by Ken McAlpine
Once, on a boat ride out to Santa Cruz Island, I shared a bench with a young German couple. Michael and Sonya had spent several weeks exploring America’s western parks. They had been to Zion, Bryce and Yosemite and were greatly impressed, but Channel Islands National Park was the icing on their outdoor cake.
“We have done very much reading about the Channel Islands Park!” proclaimed Michael. “These islands, they are remarkable! So close to civilization and so far away! And you cannot drive there! We very much want to see an island fox! Just the fox!”
Michael was friendly, but the bark of his mother tongue made his words sound like an order. If we do not see an island fox, I will inform the captain that you must be keelhauled! And so I told Michael that he and Sonya’s odds of seeing the rare (found only on the Channel Islands) and diminutive (about the size of a house cat) fox on Santa Cruz were quite good, especially at the Scorpion Canyon campground where the Island Packers boat would drop us off, and where campers drop all manner of foodstuffs.
Back at the dock at the end of that day, Michael strode up to me.
“We did not see the foxes!” he barked. I gave a silent prayer that Island Packers had recently cleaned the underside of their boat. “But,” he exclaimed joyously, “we saw a great deal of their poop!”
Not long ago I traveled to Santa Cruz Island with my friend James, who was much less finicky about what he saw. In fact, as we approached Santa Cruz on the boat he turned positively apoplectic.
“I’m really here!” he said. “I want to see everything!”
There is much to see on the five islands (and offshore waters) that comprise Channel Islands National Park – Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz – and Santa Cruz Island is fine place to start. In fact, I had to dampen James’ enthusiasm a wee bit. Santa Cruz is not only the largest of the Park’s islands, it is the largest island off the west coast of the United States. At 96 square miles it is four times the size of Manhattan and there are no cabs. But such vastness, I told James, had its beauty too.
“At 96 square miles it is four times the size of Manhattan and there are no cabs”
“Most of the people who visit the island don’t stray out of the canyon and the campground,” I said. “Fifteen minutes of hiking and we’ll pretty much have the island to ourselves.”
I proposed we make the 90-minute hike to Smuggler’s Cove, an entrancing crescent of cobbled beach backed by rustling blue-gum eucalyptus and a tidily aligned grove of olive trees, the latter planted by long ago ranchers who at one time saw money in olives. Ninety minutes out and 90 minutes back would still allow us plenty of time for the most important part of any Nature outing, namely lounging about doing nothing.
We hiked up the steep path leading away from the campground. At the top, we stopped. The sun beat down. We looked across the dark blue water toward the blue hummocks of Anacapa Island. Nineteen miles away, the cacophonous mainland wavered silent and blue beneath the wide blue sky. As you have surmised, it was an impossibly blue day.
James’ enthusiasm for our surroundings made Teutonic Michael look catatonic. Gazing about us, he shouted, “Away from it all! I can’t believe I’m here! It’s so peaceful!”
“Away from it all! I can’t believe I’m here! It’s so peaceful!”
You don’t have to hike far from the campground at Scorpion Canyon to find solitude and solace. You only have to go as far as Delphine’s Grove, which we reached after another five minutes of walking. A small stand of cypress pines on a sloping hillside amidst a Serengeti Plain of grass, Delphine’s Grove is one of my favorite places on earth. Over the years I have spent many worthwhile hours sprawled beneath the pines, listening to the wind in the boughs and thinking many things. Through the sort of concentrated and thankless observation that can only be achieved by laying on one’s back I have also ascertained that the sound of the wind through the cypress pines is always different, depending partly on the winds and largely on the leanings of my imagination. Sometimes the wind through Delphine’s Grove is simply the constant drum of distant breaking surf. Sometimes the wind comes and goes in distinct gusts, a trundling train passing at a railroad station. Sometimes the boughs creak, making the sound of a porch swing rocking slowly, a kindly uncle, now long gone, riding his own memories.
That kindly uncle was mine. For winds are like songs, and if you attend to them carefully they will take you back to forgotten moments.
And so James and I stretched out for a long time, looking up at the sky from the grass beneath the pines.
“You know,” James eventually said to the sky, “I could stay here forever.”
“I could stay here forever.”
I could have stayed longer too, but Island Packers — professional folks who are fussy about safety — frowns on hikers who spontaneously decide not to return to the boat so we clambered to our feet. We continued on, hiking along ridge lines and gazing out over a sea of swaying grass to a sea of whitecaps. We reached Smuggler’s Cove, lounged there and then headed back. We encountered a few hikers, but mostly it was just us.
James had grown increasingly quiet. Breezes came and went, sounding memories to me. I had no idea what they said to James. I didn’t ask him. It was his personal business. But he walked slowly and stopped often, and his face was content.
Finally he stopped and turned to me.
He did not bounce about.
“You know, when I was a kid there was a creek I always played in,” he said softly. “I never really thought about it then, but it made me appreciate moments like this.”
My friend James and I considered this among the dun-colored, wind-tickled grasses and then we walked quietly on.