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  • Brian Johnson

Catalina Island: Hiking the Trans Catalina Trail - Part 2


This was supposed to be one of the easier days of our five days of hiking. Only 5.3 miles, although with a steep 1200 foot climb. Oh brother.

We had a leisurely breakfast and good coffee on the patio outside the general store at Two Harbors before setting out. It was another warm, sunny day with just a couple of white puffy clouds in a blue sky. The trail began climbing steeply soon after we left Two Harbors. Within a few minutes we saw our first buffalo of the trip, grazing peacefully as we passed. As we climbed into the highlands it seemed like all of Catalina unfolded below as, with views of the ocean on both sides of the island. The trail climbed relentlessly, with no switchbacks. After an hour or so we had climbed 1100 feet and stopped at a scenic point to take a break. After soaking in some sun and almost drifting off Ben roused me and we continued on. Ben set a punishing pace, with his long strides chewing up the yards. We soon reached the high point of the day, although distressingly we had another stretch of ups and downs to do before finally descending steeply to Little Harbor Campground. Our camp site was in Shark Harbor, up and over the rocks and away from the main camp. It was another beautiful little private beach set in a secluded harbor ringed with rock, and our camp site was right on the beach.

I’m not sure what hurt the most: my feet, my legs, my shoulders, or my pride. Hubris, thy name is Brian. I had come on this trip with illusions of at least somewhat keeping up with Ben. I mean, I work out on my elliptical every morning and walk 2 or 3 miles at a brisk pace every evening, and I have a fairly active job. It’s not enough. I’d stop to take a picture for a few seconds and he’d be another ten yards ahead. Not that taking pictures was why I couldn’t keep up. He outpaced me easily even when I didn’t stop to take pictures. I struggled with the steep climb. If you look at the pictures I took of Ben out in front of me and measure the distance between us I think you’ll find it comes to almost exactly…34 years. And tomorrow is supposed to be longer and higher. You know it’s bad when I start hearing the Cheri question whisper in my brain.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be fine. I’ll do the long hike and climb the big climb. I just won’t keep up with Ben, and that doesn’t seem right. I know it’s all part of the grand plan of life, but it’s not part of my plan. I object.

I had tucked a couple of cans of beer in my pack, and it was a nice treat to have these as we ate our chicken and dumplings dinner while watching the sun set. All my aches and pains eased, a little. We were facing the open ocean on this side of the island, and after darkness fell the chill ocean breeze made it too cold to stay out. We both retired to our warm sleeping bags, Ben into the tent and me in the open looking out at the water. It was a clear black night and I lay snuggled down into my sleeping bag as I watched the stars pop into view as the moon sank into the ocean.

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We broke camp at ten o’clock, after a fortifying breakfast of freeze dried diner deluxe eggs and hot coffee. I had a hard time getting moving and needed the sun to warm my bones a bit after a cold night facing the ocean. Before we left we were treated to the sight of a buffalo captured in silhouette profile high on the bluff over the ocean. I suspect that seeing buffalo and ocean in the same scene is a once in a lifetime view, and I savored the moment.

Like yesterday, the trail began climbing steeply soon after leaving camp. We climbed up and up, into the mountainous interior of the island. The day was sunny and clear again, and the views out over mountain and ocean were spectacular. After a grueling hike we made our immediate destination, the aptly named Island in the Sky airport, where we took a long break for a late lunch at the DC 3 Grill.

The tiny airport is one of those surprising little places one sometimes comes across if one travels enough. Situated at an elevation of 1600 feet, and accessed only by dirt road, it afforded views all around out over the mountains down to the ocean. A handful of small single engine planes and a helicopter dotted the tarmac. Since we only had a couple of miles to go to camp, and thought we had finished the toughest part of the hike, we lingered on the patio for a long time while we charged our phones. They didn’t have beer, but the cold root beer was good enough for me. The buffalo tacos were delicious.

We eventually continued our hike, immediately dropping 400 feet. The last mile to camp involved climbing that 400 feet back, with a little added up and down, over rough trail. Ben and I agreed it was the toughest mile of the trip, which we weren’t expecting, and we were dripping sweat by the time we made it to Black Jack Campground. We had hiked 8.7 miles with a total elevation gain of over 2700 feet.

The campground was surprisingly full, and most of the ten sites ended up being occupied. It is a day’s hike from Avalon, so I guess people were getting a Friday start to a weekend of hiking. It was the only camp we stayed at without a view of the ocean, but the views of  the mountainous interior were nice, and we slept among trees for the first time. It was also cold when the sun went down, and we were tired, so we retired early. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t keep up with Ben, but I didn’t keep him waiting too long. The good news is that my feet hurt so bad I hardly notice my other aches and pains.

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We left camp about 9:15 and set out for our last day on the trail. Hot showers and cold beer were eleven miles away in Avalon. Since we were at about 1600 feet elevation and Avalon was at sea level, the trail had to go mostly downhill, right? Sure it did, eventually. After about 7 miles of up and downs which involved something like 1400 feet of elevation gain, we finally hit a point where it was all downhill.

The several miles afforded constant ocean views as we descended, and sailboats dotted the water under blue skies. After completing most of the climbing part we stopped for lunch and rested my aching feet for the downhill. We made good time and we’re hiking into the town of Avalon by 3:30. After a short siesta and hot showers we headed out for dinner. The waterfront was busy on a Saturday night, even though a number of places were closed in the off season. After looking forlornly through the window of the closed Avalon Brewery we visited the nearby Cantina where Ben treated me to a celebratory shot of Don Julio and a Negra Modelo. Then I treated him to dinner at the harbor side Bluewater Grill. He had the blackened tuna and I had blackened swordfish with mango salsa and chipotle rice. The food was amazing, and we washed it down with cold beer.

Our original plan was to continue our night out, but the long day, good meal and beer had worn us down so we headed back to the hotel. I am in bed at ten o’clock, which is still the latest we have been up the entire trip. Tomorrow we catch the ferry back to Long Beach and a hotel night by the airport before heading home to see all the snow you people have been playing in. I think it’s supposed to be 75 in Long Beach tomorrow. It would be hard to come home, except that I miss my honey.

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Sunday/Wrap Up:

Before checking out of our hotel we walked down to the harbor and had breakfast outside on the Avalon pier, trying to enjoy as much of the sunshine as possible before flying home to the snow tomorrow. If you’ve read along all week you’re probably tired of seeing me write that the weather is sunny and warm, but I sure haven’t tired of writing it. After breakfast we explored the waterfront a bit before heading back to pick up luggage in plenty of time to make the 11:50 am ferry. Avalon is a quaint little beach town with a beautiful harbor area and lots of shops, restaurants, and bars. Definitely a place I would like to bring Lynn to some time. It’s pretty quiet now in the off season, but I imagine it’s hopping during summer.

After arriving back in Long Beach we took an Uber out to our hotel by the airport, where they kindly let us check into our room early. After spending some time researching how we wanted to spend the rest of the day, we took another Uber back to the waterfront and settled into the outdoor deck at Ballast Point Brewing for beer and chips and guacamole. It was an absolutely gorgeous 75 degree day, and the place was jammed with people partaking of the libations and watching the sailboats on the harbor. After enjoying an extended happy hour we walked back along the waterfront until we found a nice little Mexican restaurant with an outdoor patio where we enjoyed some excellent tacos while darkness fell, then took another Uber back to our hotel for an early night before tomorrow’s flight home.

Catalina Island has been a unique adventure for us. The camping part has been almost luxe, with amazing views, picnic tables, enclosed pit toilets, and potable drinking water saving us from hunting and filtering like we’re accustomed to, not to mention a couple of nights spent within walking distance of a bar. The hiking part, on the other hand, I would describe as strenuous, with the entire trail being a series of almost continuous ups and downs. The 38.5 mile long trail featured 8600 feet of elevation gain, and since the trail starts and ends at sea level, also meant 8600 feet of downhill, which makes for a different kind of pain point. For a frame of reference, it’s almost like hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and then back up. And then doing it all again.

The flora and fauna of Catalina are also unique. I suspect it’s the only place in the world where you can see palm trees and cactus, sea lions and buffalo, all in the same place. I suspect part of that uniqueness is due to Catalina being an oceanic island rather than a continental island. Unlike many coastal islands, Catalina was never part of a mainland which was then cut off. It arose out of the ocean due to tectonic activity and has never been connected to a mainland.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also comment on the island’s buffalo before signing off. The current herd traces back to a group of 14 animals brought to Catalina in 1924 to serve as props for a silent movie western, The Thundering Herd, being shot on the island. When filming wrapped it was too difficult to round up the animals and they were simply left behind. The herd eventually grew to 600 animals, possibly supplemented by a handful of later additions. The herd grew too large to be sustained by the island’s ecosystem and was eventually culled to about 150 animals. Today the herd is managed by the Catalina Island Nature Conservancy, which owns about 90% of the island.

This concludes another Walking Man Adventure. Thank you to those of you who have followed along on our weeklong adventure. Always remember that it’s not about how far you walk, or how fast you walk; the thing is just to keep walking.

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