SANTA ROSA ISLAND
I woke up in my tent. I pulled out my phone, checking it for the time. No luck, it finally died. And the wind, after two nights of a relentless attack on the camp—even breaching the shelters created to slow it down—had finally ceased. So I listened around me to periodic roars outside of my tent, which pierced an unusual silence. I thought it was a rainless thunderstorm (“of course this island has weird weather!” I thought), and the thunder seemed distant enough, so I unzipped my tent and grabbed my camera.
There were no clouds in sight, nor flashes of lightning. No storm on the horizon, but only a clear empty sky speckled with stars and streaked with the Milky Way. That thundering sound came from the waves, a quarter mile away, pounding at the shore. I walked down.
On April Third, I stepped onto one of Island Packer’s Whale Watching Ferry boats in Ventura, California, just before 8AM. The plan was to drop off the grid for three days on a camping trip in Santa Rosa Island, with only the company of those in neighboring campsites. And two goals: to see the Milky Way and to see some whales. The rest of my time, I guess, was hanging out and hiking.
So, I sat on a boat filled with high school students (where did they come from??) as the captain told us about the “seasick bags” that we could use in case of emergency (I thought that I would just start euphemistically calling nauseous people, in not-boat life, “seasick”). The man next to me told me that I had the warmest spot on the boat, so I pulled out my camera, got up, and stood at the front-top of the boat where the wind was (supposedly this might be called “the bridge,” but I don’t think it’s exactly the bridge, because it’s more like the balcony in front of the captain’s room??). And that’s how it was for most of the ride there: windy and cold, with sea lions and dolphins and a ton of seagulls playing around in the ocean.
Today, the water was especially placid, so we passed in front of Santa Cruz Island instead of behind it. We caught up with dark clouds that lowered into fog onto the island. I stood watching, with the wind chilling my face, as the landscape closed in; the cliffs of the island drew closer; the horizon faded as clouds dropped on the edges of the ocean; and the amplitude of the waves increased, so that those on the bow of the boat retreated inside.
We slowed the boat down, watching the landmass next to us, and a Dall’s Porpoise, out of the gray sea, rushed towards the boat, then disappeared. The captain nearly shut off the boat to spin in slow circles on alert, attempting to find the creature that disappeared into the sea. “This is unusual,” he said on the loudspeaker, “because they’re much further north. This is the furthest south I’ve ever seen one of those.”
We continued moving, watching the gray water between the boat and the cliffs. And a vapor shot up from the blowhole of a humpback whale; its black back barely breaching the water, as it submerged without returning. We waited. No sign of the whale.
So, we continued on again. The wind picked up and we crossed “Potato Patch”—a choppy part of the sea with strong currents. Two opposite currents collide with each other, creating unpredictable waves that the captain called “treacherous,” and the bow rocked from starboard to port with the rolling waves. And in the middle of this, straight ahead, was Santa Rosa Island. A wave smacked into the side of the boat, drenching those who had come out to see the island, so the deck emptied. The waves ceased. We landed at the dock.
After passing passengers’ camping gear up to the dock, the boat backed away and a National Park Service Ranger oriented us to our stay on the island.
“I posted the weather on a bulletin board in your campsite,” he said. “Gale-force winds for the next couple days. I’ll update it if the boat needs to arrive early and take you home because of bad weather.”
So I slung on my backpack, with tent and camping gear; I wore my daypack, with camera gear, on the front. The coastal trail to the campsite was just 1.2 miles away.
For the next few days, my brain shut off, with songs playing on loop in my head as I hiked up to Black Mountain, or to the Torrey Pines, or to East End, or to Carrington Point. Or, exhausted from my morning hikes, my mind rested—feeling satiated—when I took afternoon naps on the beach. Or, feeling emptied, I resigned from my thinking as I hid from the wind in my sleeping bag after a long windy day, regretting the weight of my daypack (why did I bring the stinkin’ 200-500mm lens on a hike??). Sore legs and tired eyes defined my island experience. But, I remembered a quote from someone in a Netflix documentary, or in something that I read once, that we put ourselves through challenges to know that we can make it through them (this is the so-called “fun” of hiking). To learn to be resilient, I guess. That everything will be okay.
The first night, I woke up to a furious flapping on the rainfly of my tent. All at once, caught up in gusts of the wind, it disappeared. My tent opened up to the starry sky, and I looked around, expecting the Milky Way, but found none. Grabbing my camera, I left my tent—11 PM—seeing the rainfly bundled up motionless next to one stable stake. I figured that for now, it was safe on the ground, and headed to the beach. Looking up the coast, no Milky Way. Down the coast, none to be found. Up the hills that I came from, nothing. Maybe Milky Way season didn’t actually begin! So I walked back to camp, fixed the rainfly, placing a giant rock on one of the entrance flaps and smaller rocks on each stake.
An hour later, the rainfly disappeared again. I hid in my sleeping bag as dust piled up in my tent. Brain off, body asleep.
Sunrise hike next morning to an overlook. I was followed by another photographer as I walked higher up. And I zoomed in on the sun above Santa Cruz Island, walked down, ate breakfast. Tripled-down on the stakes on my tent. Then hiked to Torrey Pines, stopping at Black Rock to watch the whales. A hike to an ethnographic site near East End, stopped by a Sea Lion. Back at camp at one-o-clock. Nap on the beach.
A similar day at Carrington Point: wildflowers, pinnipeds, and a sand dune hiding fossils from the late Pleistocene. Nod to an island fox staring back, then hopping through the tall grass. A trail all-but reclaimed by nature.
Windy afternoon, back at Black Rock. Torrey Pines surrounded a cove nearby. Rocks eroded in otherworldly forms, with accents of living color. Sea lion playing alone in the water nearby, the sun dipped, and five silhouettes watched me hike back to camp, as they continued to the pines.
I walked a trail of soft golden light, surrounded by green wild grass, winding up and down, with pits of sand between clusters of rock, down and up until reaching a bench near the entrance of the campsite, exposed to the relentless wind. I sat, collecting myself, with the sound of noise filling my ears. Eat, sleep, morning of the third day. I woke up in my tent…
…my legs burned as I hiked down with my flashlight off. I had overdone it the couple of days before, taking strenuous hikes with a pack too heavy for the shape I was in. And, going to sleep that night, I swore to myself that I’d treat my body better: I’d sleep in after a few sleepless nights, and take it easy, probably just sitting in a hammock for the rest of my stay on Santa Rosa Island. But here I was, awake under the stars. My camera said 4AM, hiking up from the beach to an overlook where I could catch the sunrise. I could sleep later.
Small breeze pushed the still landscape, which spread out down a tall-grass hill. Green slopes settled just before the steep-cliff drops down to the white-sand beaches lining the island. And, in the middle of it all, trails cut and small canyons slice through the plainy and hilled terrain. As the horizon warmed with dawn, grass caught light with no shadow. The sun broke through Santa Cruz Island, across the Santa Cruz channel, calm.
So, up at 4 AM. Milky Way, finally, and then sunrise. Pack up, sit in tree until boat arrives, reading. A man, also waiting, dried his socks on the metal part of a wooden pier, nearly tripping over the heels of his pants. Another man, dropped off for a day trip, brings his roller-suitcase, waiting on the dock for hours.
I read “Yak Butter Blues,” which is a 1980s travelogue through Tibet. The author raised questions, opened problems of uncertainty with phrases like “I got the sense that I’d never see those monks again,” after meeting the same monks several times before, so that we do not truly know if he ever met those monks again, or if it was an expectation that would be subverted later (would his sense be proven correct?). The book strung threads of thought that did not complete themselves, so my brain, finally, gave up, as if I were in my sleeping bag with dust piling around me. No thinking, just make it through, until the boat comes and I make it home, watching whales all the way.