June 28, 2016

The Island of the Blue Dolphins and One Lone Woman

[Last updated 9/20/18 8:14 AM PT: Although my photos were permitted to be taken at the time, the US Navy has ordered them to be taken down off this post. Out of respect for the integrity and security of their missions, I have removed all images.]

San Nicolas Island is considered the most remote of the Channel Islands (that is, the farthest from the mainland)—but that's not the only reason why it's also one of the hardest to access.

You have to be enlisted in the Navy, related to someone who is, or a civilian contractor of the Navy in order to receive a badge to fly in and visit.

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That is, unless you're sponsored by someone.

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And, in my case, the non-profit Channel Islands Restoration once again provided the keys to the kingdom, so to speak.

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As much as I wanted to go, I was nervous about taking off in dense fog early in the morning to fly the 85 miles out there.

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But I wanted to escape for a day and see something new—a place that very few civilians have ever seen.

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At least not in this lifetime.

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San Nicolas Island is famous as the island in Island of the Blue Dolphins, which tells the supposedly true story of "The Lone Woman of San Nicolas"—a Native American who'd been left behind in a tribal exodus and survived on the island alone for 18 years.

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The government first took ownership of San Nicolas back in 1850 but then leased its 22 square miles out to a series of private ranchers (including the Vail family of Santa Rosa) from 1919 to 1934. But now, the Navy occupies it, the fifth largest of the chain of eight islands.

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Not only is access restricted, but also photography. So, I have nothing to show for the 500+ plants I helped process in the nursery, as I tried to root some cuttings of Lycium (the box thorn) and planted some rooted cuttings of Frankenia. 

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That, of course, doesn't mean it wasn't worth the trip. I got to take my lunch break while surrounded by a forest of dormant coreopsis plants, overlooking the ocean from a mesa (though it was flatter and lower than I expected).

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I wondered where the sand dunes were, and I wished I could share my experience with more people.

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During our last moments at the nursery before heading back to the air strip, I ran into an island fox—specifically, the Urocyon littoralis dickeyi, or the San Nicolas island fox.

Each of the Channel Islands has its own fox—and while the critters on Santa Rosa have figured out how to unzip and untie your pack and carry away all your stuff, this fox simply emerged from the bramble and posed to give us a proper send-off (which we were permitted to photograph).

Maybe it had a message for us.

I'd like to think that it had some sense that we're trying to undo the damage that's been done in the past, to rebuild wildlife habitats that have been grazed or eroded (like the Lycium, which provides good protection for lizards), and to preserve and populate species that are endangered or nearly extinct—whether they're plants or animals.

But maybe we're still doing damage just by being there.

And how much can possibly be restored while the Navy is still conducting (apparently top secret) military operations on the island?

I guess we've got to try.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Island That Prisoners Pioneered
Photo Essay: The Island the Ranchers Left Behind
Photo Essay: Wildflowering at Poppy Peak

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