Kayak the coast, fish, dive, hang out and take photos
It was short notice. It was also a little bit of a reach. A trip to Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California. Purpose: Kayak the coast, fish, dive and hang out. Matt would do the spear fishing and I would do the documentation. So we went.
I had to scramble and organize a kayak since I don’t own one but having lived in Santa Barbara for close to two decades, this turned out to not be a problem. Getting it from the boat to my car was a different story. Instead of paddling it through the harbor and to the boat launch where I could have parked the car I carried the thing (estimating ~100lbs) on the dock and to the car in the parking lot. This was a mistake. But it did work out and the next morning we boarded the Island Packer boat in Ventura for the one and a half hour journey to Scorpion Bay on Santa Cruz Island.
It was overcast and moody out. An early morning funk was sitting on the coastline, smells of fish and seaweed mixed with seagull droppings and coffee wiffed through the air. Classic harbor. I was a little taken aback by how many people were getting onto the boat and especially how much stuff was going on it. It took us several trips down the dock to get all of our gear to and onto the boat and the whole situation took a good 30 minutes. People were chatting and excited but there was an underlying tension of getting the loading done so we could leave on time.
Once we cleared the harbor the boat picked up speed and was zooming across the surface, cutting through the water and whipping whitewash up into people leaning out over the railing too far. The loud rumble of the engine combined with the wind making any conversation a little bit more of an effort.
We passed the oil rigs and mainland California became more indistinct. Trees and houses melted together and soon there was little detail left to make out. At the same time Anacapa Island emerged from the fog. Isolated rays of sun poked through the dense cloud cover and made for a dramatic scene. A wild place. One that is fantastic to experience from the safety of a boat but also one that would be scary to navigate on a kayak…
I remembered a previous trip when some friends challenged themselves by swimming across the Santa Barbara Channel on more or less the same route we were now traversing. Dodging sharks, fighting fatigue. Romantic but painful.
Once we arrived at Scorpion Bay the weather had drastically improved. The clouds had parted and we were bathed in sunshine. We slowly pulled up to the pier and I looked down into the water and was taken aback by it’s clarity. I had been out on the Island before but I must had forgotten. It was so intensely beautiful. Blues and greens and red of seaweed, I wanted to jump in right there and then.
The boat connected to the pier with its nose. All the people who just came out for the day got off and walked away. Next were all the campers. This group formed a line down the length of the pier to built a chain which would transport all the gear. And boy there was gear. I had watched it being loaded but since I was loading myself and had only caught a fraction of the items. Now part of the chain, I more or less touched every bag, cooler, paddle, rucksack, stove, sack, life vest, fishing rod and kayak seat that came off the boat. And once we found ourselves at the end of the pier with all our stuff we had to carry it for about three quarters of a mile down a path and to our camp spot. It was painful. It was getting hot. The bags were heavy. And there was no other option. No pain, no gain. This was not the Four Seasons and that was ok.
Our spot was to the left of the path under a large, beautiful tree. There was a level patch which I claimed for my tent while Matt decided to built his bright orange tent in some bushes by a dry creek bed with difficult access. We went through the entertainment of tent building, especially me watching Matt deal with his choice of location and unfamiliarity with the (new) tent and since I was done before him I ran out of things to do. This turned out to be a rather unusual situation. It almost never happens. There was absolutely nothing for me to attend, fix, sort, set up or even think about. For a few moments I felt a little lost and without purpose. I then came to the conclusion that I tent camped too little and that I should take a nap.
In the afternoon we got our gear together to go kayak down the coast towards San Pedro Point and spear fish. That is Matt would spear fish and I would take photos with my new underwater housing. The kayaks were loaded up with plenty of supplies for the unlikely case of getting stranded for some reason (A year earlier we had a boat sink in the waters off the next island over so this wasn’t being paranoid) and we headed out, wind on our backs. We traveled quickly, thanks to the wind pushing us and paddling was almost unnecessary. Matt was trolling lines and I was taking photos. The surface of the ocean was pretty choppy and there was quite a bit of splashing happening. This all changed once we pulled into a little cove. The water’s surface became glassy and calm, the temperature rose and it felt incredibly pleasant. Despite the occasional wave crashing against the rocks it was peaceful. We decided to fish there.
Matt changed into his wetsuit while I paddled as close to the tiny, little, rocky beach as I could between waves. Once I saw a wave approach I had to make sure to get beyond the breaking zone to avoid getting pummeled over a small reef and onto the rocky shore with all my stuff spilling out of the kayak. Sort of a fun little game, seeing the water suck out over the reef, exposing the rocks and letting you know you are about to get smacked.
Matt was in his element diving around for fish and popping up in random spots throughout the cove. I took photos of him whenever I would be close enough, another fun little game, chase a diver.
Then he popped up cussing. He had shot a fish but his spear had hit a rock or something to that degree and the tip had come off. This of course was bad news since the whole spear is useless without the tip. To my surprise he kept diving to find the tip. A metal piece about eight to ten centimeters long. I figured finding this little piece in sixteen feet deep water with a semi strong current and plenty of seaweed and rock formations was a hopeless endeavor but he was so pissed off about it that I just let him vent and dive. This went on for about fifteen minutes and I was ready to say something when he popped up and triumphantly displayed the tip! I couldn’t believe it (and I think he was semi surprised finding it as well)! After a few more minutes of reassembling his spear he kept on fishing and finally shot a Calico Sea Bass.
I watched him gut the thing in the water and was happy to sit in my kayak. Lots of fish guts in the water, lots of shark boys smelling a dinner.
It was getting late and we were both a little worried about winds picking up and the paddle back becoming painful if not impossible. While it was nice to be pushed along by the wind on the way down, going back, it was going to blow head on, completely changing the task at hand. I started out while Matt was still arranging his things and the second I paddled out from the shade of the cove the wind hit, the water got choppy and I realized that this was going to be some work. So I started working. The wind blowing and splashing water in my face I made my way west along the steep cliffs shooting straight up from the waters surface.
Within five minutes I was sweating but I got into a rhythm. I quickly realized I had to keep it steady. Stopping wasn’t an option since the wind would blow me back immediately. I hugged the cliff as close as possible to make use of any little rock outcropping that diverted the wind and sort of got into the grind. Every now and then there would be another cove and I could rest for a small amount of time but then I got back on it. At one point I looked straight to the left over my shoulder into the cliff to monitor how fast I was going given the intensity of my paddling and it was devastating. I was moving so slow, it was painful. So I kept on looking ahead and found little landmarks to get to. And once I started passing them it felt much better, I was actually getting somewhere.
Matt was far behind but I couldn’t really wait since I was going to drift all the way back so I kept at it until I reached a wind-sheltered spot right behind a little island just south of Scorpion Bay. I rested there and checked out the ocean floor through the perfectly clear water until Matt caught up so we could paddle-in together.
Back at camp Matt filet the Calico and dumped all the fish remains in a bag. This caught the attention of the island foxes. Very cute, little creatures. They wanted what was left of the fish and they tried to get it. It got to the point where we had to keep the bag real close and then dispose of the fish right after dinner to avoid the foxes going nuts on us.
We used the task to hang out by the ocean for a little and shoot some star trail images as well as a portrait of Matt with his kayak under the starry sky. The ocean was calm and the night was incredible!
In the morning Matt set out to Kayak around San Pedro point and rendezvous with me at Smugglers Cove, where I would hike to. I had to leave that day and didn’t think that I could make it back in time for the boat if I kayaked as well. Plus, I did want to experience the island on foot as well. I set out and climbed the dirt road up the cliff to where I could overlook Scorpion Bay. It was early but already warm and just mind-blowingly beautiful. There was nobody around and I hiked along listening to the birds and the wind. At one point I stopped and it was so quiet that I could hear the grass pop from getting hit by the sun. It was the most surreal moment. A couple hundred feet away a bird was flying and I could hear its wings flap. I turned and looked down the slope of the meadow below me and on across the Santa Barbara Channel and towards the mainland and the grass was popping all around me and I thought: “This is the spot to have your ashes spread!”
When I reached Smugglers Cove Matt wasn’t there yet. So I hung out for a while and watched the few boats anchored off shore. There was little activity. On the other end of the cove someone was paddling a Stand Up paddle board around and eventually landed it. About 30 minutes after I had arrived a couple walked down the path and sat in the shade of the trees. I was sitting on a large log and just took it all in, ate and drank some and was with my thoughts.
Then Matt paddled up out of nowhere. I didn’t really see him until he was just behind the breakers which was weird. He now had to navigate the surf. And there was a bit of it. I had watched it for a while and directed him towards a channel where the waves were a little less close out and big and he made it through.
He hadn’t caught any fish but the paddle seemed to have been pretty easy. We hung out for a while and then he headed back out to try and fish some more while I had to get back to make my boat. Getting off the beach took a little coordinating sets of waves but he made it surprisingly well. I hiked up the dirt road.
Pretty soon after I left the cove I ran into a group of teenagers who seemed to be on a class trip or something. There was one all by himself and then another one trying to catch up to the first one, I think they were in a race. Then a group came down right in a super steep part and they were all on their phones, either listening to music or actually looking at their screens. It was perplexing. After my moment of silence earlier I couldn’t believe how disconnected they were to their environment. It was sad.
Not too long after my encounter with the group I was at the highest elevation of the hike and I realized how much the clouds were helping me out. They were scattered and it was a mostly sunny day but there was enough cloud to keep me from burning. It was hot. Anytime I wasn’t in the shade of a cloud it got pretty painful. I was happy I had started as early as I did.
Two other friends were going to join us that day and take over my spot in the campground. They came in on the boat in the morning and when I got back to Scorpion I ran into them on the beach. We walked back to camp together and they said they had something to show me. We walked to the picnic table and looked under it, to where the cooler was stored tightly shoved under the table top and with one of Matt’s t-shirts on top of it. Right there in the middle of the t-shirt was a good sized piece of fox shit. I about fell over. Our two friends looked at each other in confusion. They had been wondering if it was a fox shit but were doubtful since there was so little room between the top of the cooler and the underside of the table. I then told them the story of the foxes trying to get the fish last night and us chasing them away for a while until we disposed of the fish elsewhere, practically robbing the foxes of a tasty dinner. Mess with an island fox, get your shirt pooped on!