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Up The Road: Visiting The Channel Islands

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We continue visiting Southern California’s Channel Islands this week. Privately owned Santa Catalina Island, once owned by William Wrigley, of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs fame, is the only truly populated island among Southern California’s eight Channel Islands.

Populated by humans, that is. Many of the rest are inhabited by, or surrounded by, such rare, endangered, and endemic species of animals and plants—endemic meaning, those found only here. So rare is Channel Islands biology that scientists describe the Channel Islands, collectively, as North America’s Galápagos, a reference to those islands in time, in Ecuador, where Charles Darwin demonstrated the evolutionary process of natural selection.

And yet California’s own islands in time have different features, even very different creation stories.

The four northernmost Channel Islands—once known as the Santa Barbara Islands, easily visible across the channel from Santa Barbara and Ventura—are San Miguel, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa. These are seaward extensions of the east-west-trending Transverse Ranges on the mainland, including the Santa Monica Mountains. Santa Barbara, San Nicolas, San Clemente, and Santa Catalina are the visible ocean outposts of the Peninsular Range.

We already visited Santa Catalina Island, in a separate program. Out-there San Nicolas and San Clemente Islands, property of the U.S. Navy, have rarely been visited, at least recently. San Clemente has the unfortunate history of being used for bombing runs and military target practice.

San Nicolas, which provided the real-world inspiration for the award-winning children’s book Island of the Blue Dolphins, was a top-secret post for monitoring Soviet submarines in the 1950s. Since San Nicolas still contains ancient petroglyphs of dolphins, sharks, and whales, it almost seemed appropriate that underwater sound technology was later used to track the movements of migrating whales. That was before disturbing evidence that sonar damages whales, who are supremely sensitive. Since 2015 the Navy has been banned from using sonar between Santa Catalina and San Nicolas Islands, and also in a blue-whale feeding area near San Diego.

As for San Nicolas as the Island of the Blue Dolphins: The book by Scott O’Dell, published in 1960, tells the story of Karana, a young Native American girl who lives alone on the island for 18 years after her father the chief and most men in the tribe are killed in a battle with well-armed Russian fur traders. Missionaries soon carry everyone to the mainland in a “giant canoe” sent by the new chief. Everyone but Karana and her brother, who she follows after he jumps out of the boat to retrieve his fishing spear.

The rest, as they say, is history—in this case, the real-life history of Juana Maria, who was brought to the Santa Barbara Mission in 1853. “The Lone Woman of San Nicolas,” as she was otherwise known, was the last of her people.

As for the other Channel Islands: President Jimmy Carter, in 1980, set aside 250,000 acres of the five northernmost as Channel Islands National Park—half of those acres underwater. Park research and restoration since then have been astonishing. More next time.

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.