Kayaking the Channel Islands
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.
To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
What motivated me to try kayaking the Channel Islands was that my husband and I were planning a three-week Alaskan vacation. One of the things on his list of must-dos in the land of the midnight sun was kayaking. I’d never been kayaking. I didn’t even know if I could kayak. I figured, heck, if I was going to die (doing what I thought of as an extreme sport), I’d like to do it closer to home, someplace without an arctic chill. I figured that by first getting my feet wet by kayaking off the coast of California, I could—if we survived—ascertain if kayaking Alaska was an option.
The first thing zinging through my head when I read the Santa Barabara-based Aquaports website description about kayak trips around the Archipelago of the Channel Islands … “Kayaking is the most spectacular way to view the explore what Cousteau called ‘California’s Galapagos Islands,’”…was, wow, this is right up my thrill-seeking/naturalist husband’s ally.
While I had vowed in blood never to accompany Mr. Tarzan on his ultimate dream trip to the Amazon, this might be an expedition we could enjoy together. I conveniently dismissed from my mind two miniscule facts. One, I was fifty-five years old. Two, I had arms like Olive Oyl. Didn’t kayaking have something to do with paddling?
Quickly coming down from the initial excitement-induced adrenalin high I usually get when planning a new trip, I realized serious physical training might be in order if I wanted to survive this particular excursion, let alone keep up with my husband. For me, one whose activity level is limited to chasing grandkids and occasional light hiking, the kayak trip loomed ahead like the Olympics. Skinny athletes with tight black shorts, chest-hugging shirts and streamlined helmets are alien life forms, and I can’t see myself in that roll. Relieved momentarily, to read the Aquasports’ statement that no experience was necessary and people of all ages and physical fitness levels could do this, I went ahead—before I lost my nerve—and booked the trip. I decided on Aquasport’s one-day trip to Santa Cruz, although they also offer two and three-day excursions.
Now, back to physical fitness levels. My occupation as a writer and sedentary computer-zombie has done terrible things to my body. Jello comes to mind. Try as I might, I could not form a fixed image of myself in a kayak, at least not a smiling image. What had I been thinking? My Indiana Jones and I were going kayaking…in the ocean, for crikies sake!
I needed to get in shape. And fast. I’d already told my husband about the trip, so there was no backing out now. I only had six weeks. My pathetic arms needed tone, strength…a tan. Who knew what dangers I’d have to paddle around or through. Crashing waves. Surging tides. Rogue winds whisking me out to sea. Sharks! (Cue the theme song from Gilligan’s Island.)
I need to insert here that I operate in one gear only, and it’s called, “Isn’t this dangerous?” My husband, on the other hand, has two speeds: stop, and petal-to-the-metal, with a theme song of, What could happen? Go figure. Opposites attract. I feel kind of sorry for him from time to time, with unadventurous me for a wife. This pity and guilt leads to me searching out adventures that will give him an adrenalin rush, yet still fit inside the not-too-stretchy waistband of my comfort zone. Ergo, the kayaking trip—an adventure we might both enjoy. Together. He would love it. I could handle it. I could handle it IF I put myself into Extreme Makeover mode and trained until the minute we left on the trip. Yesserie. I could do this. It was just a kayak. Just paddling. Just water. I could do it.
Or could I? As days went by, my confidence wobbled. I reverted back to my true nature—scaredy-cat—and began feeling nauseous every time the word kayak popped into my head. What would I do if a shark circled my kayak? What if I fell out of the kayak and became entangled in kelp? What if my arms got so tired I couldn’t paddle the kayak, and I was left stranded far from shore? What if.... My mind took flights of fancy that would have made Amelia Earhart proud. As a writer, my imagination reserves are limitless.
I really did mean to exercise. I actually made it to the gym twice a week for a couple of weeks. Then life got busy. By the time we packed our bags, my arms were still spindly. I kept repeating to myself that the website said any physical ability level would be able to do this.
Once in Ventura, our port of departure, my husband hurriedly unpacked at our B& B. Even though we weren’t catching the ferry to Santa Cruz island until the next morning, it was obvious his swashbuckler’s soul was straining toward action. His eyes glittered like my grandson’s when reading the latest Harry Potter. Suddenly I was glad, really glad, I had booked the trip. I took a deep breath, the salty air calming my nerves. I could do this kayak trip. Do it for my Tarzan. Do it for myself, as well. For the pure joy of seeing that spark in my husband’s eyes, I was willing to stretch my comfort zone to a size 24.
Early next morning, when I stepped out onto the B&B’s deck, I could see Santa Cruz island in the distance. Mist surrounding its shores gave it the illusion that it floated just above the ocean. The mythical island of Avalon came to mind.
We met our Aquasports guide at the Ventura Harbor and joined the other thrill seekers who had signed on. I noticed, with some relief, another “older” woman. Hey, if she could do it, so could I. Our guide, clipboard in hand, looking like a camp counselor, with his straw hat and a whistle around his neck, took us through the check-in process. When he asked, “Anyone here who has not kayaked before?” I was the only one to raise my hand, meekly, I might add. He assured me that it was a piece of cake. I tried to force a smile. After a few instructions, we were off to catch the ferry for an almost two-hour ride to Santa Cruz island. Our kayaks would be waiting for us on the island when we arrived.
The ferry ride itself was a pleasure and within my comfort level for adventure. The June day was warm, so we stood outside most of the time, the wind whipping our hair. If you’re at all prone to seasickness, you might want to spend the majority of time outside. Those little anti-nausea wristbands help, as well.
A pod of dolphins came along side the ferry and played in the wake for about twenty minutes. The captain announced that he had spotted a whale, but we didn’t see it. June is late in the season for the migrating whales, but other whales reside in the waters surrounding the islands year-round.
Once we docked at Scorpion Anchorage, our group got off the ferry. Our guide led us down the beach where our yellow, blue and red kayaks waited, lined up on shore.
We took off sweatshirts and slathered on sunscreen as we listened to our guide go through the brief kayaking instructions. Make sure you pay attention to the technique for paddling. It will make you or break you. Even the puniest of arms can withstand the excursion if you paddle correctly.
Scorpion’s half-moon cove is protected, so the onshore waves were less than a foot high, easy to manage.
I noticed with some chagrin that the “older” woman, whose presence gave me comfort, was getting onto a two-man kayak, her husband at the helm. While, I, control freak that I am, had opted for a single kayak. At this point, I mentally put on my big girl panties, shoved my fears aside, and put on my helmet with all the determination of a knight readying to slay dragons. I was going to do this, or die trying.
Once I had, not too ungracefully I might add, seated myself in my kayak, I realized it was much more stable than I had imagined. I rocked back and forth, trying to tip it, finding that it was nearly impossible. I tried the paddle, putting my hands in the correct position for balance and to avoid arm strain. The guide checked my method, giving me the thumbs-up. I was good to go.
I was Hawatha, I was a pirate queen….oh, heck, I was still a 55-plus, out of shape woman. But I was doing it! I felt like Bill Murry in What About Bob, when they tie him to the mast. I wanted to shout, I’m kayaking!
Although my heart thumped loudly in my chest, it was from excitement now, not from exertion and terror as I had expected. As our group of six paddled off, I found my rhythm. Hey, this was easy. But, be prepared to get wet. I wore lightweight nylon shorts over my bathing suit, so they would dry out quickly once we landed.
We had a perfect day. The sky was a brilliant blue, the sun warm but not hot. The water was calm, even glassy in places. And the soft, cooling breeze was invigorating. Our guide said since it was low tide, we might be able to access some of the less-traveled caves. Butterflies took flight in my stomach. I’m a little claustrophobic, but I was determined to try.
From time to time my husband would look back at me with a question in his eyes. I could tell he was concerned about me, but his puppy-dog eagerness to explore was barely constrained. I would smile, letting him know I was having a good time, and he would paddle ahead. So much for togetherness. Ah well, we were both having fun doing the same thing, and we would have experiences for later reminiscing.
We must have visited twelve caves, each unique, each with its own special challenge and elements of wonder.
The entrance to one cave was narrow, the surge pulling at our kayaks as, one by one, we angled our kayaks through the zigzag opening. We guided ourselves with our paddles, and our hands, careful not to cut ourselves on the barnacle-covered volcanic rock, until we eased into the larger inner cave. Once inside we were treated to a magical sight. Because of an underground tunnel leading to the outside, light came into the cave from under the water, turning it into an enchanted grotto. The gravelly swish of the surge exiting the other side, and the kayaker’s“wows” echoed in the cave. The watery light cast a rippled light on the cave walls, giving it an illusion of being under water. The Chumash Indians, who once inhabited the islands, believed the caves were entrances into other worlds. I could see why.
Another cave was as big as an auditorium, with a scary-looking, really dark second chamber. I had gotten my husband a headlamp, so he took turns taking those who were willing to go, into the second chamber. Those of us staying behind could hear echoed laughter and shouts as they tested the acoustics. Even with the headlamp, the inky blackness of the cave closed in, reducing visibility to the headlamp’s direct beam.
I chose not to go through one of the narrower caves, waiting at the exit point by myself. As I sat in the peace of the cove, listening to the gulls overhead, I realized I wasn’t alone. Two harbor seals silently appeared next to my kayak, their heads just above the surface. Their huge brown eyes and direct stare gave them such an intelligent look, that I could see the origins of Irish Selkie legend—seals who turn into women when they come ashore. I said, “Well, hello.” They blinked and slipped back into the water.
Once the other kayakers emerged from the cave, one of the women said they’d had to lie down in their kayaks to get through the interior, and huge bugs covered the low ceiling. Later, my husband said he thought they were probably little crabs. Bugs or crabs, I was glad I’d held back on that particular cave.
Our next cave was some distance, and we all paddled across open water. At this point my arms did get a little tired, but since we were paddling at a leisurely pace, I could stop now and again and rest. It wasn’t difficult to catch up.
What a blast we had. I’ve already booked our next kayaking trip…in Alaska!
(If you go: Aquasports out of Ventura California, www.islandkayaking.com (800) 773-2309, Approximately $175.00 adult, $150.00 child for one-day trip, paddle and helmet included. www.recreation.gov, www.islandpackers.com (805) 642-1393)
You might want to take: A headlamp for kayaking through the caves.
You know you’re a boomer if: You can recite the Vita Vita Veggie commercial from I Love Lucy
(The Accidental Adventurer)