Photos by Spencer J Harding
There is this point in every bicycle trip and adventure abroad, no matter the length, when I have this small life-affirming epiphany; wherein I realize that being happy is easy, as long as I am doing something I love, outside, with people who define utter excellence in the human spirit. What a simple and beautiful thing… but somehow this contentment is so easy to forget when one returns to the shackles of our modern affliction. I suppose we just have to escape more often?
This I knew to be the real purpose and starting point when I called up my good friend Chris Kelly at Topanga Creek Outpost to propose a visit. It was immediately apparent we both felt it was nigh past due that we saddled up some steel steeds, rallied some kindred spirits and took to the trail to reconnect and find some reasons to keep on breathing. I also wanted to put the screws to our new Pack Rat; to actually take it out of its element and see how they performed overloaded and off-road. It was both a learning experience as far as getting to know the bike and its limitations but also a great way to coax out its strengths. I was so excited when Chris, having taunted many of us with prior “Unpredict your Journey” trips to Catalina Island, proposed this be our destination for our Surly/TCO journey. And thus, a fellowship was formed, dubbed “The Unpredictables” after our carefree vision, we set off to the exotic Channel Islands in search of high adventure and romantic landscape.
The first day was spent hastily packing our bikes at the port prior to our ferry departure at 2:50 pm. This was followed by a litany of bureaucratic paperwork and passes to secure at the conservation office before we headed out into the island wilds. We ended up with only a couple hours of daylight to work with once we finally set off from Two Harbors. There was chatty pedaling for the first few miles as we caught up on ins and outs of each other’s lives and by the time we rounded a corner to our first series of serious climbs, the sun had set. Now, I admittedly hadn’t done my homework about the Island itself before I set out on this trip, and thus had no knowledge of the thousands of TINY FOXES that live on Santa Catalina Island! Yes, tiny foxes, so imagine a “miniature gray fox” for scale if you will. I just thought “WTF?... There sure are a lot of cute baby foxes out playing on the road, um that’s kinda ridiculously cute.” Then I learned that this species of fox was specific to the island and does not fear humans due to general lack of predation and protection under The Conservancy. Needless to say, I was in heaven and had to exert some serious self-control in not kidnapping a couple to bring home to live with me.
The first night was spent camping on the beach at Parsons Landing on the North end of the Island. Only coal fires for cooking were allowed so we spent most of our evening eating and gazing at the sky vs huddled around a fire. We lucked out in that the normal prevailing winds were almost non-existent so we barely needed the rocky windbreaks built by previous campers. The temperature, however, did test the edge of my comfort zone in my ten-year-old Marmot 40 degree bag and Black Diamond bivy that I apparently didn’t pack the hood pole for. That night satellites cruised by, stars flickered mysteriously and seals barked their laments; it was a great night by the ocean underneath the velvet curtain of the cosmos.
The next morning greeted us with more fair weather and only a gentle breeze. We had ingeniously crafted, single severing pour overs of coffee that our friend Eric had brought back from Taiwan. They are like a cross between origami and Americano, just brilliant for camping. We snacked on nuts oatmeal and beat-up bananas before repacking and heading off back up the crazy descents we had screeched and skidded down the previous night. We discussed that one great thing about front-loading was that the giant Porteur House bag sitting at waist level was quite easy to pack and perhaps overstuff. We also noticed that the necessity of flared drop bars was imperative for use with our palatial bags and STI shifters. The pre-production spec demos I had brought were an exercise in good humor and patience as we came to learn over the course of those 3 days.
Our ride back into town was relatively relaxed other than my realization that I had lost my id in a desperate attempt to get a photo of two foxes battling in the moonlight the night before. I knew that it had to be on the trail somewhere and counted on finding it on the way back. After all, we had only seen one other camper at Parsons and zero cars on the road both days. We took our time pedaling back towards Two Harbors; catching up on adventures past and discussing adventures yet to come… and most pressing, our imminent adventure involving hot breakfast burritos and more coffee. Just before we reached the safety of the harbor, I saw a hiker in the distance and felt that I needed to talk to him for some reason. I asked the man from which way he had come and when he responded that he had indeed come from whence we had just come, I asked whether he had perhaps noticed a Minnesota ID hanging out in the road. Indeed, he had! But he had stuck it in the barbed wire facing the way we had traveled the night I lost said ID and thus had not noticed it on the way back into town this morning. We reached town and ordered those burritos and I dashed back out on the road minus my gear to retrieve my identification. I reveled in how great the Pack Rat felt unladed as I drifted lose dirt corners and shot up and down the hills (I was dead fixated on the food that awaited me). We had joked about the slick tires being totally inadequate for loaded touring on the fire roads that crisscross Catalina, but on my 15 mile round trip I scarcely missed the traction I desired the day before. Note: Weight necessitates more traction on loose roads.
I returned triumphant and installed that vegetarian burrito like a mamba swallowing a large rodent. To my relief I had not taken too long on my side quest as I saw my compatriots were busy shifting gear around, drinking more coffee and fixing a very curious flat. The rim tape on Aimee’s bike had shifted or folded, exposing a couple nipple holes. The tape was not salvageable but luckily there always seems to be duct tape within reach. A little surgery and we were ready to roll. The ride out of town started with a lung buster of a climb before a lightning descent again towards Little Harbor…. Which was followed by another lung buster and then some super amazing views of the western cliffs and harbor on our way to our campsite on the second highest point on the island.
As the sun started sag below the ridgeline and the cold crept into the lowlands, we found our way into Cape Canyon where a portion of the Island Conservancy is housed and a horse ranch where we saw a lady was working with her steed in the fading light. Further on, we encountered a bison who defiantly stared us down as he dropped a load as if to remind us who is boss out here. We also happened to have come upon a small outdoor enclosure for rescued raptors; one of whom came from the MN raptor center in Bloomington not far from our office. Strange to think this bird and I had shared time in the Minnesota River valley halfway across the country. Birds of a feather perhaps?!
Our last climb of the day was pure punishment. From shivering and wearing our sleeping socks on our hands to gasping for air in our spinniest of gears, sweating bullets. The climb out of the canyon to the entrance to Black Jack was a humbling one. Once again, we were want for tires with a little more bite and a bigger range of gears in the back. Easy changes to make to your Pack Rat should you chose to venture off road. The night sky at the top was majestic and we were eager to claim our reward of hot food, cold Modelos, and our warm layers as the temps dropped into the mid 40’s. Once again, no fires allowed.
I feel like it’s worth mentioning because at this point I’ve probably spent enough time sleeping under the stars to know better, but man at this point I think I need to draw a line in the sand. I am through with commercial backpacker’s meals. If anyone knows a brand that doesn’t cause diarrhea and/or horrendous gas the next day, please drop me a line. I’d love to start making my own but the time commitment seems prohibitive. Anyway, don’t need to TMI you with the details but I’ve learned my lesson yet again.
Sleep was fitful as my pole-less bivy threatened to suffocate me from time to time and made oh so much noise every time I changed sleeping position. Also, judging by the abundance of bison patties strewn about the area I had set up, I couldn’t help but imagine one of those lumbering shaggy ghosts accidentally stepping on me in the middle of the night. I imagined that would be a particularly agonizing death… you know, among all the ways I imagine perishing daily.
The next morning was a (Catalina) breeze of a ride from the campground along the Eastern ridge before dropping down into Avalon. Now I hadn’t crashed once on this trip and was starting to feel pretty sure of myself on this new bike. It was at exactly this moment that I took a corner a little hot and high sided as my front wheel washed out in the powdery dirt. The redeeming factor was that it made for a good photo and I knew we were still going to be able to get a hot meal in before the ferry left. Also, speaking of ferries, as soon as Avalon pulled into view, after our white knuckle decent down switchbacks lined with fragrant eucalyptus, I couldn’t help but imagine Brian Ferry standing on the veranda of some whitewashed Spanish villa welcoming us to his secret paradise.
I didn’t see Brian there but this song didn’t leave my head for days and served as a reminder to me that there is some strange romance happening on Catalina Island. Tiny foxes frolicking in the dusty shrubs. Bison marooned after a failed movie shoot, dreaming of a prairie they’d never seen. An eagle with his glory days behind him, given a second chance at life. And then there were the 5 wayfaring strangers who basked in the glory of it all, leaving nothing behind us but tracks in the dirt.