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Return of the Natives: Paddling and Hiking Channel Islands’ Lost Gem

After nearly two centuries of ecological havoc wreaked by invasive species, the gem of Channel Islands National Park is becoming a paradise again. ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Watch a video and see two photo galleries from the island.

The origins of Santa Cruz’s eco-rampage can be traced back to 1839, when Spanish diplomat Andres Castillero moved onto the island and subsequently built one of the biggest sheep ranches in California. Docile farm pigs, originally brought here for food, broke through their fence lines and escaped into the wild. Once on the loose, they became a menace—pretty much overnight. "Feral pigs are devastating," Babcock tells me. "It only takes two years for them to turn from a fat, pink farm pig to fearless, longhaired animals with tusks that can pierce metal."

That a tame porker with a future no brighter than the glint from a butcher’s cleaver can go completely primal seems pretty inspiring in a weird way. I can be soft and pink myself from time to time, but I like to think I’d harden up if left to fend for myself, just like those rampaging pigs.

That’s not to say I’d like to take on well-armed conservationists intent on restoring order. "We did triage on the island," says Rachel Wolstenholme, when I meet her on my third day, at Prisoners Harbor, a 3.5-mile hike from Del Norte. Wolstenholme is the island restoration manager for The Nature Conservancy, and she’s accompanying me on a four-mile out-and-back on the Pelican Bay Trail, from Prisoners to a pristine arc of white sand.

The path crosses Nature Conservancy land, and a group of volunteers who’d come to pull invasive weeds for the weekend wave hello as we pass. We cover the rolling terrain at a decent clip, dropping into steep drainages, climbing tight switchbacks, and finally rising onto a grassy plain where we head off-trail toward stunning yellow blooms. Wolstenholme graciously ignores my bad pig jokes on the way.

The conservancy started its island overhaul in 2002. "We bred island fox and bald eagles in captivity while trapping the golden eagles and transporting them to Northern California," explains Wolstenholme. And they started getting rid of the pigs, too. Unlike the feral sheep that also once roamed here, the pigs couldn’t be trapped and shipped elsewhere. State regulations forbade it because of their potential to spread disease. So TNC hired a New Zealand company called ProHunt to "dispatch" the pigs, fencing the island into five sections and shooting them from helicopter and on foot. By the end of ProHunt’s work, there were enough dead pigs to feed an army.

"There was a lot of bacon," Wolstenholme says self-consciously. The carcasses fed hunters and other islanders, and TNC used some to feed bald eagle chicks. But most decomposed and were recycled into the ecosystem.

With the pigs gone, native plants are springing back to life. The coreopsis bloom, the biggest in a century, is such a bright electric yellow that you can see the biggest patches from the mainland. On top of that, Wolstenholme says bald eagles are nesting here for the first time in more than 50 years, and the island fox has rebounded, its population now topping 400. The island is in full rebirth; it just needed a little tough love.

As I hike back to the pier to wait for the ferry, I recall something Babcock said when I first arrived. I’d asked him why there were so few visitors; the island seemed so empty. "No locals ever come out here," he said. "They say there’s nothing out here. Well, yeah! That’s the point."

I’d argue that there’s plenty out here. Miles of rugged shoreline, trails lacking only hikers, secluded campsites galore, and stunning island wildlife—there’s simply nothing that doesn’t belong.

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