Wet and Wild: Secrets
of Southern California (originally posted on Eons.com,
dip my paddle into the kelp again as my kayak rocks gently, and I
look up beyond the cliff wall to see pelicans gliding near a
lighthouse. There are two of us skimming this canopy of the Pacific
Ocean and no other humans in site. The metropolitan California Mainland
is only 12 miles away, but we are in the wilderness of islands.
San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara-just the
names of the islands stir the imagination. Anacapa is only a one-hour
boat ride from Southern California's populated coast, but many locals
are unaware that north of the more famous Catalina Island, there are
five different natural sanctuaries that form part of the Channel
Islands National Park.
other half of this under-appreciated national treasure is the
protected waters that surround the Islands that are sometimes called
"the Galapagos of California" because of the diverse wildlife. The
ecosystems include more than 2,000 terrestial plants and animals with
145 that are found nowhere else in the world. The sea's kelp forests
help support a rich ecology of over 1,000 types of life ranging from
the tiny plankton to the earth's largest creature, the Blue Whale.
California's Yosemite and Sequoia Redwoods, this National Park
cannot be reached by car. The family-run Island Packers offers boat
trips to all the islands. Anacapa is closest to the harbor of Oxnard
(between Malibu and Santa Barbara). Our short voyage crossed
international shipping lanes and navigated through waters that are the
migration path or playground for 27 kinds of whales and dolphins.
dropping off hikers on Anacapa, the boat stopped and two kayaks
were plopped in the water. I climbed down a ladder into the long
plastic yellow one. Next came Mike Lamm, who seated himself in the
orange kayak. My paddling coach, who is also a National surfing champ
and bon vivant philosopher filled me in on the paddles, life jacket,
helmet and directional techniques. We then began what he calls the
Kayaker's Passage, a route along the island's coast that includes
arches, rookeries, a blowhole, and many caves. After learning the basic
maneuvers, I am soon immersed in a rhapsody of beauty of sky, water and
feel like I am in the middle of a sensual organic symphony -- all
these intertwined rhythms of the undulating swells of the ocean, the
waves of the sea back and forth, my paddle percussively in and out. The
wind section holds its own -- rippling the surface, pricking my skin,
scuttling the clouds. The gulls sound like modern strings speaking
their mind. The wonderful pinnipeds bark their brassy refrains- the sea
lions and harbor seals trying to outdo all the other sounds if you get
kayaked toward a rookery with over a hundred hefty mammals and pups
enjoying a sandy cove. We kept a respectful distance. Still dozens
waddled and plunged in the water toward us and then around us. Some
seemed curious and poked their heads up as if they wanted to be petted.
Others were clearly suspicious, reminding us it was their realm we were
being allowed to visit. I enjoyed being outnumbered by another species.
I looked up the cliff, I could see a few tiny figures watching us.
Two weeks before, I had been one of the hikers gazing at the playful
sea lions and seals below. David Begun, a volunteer National Park Guide
shared tales about the wildlife and the Chumash Indians that once
roamed the island. He also carried first aid and communications because
we were in a "rough and remote place." That day, we humans were vastly
outnumbered by hundreds of birds, including the world's largest
population of California Brown pelicans. Some of them were swooping
around the island's picturesque lighthouse, the last major one built on
the West Coast.
were also hundreds of sea gulls everywhere, including underfoot.
Dozens were sitting along the path, on nests with green speckled eggs.
They were busy protecting their unborn, squawking warnings to stay
away. Without a regular fresh water source on this Island, there are no
four legged predators to bother the gulls, which faithfully make their
nests in the same places each year, but I imagined us two leggers
didn't look good to them.
a simple campground available to the public, with gorgeous
views, just short hikes away. I wondered what would it be like to sleep
under the stars there, knowing you and your campmates were the only
ones on the whole island at night. What a unique option for solitude so
close to Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States.
guide told us the other islands in this National Park have fresh
water and more diverse animal habitats, but he really extolled the half
of the Park that is water, saying it's one of the best places in the
world for scuba diving, snorkeling and kayaking. Since kayaking is a
new way to explore for me, that's what I wanted to try when I returned.
here I am excited, but hesitant, as I tighten the strap on my
helmet for my first kayak into a sea cave, unsure of my mastery of
moving this bright yellow plastic banana around in a confined space
with surging pushes. Mike enters first showing me the route and timing.
As soon as I am in, the sea cave casts its spell.
wonder if I am in a womb of the earth about to be birthed-- embraced
by the flesh of land, but bobbing and floating in fluids, wary of
bumps, pausing to enjoy a mystical, mythical sense while looking out
from the dark at the world beyond. And then whoosh, with the right
paddle thrust and outgoing wave I am immersed in bright light, glad to
paddle over to the barnacled sides of the cliffs to get closer to
purple and orange starfish, larger than my hands. In calm waters I can
see the bright orange Girabaldi fish and the beguiling sway of the sea
out, the pacific kelp are the redwoods of the ocean, sometimes
reaching hundreds of feet up from the ocean bottom. Their hollow bulbs
act as floats to create buoyancy for photosynthesis near the surface. I
imagine what it must have been like a 1,000 years ago for the Chumash
to paddle their wooden canoes, called tomols, over and through the
thick kelp like we are now. Tomols are "the oldest example of ocean
watercraft in North America," according to the National Park web site.
Here we are navigating with modern plastic boats, but with the same
sensations of nature.
has names for features of the Kayaker's Passage, like "Witch's
Hat" for a spiked islet and the Tunnel of Wishes, where he asks me to
make a wish and says it will come true if I survive the gauntlet. When
the sea surges, I dig deep with my paddle, but I still bump into a rock
and re-bound-- a small price for a dream.
more dramatic caves and arches, I am beginning to feel warm from
the sun and exertion, so Mike paddles over to a blowhole that geysers
laterally from the coast. He calls the bursts "dragon breaths." I wait.
And then the drenching sound and water completely soak me and I am
laughing loudly and joyfully when the next exhalation drenches me again.
pulls the giggles right out of you," he says trying to catch his
own breath between laughs.
the distance, the Island Packers boat is waiting for us, so we
paddle reluctantly over, savoring our last stretch. The boat then picks
up that day's hikers including a group of school kids on a field trip
that really was a field day.
all head back to the Mainland, our lives a day richer.