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A welcome place of solitude

CHASING DOWN THE MUSE

A black-winged raven calls me to waking from my dream-filled

sleep. He and a partner glide through the grassy-sloped canyon

searching for their first meals. Stephen snores softly in harmony

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with other campers. I slip out of the tent and down the canyon trail.

Cool fog fills the spaces between the ridges and eucalyptus leaves

drip with evening dew. Small wrens flitter in the scrub shrubbery and

the telltale signs of wild pig are everywhere. It is said that

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California must have looked just like this 100 years ago, pristine

beaches, no land developments or paved roads -- just solitude and

quiet.

We’ve come to Santa Cruz Island for a long weekend of sea kayaking

and hiking. It’s the largest in Channel Island National Park. 22

miles long and between two- and six-miles wide, it encompasses more

than 61,000 acres. 24% is part of the park system; the other 76% is

in the trust of the Nature Conservancy, and accessible by one-day

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permit only. My first thought as we arrived: How is it that I have

lived in California all of my life and never been here before?

There are 12 in our group. Darin, traveling with his mother, is

the youngest at 14 and Jean, 83, and her husband Bill, 86, are the

oldest. Our veteran guides from South Wind Kayak, Joe and Stephano,

know the waters well -- and the sea caves, which are the calling

cards of this particular island. Painted Cave, one of the largest in

the world beckons on the northern end.

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Island Packers transports our gear and kayaks from Ventura to

Scorpion Bay in about an hour. Now we have to hike the 1/2 mile to

the campground. I am so thankful that this time I packed light.

After a safety briefing, we hop into our boats and out through

small waves. The water is stunning. Multitudinous shades of blue

stretch to the edges of the horizon. The sun has broken through the

morning fog and everything shimmers. A brilliant orange garibaldi

glides under the hull of my boat followed by a young manta ray. A

harbor seal peeks his head above the surface not more than five feet

from me. We exchange curious gazes.

The first cave is wide and easily traversed. Joe examines each one

first as a safety precaution -- giving us the go or no-go signal.

Tide fluctuations and swell surges can change the nature of each cave

quickly. Inside, odd stalactite formations mark the ceilings. Bats

race from corner to corner swept along with swallows nested in the

dark recesses. Some of the caves are one-way passages; others cut

through the cliff face. We enter on one side and exit in a new bay.

Saturday, we kayak northward and lunch at Potato Harbor near a sea

lion rookery. Their bellowing fills the salty air while gulls and

pelicans graze the bay’s surface. The clear blue calls us to snorkel

and we are rewarded with opaleye, octopus, lobsters, seals, kelp,

coral, starfish and sea urchins. More than 2,000 species of land and

sea life live in this secluded ecosystem -- 145 are found nowhere

else on earth.

Potluck dinner is shared over camp stoves and conversation. Terry,

a retired fireman tells tales of climbing Everest. James and Lynn,

surprisingly from Laguna, are our newfound kayaking buddies.

Sunday, Steve and I decide to hike the eastern end of the island.

A well-worn path takes us to Smuggler’s Cove and an old olive grove.

A pair of brilliant blue scrub jays -- unique to the Channel Islands,

hop between the trees. Small boats anchor in the nearly still waters.

We head up hill and across field toward Potato Harbor on pig paths

that lead into tall grass and then disappear. Our pants, socks and

shoes are laden with stickers when we arrive at the overlook.

Quickly, we scramble back to Scorpion Cove to load the boat.

Amazingly, we’ve discovered another paradise -- right at our back

door. Relaxed, and maybe exhausted after our 18-mile hike, we lean

back on the top deck of the “Islander” and watch Santa Cruz and

Anacapa Islands vanish in the mist. Our heads fill with plans for an

early return.

* Catharine Cooper is a local designer, photographer and writer

who thrives off beaten trains. She can be reached at

cooper@cooperdesign.net or (949) 497-5081.


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