Surviving Catalina Island

Surviving Catalina Island

Before we begin this tale of horror and despair, you should remember four words: California blueschist, and Buffalo Milk. They both play key parts in this saga of humankind’s struggle to survive in the face of nature’s fury.

But we should start at the beginning…a good way to start any story. In a previous life, my work required me to travel quite a bit. Having two small sons, I naturally came down with the “Bad Dad Complex.” I wanted to spend more time with them, but it was difficult when you were attending a convention in New Orleans, or a meeting in Las Vegas.  The remedy was to make sure the time we had to together be memorable. This is one of the reasons I joined the local Family Y’s Indian Guides program. It allowed dads to exculpate their guilt for not being around all the time. For dads with little girls, there was an Indian Princess program. We’d meet regularly to go for pizza, bowl, attend a baseball game, or have cookouts. Several times during the year we would go camping. One of the biggest thrills for my boys was to go to Camp Fox on Catalina Island. There were very nice cabins and bunks, and a pretty good mess hall.  For a change, however, the decision one year was made to go to Catalina, but not Camp Fox. We decided to “rough it” and camp at Two Harbors.

Two Harbors got its name from the fact that the small settlement has…two harbors. It’s located at the pinched isthmus of the island.  During high tide, one could jog from the harbor on north side of the island to the harbor on the south side of the island in a few minutes. A distance of about one-half mile. As one gets off the ferry from the mainland, one of the first sights is the Harbor Reef Restaurant with its large sign, “Home of Buffalo Milk.” As there are only about 300 residents of Two Harbors, the restaurant and its sign are quite noticeable. I asked one of the other dads, “What’s Buffalo Milk?” “Oh, you’re going to find out,” he said.

We loaded all our gear on our backs and began the quarter mile trek along a narrow path than ran across the face of a steep hill. The campsites themselves were built on the side of this same hill. The boys and I set up our tent and I filled my large air mattress.  I’m not ashamed to say that I suffer from “The Princess and the Pea” syndrome.  The tiniest pebble will keep me awake all night. We roasted our weenies and went to bed.

The next morning was gorgeous.  We all went on a nature hike with a ranger who explained to us that this part of the island, including the entire area around Two Harbors, was made from California blueschist (a metamorphic rock for those who didn’t know) and the mineral talc. Tectonic pressure had formed them intosomething called soapstone.  She laughed as she said that when it got wet, stepping on soapstone was like stepping on a wet bar of soap. I missed the foreshadowing of her statement.

We spent the rest of the day gamboling along the trails and looking at the buffalo that roam the island.  We avoided the wild pigs at the ranger’s suggestion. They had grown surly and puckish watching the tourists eat well. We grilled hamburgers for dinner.  Once the kiddies were asleep, the dads decided to make the treacherous trek across the face of the hill toward the Harbor Reef and its promise of Buffalo Milk.

We were not disappointed. We ordered many, many Buffalo Milk bowls. This concoction is made by adding half shots of crème de cocoa, Kailua, and crème de banana to a large bowl glass.  A shot of vodka is then added.  Ice is put in the bowl.  It is all mixed. This is all topped with whipped cream and nutmeg. To finish, a half shot of Patron Café is floated on top. The aches and pains of the day soon were washed away. Dads who couldn’t stand each either became good friends. We were finally kicked out at closing time. None of us remembered the quarter mile march back to the campground.  We did notice, however, that it had started to drizzle. As no rain had been predicted, we all assumed it was from the fog that had rolled in.

Nestled in my Buffalo Milk-aided arms of Morpheus, I was awakened around 3:00 AM by the sounds of rain pounding down on our tent. Ahhh, it was soothing. I’m glad I spent the extra $5 for a waterproof tent.  About two hours later I had a beautiful dream about floating on a cloud. Then terror gripped me by the throat! I wasn’t floating on a cloud. I was awake and floating on my air mattress. Note to any prospective campers out there: DO NOT pitch your tent with the front flap facing uphill. Water was running down the hill.  There was about three inches of water inside of my waterproof tent. I groped for my lantern and saw that the boys were still sleeping in sleeping bags that were quickly soaking up water. I grabbed my floating food cooler and threw the food on the floor, putting the remaining dry clothes for the boys inside of it. I woke them up and told them that the end was near! Stepping outside of my tent, I could see by the rising sun that every tent was flooded and the chaos and panic were spreading. It was just then that I realized that my right foot and shin had disappeared into the, until now, dry California blueschist. My brain’s cortex activated the “fight or flee” reaction. Flee won. Every dad was with me. It was time to evacuate.

Easier said than done.  I put the cooler outside of the tent and made the boys sit on it. I struck the tent, wrapping it up into a roll with their sleeping bags and my now deflated air mattress into it. I was able to jam everything into the duffel that had previously carried our clothes.  Fortunately, a group of fraternity guys from San Diego State who were camping above us were awakened by the cries of 20 sobbing children, and a few adults.  They walked-slipped down the hill to help us. The boat back to LA wasn’t due for another five hours, but we knew we had to get down to the pier…or at least to the Harbor Reef for some Buffalo Milk to “make the pain go away.” We threw handfuls of cash at them, screaming for them to help us. For only $40 I was able to get two of them to take my boys and the cooler with their dry clothes on the dangerous trek across the face of the hill, which being made of soapstone, was now a Slip-n-Slide, which could quickly send them careening down to the rocky shore. As they set out, I shouted to them that I loved them.

I plunged my arm into the blueschist muck and retrieved my boot that had been sucked off when I pulled my leg out.  I picked up the packed and wet duffel.  I figured that it must have weighed around 900 pounds. I was NOT going to leave anything behind…except for the bacon, eggs, milk, beer, cereal, hamburger, beer, Capri Suns, Cheetos, pretzels, and beer that I reluctantly left behind. I did a dead lift of the duffel and placed it over my shoulders behind my neck. Stooped like Jean Valjean, I started the quarter mile trek across of the side of the hill that had become a torrent of liquid soap.

Two steps. Slip and fall on my face.  Two steps. Slip and fall on my face. The boys OWE me for this. About an hour later, I made it to the pier and was reunited with my boys, who expressed their amazement about watching Dad’s struggles coming across the Hill of Death. I gave the frat boys another $20 to watch my guys until the boat came, and immediately retired to the Harbor Reef where the dads consumed mass quantities of Buffalo Milk.

The boat arrived.  We all straggled on. As the boat left Two Harbors, we were able to see our deserted campground. There were at least a dozen abandoned tents that were now flapping in the wind as the rain and wind had gotten worse. But most terrifying was the sight of dozens of wild pigs running amok in our campground, feasting on our abounded goodies. Several of us swore that we saw at least three of the pigs standing on their hind legs, grabbing their crotches, and giving us the hoof.

Of course, every one of us became seasick on the way back.  So much fun.



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