Off The Map Side-Stories #9: High Seas

“Just take a look at this,” the ferry worker said.

I grabbed our tickets and hustled around the ticket counter to join Kitty, who was hunched over a map on an employee’s computer screen.  The man pointed to a spot overlaid with bright red circles, which indicated that the windspeeds hitting Del Norte Campground on Santa Cruz Island tonight were expected to hit 50 miles per hour.  That’s exactly where Kitty and I were headed.  I hoped our tent could withstand the impact, for neither one of us wanted to cancel our vacation.  Uneasy in our hearts, we crossed our fingers, took some Dramamine pills for the inevitable seasickness and loaded our packs onto the ferry for the Channel Islands.

The trip across the Santa Barbara Channel was rough.  Because of wind and wave conditions, the Island Packers ferry company had chosen to cancel all day-hiker tickets, only agreeing to transport a handful of campers out to the islands.  I survived the ocean turbulence by falling asleep before we reached Scorpion Bay.  The Dramamine accentuated my drowsiness, keeping me unconscious while a few campers climbed onto the pier and afterwards as the ferry continued down the coast to Prisoner’s Harbor.

Kitty woke me when it was time to disembark.  Our point of arrival on Santa Cruz Island had acquired its name in the early nineteenth century, just after several millennia of Chumash occupation had come to an end.  In those days, the Mexican government had a policy of exiling many of its convicts to Alta California, but in February of 1830, the local governors refused to take in eighty prisoners brought by the Maria Ester.  The captain of this ship decided to drop off thirty of the meanest convicts, along with a few supplies, at what later became known as “Prisoner’s Harbor”.  The fate of the prisoners is uncertain.  Some say they built rafts, sailed to the mainland and integrated back into society.  Others believe they never survived the journey across the channel.

We hoped to fare better during our visit.  However, the two doses of medication we had taken to prevent motion-sickness had burdened us with an unfortunate side-effect, and it took us a while to acknowledge the truth of our situation: we were stoned.  Both of us felt foggy and lethargic, and instead of hiking the 3.5 miles uphill to the Del Norte Campground, what we wanted more than anything was a warm place out of the wind where we could curl up and take another nap.

It didn’t help that we had to carry extra water, as there were no sources to be found at the campground or along the twelve miles between Del Norte and Scorpion Bay - our final destination.  My own pack held over two gallons of water in addition to the tent, camping stove and other equipment.  Needless to say, my legs and lower back weren’t too happy about it.  The dullened state of our brains made the journey across the hills feel like a forced march at times, but the chemicals slowly metabolized in our bodies as we pushed onward and reached the tiny Del Norte Campground.

Tucked into the hillside, we found four cozy sites with four picnic tables overlooking 2,434-foot Devil’s Peak and the western side of the island.  We pitched the tent, enjoyed a nap, a sunset and a warm meal, then slept for an additional ten hours.  The prophecied windspeeds never materialized, although the gusts were strong enough that we awoke with a light layer of dust on our sleeping bags the next morning.

This was the big day.  My pack was now ten pounds lighter, my brain felt clearer and my spirit was fully prepared to take in whatever the island had to offer.  With the ocean over our left shoulder, we journeyed east across sagebrush slopes and grasslands that were still green and vibrant from the winter rains.  We saw a land restoring itself to health after decades of ravaging by sheep and cattle, feral pigs and wild horses.  The new managers of the island, the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service, had painstakingly removed every creature that walked on four hooves.  Now blossoms peeked out from between the vines of the Morning Glory and the fronds of the otherworldly coreopsis.

Our trail followed the spine of the island, ran up a desolate slope that old maps labeled “No Man’s Land” and leaped over a natural barrier to road-building called Montañon Ridge.  I can’t say that Kitty and I did any running or leaping ourselves, as the mileage was sufficient to tire even the most clear-headed backpacker, but we still made it to the east side of the island with most of our spirits intact.

We lost solitude when we reached the Scorpion Bay campground, but we gained a fresh water supply along with a bathroom with both toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  During the night that followed, strong winds tore through the branches of the eucalyptus trees above our campsite, and we woke to another coating of dust on our sleeping bags and faces.  I began to crave the comfort of a roof and a soft mattress once again.

Soon enough, however, the ferry would return to retrieve us.  Our time on Santa Cruz had been short.  But to bid us farewell, a diminutive Island Fox named Phil hopped onto our picnic table and offered, in case we were interested, to let us share our breakfast with him in exchange for some commemorative photographs.  We took the snapshots but failed to hold up our end of the bargain.  Phil slunk away into the underbrush, still hungry and on the lookout for some more gracious tourists with food to spare.

This time, when the ferry arrived, I took a single Dramamine, and Kitty abstained entirely.  I could have left the pill in the bottle, however.  The wind blew fiercely, but the waves were mild as we coursed through the Santa Barbara Channel back to the mainland.  I did sneak in one last nap, though.  Perhaps I might strive for less medication the next time I visit the islands, but naps… I think naps could make a return appearance.