Thursday, October 31, 2013

Journey Matters: Going to and Camping at Santa Cruz Island

Dates: August 18-19, 2013
Place: Channel Islands National Park, Ventura, California


This isn't a hiking post. It is a post of information about our cruise to Santa Cruz Island and of our camping experience there. All of the photos in this post were taken by Papa Quail on our way to the island and back.

One cannot simply drive to Channel Islands National Park. There's a bit of ocean in the way ...
When we settled on going there, I hurried to book our tickets with Island Packers: the company that will shuttle you there if you don't have a boat of your own (and we don't).
Pelicans on the 'painted' rocks of the Ventura Harbor barrier. 
Their web site informed me that it is prudent to first reserve our campsite on the island, as these tend to become unavailable quicker than the boat places. So I did. 
A Double-crested Cormorant in the Harbor's calm water.
Years ago, when we were younger, fitter, and childless, Papa Quail and I did overnight camping in the island of Anacapa, the closest island to the mainland, and almost the smallest. We had to haul everything, including fresh water, up a steep incline to the campground.
This time, with the chikas and with grandma, we were headed to Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Island.
Sea Lions resting on a buoy just outside of Ventura Harbor
Cruisers are expected to check in at the harbor at least half an hour before setting out. We unloaded all of our the camping gear from the car and had to haul it in several rounds down to the boat. The gentleman who took the bags from me and into the cargo hold was the skipper himself. I joked with him as I handed him the ice chests, that there was precious cargo inside (fresh eggs). This minor exchange turned out to be quite important later on.
Western Grebe
Being cautious, I purchased a few items that were designed to help with sea sickness. As it was, we didn't need any of them, as the sea was rather calm. People who tend to get motion sickness should make preparations, though.
Royal Tern
One of the nice things about this cruise is that they aren't merely shuttles. there is a naturalist on board and the boat would often swerve to allow the passengers a closer view of oceanic wildlife.
Pomarine Jaeger
We encountered many birds out on the ocean on our way to the island. Some simply rested on the water or flew here and there. But there was a large group of them overing over one spot and diving into the water, again and again. Most of these were Sooty Shearwater.
Sooty Shearwater taking off
But there were others, too. Gulls and Terns. All focused on this one area, where a shoal of fish was close to the water surface.
Gulls and Shearwater birds converging over a shoal of fish
The fish weren't there by accident. They were concentrated and driven to the surface by a large pod of Common Dolphin.  The boat shifted over so we could have a closer look at these dolphins.
Pacific Common Dolphin
The dolphins not only were unphased by our closeness, they also enjoyed much frolicking by the boat and surfing on the boat waves. There were many youngsters in that pod.
Common Dolphins by the boat
At some point Papa Quail got very excited: he thought he'd seen an albatross. A closer look at the photos had quelled his excitement, though. It was merely a Western Gull. But a very beautiful one!
Western Gull
It was so overcast that we couldn't see the islands until we got quite close. There, as we were told, it had a microclimate of its own, where the sun often shine even though the ocean sky is gray.
That indeed turned to be the case. As we curved around the eastern tip of Santa Cruz Island, we saw some holes where the cliffs met the water.

Santa Cruz Island is known also for its watery caverns that attract kayakers.
Other than hiking and swimming (it is good to keep in mind that the water there is very cold), kayaking is also a popular activity of the park's visitors. Next time I visit the island, I think I'll try this too.

We disembarked at the Scorpion Anchorage, which was the first of two stops for the boat on the island. We lined up on the dock and the equipment came out of the cargo hold and was moved from hand to hand down the line of people, to be piled at the end.
Our ice chests didn't make it out. I argued with the crew for a while and they did let me come on board and look for myself, but the ice chests were not found and the crew insisted everything was downloaded. The boat had to leave for its next stop, so I left without the ice chests that held all of our veggies and other cold-requiring food.
Scorpions campground is about 1/2 mile from the anchorage. Since no trollies or wheelbarrows are allowed on the boat we had to make a couple of rounds to haul our gear to the campsite. It was only later that we discover that wheelbarrows can be rented out on the dock ...
At some point I cornered one of the rangers and told her what had happened to our ice chests. She pulled her communicator out and called the boat, which was waiting on the other side of the island, and got hold of the skipper.
He insisted that everything was unloaded from the boat.
At that point I intervened and asked the ranger to remind the skipper of the little banter we had when the ice chests were loaded. Thankfully, with that, he remembered. Shortly after, the ranger showed at our campsite and informed us that the missing ice chests were found and that they will be dropped at the anchorage in the afternoon, when the boat returned to ferry people off the island.
We were all relieved and were ready to go on our first hike on the island.
Scorpion campground is primitive, but has potable water and vault toilets. No campfires are allowed there, so we didn't go to sleep smelling of ashes as we normally do on camping trips. It was nicely peaceful and quite, and also dark. Just as I like it. Even grandma slept well.
Check out time is at 10:00 am, so we had to break camp and haul all of our gear to the dock before going on our second hike on the island.
Western Gull (juvenile)
On our way back, the ocean sky was clear and blue. The ocean itself was even calmer than the day before. We saw many of our yesterday's acquaintances again, although in much lesser numbers.
Sooty Shearwater
We did see the dolphins again. Seeing dolphins always make me giddy.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

More Treasures of Santa Cruz Island (Day 2)

Island Scrub Jay

Date: August 19, 2013
Place: Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California
Coordinates of Scorpion Anchorage:  34.0500, -119.5560
Length: about 2 miles
Difficulty: moderate

Of all the National Parks in California, the Channel Islands is the least accessible and probably is the least toured one. It is, however, the first National Park that I visited in California. That was 16 years ago, before I became a California resident. The island I visited then was the small island of Anacapa, which was the only one Papa Quail could book a campsite at in short notice. Since then, we moved to California and toured all the other National Parks in the state, some quite extensively. The Channel Islands, though, were kept in long waiting. In short, we've been way overdue for another visit in this park.
We chose to go to Santa Cruz Island, the biggest of the Channel Islands for the relative comfort of its camping facilities but mainly for the chance to see two endemic animal species: the Island Fox and the Island Scrub Jay.
The foxes were waiting for us right there at the campground. The jays, however, remained elusive throughout our first day there. Disappointed by not having seen them on our first hike, Papa Quail had gone on a solo hike early in the morning of our second day. He returned in time for breakfast, having seen more foxes and some other bird species, but no jays. It was only when we begun breaking camp that the elder chika pointed out to us a couple of jays that were frolicking by the Eucalyptus trees right by our camp site!
Island Scrub Jay
For a long while we did nothing but observe the two lovely birds hop around, peeking under fallen leaves and tree bark, and checking out our things.
Island Scrub Jay checking out our camping sink. Is that water good to drink? (At that point it still was).
These jays are slightly larger and much bluer than their mainland relatives. For a long time they were considered a subspecies of the mainland scrub jays. Recently, however, they've been classified as a separate species, being so long out of contact with the mainland population.
Satisfied, we finished breaking camp and, after hauling our things to the dock we went on a hike.
Map portion scanned from the National Geographic Channel Islands map. Our hike is labeled yellow.  
The trailhead to Cavern Point is hidden by the visitor center. We found it and went up along the ocean side cliff.
Scorpion Beach
It was overcast and, unlike yesterday, it was chilly too. Ascending got us worm enough to take off our sweaters but any time we stopped (like for the long chat we had with the nice docents we met on the trail) we had to don them again.


The white-flowering shrubs on the trail side captured my attention. There were many of them about, in small clusters. They looked like happy little white clouds on the brown-gray background.
Naked Buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum)

The plateau was stained with dark rusty-red. Flowers? I stepped off the trail to get a closer look.

Not flowers. The red was the color of the plant itself. The flowers were tiny dots of delicate white. It is an ice plant, an invasive species from Africa. 
Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum
We reached Cavern Point and looked down, trying not to be blown away by the chilly wind.

The brown lines in the water turned on a close-up to be masses of seaweed.

To the east: a sheer cliff on top of which a couple was enjoying solitude. We didn't feel inclined to disturb them ...

until the appearance of a happy flock of little brown birds that landed on the cliff top pulled Papa Quail and the older chika over there. They came back following the couple that apparently decided to look for solitude someplace else.
Brown-headed Cowbird (juvenile)
To the west, below: a few cave openings at sea level.

These caves look very alluring. If I could only kayak there ... Something to dream about for next time. 

The looping trail lead us back to the campground, where newly arrived campers were busy pitching tents. We continued all the way back to the anchorage and spent the last couple of hours on the island enjoying ourselves at the beach, where the sun eventually joined us.
Bye bye Santa Cruz Island! Until next time :-)  

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants.
All bird photos were taken by Papa Quail, who also identified them. 



Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Treasures of Santa Cruz Island (Day 1)

Date: August 18, 2013
Place: Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California
Coordinates of Scorpion anchorage: 34.0500, -119.5560
Length: about 4.5 miles
Difficulty: strenuous

When my mother in law booked her tickets to come visit us I immediately started planning our road trip. This time we were bound for the coast of Southern California. I had many objectives for this trip, like meeting friends and exploring nature areas, but my highest desire was to revisit the Channel Island National Park.
Papa Quail worried over the accommodations, (camping only), so I presented his mother with the option of cruising in and out in one day.
"It'll be a waste of time," she said. "I'd rather camp there and have the time to see the place." 
So I went ahead and booked the campsite and the boat tickets. I think I am very fortunate to have such a mother in law :-) 

The Channel Islands of California are a group of small, currently uninhabited islands, about an hour cruise west of Ventura. Other than being a safe roosting and nesting place for sea birds, the islands are home to numerous plants and animals, some of which have evolved in the island isolation into separate species that are endemic to the islands. One of our objectives was to find the two endemic animal species that reside on Santa Cruz Island: the Island Fox and the Island Scrub Jay.

The first was a really easy score. The foxes waited for us in the campground. As we hauled our camping gear from scorpion anchorage to the Scorpion campground, many little foxes, individuals or family groups, were busy running from site to site, climbing on tables, sniffing bags and boxes, looking for human food.
Island Fox
Each camp site had a secure food storage box. We also got a speech from the ranger about keeping all of the bags covered and food tucked away in the box. The foxes, already habituated on human food, are crafty in getting it. 
Island Fox
And they aren't the only animals there who know to break into human containers. Ravens of that island, have learned to open backpack zippers. We were instructed to keep our backpacks under tarp when not being carried.
Common Raven
But not all the birds there are to be wary of.
Mourning Dove
After pitching our tents and checking the Island Fox off our list, we set about looking for the Island Scrub Jay. We were told to look for them in Scorpion Canyon: the creek that descends from the island's hills directly to the campground. We got our hiking gear and headed up Scorpion Canyon.

Map section scanned from the National Geographic Channel Islands Recreation Map. Our hike is labeled yellow.
Nearing the end of summer, the only green that is seen on Santa Cruz Island is in the low hillside trees and along the washes. While most herbaceous plants were done, some shrubs were still in bloom, like the morning glory that dotted the creek line with its bright-white flowers.
Scorpion Canyon
Island Morning Glory close-up:
Island Morning Glory (Calystegia macrostegia)
We strolled slowly along the creek, searching for the Jay of our desire, but the only birds about were black phoebes and sparrows. There were a lot of bugs too, flying to and fro and feasting on the still open flowers.
Narrow Leaf Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)


Some flowers become even more beautiful when done. The Island Buckwheat inflorescences turn deep rust that really stands out.
Island Buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens) 
And there were many of these shrubs, spread out like like puffy cushions all over the place.


After about a mile of easy walk the trail took a turn south and up. Sharply up. Add to that the August mid-day heat, and you get a very strenuous hike. Luckily, this portion of the trail is less than a mile and although slowly, we made it all to the top, grandma and chikas and all.

The higher elevation of Scorpion Canyon
We did have a few rest stops along the ascend. Officially to bribe the chikas with some cookies, but also to photograph the occurring flora.
While waiting for the chikas to make their way uphill I photographed this unassuming shrub:
Island Bristleweed (Hazardia detonsa)
Which turned out to be one of the island's treasures: the rare Island Bristleweed.
Island Bristleweed (Hazardia detonsa)
At the top we see a relic of the not so ancient human settlement of the island: an old oil well.


At the trail intersection we take left (north). Our trail now is a wide dirt road that is now used only by the few vehicles that the National Park rangers operate. Up on the plateau the trail is almost level and walking becomes much easier. There are very few trees and we can see the hill tops all around. Seeing across the channel to the mainland is more challenging because of the fog that didn't really lift that entire day.


Much less is blooming up on top, but it isn't all dry and dead yet:
Clustered Tarweed (Deinandra fasciculata)
Right there, on the trail itself, we encounter many large aggregates of this insect. There are many of them in each group, in various ages. Some of the adults are busy mating but most of the individuals there are nymphs. They take no notice of us as we shade over them while observing. Eventually even the chikas are willing to leave the attraction and move on.
Still working on identifying this one
One more mile, and the trail begins descending to the ocean. Mildly at first.
A grove of Cypress near the cliffs. 
We get a glimpse of the ferry boat that's leaving the island with yesterday's campers. The schedule is tight, but we have until tomorrow.


Very gradually, almost without noticing, the trail becomes steeper and steeper until it becomes just as steep as it was going up. With all the gravel and potholes, it is very taxing on the knees.
We take it slow and easy, enjoying the cliffside vegetation.
Cliff Desertdandelion (Malacothrix saxatilis var. implicata)

There I meet again the Seaside Fleabane. Same species I saw earlier that summer at King Range National Monument and later at the Marin Headlands. It is common and very pretty.
Seaside Fleabane (Erigeron glaucus)

Finally we are down by the old settlement that is now the visitor center and museum. Grandma Quail announces that her legs are really hurting and that she is going straight to the campground to rest. Papa Quail and I take the chikas to the beach to wind down. The cove is sunny and hot, and the ocean is very inviting, but it is already late in the afternoon and we need to start thinking about dinner.
Rocks by the Scorpion Beach
So after some relaxation and admiration of the birds we see, we call the chikas from the beach and head back to the campground.
Cormorants on a rock
The entire hike took us about 4 hours of slow walk. As for the jays, they remained out of sight throughout the hike.
Pacific Brown Pelican