November 10, 2015

An Island Calling

I really had no idea what I was in for when I signed up to volunteer for habitat restoration on Santa Rosa Island.

But sometimes, maybe it's better to just have an inkling or an intuition, and not a fully formed thought. Maybe sometimes we think too much, and our ideas get in the way of doing things that really matter or make a difference.

Maybe, if we stop those pervasive thoughts, we can finally hear the messages from the Universe.

Some people might consider those messages a calling. People are called to serve God, medicine, their country, whatever. They know what they have to do, and they don't question it.

I knew I had to get to the Channel Islands, any way I could. I didn't know why. I just had to get there and hope I would figure it out.

We didn't have a lot of free time during our four days of volunteering for the National Park Service on Santa Rosa Island, but when we did, we just wanted to use it to see more of the island, and learn everything about it that we could.

At the end of one of our work days, we tried to capitalize on the last hour or so of light by walking in the footsteps of the Chumash through Lobo Canyon...

...where the geologic formations have literally been shaped by the wind.

This area is one of the best examples of the island's potential for recovery from over-grazing, as native plants have started to come back here in a big way, once the sheep, cattle, pigs, deer, and elk were all removed from the island.

And there is water here, too, as evidenced by the lichen that hangs off the trees like Spanish moss.

Even when we were working in the interior of the island, we were always kind of aware of the beaches that surrounded us—the cool ocean breezes, the sound of the surf, the promise of a swim after a long, sweaty day.

Photo: National Park Service

It's so peaceful down there now in Becher's Bay, where cattle used to roam the coastal plain above, corralled by horses and their cowboys.

Down there below the pier, that unfortunate reminder of our impending return trip home... can imagine all of the geologic activity that it must've taken to form these islands, a tectonic rift between the Pacific plate and the North American plate... a state of perpetual uplift, the shoreline ever-changing, the sand getting blown into dunes.

On our last day on the island, we had just a couple of hours before we had to board the boat back to the mainland, so instead of hiking a trail or sunning myself on the pier, I went back down to the beach...

...this time on the other side of the pier...

...where the creek that crosses the road to the Torrey pines empties out...

...and a cormorant* stands still, a stoic among the ravens.

I didn't realize how lucky we were to have the island all to ourselves for so long...

...until we encountered a couple of daytrippers on the beach...

...and I felt invaded.

Sure, we'd seen a plane or two from Channel Islands Aviation fly in and take off.

But it wasn't fair: we had to leave before we could find the pygmy mammoth bones or explore the shipwrecks that surround the island.

There were more archaeological findings to be had, more birds to observe, more seeds to plant, more sun to soak, more sunrises and sunsets.

But reality started to creep back in... we made our way through the other islands towards the mainland...

...considering the dishes we'd left unwashed, the messages we'd missed, the people who missed us.

I spent about four days without a cell signal and wifi, and that ended up being a tremendous gift. When our return vessel got close enough to the Ventura Harbor for notifications to start popping up, everything changed. My anxiety—which had completely disappeared on the island—came rushing back. I hadn't really missed anything about my "real" life, and now I had to return to it.

I wasn't sure I'd like a service mission like this, but I've wanted to do one for a long time—ever since I applied for Peace Corps in 2008. And, it turned out, I liked it very much. The island felt more real to me than anything else ever has.

I knew how to live on the island. I followed orders. I had purpose. I woke with the sun and the breakfast chatter of my bunkmates. I didn't have to wear makeup. I didn't shave my legs. I didn't have to carry keys—I don't even think our camp was ever locked. I didn't have to carry a purse,or a wallet. I didn't even have to pay for anything. I didn't have to reply to emails. I didn't feel depressed. I didn't feel lonely, despite the remoteness and the solitude.

Island life was slower, but it wasn't slow enough, and the trip ended too quickly. I know so much more now than I did when I arrived, which means now I know there's so much more to see.

Santa Rosa Island is only about forty miles off-shore, but it's a world away. Going there was probably the best idea I ever had. And much like my time spent in Joshua Tree, the significance of this trip will reveal itself at some point in the future. But for now, I am sure, I am changed.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Island the Ranchers Left Behind
Photo Essay: The Wildflowers, Oaks, and Rare Pines of Santa Rosa Island
Island Time
My Turn to Paddle

*[Ed 11/11/15: not an osprey!]

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