Wednesday, October 12, 2016

CM93 Part 1: Getting to, Getting around, and Surviving Santa Rosa

This is the first of 3 blog entries I'm working on to talk about the trip to CM93 and Santa Rosa Island. I'm going to focus this entry about what it takes to get to the there, how to get around, and how to handle being on what is literally a desert island for a few days. Subsequent entries I'll focus on the specific details of how to operate radio from the Island, and then a little about the natural beauty that is the Channel Islands National Park. So, without further ado, here we go. 

If you're reading this blog, you probably already know what makes this place special to us in the AMSAT world..  but in case you don't, here's a quick recap. There are 488 grids that cover the land that makes up the lower 48 states of the USA. Most of them are pretty easy to get too, you just have to drive to them. Some of them are tougher, they're located in remote regions that require 4WD trails, hiking, or traveling to parts of the country with a distinct lack of people and services. 4 of the 488 grids are known as 'wet' grids, which are places you can't get to from the rest of the lower 48 without getting on a boat. EL58 (on the Mississippi Delta) and EL84 (The Dry Tortugas) are examples of this. So is DM02 (San Clemente Island) and <drumroll> CM93 on Santa Rosa Island. Since they require extra effort to get too, they are rather rarely heard. In the case of CM93, the last time it is believed to have been activated on Satellites, was 2011, when a Marine Mobile operator was thru the area, and before that is was the early 2000s when an expedition went to the Island. To further complicate matters, Santa Rosa Island as part of the Channel Islands National Park has had the rules changed somewhat since 2011, when the NPS took over 100% control of the Island from the Ranch which had previously owned it. All of these things add together to make CM93 one of the rarest grid squares out there. 

As our research determined, as of 2016 you have 3 options to get to Santa Rosa Island. First, Channel Islands Aviation does have permission to fly day trips out to Santa Rosa and back. They have a nice plane that will seat up to 8 passengers, and will run you $1100 dollars for the day. You can read more about it here.

You can also take your own boat. The Island is roughly 30 miles south of Santa Barbara California, or 70 mile west of Ventura, CA. If you've got your own boat, and happen to live in this area, you probably can skip over this part though, cause your means are better than mine.

The final option is to take a charter, which is what we opted for. Island Packers out of Ventura, CA makes runs to the Island and back every couple of days, for just under $100. It's about a 3 hour boat ride from Ventura Harbor to the Island, and it will take an hour to load and an hour to unload. But, it's reasonably priced, convenient, and a very professional run organization. You can read about Island Packers' trips to Santa Rosa here.

So, now to the logistics of the Island itself. First and foremost to remember, there are no public vehicles on the Island. The Park Service has a few trucks, and the University of California has a research station with a few ATVs, but for you the random person, your only option is to walk. You can bring your gear in a backpack (what we did) or you can use roller bags or 'beach carts' as well. If I lived local, and was making several dedicated trips to the Island a year, I would absolutely try one of these beach carts out. They looked pretty decent. 

This is a picture of what it looks like on approach to the Island. The boat will pull up to this giant pier, and you'll unload your gear. 

We had probably 60 people on the boat with us that were getting off at Santa Rosa. Probably 20 of them were day hikers (which is an option) and the rest were campers. The day hikers were allowed to disembark and head out without much delay. The boat arrived at the Island around 11AM and headed back to the mainland around 3PM. This meant you had 4 hours if you were just there for the day to walk around and explore. In theory, this is enough time to get off the boat, jog down to the grid line, do 1 or 2 strategically timed Satellite Passes, and run back - but serious coordination would be crucial to pulling an op like this off. 

As campers though, after unloading we had to hang tight and listen to some stuff by the rangers first. It probably took an hour, maybe a smidge more to actually get all the gear unloaded, and go thru the welcome messages and be turned loose on the Island. We kind of expected it, but obviously if you're gung ho to get moving.. every delay is torture. 

This is a map I made, based on the Satellite view of the parts of the Island we were hanging around in. Notice where the Pier is.. it's not actually in CM93. The gridline is 3/4 mile south of the Pier, roughly at the north end of the runway. The night we operated from the CM93/CM94 gridline, we were on the side of the road right there at north end of the runway and on the line exactly (per our GPS) so the map was fairly accurate. Also keep in the mind the only campground on the Island *is* in CM93, and is another 3/4 mile south of the gridline. This means that if you're planning on staying a few nights on the Island (basically the only option besides a few hour day trip via plane or boat) You have to carry all your gear at least 1.5 mi to the campground and back. 

Getting to the campground is nice easy flat road walking.. mostly... Once you turn right off the road near the intersection of the south end of the runway, you will enter some single track hiking that will take you over a rocky section of trail with a ~200' vertical climb. This could be tricky when wet, but wasn't bad when dry. Just be sure to take it slow and easy and watch the rocks sticking up. After the little climb the trail will level back out again, and then it's an easy hike on into the camp from there. As you can see in the picture above the campground is in a small valley with wind shelters at each campsite, and a toilet/shower house near the entrance. 

This is a picture of our wind shelter, and our gear. There was a critter proof metal box on the side that we kept all the food in, as well as some other stuff too we wanted out of the elements. Hooks on the wall to hang our packs, and a picnic table to eat and hang out on were a nice touch too. The bathrooms were a 50 yard walk, and had running (and hot!) water to use, and flush toilets. For being a 'backpacker' campground, the facilities were quite nice. They also have showers at the campground, but they were closed due to the drought conditions, as of September 2016. 

The two nights we spent at the campground were nice. It's where we kept the whisper lite stove for hot meals, and the tent and our gear for sleeping. We stowed the big packs and the pelican case there, but most of the time though, we were out and about exploring the Island. For example, Water Canyon Beach was was just on the other side of the runway, probably 1/2 mile walk from the campground. Several times during the weekend I went and jumped in the ocean to clean off, and to just say that I did. We also did the hike up to 'Black Mountain' on Saturday, which followed a well marked trail around 'Cherry Canyon' up to a road, and then on to the peak. The final day we did the hike to 'Lobo Canyon' (which I'll talk more about in entry 3) and getting there consisted of walking back to the Pier area, and then west another 3 miles to the entrance of the canyon. 

Another thing to keep in mind, the weather changes fast, and often. This is oceanic climate after all. The first night we were there the wind came up, and was gusting 35mph-40mph on a regular basis. Sand and dirt was whipped up, and everything was coated in a find layer of dust. We saw at least one other group's tent get collapsed by these winds.. and everything we had tried at one point or another to fly away. It finally died off about 3AM, but the strange nature of how and why it decided to gust and then calm down was a surprise to a guy like me from the midwestern US. The sun out on an island surrounded by water with no trees for shade was brutal as well. Wear lots of sunscreen and stick with long sleeved shirts and full pants if at all possible.  Sunday morning a large portion of the Island was covered in fog. This made finding our way around somewhat difficult. While the roads are good, and mostly well marked, there were a few confusing intersections we had to navigate in the fog on the way out to Lobo Canyon. The above picture is walking back from Lobo on Sunday at about noon.. we were nice and clear and sunny at 400' MSL, but down next to the ocean it was socked in with fog..  we went from 80°F and beautiful, to barely being able to see 100 feet in front of us. It was a stark contrast.

The boat ride home was about like the boat ride over. Our packs were lighter from having shed all the food, and everyone was in a hurry to get moving, so folks were efficient and working together well. You need to make absolutely sure you're there early, and have your gear packed though, cause the boat leaves on time. Do NOT be late. 

The key things to keep in mind, is you're on your own out there, and you're going to be walking.. a lot. In 3 days I recorded 32 miles of walking. It wasn't too bad, as I'd been preparing all summer for this, but if you're in an office job and not used to it you run the risk of damaging yourself. While there are other people and a few limited facilities, you've got to bring your own food.. your own shelter, and you have to carry water from designated points where it's available. You need to be prepared, both mentally, and physically to sustain the rigors of Santa Rosa Island. It is not a resort, it is the back country, and you need to be ready. That said, if you are, and you have a hankering to operate radios from a truly off the grid place, you'll be rewarded with the trip of a lifetime. 

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