The islands offshore of the Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara coastline are called the Channel Islands. When I think about my childhood, I see myself alone on a beach with my parents and sister on the only boat anchored in the Harbor. My footprints are the only ones on the shore after rowing my dinghy in for a landing. Timing the sets, waiting for a safe window. I feel like an explorer. I feel independence. I feel connected to the land and the water and everything in between. There are no crowds. Just waves and wildlife. Back on the boat, we stay anchored long enough to see our anchorage change throughout the day. And over many days. We witness the Santa Barbara Channel becoming angry in the afternoons with choppy wind-swept swells while sheltering in our protected cove.
I knew it was special back then. Special to have a dad so in love with the sea who knew how to fix our boat if it broke. A dad who knew how to read the weather and how to set an anchor. A dad on guard for midnight anchor drills and ready to rescue anyone who might get into trouble out there. It was like having a secret Channel Islands childhood. None of my friends knew or could understand what it meant when I said we were going on a boat trip. In fact, I can’t say I’ve met any other person my age who experienced regular recreational trips to “the islands.” And, somehow, I knew it was fleeting even as a child. I knew I would grow up and move away leaving my sister to experience these trips without me. And that pretty soon after that my parents would be going on their own. What would that feel like? Not getting to go on these trips that started when I was 8 years old.
Growing up, I knew them as Channel Islands National Monument (Anacapa & Santa Barbara Islands). President Roosevelt designated them in 1938. Except Anacapa was an island we just sailed around, never landing our small dinghy on its shores since the island is characterized more by steep cliffs, sea bird colonies and its lighthouse. It’s a great spot for whale watching and fishing. I saw my first ever whale breach off of Anacapa’s Frenchy’s Cove.
However, Santa Cruz Island, was my real childhood playground. Since we needed a landing permit to step foot on Santa Cruz Island, I recognized it was under Nature Conservancy ownership in partnership with Mr. Carey Stanton’s private ranch which we got to visit one year by standing up to ride in on a cattle truck. It was quite the adventure for a kid who had mostly experienced the coves and beaches of the island and hadn’t explored inland. Mr. Stanton’s family owned the western nine-tenths of the island since 1937 – and the Gherini’s owned the eastern end by Smuggler’s and Scorpion which is the area now run by the National Park Service.
We were never allowed to land at Smuggler’s and Scorpion’s because that was Gherini land not open to the public. It’s so strange to have those areas of the island now be the most accessible spots for visitors.
There are 8 Channel Islands, but only 5 make up the National Park established in 1980 when I was 8 years old:
- San Miguel
- Santa Rosa
- Santa Cruz
- Santa Barbara
There’s also a National Marine Sanctuary protecting the waters offshore of the islands.
According to the Santa Cruz Island Foundation: “San Clemente, San Nicolas and San Miguel are owned by the U.S. Government, although San Miguel is managed by Channel Islands National Park. Currently, military activity occurs on the islands of San Clemente and San Nicolas.”
Catalina Island (or Santa Catalina Island) is owned by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy and the City of Avalon.
10 Life Lessons from a Secret Channel Islands Childhood
My parents purchased their first sailboat because my dad is a sailor, who is a son of a sailor, who was the son of a sailor himself. He also served as Chief Engineer in the Merchant Marines. His grandpa name is even “Chief.” That’s why I’m proud to call myself a “boat kid” and quick to point it out to anyone who will listen. Although there’s lots of family fun and bonding on these boat trips, it’s also A LOT of work and decisions you make on the water have the potential to be life/death decisions. So the lessons learned outdoors at the mercy of the ocean are somehow more meaningful.
#1 The World Is Bigger Than You
It’s almost indescribable. It hits you when you hike to a ridge and see how much world there is left to see. Or you look at the stars and Milky Way without the interference of city lights. The only way to have this realization as a child is to be out in the world.
#2 Resources are Finite
You only get to eat what you bring and too bad if it spoils or you run out. You only get to wear what you pack and too bad if it gets wet or stained. You learn to prepare and to conserve. You watch the water that goes into the water tank from the hose and you know that it’s going to run out at some point. Catch & release fishing isn’t going to feed you.
#3 You Can’t Schedule Wildlife Sightings
You don’t get to control where or when you see wildlife. But you can respect it and keep your distance. If you’re patient and you slow down, the dolphins will come to you.
#4 “Alone Time” Not a Guarantee
You discover ways to find your “quiet space” when living in cramped quarters. You become inventive by tying off the dinghy and floating far away from everyone else. Or you just jump in the water and pretend there’s nothing else in the world except you and the ocean.
#5 There’s a Rhythm and Satisfaction to Chores
Chores are not optional. All members of the crew have jobs that must be done — and in a timely manner. You start to mark the hours of the day with the chores needing to be completed before fun can be had. The kids ALWAYS had to do the dishes, but pretty soon we got excited about taking on the cooking, too. I don’t know any better “chore” than grilling a good meal in the salt air at sunset.
#6 How to Row a Boat
This is one of the central lessons of my childhood. If I’m ever on the Amazing Race – I will win this round. Put the kids in the boat with the oars and let ’em go! They’ll go from zero knowledge to expert REAL QUICK.
#7 Be Mindful of Those Who Came Before
I know I say that my childhood is a secret and singular experience the islands — but growing up learning about the Chumash from field trips to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and reading the struggles of the Lost Woman of San Nicolas in Island of the Blue Dolphins made me very aware that I was not the first person be on the island. And neither were the ranchers. Even as a child, my explorations were always framed with a reverence for those who came across the Santa Barbara Channel to the islands before me. It felt like their home — so I tread lightly and made sure I was always a good guest.
#8 Destinations Don’t Matter and Sea Caves are Cool
Everything I read these days is about reaching the summit or hiking to the end of the trail, but when you’re a kid you just want to explore. Why take that away by pushing a parental agenda? I’m so thankful my parents just let me go with no promises of glory or # of steps to achieve in a day. You find cool stuff along the way when you take time to look at the world around you. Like sea caves!
#9 Jump In! (You’ll be glad you did.)
The ocean was my morning wake-up and my evening rinse-off — and my playground every hour in between. It didn’t matter how cold it was – but apparently we borrowed wetsuits from time to time. It’s not cheating if it means you get to stay in the water longer!
#10 Childhood Doesn’t Have to End
You can live it again through the eyes of your children. It might be different: Catalina Island instead of Santa Cruz; a motor boat instead of a sailboat; kids who never get seasick vs. kids who sometimes get seasick — but the lessons and the feelings and the connections will be the same. We just need to keep preserving these wild places so there are still open spaces for kids to feel small, go exploring with no agenda, and learn responsibility for themselves and to our land & waters.
If You Had a Childhood Like This, Say Thank You to Your Mom & Dad
Special thanks to my parents for making my childhood so magical and full of love! And continuing to make it magical and full of love for your grandkids. Looking forward to many more sunset chores (and maybe a break from doing the dishes?).