An Island Adventure: 25 years as the Island Ranger on San Miguel Island

By: Tigran Nahabedian (Photo courtesy of Vahagn Nahabedian)

Buddy Bison and I took a trip on an Island Packers boat to San Miguel Island, the most remote island in Channel Islands National Park. As we passed the other four Channel Islands we saw a blue whale, hundreds of common dolphins and sea birds that call the Channel Islands their home. We made the trip to experience life as an island ranger and to interview Ranger Ian Williams who has spent the last 25 years working and living in this wonderful place.

After bringing our gear to the ranger station, Ian gathered us to train us about unexploded ordnance safety.  It is very important for all visitors and staff to stay on the trails and not pick up any objects on the island. This is important because the island used to be a Navy bombing range.

Daily duties of a San Miguel Island ranger start with raising the American flag at the ranger station, logging weather data, water usage and supply, posting a weather report for the visitors, cleaning and resupplying the restrooms, and interacting with the visitors in the campground. Later, there are ranger-guided hikes because visitors must hike with a ranger at all times on San Miguel Island. On the guided hikes, rangers use fox telemetry units to record data on the island fox. After the hikes, there are plenty of maintenance jobs on the island to be completed by the ranger. I cleared invasive plants, recovered old survey ribbon, tracked island fox and even got to document the location of historic artifacts.

Buddy and I were very lucky to visit at the same time that Betsy Lester was on the island. Betsy Lester spent her childhood on the island and you can read about it in her book San Miguel Island: My Childhood Memoir 1930-1942. She shared many great stories of her childhood with us, which is very special to me because it is rare to get the opportunity to meet people who have experienced the islands before they became a national park.

San Miguel Island is famous for its large seal and sea lion colonies that no photo can truly capture. I saw thousands of animals lying on the beaches. The abundant wildlife on and around the islands is what makes the Channel Islands truly unique.

There is no better person to talk about San Miguel Island than Ian Williams who has amazing knowledge!

What is your name?

My name is Ian Williams

What park do you work at and what is your job?

I work at Channel Islands National Park where I am the San Miguel Island Ranger

How long have you been working here?

I have been working here for 25 years

How long do you stay here?

I stay here for a week at a time so my schedule is I work nine days on and five days off with eight of those days here on the island working nine-hour days and then I go work an eight-hour day at headquarters, take five days off, and then come back out and do it all over again.

So, when not on the island, do you work on the mainland?

So, I have my headquarters day and a little bit of time on my transportation days before I go out or after I go back in when I catch up on projects, meet with people, pick up supplies and stuff like that.

What do you most enjoy about your job?

I enjoy the fact that it is an old time generalist ranger position that’s a true backcountry ranger job where I am living someplace that’s really remote, someplace that is really hard to get to. You know, when people come out here they really appreciate the fact that they made it all the way to San Miguel Island. I also enjoy that in my job I get to do a little bit of everything. I do the law enforcement. I get to lead hikes.  I work with researchers.  I do all the maintenance work.  It’s an old time jack of all trades ranger position.

What would you say is the hardest part of your job?

Ah, the hardest part is probably getting here. So, at San Miguel we fly out to get here. We charter an airplane from Channel Islands Aviation, but San Miguel is a pretty windy, foggy place and the weather doesn’t always cooperate with us. You may wait two or three days to get to or from the island. So I find it kind of refreshing in some ways at even the almighty federal government can’t come and go as it pleases. It’s up to nature whether we get here. In that respect, it’s the ultimate wilderness.

Why should a visitor come to San Miguel Island?

Oh, gosh there are lots of reasons it all depends on what their interests are. For someone that’s seeking solitude, it is an incredible place to come and camp. We have got one camper on the island right now who is the only camper in the campground. You know he’s got all of the beach at Cuyler Harbor all to himself, so the kind of solitude you can get here is really remarkable. It’s also an incredible place for wildlife, especially for seals and sea lions; it’s probably the only place where you find six different species of seals and sea lions. On a typical day, you can take a hike to Point Bennett and see three of them out there pupping and breeding during the season.

San Miguel is one of the least visited places in the park. How many visitors come every year?

Well, I figure we usually we get somewhere between one hundred and two hundred people that would stay in the campground (the last couple years obviously we haven’t because the island was closed for a while) and private boats and boaters that come out with Truth Aquatics on multiday trips. If we add it all together I figure we have got about a thousand individuals that might set foot on San Miguel in the course of a year.

What piece of advice would you give the next ranger who comes here and does this job?

Well, I would say keep your eyes on the future and stay in touch with the past. You know, we have had rangers on San Miguel for forty years now and we have got log books that go back all forty years, so read the old log books, get to know the people who came here before you, stay in touch with the traditions and know that to be a good ranger on San Miguel you have got to be a generalist.