Digest>Archives> May 2002

Return to Anacapa

By James W. Baker


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Anacapa Lighthouse. The red flowers in the ...

On April 8, 2001, I returned to California’s Anacapa Island, home of Anacapa Light, after an absence of more than 40 years. I had visited the island once, in 1960, after bringing my seabag ashore for the last time in July 1957.

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On September 15, 1956, the Whaleys returned to ...

Anacapa actually consists of three islands, almost connected at low tide. Due to the steep cliffs, a boat has to be used to go between the islands. East Anacapa, about one-and-a-half mile long by a quarter-mile wide, protrudes from the sea like a tilted mesa. Cliffs shoot up 140 feet from the ocean on the north, or landward side of the island, while the backside ranges up to more than100 feet higher.

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The Coast Guard boat eases into Anacapa Cove ...

The 40-foot tall lighthouse, with lens 277 feet above the sea, sits on a jagged ridge at the eastern end of Anacapa. Below the light stands Arch Rock, used on the logo for the Channel Islands National Park. The island chain, 14 miles off shore from Oxnard, California, can be seen on a clear day from many areas along the coast.

My wife LaFon and I have visited most of the accessible lighthouses on the West Coast and many on the Atlantic shores from Cape Hatteras to Boston. This time, though, we were going to “my” lighthouse. One where I had often climbed the circular metal steps to the lantern room and watched the precision ground Fresnel lens rotate one time each minute, casting a 600,000 candlepower beam out to sea. Each morning on watch I draped the lens with a canvas cover to protect the prisms from the sun’s rays. In the evening or on foggy days, the cover came off prior to turning on the light.

Our trip had been scheduled with Island Packers, one of the concessionaires licensed by the National Park Service, for over a month so we were glad to finally board the vessel Sunfish in Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, California. On our way out we diverted from our course once for whale watching.

Captain Don Krueter started our Island tour at Frenchy’s Cove on West Anacapa, then worked his way up the coast to the landing cove on East Anacapa. Bob Kirk of Island Packers, boat hand on the Sunfish and our tour guide/naturalist, showed us where the ill-fated S.S. General Winfield Scott steamed into the rocky shore of Middle Anacapa in a dense fog on December 2, 1853. This wreck is one of the events believed responsible for the establishment of a lighthouse on Anacapa Island.

As we maneuvered into the cove I began spotting things that had changed—a different boom on the upper landing—no boom on the lower landing—a new dock.

Captain Krueter maneuvered the Sunfish into the small cove, spun the vessel around and skillfully backed against the dock. Both hands working, he shifted from throttle to clutch and back again using both engines to hold the boat’s stern against the pilings. Due to the surge of the ocean he often had to reposition the boat. Crewmembers watched the vessel rise and fall with the waves and only when it was safe did they let passengers step from the stern onto the ladder and climb to the dock. It takes a while to off load 40 people, one at a time. I remarked to LaFon that between the movement of the boat and diesel exhaust fumes, it would be awful to get sea sick in Anacapa Cove.

LaFon had been exercising on a treadmill for weeks, preparing her legs and lungs to be able to climb the 153 steps from the dock to the upper landing. She found that most people in our group rested more than once on the iron and cement steps that zig zagged up the face of a near vertical cliff.

The first thing I noticed upon reaching the upper landing was the ice plant. During my tour on Anacapa Island, ice plant served as lawns in front of the four residences. Now it resembled a thick carpet alongside the road. Gulls nested all over the place—even on top of ice plant.

Bob Kirk warned us that the gulls get testy if you approach too close during nesting season. He told us that East Anacapa is one of the main rookeries for the western gull.

When we rounded the curve and approached the “main street,” only one residence came into view. Three of the Spanish Revival style homes had been removed since the Coast Guard left the island in 1968.

Our walk to the western end of the island took us past the church-like building containing the water tanks. Kirk and I discussed the reason for the resemblance to a place of worship. I had been told that the designers hoped the outer structure would keep Japanese submarines from shelling the tanks during WWII.

Above the tank house lies a 30,000 square foot expanse of concrete, originally built to catch and divert rainwater into the storage tanks to lessen the amount pumped up from Coast Guard buoy tenders.

This time we found the concrete occupied by hundreds of gulls. Their guano eliminated any possibility of using rainwater for potable uses. We collected rainwater once in 1957, after a week of rain flushed the pad clear. Later, when the water tested radioactive, we dumped it into the ocean.

The number of gulls on the island then was relatively few, probably due to the same DDT that pushed the California brown pelican to the brink of extinction. At that time island residents weren’t aware of the decline in births of the big birds due to the pesticide.

Near the center of the island we found a primitive campground provided by the Park Service for overnight visitors. Campers are warned, however, that they have to bring everything they’ll need, including water. Even trash has to be carried ashore. All that’s provided are toilets, a patch of ground for a tent, and an unobstructed view of the mainland across the Santa Barbara Channel, fog notwithstanding. A spectacular sunset may be thrown in for free.

During my year and a half on Anacapa the island flora ranged from dark green to brown and barren during the different seasons. On this trip everything appeared lush and healthy—the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The giant coreopsis with brilliant yellow blossoms covered much of the landscape, and the cholla cactus still hid in unsuspecting places waiting for an unwary walker. While its red flowers are pretty, I was disturbed at the amount of land taken over by ice plant. Formerly only in the yards, now it extends to the far end of the island. National Park Service personnel are concerned about this non-native plant that leeches salt into the soil, adversely affecting indigenous plants.

They are also concerned about a plethora of rats, believed to be descendants of rodents from a wrecked Spanish galleon.

When I lived on the island we had rat alerts, similar to general quarters, when we found the long-tailed critters in residences. They were large and displayed a nasty temper when cornered. Now naturalists are concerned because the rats invade nests and eat freshly hatched chicks, including some from endangered species.

The far end of East Anacapa, the western end, has been named Inspiration Point. From this location the other two Anacapas are visible. West Anacapa, the biggest of the three, is a major rookery for California brown pelicans.

Beyond West Anacapa lies Santa Cruz, the largest of the Channel Islands, whose management is now shared by the Nature Conservancy and the Park Service.

Just up the road from the ranger’s residence a small museum has been established. (Our old carpenter shop.) Inside stands the original third order Fresnel lens made in Birmingham, England in 1932. The multifaceted crystal lenses, bound in polished brass, are still among man’s most beautiful creations. A static display of a lighthouse lens in a museum, however, is similar to viewing an animal in a zoo. Once removed from its natural habitat it’s never quite the same.

I get chills remembering foggy nights when the sweep of the powerful light flashed through the mist, illuminating a small part of the sky.

Of course I wanted to visit the tower but the trail is blocked below the lighthouse to keep visitors from suffering hearing damage from the fog signal.

The shrill sound of the present horn lacks the character of the compressed air operated diaphone of years back. Many nights the deep “beee ohhh” from up the hill lulled me to sleep.

Walking up the trail toward the lighthouse triggered many memories. Like the midnight when an angry owl screeched above my head. I danced around looking underfoot for the source of the terrible screaming, never suspecting it came from overhead. I remained clueless until the beam of the rotating lens illuminated the furious bird. My pulse rate returned to normal only after I had returned to the watch room down below.

After boarding the Sunfish for our return to the mainland, Krueter took us past forty-foot tall Arch Rock, then around to the south side of the island. The top of the lighthouse peeked over the edge of a cliff that fell almost straight down to a tiny rock-strewn beach 250 feet below.

Looking back at the rugged island as we crossed the Santa Barbara Channel, I wondered how long it would be before I returned to Anacapa. You can be sure it won’t be another forty years.

There are two National Park Service authorized concessionaires providing travel to and within the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary:

Island Packers, operates out of Channel Islands (805-382-1779) and Ventura Harbors (805-642-1393). They provide day trips, with a guide, or will drop off and pick up overnighters. They also transport sea kayaks for do-it-yourself explorers. Information can be found on their web site at www.islandpackers.com

Truth Aquatics, sailing from Santa Barbara harbor, provides multi-day live-aboard cruises to the Channel Islands. They cater to scuba divers, however kayaking, fishing, whale watching, hiking and just enjoying the scenery are other activities available to their guests. Phone: 805-962-1127 Web site: info@truthaquatics.com

The National Park Service web site for the Channel Islands is http://nps.gov.chis/aipage.htm

This story appeared in the May 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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