Posted by: James Wapotich | September 24, 2012

Trail Quest: Point Bennett

Although San Miguel Island is one of the smaller Channel Islands, just 14 square miles, and of the four islands off our coast is the most challenging to get to, it is also rich with natural history. Over 60,000 seals visit the island each year, and as with the other Channel Islands there are plants and animals found nowhere else in the world such as the San Miguel Island fox.

The easiest way to get to San Miguel Island is through Island Packers out of Ventura, which offers trips to the island from May to October. The boat ride can range from 3.5 to 4 hours and generally includes a stop at Santa Rosa Island to drop off passengers.

Because San Miguel does not enjoy the protective lee of the mainland it bears the full brunt of the winds and storms coming across the Pacific and so trips are often canceled due to conditions and crossings can be challenging particularly across San Miguel Passage.

It’s interesting to consider that before the arrival of the Spanish, the Chumash, who lived on the islands as far back as 11,000-13,000 years ago, regularly traveled and traded between the islands and the mainland. And yet the use of tomols, or wooden plank canoes that the Chumash made, dates back only 1500 years, and so prior to that they were using small boats made of tule reeds to cross the channel and travel between the islands.

At its closest San Miguel is 26 miles from the mainland, and it is because of this isolation as well as its rustic accommodations that San Miguel is known as the backcountry of the islands.

And while Island Packers does offer a couple day trips to San Miguel the best way to see the island is by camping there. A typical stay is four days and requires that one bring their own water and carry all of their gear a half mile from the landing to the campground.

There are three main trails on the island, and although the National Parks Service manages the island, San Miguel is still owned by the Navy which stipulates that a ranger accompany visitors hiking on the island. The exception is along the beach at Cuyler Harbor and the trail from the harbor to the campground and ranger station.

The good news is that both the ranger Ian Williams, who’s been there for 20 years, and George Roberts, a volunteer with the National Parks Service, who alternates with Mr. Williams in leading the hikes, are both exceedingly knowledgable about the island and its natural history.

The hike to Point Bennett is the longest of the three hikes, about 14 miles round trip and leads to the westernmost point on the island and is usually offered on the second day.

The hike starts from the campground, continues past the ruins of the Lester Ranch, and the Ranger Station, and climbs to the top of San Miguel Hill which is a mere 831 feet high and is the tallest point on the island. The other high point on the island is Green Mountain at 817 feet, neither offer much shelter from the wind.

The trail then descends the western side of San Miguel Hill towards Green Mountain and traverses what is known as Sand Blast Pass. At one time there were as many as 6,000 sheep on San Miguel and they more or less grazed it down to sand. Old ariel photos of San Miguel show an island raked by lines of wind blown sand crossing the island. When the Navy took possession of the island in 1942, the sheep were removed and the island has been recovering since.

At about the 1.75-mile mark the trail arrives at the turn off for the Caliche Forest, here the side trail continues through non-native ice plant, wild grasses and bush lupine for another quarter mile to the exposed Caliche Forest.

With the topsoil blown away from lack of ground cover, as a result of overgrazing, this older strata was revealed. Caliche is formed when calcium carbonate leeched from the soil is mixed with other materials and is slowly deposited and cemented over the roots and trunks of the plants growing there. And so here one can see castings of ancient pines and cypresses from a time when such trees grew on the island.

Hikers can opt to return to camp from the Caliche Forest for a shorter hike of about 4 miles roundtrip. From here the trail to Point Bennett climbs to the top of Green Mountain, before then descending down towards the western end of the island.

If one is fortunate they may have a chance to see the elusive San Miguel Island fox. The Channel Island fox is found on six of the eight channel islands is related to the mainland grey fox. It is thought to have “rafted” over to the islands off our coast on driftwood, carried by the currents when the sea level was lower; archeological evidence suggests that the fox was then brought by native people to Santa Catalina, San Clemente and San Nicholas from the other islands. The fox is not found on Anacapa or Santa Barbara Islands.

In late 1990s the island fox saw a dramatic decline in its numbers, it was first thought that this might be the natural ebb and flow of their population, but further research showed that they were actually being preyed on by golden eagles. It turns out that a combination of factors were at work. One of the remnants of the ranching era was the presence of wild pigs on Santa Cruz Island, whose piglets were easy prey for golden eagles. With the decline of the resident bald eagles from the effects of DDT, which do not prey on the foxes, and the increased competition on the mainland combined with the availability of prey, the golden eagles were drawn to the islands.

At their lowest point the foxes had been reduced to 95% of their original population and in order to ensure their survival, a recovery program we set in motion that included captive breeding of the remaining foxes. The feral pigs were eliminated on Santa Cruz, the golden eagles relocated, and bald eagles were reintroduced. And in 2004 the first foxes were released back into the wild.

The foxes on San Miguel now number 300-400, comparable to their earlier numbers. Each year a census is taken on the island to determine the number and health of the foxes. Censuses are also conducted for the same purpose with the island deer mice and two species of lizards found on the island.

At about the 5-mile mark the trail arrives at what’s labeled on the map as a dry lake bed. In reality it’s a large vernal pool that occasionally fills completely with rain water.

It’s also here that one finds the second runway on San Miguel, this one used to bring in personnel and supplies for the field station at Point Bennett.

From here the trail follows the road from the runway to the field station. Just past the field station the trail continues down towards Point Bennett and the largest elephant seal rookery in the world.

During the 19th century elephants seals were hunted to the brink of extinction, their numbers dramatically reduced. In 1930 elephant seals returned to San Miguel and their numbers have been growing exponentially.

Here one may also find, California sea lions, northern fur seals, Guadalupe fur seals, and harbor seals all making use of the beach as a haul out for sunning themselves to regulate of their body temperature, mating, nursing, napping, sparring and generally carrying on.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 24th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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