GPS station in their backyard. (Many of the GPS sites in the Plate Boundary Observatory network are located at schools.) I spoke with all their 4th-8th graders, or something like that. The staff at the school told me about the Channel Islands, which I'd heard of but didn't realize you could actually get to. I resolved to go the next time I was in the area.
Which was the next year. In May of 2014, I flew back out to L.A. after finishing my master's, drove up to Ventura, got a hotel, spoke to a crowd of 7th and 8th graders at another school, and booked a trip to one of the Channel Islands. After a little research, I decided to start with the island of Santa Cruz, which is probably the most accessible. I'd do two nights, with day hikes.
The Channel Islands are often compared to the Galapagos. They are islands. They have animals that are found only on one island or another. They are bits of land sticking up out of the ocean. They are rock surrounded by water. Regardless, I was fascinated, and particularly interested in wildlife.
On the way out, one of the staff on the boat started talking about the sea lions and their change in numbers, and I pulled my notebook out like I was a reporter and jotted down notes and thought about writing up a piece on it after the trip. Maybe the animals' increasing appearances have to do with climate change? That would be writing-worthy.
This is what was going on:
These flippered beasts were on a buoy we were passing, and most everyone, including myself, leaned over the railing to get some shots. Funny thing is, both these species are sea lions. They're all sea lions! Those seal-looking things, they're sea lions. That huge thing? It's a sea lion. They're just different types. The respectably sized critters are California sea lions, common in these parts. The big mammer jammer is a Steller sea lion. They're relatively rare this far south, said the guide. They've seen just a few over the years. She didn't have information on why they've been coming around--that was the journalistic part I was going to do after the fact, so here's my take-a-few-minutes-to-research stab now:
A very preliminary glance indicates that the Steller sea lion is on the decline, especially in Alaska; according to Wikipedia, they *used to* breed as far south as the Channel Islands, but have not been seen there since the 80s. Maybe they're coming back?
The guide did, however, teach me the difference between a seal and a sea lion. Ready? It's actually pretty simple to tell them apart. Sea lions can walk on their flippers. Seals, not so much. So if you see something climbing around on the rocks, it's a sea lion. If all it can do is slither, it's a seal. A week or so later, I watched seals get up onto some rocks in the La Jolla cove, and they had to wait for the right wave to get them the right height to be able to just slip onto the solid surface. Silly seals. (There are other differences, too, but that's an obvious one.)
Further similarities between Galapagos and Channel Islands, as observed in my notebook:
"Perhaps most significantly, I realized I'm wearing the same bra that I wore in the Galapagos. In 2006. Over six years ago. I'd say that's a good bra, but it actually feels a little flimsy. Might be time for retirement."
[No picture. You're welcome.]
Upon landing on the island, voyagers split off their different ways. Some were there just for the day, to hike or to kayak. Others, like myself, were there for the night, and headed back to the campground to settle in. I talked to approximately no one. I feel the need to mention that I was in a tough spot emotionally, and was not what I like to think is my usual amicable and friendly self. I was feeling anti-social and could I have had a camping area all to myself, I gladly would have. I had decided against backpacking and wilderness camping, though, so I was stuck with a campground, but that didn't mean I had to actually interact with people.
Animals, on the other hand, are something I did hope for interaction with. The islands have foxes, creatively named the island fox, that is only found in the Channel Islands. And, similar to finches or tortoises in the Galapagos, there are six sub-species of the island fox, one for each island they live on. I learned this and more from a park ranger and a handout or two.
After getting my tent set up, I left my campsite to look for water. Stepped into the bathroom to see if there was a sink. There wasn't. Read a notice about hanta virus. Remembered the whole spiel from the ranger about the foxes, and why we have the bear boxes. Came back promptly to my campsite to find two cherry tomatoes on the picnic table. Croissant with brie: Gone.
The foxes, as it turns out, are not shy. And, of course, we'd not supposed to feed them. I didn't mean to, but in hindsight I probably could have gotten a fine. I would have much, much rather fed myself.
I set off for a walk to explore a bit.
The main attraction to the island is its fantastic coast. But much of the island was once ranchland, low and rolling or bluffy and somewhat flat. And there are now trails to explore all this, on the east end of the island, which is national park. After a night's sleep in the campground, I took advantage of the trails to do two main hikes. One runs counter-clockwise along the bluffs on the north side of the island and cuts south inland to the top of the ridge that forms the island's rough backbone. I did that one first. It came recommended by the rangers and I was preeeetty much alone the whole time. Saw people along the bluffs at the beginning of the trail and then a trio of folks at the summit who had taken a different route, and that was about it. Thankfully.
I took my time coming down. I spent some time on the ridge, exploring the interesting plants, and then came down into the plains, exploring the relics of past (unfruitful) oil exploration.
That night, I gathered up a picnic and headed up to the bluffs.
It turns out there was a throne carved or worn into the rocks. It was a throne carved out of lithified shells. It had this view.
Back in my tent, I was inspired to write about how good it felt to be "home."
Oh, dear lord, how lovely. I am in my tent, shoes off, socks off, lying on my belly on a Thermarest that so far is inflated. Wind roars through the valley, pushing through the eucalyptus, menacingly. I forget we are in the ocean.
Gurua [ocean fog] came through today, like on Sierra Negra, flowing up over the ridges from the west, and down into the eastern valleys, pushed like the eucalyptus by the wind. It hit just as I was climbing the ridge up to the island's backbone, the mist hiding black-rocked valleys and the top of the ridge.
The land here smells delicious. I can't quite place it, but away from the campground smells--food and latrines--the air carries the dried grasses, maybe the smells of lichen and rocks, the odd little flowers. It smells fresh. Sometimes, of the sea.
My feet are still recovering. Although the hike wasn't hard, I could feel my muscles stiffening up in the cold on the ridge when I went to eat dinner and watch the sun set. I didn't stretch. I was too cold. Here, in the valley, warm air is cradled between the hills--although I can hear the wind all around, in waves, none reaches my tent. But up on the bluffs, wind has whisked the day's warmth away to cycle into the night. Fresh. Starting anew.
My feet are still recovering, still exhaling, still relieved to be out of shoes and socks, and free of weight. Mmmmm. A shower will feel great tomorrow. Up on the ridge, I was cold in my fleece shirt and wind jacket. Here, I am warm in my tee. I have only the screen up for the tent door.
Something nearby is creaking in the wind. The campground is otherwise mostly quiet--surprisingly so. Did everyone turn in at dusk? Fine by me.
The next morning, I set off on the more popular hike, an out-and-back to a beach. I would need to make it back in time for the afternoon ferry. The hike started out on bluffs, like the day before, but headed south on the island into the ranchland. I said a polite hello to a person or two on the trail but mainly kept to myself. This was a personal journey.
Right. It was a personal journey... until it wasn't. Something happened. I think it was when I saw the three people pictured above. I saw these people together who looked like they were enjoying each others company and themselves, and were around my age, and I got a little envious. I wanted someone to be with, too.
So I timed my return with a group that I saw departing back up the ridge, and struck up a conversation on the way back. And I pretty much put the camera away. Longer story short, I made new friends.
When we got back to the campground, I didn't have much time. But I did have enough to have a drink with my new friends. Given that I hadn't drank for pretty much all the previous year, it made for an interesting trip off the island. But totally worth it.