Magazine article Sunset

The World beyond the Waves: One Glimpse of Channel Islands National Park Will Capture You for a Lifetime. (Travel Recreation)

Magazine article Sunset

The World beyond the Waves: One Glimpse of Channel Islands National Park Will Capture You for a Lifetime. (Travel Recreation)

Article excerpt

* Once upon a time, an island shamed and enchanted me, and I've longed to return to it ever since.

The island is Anacapa, part of Channel islands National park, off the Southern California cost. Thirty years ago I was a Boy Scout--a Life Scout gunning for Eagle--camping with my troop here. We were obedient boys, yet Anacapa's dark, salt-blasted beauty incited mutiny. We took a hike, abandoned the marked trail, and scrambled where we had no business going, to the far side of the island, scaling cliffs, swimming coves where seals bobbed in the kelp-crusted waters. We were pirates, we were conguistadores, we were Robinson Cruose and Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.

We were stranded. The tide rose. It pushed us up the cliff to cling, for hours on a guano-covered ledge, where seagulls squawked at us. On the other side of the island, messages were being relayed. Six stupid scouts are missing At last, a passing abalone boat rescued us and ferried us back to be yelled at by everyone--by park rangers, scoutmasters, possibly by the gulls and seats.

It was a humiliating moment, and likely one reason I never made Eagle Scout. But over the years, I found, myself cherishing the memory of Anacapa itself. For a long time, I thought that feeling was unique, but apparently, it historian Marla Daily, "When people go out to the islands, they are struck with a feeling they've never experienced before. The vastness the magnificence--it stuns them."

A long time ago, Anacapa did that to me. Which was why, after so many years, I wanted to return to the islands and see if their magic still held.

Santa Rosa

The Wild West island

The little plane descends over the Santa Barbara Channel and lands on the runway above Bechers Bay. We step down onto Santa Rosa Island.

It's a strange feeling to actually set foot on any of the Channel Islands, and that is due to the peculiar relationship they have with the mainland. For all their proximity--Anacapa, the nearest, lies only 11 miles off the Ventura County coast--most Southern Californians act as if the islands don't exist. They are invisible much of the year, dissolved behind a veil of sea mist. Then, for a week or two at a time, they emerge as pale blue silhouettes painted on the ocean horizon. And once in a while--most often in fall when Santa Ana winds blow-dry the ocean haze away--they pop out with such perfect yet foreign clarity, it's as if you were glimpsing the rills and mares of the moon.

There are eight Channel Islands. The five most northerly--Santa Barbara, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel--form Channel Islands National Park. In the 22 years since the park was established, Anacapa and Santa Cruz have received the most visitors, but now, with air flights and improved boat service, Santa Rosa is accessible for day trips.

"Each island has its own heartbeat," says Marla Daily. "Santa Rosa is most like the Wild West."

For nearly 100 years, Santa Rosa was owned by the Vail & Vickers company, which ran a successful cattle operation in an improbable locale. Ranching ended in 1998, but Daily believes "we owe the private owners of the islands a great debt that the islands remained in such remarkable condition."

After landing, day visitors tour around in a four-wheel-drive driven by a park service docent. We steer up ridge-riding roads with precipitous views down to the ocean. (Some roads are, fortunately, bypassed. Pointing to one, our driver says, "The ranger warned me, 'Never take this truck on that road.' And to tell him if I did so he'd know where to pick up the pieces.") Almost everywhere we see sights that make us say, "Look": one of the world's two native stands of Torrey pines; a pelagic cormorant skittering across the waves.

The most impressive show comes last. We drive to the island's south shore, to a gravel beach where 200 elephant seals loll. They flop on their backs, languidly flipping sand over themselves; bulls snort and butt with those bulbous noses that make them look like W. …

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