Early the day after Thanksgiving, Sylvie and I took the ferry over to Catalina with her husband and mother-in-law. We parted ways in Avalon, where they would have their own adventure, and we headed up Avalon Canyon Road to Hermit Gulch Campground where we would pick up the trail.
From the moment we left the ferry, the trail begins its slow ascent. We stopped at the campground to use the restroom and repack our gear. Even after the 1.5 mile walk up to the Hermit Gulch, it became clear that our packs were heavier than we had anticipated and we would feel every step of our 13ish miles to Blackjack Campground.
The restrooms weren’t quite open yet, so I backtracked to the Nature Center to use their indoor plumbing. As I was looking for where the facilities were exactly, I overheard another hiker talking with the ranger as he got advice and a trail map. Apparently, the Trans-Catalina Trail was currently closed… Closed. I didn’t know you could close a trail.
So, I walk back to Sylvie and we go and talk to the ranger. Apparently the trail had been closed due to the heavy rain of the night before. It had made the trail a muddy mess, but it would be open in just a few minutes. Phew, crisis one averted. (Note: if you don’t have full water, you need to top off in Hermit Gulch, as there won’t be a place to fill up until Mile 9 of the trail in Toyon Junction.)
We then adjusted the contents of our bags to distribute the weight a little more evenly. Sylvie decided to donate her two cans of emergency lentil soup to the ranger station to bring down her weight a bit. By this time, the trail was open, so up we went.
We were using the Green Planet Maps trailmap of Catalina. I’d used this map before to get around on the island and found it great. I did not find it great for this expedition. There just weren’t enough details. And I couldn’t find good topographic maps for the trail before we left. However, every other hiker we encountered disliked their map as well, so I guess you just have to hope the trail ahead will be obvious enough to not need the detail.
And the Hermit Gulch Trail was obvious. On the map, it just looks like a little squiggle. You need to pay attention to the fact that the squiggle says 2.4 until it hits the Divide Road and the full trail itself. It looks like from the map that choosing this route cuts out a lot of superfluous trail out of Avalon, and I had heard that it does, but all told you really only, I think, cut out about 1.5 of the first 6.5 miles. Though when you are getting started at noon when the sunsets early, every little bit helps.
The trail has some beautiful vistas, nice places to stop and look back over Avalon, as well as some spots where you can see clear back to the mainland to your east and San Clemente Island to your west. Overall, it’s a pretty way to start the trail.
We finally met up with the trail at Divide Road. We were glad to be walking along the road due to the rain – it really had left any soft sediment as a muddy mess. Because we were low on time, Sylvie and I opted to stick to the road when it split from the trail in places to be able to avoid the mud and keep our pace up. There was also a bison very inconveniently located at one of the splits who took away any discussion about which way to go.
Walking the road wasn’t glamorous, but it was quick, and there were many lovely vistas along the way. We walked for a bit with a couple and her father. They had done Whitney the previous year and said it was amazing but cold. The stop in Toyon for some nibbles and water was a nice break, but we really were racing against sunset to make it to the campground.
We cut back to the trail at the junction immediately before the trail heads up to Blackjack. As soon as we were on the mucky mess of the trail, we were sure we’d made the right decision to stick to the road for the bulk of our journey. Our shoes instantly were caked with about a pound of mud per foot.
For the first few hundred yards, the trail was brilliantly and obviously marked. But then it began the uphill along a rocky outcrop and the signage just disappeared. We weren’t sure if were going the right way. The young man who I’d seen talking to the ranger earlier that day passed us and said he was sure we were on the right path, so we kept trucking.
It was one of those trails where you feel like the campgound will be right around the next bend. We could see those blackjack pines right up over the next ridge. But getting to that next ridge took forever, and sunset was upon us. Sylvie wasn’t sure she could go on, but I KNEW we were right THERE. THERE just needed to get here sooner. And then we were THERE. Finally. We got to the campsite about 4:45. This meant that we’d gone about 13 miles in about 5 hours, which is way faster than we’ve ever gone before. And all this with the weight we’d need to be carrying for the JMT.
After a little confusion about which site was ours… okay, no real confusion on our part, but who doesn’t bring their registration with them!?! And no, I wasn’t willing to just grab the next open site because I’ve been kicked off of a site in the middle of the night when it wasn’t mine and I wasn’t looking forward to that occurring. I was too tired to be nice about it either, but Sylvie and her Canadian charm got them to move to another site so we could set up at ours.
We discovered that hot chocolate is a savior at the end of the day. The sunset drifted to twilight as we were setting up the tent (in less than 7 minutes!), and the lack of sun brought that crisp cold Pacific air to us quickly. We also hadn’t really eaten enough calories over the course of the day, but neither of us had been really hungry. The cold and hunger were instantly abated with that delicious ambrosia of hot chocolate. We quickly followed it up with Made In Nature meal that I picked up at the last minute at REI. One night we ate the Thai Coconut and the other the Moroccan Bazaar, and both were delicious. They aren’t dehydrated so they aren’t as light as one might hope, but they really made up for it in flavor. As as they were really the only substantial meal we ate that day, we could cut out other stuff to make up for that weight difference.
We also discovered dehydrated moon cheese is weird. Very weird. So weird that it really isn’t right. Definitely not a good thing to pack.
There was a burn ban up in this area, so after we ate and cleaned up, there really wasn’t much else to do but curl up in our bags and go to sleep.
We got up early the next morning, downed some oatmeal and coffee, packed up our gear and hit the trail around 8:30. This gave us more sunlight today, and, little did we know, we’d need every second of it.
We made our way to the Airport in the Sky for an early lunch of divine bison burgers and the tastiest beers I have had in a while. Hiking usually makes food taste amazing, but, other than this pit stop and our end of day meals, neither of us really had any appetite. This is a problem as there were several times when my muscles kinda stopped working, and I realized it was because I wasn’t giving them enough fuel. So, lessons learned: if I don’t have an appetite, I still need to make myself eat something every two hours or so. Sylvie’s cuties and her yummy homemade meal bars really hit the spot when it came to these forced meals. But, I need to eat protein along the way too (although the bison jerky that sounded so good in the store, really wasn’t so great once we were on the trail), because there is no way I am eating it at night. Tummy wants NONE of it.
We also discovered that we really weren’t drinking enough water. We need to force ourselves to drink two liters for every 8 hours of hiking. When we were just going, despite the easy-access dromedaries we both carried, we didn’t think to drink. And we need to do so. Especially when we are at higher altitudes. This eating and drinking thing will be a big factor in being able to make it all the way through the 20+ days of the JMT.
After our lovely pitstop (next time we go, we are leaving room/weight to buy cool stuff at the airport gift shop), we zagged to the western shores of the island and the sister harbors of Shark Harbor and Little Harbor. The trail leaving the airport kinda wobbles in such a way that you aren’t sure you’re going the right way until you start the gradual downhill to the coast. There is one noticeably steep part right before the branch to Rancho Escondido Road, otherwise this 4.5 mile stretch of is very lovely and easy walking. All told, we were at about 6-6.5 miles into our day when we wandered down the hill into the campground at Little Harbor.
We did have one moment of pause as we headed down the trail, there was one, and then another, and then another bison maybe 30 yards off the trail. I’m not too skittish about wildlife. I figure it wants nothing really to do with me, and I want nothing to do with it, so we’ll all just glance at each other and go about our business. But 30 yards is charging distance, and that makes me nervous. Sylvie and I do quite a bit of singing as we hike even normally, but now we took it up a notch in terms of volume, and we had no breaks as we made it through the minefield of bison. Note: the bison did not seem to appreciate Buffalo Soldier. Whether they dislike all reggae or just that song, we didn’t stick around to find out. Pat Benatar, however, and Love is a Battlefield seems to have cross-species appeal.
Other notable songs we sang: Oh Trekking Poles to the tune of Oh Tannenbaum (because holy carp do the poles make a difference when you’ve got that heavy pack on your back), and Catalina Dreaming to the tune of California Dreaming. If I can remember the lyrics we composed, I will post them in a separate entry.
We took a moment in Little Harbor to use the facilities, knock the mud off our boots, have a snack, and let our feet rest in the cool Pacific waters. I’d forgotten until I saw it that I had been to Little Harbor with a group I once taught, and the Little Harbor really is a lovely place. Most advice recommends that you stay the night in Little Harbor and set off for Two Harbors the next morning. But we were only 6.5 miles in at most, and it was only 2 pm, so we thought those extra 4.5 miles would be nothing. And a few of the blogs we’d read (see Bearfoot Theory post), had done this chunk in one day, so we thought it would be easy for us too. Famous last thoughts.
The next stretch of trail up, and up, and up, and up, and up, and, oh yeah, up. This trail up from Little Harbor is one of the most harrowing trails I have ever been on. And my finicky asthmatic lungs hated it. It starts out steep but sweeping back and forth along lovely switchbacks. But then there are a few portions of the trail that jut up into the sky, crumbling rock below your feet, steep canyon dotted with cactus to your right, steep cliffs plunging into the waves of the Pacific to your left. It was beautiful and terrifying. I am neither afraid of heights nor prone to vertigo, but I wasn’t sure I could make it up this chunk of trail, but knew I had no option but to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And yet I was also really sad that I had neither a GoPro or the fearlessness to stop and take a photo to record the stunning beauty of this leg of the trail.
As I was contemplating how much I hated the trail, my lungs, my stupidly heavy pack, and yet how lucky I was to be out there experiencing this adventure, I looked up along the ridge. Low and behold, there was a single tree! A scrubby oak holding on for all its worth. If I could just get to that tree, it would all be good. So I just kept trucking. At this point, Sylvie has flown ahead, and I am really alone in my thoughts and the landscape. I slowly catch up to her as we near the tree. But it’s no tree at all. Nope. It’s a picnic gazebo. Someone has hiked up to this spot and hauled all the equipment to provide shelter for poor idiots like us. For some reason, this not-tree-gazebo really shook me and that feeling of letdown of not-tree discovery has stuck with me.
From the gazebo on, the trail was more rolling. We went up a few more times, and down many more, but it wasn’t as harrowing. Just long. And we were tired. I forgot that once you get into Two Harbors, the campground is another half mile.
At this point, Sylvie and I are tired and starting to get snippy at one another. And now the twilight is fading and we can’t find our flippin’ campsite. I didn’t want to just grab another site due to the aforementioned issues above, but I wasn’t sure I could walk anymore.
We asked for directions from some really sweet people who were camped kind of at a crossroads within the campgrounds and they assured us that no one had been at the site next to them all weekend long, so we should definitely take it. And that they had whiskey to share if we were interested. We trusted them – they had good whiskey afterall – and set up camp as the last bit of light faded over the Pacific.
As we finished our delicious hot chocolate and grain meal, our friends that we knew were camping in Two Harbors came up and invited us to share their fire. So we thanked the people we were right next to and wandered down the hill for a good old fashioned campfire. I cannot tell you how nice that was. I also cannot tell you how tired and thirsty I was, but the Budweiser still tasted terrible. I should note that while everyone we’d read brings whiskey with them when hiking, Sylvie and I didn’t touch a drop of ours. Whether it was due to the dehydration or exhaustion, whiskey just didn’t appeal at all along the trail. That bit of knowledge will save us a great deal of weight on the JMT.
The fire was a lovely way to wrap up the day, and we went to sleep content that we had made it where we’d intended. In the morning, we did take some painkillers. You read that the pain and exhaustion sets in on day 3, and that was no exaggeration. When we got up, after our coffee and oatmeal, we looked for our intended campsite, with no luck even in the daylight! We then went and joined our friends for some beachcombing before breaking camp and heading back into town.
I had thought there were lockers where we could stash our gear before doing a day hike and catching the 4 pm ferry. And in my mind’s eye, I have a clear vision of there having been lockers in Two Harbors during one of my visits. But they aren’t there anymore, if they ever had been more than a figment of my imagination. So, along with some other people, we dropped our gear in a planter, took our day packs and headed out to the Overlook Trail, a much shorter adventure than our intended trek to Silver Peak, but really all we were ready for.
But, we didn’t make it more than a mile or so before I hurt a lot. And I wasn’t willing to push it. My job has me on my feet all day, and I couldn’t risk injury and not being able to do my job to the best of my ability. I probably could’ve pushed it harder, but I just didn’t want to. We’d also discovered some interesting bruises from our packs as we’d inspected ourselves that morning. We realized that those might be a bit of a cause for concern going forward. So, Sylvie and I headed back to Two Harbors and enjoyed some refreshing beverages before we caught the ferry home.
When I got home that night and really inspected my bruises, I was glad that we had gone for an easier last day. One of my bruises was topped with an icky seeping sore. I knew I’d probably needed to upgrade my pack, but this was evidence that it wasn’t optional and probably needed to happen sooner rather than later.
Final miscellaneous notes: In the future, don’t bring moisturizer; sunscreen fills that role fine. Scrubby wipes are awesome at the end of the day. Sylvie needs a headlamp case because her lamp button is sensitive and the bulb wants to blind us as we search for other things. I need lighter bowls – titanium or silicon – because enamel are too heavy! Need a table light for cooking/cleaning after dark. Flip-flops are a waste of space and weight.
One trail and about 30ish miles down, and so many more to go. And now to go plan more adventures with Sylvie on our path to the JMT!