The fog hangs low as we climb into the dinghy. The heavy blowy greyness of it flirts with the idea of becoming rain before it remembers that this is southern California and reconsiders. The outboard dies halfway between the boat and the beach. Doug already has the oars out and is rowing when Steve gets it started again, but I’m busy analysing the swell patterns as we approach the back of the beach break in Cuyler Harbour. Don’t worry, we had told Doug and Lynneita, we totally know what we’re doing. “After this one,” I tell Steve.
“The key,” he tells us, “is to just wait and watch. Get a feel for the situation”.
“You have to choose your moment and go, come in just behind the breaking wave” I say, “follow this next one in”. “I see a big set coming,” he says, “we’ll just wait here”.
However, despite our confidence, neither tactic adequately accounts for the technology present; indeed, without neutral or reverse, the outboard continues to propel us towards the beach with little heed paid to timing or positioning. Someone swears and we all lean back as the stern of the boat lifts up with the crest of a breaking wave and the bow surges forward and down into the sand. It’s a near thing, but as we leap out into the calf deep water and pull the boat up the beach the landing is already being called a raging success by me and Steve. “That dinghy,” he says, “it just keeps proving itself”.
“That was nothing,” I say, “we could do way gnarlier”.
Even though they can’t argue with the fact that we’re on the beach and nothing above the knees is wet, I get the distinct feeling that Doug and Lynneita aren’t convinced. “It’s all about patience,” Steve says.
“And timing,” I say.
The rangers cabin at the purportedly least visited state park is quiet on our approach but the flag is raised and there are shoes beside the doormat so we sing out our hellos and peer through the windows. Jim comes to the door rubbing his eyes, halfway into his sweatshirt.
“We were out working late last night, and then again early this morning,” he tells us, “but wait a sec and I’ll open up the visitor centre”. We follow Jim into a room with framed aerial photographs of the island and historic timelines painted on the walls.
Jim’s not the ranger. He’s a biologist employed by US Parks as part of the effort to restore San Miguel Island after years of sheep and goat ranching by early homesteaders and circa WWII missile practice by the navy. Specifically, Jim collects data to do with a species of fox unique to this tiny little island. At one point, he tells us, the only ones left were in captivity. But the breeding program was successful, as was the reintroduction, and so now the population numbers over three hundred and fifty.
I’m not a biologist. But I’ve hung out with enough of them to appreciate the challenges that face this species and this island. The deterioration of this specific ecosystem was due to a combination of introduced species of plants and animals that pushed out – in one way or another – the native species, and chemical contamination (DDT). The restoration effort is similarly complicated. After all, as in so many of these situations, no one was really paying attention before all these changes took place. Like trying to piece together the remnants of a lost culture, this kind of “salvage ecology” must constantly refer to the principle of diversity for diversity’s sake in its effort to reintroduce and restore.
All the foxes wear radio collars, which make it possible to track and monitor individuals and every so often they have to be trapped.
“It’s not so bad,” Jim explains, “they get a free meal out of it and a place to sleep for the night. Some get so used to it they keep coming back – trap happy, we say. But they’re still wild animals, and don’t like being handled”.
We eat a snack outside as Jim collects some equipment – he’s offered to hike with us to the site of a prehistoric forest. In his twenties and an experienced field biologist, Jim usually spends eight days at a time living here on the island. He works with another field biologist, but she’s on another island right now. This week, it’s just him and one volunteer. He’s not expected to show us around, but with the ranger gone he seems happy enough to answer our questions.
“We’re supposed to work two office days a month,” he tells us when I ask about what his job looks like in the six days while he’s not here, “but I do everything I can to get out of them. Sick days, comp days, whatever”.
It’s not far to the Caliche forest. The process is a bit unclear, but the gist is that at some point there were trees and now there are two or three foot high trunks of calcium. There’s a fence to keep us from walking right up to them, so we stand twenty feet away. I’m trying to feel impressed.
“Yeah,” says Jim, “sometimes we get groups of artists out here in the summer and they really dig it. They can’t get over how beautiful it is. Personally, I’m not sure what they see. Maybe they like the challenge of beige on beige”.
He’s right. In theory this stunted sandy forest is serioiusly cool (petrified trees?!) but they’re not hugely exciting to look at. Before the navy came and took over from the ranchers, the island had been almost totally stripped of vegetation. In an aerial photo at the visitor centre, one can see that in 1929, the island was one big sand dune shot through with a few veins of rock. The armed forces introduced a succulent called ice plant (potentially from South Africa), and it thrived in the relatively damp climate of the Channel Islands – despite the desert appearance, the islands get quite a bit of fog. And this is where the whole project of restoration becomes even trickier. Because, as Jim explains to us, the foxes seem to eat quite a bit of ice plant – to the extent that the biologists assume that this is where they get a significant portion of their water. Without the ice plant, Jim doesn’t really know what they would do.
On our way back over the hill, we find a fox skull and Jim points out the markings that distinguish this species from foxes anywhere else. In the same crouch, he reaches over and picks a piece of ice plant and shows us how to squeeze out the white, gooey fruit. He’s right, it does taste a bit like kiwi. At the top of the hill, Jim gets out his radio telemetry gear and we all stand around as he adjusts the frequency, waiting each time for a small steady beep which tells him that the animal is still alive. If the radio collar doesn’t move in something like ten hours, the beep changes and the biologists go frantically looking for the animal. It’s important, he explains, to keep track of who dies, and for what reason. “Nine times out of ten,” says Jim, “they’re just having a long nap”.
We all stand looking out across the island. From the top of the hill we can see the ocean on both sides of us. After so much time spent recently in urban places, I feel relieved to be back in open space. “You must have a good stereo system,” says Lynneita, “or at least an iPod”. Jim looks sheepish.
“Not really”, he shrugs, “I brought my iPod out here at first, but I never really feel like listening to it. There’s enough to listen to out here already”.
We leave Jim squinting out towards Harris Point, where his volunteer has struck out to set more deer mouse traps – they’re trying to correlate population densities between the foxes and the mice, trying to fit another piece into the puzzle of this small island ecosystem. All we can see is a light speck of tee shirt that comes and goes as the volunteer bends down behind the short scrubby groundcover to adjust another trap.