26 July 2009

Ben Weston Beach and back again

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Who hiked:  me, Bill, Thing1, Thing2

Hike route: Trailhead on Middle Ranch Road to Ben Weston Beach and back

Time:  2-5:20, with time to play on the beach

Estimated distance: 3.6 miles round-trip

Temp:  mid 70s, mostly cloudy, light wind

So Thing2's birthday is coming up and he has been requesting a trip to Ben Weston Beach.  Today we decided to make this wish come true...

This hike is a great one for folks who like flat routes -- and not many of these exist on Catalina!  The trailhead is at a pull-out on the road to Middle Ranch; there is a sign for the trail.  It is 1.8 miles to the beach (according to the sign) and the trail follows a dry streambed for much of its distance.  You descend very briefly from the road to the floor of Ben Weston Canyon and hike along the valley floor until you reach the beach.  You cross two or three intermittent streams and one permanent stream in the first half-mile and all are easy to cross.  I've hiked this trail several times in both wet and dry seasons and the permanent stream has always held water.  There were Pacific treefrog tadpoles (Pseudacris regilla) in the water and interesting plants alongside the streams -- horsetails (aka scouring rushes, genus Equisetum -- see the photo), monkey flower (Mimulus sp.), cottonwoods...  I think that Equisetum is one of the coolest plants ever.  They are an ancient group, arising in the Paleozoic, and are common in coal deposits from the Carboniferous -- only 350 million years ago!  Any group of organisms that survived the Permian extinction and the extinction of the dinosaurs must be doing something right.  We saw a spotted towhee here too.  There were a lot of lizards (Uta stansburiana) along the trail, including small ones about an inch long.

We were probably about  75% of the way to the beach when suddenly we came upon a bison.  It was dust-bathing along the trail.  The bison really like Ben Weston Canyon as evidenced by the number of dust-bathing sites along the trail and the amount of bison dung strewn along the path.  Check under dried bison patties for organisms -- we found an endemic Catalina Jerusalem cricket under one earlier this year.  But back to the bison at hand...  All four of us stepped off the trail about 10 feet onto a game trail that led to the dry streambed adjacent to the trail.  The hubby walked down the creek bed (no mean feat, given the brush overgrowing it) a bit until he was behind the bison where he made lots of noise in the bushes.  The bison proceeded to walk up the trail (toward us), stopped to look at us through the brush, then meandered further up the trail away from our location.  Thing2 nearly had a cow he was so scared.  But while bison are really freakin' huge, they generally want to get on with the business of eating, pooping, and making baby bison.  As we weren't stopping the big guy from doing any of these three things, he just moseyed on by us.  Actually he wasn't a particularly large bison, so he probably was a young male who wasn't getting much action in the making baby bison department.

Ben Weston Beach is probably my favorite beach on the island.  Usually we are the only people there, the beach is wide, the surf is good, and the area is quiet.  We hung around the beach with the Things playing "Sanderling" -- they run down the beach as a wave recedes, then race back up the beach as a new wave comes in.  Just like a sanderling.  Unlike a sanderling, they often misjudge the wave and end up getting walloped.  Especially at Ben Weston where the waves can be big.  And so they were today.  It was fairly brutal, actually as the waves carried sand with them that scoured your legs and feet as they washed over you.  We also had some fun digging mole crabs out of the sand.  You find them in the swash zone -- the area of the beach that the waves wash over, but up from where waves initially crash against the beach.  Patches of sand with mole crabs are easy to identify by the "V" shapes of their antennae that are visible for a few seconds as the wave recedes.  You have to be quick -- the crabs are exposed by the wave, then furiously dig deeper in the sand so they aren't pulled out to sea.  They feed on particles in the water as the waves pass over them and move up and down the beach in synchronization with the tides.  Pretty cool, eh?

It was not low tide, so no good intertidal organisms to see on the rocks at either end of the beach.  There are offshore rocks at the west end of the beach where I saw about ten sleeping sea lions.  Another rock had at least a dozen brown pelicans perched on it.  While at the beach I saw double-crested cormorants, western gulls, brown pelicans, and house wrens.  

After about 1.5 hours, we headed back to the truck.  I had forgotten, but hubby had not, that the US v. Mexico soccer match (Gold Cup final) was being re-broadcast at 5 PM.  So he wanted to get home for a hot date with Fox Soccer Channel (no reason to hurry -- it was a very frustrating game that the US lost 0-5).  Anyway, we brushed the sand off our feet, put our hiking shoes back on, and headed back up the trail to our vehicle.  

The trip back was uneventful except that Thing2 (hungry, tired, and chafed) complained almost incessantly and Thing1 stopped a number of times to pick lemonadeberry fruits.  They taste like (yes) lemonade.  You suck on them for a few seconds, then spit the fruit out.  They are sour, but tasty!  We were nearly back to the truck when we ran across our bison friend again.  This time he was tougher to budge from the trail.  Encouraging bison to move out of your way is a fairly delicate process but Bill crashed about in the thicket next to the trail while the Things and I waited several yards off the trail.  Soon enough the bison moved far enough away that we could comfortably walk past him.  We sent each Thing in turn with instructions to run until they got to the road as the bison was still looking at us, a touchy situation.

We were on the road to home by 5:20, another successful hike under our belts.  We don't see many birds when on hikes with the Things, but singing hiking songs, discussing bison poop,  and having Thing1 pretend to be an Tongva guide make it worth it!

Hammocks hike to Silver Peak Trail

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Who hiked:  me

Hike route:  Loop up hammock hike from WE Road, cut over to Silver Peak Trail and back down

Time:  9-12

Estimated distance: ? miles

Temp:  mid 70s, sunny, light wind

I headed out from Two Harbors along the West End Road at 0900 -- it's sunny, the sky is blue, and there are almost no clouds in sight and I have to think, "What a great day for a hike."  Along the road, I saw or heard the usual assortment of birds: Northern mockingbirds, western gulls, European starlings, Northern ravens, and orange-crowned warblers.  It's funny how these birds have become part of the background for me.  About five minutes later, I was at the base of the trail that headed up the ridge.  We call this climb "Godhilla".  

I think a word about trails on Catalina is probably appropriate here.  Most trails on the island were not designed for hikers, at least as far as I can tell.  Some are roads (designed for motorized vehicles), some are firebreaks (designed to prevent the spread of wildfires), and the rest are animal tracks ("designed" by deer or bison, mostly).  So "switchback" is not part of the lexicon of any of these trailmakers...  those babies just head UP and don't stop until they get to the top!  While this does make for the shortest distance between the top and the bottom, it is not usually a pleasant situation for the two-legged walker.

Now I've hiked part of this route before (in January -- see the photos on my Facebook page!) and so I knew that the initial uphill part was steep and fairly long.  We don't call it Godhilla for nothing. It was tough for me in January, but I was sure that it would be easier this time.  I was four months farther down the road on my recovery from surgery last October after all.  So I get off the road, and begin to climb.  And climb.  Stop to breathe.  Climb some more.  Pretend I'm looking for interesting rocks while I stop to breathe.  Climb.  At about 0930, I'm almost to the top, but I'm not feeling great.  So much for the sentiment that I'd do better in May than I did in January!  I'm really sweating by this point and decide that I will sit to watch the barge that has come into replenish the goods in the Two Harbors General Store (Food, Souvenirs, Fishing and Boating Supplies, and Booze.  Lots of Booze).  I always assumed that it went to the dock and had the containers taken off with a crane, but apparently they pull up to the beach and offload there.  At least I think so -- there's no activity in the five minutes or so that I sit and watch.  It's hazy today.  I can see the outline of the Palos Verdes Peninsula and the mountains beyond on the mainland, but I can't see much detail.  In the other direction (SW) I can't see San Clemente Island.   Soon I decide that I've rested long enough -- I have a lot of hiking left to do if I'm going to finish my planned route before Thing2 gets out of school.

Ten minutes later, I've almost made it to the summit of the first hill, where there is a trail headed off to the left that goes to the hammocks -- a lovely spot to sit and relax with a great view of the Isthmus and Cat Harbor and the mainland.  But today, my plan is to forge ahead into uncharted (for me) territory -- to climb the rest of the ridge and get to the trail that cuts over to the Silver Peak/Trans-Catalina trail which is on an adjacent ridge.  So I head up the rest of the mountain and find a USGS geodetic marker with a lizard (Uta stansburiana) on top.  Now I can find that (a) I don't really see where I need to go -- makes me a bit nervous and (b) this ridge is not very flat.  Five minutes later I've moved along the ridge and can see San Clemente Island now -- its a long, low hump that rises out of the haze, without a clear beginning or end.  I feel really crappy, but I'm proud of myself -- I'm a long way up from where I started!  On the way, I have heard a spotted towhee singing; the song is similar to the Eastern towhee, but with more intro notes and a trill that is buzzier and less musical.  Seen more orange-crowned warblers in the scrub, barn swallows feeding on the wing overhead, and another spotted towhee scratching under the bushes near the trail -- I even get a glimpse of this one. 

I'm a bit torn at this point.  I've been hiking about an hour and I'm not very far along.  And I don't really know how far or how tough the rest of the hike is.  Will I be able to get back by 12:30?  That's when I need to get Thing2 from kindergarten...  Should I turn around and go back on the hammocks route?  I decide to keep moving -- there will still be time to turn around if I need to.  

About a half-hour later, I'm over the third or so peak on the ridge and I can clearly see the trail that cuts across a saddle to the Silver Peak Trail.  I decide to go for it.  Thankfully the trail skirts the summit of the next peak -- small mercies!  The plants along the hike include the usual:  scrubby oaks, Opuntia, lemonadeberry, and other plants I don't know yet.  There are some lovely small purple primrose-looking plants and some small yellow lily-type plants.  They look like yellow Stars of Bethlehem.

There are lots of Uta up here -- small lizards that live on the ground.  The males have very handsome orange sides.  I don't know if it's the weather or the habitat, but they're everywhere!

By 1045, I've reached the trail that cuts over to the Silver Peak trail.  The trail I'm on makes a T-junction with the trail up from Lion Head.  Going right takes you down to the West End road, at Lion Head, past Cherry Valley.  Going left takes you over to the Silver Peak trail, which is also part of the Trans-Catalina Trail.  I went left; it was deceptively flat-looking from a distance, but up close it was rolling up and down and at that point, I was pretty tired of up.  On this part of the hike, there is actually some shade!  And in the oaks along the trail, I see warblers -- Townsend's warblers and a hermit warblers -- new life-listers for me!  I get great looks at them -- they're beautiful.

By about 1100, I've intersected the Silver Peak trail, then I headed down.  Fairly steep down.  Remember -- no switchbacks.  By this time I'm tired and paying less attention to my surroundings, but I still hear and see mockingbirds, ravens, some swallows, and a few lizards.  By 1120 I'm at a flat section of trail above Wells Beach -- almost there!  And it's flat!  Hallelujah!!  The mockingbirds are in full-force here, flying about and scolding everything that moves.  The flat part ends (sigh), but I reach Wells Beach at the base of the trail around 1135.  The walk home from here is a flat road along Catalina Harbor -- good birdwatching for terns, western gulls, and ravens.  I see house finches in the scrub along the road.  I'm home by five minutes to noon! I even have time for a shower!

Eagle Nest Road

Saturday, 3 May 2009

Who hiked:  me, Bill, Thing1 (8), Thing2 (5)

Hike route:  Loop from Eagle Nest

Time:  about 1:30 - 4:30 PM

Estimated distance:  5 miles

Temp:  low 70s, partly cloudy

The hike headed uphill first.  Lots of good rocks here -- many crystals, interesting colors and types.  Found three velvet ants -- looked at them with Thing2's bug sucker.  Birds:  chipping sparrows (singing too), ravens, mockingbirds, quail (heard)  Good views of Little Harbor, Shark Harbor, vineyards at Rancho Escondido.  Get back on road before fence before Ben Weston.  Here road goes up, down, then back up and down.  About 2 miles on the road (measured in truck later).  Best route seems to be to go from Eagle Nest and up, rather than starting down the road first -- the uphills are then broken into smaller, more manageable pieces and the big hill is down into Ben Weston Canyon instead of up from Ben Weston!