2009 Trip Report - Catalina Island
4WD Catalina Trip
June 6-7, 2009
By Nan Savage
Rescheduled from last February due to rain, the DE Catalina trip was threatened again by seasonally unusual rainfall in June in Southern California, but we pressed forward undaunted, and the rain did not materialize; we had fine weather for the trip. Assembling on Saturday morning at the Catalina Conservancy office in “downtown” Avalon, the group included Barb and Bill Gossett, Jim and Kristen Proffitt, Bob Jacoby, and Nan Savage. Barb, Bill, Bob and Nan had traveled over on the same ship Friday afternoon from the mainland. Barb, who had never been on the ocean before, enjoyed the voyage as the modern catamaran gives a surprisingly fast and smooth ride.
In 1887 Avalon was called “Tim’s Landing,” but the more romantic name, Avalon, from the myth of King Arthur, caught on later. Just up the street from the Catalina Conservancy office are a number of modest bungalows built for vacationers in the 1920’s. They sold at the time for $450 each, and my father’s parents bought one.
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As a youth, my father spent his summers there. He developed his first entrepreneurial skills on the island, when, with his four brothers, he delivered Western Union telegraphs on his bicycle. His service was more modern than the previous carrier pigeons which had relayed messages in their beaks for the price of 50 cents per message. Subsequently, my father and mother honeymooned on the island in 1931, at the height of its prominence and popularity, so overall this visit was particularly special for me.
Most people think the island was owned by the Wrigley family of Wrigley’s chewing gum fame. This is true to a point. Actually, as an astute businessman, Wrigley held the island in the corporate title of the Catalina Island Company, so his personal name never appeared on the deed. Our guide, Fred, took seven hours to stretch out this intricate story, teasing us with snippets and clues along the way. Today the Catalina Conservancy controls 88% of the island; 11% is still retained by the Wrigley family under the title Catalina Island Company, and the final 1% comprises the city of Avalon. The only place on the island where one can own private land is Avalon, but we were looking forward to leaving the tourist center behind, no matter how charming it is, to venture into the outback of the island.
Fred Freeman was our 4WD guide. Having lived on the island for over forty years, owning one of only two of the island markets, and having a winning and entertaining personality, we knew we were in for a good trip. Fred told many clever stories, jokes, and gave us fascinating facts about the island and its history. For example, from 1921-1951 the Chicago Cubs held their spring training on Catalina because Wrigley owned that baseball franchise. The Wrigleys built a field on Catalina imitating the exact dimensions of their home field in Chicago.
Catalina Island is one of eight Channel Islands off the coast of California. These islands are essentially soaring mountains that rise out of the sea. On Catalina the highest peak is Mount Orizaba at 2202 feet, but when measured from the bottom of the sea, it actually rises a dramatic 8,000 feet. Catalina is the third largest island in the chain of Channel Islands. Many endemic plants, that is, plants found only on Catalina, can be seen in the back country. We saw, for example, St. Catherine’s lace and the California tree poppy, which blossoms with a myriad of small flowers every single day of the year. From many points we looked from one side of the island to the other, seeing the vibrant colors of the blue Pacific Ocean on both sides of our view.
We travelled the ridge route along the crest of the island and then ventured in and out of several of the canyons, including Coffee Pot Canyon, on challenging dirt roads. We were treated to a very good box lunch along the trail. Fred kept us amused with his never-ending array of jokes and insults. We saw a huge display of prickly pear cacti at the height of their bloom with their marvelous fan of yellow flowers. At one point, Fred showed us a California scrub oak with a prickly pear cactus growing out of its “crotch,” as he called it, a sight none of us had ever seen before.
Several hundred American bison (buffalo) populate the interior of the island. They are left over from a handful brought over in the 1930’s to make a film from the Zane Grey novel, The Vanishing American. However, the bison were cut from the film in the editing room, so they appear now only in the flesh on Catalina Island. The herd is cut periodically, with the extras shipped to Indian reservations to replenish their stock. We were privileged to see a number of buffalo calves, still only one to two weeks old.
We learned that bald eagles used to populate the island, but years of release of DDT from the mainland at the Montrose Chemical Company in Torrance compromised their young eggs, causing them to hatch too soon in order to survive. After fifty years, a project to reintroduce the bald eagle and to ensure that their eggs hatch properly has been a success. By removing the weak eggs from the bald eagles’ nests, substituting fake eggs to fool the mother, then hatching the real eggs in incubators, and finally returning the broken shell and the baby eagle to its mother in the wild, the population has replenished itself. At the Conservancy office, we saw live cam photographs of baby bald eagles in their nests, and those of us who went on the rigid hull inflatable boat trip on the coastline Sunday actually saw the bald eagles nesting along the shore of Catalina.
All of the Channel Islands had military installations during World War II. We visited the site of Catalina’s U.S. World War II military camp in the interior. Bill Gossett caused our guide a fright by walking out on one of the collapsed buildings, which had gone down just a year ago. But Bill was unharmed. Then we visited the original stage coach stop used as the noon rest point during the late 19th century when the stage connected passengers between Avalon and the Isthmus. We also saw Rancho Escondido, the private ranch of the Wrigley family, where award-winning Arabian horses were bred. We also stopped at the Airport in the Sky, the airport for the island, which consists of a rather treacherous runway perched on a mountain peak with major drop-offs on either side. As Fred pointed out, whether rising or falling, you will be in the air when you leave that runway. Fred is actually a private pilot who flies his airplane to the mainland to visit his grown children now scattered about the country. He showed us his plane and told us the story of how one day he took off to discover that his plane’s single propeller had stopped working cold. He radioed the control tower to report the emergency, and the response was a calm, “Well, keep us informed…” He did keep them informed, calling again after he had crash-landed. The airport terminal, as well as many of the historic buildings around Avalon, are decorated with Catalina tiles, the distinctive and colorful decorative tiles manufactured on the island between1927-1937, now very desirable collective items.
After a most enjoyable day, we returned to Avalon. Jim Proffitt noticed that he was missing his wallet, which had evidently fallen behind the seat in the jeep, but he was able to track our driver, Fred, down because everyone in Avalon knows Fred. Then we spent a nice evening dining at the Villa Portofina, an Italian restaurant, where we exchanged stories of the many interesting roads we have traveled in the Western states. The evening was capped off with the showing of a vintage Zane Grey movie from 1935, a Hollywood version of one of the novels by the popular Western writer.