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Author Ken McAlpine stands in his front yard one night in Ventura, California, trying to see the stars. His view is diminished by light pollution, making it hard to see much of anything in the sky. Our fast-paced, technologically advanced society, he concludes, is not conducive to stargazing or soul-searching. Taking a page from Thoreau's Walden, he decides to get away from the clamor of everyday life, journeying alone through California's Channel Islands National Park. There, he imagines, he might be able to ...
Author Ken McAlpine stands in his front yard one night in Ventura, California, trying to see the stars. His view is diminished by light pollution, making it hard to see much of anything in the sky. Our fast-paced, technologically advanced society, he concludes, is not conducive to stargazing or soul-searching. Taking a page from Thoreau's Walden, he decides to get away from the clamor of everyday life, journeying alone through California's Channel Islands National Park. There, he imagines, he might be able to "breathe slowly and think clearly, to examine how we live and what we live for."
In between his week-long solo trips through these pristine islands, McAlpine reaches out to try to better understand his fellow man: he eats lunch with the homeless in Beverly Hills, sits in the desert with a 98-year-old Benedictine monk, and befriends a sidewalk celebrity impersonator in Hollywood. What he discovers about himself and the world we live in will inspire anyone who wishes they had the time to slow down and notice the wonders of nature and humanity.
To learn more about the author, visit his website at kenmcalpine.com.
From Santa Rosa Island
I visited the Channel Islands in no particular order, for they all offer solitude and so, in these chaotic times, a chance to see things more clearly. It’s true, some of the islands offer more opportunity for quiet reflection than others. Mostly, this is a matter of distance. Of the five islands comprising Channel Islands National Park—Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa—Anacapa Island, only eleven miles off the southern California mainland, is the most visited. Americans like convenience. Anacapa can be wrapped up in half a day; boat out, traipse about the island, and be home in time for Oprah.
But as the Channel Islands edge farther into the Pacific, the degree of convenience falls off and, not surprisingly, so does the number of visitors. Santa Rosa Island sits over twenty-six miles from the mainland; only one Channel Island—San Miguel—strays farther west. Fogbound, windswept, and weather-scoured, Santa Rosa’s remote attitude whispered alluringly. It seemed as good a place as any to start reflecting.
Santa Rosa is roughly forty-six miles by boat from Ventura Harbor, under good conditions a two-and-a-half to three-hour boat trip, but conditions are not always good. Those who regularly ply the Santa Barbara Channel and the Pacific beyond are well aware of this.
And so, on a sunny April morning, Dwight Willey, captain of the National Park Service’s hundred-foot Ocean Ranger, stood inside the cabin, giving a safety talk before the vessel left Ventura Harbor.
“Big swell today,” said Dwight. He had the easy smile of an accomplished seaman, or someone quite comfortable with the prospect of a long swim. “Make sure you hang on to something when you’re moving around the boat. If you’re feeling a little under the weather, grab a trash can, don’t go to the rail.” Dwight held up a life vest. “Everybody seen these before?” Just as quickly, he stashed it away. “Hope you never have to see them again.”
Dwight’s briefing was, well, brief because, with one exception, the folks he addressed—scientists, researchers, and National Park personnel—made this boat trip regularly. A goodly number of Dwight’s passengers had skipped the briefing entirely. Stepping aboard, they had immediately hustled below decks to score a bunk so that they could sleep during the trip out. True professionals, they realized it is best to be well rested when a boat begins to founder--thus ensuring one has the requisite energy to strong-arm all comers and clamber into the lifeboat first.
I sat at one of the cabin’s tables and listened attentively to Dwight’s discourse, partly because I wanted to be polite and partly because slipping away to a bunk was awkward since Dwight was talking mostly to me. Members of the public do not ride aboard National Park Service boats, but the park service had kindly made an exception for me because I was writing a book that involved their Channel Islands. A flood of public trips (offered through Park concessionaire Island Packers) churn out to the park islands in summer, but in spring, fall, and winter, the number of public boat trips dwindles, and, in the case of Santa Rosa, stops completely in winter.
Hopping aboard the regular Tuesday morning park service run to Santa Rosa (with a stop at Santa Cruz Island too) ensured that I would be the sole camper on eighty-four square miles of island. On Friday, Island Packers would send out their first Santa Rosa boat of the season. Distance, and impressive storms, made public trips to Santa Rosa in winter both daunting
and pointless. In terms of economic feasibility, the number of people willing to pay to puke and pray for five Victory at Sea hours is far outbalanced by the masses willing to cling to the stability of dry land.
The beginning of spring had changed conditions—slightly.
Finished with his briefing, Dwight spoke to the man seated across the table from me.
“Just talked to Earl out there,” Dwight said. “He said it’s bikini weather.”
Mark Senning, Santa Rosa’s head ranger, nodded to Dwight, but he smiled at me.
“The weather’s good now, but things change fast out there,” Mark said. “If you’d gone out last week, it would have been, well, I won’t say miserable, but it would have been challenging for you. It was the way Santa Rosa is typically in the springtime. It blows like hell.”
In my years spent in the great outdoors I have learned many valuable lessons, one of them being that I am no great outdoorsman. It is a harsh lesson absorbed by many a dilettante—some of them no longer with us—but a heartfelt love for nature does not equal survival skills. In the wild, I am capable enough. I can build a fire and filter water, and, should I find myself at a loss for something essential, I know how to ingratiate myself with someone who packed extra chocolate or knows the way out of the damn look-alike woods. But I have also spent enough time in the wild to notice that, just when I start to feel competent, nature bites me in the posterior. This is not a random choice of phrase. In remote Outback Australia I once tended to my backside with an ideally textured leaf, the underside of which was smothered in soon-to-be unsettled ants. Nature teaches humility faster than anything I know.
One thing I do well is read, and in our information age there are cyber libraries bursting with helpful information. I had read up thoroughly on Santa Rosa Island. The island sounded impossibly beautiful and equally unique, but it did not sound like a place to be trifled with. Santa Rosa is home to many things quiet, rare, and enchanting—endemic oaks (among the rarest in North America), the housecat-size island fox, and one of world’s last two groves of Torrey pines—but the weather is not one of them.
Consult a map of the California coast and you will clearly see that Santa Rosa rests beyond the lee of Point Conception, the prong of California mainland that offers a degree of shelter to the islands of Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and Anacapa (not to mention all of balmy southern California). No such umbrella for Santa Rosa; the island throws its arms wide to the full brunt of every hellish weather system from the north. Even on a good day, thirty-knot winds are not uncommon. Nautical types will recognize thirty-knot winds for the impressive blow they are. Thirty knots is the equivalent of 34.6 miles an hour. Something called the Beaufort Wind Scale defines such a wind as a “moderate gale; whole trees in motion; inconvenience in walking against the wind.” I could only imagine the foot speed required to chase down a tent.
These winds blow across cold Pacific waters. I had done what I could to prepare. I had packed plenty of warm clothing—two duffel bags full—and enough canned soup to ride out all of April and possibly most of May; certainly enough for my planned week’s stay. Our family owns a dome tent, but I had borrowed a low lying tent from a friend instead. One does not need a degree in aeronautical engineering to see a dome tent’s capacity for lift when placed before a willing wind. Happily, I had also read that the campground on Santa Rosa had recently undergone extensive improvements. Among other amenities, park service personnel had constructed windbreaks for each campsite, placed so that their three sides offered some protection from the prevailing winds.
I had neglected to pack a bikini, but other than that I felt reasonably prepared. I had garnered much of my information from Channel Island National Park’s very own Web site.
From across the table, Mark smiled again.
“People can visit the Web site, they can read all the materials, but they still don’t understand what they’re getting into,” he continued. “You have to actually be out there to understand the place.”
Mark had worked as a ranger for Channel Islands National Park since 1987. He had rangered on Santa Rosa for the past nine years, generally alternating a week on the island with a week on the mainland. Though he would not say it, others told me so: Santa Rosa was Mark’s island. His word, based on intimate experience, was the final one. He had advised plenty of visitors on Santa Rosa’s challenges. Given that listening is a skill fast being winnowed from humanity’s gene pool, he had also rescued a fair share of them when they did precisely what he had advised against.
Mark took no pride or satisfaction in these rescues. As an enforcement ranger, he wears a badge and a gun. Along with these items he carries a natural air of authority that made me sit up straight and listen. But with time I would come to see that, more than anything, Mark was simply a good Samaritan, clothed, by necessity, in the federal government’s insipid and intimidating storm trooper uniform.
Santa Rosa Island 11
Crosses in the Sand 55
Anacapa Island 75
A Sequoia in the Desert 107
San Miguel Island 129
Almost Famous 153
Santa Barbara Island 181
Lunch in Beverly Hills 203
Santa Cruz Island 225
The World to Come 243
Posted August 12, 2009
This book may be sold in the travel section, but is a wonderfully light hearted and philosophical look at present-day life. Makes you want to take time out, lie in the grass and look at the stars. Beautifully written and you'll be glad you took the journey!
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Posted April 10, 2012
Posted February 4, 2010
No text was provided for this review.