"This is one of the least visited national parks in America,” explains Matt May, kayak guide for Channel Islands Outfitters.
One hour by boat, then one hour by car, and I’d be in downtown Los Angeles. Rather, I’m one of just a few kayakers paddling between crumbling volcanic sea-cliffs and open ocean in California’s Channel Islands National Park. We’re outnumbered by cormorants, peregrine falcons circle overhead and a lazy sea lion huffs and snorts from amidst a feather-boa kelp bed. While immersed in such a pristine marine reserve, it’s hard to believe that a smoggy metropolis lies just over the southeast horizon. This is the mystery of the Channel Islands: how could a park so scenic and so full of recreational opportunities, and also within 100 km of 18 million people, be so unknown?
Eight biodiverse islands combine to create Channel Islands National Park. Established as a protected area in 1980, the area had been ranched since the early 1800s up until 1984, and has been the traditional land of the seafaring Chumash First Nations for about 10,000 years before that. These craggy, dusty islands are home to 145 endemic species, as well as typical marine life like sea lions, harbour seals and common dolphins; and birdlife such as brown pelicans, brant cormorants and black oystercatchers. Truly, the Channel Islands are California’s Galapagos — though Darwin’s famous stomping grounds see far more visitors in a year.
Arriving after a rough-and-tumble hour-long boat-ride from Ventura Harbour, my wife and I learn these volcanically formed islands contain the world’s largest collection of sea caves, which further piques our curiosity. We soon push off from Scorpion Anchorage, on Santa Cruz Island — the largest and most popular island in the park — in a tandem kayak alongside Channel Islands Outfitters’ guides Matt May and Mara Fuller to see it for ourselves.
Elephant Cave, a quick paddle from shore, is sensibly named. At the edge of an outcropping, the stony outline of an elephant’s head is as obvious as the sky is blue behind it. One by one, we squeeze our kayaks through a cave formed by the pachyderm’s trunk and foreleg, our helmeted heads nearly scraping the jagged rocks within. The Channel Islands rose from the sea some five million years ago, “born of plate tectonics, volcanoes and changing ocean levels,” as described in the interpretive centre. This multifaceted igneous rock is jagged, sharp and prone to crumbling; one keeps one’s hands to oneself when within the caverns.
From Elephant Cave, we paddle further to the half-dome-shaped Harbour Seal Cave, then to Cavern Point Cave, where a sea lion porpoises aimlessly through the thick kelp forest encasing the island. A-hundred-or-so feet above us, we notice the terminus of Cavern Point Trail; one of 15 marked hiking routes crisscrossing Santa Cruz Island. Between our boats and a few lookee-loos atop the precipice, the rock is speckled with cormorants and oystercatchers, while a screeching peregrine falcon warns of our intrusion from above. Beyond Cavern Point, we paddle to In-and-Out Cave — a quickie lending well to a moniker shared with the SoCal burger chain.
Yes, the seascape of Santa Cruz Island is profusely carved-up. A few million years of unobstructed waves and currents will do that, I guess.
The Channel Islands represent a unique and fragile ecosystem. Endemic fauna includes the flightless katydid, island western fence lizard and a ubiquitous miniature fox that looks part squirrel; endemic flora features poetic names like the Santa Cruz Island live-forever, monkey flower and silver lotus. In summertime, more than 10 per cent of the world’s blue whales congregate in the area’s azure expanses. During the last Ice Age, when sea levels were lower and the eight islands were one, oddball species like the oxymoronic “dwarf mammoth” roamed the hills. In fact, a biogeographic study of the Channel Islands revealed some dramatic shrinkage — like the mammoths of yore (which were only about 1.5 metres tall) or the modern-day foxes (North America’s smallest canid). Some species, however, grew bigger, like the local subspecies of scrub-jay or deer mouse, both the largest on Earth.
It is fragile in that unregulated intrusion could decimate this isolated environment — as such, the National Parks Service has opted against infrastructure on the islands. Visitation to Channel Islands is strictly monitored — it’s all pack-in-pack-out, leave no trace and there are zero services.
There is still evidence of past intrusions. For millennia, the local ecosystem thrived — following discovery by European settlers, however, ensuing centuries of interference took their toll. As many as 24,000 sheep were grazing on Santa Cruz Island by the mid-1800s, fuelled by the wool demand of the American Civil War. The island even once held America’s largest winery, cultivating Zinfandel until prohibition killed the industry in 1919. Less than 20 years ago, island foxes were vanishing, as were many native plants, and bald eagles had been gone for decades. Today, though, the balance is being restored, with indigenous animals — including the foxes and eagles — flourishing once again and soil erosion stayed by the reintroduction of native flora.
Paddling back the way we came, the Toilet Bowl is our next challenge — a hook-shaped promontory that amplifies waves into a white-water whirlpool. Approached from the opposite side, Elephant Cave is renamed Marge Simpson, as its mouth now profiles the famous cartoon mom in a most uncanny way. On the leeward point of Scorpion Anchorage, the Green Room — the most beautiful of all caves — is next in line, a labyrinth-like route wherein sunlight illuminates the water to an ethereal emerald hue. Afterward, we are hung-up for a moment at Scorpion Rock Cave, before an ebbing wave forces us through the low-hanging outflow. Surely, one cannot contest the Channel Islands’ claim of World Sea-Cave Capital. Paddling for just a few hours, it feels as though we’ve spent more time in the darkness than the light.
Our group pauses to appreciate the serenity of a protected nook. Matt and Mara — not just adept paddlers but engaging interpretive guides as well — identify nearby curio, which has ranged from an octopus inexplicably hanging from a cliff-side to a dolphin carcass bobbing amidst a tangle of kelp. It’s not sanitized; it’s nature uncensored. Indeed, today’s tour is more enlightening for the mind than demanding for the body.
“I used to come out here with my family, growing up. I always loved it,” expounds Mara, upon our return to shore. “Being out here… it feels like you’re going to a far-away place.”
Later, we fill the remains of the day with a hike along Cavern Point Trail. The three-kilometre moderate loop spirals abruptly upslope from Scorpion Anchorage before cresting atop a plateau with an expansive vista of Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands and the boundless Pacific beyond. We follow the trail to its viewpoint, looking westward along vertigo-inducing bluffs, and, as Mara had expounded, feel so removed from the nearby cities of SoCal they seem more theory than reality.
As our ferry returns to Ventura Harbour, cruising past a triad of oil platforms, a pod of dolphins and two mola mola finning idly under the California sun, I realize the Channel Islands’ mysterious lack of celebrity is no closer to being solved. But like a lost world, hiding in plain sight, the mystery is part of the charm.
Find out more at channelislandso.com.
This article originally appeared in our Fall 2014 issue.