Paddling Santa Catalina Island

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There’s a place off the coast of California that gained much of its contemporary name recognition from the hilarious movie “Step Brothers.” But despite this odd notoriety, the island really only has a small cult of dedicated visitors. And it just happens to be a paddlers paradise…not to mention an ideal spot to relax, do some mountain biking, fishing, stand-up paddle boarding and snorkeling, diving and spear fishing.

Santa Catalina Island offers a tropical-like off-shore environment and laid back vibe with the convenience of a domestic flight. Catalina sits within view of Los Angeles, and grew to notoriety about the same time as Palm Springs, as an escape for Hollywood types and wealthy Los Angelinos, but today it’s welcoming to folks from all walks of life.

And while it may resemble a tropical destination, these waters stay cold year-round. At 33.3749° N, 118.4199° W, plan to stay in your boat (or on your board) or be prepared with some type of wetsuit, depending on the time of year and your gear preferences.

One ambitious paddling plan is to complete the Catalina Crossing by sea kayak, camp or lodge at the island for a night or several, then paddle back to the mainland.

Matti Wade of Frisco, Colo.’s Ten Mile Creek Kayaks made the voyage in May 2007 in an 18-foot fiberglass sea kayak. “We left early, at about 4:30 a.m., to avoid any chance of any weather systems or swells coming in,” Wade said. “The paddle was fun. It’s kind of a cool bucket list trip, especially if you live in the area.”

The crossing is 24 miles each way from Newport Beach, so you really do have a visual on the shoreline at all times—you hope. This distance varies of course depending on where in L.A. you depart from and where you strike land at (the island itself is about 22 miles from tip to tip, and eight miles at its greatest width). Visit Paddle Power kayaks for more information and rentals.

Campsites on the island do require reservations, especially in the summer months, and there are various levels of primitiveness and services offered. More common is to take a ferry (www.CatalinaExpress.com) to the island with your boat, spend several days exploring or circumnavigating, and then paddle home with the current. Sharks are apparent in the waters surrounding the island, says Wade, due in part to the nearby sea lion rookery and abundant fisheries, so go prepared with a solid roll and rescue skills, as well as compass and water, in addition to the appropriate clothing for the season. The sun may be hot but the water is still cold; watch the wind and weather carefully before departing. The whale-watching season is December to May.

Kayak rentals on-island are plentiful. The entire island only boasts around 3,800 people at any one time, and locals are friendly, so it’s easy to find your way around and get the info on where to paddle, how to camp, fishing, etc.

Stand-up Paddleboarding is also hugely popular on Santa Catalina, and in year’s past there has been some heated and sporty competitions racing from mainland to the island (2013 is apparently still up in the air).

When booking your trip, you essentially have two options for where to stay on the island: remote or populated (or both). Both the northern village of Two Harbors and the southern villa-style town of Avalon are very laid back but sport a distinctly different vibe and level of civilization. The Banning House Lodge B&B at Two Harbors is really a must-do for a couple. Book your lodging or camping reservations in advance.

To get from LAX to the Catalina Express terminal, try using Payless instead of a taxi as they are reliable, easy to work with and fairly priced.

If you plan to hit Two Harbors and Avalon, you should depart from the San Pedro terminal on the Catalina Express, and on the return you’ll be going from Catalina’s Avalon Bay to the Long Beach downtown terminal.

For more information, rentals and reservations, check out: visitcatalinaisland.com

–Aaron Bible

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