Kayaking San Miguel Island

The Rewards of Visiting a Seldom-Seen Land By Sea


I was anxious to kayak to San Miguel Island, where more seals and sea lions bark and bellow than anywhere else in North America, where ancient pygmy mammoths once roamed, and where the seafaring Chumash Indians thrived for thousands of years. The last two times I contemplated kayaking over to San Miguel Island, stiff northwest winds stymied my approach. The island wasn’t going anywhere, I reasoned. Next time. Now here we were: Craig Fernandez, Danny Trudeau, and I, staring across at the windswept isle last fall.

“Now is a good time,” I said. “If it looks good, you go. You don’t wait until early tomorrow morning. Conditions could diminish by then.”

But I wasn’t feeling enthusiasm for what was only a four-mile crossing to Cuyler Harbor. Why was I so anxious? For one, it’s not easy getting there, and when paddling conditions are mild, you have to take advantage. For another, I’d only circumnavigated the isle once before, back in 2000. The last reason was the island had recently reopened on May 17, 2016, after a two-year shutdown by the U.S. Navy, citing leftover live ordnance from WWII.

I never had any fear of stepping on a decrepit bomb on the scenic islet anyway, and now, to a certain extent, that potential has diminished. The Navy expressed concerns over unexploded ordnance on San Miguel Island — a bombing range during WWII through the 1970s — and conducted a thorough sweep of high-use areas. The 14-square-mile isle endured the Navy’s survey, which covered a mere one percent of the total area.

By Chuck Graham

It’s an island worth protecting. San Miguel is home to more than 100,000 seals and sea lions that use the island to breed and…

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