The group realized time had stretched away from us when we into into Two Harbors on Catalina Island (permanent population 150) and it felt like a big, glittering city.
Guests of the Catalina Ocean Experience, hosted by ocean icons Morgan Hoesterey and Anthony Vela had spent two days on the west side of the island, facing the open Pacific Ocean, feeling worlds away from the hustle of millions of people across the channel in the greater Los Angeles area. Buffalo roamed the hills (leftover from a Hollywood movie shoot), Queen palms fluttered in the west wind and Island Fox sniffed around camp in search of food.
The four-day/three night camping itinerary contained plenty of activities to occupy the fit group of paddlers in attendance but there were respectful chunks of time built into the schedule. Hoesterey and Vela wanted everyone to push themselves, to learn new skills but also to enjoy their time in this slow-moving place.
The first day we paddled from Cat Harbor (on the west side of the isthmus in Two Harbors) down to Little Harbor, exploring natural blowholes, dodging kelp forests and ogling at the disintegrating mass of the island as it fell steeply into the sea. Beside boats, planes and us, there were no signs of human life. The afternoon was spent settling into camp and trying to get good photos of the resident bison. “Be careful,” a sheriff’s deputy warned us. “There have already been two people gored this year.” Duly noted.
Besides being a badass prone and SUP paddler, Hoesterey is also an ace freediver and instructor. Her skills were up on day two after we’d paddled south from Little Harbor, exploring rock crevices, backwash waves and extensive kelp groves. Everyone participated in static breath holds; after doing a five-minute breathe-up and receiving extensive coaching on how to best oxygenate our blood and stay calm, we held our breath as long as we could. Every single person surprised themselves, a testament to Hoesterey’s teaching skills. The next day, we did line dives in the protected waters off the east side of Two Harbors.
For much of the afternoons we were free to roam. Some of us bodysurfed in the disconcertingly named Shark Harbor. Others napped with their tent doors open to the summer breeze. Some took off on foot across the sparse Baja-like landscape. All took part in early evening cocktail hour. Daylight culminated in “Beer Yoga” a short session led by Thea Hutchinson to limber up our bodies after long, but relaxing, days seeking Catalina’s many secrets (morning sessions were longer and more vigorous with attendance determined by how late one had stayed up by the campfire the night before).
Maybe the most unexpected surprises of the trip were the skills of Vela’s good friend Caleb Havens. Havens is a knife maker and outdoor enthusiast based in San Clemente, California. Not only did he and Jason Meffe make sure the group was fed and cared for but he also gave us some lessons in bush craft. After much qualifying and tempering of expectations, Havens had the group participate in making a friction fire. Yes—rubbing two sticks (mule fat, found in the area immediately around camp and one Havens knew was good for fire starting) together. After about ten minutes we had an ember in the friction dust and after some careful breathes into a pile of carefully made tinder, a 100-percent natural fire sparked to life in Havens’ hands. Our feast for the evening was heated up over that same fire.
No one left the island without learning something new. No one left without a smile on their face. We’d left behind the modern frenzy of life, watching the sun move across the sky instead of checking our Instagram, laughing around the fire instead of watching television and transporting ourselves by water and foot instead of by freeway. Our natural sense of time had been restored and we could carry it forward inside of ourselves, memories to remind us of the natural pleasures in life.