January 10, 2016
Avalon to Blackjack
Miles: 14 + 2 to the trail. Probably closer to 17. But I told Hanie it was less.
The alarm rings at 4:55 alarm, the middle of the night for my vacation brain. I drag myself out of my cozy nest on the floor of a friend’s house in Long Beach and stuff my sleeping bag and pad back in my pack, luckily a task I can do on autopilot. In the dark. Today me and my best hiking friend Hanie, are going to start the Trans-Catalina trail: a forty-ish mile hike across the island “26 Miles across the sea.” It’s early January and we were looking for multi-day trip that didn’t involve snow. And preferably not rain either, but the weather is not looking good today. And neither is Hanie’s raging sinus infection.
Still, we are out the door on time, and I do a great job faking coherent conversation with the Uber driver (no problems getting a ride to the ferry even at this early hour). The Catalina Express terminal is bright and cheery and mostly deserted except for staff. We pick up tickets booked in advance, though I am not sure reservations are really necessary for the early sailing in the dead of winter. [PRO TIP: The ferry to Catalina is free on your Birthday].“You’re going camping,” challenges a bearded employee in a booth on the way to the boat. “Do you have any of those little fuel cans?” I tilt my head and say nothing, considering my response while doing my best to look confused. I have heard that fuel is not allowed on the ferry. I have also heard that you cannot buy backpacking fuel on the island, only the big green propane bottles for Coleman camp stoves. From reading trip reports, I was not expecting anyone to ask.
“Do you have any jet blue,” he prompts again? “What’s jet blue?” I reply, genuinely perplexed, no longer having to feign ignorance, and quite sure I did not accidentally pack a budget airline. “You’re good,” comes the reply. I continue walking toward the boat, considerably more awake, warm dinners saved on this blustery day. [PRO TIP: They had 8oz backpacking fuel canisters at the general store in Two Harbors in 2016 but I did not check in Avalon; call to confirm or be prepared to smuggle, you pirate!].
Only a handful of people are heading to the island this Sunday morning, after a week of storms. Just a few days ago, the boat had to turn back, unable to make the crossing. But today the seas are calm and cooperative, with only the tiniest waves past the breakwater. I stand on the outside deck waiting for sunrise, almost but not quite warm enough in my skirt and puffy jacket. The glow intensifying over the Pacific is disorienting, the angle of this bit of coast makes south feel west, and the sunrise seems to be in the completely wrong direction. I watch as the sky shifts from purple to yellow to pink, illuminating the snowy peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgornio behind Los Angeles. I hope this show of light through cracks in the clouds signals the end of The Weather. But when I turn toward the island, I see green hills disappearing into a solid mass of clouds. This will be interesting, I think. In Avalon we walk across the mostly deserted pier and still-sleeping town to the Atwater hotel to pick up our permit for Blackjack campground, as the Catalina Conservancy office won’t be open for another hour. We have to wait half an hour for the right person to help us, but the hiker-friendly staff offer us free coffee and tea that more than makes up for the inconvenience on this drizzly morning.Permit acquired, we venture the few blocks to Wriggley Road which winds over a hill to the official start a mile (or two) out of town. The first official trail miles wind steadily upwards on a dirt road. We make multiple clothing adjustments, struggling to keep up with the capricious weather. Soon we are in the clouds, nothing but damp whiteness all around, ocean and hilltops completely obscured, the road just ahead barely visible. At least the cool temperatures allow us to carry less water; no more than two liters each is more than enough for the day.
For a few brief moments the mists clear enough to show a scrap of blue sky, an inch of coastline, a distant horizon where steely grey ocean blends seamlessly into steely grey sky. But mostly we walk in the clouds, up and down hills mostly unseen, view-less miles made bearable by good company. We meet one couple hiking in the opposite direction, but otherwise see no one else on trail all day.
We stop for lunch seven official miles in, at the little gazebo (seats dotted with fox poop – watch where you sit!) where the Trans-Catalina trail meets the Hermit Gulch trail. This shortcut from Avalon is well worth considering if you want to shave five miles off a demanding first day. Especially in bad weather. Even on a good day, I am not sure what is is to be gained (other than elevation), skirting a half circle around town on steep jeep roads, unless you are a purist.
Three miles later, we reach a playground and picnic area near the Haypress Reservoir. A very scientific see-saw test concludes that my pack is slightly heavier. There’s tap water here too; I could have carried even less.
We see our first buffalo poo, stepping carefully around the brown mountains. And finally, the buffalo itself on a misty hillside, too close to the trail for comfort. Yes, buffalo. Or more accurately, American bison. Brought over for a Hollywood movie in the 1920s, and then left to fend for themselves. The bison turns its head turned and snorting disapproval at our approach. I pause. Stare too intently at the large beast. Take a few steps, hear another snort, and reconsider. “What would a thru-hiker do?” Asks Hanie. Keep walking, I smile. So we do. At trail mile 12 aches begin to set in, the sky turns five shades darker and the rain falls harder. Thick mud cakes our trail runners, squishing around the sides each step heavier than the last as we trudge up and down increasingly clay-slick hills. We reach the campsite in the last of the light and rush to set up the tent under an old oak in the pouring rain. I boil water for our dinners, which we eat inside listening to the fat drops hitting nylon inches above our head. The comfort of hot food courtesy of ‘jet blue,’ my morning confused face, and likely, assumptions about girls in skirts.
There’s cell tower on blackjack peak, just above. And I am appreciative of full service on this long, wet, dark evening. Sunset was at 5pm today. So I write this post, and browse the nothingness of facebook, until I am interrupted by creepy animal sounds uncomfortably close to the tent. Somewhere between a raptor cry and a bark.”OMG, what was that?” I ask, genuinely freaked out (despite my extensive solo-hiking in bear country experience). I search animal sound videos on YouTube, bald eagle, wild boar, before identifying the culprit and answering the question: what does the fox say? The rain, at least, has quieted down and the forecast promises a better tomorrow.