This story begins with a visit to my good friend Jason’s lake house in Northern California. Jason and I have known each other since the beginning of college. We were paired up as roommates our freshman year, and ended up becoming such good friends that we both joined the same fraternity and roomed together for another two years.
My first time hearing about Channel Islands National Park was when I was sitting in the living room of Jason’s lake house and I saw an interesting book on the coffee table explaining the park. Channel Islands is one of those national parks very few know about and even less visit. The reason is because the park is a series of islands off the California coast near Santa Barbara. The only way to access these islands is via boat. The closer ones are an hour away, but some islands are so remote that a the passenger ferry only visits once a week, and the journey takes over five hours. As I began to look at pictures of these beautiful uninhabited islands, I knew I needed to go.
About a month later, it was the beginning of our senior year of college. I asked Jason if he was interested in visiting this national park one weekend, and he was an enthusiastic yes. Jason and I were both very involved in college so it was difficult to find a weekend where we didn’t have some sort of extracurricular commitment keeping us back on campus. There was just one date that worked in September for this adventure. Once we decided to go, I went online to reserve a camping space on Santa Cruz Island.
When I went on the website, it seemed as if every camping site was entirely booked out the weekend we wanted to visit. I was completely shocked by this because all the other weekends seemed to have plenty of openings except for just one. I told Jason that I couldn’t find a camping spot, but we decided to make the trip anyways because we might still be able to check out the islands on a day trip.
To get to Channel Islands we needed to book a ferry ride through Island Packers Cruises. We both thought it was a little ridiculous that all the campsites would be booked this weekend, so we figured that if just showed up without a reservation, we might be able to snag a spot at the back end of the campground to pitch out tent. Surely there would be a lot of people there and we might just be able to blend in. With that in mind, we purchased tickets out to Santa Cruz Island on Saturday morning with a return ticket Sunday afternoon.
The night before we headed out on our trip, Jason and I drove up to the University of Santa Barbara to visit some of his high school buddies on a Friday night. On our way up and throughout the night, we worked together to hatch a plan for how we might find a camping spot on the island. The Island Packer Cruise website said we needed camping reservations to board an overnight ferry so we needed something to tell them if they asked for our confirmation numbers.
This is how Jason and I hatched the identity of our new friend, Nick Greene (“e” at the end). Nick Greene was our friend who we didn’t know that well, but he invited us out to his campsite on Channel Islands. We had spoken with him a few days earlier, and as there was no cell service, we couldn’t get any sort of details on his location. We just planned to meet him out at the Santa Cruz camping area Saturday morning. If we ever got questioned by any authorities, this was our plan.
Fortunately Island Packers didn’t ask us any questions about our camping plans so we managed to dodge the first bullet and board the ferry. After the hour long journey, we arrived at Santa Cruz Island and prepared to disembark. By this point, Jason and I had enough time to talk about our friend Nick that we established quite a back story for him. He was almost beginning to feel real.
After fooling the ferry company, we thought we were in the clear. We just needed to get off the boat, and find some open space in the certainly crowded camping area. Shouldn’t be an issue right? But as we got off the boat, we were instantly intercepted by a park ranger. My big backpack with camping gear gave us away.
The ranger said “Hey, are you trying to camp here tonight?”
We responded “Yes, we’re staying with our friend Nick who’s been here the past few nights.”
The ranger responded “Really? You have a friend here? That’s impossible. The whole island is shutdown tonight for the Chumash Indian Tribe. Today is their annual water crossing ceremony, and they’ve rented out the entire island. You can’t camp tonight. You have to go back on the afternoon boat.”
Just a few feet away listening in to our conversation, the boat captain chimed in “I can’t take these guys back tonight. My boat is full.”
The ranger looks at both of us and says “Okay, you guys can stay here tonight, but the Chumash are using the lower campground. You need to stay in the far back of the upper. Do not to bother them tonight.”
He continued “Who is your friend, by the way? Are you sure he isn’t at another island or campsite? What’s his name? We can look him up for you.”
Jason responds “Uhhh, his name is Nick Greene. G-R-E-E-N-E. We’re sorry we’re intruding on this special event. Our friend is kind of unreliable, but he told us to come here.”
“Sure, we will try to find out where he is staying.”
As Jason and I start to walk down the pier towards land, we can’t believe what just happened. The reason the island was booked out was not because it was full, but because the native tribe of Channel Islands is hosting a special event this weekend. Nobody else is allowed to camp on the island, and somehow we just managed to crash their party and secure a campground. We’d be the only non-Native Americans there just because we bought the ferry tickets without reservations, and then blamed it on our imaginary friend Nick. I think the best part was because we didn’t book online, we never even had to pay that night for the campground!
As we passed the Chumash camping area, the folks there seemed to just look like regular people camping with their barbecues and easy-up tents. The only difference was a group of them every year make the 20 mile journey from the mainland to Santa Cruz Island in a canoe. This is how they used to travel, and now its an annual celebration for the tribe.
Jason and I set up our tent at the far end of the deserted upper campground, and began to explore the island. Before we left, we had to place our food in special lock boxes near our campsite as there are hundreds of miniature foxes roaming the island that would steal our food right out of the tent if we left it alone. These foxes, called “Island Foxes” or Urocyon littoralis are endemic to just a few of the Channel Islands. They are about a third the size of a mainland fox, and are believed to be descendants of the California Grey Fox. When the Channel Islands broke off from the mainland, scientists believe these foxes became smaller overtime due to the lack of food on the island. Walking around, its pretty hard to miss them as they seem to be everywhere. They like to hang around humans to get their food when they aren’t looking.
Jason and I spent the rest of the day hiking along the stunning coastline of Santa Cruz Island. The cliffs dropping off the north end of the island into the deep blue Pacific Ocean were absolutely beautiful. This coupled with the remote feeling of being the only people on the hiking trail that afternoon made for an unforgettable experience.
Later that evening we hiked up again to the coastal ridge to get a good look at the stars. I’ve been to a lot of remote places to view stars, but nothing compares to what we saw that night on Channel Islands. As there are no lights on the island, it felt like we could see an infinite number of stars. Off in the distance we could just make out the faint lights along the California Coast and burn-off flames from various oil rigs in the surrounding ocean.
Before going to bed, I placed my shoes and socks outside the tent right next to the door. And believe it or not, the next morning I woke up to find my socks missing. I ended up finding them around 20 feet away from the tent with a fresh hole chewed in them. These foxes will steal anything!
The next day, Jason and I went for another hike to a bay on the opposite side of the island. After a swim in the ocean, we went back to the campsite, packed up our stuff, and headed down to the pier for our afternoon return ferry.
When we got back to the pier, the rangers were waiting at the dock for us. Our hearts sank because we thought they might of figured out the stunt we just pulled. One of them said “Hey we found our friend Nick!” Jason and I look at each other and our faces go white. “Uhhhh, you found Nick??”, we reply. What happened next, I can’t up. Apparently someone actually named Nick Greene visited Channel Islands National Park a week prior and stayed on another island. Nick – I don’t know if you’re reading this, but we’re sorry for blaming you for our troubles. We didn’t know you existed!
After boarding the boat, Jason and I had a couple beers from the canteen to celebrate our success. We knew that as we returned to the mainland, we had one hell of a story to tell – the time we crashed a Chumash ceremony and managed to spend the night on Channel Islands fooling both the ferry company and the rangers.