Wild Bison, Death and Angels (Part 1)

Beads of sweat drip off Jaime’s plump face. His close-knit eyes scan the apartment, seeking any damage or misplaced items. “Everything looks good,” he says. “You’ll be getting your security deposit back within the next week.”

And with that we lock the door to our San Diego home for the final time. We have Jaime, the Total Property Management inspection manager, snap a photo of us on my iPhone before Riley and I hop in her packed-to-the-brim 2011 Acura TSX and begin our 2nd road trip in 5 months.

En route to the San Pedro port, we accidentally stumble upon a Mexican-themed farmer’s market. We order pupusas, pollo encebollados and panes rellenos in bulk to satisfy our empty stomachs. Our appetites quenched we head back to the car. I adjust the bike rack carrying Riley’s Bianchi and my Schwinn, before heading off for the port, locating only a few miles from here.

For the final 10 minutes of our drive we pass mostly construction zones and industrial sites, as this working-class city has very little beauty to boast. We park in a massive parking lot surrounded by an immense teal structure possessing thousands of multi-colored freight containers. Countless cranes maneuver these heavy chunks of rectangular plastic, steel and fiber, repositioning them onto cargo ships. In front of the industrial havoc rests the Catalina Island Tours building. Riley and I extract our backpacks from the car and load them up with camping essentials. With my 55 Liter backpacking backpack weight approximately 3 times that of Riley’s JanSport, we waddle over to our ship.

I nap as our boat floats along the Pacific for 75 minutes, towards the Two Harbors port, located on the North East part of the island. The boat docks and we follow a small herd of people, including an eccentrically dressed bride and groom, onto the island. Despite the 80lbs of combined weight on our shoulders, a sense of lightness instantly encompasses Riley and me as we step foot on this majestic plot of land. Light waves splash into the bluest bay, mirroring an equally radiant sky. Sand stretches from the water towards the areas’ only general store and restaurant. Only 2 dozen people circulate Two Harbors as the tourist season hasn’t hit full force yet. These individuals ride kayaks and eat ice cream purchased from the general store.

With the afternoon sun threatening only 5 to 6 hours of remaining daylight, Riley and I run into the general store and purchase the one essential we lack – a gallon of water. Map in hand and hip-belts tightened we set off for the 7 mile hike towards Parson’s Landing. The trail commences with a quarter mile 35 degree incline. A half hour later we reach the apex, exhausted, and wondering if this hike was a good idea. Fortunately, the trail evens out, with occasional inclines followed by immediate declines. We walk along the edge of a mountain, with breathtaking views of the ocean to our right and vegetation and rock to our left. The climate here is noticeably less arid, as the Southern Californian succulents and brown vegetation we have gotten used to has been replaced with a slightly greener and more humid ambiance.

An hour into our journey we stop to hydrate and refuel. I tie my shoe, tighten my backpack straps and begin walking again. As I look up a fuzzy creature with red fur turns to stare me in the eye before scurrying across the trail and ducking into a hole in the ground. This 4 foot bundle of joy was a fox. “I just saw one of the 4 animals posted on the Animals You May See on the Trail sign at the beginning of the hike,” I tell Riley.

“Ugh, I missed it,” Riley exclaims.

For the next hour we continue our brisk pace, stopping often to drink and eat; more so to relieve the weight on our backs than to fulfill our bellies. About 2/7 of the way through our journey, Riley and I discuss how thankful we are to the Catalina Island Conservancy. This nonprofit organization was established in 1972, through the efforts of the Wrigley and Offield families, to protect and restore Santa Catalina Island. The families deeded 42,135 acres (170.51 km2), approximately 88% of the island, to the organization. Essentially, this means that 88% of the island cannot be touched for any purposes other than hiking and maintaining trails. As such, the view Riley and I see now is the same as it was 45 years ago. This is truly amazing when considering how much towns like Coral Springs (which was 100% covered in swamp), Atlanta (which has grown from 1.5M to 5.5M people since 1972) and San Diego (which was essentially unknown outside of its military base) have grown during this time frame.

As we near the ¾ point of our hike the trail thins significantly as most prior hikers have turned back by now. “A couple more miles,” I tell Riley, who is noticeably worried about the descending sun and the increasing heaviness of her backpack. Moments later we spot a deer crossing the trail. “That’s 2 out of 4,” I say to Riley. “All that remains is a bison and a rattlesnake.” We’re still yet to see another hiker along this infrequently traveled trail.

The hike turns more inland as it cuts through a chunk of the island. We can no longer see the ocean, but are surrounded by lush fields of grass and trees. A hunch tells me to glance at one particular batch of shrubs and trees; a rather unspectacular viewing by itself. For some reason, I can’t take my eyes off it. As I near, a large brown mass forms among the green. “Holy shit, that’s a bison,” I yelp, scaring my girlfriend half to death.

“Where?” she asks.

I point to the hungry creature before us. Comparable only to the buffalo I’d see roaming the filthy streets of India; this is the largest animal I have ever seen in the wild. “At this rate, we’re bound to come across a rattler,” I tell Riley.

With less than a mile to go, a gorgeous sunset begins to form in the distance. A gradual incline among the multi-colored grasses leads to a panoramic viewpoint: mountains and fields make up 270 degrees of view and a magnificent ocean splashes wildly among the rocks in front of us. “That’s it,” I say, pointing at the isolated bay. “That’s our spot.” The setting could not be more dramatic, as we descend the final steps, completely alone except for a slight breeze, a pink and orange sky, and a greying campsite awaiting our arrival.

We arrive at a series of lockers containing supplies. We insert the key into “Locker 3” and extract firewood and water. 8 campsites make up this “primitive” campground, of which only 2 are occupied tonight: a young couple reading by the campfire a few hundred paces to our left and 3 brothers finishing up dinner a few hundred paces to our right. Starved, I immediately begin working on the fire while Riley layers warm clothes. Within an hour and a half we have a blazing fire within a circular sand pit and a makeshift chicken, broccoli and pasta dinner cooked on a $4.95 set of pots and pans from Walmart. Maybe it’s just me, but campfire food is simply the most delicious food out there.

Despite our stomachs being full, we scavenger the area for sticks to use for s’mores. Riley and I watch our marshmallows catch fire and char before inserting them between graham crackers and dark chocolate.

Exhausted, we pass out and sleep like kings. I wake up at the crack of dawn, feeling a healthy energy throughout my body. I catch the end of the sunrise before heading out on a solo adventure. I walk along a thin trail leading to…well, I’m not sure. Less than 15 minutes into my trek, I round a corner and am stopped in my tracks. 15 feet in front of my stands another massive bison; this time directly in the center of the trail. He turns to look at me and I stare back. Curiosity fills the eyes of this creature, while his jaw moves in slow, circular movements as he gnaws on some tasty breakfast grass. I take a few steps closer to the creature, wanting to get a better look and hopefully snap a photo. His eyes narrow. I take another handful of steps, now standing literally 6 feet away. His 2,000 pound frame seems to tighten. Even if he charges me, I’m way faster, I think to myself. I take one more stupid step, before the bison begins to charge at me full speed. I nearly stumble to the ground at the shock of this animal’s speed. Realizing he’s gaining ground on me, I flail blindly running as fast as I can in the direction I came. After the fastest 100 meter dash known to man, I turn around and find that the bison has given up chase. Either he got tired (which I doubt), or he was merely satisfied spooking me half to death and felt no need to continue racing after me.

When Riley finally wakes up, 3 hours later, I recount my tale and receive a verbal lashing in return. Words like “stupid,” “thoughtless,” and “idiot” pierce my ears. I probably deserve it.

We hang around the campsite a bit longer before commencing the hike back. As with most hikes, the return feels quicker and easier. We arrive back to Two Harbors in the early afternoon. First matter of business is food, so we order a – you guessed it – bison sandwich. Content and sleepy, we find a shady spot along the beach, beneath a tall shadow-casting rock wall and lie down. Within moments Riley and I are covered in sand and asleep. We wake up an hour or so later to the day appearing even more beautiful than before. Crystals shimmer atop the ocean as the sun’s rays reflect over the aqua blue water. Merely a handful of people parade the island today, casting the illusion of privacy. As we walk from our nap-spot towards the rest restaurant bar we encounter another fox; this time a baby. This adorable undomesticated puppy is less than 12 inches in length.

Still in relax-mode, Riley orders a piña colada and we recline on a bench by the volleyball court. A few minutes later, 4 guys and 2 girls, appearing slightly older than us, occupy the volleyball court and begin punching a volleyball around. “You guys want to play?” they ask us. We decline the invite. 30 minutes later one of the guys puts the volleyball away and pulls 8 large green and red bocce balls and a smaller, white “pallino” ball out of his backpack. “We need two more. Want to play?” they shout at us again.

“Sure,” we reply. For the next two hours the 8 of us joke, laugh and toss large balls at a smaller ball. We play two full games up to 11 and while Riley and I take last place the first time around, we win the 2nd game on an improbable sequence of throws in which we knock away all our opponents’ balls and end up with both our balls resting against the pallino.

Hungry again, we ruffle through our backpacks seeing what food we have left. Peanut butter sandwiches, teriyaki jerky and trail mix make up our dinner tonight. With the sun setting and the night air cooling, we head inside the restaurant to slurp on some warm soup and nibble on complimentary bread rolls while we await our ship to arrive and take us back to the mainland. In typical island time, the ship arrives 2 hours late. All aboard, and we’re off. Arriving back in the industrial land of San Pedro at midnight, Riley and I lazily shuffle over to our awaiting vehicle and begin the drive to our next destination.

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