Island hopping: With nature restored, Channel Islands dazzle

06/30/2013 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:44 AM

CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK – Back on the mainland, a June gloom had taken hold, its lugubrious gray sheet of marine fog draped like a damp dish towel over the horizon all the way from Santa Barbara to Oxnard.

As Ryland Grivetti made his morning commute on Highway 101 from Santa Barbara to the Ventura harbor, he happened to catch sight offshore of a single shard of light piercing the cloud cover, partially illuminating those brown smudges that are the five islands making up Channel Islands National Park.

He thought, "This is gonna be a good day."

Grivetti turned out to be right – yet also wrong.

The sun, though merely a rumor on the mainland, shone brilliantly against the subtly hued volcanic rock of Santa Cruz, the largest island in the northern chain. It turned the placid water at least 50 shades of blue, seemingly made the wild-growing dudleya plant stand even taller and lengthened the shadows in the innumerable sea caves through which Grivetti leads tourists in kayaks.

Where Grivetti was wrong – and he later admitted as much – is that it's always a good day out on the islands, regardless of the whims of the weather.

"A lot of people from Santa Barbara actually never come out here," Grivetti said. "It's something you stare at every day, but you never get too clear of a view. It's just this barren rock to most people. They don't know."

A day trip to any of the five islands – the two most popular and easily accessible are Santa Cruz and Anacapa, ferry service to Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara islands being spotty – not only gives visitors a greater appreciation of the delicate biogeography at work and how nonnative flora and fauna have been systematically removed and endemic plants and animals reintroduced, but also serves as an escape for weary souls whose blood pressure hits 201 when driving on the 101.

Unlike Santa Catalina Island, technically part of the Channel Island chain but privately owned and not afforded national park status, these islands sell no cheap trinkets or overpriced drinks. They don't cater to the "customer" at all, the exception being the daily ferries for eco-tourists from Ventura. You're pretty much on your own to explore and just, you know, be.

There are, however, park-sponsored volunteer naturalists to lead interpretive hikes, and Grivetti's employer, Santa Barbara Adventure Co., is one of three companies licensed to offer sea-cave kayaking.

Still, it is arguably the chillest place in all of SoCal. No cellphone reception? No worries. No potable water? Lug your own. No tony restaurants with small-plate meals? PB&J and a banana will do just fine. No hotels? Pitch a tent near the few remaining (nonnative) eucalyptus trees on Santa Cruz.

It's not, however, an act of ascetic deprivation. If anything, your senses get overwhelmed by the show nature puts on.

Knowing the long, sordid history of the islands makes you appreciate their current state all the more. They weren't always under National Park Service and Nature Conservancy (the western half of Santa Cruz) auspices.

A plague of black rats made Anacapa almost uninhabitable for native sea birds. Sheep and wild boars, both invasive, ate every native plant in sight on several islands and dug up the delicate volcanic soil like hairy rototillers. The island kit fox on Santa Cruz was dying off after an unceasing assault by invasive golden eagles, and the deer mice were dwindling fast, as well.

In the two centuries before it became public land, rapacious entrepreneurs tried sheep and cattle ranching, took a stab at a vineyard and winery and, once the boars overran everything else on Santa Cruz, big-game hunting of sheep and those pigs.

Slowly – but swiftly, if you consider geologic time – the fragile ecosystem was brought back from the brink. The invasive rats were poisoned to extinction 10 years ago; the pigs have been culled. Restoring balance after an epoch of havoc has not been easy and remains a work in progress. There's still ice plant to remove from Anacapa, more native bald eagles to reintroduce, more depleted and barren soil to restore so as to play host to native plants.

National Park Service workers toil away at preservation and restoration while tourists snap smartphone pics. Staunch environmentalists want the islands closed to the public, but others welcome eco-minded visitors.

You hear, sometimes almost in three-part harmony, the squawk of the western gulls, the bark of the sea lions sunning on rocks and the clicking trill of ashy storm petrels. You smell the ammoniacal stench of gull guano staining the sheer rock faces, as well as the more pleasant soapiness of coyote brush. You feel the rough-textured volcanic cliffs as you pass through a cave while kayaking, and feel the crunch under your feet of ground-up shells and fossils formed 20 million years ago. And what you see all around is evidence of nature – maybe not in pristine condition, but rapidly heading toward full restoration.

It is possible, though limiting, to experience the island's natural wonders up close without ever stepping foot onshore, let alone hiking into the backcountry.

Kayaking is the most popular mode of transport. Three businesses are licensed to lead sea-caving expeditions, mostly on Santa Cruz and Anacapa islands. But it's not as if the caves become traffic jams. You can dart in and out of deep, dark and cramped coves all day without running into another group because of the untold scores of caves, from the small, tightly squeezed Marge Simpson Arch (so named because its silhouette is the spitting image of the cartoon character, big hair and all) to the expansive, pitch-dark Cavern Point Cave.

You won't merely be rubbing shoulders and paddles with the volcanic rock eroded by so many waves through so many millennia; you'll also see the petrels burrowing inside some caves and cormorants and pigeon guillemots swooping down to snatch fish right in front of you.

Even the most reluctant novice can handle the sea caves, with practice, while still gawking at nature. The participants, who included a 6-year-old from Indiana, a couple from London, two retirees and a middle-aged newspaper reporter, paddled and battled through the tightest of squeezes of the eight caves Grivetti felt the group was game enough to try. Only once did someone "dump out" – the Londoners – but they recovered nicely and reported that the water wasn't hypothermic cold, just chilly.

Grivetti said you could go all day without navigating through every cave on Santa Cruz and Anacapa. He also likes to leave time for the tourists to hike the hills or snorkel in the clear, Aqua Velva-blue cove near the ferry launch.

But sea kayaking is Santa Cruz's most popular tourist activity, mostly because of the caves. Wisely starting out with easily navigable caves, Grivetti took the group through Elephant's Belly, an indentation of ample width. At high tide, there's only one rock to avoid. Gaining confidence, the group kept paddling west, parallel to the shoreline, until we slid through a tower at Seal Beach. Alas, no seals were present to laud the group's flawless paddling. The third cave, dubbed In and Out, featured closed-in walls and a swirling, undulating water flow. Three of the four kayaks had already made it through when a scream even more high-pitched than the gulls' cries echoed from the cave.

"I tipped a little to the side to push off the edge because we were stuck," Brittney Milcher explained later. "So I leaned and leaned and then, next thing, we were in the water. It just happened."

Gravetti, smiling: "It's not a successful day if we don't have at least one dump-out."

Other tight squeezes and crashing-wave caves were negotiated, and at Cavern Point, Grivetti allowed paddlers to opt out. No one did. Cavern Point, which extends deep into the cliffs, is darker than dark and gives voice to eerie moaning and squawking sounds echoing off the slick walls. Paddling back into the sunshine was like emerging from the belly of a whale.

Back on shore with a few more hours left before being ferried back to Ventura, some of the group went hiking. Others, some in wetsuits, snorkeled in the clear, shallow, 55-degree water.

Those who chose to dine seemingly had even more exposure to nature than those who went looking for it. That's because the island fox, free to roam now that the golden eagles have been shooed away, have in recent years become brazen in their food lust. The little creatures, about the size of a house cat but with the trademark bushy tail, have been known to skulk around picnic areas and take a sandwich or two. Ditto the ravens, a native species that are much bigger and bolder than their mainland counterparts. Without lambs to feast upon since the sheep eradication, the ravens take what they can get.

"I swear I've seen (foxes) just tear up a closed backpack to get at food," Grivetti said. "They're pretty resourceful."

Resilient, too. In fact, all of the animals native to the five islands have learned to adapt and rejuvenate after near-extinction due to man's meddling.

Nowhere is that more evident than on Anacapa, east of Santa Cruz. Anacapa, which consists of three small islets, has become a top breeding ground for once-endangered brown pelicans, which have staked claim to the western islet where tourists are not allowed.

And on the 1-square-mile east island, the nesting western gulls merely tolerate the humans tramping the trails and watching their parenting skills.

As the group followed naturalist Bart Francis from the visitors center to Inspiration Point a mile away, the gulls kept close watch over their broods, the smallest of the birds hiding at their webbed feet. We're talking thousands of gulls dotting the cliff edges and plains.

To protect themselves from predators, the mature gulls unleash incessant wails of protest, the piercing tone best described by novelist and Santa Barbara resident T.C. Boyle as "like the opening and closing of a door on balky hinges."

Protecting their chicks is the gull's top priority and, without invasive predators on Anacapa, the main worries are human threats. Sometimes, Francis added, chicks inadvertently cause their own demise when they stray from their designated breeding area and home in on another "family."

"And when that happens," Francis said, "it tends to end badly" for the chick.

That scenario played out, just once, on that day's hike. A woman stopped in her tracks and pointed to a gull pecking away angrily at a chick that had hopped over.

"I think she might kill it," the woman warned. Francis kept the group moving, so as not to aggravate more birds.

"Just part of the gull wars," he muttered. "Happens."

Gull infighting is natural, unlike the infestation of black rats that once swarmed over Anacapa and feasted upon gull eggs. It's unclear how the rats got to Anacapa – some say it was on the SS Winfield Scott, which ran aground in 1853; other say they came via Coast Guard workers erecting buildings on the islets – but the rats nearly decimated the seabirds.

The rats' reign of terror ended abruptly in the early 2000s, when the park service used helicopters to drop poisoned pellets over one square mile. Within a year, the $3 million project succeeded, but not without controversy. Some in the animal rights community condemned the holocaust of any animal species that had been there for more than 100 years. Others filed lawsuits on environmental grounds. A judge sided with the state, and the rat poisoning commenced.

"It was nothing but successful," Francis said. "Look at all these gulls. As you can see, the seabirds are back."

Back with a vengeance, too. They dominate Anacapa, covering every area not thatched with ice plant. Up next, Francis said, is the removal of that pernicious plant, which, he said, the Coast Guard planted to "beautify" the place nearly a century ago.

The thing is, neither Anacapa nor any other northern Channel Island needs beautification. Their rugged good looks and wild nature prove dazzling enough the closer you look.


CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Location: Four of the five islands composing the national park – San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa – are about 20 miles off the coast between Santa Barbara and Ventura. The fifth, Santa Barbara, is about 46 miles south of Ventura.

How to get there: Commercial ferry service is provided by Island Packers Inc., working out of the Ventura harbor. The majority of the ferries go to Santa Cruz and Anacapa, the two most popular islands. Check the schedule at www.islandpackers.com. Call: (805) 642-1393. Channel Islands Aviation in Camarillo offers flights to Santa Rosa and Catalina islands. Check schedules at www.flightstothechannelislands.com.

Visitors Center: 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura. Open from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; www.nps.gov/chis.

THE ISLANDS

Santa Cruz: Largest island at 61,972 acres, 22 miles long and from two to six miles wide. Volcanic rock dominates the north of the island, sedimentary to the south. The island is split between National Park-owned land (the east) and land owned by the Nature Conservancy. Activities include camping, sea cave kayaking, hiking, snorkeling.

Anacapa: Made up of three islets, of which only the eastern part is open to the public. The islands, in total, are home to 265 species of plants and large colonies of seabirds such as brown pelicans and western gulls. Activities include interpretive hikes, sea cave kayaking, and exploring kelp forests and tidepools.

Santa Rosa: The second-largest island, it encompasses 53,051 acres – 15 miles long and 10 miles wide, with a coastal lagoon and sand dunes. Activities include beaches, snorkeling, hiking amid the Torrey pines and in Lobo Canyon.

San Miguel: The most forbidding and westerly of the islands, San Miguel is 9,491 acres, eight miles long and four miles wide. More than 100,000 sea lions breed on the island each year. Ranchers raised sheep on the island for nearly 100 years, despite harsh conditions. Activities include the Cabrillo Monument and the Lester Ranch Site, camping.

Santa Barbara Island: The smallest island and the most remote of the chain, Santa Barbara is about one square mile and flanked by twin peaks. Chartered boat trips are infrequent. Activities include hiking, camping and snorkeling at Landing Cove.


ISLAND HOPPING

From Humboldt Bay on down to Coronado, California boasts plenty of islands, many habitable and welcoming to tourists, some remote and forbidding.

Over four weeks, we are visiting four of the more noteworthy and popular islands for tourists.

June 16: The Farallon Islands, 27 miles west of San Francisco

June 23: Angel Island in San Francisco Bay

Today: The Channel Islands off Ventura and Santa Barbara

July 7: Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles

To catch up on Sam McManis' island series, go to www.sacbee.com/travel.

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.

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