An island in the storm

Southern California is not a peaceful place. It is the densest region in America. The vast aglomeration of malls and freeways and subdivisions stretches west from the Pacific Ocean inland to the Sierra Nevada and the Sonora and Mojave deserts, north from exclusive Santa Barbara to the impoverished towns on the Mexican border.

Tranquility is hard to find in this arid, sun-washed, palm-plastered arc of landscape, but it sill exists in one little-known corner: the Channel Islands. Five of the eight Channel Islands off the Southern California coast have been preserved as a national park. The most remote and least visited of the islands is Santa Rosa, where I spent three days this week.

Getting there is not easy, which helps explain how these natural nooks have been preserved within sight of the crowds and congestion of the adjacent mainland. It is especially difficult when storms make the passage from the mainland turbulent and entirely cancel many a trip.

It was a stormy day and I did not know until the last minute whether our ship would leave the harbor in the small city of Ventura. A trip to an adjacent island, San Miguel, was canceled, but despite a forecast of rough water, we did set sail.

Twice a week the 63-foot ferry is usually scheduled to embark for the three-hour trip across the often turbulent Santa Barbara Channel. It weaves its way through oil platforms in the channel. It passes an occasional fishing boat. It sails next to seals resting on a buoy and diving in the sea.

And it pauses as a group of dolphins—with a degree of cooperation human communities could envy— isolates, surrounds and confuses a large school of fish. There is a plentiful lunch for them all, so plentiful that an occasional dolphin takes time off to cavort around our ship.

Some 25 miles off the coast, Santa Rosa, unlike the other Channel Islands, has a Northern California climate, often cool, cloudy and windy. The briskness of the air is compensated for, however, by the ruggedness of the landscape.

The island, some 15 miles long by 10 miles wide, consists of steep, rolling grassy hills, split by narrow, deep canyons. We spent most of a day on a 16-mile hike to and through one such area, Lobo Canyon. Here as in many other of the island’s canyons, a stream flows. Sometimes there are white-water rills, other times pools deep enough for bathing.

The ubiquity of fresh water amid the otherwise arid landscape is doubly entrancing. There is only one camping area with its own water and it is about a mile and a half from the boat landing. Another spring is located some 9 miles inland, more than a mile from the second-closest camping area. As everywhere in Southern California, water is a scarce and precious commodity.

Alongside the streams, vegetation, including some plants that exist nowhere else, flourish and threaten to overwhelm the narrow trails that human use has carved out.

There are also unique fauna, most notably a small fox about the size of large house cat. Sit and watch quietly for a while, and sooner or later one will emerge from the grass to steal an unguarded snippet from a campsite table.

Photo by Thelma Bowles.

On my last day on the island, I waited patiently for our boat to arrive. As other passengers waited on the pier, I found a protected nook and sat quietly alone beside Belchers Bay.

Here, I shirtlessly relished the sun while avoiding the stiff breeze blowing down the beach.

I watched the tide creep in toward my feet. The waves washed in, rose and fell. Whitecaps danced and dispersed. Pelicans and terns dove from a cloudless sky, plunging into the waves or skimming the whitecaps.

I was hypnotized. Each wave—like each snowflake, like each flame in a fireplace—was identical to every other but each was also distinct, unique, its own tiny, separate entity. Like people.

There was no ship in sight, but soon there would be, and it would be time to leave. As entrancing as was the landscape, staying longer was not an option. There would not be another ship for a week. Reluctantly, I put on my shirt, walked into the wind and joined the other passengers on the pier.

I will not forget Santa Rosa. 

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