I was anxious to kayak to San Miguel Island, where more seals and sea lions bark and bellow than anywhere else in North America, where ancient pygmy mammoths once roamed, and where the seafaring Chumash Indians thrived for thousands of years. The last two times I contemplated kayaking over to San Miguel Island, stiff northwest winds stymied my approach. The island wasn’t going anywhere, I reasoned. Next time. Now here we were: Craig Fernandez, Danny Trudeau, and I, staring across at the windswept isle last fall.
“Now is a good time,” I said. “If it looks good, you go. You don’t wait until early tomorrow morning. Conditions could diminish by then.”
But I wasn’t feeling enthusiasm for what was only a four-mile crossing to Cuyler Harbor. Why was I so anxious? For one, it’s not easy getting there, and when paddling conditions are mild, you have to take advantage. For another, I’d only circumnavigated the isle once before, back in 2000. The last reason was the island had recently reopened on May 17, 2016, after a two-year shutdown by the U.S. Navy, citing leftover live ordnance from WWII.
I never had any fear of stepping on a decrepit bomb on the scenic islet anyway, and now, to a certain extent, that potential has diminished. The Navy expressed concerns over unexploded ordnance on San Miguel Island — a bombing range during WWII through the 1970s — and conducted a thorough sweep of high-use areas. The 14-square-mile isle endured the Navy’s survey, which covered a mere one percent of the total area.
It’s an island worth protecting. San Miguel is home to more than 100,000 seals and sea lions that use the island to breed and haul out on its remote beaches. The island flora is particularly sensitive, with more than a dozen plant species that are endemic to the chain occurring on the island. Also sensitive are the many archaeological sites. The island and its surrounding rock outcroppings and islets support one third of breeding seabirds in the rugged national park.
“It was a process the Navy had to go through,” said Yvonne Menard, chief of interpretation and public information officer for Channel Islands National Park. No high-explosive items were discovered in the high-use areas, but 125 pounds of munitions such as practice bombs, bomb fragments, and fuses were removed. To set foot on San Miguel today, kayakers, day-trippers, and campers must now sign an access permit and liability waiver. Permits are available on the Island Packers ferries and air-concession offices and at a self-registration station located at the trailhead of Nidever Canyon at Cuyler Harbor, on the north side of San Miguel Island.
The eight-mile-long, four-mile-wide island will not be open when a ranger or other National Park Service (NPS) personnel are not present. Since San Miguel was added to Channel Islands National Park in 1980, visitors have always been required to be escorted by a ranger beyond the ranger station. Despite the sweep of unexploded ordnance, that practice will remain in place.
So how to see San Miguel? Boat? Airplane? Kayaking is the best way to see the islands. As we rounded Harris Point, we could feel the swoosh of energy beneath the hull of our boats. The broad cleft at the top of Castle Rock loomed large beneath overcast skies while we plodded over legions of pelagic red crabs clinging to dense canopies of balletic giant bladder kelp.
The northwest crags of the island are wholly exposed to swell and wind. It was glassy, but we dodged unpredictable waves all the way around Point Bennett. We were also alone but not lonely. Inquisitive, raucous, Yoda-like northern fur seal pups mugged us along the gritty sand spit. Not shy, they bodysurfed with abandon in the spinning shore pound.
The rest of the day was spent kayaking along Tyler Bight, Crook Point, and Cardwell Point, paddling downhill with wind and current at our backs. Trudeau busted out his sail. We were paddling southeast back across the San Miguel Passage to Santa Rosa Island. I was already thinking of the next time.