November 05, 2015

Photo Essay: The Island the Ranchers Left Behind

I was having one of those "My God, what have I done?" moments.

What made me think I could get up at 4 a.m. to drive two hours to get to the Ventura Harbor by 6:30 a.m. to take a three hour boat ride to an island twenty miles off shore from the mainland...

...where I would stay with a bunch of strangers for four days without cell signal or wifi?

What in God's name made me think I could avoid seasickness despite my propensity for motion-based nausea? What caused me to lie on my self-assessment form to say I had no physical restrictions?

What did "habitat restoration" mean, exactly? What is a "Cloud Forest," anyway? And where exactly was I going? I didn't know anything about Santa Rosa Island—except that it was one of the Channel Islands included in the National Park—until after I committed to volunteer service, and, really, until after I arrived.

What had I done? I had no idea. I made it to Ventura a little late, but in time to catch the NPS boat. I survived the boat ride by napping on a bench.

And walking that long pier with my sack of bottled water felt like walking the plank. I thought, I might die here...

...but since it turned out to be such a beautiful place, I thought that I wouldn't mind if I did.

I quickly discovered that at 15 miles wide by 10 miles long, Santa Rosa Island is the second largest of the Channel Islands (next to Santa Cruz). It was once run privately as part of the Vail & Vickers Co. ranching business, formed in 1889 and bought Santa Rosa Island in 1901. Sheep that supplied wool for Civil War uniforms had overgrazed the hillsides of Santa Rosa since 1844, and then Vail & Vickers brought in cattle to fatten them up on the ranch before sending them to market—thereby overgrazing whatever vegetation remained elsewhere on the island. They also pooped all over the place and contaminated the creeks and streams with "nutrient overload" from their animal waste. No wonder it needs some cleanup.

The former bunkhouse for the vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) was built in the 1960s and now serves as the field research station for the National Park Service. It's not fancy, but it's not camping, either.

It has electricity, potable water, and a private room for each volunteer except two, who get to bunk up in the biggest room and the only one with its own bathroom. I would've normally chosen my own room, but a roommate chose me, and I didn't fight it. After I'd gotten this far, I was just going to let things happen, and see life as it unfolded before me.

Although Santa Rosa Island was designated as part of Channel Islands National Park in 1980, the National Park Service didn't actually own it until 1986, when it purchased it from Vail & Vickers for $30 million. The NPS has only had full run of the island since 2011, when the ranchers' lease finally expired.

They left a lot of stuff behind.

Fortunately, the NPS considers the structures—including the red barn—historic, so they're going to keep them there...

...and turn them into some kind of interpretive display for visitors.

But there aren't so many visitors these days, because the island is so far from the mainland, and largely unknown by tourists and locals alike. A day trip to Santa Rosa would be pretty daunting. Plus, the native plants are finally resurging, so it's probably better that they not be trampled by careless feet just yet.

So for now, the only visitors to the ranch are the seven remaining horses that will live out the rest of their lives on the island—and volunteers like me. It's eerie to know that there used to be as many as 150 horses in the ranch's heyday, ridden by a dozen cowboys, herding thousands of cattle. By the late 1990s, all the cattle had been removed. In the last few years, all the deer, elk, and feral pigs have been eradicated (including one brave deer that swam to San Nicolas Island only to be shot on sight upon arrival). Horses died of old age.

The centerpiece of the former ranch is the ranch house from 1855, the oldest wood-frame home in Santa Barbara County. This is where the Vail family lived while they operated their ranching business on the island until 1996 (when it was forcibly shut down by an environmentalists lawsuit), and their game-hunting business until just four years ago. Deer and elk had been transplanted on the island in the 1920s, and as of the 1970s, hunters would come to kill them for sport.

Equally as impressive is the Monterey Cypress tree out front, which you can see from afar before you can see the ranch house.

The NPS has already painted the house complex and cleaned it up a bit, but it still needs some work before they can convert it into a visitors' center. They may end up losing the tree in the process.

The grounds are remarkably still, with only the ravens circling above, and the wind whipping around, as it tends to do on the island. It was hard to imagine cowboys on horses trying to herd sheep and cattle through here.

But then I spotted two of the seven horses up on top of a hillside towards the end of the first day, and I felt fulfilled. I ate an early dinner, and I went to bed shortly after sundown, several hours before I normally retire.

This was to be my home for the next four days, where I could wake up on my own early enough to catch the sunrise by the tiny schoolhouse...

...and drink a cup of coffee and eat breakfast with my bunkmates...

...and be ready to work the rest of the day.

Stay tuned for more photos of the rest of the island!

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Up and Into Catalina's Wild Interior
Dangling from a Wire

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