So far our trip has consisted of idyllic backpacking on Day 1, fearsome wind and fog as we hiked across the island on Day 2, and being stranded on the island, holed up in an empty ranger station on Day 3. That brings us to Day 4 when a short break in the weather might finally allow the ferry to reach us before we get cut off from the mainland again.
Overnight the brutal wind gusts felt like they might blow the roof off the barracks as we slept. Fortunately, morning brought calmer winds. We used the ranger station’s internet connection to view NOAA’s marine weather forecast. It indicated that the wind would pick up throughout the day, then stay high for several days. If the ferry left the mainland soon, it might be able to get us off the island today. Otherwise we might have to spend several more days on the island, including Christmas.
All 15 stranded campers gathered in the main ranger station house. Joe picked up the mic. He was getting good at the radio lingo and protocol: “Dispatch, dispatch, this is Santa Cruz visitor…”. The National Park Service and Island Packers ferry service responded over the air.
Island Packers said they would attempt to make a pickup this morning. If conditions were so bad that the ferry couldn’t make the crossing or dock on the island, then they would turn back around. If the ferry pickup failed, there was talk of calling “Aspen”. We later learned that the USCGC Aspen is a large Coast Guard cutter with a crew of 50.
Somehow the authorities had determined that there were two people still at Del Norte campground (the backcountry campground without water on the far side of the island). If all went according to plan, the ferry would stop at Prisoner’s Harbor to pick them up first. Then they would motor around the island to pick us up at Scorpion Harbor.
We packed up our stuff, then took everything down to the beach to await the ferry. Joe stayed by the radio in case there were any updates. We were anxious given the strengthening winds predicted by the forecast.
We waited on the beach, scanning for boats and wildlife. We spotted a seal! We’ve seen so much amazing wildlife on this trip.
As we waited on the beach, Joe overheard radio reports from the ferry as it fetched the two people at Prisoners Harbor. It wasn’t looking good: the ferry crew described rough waters and high swell. Even so, both people managed to climb aboard, and the ferry headed towards us at Scorpion Harbor. The ferry crew was not optimistic, radioing that we should take sea sickness meds.
The wind at the beach had been fairly calm when we arrived, but was continually picking up speed the longer we waited. We crossed our fingers and stared harder into the distance. The local birds weren’t too worried.
Joe signed off from the radio and came running down to the dock. He told us the ferry would try to dock at Scorpion and would arrive shortly. Not long after, the ferry appeared in the distance. We all cheered when it reached the dock, which was damaged but fortunately still usable. We walked carefully but swiftly across the rusty metal, one at a time, since we weren’t confident the damaged dock could support additional weight.
Thankfully everyone made it on board. The engines fired up and we headed back to shore. What a crazy adventure to share with our siblings! We took a group photo to remember the moment.
Playful dolphins accompanied us on our voyage back to mainland California. We agreed that, at some point, a return trip to the Channel Islands National Park was in order. There was still kayaking and snorkeling to be done! We would change one thing on our next trip, though: instead of visiting in the winter, we’d head out in late summer or early fall when the wind is calmer and the ocean is mellower.