On one of the smallest islands in California’s least-visited national park, my daughter, Grace, and I went in search of splendid isolation. We found carnage, heard shrieks and wandered the topography of an acrophobe’s worst nightmare.
I recommend it — so long as you know what you’re getting into.
The island is Anacapa, part of Channel Islands National Park. To get there from Los Angeles, we got up early and drove an hour to Oxnard’s Channel Islands Harbor, where concessionaire Island Packers runs daily boat trips to Anacapa, about 12 miles out.
On the way, there’s a good chance you’ll spot dolphins alongside your vessel, as we did.
Question: Is this really a good time to board a ship?
Answer: The Vanguard, which usually can carry 81 passengers, is now capped at about 30 passengers, whose positions are closely monitored by the small crew. No more than nine people at a time are on the upper deck. Masks are required. Passengers are urged to use and carry hand sanitizer.
We went on a Monday, looking for day-trip consolation after the pandemic trashed our plans for a road trip up the coast. (Though many hotels and campgrounds have reopened, state officials continue to warn that Californians should avoid gatherings and “should not travel significant distances for pleasure or recreation.”)
Our trip took us less than 70 miles from home and was completed before 5 p.m. The ship carried 25 other passengers, and just about everybody stood or sat outside in the stiff breeze.
Barely an hour after embarking at 9:30 a.m., Capt. Jason Wendell had us near the island’s 40-foot-high icon, Arch Rock, with Landing Cove a few hundred yards beyond it.
Anacapa is officially one island. But as we drew near, we could see that it’s really three dollops of volcanic rock, topped with green and brown ground cover, with cliffs, sea caves and strange formations on all sides. On our dollop were no beaches, no trees and a single trail in the shape of a figure eight, about 1½ miles long, about 200 feet above sea level.
To get ashore, you step from your vessel onto a clever little dock wedged into Landing Cove, then climb about 160 steps up a man-made stairwell to reach flat land.
Not that there’s a great deal of it. The island is about 700 acres, and visitors are limited to Anacapa’s eastern islet, which includes a 1932 light station, a handful of National Park Service buildings and enough western gulls to rule the Pacific. This is said to be the gulls’ largest nesting ground anywhere.
Visit in July, as we did, and you see a few thousand fuzzy fledgling gulls venturing forth from nests on the ground, learning to fly in stiff winds, practicing their shrieks and gobbling up regurgitated food from their mothers.
The first birds we encountered were a large, graceful white gull and a smaller, ungainly brown one.
“This is a mama and a chick. You’ll see a lot of that,” said Island Packers deckhand and naturalist Brittney Csorba. Also, Csorba added, “you might see some carnage.”
So we did, within a few more steps. Most hatchlings never make it to their first birthday, Csorba explained, because of hunger or other variables. As we walked among hundreds of mothers and fledglings, we also passed dozens of corpses and their bones, which blended well into the island dirt.
“Wait. Look at that bone. It’s so big,” said Grace at one point. As we later learned, the largest ones are chicken bones that gulls have scavenged and carried from the mainland.
So this was no vacation from mortality. But this is how the world has always worked, and it was a gorgeous day.
Some people snorkel or kayak in the kelp beds and sea caves around Landing Cove, where you might encounter seals, sea lions, lobsters, bat rays and an underwater arch. But most visitors, including us, just walk and take in the views.
We paused to eat at the picnic tables (cleverly protected from gulls by a spinning thingamajig), then made a beeline past the island’s seven-site campground to Inspiration Point, which looks out at Anacapa’s middle and western islets, a spectacular sprawl of rocky slopes surrounded by sea. The sky was filled with swooping gulls and brown pelicans, whose rookery on the western islet is the largest in the western U.S.
Inspiration Point is “one of the most scenic locations in all of the Channel Islands,” said Yvonne Menard, the park’s chief of interpretation. “You’re surrounded by water and that dramatic interface between the land and the sea.”
The Inspiration Point view alone was worth the round-trip fare of $59 per adult. This is the place to pull out your picnic lunch and imagine the screenplay you’ll write about Frenchy LeDreau.
Q: Frenchy LeDreau?
A: Raymond “Frenchy” LeDreau, a fisherman, arrived at Anacapa in 1928, set up a few huts and over the next 28 years was known to sing opera and quote literature. He also kept pet cats and made alliances with bootleggers and the National Park Service, as was necessary. He finally left the island at age 80, after suffering severe injuries in a fall. From Inspiration Cove you can see Frenchy’s Cove on the western islet, the only real beach on the island.
For most of the day, we were far from other people. After Inspiration Point, we headed east to the light station, then tried to play cards at a picnic table. Too windy. We listened to stories of island living from Samuel Guerrero, a longtime NPS maintenance worker and part-time island resident.
When the seagulls land on his roof, Guerrero told us, “it’s like someone dropping a lot of rocks.” On the other hand, he quickly added, “it’s their home. We’re talking 2,000 or 3,000 babies this year.”
A few fun facts about the island:
•Western gulls are opportunistic eaters, consuming bits of fish, sea creatures, other birds and, um, their own dead.
•Of the eight Channel Islands, Anacapa is the only one not named for a Catholic saint. Its name apparently grew out of the Chumash phrase for “mirage island.”
•In the first half of 2019, rangers counted about 2,900 visitors to Anacapa, of whom 405 spent the night. In the first half of 2020, they counted 1,115 visitors, of whom 152 spent the night. Camping is $15 per night; reservations required at recreation.gov.
If you’re a diver, a snorkeler, a kayaker, an ornithologist or a photographer in search of sunrises and sunsets, you might want to spend the night. If not, a day will do just fine. When the Vanguard reappeared to bring us back to the mainland at 3:45 p.m., we were ready.
An hour later, we were on the mainland. An hour after that, we were home. No hotel, no restaurants, no visitor center, no gift shop. A day well spent.
“Thank you,” said Grace, shortly before dozing off.
Tomorrow’s adventure? Maybe a Hitchcock movie…