Weekend Trip: Catalina Island

Santa Catalina Island, a mere 22 miles of ocean from the crawling sprawl of the City of Angels, has long been a sanctuary for those people looks to escape the frenetic pace of Southern California living. Bison roam the hills (left after being brought over for a movie in the ’20s), chaparral covers 90 percent of the land and fish are plentiful in the clear, unpolluted water.

Over half a million people visit the chunk of rock each year to scuba dive, kayak, dock their sailboats, get off their cruise ship, run a marathon or just party in Avalon, the only incorporated town on the island.

My girlfriend, Thea, and I wanted to do it a little differently. We loaded up our overnight camping gear in drybags, rolled up two inflatables, grabbed our paddles and hopped on the Saturday morning ferry from Newport Harbor, a short drive from our home in Dana Point.

It was a partially cloudy November day with only a light breeze and temperatures in the high 60s when we stepped off the ferry to Avalon. We spread our gear out on the boardwalk in town and started organizing our gear. A bearded, obese guy in basketball shorts serenaded us as I pumped up the boards as Thea filled our water bladders. After fielding questions from five different groups of people about what we were doing, we pushed off into the calm water.

We took our time paddling up the coast, stopping to talk and gaze at the hills and speculate as to the lives of the people that own multi-million-dollar yachts. Garibaldi dotted the rock reef below us in orange flashes.

Goat Harbor, our chosen camp spot, was empty. There are three primitive campsites there and none of them were filled. The hills behind camp were steep and covered in oak trees, leading to the beach covered in round, grape-sized rock that crunched pleasingly under foot while we set up camp. As the sun set, we realized that we were in view of millions of people with Venice Beach, Malibu and Long Beach just across the channel from us. Yet we were alone.

Or we thought we were. As we stirred hot water into our freeze-dried dinners, we heard rock crumbling down a cliff south of camp. Our headlamps illuminated two reflective eyes that were quickly approaching. An Island Fox, native to the Channel Islands and small, grey and auburn, emerged from the darkness and walked within 10 feet of us. He looked at us, took a couple sniffs, then turned his bushy tail and scurried off over the boulders on the shore. It must have found a meal from campers there before.

After our evening excitement, we fell asleep to the sound of stones churning across each other in the shore pound.

Before I even unzipped the tent in the morning, I knew we were in trouble. A gusty 15-knot wind buffeted the nylon walls and bent the poles inward. When I looked, shoulder-high whitecaps were coming in the very direction that we had to paddle to get back to Avalon. Breakfast was a quick affair and we stuffed our gear quickly into our drybags and shoved off.

It took us two hours to paddle less than two miles. Thea paddled on her knees. I stood occasionally, if only to give my knees a break. Then, right as we came around Long Point, the wind died. We had two hours to make the afternoon ferry and had to paddle twice as fast for the next two hours to make it. We started cranking.

We made it with ten minutes to spare and shuffled onto the ferry with Mexican families, European tourists, drunk Orange County bros and snuggling couples. The sun set over the island as we pulled out of the harbor. Thea and I raised expensive, pre-mixed margaritas to our weekend adventure across the channel.

Do It Yourself

How To Get There: We took off from Newport on the Catalina Flyer (we got a great deal on Groupon). There are also ferries from Dana Point, Long Beach and San Pedro.

What You Need:
Inflatable boards (they don’t allow hard boards on the ferry; we used ULI Boards; rental info here), paddles (including a three-piece backup), pump, drybags, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, camp stove, freeze dried meals, warm clothes, paddling clothes, snorkel gear, first-aid kit, headlamp, water (we used MSR Dromedary bags), CamelBak, hat, sunglasses.

Where To Stay:
We reserved our campsite at Goat Harbor, which is a 6.25-mile paddle from Avalon. Check out Visitcatalinaisland.com for more info.

Backwaters is a series by SUP magazine that highlights less-known and less-populated paddling destinations.

More Backwaters here.