Solo on Santa Cruz Island (Part One)

Day 1

I lined up with the others at the dock in Channel Islands harbor, waiting with my gear laid out for inspection. Groups of people filtered in and laid their gear on the ground in front of them. It appeared that I was the only one by myself – which suited me fine.

I dodged the inquiring glances, not wanting to get into conversation. I knew why they were curious; I had so much shit – far too much for one camper. But I was not just camping; I was paddle camping, which required me to bring more gear. I had my paddleboard, deflated and rolled up, stuffed into a very large rectangular rolling bag. I had my backpack, a bright orange dry bag. The dry bag contained all of my gear, including my tent, sleeping bag, food, campstove, clothes, lantern, etc. I had my SUP paddle packed in a protective sheath , which people always assumed was spearfishing gear. I had a small Yeti cooler packed with some meat for dinner and some cold beers. I had a Camelbak, stuffed with emergency gear that I always carry while paddling alone, along with a map of the island, snacks, and two liters of fresh water. All of this crap would eventually be hoisted up and somehow attached to my person.

A deckhand approached and asked me if I had any fuel or lithium batteries on me. I showed them to her and after she asked me about the paddleboard, I showed her my special paddleboard pass for which I had to pay an extra $20. Although I had heard this same speech about what could and could not be brought on board several times, I waited patiently for her explain the boarding process to me and then she moved on to the next group.

Finally aboard, I found a single seat in the surprisingly crowded inside bow. Around me, the boat buzzed with conversation and laughter with the campers and day trippers going to Santa Cruz Island. I closed my eyes and settled in to being alone and invisible, made easier these days with a mask, sunglasses, and a hoodie. I sat back and felt wonderfully free of demands, from anyone or anything. I was on my own for the next three days with nothing to do unless I wanted to do it, and spotty cell service on the island gave me a good excuse to avoid my typical day to day responsibilities.

Once out of the harbor, the boat picked up speed and began to roll with a side swell. Some of the squeamish gasped and even shouted on some of the larger bumps in the water. After a time, I found myself being lulled to sleep with the rhythmic hum of the motor and the gentle sway of the cabin. When the boat’s motor slowed down to wade through a massive pod of common dolphins, the cabin emptied as excited people went to take pictures. I didn’t even lift my head and I tried to recover my near nap state. Alone in the cabin. I smiled.

Over the last few years, these annual solo paddle camping trips had become increasingly important to me. As the months wear on after a solo excursion, I found myself pining for that sweet silence, and for the freedom that solitude brings. I have become more attuned to a mild discontent that seems to creep up following long periods without some extended time outdoors. It seems that the more modern I become, the less human I feel.

If you think about it, if you go back far enough, all of our predecessors spent all of their time outdoors. We evolved outside. Our ancestors slept outside, on the cold ground, maybe in a cave if one could be found; that was life. Work was outside. Food was found outside. And work and the finding of food were the same thing. At the end of a long day with nothing but the natural sounds of the earth, we huddled around a fire for warmth, and fell asleep under starry skies with our incessant questions swirling in our heads about the heavens. We became who we are through the cauldron of survival outdoors, savoring its beauty and suffering its myriad terrors.

How different we are now. My trips to the outdoors bear little resemblance to my ancestor’s experience, with my piles of gear, but camping still feels like a way for me to connect to some ancient feeling within me, or some dormant desire. It always feels like time outdoors better equips me for living in this new world, which is increasingly lived through screens.

My typical day is lived through a screen, starting with my laptop for work, my small phone screen throughout the entire day, and on the larger television screen at night. I move from screen to screen to screen, expressing myself through computerized bits. A simulated existence.

All of these thoughts occupied the corners of my mind as I disembarked the boat and gathered my gear. I listened an orientation from a young ranger along with the others who were camping at Scorpion Campground. I loaded up all of my gear and started walking, slowly. My board bag was strapped to my back. My dry bag was strapped to my front. My right hand held my Yeti cooler and paddle. My left hand held my camelbak. In past excursions, I would only need to move the stuff down to the beach and load up my board and paddle off. This year, though, I dialed down the adventure. I usually try to tackle some sort of “A to B” type paddle camping, where I paddle to a location, camp, then paddle to a new location, camp, etc. But this time, I was going to have a base camp, from which I would take off to paddle each day. I planned to take my time, go slow, and return to the base in the afternoon.

The campground was thankfully only a half mile or so from the beach. Immediately after I found my site, and started staking my tent in what I deemed to be the best spot, a little furry critter approached and looked at me. It was a Channel Islands fox, and instantly, I wished my six-year old were there with me. She would have been beside herself to see a fox. It didn’t take long, I thought, for me to wish I was not alone.

Once camp was set up and I ate lunch, I took a stroll down to the beach to look at the weather and the waves. It was already past noon and the wind had picked up. I felt a fairly steady breeze on my face and saw rolling waves heading to the south and east from my location, an unceasing parade of erratic swells. I decided a hike on foot would be a better way to spend the afternoon. The rolled up board would have to wait in the bag until the morning.

I grabbed my Camelbak and hiked up the ridge immediately above the dock at Scorpion Anchorage. I followed the ridgeline to the west toward Potato Harbor for roughly 2.5 miles, which was a well maintained trail along the cliff top with breathtaking views of the sea the entire time. I scoped out the coastline in a sort of reconnaissance mission for the paddle I would be embarking in the following days.

Lost in happy thoughts with each step, I relished my screen-less day. I saw only a few people during my hike. Lifting my head while standing on a three hundred foot cliff, I closed my eyes and smelled the sea. I heard the ocean rumbling beneath me as it drove hammer blows into deep unseen caves, and sometimes it sounded like a clap as it gleefully pounded the cliffs. My eyes, like an aperture, slowly opened and saw the hazy blue screen above me. I traced a line down to the horizon, where the color faded to a deeper blue, which varied and changed as I traced the line back to where I was standing. The color blue never failed to improve my mood.

A picture would never do this justice I thought. This image on a screen would never do.

To be continued with Day 2.

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