Solo on Santa Cruz (Part 2)

Day 2

The morning was chillier than I expected, but the air was still, which was what I had hoped for. I prepared some oatmeal, ate some dried mango, and drank two cups of tea. I put on my board shorts and rash guard, hat and glasses, clipped a knife to my belt, checked that I had snacks and that my marine radio was working. I walked the half mile to the water with my board, paddle, and camelbak.

Past the breakers coming on to shore, I saw the water was fairly calm. The sky was overcast with a low ceiling, seemingly within arm’s reach of the cliffs. Because the sun was unable penetrate the marine layer, the water was dark and forbidding.

I decided, all in all, it was a great day to explore from the board. My plan was to spend the morning paddling eastward away from Scorpion Anchorage, poking into the sea caves as I went. If I could find a suitable place to land my board on a beach, I would eat my lunch there, and then head back in relaxed fashion, assuming the wind, waves, and tide all agreed with my plan – – never a sure thing.

I pumped up my inflatable Starboard 14′ touring board, my faithful companion these many years. While I pumped it up and started to work up a sweat (a nice little warmup), I eavesdropped on a kayak instructor with his group of eager first time paddlers.

He pointed to the east, the way I was heading, “Listen, see that outcropping of rock there? You are not permitted past that point, okay? When the wind picks up, if you’re trying to fight it as you come back this way, you’re not going to make it. So we are not going further than that point; got it?”

He didn’t mention the current and swells going that way too, I thought. But I noted his warning and figured if I paid close attention to the wind, and didn’t go too many miles down the coast, I’d be fine.

In ten minutes, the board’s two chambers were filled with air. I dragged it down to where the waves expired on shore, and then stuffed my gear under the tie-downs. With me, I had a small collapsible camping chair stuffed into a small sack, and a Neso tent shade, and a towel. I brought these optimistically thinking there was a chance I might find a secluded sandy beach to eat my lunch like a castaway. I imagined a private oasis where I could lounge around, eat, read a little, and watch the pelicans hunt. I brought my cooler along too, thinking I might have a beer if I was feeling it, and tied it down to the back of the board.

When the board was loaded up, I shoved it forward through the surf at the point I figured would be the best interval between the shorebreaking waves. I timed it perfectly, shoved off, stood up and paddled out past the waves with no problem. I immediately turned to my right and headed east away from the beach.

No more than 100 yards from the beach, I encountered a nearly impenetrable kelp patch, which began about fifty yards off shore. But the shore was not a beach; it was a steep, craggy and brown cliff face, jutting straight up overhead about 100 feet or so. For the eager kayakers starting into the water behind me, the kelp was not much of a problem. A kayaker could slide across the top of the kelp bed and dig the paddle into the kelp leaves to help push themselves along. For SUP though, you have a 12 inch fin protruding from the bottom of your board, and the fin acts like a tripwire. You are not going anywhere very fast in thick kelp on SUP, and you might lose your fin completely if it’s not screwed in. My fin was a “snap on” and I didn’t want to risk losing my fin and having to paddle wonky all the way back, fishtailing back and like a moron. So, whenever I encountered kelp, which was often, I weaved my way around the outside of the thickest parts of the patches.

Thick kelp, seemingly guarding the entrance to every sea cave

Away from the dock at Scorpion, I explored the little outcropping of rock just off shore and then paddled in close to the cliffside to get a look at the sea caves that were ubiquitous along this stretch of coastline. I paddled in and out of just about every sea cave I could, for no reason other than it seemed like fun. The caves were suprisingly colorful with green algae covering the rocks inside the cave, and even pink tones to the innermost rocks. The swells were gentle at this early hour and there was no real danger of being smashed against the back of the cave. Even so, I kept my head on a swivel to make sure no rogue wave showed up.

I paddled on and on, to the southeast. The shore was a single continuous cliffside. There were no beaches to be found; an inhospitable place for paddlers and boats, if you’re interested in getting ashore anyway. Without a grappling hook and some rock climbing shoes, you were not going to find any solace.

From time to time, inside some of the caves I ventured into, I found hidden rocky beaches, some a full 25 yards inside the cave. The waves smashed and crashed on this hidden beach, and the dark water filtered through innumerable smooth rocks in an almost deafening roar. It was easy to imagine ancient pirates hiding a treasure chest in such a cave, and because I had been on Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean 100 times in my life, it was also easy to imagine a skeleton with an eyepatch sitting on that treasure, brandishing a cutlass.

I paddled on, giddy with the fun of these caves, some of which had exits, where you could paddle in one side and out the other side, the opportunities created by the low tide. I went in to so many caves that I eventually started passing them up and focusing on all that was going on offshore.

The birds were everywhere. There were pelicans resting on every imaginable pedestal that had been providentially carved by the sea over eons. There were colorful and agile oyster catchers swooping and diving around me, hooting with their exuberant cries. There were skimmers that dove to snatch up the smaller fish that ventured too close to the surface. There were the cormorants, swimming out of the way of my board and diving deep like under the water like penguins to catch their meals.

And most strange of all, there were the crows, far too large for their kind. At one point, I turned a corner around a section of the cliff that elbowed out into the water, and when I came around, a solitary and massive crow sat solemnly on the rock, at eye level with me. We both measured each other, each concluding that the other was completely out of place. I have seen pelicans and cormorants manning a spot like this my entire paddling life, but never a crow.

What the hell are you doing here?

Just out for a paddle.

You?

I live here dumbass.

Geez, sorry.

The crows on the island appear to be twice the size of the ones at home. I figured there must be some evolutionary advantage to size here on this island. The beak on these crows, like a handspike on its face, is substantial and gave it a formidable appearance. So black they’re blue, I thought this crow was magnificent. I’d never thought that about a crow before.

As I continued eastward, the cliffside increased in height, and eventually towered above me. I paddled in its shadow, still heading away from where I started, and still looking for a beach. At some point, I noticed that the coastline was peeling away to my right, and as I paddled close, my direction began to turn in a more southward direction. I had turned the corner on the island. To my left was Anacapa Island, approximately 4-5 miles across the open ocean channel.

I thought to myself, next time, I’ll paddle there.

In one of the coves I passed, I thought there was a little stretch of rocky beach that I could feasibly land on, and set up a little camp for lunch. But as I got closer, and watched the waves crash on the beach, I thought better of it. I looked closely at the cliffside, and it appeared that the cliffside was exceedingly unstable, and probably had rocks falling all the time on the beach. The last thing I needed was a rock crushing my skull while I sat in my chair enjoying some salami and cheese.

At the same time, I noticed that when I turned to face the cove, I suddenly felt some wind. I had been paddling with the wind the whole time, and did not feel it. But now that I turned against it a little bit, I thought it was probably picking up. I noticed the current too, and how it eddied around little rocks sticking out of the water near the shore. Then I saw that procession of waves heading my direction, just like I had seen the day before, marching toward me like a terrible army. I was going be fighting all of that, just like the kayak instructor had warned.

Time to turn around.

Resting in the kelp beds, Anacapa Island in the background to the left

I had been paddling a couple hours. I was hydrated and I knew I could paddle several hours back without any problems physically. I took a moment, sat down on the board, and ate a Clif Bar for some calories. While I sat, I savored the sound of this watery world. A cave behind me gurgled. As each swell came in, water filled up underwater passageways and as the air escaped, it gurgled. Far away, I heard deep thumps as another wave hit the shore with a wallop. I heard hissing too as another wave filled up an underwater cave and the misting air escaped through a slit in the rock face.

It occurred to me, as it sometimes does in these moments, how little I had been thinking about work, or anything really – – other than the immediate world around me. I had been focused entirely on the paddle stroke, the caves, the birds, the waves, the kelp bass scurrying away from underneath my board as I passed. My usual screen interface had been unnecessary today and indeed forgotten; the natural order restored. An abiding peace came over me; even joy.

I stood up and started the slog back to the dock where I started. I stayed close to the shore, hoping to avoid the stronger gusts and the stronger parts of the current. The downside was that I had to deal a little bit with the waves coming in and bouncing off the cliff walls. I moved purposely, at a pace that I knew I could keep up for a long time without tiring.

A small harbor seal pup popped his head up out of a kelp patch and watched me, expressionless. I said “hi” and moved on. In time, I beached my board and hauled it out of the water, feeling completely refreshed and ready to eat.

I spent the rest of the day in my collapsible chair back at Scorpion, lazily reading a book, and listening to the waves.

End Part Two

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