So I asked my athletic beau, Ken, “How about we take our mountain bikes to Catalina and ride from Avalon to Two Harbors, hang out and ride around there for a day, and then ride back? What do you think? ”
“Sure, sounds good,” he replied without blinking an eye…This is where I should have pulled out the disclaimers about the ~1700 foot climbs (that’s plural) that we’d be doing from sea level over the course of ~21 mile traverse across steep, unforgiving fire roads, and the fact that he’d be carrying a heavier pack than I…
I did dig out my old map of the marathon route with its epic elevation gains and losses, but he didn’t give it a glance. I declared with my usual exuberance, “It’s going to be a tough one, but it will be a great adventure!” You see, back in 2000, (yes, nearly two decades ago), I ran the Catalina Marathon, which takes you across some of the same routes so I had a distant, but visceral memory of how “challenging” the climbs on the island can be. (Decades of trail running has also taught me that’s it far easier to run up hills than it is to bike up them, especially if you are on heavy, beater bikes lugging packs on your back.) Of course, I’m nearly 2 decades older now and should also mention that we don’t mountain bike much (our last MTB adventure was Noble Canyon and we all know how that went. My bruises have finally faded,)
Bottom line, we both try to maintain a moderately-high fitness level for our weekend warrior and extended escapades and active adventures…(I’ve been focusing on yoga, swimming, hiking and a weekly road bike and he’s been running, and joining me for swims and road bikes as his schedule allows.) Unfortunately, I can’t run any more due to literally running out of cartilage in both my knees. Ugh, I know! For some reason, I thought I would be ok on the mountain bike with the hills…
Catalina Island is a small (22 miles long & 8 miles at its widest point) rocky gem in the Pacific ~ 22 miles from Los Angeles, but thanks to nearly 50 years of the Catalina Islands Conservancy’s good work, it’s really worlds away! The island’s topography is a study in rugged beauty with steep cliffs and jagged coastline. Ninety percent of the island’s 4k population live in Avalon, which is also the Island’s major tourist destination with quaint shops, restaurants and bars. Yes, it has its charm, but you know by now that I’m more of a “wildlands” fan myself. That’s why we’re heading to the remote Westside of the island and staying in Two Harbors,
So I was wrong about that. Not long after the picture above was taken, 3/4 through the first climb from sea level up the airport road, I thought my knees were going to explode. No way I can make this, I thought. That’s when Ken pulled over and ordered me to empty everything heavy out of my pack and put it into his. I didn’t argue, toughing it out wasn’t an option if we were going to make it across. Yes, Ken is a stud and my hero! Wouldn’t have been able to make it without him taking on the extra poundage.
We left Avalon after 1PM and we didn’t pass the halfway mark until 3PM with all my knee breaks so we were getting a little worried that we might not make it by dark. There were no hikers or bikers out except for us and only a few cars and Island Conservancy trucks passed us. We had decided not to camp as we’d be carrying the weight of sleeping bags and Thermarests and possibly a tent too. Instead, we decided to treat ourselves to a stay at the Banning House Lodge for both our recent birthdays. So instead of stopping and relaxing at one of these gorgeous deserted beaches we pushed on and on…
We came around a corner and a gorgeous Catalina Fox crossed in front of Ken. Unfortunately, my camera was in my backpack and getting it out would have scared it away so we both just sat still and watched in quiet wonder as the beautiful creature took 5 steps looked back at us, took five more, looked back again, and once more before disappearing into the roadside brush. As if to say, “Hey, I’m giving you guys plenty of photo ops, what’s your problem?” This would be the first of several fox sightings in which I would be camera cursed each time. (Luckily, we met a great couple from Carlsbad (John & Julie) who caught some great pics while we were having dinner together at Harbor Sands. Stay tuned.)
We would have one more notably larger critter encounter on our final climb out of Little Harbor, a brute of a buffalo was snorting and drooling his way up the hill. He was on the far right. We stayed as far left as we could.
About Catalina’s Wild Buffalo
In 1924, 14 buffalo were brought to the island for a movie shoot and the rest, they say, is history. The bison thrived here and at one point the herd grew to 600. Today, the Catalina Island Conservancy manages the population (via birth control) to about 150, thereby striking the balance between protecting the sensitive ecosystem and keeping the herd healthy.
The weather was perfect and the visibility out to the mainland was the best I’ve ever seen it. Unfortunately, camera didn’t quite capture it. (Wasn’t going to bring my heavy Nikon.)
We made it just in time for sunset and the splendid wine and cheese welcome at the charming Banning House Lodge (another 150 ft climb) just to add insult to injury.
Big sigh of relief after our full, half-day adventure – brutal workout, spectacular views, a studly boyfriend who’s a great sport, a hot shower and a comfy bed – now that’s a birthday to remember. Stay tuned for Part II & III. (If you’re a mountain bike legend fan, you’re never going to believe who we ran into in the middle of the island on our way back to Avalon…)