Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Adventures with Pigs

“You pigs are getting too close! Go away!!” I said two nights ago at about 11 PM. 
My friend Nate and I were beginning our three day adventure on Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands, and Channel Islands National Park. We departed the mainland at Ventura, California an hour north of Los Angeles. 

The excitement began on the ferry ride over. We rode in a “high-speed” catamaran which went about 25 MPH over the surface of the Pacific (not sure how many knots that is). Our first sighting of interest was a group of sea lions on a buoy at the harbor exit. En route to the island, the viewing got much better. 
We began to see dolphins and our captain slowed the ferry to give us a better view. Before we knew it we were surrounded by dozens of these playful mammals of the sea. When we picked up speed again they raced off our bow, where some of us were standing. Just below my feet, the cousins of Flipper were cruising at high speed, coming up for air every 20-30 seconds and giving us quite a show. 
After an hour at sea, we arrived at Santa Cruz Island. There to meet us was Ranger Dan, United States Park Service. 
“Welcome to Santa Cruz Island,” he said in his welcoming speech. Just before this he called my friend Nate “buddy” in the tone of voice a ranger might use when speaking to a twelve year old. Ranger Dan was younger than Nate, by what looked like about ten years. Nate was offended by the greeting. 
“One thing you’ll notice as you’re going to sleep tonight is a lot of noise, and if you have a light you will see the source. We have thousands of wild pigs here on the island. They are a legacy of the ranching days, and they will come right in to camp. They won’t hurt you, but make sure you keep all of your food in the storage bins we provide. If the pigs don’t get it, the mice will. The ground around here literally moves at night.” 
After informing us of the dangers of hantavirus, a frequently fatal respiratory disease spread by mouse feces (it is also rarely contracted), Ranger Dan had our attention regarding the pigs and the mice. 
This end of the island is known as Scorpion Ranch (apparently they have scorpions too). The Scorpion Ranch area is equipped to handle the most visitors of any site on Santa Cruz Island, up to 250 campers. We had something less than a third of that number, with fewer than twenty people in the Upper Campground where we set up our base. The entire island is 62,000 acres--about three times the size of Manhattan. 
After Ranger Dan’s speech, which was quite elaborate as well as corny in a way that only a Park Service ranger can be, we dropped our gear at our campsite and prepared for our first sea kayaking adventure. We got a screaming deal on a two man sea kayak just before boarding the ferry. 
Nate and I headed out to sea, he with his digital camera and no waterproof bag. This would be the shorter of our two sea kayaking tours. It was a great introduction. Though there are some rocky beaches, the ocean meets most of the island where the land jutsstraight up, rising up to 1,000 feet along most of the coastline. The effect is spectacular. We in our sea kayak at the base of this mountain rising out of the sea felt small and vulnerable against the power of the ocean and the mass of the island next to us.  
We explored one or two sea caves, floating into dark spaces on our kayak. As we paddled along the coastline, we came to a point and continued on. Around the point the waves were much bigger and it was windier. We turned back. A few minutes later we ran in to a man and his son and said hello. He asked if we had been around the nearby point, telling us there were wonderful sea caves just on the other side. 
Bravely, or stupidly, we followed them. We got wet the first time, but this time we were in the big waves longer. We would paddle over the crest of a wave, plunge down the other side, and at least every fourth wave would break over the kayak. Since Nate was in front, he got soaked. His camera was a casualty of this adventure. 
We hiked that afternoon, met a couple named Ben and Julie, ate some food and by 7:30, with about ninety minutes of daylight left, we both fell asleep.   
We planned to be backpacking, so we brought the minimal amount of gear. Both of us were sleeping under the stars (and you could see the stars! The lights of LA were too far away to affect the night view). I was on my Mega-rest air mattress by Thermarest. Nate just slept on the ground--in a sleeping bag. Shortly after dark the invasion of the wild pigs began. 
These guys came within ten feet of us. They had a feast eating the grass, and who knows what else, just around our camp. We were both exhausted, but the pigs woke us and got our attention. There was some grunting just beyond Nate. I was convinced that he was just messing with me, but eventually realized he wasn’t. The sound was very close. After a few minutes of pig observing, we both fell back to sleep. The rest of the night I would occasionally be startled awake by the sound of some 300 pound creature that was way too close. Yet after yelling at the pigs to “go away,” I always fell asleep again in a short amount of time. They never did follow my commands, even though they are supposed to be smart. 
The next morning we rose with the sun, ate, and headed back out to sea. This time we were out for about three hours in the kayak. The ocean was calmer. We saw some sea lions, or seals--not sure what the proper nomenclature is. The tide was much lower than when we went out the day before. The lower water level revealed thousands of starfish, clinging to the rocky side of the island’s waterline where its rocky sides meet the Pacific. The most memorable thing was the many sea caves. 
We’d paddle back in to the darkness of one cave after another. While the ocean was calmer than the day before, it still had its normal waves with the occasionally larger than normal swell. When a big wave came in to a cave, it would push us up toward the rocky ceiling, and scare the crap out of us as we were treated like a cork in a container of water--with the cave being the container. At one point we were at least 350 feet back in a long narrow cave. It was spooky, but very cool. 
After kayaking and lunch we headed out for a hike. The island is very mountainous, with its highest point rising over 2,000 feet above the ocean, so the hike was a good workout. At the beginning of our hike we happened across Ben and Julie, who we’d met the night before (and who were not a couple, or so they said). Along with them was a group of three guys that they met in camp--Warren, Chad, and Tim. We were to become the Santa Cruz Seven. For the next 24 plus hours we all hung out together.  
The hike was fantastic. We were up in the fog covered mountains. The fog burned off before our descent, providing stunning views of the ocean around us. That section of the island was about two miles in width. We bushwhacked around looking for pigs. I never saw one during the day (where do they go??) but Nate, Julie, and Ben had a close encounter with a 300 hundred pounder. The landscape reminded me of the paramo ecosystem in the Andes. The Channel Islands are very dry most of the time, but not as dry as Arizona, and cooler as well, so the flora had a very different look about it. 
Tim, Chad, and Warren hosted a dinner party in camp that lived up to its billing. They fed us salmon, salad, and more. Nate and I just had backpacking food with us, so this was a major treat. We stayed up talking for hours, until everyone faded, which probably wasn’t that late. Once the sun goes down, and without electricity, you tend to go to sleep earlier.  
The last day on the island was more relaxed. We split up in to smaller groups and did various short hikes. Nate and I arrived back at his apartment in Pasadena around 7 PM, exhausted again. Nikki made a great dinner and we crashed. She took care of Jackson while we went on our island adventure and Jackson was perfectly content under her care. 
The next morning Jackson and I left, heading north through California’s Central Valley--the most productive agricultural region in the world and one of the wonders of 20th century technology and ingenuity conquering nature.  
Written in Pasadena and Portland
Sent from Salt Lake City
And entered as my first blog from my new home in Phoenix a couple weeks later

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