Back in September 2014, Peter Larramendy, a biologist for the California Institute of Environmental Studies, was conducting a stream survey on the north side of sweeping Santa Rosa Island. He was in the middle of surveying the overall hydrology of the windswept islet, including the inspection of streams, standing water and flow in the isle’s many canyons, when something entirely different caught his eye.
“I knew this particular canyon was a hot spot,” he said. “I went into the survey with the manifestation that we will find something interesting.”
What Larramendy happened upon that early fall day was the tip of an ancient mammoth tusk protruding out of a parched creekbed surrounded in mounds of crumbling shale. Since the mid-18th century the second largest island in the chain has proven to be a hotbed for archaeology, anthropology and paleontology.
“I looked to the left of the canyon wall,” recalled Larramendy. “It didn’t look normal. Then there was the curvature of a tusk.”
Larramendy took GPS coordinates and pictures and reported his find to the Channel Islands National Park (NPS). The NPS didn’t have the funds at the time to excavate, however, and would have to wait two long years before finally digging the mammoth skull out of the creekbed. At the time of discovery it was hoped that there wouldn’t be any substantial rainfall during that two-year period, which would enhance any soil instability.
“It’s a major project and expense to conduct such an excavation,” said retired park service archeologist Don Morris, who volunteered on the recent mammoth dig. “This is easily the most complete mammoth skull coming from the islands. I’m glad we were able to take our time.”
That’s saying something, considering that there are well over 150 sites devoted to mammoth remains across the chain, and that most of those are located on Santa Rosa Island. Mammoth remains were first reported on the northern Channel Islands in 1873 during the island’s ranching era. Their remains have been discovered on three of the four islets: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands. The most significant and complete pygmy mammoth skeleton was discovered in 1994, also on Santa Rosa. That specimen was discovered on the northeast end of the island, covered in a shifting sand dune. The sand prevented the bones from scattering and kept them intact. The skeleton was only missing a foot, a pair of vertebrae and a tusk. At the time of its death that pygmy mammoth was 50 years old. It now stands in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. A replica of that skeleton is also in the visitors center of the Channel Islands National Park headquarters located in the Ventura Harbor.
It never gets old
I’m beginning to lose count on how many times I’ve circumnavigated the islands in my kayak, especially Santa Rosa Island, but the most recent excursion I won’t forget any time soon. Last September, on the way out to Santa Rosa Island, there just happened to be an NPS archeologist on the same Island Packers ferry. The word was out; he and his team were onboard to dig up the most recent mammoth discovery, but supposedly its whereabouts were being kept under wraps.
The mammoth find was the furthest thing from my mind, though, while we concentrated on kayaking around the rugged, wind-whistling isle. After paddling around the backside of Santa Rosa, myself, Craig Fernandez and Danny Trudeau took advantage of relatively mild conditions, leaving Sandy Point on the western tip of the island, and crossed the 4-mile-wide San Miguel Passage. We made it to Cuyler Harbor just before dark and got some much-needed rest in the campground. At dawn we launched and circumnavigated San Miguel Island, something I hadn’t done since 1999.
The island was once again open to the public after being closed for two years, the U.S. Navy shutting it down in May 2014 due to live ordnance concerns, another head-scratcher. After reaching Crook Point in the late afternoon we crossed back over the San Miguel Passage with a steady northwest tailwind butting up against a pesky up-coast, southeast current, forcing the return paddle to Santa Rosa Island to be tedious to say the least.
Just before another epic sunset we camped on a little patch of sand up against a bluff. In the middle of the night a big high tide sloshed beneath our kayaks and lapped just a few feet from my damp tent. Fortunately we had tied the kayaks together and our tents didn’t get swamped by the encroaching tide.
The next morning we easily kayaked down the north side of the island and stopped at a particular canyon with a reliable water source. In the past there had always been water in the freshwater marsh at the bottom of the canyon, which is only about 100 feet from the ocean, but because it’s been so dry the marsh was void of any water. It was the first time I’d ever seen it empty, replaced by a thick layer of cracked mud and lifeless, brown reeds.
After hiking a little way up the canyon we were fortunate to find a gurgling spring offering enough water to fill a couple of our water bottles. Above the spring is a significant archeological and anthropological site. In 1959 Dr. Phil Orr discovered, in an eroding bluff, two femurs belonging to a man, the oldest human remains in North America, dating back to 13,200 years ago.
It turns out that this ancient American was a heck of a paddler, too. Somewhere during his journey along the mainland he made the decision to paddle across to what is now the Santa Barbara Channel, and to what was then Santa Rosae Island. He was able to locate what he needed to construct some sort of watercraft that was seaworthy enough to make his way successfully to the “super island” aka Santa Rosae Island.
We continued hiking up the canyon with the hope of finding more water. Another half mile up or so I spotted a bright-green camp shower erected just above us at the edge of the bluff. It appeared so out of place against the serpentine-shaped canyon that has also produced fossils of flightless geese and giant mice. Then we ran into yellow caution tape clinging to the creekbed and bluff like a tangled spider web. That’s when we saw someone donning a white hardhat, barely sticking his head out of a deep hole and digging in the chalky shale. Maybe another few seconds passed before I knew what we had stumbled into. Then I recognized the archeologist from the ferry four days earlier as he made his way toward us.
“I take it this is the mammoth site,” I said with a hint of sarcasm.
“Yeah, you can’t be here,” said the archeologist dryly.
“Fair enough,” I said. “We’re out of here.”
With that, we turned around and headed back down the canyon to our gear-laden kayaks. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, about the close proximity of the oldest human remains in North America and the most recent mammoth discovery. Had the two island inhabitants crossed paths with one another in the remote canyon or perhaps on top of a marine terrace?
Eventually the delicate mammoth skull and tusks were successfully removed from the creekbed, helicoptered to the pier at Bechers Bay at the southeast end of Santa Rosa, and from there it was boated to the mainland and the park service headquarters.
We continued down the island, paddling in calm conditions and specifically into one glassy, tranquil cove. It was one of those nooks and crannies on my crinkled, waterproof map that goes without a name, but it was certainly like no other cove I’ve seen on the windswept, craggy isle. There was no hint of a beach, no piles of cobble or sand between the toes. There was no flotsam of bleached-out driftwood or any gnarled clumps of giant bladder kelp riddled with squadrons of kelp flies. Instead the entire cove was fortified in nearly impenetrable eel grass. It looked as if huge bales of eel grass were placed there and spread out, gradually stacked upward toward the back end of the wave-battered bluff.
I landed my kayak only out of curiosity, while Craig and Danny elected to stay in theirs. Sinking to my knees with every step, I awkwardly clambered over the piles of squishy eel grass that were shoulder-high in some spots. Using their skinny pinchers to hang on to the gushy stuff were hundreds of pelagic red crabs clinging to life after a long journey from southerly waters. There was a creek barely dribbling down into the eel grass, and leaning against the face of the eroding bluff was a massive leg bone. It was nearly shoulder-high on me and I’m 6 feet tall, a Columbian mammoth maybe?
Columbian mammoths first arrived on the North American continent 100,000 years ago, and they lived on the Channel Islands when it was one mega island roughly 80,000 to 13,000 years ago. Scientists named the single island Santa Rosae, and the channel crossing back then was only 4 to 5 miles. Those shaggy herbivores that were roughly 14 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed in at 22 tons were possibly lured to the island by the smell of food. With their built-in snorkel, they easily made the swim across the channel to the mountainous islet.
Then, approximately 20,000 years ago, the climate warmed and the polar icecaps began to melt. It was the beginning of the end of the Ice Age, with sea levels eventually rising by nearly 400 feet. It’s how the Northern Channel Islands were formed and where Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands rest today.
It was then that those Columbian mammoths experienced something called dwarfism, with a long period of isolation and dwindling food sources forcing these massive herbivores to evolve into a pygmy species. What was once 14 feet tall at the shoulder then significantly shrank to 4 to 6 feet tall at the shoulder and about 2,000 pounds. Eventually pygmy mammoths were the largest land mammal to roam the volcanic archipelago and what are now also known as “the Galapagos Islands of the north” for their rich biodiversity.
Since the excavation there’s been a lot of speculation on what type of mammoth this might be. It could be that of a juvenile Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) or a Columbian morphing into a pygmy mammoth (Mammuthus exilis), wildlife remnants that survived during the Pleistocene epoch.
“The cranial is very fragile,” continued Morris, who worked for the park service for 16 years. “There’s only one other skull like it with tusks intact, which was discovered in Los Angeles.”
What’s been determined is the mammoth’s age. The proof was buried in the ground above and below where the skull and tusks were found. Radio carbon dates the layers of dirt surrounding the skull at roughly the same age as the oldest human remains in North America.
What hasn’t been determined yet is how this mammoth died. Environmental impacts could’ve come into play, or was it human influences? Was it the man who lived in or near this remote canyon who might have killed this mammoth? For a few thousand years before their extinction, mammoths and the first humans on the island coexisted, certainly crossing paths on the rolling marine terraces and in its narrow canyons.
“It is possible,” said Morris. “The question is wide open. Although there’s never been a credible kill site discovered on the islands.”
We kayaked past many remote canyons around Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands, several of them piquing our interest. What other remnants of Pleistocene megafauna lie encrusted in those winding canyons and eroding bluffs? We could easily spend a lifetime on the islands scouring each one. Perpetual northwest winds and north swells, however, always dictate how much access to the island there might be, always important factors to consider while paddling a kayak around the Channel Islands National Park.