Through Unusual Channels Part II
This post covers our sea cave kayaking misadventures on Santa Cruz Island. If you can’t stomach barnacled flesh and wavy pounds, then read no further. For the words below are riddled with the beatings of the ocean and this human heart.
Channel Islands National Park gained its park status in 1980. The five islands that make up this park are about 20 miles off the coast of California and home to a number of species not found anywhere else on earth. Santa Cruz Island, the largest of these, is 96 square miles in size. The plunging cliffs on its shores are pocked with sea caves thanks to a fault line that has made them easy pickings for ocean erosion. One of these cavities, Painted Cave, is among the largest and deepest sea caves in the world. It extends almost a quarter of a mile and reaches widths of over 100 feet.
As intriguing as Santa Cruz Island may sound, it’s only accessible by boat… yes, literally one boat. There is a single ferry that drops passengers on Santa Cruz in the morning and returns to take them back to the mainland in the afternoon. The ride on this ferry was actually quite fun, although very slow. We saw a number of dolphins and Stellar sea lions right off our bow. Plus, we encountered a long line of offshore oil rigs.
The pier at Scorpion Anchorage, the only dock on Santa Cruz, has become rusty and unsafe over the years. The government, in its uniquely-incompetent way, has promised to fix this pier but is waiting for the funds to trickle through bureaucracy’s labyrinth. Apparently, that process will take a few more years. In the meantime, we had to take a small skiff, basically a motorized raft, from the ferry to the shore. I felt like James Bond landing on a treacherous coast… James Bond usually needs a few people to help him disembark from a skiff, right?
The dozen or so kayakers assembled got split between two guides. I’m pretty sure we were separated based on the guides’ perception of our adventurousness. Evidently, the other group didn’t enter any caves while we, the wild ones, went into every nook.
Jason and I opted to take a two-person kayak; it seemed appropriate for an anniversary trip. But we were warned that they are “vehicles of divorce.” Fortunately, our marriage survived our kayak’s double disorder but not without a few choice words… those come later.
Here’s the thing about sea caves. When even mild waves get shoved into a confined space they turn into much angrier surges. (I don’t blame them; I don’t like being tossed into tight spaces either.) So calm seas do not mean calm caves. Cramped quarters also create many opportunities for rocks to ram you at random, which brings me to my next point. The guides caution you not to touch any rocks if you capsize your kayak because sea-cave stones are seriously jagged and barnacled and ready to tear up flesh like an overripe banana thrown in a blender. (And I’m talking about a Blendtec or a Vitamix not some Walmart special.) This advice sounds wise, like not taking any wooden nickels. However, as my story will illustrate, not touching rocks when they are coming at you is like going to the Grand Canyon and not opening your eyes.
Although our guide didn’t compel anyone to enter grottos they weren’t comfortable with, we all paddled into every single one he suggested. Why? The peer pressure and curiosity were crippling I tell you! Harbor Seal Cave, The Elephant’s Belly, In-N-Out, and The Cavern were a few of the holes we packed ourselves into like floaters in a flushing toilet. These caves ranged from relatively mild to downright spin cycle.
Now it’s time for my Marge’s lament. Marge is not a cave but a rather long and narrow sea arch, so named because its pitted walls resemble the distinguishing feature of that Simpson character. Our guide recommended that everyone in our group try navigating through its tight and twisty corridor. Although, when probed, he admitted there was probably about a 50/50 chance of tipping before reaching the other side. Yet, pressure and pride got the better of us all and we unanimously committed to plunging through Marge’s spiny bowels.
Still, our conquest of that constricted arch might have proceeded without any inversions except our guide failed to give us one crucial piece of information. In the middle of Marge is a large boulder that is exposed when waves recede, at least when the tide is right. Yup, you can probably guess where this is going. Jason and I got halfway through the passage when, all of a sudden, we realized our kayak was sitting on stone and not water anymore. When the next wave came in it bashed our high-centered vessel right into the wall of the arch. Remember the guides’ advice about not touching the rocks?
After some squabbling and miscommunicating, (Two-person kayaks really are harder to deal with in stressful and chaotic situations.) Jason and I managed to “self-rescue,” which means that we were able to get our butts back into our kayak on our own. Unfortunately, by this point I was bleeding from a number of gashes on my hand and foot. Still, we had over an hour left on our tour so I just toughed it out with a few soggy Band-Aids and some serious stubbornness. Jason managed to escape the incident with only a couple little cuts. He was farther from the wall than I was and had the sense to keep his hands to himself.
In total, it took eight bandages of various sizes to cover my wounds. Despite the fact that Jason had to dig sand and barnacles out of my hand with a pin and tweezers, it healed up rather quickly. My foot, however, did not. It became swollen, splotchy, and alarmingly red in an extended area around one cut. Plus, that gash itched like crazy. I had to ice it on multiple occasions just to keep from scratching my skin off. I reopened the wound several times to clean it out and, about a week after our return, was ready to take it to the doctor when abruptly it started to improve.
Sadly, I hurt more than just flesh and ego in our tumble. The shoulder of the arm I caught myself with became irritatingly unhappy during our return flight. Its condition continued to worsen and, for a couple days, I was in a substantial amount of pain and couldn’t rotate or lift it. Jason had to be my lady’s maid. That shoulder is not quite itself yet.
The thought of Marge and her hidden perch still makes my heart pump a little but I have no regrets. Life’s great adventures require some rock bashings now and then. After all, who can say that they’ve been beaten up by Marge’s hair? Oh yeah, me.