Santa Rosa Island, California

December 5, 2006
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Green. no one here remembers when it started. maybe three days ago, after seven months of brown. s “It comes on like blindness,” one of the cowboys says. “One day the green puts your eyes out, and you didn’t even see it coming.” s I’m standing on the mountainous top of Santa Rosa island off the Santa Barbara coast. Out across the channel waters – white-capped, big-swelled, and shark-glutted – I can see, on the California mainland, the ridge where my house is perched. From there, the view down a canyon perfectly frames Santa Rosa. It is as if this marine shard were the missing half of the land where I live, the other side of my green mind. s Santa Rosa island is shaped like a four-pointed star plucked in the middle and dropped. The east and west arms reach for the shore of the next islands in the chain. They were once linked together in a 60-mile-long island; now the passages between them are cross-currented, choppy, wild, and dangerous, churning gyres rotating counterclockwise, mixing warm water into the cold and bathing the islands in clear seas. s At 53,000 acres, Santa Rosa is the second largest of the eight Channel Islands and has been run as a cattle ranch for almost a hundred years by the Vail and Vickers families. s Plunging down a rough dirt track in the Vails’ battered pickup truck, we go east toward Bechers Bay, the steep land splaying out into broad coastal grasslands. Two foxes, endemic to the island, pounce on a field mouse, oblivious to our passing, reminding me that the four northern islands – Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel – are sometimes called the Gal¿pagos of the Northern Hemisphere.

We pass a stand of Torrey pines. Tall and thin-limbed, they are pruned by the raging winds that have driven some people on this island crazy. We cross a creek, and the land grows broader. Salt grass tightens its hold on sandy coastal bluffs as a hard northwesterly wind surges our way. Below us the bay is held by a wide curve of sand where snowy plovers nest, and to the southeast a stream widens into a freshwater estuary where egrets and herons prance and stalk, performing their near-motionless ballets. As we descend to the lee side of the island, a feeling of calm engulfs me.

Islands remind us of our intrinsic solitude, yet they usually stand in relationship to a greater body of land and so also teach us about relatedness, just as the islands in a Japanese garden must rest in harmony with the garden.


In our travels we are lured to islands, as if crossing their watery boundaries will endow us with a more vivid sense of ourselves set apart from the maddening fray. But once there, the plangent wholeness of the place blossoms forth: grasses, flowers, birds, trees, streams, animals all distinguished by having gotten there and survived, having been bound together by the frame of limited space.

We follow a long narrow barranca called the Wreck because the British ship Crown of England went aground here in 1894. Swales of green flatten out near shore as waves break with sharp reports, as if to say: “Home at last. I have come such a long way.”

Near a set of sorting corrals for cattle, a meandering stream is still mostly dry, and a single tree’s tortured trunk twists upward from bedrock.


“There never was much in the way of vegetation in this canyon,” foreman Bill Wallace tells me, “and after last year’s floods, even that was swept away.”

We cross the creek and follow the coast west to a beach where cattle take their morning rest on the sand. At low tide, eelgrass is swept up on brown rock, and jade green waves break like windowpanes on the bare bones of the island.

Beyond, a black ridge bends down to the sea, and from around its snout a plug of fog spews continually, never coming onto land.


Another day. the green has intensified. “Who needs a damned watch around here?” one of the men says. “The grass grows an inch every minute¿”

The southwest coast of the island is paradisical. Accordioned swells pulse toward shore, spawned by a winter storm in Hawaii. I am on my favorite part of the island, China Camp, once an abalone camp of Chinese fishermen. A set of corrals and a small two-room cabin on the coastal plain overlook the ocean.

“Used to camp here when we were gathering,” Russ Vail says. “I’ve traveled around some, and I guess this is one of the most beautiful spots in the world,” he adds quietly, then looks west toward San Miguel. “The other one is next door.”


As we come down off the mountain, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of western meadowlarks fly up, land, and throw their heads back in ecstatic song. This whole island is musical, a meadowlark orchestra.

Now the thick roll of fog that pulled past black rock yesterday twists overhead, and I feel as if I were riding a sea turtle, a great green back floating in mist. Waves that are lapis and foam break through the fog at the fringes of this tiny universe, and a seal observes me from the trough between sets of waves.

In arlington canyon we come across the site of Phil Orr’s camp. An archaeologist with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Orr did research on early man here on Santa Rosa for 20 years, from 1947 to 1967.

“He was a little crazy,” Al Vail says, bemused. “Lived in a cave, fed the damned foxes, and spent years looking around for bones.”

Orr theorized that hunter-gatherers lived on these islands as long ago as 35,000 years, though current thinking dates humans here to less than a third of that. Before those people, there were dwarf mammoths, giant mice, sea otters, and flightless geese. Even though the geology of the West is relatively new, the island seems old, having weathered continuous habitation by animals and humans for more years than we know.

Down by the shore Arlington Creek empties out into another estuary loaded with ducks. Huge beams from a wrecked boat are strewn in grass, and an elephant seal, his face and neck scarred from a lifetime of fighting, is slumped across a hummock of kelp, dead.

Fog billows over us and San Miguel disappears. An island may represent apartness and isolation, but that too is only an aspect of its stepping-stone unity with the whole. How do you know you are apart if you do not know there is something other – other islands, a mainland?

When Juan Cabrillo sailed into the Santa Barbara Channel in 1542, the Chumash people greeted him in their plank canoes, called tomols. They called what we know as Santa Rosa by the name Wi’ma – driftwood.

Each island had its own dialect, and the island tribes remained distinct from the Chumash who lived in villages along the mainland from Malibu to San Simeon.

They thought of the channel as a stream to step over. “I make a big step,” one Chumash islander song goes. “I am always going over to the other side. I always jump to the other side, as if jumping over a stream of water. I make a big step…”

With these words, sung in Santa Rosa island dialect, the Fox Dance began, the participants moving in a circle from fire to fire taking up offerings of islay, wild cherries. At the end, when the fox dancer whirled around and around under his weighted headdress, another song was sung in Cruzeno – the language of Santa Cruz island: “March! There comes the swell of the sea and the wood tick is drowning.”

There were many dances – the Swordfish, Barracuda, Arrow, and Skunk, and the haunting chant of the Seaweed Dance: “I walk moving my brilliance and feathers, I will always endure in the future¿”

But they did not endure. They were gone – moved to the mainland – by 1817.

“There are many ghosts on this island,” Nita Vail, Al’s daughter, tells me.

On Bechers Bay is the main ranch house, the oldest standing wood house in Santa Barbara County, built in 1865.

It is plain and rickety.

When I slept there, the winds seized and shook it, and two elegant Torrey pines outside the door swayed with the house’s shaking.

Behind the house two red barns are still standing, but the original bunkhouse is gone. An old cook named Henry fell asleep with a cigarette in bed, burning it down, with himself and his dog in it. For years afterward the Vails said they could hear Henry walking around, clanking pots and pans in the middle of the night.

All afternoon we stroll luxuriant Lobos Canyon, one of the deepest and most unusual barrancas of them all. Year-round springs feed watercress, reeds, and sedge grasses. A snipe flies up as I splash through the stream, and an orange-crowned warbler sings in a small tree. As we tunnel down, the canyon walls grow taller; they are sheaves of sandstone, carefully etched with fine lines as if music had been written on them, the notes erased by wind. Here and there shallow caves have been smoothed out by the island’s hard winds, and in one amphitheater, a long tooth of rock hangs down from the roof of a cave, as if from the roof of some orange giant’s mouth.

Downstream. More green: reeds, grasses, ferns. Toyon – California holly – and willows grow tall, and even the colonies of lichen on boulders stand up as if starched. A 40-foot-high wall is feathered into delicate filaments that look like the underside of a mushroom, sun-splashed and edible.

“I would like to die here,” Nita says, “except I love this canyon so much, I’d want to stay alive to savor it.”

As would I.


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