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Exploring Santa Cruz Island during its first summer as a free campground


SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, Calif. — A few weeks ago, about the time I realized that another summer was slipping away under-exploited, I looked west and decided to take steps. I concocted a mission and assembled a crack team of six neo-quasi-semi-adventurers, including my wife and myself. We would camp on an island, peek at a few sea caves from kayaks and explore California's least visited national park.

All of these were firsts for most of us. Hence, to paraphrase Nixon spokesman Ron Nessen circa 1973, mistakes were made. Before we were back from Santa Cruz Island, now in its first summer of operation as a public campground in Channel Islands National Park, there were misplaced supplies, a shattered lantern, an epidemic of sunburned ankles, a shortage of alcohol. A misadventure in a cave scraped and bruised one of us and gave us all a fresh appreciation of the peril that waits in dark, rocky passages.

Also, in a less dangerous but nevertheless vexing development, there were far too many bananas.

But in our three days and two nights on the island, 20 miles off the coast of Ventura, we also spent quality time in the company of harbor seals, sea cucumbers, semi-wild horses and semi-wild sheep.

We sang, loudly and badly, around a campfire. We slept in a eucalyptus grove beneath a star-bright sky. We hiked 3.5 miles in appalling heat from Scorpion Anchorage to Smugglers' Cove, tiptoed into the cove's rock-strewn waters, then straggled back up the steep hills, across the amber waves of grain, above a horizon of blue Pacific.

Altogether, including equipment rentals, camp grub, the two Ventura budget motel rooms we rented the night before embarkation, a pre-trip breakfast and a post-trip dinner, this voyage cost us less than $250 per person.

On the strength of that, along with sea, sky and semi-wild horses, I'm ready to declare the summer unsquandered, the mission a success.

In large part, this is the story of the instruments that made it possible, from the eight collapsible bags of water (eastern Santa Cruz Island has no potable water source) to the first-aid kit.

But this is also the story of Joe. I think every traveler has encountered versions of Joe, unheralded secular angels who turn up here and there, give more than they get, never quite disclose a full identity, slip away without notice and generally keep the world spinning. We never got his last name, but he carried a spear gun, wore a shirt advertising a San Luis Obispo surf shop and seemed to materialize whenever our welfare was in jeopardy. Which, to paraphrase those recently in charge of fund-raising for the Democratic National Committee, regrettably occurred on multiple occasions.


But that's taking matters out of order.

First we chose an island. Though the National Park Service allows up to 30 people per night to camp on Anacapa, Santa Barbara and San Miguel islands, and up to 50 on Santa Rosa, the east end of Santa Cruz is among the closest landing sites to the mainland and gets summer boat service four days a week from Ventura and two days a week from Oxnard. With 35 campsites (served by two outhouses) and a 210-person overnight limit on its nearly 10 square miles, the east end of Santa Cruz also has the largest camping capacity of the islands. (The western 90% of Santa Cruz Island is controlled by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, which closely restricts access.)

Furthermore, when the park service took over the island's eastern end from its holdout owner and his concessionaires in February, the camping fee dropped from $25 to nothing. (Visits are up substantially since then.)

So we called the park service for our free permit, drove to Ventura, spent the night in the tidy, genial Travelers Beach Inn ($45 to $55 per night) on Thompson Boulevard, rose early and headed for the waterfront.

Island Packers, a park concessionaire based next to the park's waterfront visitor center, begins its two-hour, 20-mile journey to the island about 8 a.m. Its boat lingers at the island while up to 100 day-trippers explore the place, then returns to the mainland at about 5 p.m. At about 10 a.m. on a Friday, we hopped from the ship into a six-passenger skiff and came ashore beneath the cliffs of Santa Cruz.

Now, imagine the highest hills of central California, around Paso Robles, have been isolated by a flood. Or that someone forgot to grade, irrigate and otherwise exploit a dry patch of Southern California coastline for the last 100 years. That's Santa Cruz Island. The slopes are covered by a blanket of nonnative grasses and crisscrossed with paths beaten by at least 1,500 sheep, all targeted for deportation in the park service's effort to eradicate nonnative species. The canyons are stubbled with nonnative eucalyptus trees, the meadows occasionally interrupted by piles of stones that were cleared from the fields by farm workers 100 years ago. In spring there are wildflowers.

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