Catalina Day 4: The High Road

January 13, 2016
Parson’s Landing to Two Harbors
Miles: 8

I roll over and poke my head out of the tent just in time to see the sky glow pink with sunrise. I am relieved to see that the ocean has stayed mostly in its place through the night. No need to test the limits of the crumbling seam tape on my aging tent’s bathtub floor. Still in my sleeping bag, I lean out a little further and boil water for breakfast in bed. I decide to relieve Hanie of some freeze dried yakisoba she’s carried all this way but left untouched. It’s terrible. Note to self: bring real food on short trips.DSC06055Hanie has decided to take the road back to town, content with seeing what we’ve seen, still feeling a bit under the weather. I think she also wants to test out solo hiking before hitting the Camino de Santiago later this spring. I will be looping back to town on the high route, climbing back up to the ridges for another dose of stunning views.

I wander lost a bit looking for the right trail since I’ve decided to skip the last out and back to Starlight Beach, the true end of the Trans-Catalina Trail. I’ve heard it’s anti-climactic, not nearly as nice as Parson’s Landing. I find the correct path, and am soon suffering the consequences. The ridge looms 1750 feet above the beach, and most of this elevation is gained in a single mile of trail. I tackle what is rumored to be an exceptionally steep – even by Catalina standards –  fence line trail in reverse, each step barely in front of the last. There are several stretches where I could have easily used my hands if they weren’t holding trekking poles. Hanie would have hated this, I muse, as I attempt to giggle while gasping for oxygen and instead choke on my own laughter.  It’s always impossible to really show how steep the grade is, but with that in mind consider the following:DSC06065

DSC06075After a few demoralizing false summits, I am back up in the sky. And, as always, on this captivating island, the views are so worth it. The ochre earth, saturated with recent rains, so bright against the deep blue seas. And finally, I have found a bit of island devoid of tire tracks. A sign reminds me that Starlight Beach is only 3.5 miles away. But it’s not really in my plans. I stop to reconsider, but do not want to tease the ferry – it’s Wednesday and the next boat doesn’t leave Two Harbors until Friday. No need to create a stressful day by power hiking an extra 7 miles with a deadline. Besides, I have nothing to prove (I lie to myself) so this is a good challenge in choosing fun over miles [Update: a year later I regret not doing those last miles. Darn purist ethics or ego or both].DSC06078After a few hours of ups and downs, the trail weaves its way back down to sea level, passing through a public works yard and back to town. I find Hanie at the beach. She seems surprised to see me, assuming I would have caved and added those extra miles instead of coming straight back. Hanie ended up walking with the dude from the beach.  His GPS conforming that the distance by road is closer to 8 miles, the same as by trail. The many signs and mile markers, while reassuring do not feel particularly accurate here.DSC06084 Though the trail is officially 37 miles end to end, we’ve manage to log 43 miles without even tagging the far shore of the island. I nap on the beach in the winter sun, rolled up in the tent against the ocean breeze, food bag and ziplocks strewn about. “That was very hikertrash” declares Hanie when I wake. 

On the ferry ride back to Long Beach, a friendly long-time local answers forty miles of accumulated questions, topped off with bonus stories aplenty. Hanie’s veterinary background makes for easy conversation with a live-off-the-land local. We learn that the many fences were built to assist in managing (read: culling) an out of control population of wild goats and pigs. The first attempt, you see, at machine guns slaughter via helicopter was not entirely successful. So they divided the island into quadrants, which were then meticulously  walked by teams that shot everything in sight. Oh, island life. It’s so gentle and peaceful. Less distressingly, we also learn that the bison are, ironically, one the the genetically purest populations. The original prairie herds where they originated  have since mixed with cattle. So now there’s an exchange program, whereby SoCal bison are deposited into South Dakota winter, and left to puzzle the mystery of the cold white stuff on the ground.

The ferry makes a stop in Avalon, and the sun sets as beautifully as it rose four days ago. A fitting end to a pretty trip with eventful skies.DSC06094


Trans-Catalina 3: Beach Day

January 12, 2016
Two Harbors to Parson’s Landing
Miles: 6.5 (more like 8)

We linger over breakfast at the lodge perched on the hill above the harbor. I pocket a tea bag, banana, hard boiled eggs for second breakfast, feeling quite please that we traded up our campsite for some luxury. Heading back through town we pick up keys for the locker at Parson’s landing, where, for an extra fee, water and firewood have been stashed for us. Hanie buys a can of cat food to feed the feral cats living under the restaurant. DSC06004Despite the perfect blue sky, between Hanie’s sinus infection and rumor of more steep trail still slick from all the rain, we opt to take the road (we can loop back to town via the trail tomorrow, as you must return to Two Harbors to catch the ferry out). The dirt road is cut out of the hillsides a hundred feet or so above the shore. It is mostly flat, the slight ups and downs are hardly noticeable. Despite the clear coastal views and flat terrain, the alleged six and a half miles drag on and on. The road snakes around cove after cove, outlining countless folds in the shoreline. Each inlet on this side is home to a yacht club or summer camp. Little cabins and rows of colorful kayaks line the shores, some fancier than others. But each has row after row of floats for mooring boats that hint at the massive crowds that must flock here in warmer seasons. DSC06016

DSC06017But today we see no one. No humans at least. There is a massive bison right on the road passing through the scout camp. It looks as big as the tent cabin frames, and is definitely more solid.

Finally, beach is in view, a length of sandy shore stretched between rocky cliffs. I collect our wood and water without trouble (there’s no other fresh water here, so you have to pack your own or pay to have it delivered). The campsite site we’ve reserved, however, is already in the shade at 1:30pm in January. It’s a private cove, and would be the most desirable spot in summer months, but right now it is in danger of being cut off by the high tide. DSC06020We park ourselves in the still sunny site 2 for the moment to nap and chill and look for beach treasures. There are rumors of semi-precious amethyst and opal along this shore, but my searches result in other kinds of gems: an animal skull, vertebrae and a massive green abalone shell. I keep one eye on the sea as occasional set of extra large waves come crashing in with the still-rising tide. DSC06029As the sun starts to sink, I check out the other sites: all of three and parts of four and five clearly sit below the wet-dry border of the winter high tide line. Seaweed is liberally scattered disconcertingly high above the beach, picnic tables washed askew. We watch the waves crash high up the cliffs at the east end of the beach before electing to move our tent over to site 7 seems like highest ground [TAKE NOTE: winter hikers!]

As we wander the shore, our gear comes under attack from crows. One flies off with my ziplock bag of maps, depositing it halfway down the beach after concluding the paper printouts are not food after all. I run after the map bag, racing to catch it before it washes out to sea. Another, or maybe the same, smart culprit, has unzipped closed pack pockets and attacked Hanie’s roll of toilet paper. They seem to be going after anything in a ziplock, so I move the food to the security of the tent.DSC06044 In the meantime, another hiker has arrived. A solo-hiking dude on the island just for one night. As we agree to combine our (rather skimpy) bundles of firewood for an evening fire, the crows go after his food, taking off with an entire cliff bar, package and all. The three of us (minus the crow) eat dinner together, Hanie and I shooting each other amused looks as hiker-dude pulls items out of his pack over the course of the evening. Frying pan! Lanterns! Six raw chicken breasts! Glow sticks! A mostly full bottle of fireball whiskey! (which he offers to share and I add to my hot chocolate). Then there’s a heavy hatchet which he makes a manly production of using to chop large sticks pulled from the bushes. Having learned that he doesn’t go camping often, I graciously concede the manly duty of starting the communal campfire. He’s carted that hatchet all this way, after all. I watch him struggle for a while until it seems polite to step in. What can I say? My parents let me play with matches.

Hanie takes her cold to bed, and I stay up chatting by the fire a few more hours, watching a thin smile of moon and bright stars until wisps of cloud move in. Then I fall asleep in the tent as the ocean roars nearby, but hopefully not too close.


Trans-Catalina 2: Sky to Sea to Sea

January 11, 2016
Blackjack to Two-Harbors
Miles: 12.5

I wake dry and toasty warm to sun shining on the tent. “The sun!” I say to Hanie who is already awake and has already noticed. We take advantage of the picnic table to dry out gear before heading out. Since we arrived in the dark, it takes us a few minutes to find the trail again [Hint: it’s the super obvious road leading uphill from the central campsite area].

The trail soon departs from the road, plunging into a swampy canyon. The rain has left its mark in rivulets along the trail and large washed out streaks on nearby hillsides. The feeling of PUDs (Pointless Ups and Downs) continues, as we head back out of the canyon up toward the airport in the sky. At the airport I eat terribly runny ‘fried’ eggs. I do not recommend deviating from the limited menu, even for allergy reasons.

The five miles from the airport down to the beach are (and stay) our least favorite on the island. The trail is the dirt road again. Steeper enough that my knees complain, and with too much infrastructure in view. The occasional truck cruises by, making me wonder why we are walking in the first place. Our destination is in clear view, but getting there seems to take forever.

Little Harbor is worth the effort. It’s just us and the super cute endemic Catalina foxes (no longer making creepy noises in the night).

The beach is so perfect, I contemplate staying. Instead, we follow the trail until we are walking the ridge line high above the coast. Finally, the first class views I had been expecting, with ocean on both sides and all to ourselves.

So we walk up the big hill, laughing at last nights’ struggles (definitely type II fun), noting the contrast. There’s a stunning sunset lighting land and water near and far. Burning orange and magenta to the west, pink and purple glow toward the mainland. We spend considerable time discussing whether we are idiots or badasses for hiking through yesterday’s rain, before caving in to the luxury of the historic Banning House Lodge for the night, proving that we are neither.

We have dinner at the bar that’s the only game in town on a Monday night in January. The tacos are satisfying and the staff incredibly helpful. No need to carry excess food, when there are so many other opportunities for eating. The store, though closed earlier than posted. But a woman still working there kindly lets us in so Hanie can buy some meds. We take the shuttle back up the hill to the lodge, too lazy to walk even a half mile that doesn’t count, and sink into a comfy bed.

Trans-Catalina 1: Bison in the Mist

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].IMG_5386“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. IMG_5409In 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.DSC05919Permit 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.DSC05931

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. DSC05957At 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.IMG_5415