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Pete Thomas / ON THE OUTDOORS

Exploring the Moon, Without the Spaceship

October 13, 2006|Pete Thomas

Somewhere west of the bustling island community of Avalon, over barren plateaus and down a steep unpaved road, is a little-known destination called Valley of the Moon.

On its pinkish-white earth there is no sign of life, only stark desolation. It's a surreal landscape starved for nourishment and sculptured by ceaseless wind.

Or, as naturalist Fred Freeman describes it, "This is nothing but old dirt, probably one of the first portions of the island that came up from the ocean floor."

And so the intrepid travelers go, at the mercy of their jolly pilot, following the road through the lunar-like surface and stopping at its edge.

Remarkably, with the Valley of the Moon so high above the waterline, the view almost seems as one from the actual moon, with the ocean so far down and its blueness spanning seemingly forever.

"It's just awesome," says Jon Zehnder, who with his wife Bette is visiting from Kansas. "I didn't realize how much of a desert the island was."

Welcome to the interior of Santa Catalina Island, a desert climate, true, but flourishing nonetheless, thanks to protection afforded by the Catalina Island Conservancy.

More than 1 million tourists visit here annually, but comparatively few visit the interior. What they're missing are encounters with bison and deer, spectacular scenery and a peek into the past.

"On some days, you can see all the way to San Diego," says Freeman, who leads customized Jeep eco-tours -- beginning at about $98 a person -- for the Conservancy, which has access to some areas that are off-limits to other tour groups.

Freeman knows every nook and cranny. He can identify flora and fauna, native and non-native. He has so much history crammed into his brain that it's constantly spilling out of his mouth.

He talks about volcanic origin and how the island is still inching slowly northward; the early presence of Chumash Indians and European explorers; gold miners and ranchers; the influence of the Banning and Wrigley families and much, much more.

But once beyond town, even Freeman pauses long enough to enjoy the sight of hawks soaring across canyons or deer bounding about.

"I love the island, and I love showing it off," says Freeman, a 42-year Avalon resident. "And every time I come out here I see something different."

On this excursion, he turns left from Stage Coach Road, which was built in 1904 as an overland route to points west, onto KBRT Road, named after the local radio station.

The group bounces along a seldom-traveled ridge that affords a breathtaking view of the island's unspoiled wilderness. Mt. Orizaba and Black Jack Peak, both with 2,000-foot summits, are prominent landmarks.

Freeman stops to pluck pungent flowers from native sagebrush. Ravens circle overhead like vultures marking a meal. On a distant slope, three large bison stop grazing to watch the tourists roll by.

"Make no mistake, they are wild animals and they will attack," says Freeman, a jokester who is sometimes hard to read. "A telltale sign is when they lift their tails. It means they're either going to attack or make a deposit, and either way you don't want to be around."

Bison were brought here in 1924 for the filming of Zane Grey's "The Vanishing American." About 170 of them currently live on the island.

Beyond the Valley of the Moon, Freeman descends to the coast near Salta Verde Point. Small waves rustle the pebbly shore, but the ocean is tranquil and deserted.

"You could have come here 500 years ago on a sailing ship and it would have looked the same," marvels Jon Council, a seasonal Avalon resident on his first foray into the interior.

Back on a ridge running parallel to the Pacific, the group encounters the concrete remnants of military gun emplacements. Eerily, one is pointed at a lone freighter passing in the distance.

"I'm afraid the only thing they shot at were whales," Freeman says, shortly before three mule deer dart across the road.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the island was closed to tourism. Nearby is what's left of Camp Cactus, a radar surveillance station operated by the 654th Signal Corps Aircraft Warning Company.

Time is running late so Freeman cuts short a planned trip to Little Harbor and turns right onto Middle Creek Road near run-down Eagles Nest Lodge, a former stop for the stagecoach.

Broken wagon-wheels and other relics litter the property. Fig trees, almond trees and pear trees -- brought for sustenance early on -- sprout from the roadside.

The Jeep startles a covey of plump quail. A deer sipping from the creek prances away. Bison chips are spread like mines across grassy meadows.

Soon, the Jeep returns to pavement and descends back into Avalon. Across the harbor is the Wrigley Mansion, built by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.

He came as an investor in 1919 and soon owned the island, picking up where the Bannings had left off, spending millions on development.

His son Philip made perhaps the most lasting contribution, though, creating the Catalina Island Conservancy, which in the mid-1970s became steward of 88% of the island.

The Zehnders were so impressed that they joined the Conservancy. After all, there's nothing like this in Kansas.

pete.thomas@latimes.com

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