August 15, 2016

Photo Essay: The Island Where the Buffalo Roam

Catalina is the Channel Island that probably most people have heard of or have actually been to. It's pretty easy to take one of several daily ferries, or fly or sail there yourself.

You can arrive at one of two small communities, but most people go to the City of Avalon.

When you disembark at the Avalon ferry terminal, you're greeted by tiled fountains, quaint restaurants...

...and a parade of colorfully painted bison statues.

Once you notice one bison, they seem to pop up everywhere.

You're not likely to see any real bison—taxonomically, the same thing as American buffalo—in Avalon, no matter how far you drive your rented golf cart.

But Avalon is just a tiny speck on the island of Santa Catalina.

And to embark on a search for the real living bison that roam the island's wild interior, you have to either hike or hitch a ride with a tour company's bus, van, or—in the case of the "East End Adventure"—a Humvee.

And it is a hot, sweaty, sunny, dusty, bumpy ride...

...even before you leave the pavement.

But where it really starts to get wild is at the turnoff of Renton Mine Road, past the gate where no other vehicles are allowed...

...and most people hoof it along this section of the Trans-Catalina Trail.

Like many other parts of Southern California, Catalina was mined—specifically, for silver—but the island wasn't productive enough to ultimately make it worth the miners' while.

The really profitable natural resource of Catalina was the scenery itself, which made it a good investment for chewing gum magnate and baseball bigwig William Wrigley, Jr.

Wrigley's purchase of the island and the Santa Catalina Island Company largely contributed to its development...

...including the infrastructure that exists today and that's allowed Catalina to be a tourism and recreation destination for nearly a century (save for the years during WWII that the U.S. military took hold and evacuated civilians).

After all, the Humvee can get over a lot of rough roads—but not without a little help.

From up on top of the Divide Road, where many fire breaks actually masquerade as side trails, you can look down upon Catalina's busy harbor—as well as its school and condo housing for its workers.

You can also look out and, on a clear day, see San Clemente—another one of the Channel Islands that's currently controlled by the Navy (and notoriously difficult to visit).

But it's kind of nice to just enjoy where you are, rather than looking out at what you can see from where you are.

After all, these hills, the black sage, the prickly pears, the Saint Catherine's Lace, the bald eagles, and the owls that are right there can only be seen by most people in the movies that Hollywood shot here.

But if you're lucky, you can see a bison (or a few) that descended from those that Hollywood crews brought to Catalina Island and then left here to roam and reproduce.

Wrigley reportedly liked the bison and brought even more to the island—but after a few decades of thriving with no natural predators in sight, they were choking Catalina of its resources.

Now, their population is kept to a manageable size by giving the females birth control (reportedly, one that wasn't effective enough in its human clinical trials, but that's "good enough" for bison).

At some point, when the "usual suspect" bison aren't showing up at their watering holes or where the conservancy leaves out some straw for them to nibble on, you've got to head back down the hill.

And the most exciting way to do that is via the 19th century era Stagecoach Road, built for horse-drawn wagons that would take early tourists down the descent at breakneck speed, past ornamental (but not native) eucalyptus trees.

And as you round the bend of Wishbone Loop—built for those wagons that couldn't make a hairpin turn—you're on the fast-track back to civilization.

Of course, although Avalon is a town without free-range bison or endemic island foxes crossing your path, you do get plenty of sightings of ravens and the occasional ground squirrel.

And since everybody pretty much gets around by foot, bike, boat, or golf cart, it does feel like a very separate place—in a very different time—than the mainland.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Up and Into Catalina's Wild Interior
Dangling from a Wire
Photo Essay: The Island That Prisoners Pioneered
Photo Essay: The Island the Ranchers Left Behind
The Island of the Blue Dolphins and One Lone Woman

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