Seen from the shores of sunny Santa Barbara, the sea is almost always a peaceful being, a wide expanse of deep blue, often ribboned with slow-rolling swells, occasionally pockmarked by wind-blown tufts of white foam. But at the Channel Islands, even a seemingly calm day can reveal the fierce strength of the mighty Pacific, with high winds screaming across your face and wicked waves threatening to tip boats both large and small. This is never more apparent than when paddling in the low-lying belly of an ocean kayak, where just a few inches of thick plastic and a double-bladed paddle are your only allies against swimming for your life.
I was reminded of this most recently during an April daytrip to Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island with the Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which offers guided kayak trips along the craggy shoreline and, if weather permits, into the sea caves that scar the northeastern cliffs of the largest Channel Island. After crossing the Santa Barbara Channel, we unloaded from the Island Packers vessel with our guide, Brina Carey, who then led us in a brief but thorough explanation of basic kayaking, which was especially useful for Indy photographer Paul Wellman and my friend Giuseppe, both first-time paddlers. We then took off west, past and/or through caves colloquially called Elephant’s Belly, Marge Simpson, Seal Beach, and In ’n’ Out, where Giuseppe flipped his rig while departing the cave, but ably reclaimed his seat seconds later. All was pretty calm in these protected coves, allowing us to spot and even study nesting swallows, pigeon guillemots, black oystercatchers, western gulls, harbor seals, and a particularly large male California sea lion. All of the creatures were described in great detail by Carey, whose experience and continuing work as a professional conservationist added much insight to the ecology lessons, from the staggeringly quick growth rate of kelp to the complicated network of coastal island life.
But then we rounded Cavern Point, the last defense before wide-open waters of the western channel, where waves and wind tend to unite in the springtime for some tumultuous turbulence. It was only a matter of seconds before the painless paddling turned into a more serious situation, as a steady gale ripped into our jackets while the kayaks dropped into deep troughs and topped white-capping crests. The liquid roller coaster was, of course, nowhere near a dangerous situation, but it was a glimpse of how quickly conditions can change out at the Channel Islands, a visceral memo that even a seemingly calm sea is not to be toyed with.
The Adventure Plan Man
“It can be very challenging out there in the open Pacific,” admitted Michael Cohen, owner of the Santa Barbara Adventure Company (SBACo). “Outfitters are constantly rescuing or helping people who get in over their heads. The national park is designed for everyone to have recreation, but that is the value of using experienced guides.” But the conditions are only part of the challenge. “People get into vacation mode, where the concept of their own personal welfare can be removed because they are with an outfitter,” said Cohen. “We really encourage people to take responsibility by previewing what risks are there.”
Treading this line between fun, educational adventure and actual physical danger is pretty much Cohen’s business model, and he’s been perfecting the balance ever since he started the kayaking/mountain biking/wine country touring/rock climbing/ropes coursing/surfing lesson and more company in 1998. By then, the Santa Barbara High and Humboldt State grad had already spent nearly a decade leading similar excursions on rivers and coastlines throughout California, Belize, and elsewhere but always enjoyed returning home to find an “equally beautiful” place. “I just wanted to apply the type of trips I’d done in these other settings to this incredible stretch of coast where I grew up,” said Cohen.
A couple years after Cohen started SBACo, I met him for the first time over margaritas at El Paseo, and that chance encounter led me to join and write about a 10-mile paddle from Gaviota State Park to Refugio. We hit it off, and he quickly became a regular part of a long-running Wednesday-night poker game, where we’d repeatedly ride him for not offering any trips to the Channel Islands. The National Park Service, he informed us, had capped the number of outfitters allowed, so in 2000, Cohen became a lobbying machine in hopes of getting a piece of the action. “I started a letter-writing and calling campaign with anybody in the Department of the Interior who would listen to me,” he recalled, “and often people who wouldn’t.”
Initially, Cohen was “stonewalled,” but in 2006, his company was granted a special permit that allowed kayak tours everywhere but Scorpion Anchorage. Unfortunately, Scorpion is by far the best place for daytrips — not only does it have the best sea caves, safest waters, a nearby campground, a visitor’s center, and regular boat service, but it’s the only place in the entire Channel Islands National Park where outfitters can store their boats and gear. So Cohen kept pushing, and in 2008, permits were finally opened for a competitive bid, a process that will now happen every two years. Thanks to considerable experience, an exemplary safety record, and a focus on environmental sensitivity, Cohen’s company snagged the permit, thereby joining two other longtime island outfitters, Paddle Sports and Aquasports.
For someone whose livelihood depends on the wonders of nature, its no surprise that Cohen’s doing everything he can to protect it. “My vision has always been that if you get the tourist to love the environment, then they will make good decisions,” said Cohen. “It’s my secret crusade to turn people pro-environment.” To do so, he hires only the “top 10 percent of applicants” to be his guides, and then encourages them to focus on ecology, whether it’s edible plants on a bike cruise down from La Cumbre Peak or the rock types found while scaling a San Ysidro Creek cliff face. “The Channel Islands are phenomenal for that,” said Cohen. “The geology is just amazing, the endemic species are completely off the hook, and the marine ecology is mind-blowing.” And this year, Cohen — whose company took about 550 people on trips to the islands last year of the roughly 4,000 annual kayakers — looks forward to the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday daytrips being offered this summer to Painted Cave and the western end of Santa Cruz Island by Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara, complete with a morning breakfast and afternoon chicken barbecue.
Back around Scorpion Anchorage, after flipping my kayak on a quick surge in the Marge Simpson cave, we circled Scorpion Rock, checked out the luminescent Green Room cave, and shot in and out of the Dog Leg cave. As we were paddling back toward the beach, Wellman remarked how efficient the kayak is, that even with a strong headwind, you’re always making progress. Just then, right on cue, the island’s gods blew their hardest, and the afternoon gusts made forward movement nearly impossible. We tucked closer to the shoreline, muscled our way ahead, and eventually landed on the shore, our arms burning, lungs pumping, and even Carey remarking that we’d made it just in time.
For the first-timers, it was the ideal cap to a great day, a lesson in the limitations of a kayak after hours of entertaining exploration. For me, the message was clear: No matter how much you make a playground out of the Pacific, never forget to respect its unfathomable power, a force that can emerge in the most tranquil of seasons.
The Santa Barbara Adventure Company’s daytrips to Scorpion Anchorage and elsewhere on Channel Islands National Park are $165 and include kayak rental and assorted gear, a guide, and charter fees across the channel. See sbadventureco.com or call 884-WAVE. The two companies offering similar excursions are PaddleSports (kayaksb.com; 899-4925) and Aquasports (islandkayaking.com; 968-7231). Offering kayak trips to other areas are Channel Islands Kayak Center (cikayak.com; 644-9699) and Blue Sky Kayak Tours (blueskykayaktours.com; 320-7602).