Santa Catalina Island

by Jonathan Monday, November 29th 2010

Located about twenty miles off the California coast, Santa Catalina Island offers visitors one of the best preserved marine environments in the world. The kelp forests that surround the rocky coast support a vast community of marine life, including local fish, seasonal pelagic predators, lobster, and marine mammals.

The island itself is twenty-one miles long, eight miles at its widest, with a fifty-four mile coastline. The steep hills are covered with brown grass and some scrubby trees. There is an extensive trail network for the hiker, and more than a few dirt roads for the cyclist. There are two small communities, Avalon and Two Harbors, where the intrepid backcountry adventurer can resupply, find a place to stay, eat out, or party hearty at a bar.

It is the marine environment, however, that makes Catalina Island an irresistible destination. I go there at every opportunity.

You might ask, “Isn’t that a little far away for a quick vacation?” Well, the coast is no farther away from Tucson than is The Canyon, and it is closer than Utah or the Arizona Strip.

The sea has a special appeal, as does the desert. In fact, they are both all about water, though in different ways. You might say that they are two sides of the same coin.

Anyway, there are a number of ways to get to Catalina Island form the coast. Ferries leave from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point. In two to three hours you can be in either Avalon or Two Harbors. If that is not fast enough, you can take an airplane or helicopter and be there in fifteen minutes.

Since I love to sail, I use a sailboat to get there. A good sized sailboat is like a floating RV. It not only gets you from the coast to any part of the island, but it is also your place to stay once there!

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At one point on our last trip, we anchored in Rippers Cove - a few miles down the coast from Isthmus Cove at Two Harbors. When we had everything squared away, I donned my wetsuit, mask, snorkel, fins and weights, grabbed my speargun, and slipped into the water.

We were in eighteen feet of water and I could see the bottom. In fact, I saw a good sized bat ray resting on the sand. I dived for a closer look and it slowly flew away. I made my way over toward the the rocky cliffs where I found a wall of kelp. I slowly worked along the kelp keeping an eye both on the kelp forest and the open water.

 

 

It was mid-September and I was hoping for some late season yellowtail, which I was hoping to find doing what I was doing - hunting the edge of the kelp forest. I figured it more likely that I might find a good sized calico sea bass in the forest, so I would occasionally dive and poke around in the stalks. Mostly I slowly kicked my way along the surface, breathing through the snorkel, feeling like I could go on forever.

While the game species were disappointing (there were plenty of calicos, but none big enough to shoot), there were plenty of other fish to see - opaleye, halfmoon, kelp clingfish, leopard shark, bat rays, halibut, and the ubiquitous bright orange girabaldi, to name a few.

I noticed the visibility had declined. I could no longer see the bottom form the surface. I looked to my left, to the open water, and saw a school of fish swimming in the opposite direction. Their tails were bright yellow, far brighter than they appear when out of the water. These were the yellowtail I sought. I was mesmerized, as most novice hunters are when the game comes in to view. The now somewhat cloudy water gave them a ghostlike appearance. They moved in unison. I thought them small based on the jerkiness of their swimming, but were they? In the open water, there was no frame of reference. They could have been small and close, or large and further away. I tried to close them, but they managed to keep their distance, eventually fading away. Ham sandwiches for dinner.

That night the moon and the distant glow from the mainland lent a soft dim light to the boat and the shore. There was a hint of phosphorescence when I leaned over the side and stirred the water with my hand. The air was almost still, and I could almost hear the small waves lapping the beach. There was a bare hint of swell which caused the boat to rock gently.

The next day we sailed until the wind died, then motored the rest of the way to Avalon. The community of a few thousand was more charming than I expected, it had an almost Mediterranean flavor - and of course, food and liquor. In back of the casino is a fenced-in, I should say “netted-in”, marine park. I spent an hour or so diving there without the burden of the speargun. They actually built steps so you can walk down into the water.

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We left Avalon and set a course for Long Beach. There was absolutely no wind, and the sea was like glass, so we motored. What would otherwise have been a long slog was saved by a large pod of dolphins who crossed our path. When we met, we turned to their course and they swam and played by our bow and on either side of the boat. With the water like glass, we were treated to a close view of them swimming underwater as well as breaching the surface. What a treat!

I never mind the drive back to Tucson. The feelings of joy and fulfillment last well beyond it.

Trips

Trying a Tri

by dana Thursday, November 18th 2010

The 2010 Tenfoilman Triathlon was a fantastic race for those of us that are triathletes and those of us that are tri-ing to become triathletes. The laid back attitude (and short distances) made it fun for everyone. This triathlon is a sprint distance, meaning that it starts with an 800 meter swim, then a 12 mile bike, and finishes with a 3 mile run. Everyone I mentioned this to has said, “Oh, I could do that!” but funny how none of them have! While I am sure many people can do it, it is a bit different to do all of these things separate verses one right after another!

Previously called the Tinfoilman, this year’s event was renamed Tenfoilman due to it’s 10th anniversary and it being held on 10/10/10. This was my second triathlon (I did the Firecracker this summer) and I could hardly wait. I hadn’t prepared for my first tri (let’s just say a couple weeks before the event a friend and I- who were not signed up for the race- were at a bar… need I say more?) This time around I actually trained and I was ready. My goal was to finish under 1:25, 8 minutes faster than my previous time. To stay motivated, and keep things fun, two of my friends from the Summit Hut, Alison and Stephanie – both doing their first triathlons - joined me.\

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The brave three - (Left to Right: Me, Alison and Stephanie)

Race day started with a 5 am wake up call; I dragged myself out of bed and got rolling. Bikes needed to be racked early and volunteers needed to mark us with our numbers. Due to constraints of swimming in a pool, there were 10 separate waves of swimmers. Alison and Stephanie were in the first wave and since I was in wave seven I had ample time to cheer them on and take photos. A couple hours later, gleaming with excitement from finishing their first triathlon, my friends grabbed some bagels and bananas and came over to cheer me on. Alison gave me some water, Stephanie gave me a pep talk and I headed off toward the pool. A small voice in my head said, “I want to be done too!” but even more so I was excited to get started!

My swim started well, with strong strokes and decent enough flip turns but like most “non-swimmer triathlon newbies” I was unable to keep my pace and had to occasionally give my lungs reprieve by resorting to the trusty breaststroke. On my 33rd (and final) length, I was approaching a significant challenge of the swim- getting out of the pool. This particular pool has a very high edge and with the water being too deep to push from the bottom, I had to flop out of the pool like a beached seal! No matter, I was out and off running towards my bike!

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Trying my best to get out of the pool with grace!

Now, the bike is my thing- my old friend- the part of the event where I am most comfortable. Sadly, I was still huffing most of the first lap never having fully recovered from the swim, but I managed to pull it together enough to look good when passing my cheering section (my husband, son, mother-in-law, Alison, Stephanie and some others). By now, I was pacing (not drafting, as that would be against the rules!) with another cyclist and working hard. We took turns passing one another until the 3rd lap when she put the hurt on me and dropped me like a bad habit. No worries, I was then back in the transition area and in a flash I was off to a wicked slow jog. (Is that an oxymoron?)

My strategy to go as hard as I could on each section was turning out not to be such a great strategy after all… my legs were lead and my lungs were on fire. I thought I might actually have to… (gulp) …walk. Now there is no problem with walking but my goal was to finish the run in fewer than 30 minutes and I needed every one of those seconds to do so. I was still slogging along when my “bike pacer” passed me (I must have gotten ahead in the transition) and then my swim partner blew by me. (Did I mention I don’t like to run?) Somehow I managed to keep running and even picked up the pace a little. During the last mile of the run, my husband and son were there cheering me on – I started to smile. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed my bar friend (you know, the one who thought triathlons would be a good idea) running behind me. I did not take offense to the fact that she had no trouble keeping up even though she was pushing her kid in a jogging stroller, and it didn't even bother me that she is also pregnant, but rather felt a burst of energy and suddenly the run became more bearable! So, I picked it up a bit (no one likes to look bad in front of others) and sprinted- relieved to cross the finish line.

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Finding some joy in running.

I did it! I finished in 1:24 and I didn’t even throw up (or even feel nauseous!) Apparently training really does work! This triathlon has given me an opportunity to learn to new ways to have fun out of doors, although hiking and backpacking will always be my first love. In addition, training for a race keeps me in better shape when I do go on super “fun” 16 mile bushwacks in the Catalinas. (Look for that “adventure” in my next blog…) Next year my goal is to complete an Olympic distance triathlon… right after I figure out how to make running fun! Anyone else want  to give it a tri?

Activities

Open Climbing Season at Cochise Stronghold

by Emily Thursday, November 11th 2010

Chris tries to tell me what to expect on the fourth pitch: when my quads will start to burn in the layback, the point where I won't be able to see my gear placements, and when I'll be far enough above my last piece that I'll just have to gun it to better ground.

I ask him to please shut up. My palms are sweating and I just want to go before I think too much about it. I've lead gear routes harder than this, but not so far off the deck. We're a few hundred feet up on Mystery of the Desert, a 5.9, 5-pitch trad route that wanders up the side of the Muttonhead, one of the prominent domes in Cochise Stronghold.

Sheepshead summit, looking toward the Muttonhead
Looking toward the Muttonhead from Sheepshead Summit

It's the first climb of Cochise season, a stunning sunny Sunday that still promises to keep the temps in the low 80s: perfect conditions for spending a few hours on a sun-baked rock face. Catching the first glimpse of the Sheepshead, the largest dome on the west side of Cochise Stronghold, was like seeing a loved one get off a flight at the airport. I love it out here. It's my favorite place in the world. The hikes are long, the routes are longer, the granite is a solid rich orange with alien-green lichen. It's a place that always feels sacred and familiar at the same time. The Apache chief Cochise hid his people among these domes and they evaded the U.S. Cavalry for fifteen years. Running through the maze of domes, it's easy to see how. These days it's climbers that venture into the depths for adventure.

The climbing is so fantastic that the start of the season out here is cause for celebration, and the climbing community is more than happy to put on the party. At the start of climbing season each fall and the end of the season each spring, climbers come out for Beanfest, a potluck style dinner (traditionally seasoned with some raucous, ankle-twisting games later in the night) sandwiched between two awesome days of climbing. This year my friend Tanya is the "Bean Queen" hosting the party, and just to give you a preview of how great it's going to be: Tanya got married earlier this year to the wonderful Scott Ayers, and at the post-wedding party she cut off the bottom half of her wedding dress and jumped in the pool, pulling a few best-dressed guests with her. In short, it's going to rock. (No pun intended.)

Getting ready to belay at Zappa Dome, East Stronghold
Getting Ready to Belay at Zappa Dome, East Stronghold

But we're not there yet. We're still leashed onto a rock face with our palms sweating.

Mystery of the Desert is strange and beautiful, starting in a slick shallow  corner, then slanting left along a crack to a beautiful roof which it surmounts through the path of least resistance, up to a big slot: main face of the dome on the right, huge sloping boulder on the left, where you can opt to squeeze through or stem over (stemming is easier, in my opinion; a climber in a party ahead of us admitted he had to take all the gear off his harness and shove it in front of him to get through). After that it's a short piece of slab up to a garden ledge, and this is where we are, about to begin pitch four. Time to go.

It begins easily enough on slab, and I get a nice piece in the bottom of the layback. It's a perfect overlap and I get get my hands firmly under the lip, feet pressing just under my hands. Climbing a powerful layback is like trying to pick up a refrigerator; you have to push with your feet as much as you pull with your hands, and the action balanced between the two keeps you in there. I try to feel the size of the pieces I need, get them in the crack, then clipped, and then I hazard a peek around the lip to see if I did it right. The layback feels great, actually. I feel strong. I get to the top of the layback when I realize it's been about ten feet since I've put a piece of protection in, meaning I'm looking at a 20 foot fall. I start to look for a place to put a piece, but I'm too late: I should have put something a foot below where my feet are now, because the crack has vanished into slab. The fear seeps in a little bit, and my foot slips. An involuntary shriek slips out of my mouth before I catch a handhold and coax my quaking knees onto better footing. Close one.

There's a little climbing left still, but the belay at the top of the fourth pitch is a nice closer to the climb: you can watch your friends come powerfully up the layback with the backdrop of granite domes and Chihuahuan desert spreading out behind them. There's a lot of solitude out here, and there's something about climbing in this environment, something about trusting your life to a friend on the other end of the rope, so far out in the middle of the desert, that makes every climbing day an adventure and an accomplishment.

West Cochise Stronghold

What better than to celebrate with a party. This year, Beanfest is November 13th and 14th in the East Stronghold, and burrito fixin's are needed. Check out "Beanfest 2010" on Facebook for directions, t-shirts, and to see what you can contribute.

Events | Events

Seven Cataracts of Willow Canyon

by Dave Baker Monday, November 8th 2010

Canyoneering in southern Arizona? Well, maybe nothing like the deep, dark slots and long rappels of Zion and other areas on the Colorado Plateau but yes, there are many canyons scattered about that present challenging scrambling and sometimes require rope and rappels to successfully navigate.

The idea behind canyoneering is simple really; find an interesting canyon and explore the water course, most often heading downstream. Usually trail-less, these outings involve lots of boulder hopping and sometimes technical rope work. Given the arid climate in southern Arizona, canyons feel like very special places – rugged, cool, shady, big trees, quiet grottos, big drops, with the buzzing, busy, green backdrop of plant and animal life that inhabit these moist mountain corridors.

In Willow Canyon

Boulder hopping in Willow Canyon

Most local canyons do not require rappelling and rope work to descend, but many enthusiasts are drawn to those that do. Admittedly, on some southern Arizona technical canyoneering routes you will ignore the fact that many drops can be bypassed by simply traversing out onto the steep, but walk-able canyon sides on either side as you launch off on a rappel, but what-the-heck, there’s a lot of technical fun to be had out there!

First rappel

Descending the first cataract

The Seven Cataracts of Willow Canyon is one such technical canyoneering route, and it is surprisingly accessible -- located just off the Mt Lemmon Highway in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. This adventure typically begins at Windy Point Vista with a scramble down a steep slope which deposits canyoneers in a lovely section of Willow Canyon that often shows water and is graced with impressively large Arizona Cyprus trees. The first cataract and rappels are not far downstream.

Seven Cataracts

Above the 3rd rappel; Mt Lemmon Highway in the distance

On our trip down the Cataracts, we negotiated the next 4 drops using five rappels. (It usually makes sense to break the first drop into two rappels.) Our fifth rappel ended at a swimming hole that hikers access from the Seven Cataracts Vista (mile post 9.1) on the Mt Lemmon Highway.

Two more, but less impressive drops remain between the swimming hole and the confluence downstream with Bear Canyon, so we left Willow Canyon here using a faint hiker’s trail on the east side of the canyon. We followed the trail into Bear Canyon and then walked upstream to a second vehicle which had been left at the Green Slabs parking pullout (mile post 9.9) on the Mt Lemmon Highway. This section of Bear Canyon was delightfully beautiful. A few of the rappels in the Seven Cataracts are longer than 100 feet, so we brought two – 200 foot ropes and were glad we did. A more detailed description of the route and its variations can be found here.

5th Rappel

The 5th rappel

Difficulty: It’s a little over 1.5 miles from Windy Point to Seven Cataracts Vista, and 2.1 miles from Windy Point to the Green Slabs pullout. None the less, allow plenty of additional time for the rappels.

This route involves technical rope work and conditions can vary tremendously depending especially upon how much water is flowing in Willow Canyon. Sometimes just a trickle moves down the Cataracts, but rain and melting snow can and do produce much greater flows of water. The more flow, the more treacherous conditions become. Don’t hesitate to abandon plans to descend the canyon if water flows seem unmanageable.

Approach this and other canyoneering routes with caution and respect -- all the hazards of canyoneering can easily come into play, including the dangers associated with moving water, hypothermia, hyperthermia, wet slippery rock surfaces, unstable footing, and flash floods. A solid background in rappelling, anchor safety, rope handling, rescue technique, pack management, specific canyoneering skills, and hazard recognition is a must.

Maps: Green Trails Santa Catalina Mountains

Map

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Activities | Trails

The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!