Happy Place Travels

California Candy and Bite-Sized Trouble on Santa Cruz Island

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Story by Justin “Scrappers” Morrison

Most national parks have big hot geysers, giant waterfalls, thousand-year-old trees or other majestic things like mountains. The Channel Islands National Park—off the Southern California coast—has tiny foxes.

Our crew for this quick trip has all dwelled in California for most of our lives, but none of us had ever been to these magical islands. It’s crazy to think a national park this unique is so close to Los Angeles. Most Californians likely overlook it because you can’t just drive up and park there. We hopped an hour-long boat ride from Ventura, stopping only to gaze at dashing dolphins and breaching blue whales.

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Our campsite was only $15, and we reserved it a week before pitching our tents. Most car campers around the state have to book campsites months in advance and pay up to $60/night for a spot that’s more of an RV parking lot than a campground.

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We hiked and explored the dusty trails snaking their way out of camp and up to epic lookouts. We smelled flowers and climbed trees. All kinds of dumb fun.

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But, let’s back to the real stars… the foxes. All day long they roam the beach and campgrounds looking for cute, bite-sized trouble to get into. Existing nowhere else on Earth, island foxes were standing on the edge of extinction not long ago, when their numbers dropped below 100. Even though they’re snack-sized, these foxes (Urocyon littoralis) are the largest native animals in the Channel Islands. For centuries, the only critter bigger than them were the bald eagles, who preferred to snack on the abundance of endemic fish, not these cuddly foxes. When the island’s bald eagle populations died off due to DDT chemical insecticides, the fox-snacking golden eagle moved in. Golden eagles snacked so hard on the foxes that the foxes were added to the endangered species list in 2004.

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Thank goodness for the hard-working biologists and volunteers who cleaned up the DDT, relocated the golden eagles and reintroduced the bald eagles—restoring the ecological balance of things. By 2016, island fox numbers rose back up thanks to a captive breeding program. They became the fastest critter to be added and removed from the endangered species list.

Today’s island foxes are legally listed as “near threatened,” but I think their legal status should be “damn cute.” Every trail we wandered had a fox running along it, just teasing you like a sidewalk cat who wants to be picked up. While I got water from the campground spigot, a fox licked from the puddle. I could not resist reaching down and petting its soft fur.

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When we weren’t playing chase with tiny foxes, we sea kayaked the surrounding waters and roamed the flower-filled hills. Water slapped the brown agates on the beach til they were wet and shiny. The rocks reminded me of those root beer bottle gummy candies. I skipped rocks shaped like perfect York peppermint patties. The vivid California poppies reminded me of that orange crunchy stuff inside a Butterfinger candy bar. I think everything in nature can be compared to some kind of colorful candy.

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Paddling the collapsible kayaks we toted in, Renee and Sera towed me, Julie and Alex around the bay in a fun train of floaties. My floaty was the size of a toilet seat, so I had to swim along to be the caboose. A sea lion popped up and snarled like a protective dog. I stopped being the caboose and swam past everyone to the dock.

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The Channel Islands are super close to all the hustle and bustle of Southern California, but the journey to get there and its unspoiled majesty makes you feel worlds away. My new favorite happy place is an island full of tiny foxes.

About the author: Born in the deep northern woods of Vancouver Island, Canada, and raised in the foothills of Los Angeles County, Justin “Scrappers” Morrison has spent a lot of his life beyond the point where the sidewalks end. He enjoys climbing trees, howling at the moon, making art, skinny dipping and happy camping. He is the main helper at Stay Wild Magazine.