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San Miguel : A return trip to the loneliest of California's Channel Islands, where northwest winds sweep over ghost forests and sea lions bask in the sun.

September 17, 1989|GRAHAME L. JONES | Times Staff Writer

SAN MIGUEL ISLAND, Calif. — It was well past midnight, a time when the after-dinner drinks had long since produced their desired effect and tall tales could be told with a reasonably straight face.

We had gathered on the stern of the Peace, a 65-foot dive boat preparing to set out from Ventura on a trip to San Miguel, the most westerly and northerly of California's Channel Islands. For now, however, we were content to swap yarns with the crew.

"The biggest thing out here now," Steve began, gesturing vaguely toward the open ocean behind us, "is commercial traffic in hagfish. It's a really primitive, jawless fish, and they sell the skins to Korea to make wallets and shoes and stuff out of.

"Its skin is real similar to eel skin, and they're having a big problem with eel skin right now. A lot of eels--not only electric eels, but a lot of eels--carry some type of electric charge. What's been happening, they finally figured out, is that the electric charge remaining in the skin is demagnetizing people's credit cards."

Our laughter was partially smothered by the sound of the Peace's engines coughing to life. Soon we would be on our way; 60 miles of ink-black ocean lay between us and Cuyler Harbor.

Steve persisted.

"It's a true story," he said. "Really." But we were no longer listening. The bow and stern lines were being cast off and our attention had turned to the journey ahead. The Santa Barbara Channel is a treacherous stretch, and the seas had been reported as rough. If all went well, though, we would be nearing San Miguel by sunrise.

-- -- --

A dozen years had passed since I first saw San Miguel Island. In 1977 I had arrived by helicopter, flying in with a National Park Service ranger to explore one of California's most remote islands.

That was in the days before Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary had come into being, and visitors were not allowed on the island, which was--and still is--the property of the Navy.

My trip then lasted only a day, but it produced a lasting series of impressions:

--The 10,000 or more seals and sea lions basking on the rocks and sand at Point Bennett.

--The hauntingly odd "ghost trees" of the ancient caliche forest.

--The giant sea bird rookeries on two offshore islets, Prince Island and Castle Rock.

--The ruins of the old ranch house and the bittersweet tale that lay behind them.

--The lichen-covered monument to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who landed on San Miguel in 1542.

The list went on, but, suffice to say, the island left its mark. Whenever the smog and the traffic, the noise and the confusion of Los Angeles became too much, I would think of lonely, wind-swept San Miguel. It was just 100 miles from the city, but it seemed a world away.

One day, I told myself, I would go back.

-- -- --

The Peace carried about 30 passengers and a crew of nine, and although there were bunks below deck, it was too warm and pleasant a night to sleep indoors. I found myself a perch atop the engine hatch and, much later, drifted off into a sort of half-sleep, counting stars.

I awoke to a gray world of water and sea mist, broken only by a tinge of pink along the eastern horizon. It was not yet 6 a.m., and we were rounding the far side of Santa Rosa Island, San Miguel's nearest neighbor.

Gradually, the boat came alive as the rest of the passengers made their way on deck. Before long the sun broke through and breakfast was served in the galley. Then San Miguel and later its natural anchorage, Cuyler Harbor, came into view.

It is not a large island, covering only about 14,000 acres, and at first glance it seems almost barren. Roughly triangular in shape, it has no dominating peak and no trees. Until 1965, the Navy used it as a bombing range; the craters are still visible along the cliffs.

But San Miguel is deceptive, and its 24-mile coastline includes many coves and bays where unspoiled beaches of soft, white sand spill down from untrodden dunes. In springtime, flowers adorn its rolling hills, and fields of wild grass sway to and fro in the ever-present northwest wind.

By now the mist had burned away and the sun shone warmly in a clear blue sky as we dropped anchor in the bay.

There is no pier or jetty on San Miguel, and so, in groups of six or seven, we put on life jackets and climbed into a skiff to make a beach landing.

Ashore, we were met by park ranger Gail Mahoney, who, with the exception of a few marine scientists studying the pinnipeds at Point Bennett, lives alone on the island.

It would be Mahoney's job for the next few hours to show us San Miguel. The crew of the Peace, meanwhile, would be diving for abalone, halibut and anything else they could turn up for our lunch.

I was anxious to see what changes, if any, had taken place on the island since my earlier visit, and so, with Mahoney leading the way, we set off down the beach and up a steep, narrow path leading up the side of a canyon.

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