Island Canyon Chronicles

By Chuck Graham   |   August 29, 2023
Looking for waterfalls (and not to fall)

The mud was something to behold. However, the narrow, serpentine-like side canyons of Scorpion Canyon were green, lush, and oozing with moisture. The many rushing waterfalls were perpetually soothing as water flowed uninhibited to the main canyon carrying that aquatic melody to the cobbled shoreline at Scorpion Anchorage. It felt like I was experiencing my own little island fairytale.

After leading a recent kayak tour at Scorpion Anchorage, located near the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island, I looked forward to those many side canyons that are almost always dry any other year. With the winter California has experienced, getting there required more effort. The footing on the island has always been an issue. There’s lots of loose rock, much erosion, and my steps and handholds needed to be precise. Which rock to latch onto and trust was a guessing game.

Nevertheless, the rhythms of croaking Pacific green tree frogs were incessant the entire length of Scorpion Canyon, draining toward the ocean. These amphibians hunker down during drought years, burrowing into the mud for years. Once a wet winter arrives, they are happily croaking away in the canyon. From December 2022 – March 2023, to say they were content would be an understatement.

Island Microclimate

Found one!

Anyone that visits the Channel Islands National Park hears the ocean hammering away at the sheer, volcanic cliffs, or waves rushing up the cobbled shoreline while the Island Packers ferry approaches the pier. However, from December 2022 through March 2023, those pelagic soundwaves were competing with multiple waterfalls spilling off the islands and resonating throughout prominent canyons and their side-canyon tributaries.

One of the storms in early March 2023 was unlike all the previous storms of 2022/23. It was humid. By the time I ascended my first side canyon, I was drenched in sweat. I stripped down to my running shorts and ditched my shirt. My trail shoes were soddened. And after reaching my first ridgeline, pea soup fog swept across Santa Cruz Island, engulfing me. I had about 60 feet of visibility in all directions.

This was before daylight savings, and I kind of underestimated my time as darkness quickly approached. No worries. I had my headlamp, and carefully picked my way toward the trail that leads to Montañon Ridge.

I carefully traversed my way into two more side canyons marveling at giant coreopsis and silver lupine blooms brightening those narrow, open book-shaped draws. Waterfalls were in every canyon, something I hadn’t seen since the last El Niño episode during the winter of 2018/19. And of course, I drank from those crystal-clear island waters, headwaters alive and flowing at the base of island oak groves, lemonade berry, manzanita, and island hazardia.

Embracing the Island Loam

As visibility deteriorated into a misty night, I thought I found a decent route out of the last of my side canyons and up to the Montañon Ridge Trail. I crossed the steady flow of a creek and began scrambling up a steep canyon wall. Unfortunately, I picked a muddy track. 

I was still in shorts and trail shoes. I had my camera out the whole time, and my camera pack on my back. Suddenly, all the ground beneath my feet started to give way. I can only imagine what this must’ve looked like. It had to be comical. My left foot started to slide outward, and then my right foot started to go in the opposite direction. Before I knew it, I was doing the splits and descending quickly. So, I used my elbows to dig into the mud to stop my unwanted momentum. 

The local foxes got the message – avoid the mud

It was so gooey, I was now up to my wrists in mud, and there went my camera. It was caked in mud like some sort of face mask, but at least I stopped. Undeterred, I managed some decent footing and clawed my way out of the mud and into a rocky outcropping. I used the wet grasses to wipe myself and camera free of mud, mostly.

It would be another two hours to get back to the campground in Scorpion Canyon. The mud was so slick, it felt like I was on ice skates. Even the island foxes were trying to avoid it. I went down several more times slipping and sliding down the old ranch roads. The dewy fog persisted the entire way; visibility was 20 feet, maybe.

In just another few short weeks all this moisture would be in the rearview mirror. Temperatures will rise and the northwest winds will dry the island out. And as I’m paddling folks up the island and into one of those menacing headwinds, I’ll be looking back fondly on the winter that was, and all the mud still encrusted on my camera.


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