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Weekend Escape: Catalina : Native American Summer : At the Isthmus, Rent-a-Tepees Are Roomy Alternatives to Campsites and Tent Cabins


TWO HARBORS, Catalina Island, Calif. — It was 8 a.m., and the ferry to Two Harbors on Catalina Island made its way slowly through the Port of Los Angeles. Then the captain gunned the engines as the channel widened and the boat headed for open sea. It was Saturday morning. The weather report was promising and we were eager to leave Los Angeles behind us.

We are newly returned to this city after many years away, and the past eight months of long commutes on crowded highways through endless urban sprawl had only increased our desire to load up the camping gear and slacken the pace.

Two Harbors seemed to fit the bill. It was somewhat remote in that it is more like a fishing camp than tourist destination. But a book on California camping listed some amenities that had appeal when two small children are in tow--a small restaurant, a general store and hot showers in town if desired.

And so we reserved a spot at the campground and then decided to go ourselves one better. We rented one of the tepees that dominate a point of land above Two Harbors, eliminating the need to bring over a tent.

The tepees, I am told, have been around a couple of years and they are not cheap by most camping standards. They run $60 per night for up to six people, with a two-night weekend minimum during summer months. Fortunately for us, we went over before the summer rule went into effect and were able to stay a single night.

The tepees are not an authentic part of island history, but a bit of whimsy on the part of the company that runs the campground. The Gabrielino, who once inhabited Catalina, built houses that were domed, circular structures, sometimes 60 feet in diameter, room enough for three or four families.

The trip over was fast and pleasant, turning to fun for the few passengers on board when porpoises raced alongside the boat as we neared the mouth of the harbor on the eastern side of the island.

The name Two Harbors becomes clear with one look at a map, for this is the isthmus of the island, a narrow neck of land no more than a half-mile wide. It is sparsely populated--the locals number about 100. But it is also a favorite destina-tion of mainland sailors who tie up at the moorings and take their rubber dinghies in to shore.

As the ferry pulled into the dock, the sun was shining brightly and we watched the boats, both sail and motor variety, bobbing at their moorings. The tawny hills reached upward on either side of the harbor and we could see the campground just off to the left.

At the check-in office at the end of the dock, it became clear that life had, indeed, eased off the accelerator. The woman behind the counter filled out the campsite form and said that, sooner or later, the camp ranger would be by to pick up our gear and bring us to our tepee. And he did show up a few minutes later, saying we would have to bring our duffels and such around behind the building he pointed to, for no vehicles were allowed in town.

"Town," actually, is something of a misnomer for this quiet little spot. It consists of the pier, a bar, a restaurant, a general store, a beach with picnic tables and a volleyball net, a few homes where the locals live and public showers.

We put the heaviest bags on the truck--at $1 per bag--and carried the rest, hiking on a path while the truck took the road. We paused several times along the way to take in the spectacular view of the harbor. And when we finally got to the tepee, we wished we had brought the tent. The tepee was huge, far too large for our needs. It was also hot and there was no way to close it off against ants and other insects. Having said that, I hasten to add that the tepee cooled off in the evening and that it was pleasant to look at the stars through the opening in the top.

The tepees, made of canvas and tall wooden poles, were built in a rough circle, separated from the rest of the camping spots by a large gully traversed by a wooden bridge. Each of the tepees had a picnic table and campfire ring and was equipped with a butane stove and lantern.

They would be great for larger groups. The ranger later told me of a family reunion in which all five tepees were rented and the crowd gathered in the evening around the large fire pit in the middle of the compound. I would add further that our 8-year-old daughter, Merrit, and 5-year-old son, Nick, thought the tepee very cool, indeed. But for us, on the next trip, the regular campsite (at $7.50 per night) or the tent cabins (at $40 per night), will do just fine.

The ranger arrived with the gear and took our order for various fuels--wood for the campfire, charcoal for the grill and butane for the lamp and stove. One thing about camping on an island is that you can't bring any of these items with you because of Coast Guard regulations.

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