The planning process for our Trans-Catalina-Trail (TCT) hike started a year in advance, affording us the luxury of selecting the perfect time of year to tackle the 40ish mile trek. Summer would be too hot, winter threatened the risk of rain, so it was either spring or fall. Fall is my favorite time of year and less likely to be wet, so it was settled that we would do it in early October. We were confident we made the right call.
For those not familiar with the TCT, it starts out in the southeast corner of Santa Catalina Island in the city of Avalon, then meanders to the north-western tip at Parson’s Landing, totaling about 38.5 miles with a lot of ups and downs along the way. The hike is typically done over 3.5 days with three overnight stays at Black Jack, Little Harbor and Parson’s Landing campgrounds. The vast majority of the island is pristine, undeveloped land that resembles what California must have looked like before settlers first assaulted the State around the 18th century. It is breath-takingly beautiful. One of the many interesting features of the island is its population of bison, reportedly brought there by movie-makers in the 1920s to make it look like the old west. There are estimated to be about 150 of the 2,000 pound beasts roaming the island at present with evidence of their existence lying about every fourth step along the trail, making it wise to watch where your foot falls. This post primarily deals with our first day out.
We took the 6 a.m. ferry out of Long Beach on Thursday morning, arriving in Avalon Harbor at 7:00. Larina, our contact at Catalina Back Country (I highly recommend their services!) was there to meet us with a smile on her face. She transferred all our heavy gear – tents, sleeping bags, coolers, food (maybe some adult beverages) - to her Suburban (thankfully!), leaving us with just our day packs filled with a sandwich, snacks and water to carry. We were stoked!
Although a little overcast, the skies and weather forecast were both promising, and the temperature was ideal for walking. We knew we had a big altitude gain on our first day so we took off on our journey at 8 a.m. with gusto. In no time, we were glistening with sweat from the exertion of gaining elevation at a rapid pace. The trails were well-maintained and clearly marked, affording us the chance to take in the incredible views of Avalon Harbor below us. About two hours into our hike, a light drizzle started that presented a welcome reprieve from the body heat we were generating.
This is about the time things got a lot more exciting. That “light drizzle” soon turned into a not-so-light drizzle, then a steady rain, then pretty much a downpour. Without rain gear (“But the weather report said it would be clear!” I defended myself for saying NOT to bring ponchos), every inch of us was thoroughly soaked through. We took refuge under a large tree that initially kept the heavy stuff off of us, until the water finally made its way through the leaves and eventually offered no reprieve at all. Magically, my oldest son suddenly produced a bottle of 14-year-old liquid courage (Where did that come from?!) and passed it around, warming our innards. With our newfound determination and more than half of the distance yet to cover for the day, we set off to our destination of Black Jack Campground, one of the highest points on the island.
Hiking up dry dirt trails is one thing; hiking up slick, rain-soaked trails is an entirely different story. At first, it was necessary to step more deliberately as to not slip and fall. Thankfully (our savior!), we all had hiking poles to help keep us upright. The slick trails rapidly turned to mud and muck. Soon, it became impossible to discern the muck from the bison-pies until it all macerated into a mess of gelatinous slop. It’s really a fascinating substance – part glue, part Crisco Oil, it gloms on to itself, yet is slick as grease when trying to gain traction.
The muck continued to accumulate on the soles of our shoes, becoming thicker and thicker until we were clomping along like so many Herman Munsters. My other son made the amazing discovery that if you didn’t lift your feet up at all, but instead shuffled them along using the poles to push, forward progress could be made by emulating cross-country-skiing. And so it was, that we slooshed our way up the mountain, laughing hysterically at ourselves as we went.
Finally arriving at Black Jack, we could not have been more wet if we just climbed out of the surf. All of our gear had been delivered earlier, but since there was very little shelter, everything was drenched. Being near the peak of one of the highest points on the island at about 1,800 feet, the rain cloud was stuck in neutral and the rain continued to fall.
We took refuge (of all places) in the restroom, the only dry and semi-warm spot we could find, and waited until the rain eventually stopped. With substantial effort, we were able to build a fire, enjoy a warm meal and wring out our clothing, although it was a soggy sleep. All in all, it was an epic day, made more memorable by Mother Nature’s surprise. Just remember this, if you go, bring a poncho; even if it calls for clear weather and your organizer tells you not to.