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OUTDOORS

The real fun is around the island

May 29, 2008|Pete Thomas

Traveling across the water with surprising quickness and stealth, we find ourselves strikingly close to the great bird of prey.

It's an adult bald eagle, snowy crest beaming in morning sunlight, perched on a cliff-side branch while gripping, with powerful talons, a freshly caught fish.

Our presence is tolerated only through breakfast, though, as we're subsequently witness to this broad-winged predator in full southbound flight.

So we continue on, oars rotating like a steamship's wheel, exploring leeward Santa Catalina Island atop hard-plastic kayaks.

We're on a three-hour tour to Fox Canyon and back, with guides from Descanso Beach Ocean Sports near Avalon.

Paddlers include Evelyn Weimann, Vivian Villanueva, Debbie Davis and Yvonne Ojeda, sisters and cousins who've converged from as far away as Germany for an annual reunion.

Dan and Lynn Nichols, their son Josh and his girlfriend Krissy Bagdasaryan, are from north San Diego County. A reporter and photographer are tagging along.

Micah Phillips, our lead guide, is intimately familiar with the island, we gather, after he points to a dark cave in which he resided, hermit-like, for weeks while his sailboat was under repair.

"It's the truth," he assures, almost proudly, as we paddle leisurely to the north.

"You're paddling the wrong way; we're going to hit that boat!" one of the sisters barks at the other, as they meander errantly in a two-seater.

We glide over forests of kelp, and bright-orange garibaldi probe below us while smelt zip by like mini-torpedoes.

Beyond the eagle's branch, a glistening bulbous head protrudes from the kelp. It's a large harbor seal, sleeping off a hard night, apparently, because we've approached to within just a few feet before waking the whiskered pinniped.

Prying its eyes open to find curious admirers on all sides, the beast snorts grumpily then dips out of sight.

What's great about kayaks is they're sturdy and can easily be landed on cobblestone beaches such as Fox Canyon, two miles from Avalon.

"I don't want this to end yet," whimpers Davis, who has fallen under the false impression that our paddle is over and we're to hike back.

"Welcome to 'Survivor Avalon,' " Dan Nichols jokes.

Long, dark figures patrol the shoreline and guides Carlos Martinez and Anne Bogdanovich ID them as leopard sharks, tucked close to shore during breeding season.

"I wish I had my snorkeling gear," laments Josh Nichols, 17, pacing alongside the shadowy figures.

On the forested canyon trail we enjoy a concert of bird song while brushing past wild currant, endemic Catalina cherry trees, wild tomatoes and -- "Keep back!" Phillips commands -- a large patch of poison oak.

Soon we re-board and retrace our watery path and discover, at trip's end, the wildest island destination of all: Descanso Beach, a.k.a. party central, on a blazing Sunday afternoon.

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-- Pete.Thomas@latimes.com

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KAYAKING CATALINA

GETTING TO CATALINA: Catalina Express, from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point. Round-trip cost: $64.50 to $66.50 for adults, depending on port; $50-$52 for children 2-11; $58-$60 for seniors. Catalinaexpress .com, (800) 481-3470.

DESCANSO BEACH OCEAN SPORTS: Fox Canyon excursion: $50 per person. Other guided trips and basic kayak rentals are available by the hour, half-day and full-day for adults and children. Kayakcatalinaisland.com, (310) 510-1266 or 1588.

ON THE WEB: For more photos go to latimes.com/kayak

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