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Hiking the Trans Catalina Trail (TCT)
avoiding getting impaled by bison, protecting your food from sneaky ninja squirrels, and searching for the elusive Island Fox.
A Walk on an Island
I hiked a few bits of the Trans Catalina Trail (TCT) in 2021. This year I thought I’d walk the full 38.5 mile trail. The endless “atmospheric rivers” of March wiped out all 5 campgrounds on the trail. By my arrival day 4 had just opened. But the remote Parson’s Landing was still closed.
I walked the 2 legs from Two Harbors to Parson’s and Parson’s to Two Harbors in 2021. At least over multiple years, I will have walked the whole TCT.
And if Ishkur, Ninurta, Tefnut, or one of those Rain Gods can be a bit more chill in 2024, I might walk the TCT contiguously.
All images created with a Sony α7c mirrorless camera + 40mm f2.5 Compact G lens. Except images by Kyle + McKenzie. Selfies were handheld, or captured with a Sony RMT-P1BT remote + Leophoto MT-03 tripod + MBC-18 ball head. RAW files processed in Adobe Lightroom Classic.
Hermit Gulch Campground
Of Atmospheric Rivers
I was a little disappointed that the Parson’s Landing Campground was closed. I’d waited a while to book a reservation at this small, remote campground. It was a bummer to lose it.
When Ranger Regina LMK that all the campgrounds had been closed, and that Hermit Gulch had only re-opened 2 days before my arrival my disappointment turned to feeling lucky that I was able to hike and camp at all.
I was able to hike 3 of the 5 legs of the TCT and stay at 4 of the 5 campgrounds. Including the 2 legs I hadn’t previously done.
Hermit Gulch to Blackjack
Hannon + McKenzie
I met Hannon + McKenzie near the beginning of the Hermit Gulch to Blackjack walk. I’d passed a small fork in the trail and the path I was on seemed to be going in the wrong direction for a while. I bumped into them as I was backtracking my steps and turned to their superior navigational skills. Turns out I was heading the right way. It’s just a lot walking SE so you can eventually go NW.
Halfway between Hermit Gulch and Blackjack is the Haypress Recreational Area. It’s got picnic tables, fresh water, toilets, and a small play area. We stopped there for lunch.
PRO TIP: The taller, more impressive looking slide is kind of boring. The shorter slide with the curve in it is way funnerer.
Blackjack to Airport in The Sky
Airport in the Sky
I think everyone agreed that a “Bison Burger” tastes sort of identical to a “Cow Burger.”
PRO TIP: Maybe mix-up the Bison Burger prep to give it a unique taste? Tenderize it a bit less, add some pepper and a dash of BBQ, and prepare it more well done than the rare-ish burger I got? Could be good!
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Airport in The Sky to Little Harbor
At Shark Harbor Kyle said that his “real life” was so demanding that it was hard to get away for trips like this. That he wanted to experience as much as he could during this special time.
A day later at dinner with Hannon + McKenzie in Two Harbors I asked them if that other life is “real life”? And this “trail life” some alt life or dream or fantasy?
At the end of Psych 135 - Social Psychology, at UCLA, Barry Collins’ parting advice to us was simple and notable, “Balance in all things.”
Barry said that if he spent all his time attending to institutional demands he wasn’t very happy. And if he only focused on personal satisfaction things quickly became a mess.
Maybe all life is “real life”.
One day in South Carolina my cousin Kathryn reluctantly followed some soldiers she’d been ministering to in jumping off a huge cliff. She put a pause in her run to leap at exactly the wrong place. Instead of landing in the water, she crashed on the rocks below and shattered her femur.
Emergency paramedics arrived to evacuate her. I wasn’t there, but I’ve been told that before she’d allow them to lift her broken body, she required them to answer a question, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?”
It was a funny moment in a terrifying day. A day so agonizing that even many weeks and many miles away from the event it still, and always, makes me tremble to my core.
If you spend enough time with people you meet on the trail you might eventually discuss Jesus Christ. Or whether you think Donald Trump is the messiah, or the devil. Or any other ideological topics.
What’s great about time on the trail is that these are rarely the first topics. Instead we might focus on the weather. Or how your body is handling, or not handling, the pounds on your back and the miles under your feet.
I’m only aware of 3 uses for Facebook:
Sharing cute baby photos
Yelling at people you putatively love over their “stupid” ideological positions
A multinational corporation deconstructing your human essence, grinding you into a paste, and producing an almost infinite number of derivative products to sell to corporations and governments.
On the trail all of that feels a million miles away. Instead of arguing over worldviews, we coordinate navigating over miles of trail and thousands of feet of ascent and descent. These aren’t the only things that matter. Still, the trail feels like a place to share common experience more than a place to yell at each other.
The sounds of the surf outside my Shark Harbor tent were so soothing! I'm not sure what it is about surf? Because our primordial ancestors crawled out of the sea? IDK! What I do know is that my little on-camera microphones in my tent weren't up to capturing the sound at all. So here's a sample of, well, sort of nothing. Next time I'll bring nicer microphones.
Mark said that the surf was so loud that it kept him awake. It was loud! But for me it didn’t keep me awake. It felt so right. I’d love to get a decent recording next time and play it at home. When you’re actually there on the beach with all the sand and crisp air, it’s remarkable.
Every night of the trip, even at Fly & Fog Blackjack, I slept as well or better than I do at home. And always longer than I do at home. At home I’m always so busy with something “important”. On the trail activity becomes much more synchronized with the rising and setting of the sun.
The Light Bulb & The Electric Grid
I’m always surprised to remember that the Light Bulb and the Electric Grid are both only about 150 years old. Before that, if the sun wasn’t up, you could light a candle or lamp, or go to sleep. For the 40,000 years of our species cultural history, and the 100,000 years of our species history, our human ancestors existed without light bulbs. Probably nobody was sleep deprived.
Sometimes when I teach upper paleolithic art in my classes, I’ll ask my students to spend one night with no electricity. To try to get some small sense of how these ancient humans existed. Most students will say that this was the hardest thing they had to do all semester. And then one or two will say, “I’m a park ranger. I do that all the time.”
Little Harbor to Two Harbors
The Elusive Catalina Island Fox
I saw, but have no proof.
McKenzie + Hannon have proof, but did not see.
During this trip we’ve been a little too close to bison and had to have a ranger nudge them off the hiking trail. We’ve riposted with food stealing ninja squirrels. And everyone has wondered if they’ll have the chance to see the elusive Island Fox.
Unlike the bison and palm trees that were introduced to Catalina by Hollywood directors in the last hundred years, the Island Fox is believed to have been on Catalina for 5,000 years. The island fox lives on six of the eight California Channel Islands. And nowhere else on Earth. The tiny island fox is the apex predator of Catalina.
Where’d the crystal critters go?
— Finn, The Last Jedi
In 1998 there were about 1,300 island fox on Catalina. Between 1998 & 1999 a virus wiped out 90% of the population. It is believed that only about 130 island fox survived. Thanks to a captive breeding program the Catalina Island Fox population today is believed to be about 1,600. The United States Fish & Wildlife Service has “down-listed” the fox from “Endangered” to “Threatened.”
Yesterday on the trail from Blackjack to The Airport I stopped to take off my warm clothes. My pack was on one side of the trail as I changed on the other. An Island Fox walked up and stood near my pack for a moment. When I gestured to pick up my camera it darted instantly into the brush.
McKenzie + Hannon have proof, but did not see.
I saw, but have no proof.
I didn’t know there was this much green in the whole galaxy.
— Rey, The Force Awakens
I flipped through my September and October 2021 pictures and the whole island is brown. It’s amazing how green the island is here in April 2023. All those “atmospheric rivers” of March were good for something. The island is so green! And with so many wildflowers.
Green, green, green!
Except for our first leg from Hermit Gulch to Blackjack, the entire walk was overcast. That first leg was intense with direct sun and no shade. The temperature was, surprisingly, only around 65°F. It felt a lot hotter.
Hiking on overcast and even foggy days is more pleasant. Even so, there’s a certain smallness vs the brilliance of a vibrant solar day.
Still, rainy March and overcast (“June Gloom”) April are part of why the island is so green! There’s plenty of sun to come in the months ahead. But, I don’t know if this island will ever be this green again.
And the Fog rolls in
From Little Harbor to The Pagoda the walk was clear. At the pagoda I sat to have some food. As I sat there the fog rolled in and the clear view of the trail I’d just walked was replaced with a misty haze. As I walked forward, fog rolled up the side of the island and streamed across the trail. Kind of like this:
Teresa, Mark, and that Damn Squirrel
The Voyage Home
Teresa + Mark
Just about everyone I met on the trail had planned to stay at Parson’s Landing. Teresa + Mark and I finished at Two Harbors and headed home. Hannon + McKenzie and Kyle stayed another day and did the whole 14 mile Parson’s loop in a day without camping at the still closed Parson’s Landing Campground.