Friday, July 27, 2007


I spent Tuesday and Wednesday backpacking on Catalina Island. I caught a boat out of San Pedro early on Tuesday morning to the Two Harbors area of the island, and managed to pick up my permits and hit the trail by 9:30.
The trails aren't well marked, and i wasn't sure about the road i picked up out of Two Harbors. I was fairly sure it was what they call the Banner Trail, but there weren't any signs to that effect. The route was all uphill for the first couple of miles, but that gave me some awesome views of the ocean on both sides of the island.

Hiking on Catalina is pretty much all about the views. There aren't many trees, and the most interesting wildlife is the local herd of bison that was transported there for a movie many decades ago. Fortunately, there are relatively few places on the island where you can't see the ocean on at least one side of the island, and even when you can't you still get nice views of the interior valleys.

I finally crested the hill and started down the trail to the main road (still dirt at this point), which i then followed down to the Little Harbor campground. I reached the beach by about 12:30, and i stopped to take of my hiking boots and soak my feet in the surf. I also had some lunch.

I started out again after 1pm on a short section of the road that follows along the coast. By the time the road turned back inland i was well above the Little Harbor and Ben Weston beaches, and it was an absolutely gorgeous view down. At that point the road turns sharply inland toward the appropriately named Rancho Escondido. I reached the ranch a bit after 2:30 and started down the Cottonwood trail toward the Black Jack campground where i was planning to spend the night.

The Cottonwood trail was hot and mostly uphill, but it was a pretty little trail and i managed to reach the campground around 4:30. I eventually found my camp site, and settled in. The fact that the Catalina camp sites have fresh water and other amenities makes backpacking there seem a bit like cheating, but since i was on my own and breaking in both a new pack and new boots, i didn't mind cheating too much.

I spent the next few hours reading a book, looking at birds, watching the views of the ocean, and setting up camp. I was tired after the 12 or 13 miles i'd hiked that day, so by 9pm or so i was ready to sleep. I'd decided to leave the tent at home and sleep under the stars again, which i've come to prefer to the tent. The sky at first wasn't that great because the moon was too bright, but as the night went on it got darker and every time i woke up it looked better.

Not long after i turned in i heard a strange noise. I couldn't decide if it was a bird or some other critter, but initially it was distant so i didn't think about it. The same noise occurred about every half hour and it got progressively closer, until at some point in the middle of the night it woke me up because it was so near. At closer range the noise sounded like a growl or bark, followed by a lower pitch growl. Curious, i shined my flashlight in the direction of the noise and managed to fix one of the Santa Catalina Island foxes in the beam. This is probably the most interesting animal on the island, given that it's indigenous and endangered. I turned the flashlight off and decided to let the fox do his or her thing.

I got up at first light and packed up, since i wasn't really sure how long it would take me to get down to Avalon. It was only 8 or 9 miles, but i could only guess at the terrain. I knew it had to be generally downward since i was near the high point of the island, but i feared that there'd be another ridge in between. I managed to pack up, clean up, and hit the road by 6am.

I started down the road, and hit the main airport road in about a half hour. I saw a few deer as i started out, but i was hoping to get a glimpse of the island bison. I figured it was a long shot since i was avoiding the central valleys, but after about 40 minutes on the road i saw a single large male grazing on the side of a ravine just off the road. Cool, at least i could say i saw one. Then about 15 minutes later, i heard a noise above me and looked up to see the giant head of a male back lit by the sun and staring straight at me. It was a mildly transcendent moment primarily because the animal was so close and that shape, with the curved horns and the big shaggy head is so iconic. In all there was a group of 14 males, females, and calves grazing in a patch of burned out prickly pear.

Soon i made it to the long downhill section into Avalon. It's a beautiful walk even though much of the vegetation was lost in a recent wildfire. I reached Avalon much earlier than i expected-- before 10-- but it's about as nice a place to kill time as there exists. I got some coffee and a snack, sat in the shade watching people on the beach, and changed into my sandals. By the time the boat was ready to board back to San Pedro, i was actually wishing i could hang out for a while.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Lake

When i was a kid my family started spending many of our summer weekends at a place called Barton Lake in Indiana. When we first started going there i was pretty young, maybe 9 or 10, and we shared a place that my grandpa bought. I basically learned how to swim there, and spent many of my weekends at the Barton Lake beach (there used to be a diving board when i was young).

For the first couple of years, trips to the lake were mostly about fishing and swimming and eating (i was physically incapable of putting on weight when i was young, and i would routinely start my day with 3 or 4 donuts). But after a few summers, my family got our own place at the lake, and my sister and i had become part of the local group of summer youth. By the beginning of high school, we spent a lot of our time not only swimming, but going to movies, hanging out a various local spots, and sitting around fire rings at night.

My sister dated one of the guys in the group, and several other relationships formed and failed. For my part i had a desperate crush on a young lady named Chris for a few summers, but i was too shy to do much about it. This circle of friends included some of the year-round inhabitants, but most of us were there on summer weekends only (including my first cousins, my father's sisters kids). It's amazing to me on reflection how, in that pre-Internet, pre-cell phone era, we managed to stay friends for several summers, and we'd all manage to gather up and hang out, weekend after weekend, summer after summer.

I was on the younger end of the group, and by the time my older sister's class had graduated from high school, my family had basically stopped going. Several years ago, my parents bought a new place and started going back. I've been back a couple of times with my kids, including this last couple of weeks. Of course, my kids aren't there enough to become part of the community. Being there is a strange, slightly melancholy experience for me now. It has changed so little, there really isn't much of the joy that i found in the place decades ago. I don't think that's just because i'm old, but rather it's because it was the people who made the place special to me.

I learned to drive a stick-shift at the the lake. I recall celebrating my father's 40th birthday there, which makes me feel even older than i am. I remember good times with my grandpa and my uncle Don, both of whom passed away long ago. I still repeat the jokes that our friend Carol would tell (whenever she saw a "Stop Ahead" sign, she'd reach over and grab the head of the nearest passenger). We once hid out in the basement of the lake's proprietors during a particularly threatening tornado warning. I had a small sail boat for a while, fished from a canoe, and "cured" the case of poison oak i got in the 8th grade by swimming from our dock (that's my hypothesis anyway). Actually, i recall this aspect of my life far better than i remember high school though they were roughly coincident.

Despite the lingering memories, my lake years didn't have much real effect on my life. Except for my own family, i haven't seen any of my lake friends in almost 30 years. I didn't develop any life-long affection for swimming, fishing, or boating; and i don't have any similar weekend place that my family visits. Maybe memories are the best we can expect from our past.