An uneasy voice came from above Part of Chanel Islands National Park, a wild, lonely beach crash on Santa Rosa Island, where my partner Emmanuel and I fell asleep after a difficult 10-mile journey.
I woke up shocked. Again – an angry sound, like a rusty metal bucket scratching against a rock. Seemed close.
Emmanuel listened to me and checked.
When he turned his headlamp-decorated head back into the tent, he broke the news: “I think we have a problem.
“There’s a 2,000-pound elephant seal outside our tent.”
There he was – a huge knot that could hardly be seen in the dark. The ranger who greeted us earlier in the day did not warn us of any possible pinnacle encounters.
Not only was this our first night on the island, it was also my first time backpacking. I never had everything I needed to carry on my shoulders, let alone for five days. And I never thought about what to do in the event of a seal attack.
A rough diamond
Santa Rosa is one of the few islands in the world that is rarely visited. According to Britney Ham of the Discounted Island Packers, it attracts a special breed of adventurers, offering Santa Rosa trips several times a week.
“It’s definitely a beautiful place, but it takes a little bit of hard work and research to get there. It’s easy to finish without preparation,” he said during our Monday morning boat trip in August.
On warm, sunny days Santa Rosa can go for a postcard-perfect tropical holiday with sandy white beaches and sparkling turquoise waters. But it can be harder than online photo portraits. Strong winds blow all year round. Dense fog and cold temperatures create moody conditions like central coast.
With a drink in hand at Santa Rosa and a beach scene.
“People looking for ‘Rosa’ are attracted to solitude and are self-reliant with a lot of backpacking experience,” Ham said.
I did not check any of the boxes.
But Emmanuel, cut off from the city-slick bars, restaurants and movie theaters during the epidemic, saw his interest in growing outsiders.
As he walked farther and farther, my experience with the Sangat grew. We packed California into 2020 more than I’ve ever seen in my entire life – and I’m a native Angelino. It helped that he was investing in what could be expensive gear.
Nevertheless, the gap in our abilities continued to widen. We spent less time together because he was chasing unstable peaks and I was clinging to the flat land. When he mentioned the possibility of backpacking on Santa Rosa, I said yes although I wasn’t sure it was inside my new wheelhouse. “It could kill me,” I thought, “but it would take some quality time for us.”
It was time to book it – and start training. Several weeks before the flash. I will enhance my workout routine with trail runs and strength training so it was a test boost time. To mimic the backpacking experience, we set off for a local 12-mile hike – almost the longest single stretch we had planned for the island – and I filled my backpack with 20 pounds of bottled water.
As I pushed one leg in front of the other, Emmanuel turned to me with a smile and told me a saying among the mountaineers: “You don’t have to have fun to have fun.” Bowing to myself, I cursed and broke my path to the end.
On the wild side
Dozens of passengers boarded a boat in Ventura Harbor, leaving a gray, hazy sky. Masks are needed, and a crew member says they leave some “wiggle rooms” without booking the boat as much as they can afford. As the ark came to rest on the rough seas, the dolphins marched along in a spectacular way.
We landed at Becher’s Bay about three hours after leaving at 8:00 am. (The trip included a pit stop to drop off visitors to the park’s largest island and frequent visitors to Santa Cruz Island.)
Day trips are possible for Santa Rosa but are limited to a few hours. Of the approximately 25 people on our trip, only two said they were returning later that day. Most stayed at the Water Canyon campground at one of the 15 camp sites, which offers potable water and air support.
But we were charging more – far, far from the campground, a mile and a half from the pier.
During the nearly 5½-hour trek up and down the island’s hills, we stopped at Clap Springs to fill several bottles and bladders with water, one of the only two reliable sources on the island.
Elephant seals on Santa Rosa Island.
Incomplete farm equipment, part of the island’s pastoral past, appears from time to time as we move forward, inconsistent with emptiness. I found the horns of an animal in the middle of the grass and later found out that elk and deer were brought to the island as a game. Commercial hunting took place until 2011 when the rest of the animals were removed.
We climbed a bush down a steep valley and landed on a beach east of Ford Point, where we slept after a roasted sausage dinner on a camp stove (not setting fire to the island). That is, until the seal of the elephant comes.
After picking us up from our tent, we climbed the sand dunes, not sure what to do. Tired, but unwilling to risk a collision, we moved our entire camp further.
The next morning we surveyed the area and saw the seals of not one but two elephants. There was also a very small female with a swinging male with a tailtail proboscis. We were tourists in their world, one where humans did not rule over the sand, and moved on.
Nothing dramatic happened in the next four days, although we did get some great scenes and experiences. One day we climbed to an early lighthouse at South Point and saw hundreds of feet of sea lions scorching below.
Clear water on Santa Rosa Island.
After the second day, when we crossed the road with the two brothers we met on the boat, we did not find anyone in the backcountry.
The hours-long journey produced a vast expanse of time for deep and trivial thoughts. We often walked around in our sleeping bags before 9pm and by nightfall, I expected to write a note about my day, although I had not had the patience to keep a magazine for years. We sprinkled naked in cold water, a refreshing bath in the same clothes after days of sweat. I stopped checking my phone.
Nature infiltrated when it was felt. Although I cut myself with sunscreen, I inadvertently threw away my sunscreen the next day, and the bare flesh on my shoulders and chest turned deep red. On the third day we expected to see a 360-degree view from the highest point of the island, Solidad Peak, but the fog so tightened us that we could not see more than a few feet.
Go back to civilization
To avoid the last-minute dash across the island for our Friday departure, we spent our fourth and final night at the Water Canyon Campground.
At our camp site, a rust-tinged island fox – another local species – tried to steal our stove. It was a small miracle to get my contacts out using running water in a surprisingly clean bathroom after using filtered spring water and a phone camera for glass.
Further confirming that we are back in civilization: the people. Fellow camper Donna Sullivan confirmed the island’s reputation as a rough beauty with a mysterious attraction. When she visited her sister about five years ago, they were blown away by the strong winds.
“It was the worst camping experience on the island, though,” he said. But some days were wonderful and she came back, this time with her husband, Chuck.
On the northeast coast, we hit what I called a “tourist attraction.” We finally put on the snorkeling gear we had hung for miles and drowned in the crystal clear waters of a deserted beach. I saw a huge orange crab and fish moving around. Marine life was not as epic as I had seen in Santa Cruz or Catalina, but it was fun.
Snorkeling with crabs near Santa Rosa Island.
The winds blew harder and the water became more muddy, prompting me to return to the beach. But Emmanuel – who grew up feeding in the sea off western Sweden – swam out and pulled out blue masks from a rock wall, which we boiled with olive oil and garlic. We also toured the Great Grove of Tory Pine, spying on the boat to get a closer look at the rare trees.
On the fifth and final day we trekked to Lobo Canyon, although it extended our journey by 12 miles. It was a trick worthy of extra stress. After hiking on more dry hills, we landed in a lush valley along a small river.
Giant sandstone formations formed, a panorama that would be more at home in Arizona or Utah. The trail ends on a small beach with shiny abalone shells, now a rare sight on the California coast after decades of fishing. No spirit was seen.
Blue masks were extracted from a rock wall near Santa Rosa.
Santa Rosa’s brilliant, versatile personality was on display. Even after about 45 miles of hiking and setting up tents in four places, there was still much to see. And some of it we will never see because some areas are closed year round for wildlife conservation.
At the boat ride home, we made a celebratory beer at the Island Brewing Company in Carpenteria. Halfway back to Ventura, my internet started working and I posted a photo on Twitter.
A pod of humpback whales appeared, one dramatically raised its tail in the air and hit the waves, and everyone – including me – pulled out a phone to record their splendor. Our old life was coming back and we weren’t even home. I looked back because the island was getting smaller in the distance.
If you go
The Island Packers offer trips from Ventura Harbor to Beecher’s Bay on Santa Rosa Island several times a week from November. Round-trip adult fares for campers are $ 85, or $ 120.
The Channel Islands National Park, which includes Santa Rosa and four other islands, is the mainland visitor center at 1901 Spinnecker Drive in Ventura.
Visitors can camp on some of the island’s beaches from mid-August to mid-December. For details on which beaches are open, visit the National Park Service’s website. Reservations can be made at recreation.gov.
Reservations for the Water Canyon Campground can also be made at recreation.gov. $ 15 per night per site, seating up to five people.
Make sure your boat and camping reservation dates are consistent. Check both schedules before booking.