Even after a day of relative relaxation, I wasn’t sure that my knees were ready for the counter attack mountain bike ride back to Avalon…And there were options, we could take a shuttle up to the airport and then just cruise downhill the rest of the way…Or since, we had already set aside the day for the adventure back, we could just go ahead and do it…Yup, that’s what we did.
Leaving Lovely Little Harbor
Contemplating the climb ahead from Little Harbor Cove
And you’ll never guess who we ran into in the middle of the island – none other than Hans No Way Rey and Missy, the Missle, Giove. They blasted by us boisterously, which was just a tad demoralizing, until we discovered that they were on e-bikes – No fair! I was going to suggest a bike trade, but I don’t think they would have gone for it.
Missy was the first female downhill mountain bike superstar. She’s got two World Cup overall victories and a World Championship under her belt. Meeting these two legends was definitely a highlight of my Catalina MTB adventure!
Below, I’m celebrating the final climb and Missy is giving me some downhill tips- not.
Top of the final climb!
Missy, the Missile, Giove
Turns out Ken and i have 5 secs of fame in the Catalina portion of his mountain bike film, Trans Angles. Here’s a 5 minute clip of the film with some great footage of the island. Our cameos are at 3:44)
And nothing better than relaxing into the morning like this, eh?
Two Harbors is so named for its topographic features (you guessed it) 2 harbors – the Isthmus Cove on the leeward side and Catalina Harbor on windward side, separated by a half mile of land or isthmus. What’s an Isthmus, you might ask? It’s a narrow sliver of land that connects two larger areas across an expanse of water which they are otherwise separated.
You might also be wondering about mt. bike logistics on Catalina Island. There are a couple spots to rent bikes in Avalon or you can bring your own on the ferry, but you must purchase a Freewheeler Bike Pass from the Island Conservancy to ride the interior “wildlands” where the buffalo and Catalina fox roam and eagles fly overhead. The bike pass is only $35 for the year and goes towards the Conservancy’s efforts to protect this natural gem and its wildlife so it’s well worth it for an unforgettable experience and a worthy cause.
So the plan for Day 2 was to take it easy, recover from yesterday’s cross-island mt. bike slog with heavy packs, and explore the West End. So we set out on the lovely, coastal mt. bike ride out to Parson’s Landing (~14 mile round trip on mostly flat fire road). Great vistas along the way and the reward of Parson’s Landing’s pristine, rugged beauty all made for a wonderful day.
We met a great couple from our home town who were also staying at the Banning House Lodge. They had the grand idea of biking out to the tip of Catalina Harbor for sunset. What a superb way to close out a perfect day exploring Catalina.
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…)