An Island Unto Themselves
For a 6-year-old, it’s torture, this no-running-on-the-island rule. No running! Not even when the tour boats come to Anacapa Island, where first-grader Melanie Gottshall and her single dad live alone.
Here, 14 miles off the coast of Ventura, it’s so quiet that you can hear a whale before you see it--PHOOO-ooo goes the blowhole--in a winter sea pulsing with jellyfish and dolphins. And over the foghorn, you can still hear the whooosh of a peregrine falcon landing on the lighthouse.
Too quiet, says Melanie, who has lived on East Anacapa since she was 14 months old. The island, which is part of Channel Islands National Park, has 1 square mile of land and no beach, fresh water or shade trees. On the island’s cliff top, 250 feet above the aqua-green waters, there are no buildings, other than a few National Park Service structures--and that suits Melanie’s dad just fine.
Her dad, Drew “Tree” Gottshall, a 44-year-old Park Service maintenance worker, knows it’s tough for a kid to take it easy on the trails and grow up without playmates. But imagine, says Gottshall--a place without crime or traffic or ugliness, a place where a child can’t get into much trouble.
Still, he says, they won’t live on the island much longer. The day is approaching, maybe faster than he’d like, when he must ease his daughter into life off what he calls happy land, where smog-free colors are as vivid as a Van Gogh painting--the red Indian paintbrush, the sunny coreopsis flowers, the purple sea urchins.
Like any parent, Gottshall is struggling to find the balance between a child’s guileless worldview--complicated by an island where nothing bad happens, except for a little weather--and the realities of life in a rougher place. For now, when strangers ask Melanie how to get to the lighthouse, she’ll tell them, here, I’ll show you.
Every day, she wonders whether the boats are coming.
“I wish that people would be out here,” Melanie says one morning. “Like if there weren’t any people today? I would wish they would come tomorrow.”
“Because I like to see people. . . . I really love the people coming, all the old people coming. They’re very nice to talk to.”
Melanie is a chatterer. She will tell you right off why there’s red bird poop on the island: The sea gulls are eating crabs. Her dad, on the other hand, works with a two-way radio stuck in the back pocket of his official khakis--that’s about all the chatter he needs.
She is a slight girl with straight blond bangs and a gap-toothed grin, who likes jeans and cotton dresses and jumping up and down. Her dad is a tall, slim man with graying temples and a serious, sunburned face, who likes to read biographies, mysteries and newspapers left behind on boats.
Every day, he tries to wrap life on the 25-million-year-old island into Melanie’s home schooling, which is supervised by the Ventura Unified School District. They practice addition and subtraction when the California brown pelicans fly overhead in formation. They work on spelling when the cargo ships sail by with big letters printed on the side. And at night, in pitch blackness, they take down the American flag outside their front door and talk about the 50 states.
“It’s just a lot of down-to-earth, simple stuff that probably 50 years ago, 100 years ago, was no big deal,” says Gottshall, who never wears a watch on the island. “But for the 1990s, in this society which tends to forget simple things like that, it’s unusual. . . . We’re living a simple life out here.”
A Solitary Figure Awaits a Tour Boat
It’s a sweet sight, a 65-foot white power boat, full of passengers on an open deck, pulling into the landing cove at Anacapa Island. On the cliff top, 154 steps up from the water, Melanie is a tiny, solitary figure, waiting against the railing.
In winter, when it’s a 75-minute ride or longer to the island, boat traffic in the choppy waters slows to about one a week. Maybe there’ll be a Park Service boat, bringing mail and news. Or an Island Packers tour boat, with seniors from Elderhostel, a travel-study group, and other day tourists.
In the fall and spring, school groups visit almost every day, and Melanie tags along on hikes. She doesn’t get to play with other kids much.
“But I usually like it with grown-ups,” she says.
And every two weeks or so, depending on the weather and the availability of boats, she and her dad go to the mainland for groceries and meetings with her teacher. On the mainland, they usually spend nights on a Park Service boat. Sometimes, they stay at a Motel 6--"splurge a little bit,” Gottshall says--where Melanie can learn to swim in a heated pool. In town, they get around on a bicycle and go visit Melanie’s friends, the children of Park Service employees.
In October, for the first time, Melanie’s dad took her trick-or-treating on the mainland. She dressed up as a devil with pointy ears and went door-to-door with a girlfriend. Other years for Halloween, Melanie has dressed as a cowgirl or princess for visitors on the island.
The best part about the island, she says, is when Elderhostel comes out, and “my best, best, best friend, Anne. This is how you spell her name: A-n-n-e.” Turns out Anne is a grown-up and occasional camper on the island. What does Anne do for a living?
“Um, I don’t really know,” Melanie says.
In the landing cove, the captains wave and sometimes point her out to passengers.
“I think there’s a romantic side to it--a little girl growing up on an island,” says Holly Lohuis, 31, education coordinator for Island Packers.
Park Service volunteer John Prince, a retired junior high school principal, has watched Melanie grow up on Anacapa.
“As you can see, it’s pretty Spartan living,” says Prince, who helps guide tour groups on the island. “When she gets to the mainland, I think it’ll be a shock.”
This wasn’t the plan, to spend Melanie’s childhood here.
“To tell you the truth,” Gottshall says, “I never knew I’d be here seven years. It’s just that we’ve grown to like it so much, that’s it’s gotten harder and harder to leave, the longer we stay.”
How can he think about starting the day on the Ventura Freeway when now he can nudge Melanie awake in the morning, the way he did after a rain in January, to peek out the front door at rainbows jumping into the Pacific waters?
On days with no campers or workers or tourists, they have the island to themselves. Not a bad gig for someone who grew up outside Philadelphia, the son of a steelworker father and homemaker mother, and dreamed of working outdoors.
Gottshall took the job in April 1992, after a six-year stint diving for the Park Service in the warm coral reefs of the Florida Keys. The Anacapa job sounded fun, with work that called for diving in cold, deep waters and solar energy expertise. (The island runs on solar power.) The position also requires the employee to live on Anacapa and oversee the island’s upkeep, clearing trails, cleaning benches, fixing buoys and maintaining the dock. Gottshall also checks on campers and answers any questions from the island’s 30,000 annual visitors.
Gottshall is the only Park Service employee who lives full time on the Channel Islands, and the first to raise a child there, says Carol Spears, a spokeswoman for the islands. Other workers commute to the islands on flexible work week schedules. (Nationwide, it’s not unusual for Park Service workers to live on the job; for instance, a ranger for the Statue of Liberty lives on Liberty Island with her 14-year-old son, who commutes by boat to school in New Jersey.)
On Anacapa, Gottshall is never more than a 15-minute walk away from home and drops by often to check on Melanie or have lunch with her. In an emergency, a Coast Guard or sheriff’s helicopter could be on the island in 10 minutes. But so far, neither he nor Melanie have even been sick.
He has raised her to do for herself, so he can go off to work, leave her with homework and not worry about her. If she wants cereal in the morning, he’ll tell her, Melanie, you know how to climb on the counter and reach up to the second shelf.
“According to our [Ventura Unified] teacher, she’s doing fine, being taught at home,” Gottshall says, “and I really enjoy it. It’s just part of our life now. . . . That’s why I would miss this environment. I would really hate to give up the time that I have with my daughter. That’s the big thing why we’re probably not leaving right away.
“It’s because I might go to another place, and I’ll go to work. She’ll go to school. There’s like eight hours there that I won’t see her, and that’s gonna be really different, because I see her all the time every day.”
An Attic Bedroom in a Small House
On Anacapa, Gottshall and Melanie live in a small, white concrete-block house with a red tile roof. Sometimes, the northwest wind kicks up something fierce and blows the doors off the hinges.
They have a simple kitchen, living room with TV and bathroom with a shower fed by water tanks. The kitchen’s Dutch door opens to the sea.
Melanie’s room is up a ladder from her dad’s bedroom in what used to be the attic and is crammed with stuffed bears and Barbies. The slanting roof makes it impossible for an adult to stand up, so her dad lies down on the carpet next to her bed when he reads to her “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” or “Mad about Madeline” at night. Then he climbs downstairs to his own bed, and they talk until one of them falls asleep. But Melanie doesn’t pull up her sheets with the brown bears on them until the two night lights are on--to keep monsters away.
On scary nights, and in just plain old day, Melanie says she misses her mom, who lives in St. Petersburg, Russia. Melanie’s mother, an unemployed schoolteacher, lived on the island for four years but then returned to Russia.
“She just decided that America was not for her,” Gottshall says.
Since then, he has struggled alone with questions of parenting, on how to gently curb a kid’s trust in strangers without cutting into her innocence too soon. Here on the island, no one even litters, though there are no trash cans; the only garbage is carried in by sea gulls.
The world looks different to a kid with no driveways to run up, no trees to hide behind. Even a game of hide-and-seek is defined with words she knows from island living.
“Look over west,” Melanie will say before hiding. “And don’t look east.”
Off the island, Melanie is starting to ask about the rest of the world. Daddy, she asked one night in Ventura, why are those people sleeping on the street?
“Yeah,” Gottshall says, one afternoon when Melanie is playing with her dolls. “That will be something I’m gonna have to deal with when we get into the other world, and uh, you know, I kind of hate to even try to talk about that. . . .
“I’m gonna have to start thinking and talking to her in subtle ways. ‘Well, maybe that person we shouldn’t talk to, Melanie. . . .’ Like any other parent, you gotta say that somehow, and I am maybe not prepared to do this yet or know how to approach it.”
Gottshall says they will be here “not too much longer,” but not because he’s worried about Melanie. He just doesn’t want to stay in the same job too long, get stale.
“If I thought there was something here that she really didn’t like, and she woke up and was crying and thinking, ‘Oh, we’re out here for another day?’ then we wouldn’t be here.”
Gottshall knows she misses other kids but isn’t sure she’s missing out on much.
“Why do kids have to be around other kids all the time?” he says. “Maybe it’s good to not have them around kids all the time, influenced in wrong ways.”
But Melanie says she wants to live in Ventura.
“Because I’m getting tired of this island.”
What does the mainland have for kids that you don’t have?
She pauses and sighs.
“I can’t answer that,” she says. “That’s too much of a question.”
Sharing Her Knowledge With a Seniors Group
It’s Elderhostel day, and 30 seniors sit on benches at the dock for an afternoon nature talk. Below, the whitecaps slap against sea caves and through 19th-century shipwrecks.
Fresh from a dive, Island Packers’ Lohuis pulls out sea critters from an ice chest and introduces Melanie as her helper. Melanie goes from person to person, holding out a piece of sea kelp with both hands.
“It’s slimy,” she says.
She passes a sea star next, letting each person hold it a bit, and then a crab.
“This is the stomach here,” Melanie says, and flips it upside down.
In half an hour, it’s over, and Melanie stays on the dock until each person boards the boat. Then she scampers up all those steps to the landing.
The boat pulls away. On the deck, a white-haired man from Minneapolis leans on his cane in a deck chair. He watches the child in the red sweater who won’t stop waving until the boat is out of sight. First with one hand. Then with two.
He grins, then tips his hat to her.
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Anacapa Island Facts:
* Where: Anacapa Island is made up of three small islets, 14 miles off the coast of Ventura. It is on the east end of Channel Islands National Park, which includes five islands, the smallest of which is Santa Barbara Island, on its southern boundary.
* Wildlife: West Anacapa, which is a protected research area and closed to visitors, features the largest breeding colony of the endangered California brown pelican. Other animals on the island include California sea lions, harbor seals and deer mice.
* Geological features: The island features 130 sea caves and the 40-foot high Arch Rock. On the island’s cliff top, several overlooks, including Inspiration Point, provide excellent views of seals and sea lions.
* What to do: Hiking, camping, snorkeling, swimming, kayaking. For information, call the National Park Service, (805) 658-5730.
* How to get there: Park concessionaire Island Packers, (805) 642-1393.