Adventures on Catalina Island: Part One

My primary objective for Catalina Island was the Catalina Island mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus traskiae) which exists only on Catalina Island and is critically endangered. It is one of the rarest trees in the world.

There were also three other endangered oaks of the Channel Islands that I was hoping to find, Quercus tomentella, Quercus pacifica, and Nuttall’s scrub oak, or Quercus dumosa

The Catalina Island Conservancy is the organization responsible for the island’s flora and fauna, so I tried reaching out through their website after making several phone calls to a number that wasn’t answered. The person I reached out to through the contact form referred me to Lauren Dennhardt, who is the plant conservation manager. She let me know that they would agree to help me, even though very few people are fortunate enough to be able to go see these trees.

They are in a protected location in a steep ravine, and would need a four-wheel drive vehicle and someone to take me there. It was arranged that I would meet for a carpool at 7:30 a.m. on the only day that I would be there, and that they would have me back in time to catch the last boat across to Long Beach.

Early that morning  Roya Miller and Cynthia picked me up and drove to Middle Ranch, where Cynthia gave us both gaiters for protection, and Roya and I left to drive to Wild Boar Gully. Our first stop was an enormous Quercus macdonaldsdii – Roya explained this is nearly a relic on the island. There was one other lovely macdonaldsdii she showed me before we moved on. This tree is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN. 

There was a significant amount of mist over the hills, and gorgeous rugged terrain. A few bison roamed close by. Roya worked to determine the best path to get down to the trees. She tried one location but realized that it would take us too long to actually access the trees from that area, so we hopped back in the truck and drove to a location she had been to before. I should have taken my cue from her and only brought water in my pack. The descent was accomplished only by utilizing my rear end, as the slope was nearly vertical. The terrain was mostly loose, sandy soil, chaparral and cactus. Luckily I had gloves, but I probably should have had my old, hard hiking boots, as my trail runners had a permeable wool surface. Roya led the way, and I followed, making more noise than the aforementioned wild boars. It was a cool morning, but by the time we reached the trees, I was definitely warmed up. The tree was one of 8 mature specimens- Roya let me know that one of them had been struck by lightning and greatly reduced in size. They have not been successful in most of their efforts to propogate the trees. They hybridize easily with the relative Cercocarpus betuloides. Their next effort will involve tissue cloning.

This tree’s main stem was lovely and gnarled, surrounded by numerous smoother basal growths. The leaves have soft wooly hairs and serrated edges- you can see the rose family resemblance in the shape of the leaves. Backlit by the sun, they appear to have a soft white halo. Mahogany A, which I was photographing, had as a neighbor a lovely Quercus pacifica, one of the island’s other endangered trees- its branches intermingled with the mahogany as I lay on my back photographing the leaves with little bits of soft grey sky overhead.

The trees are named after Blanche Trask, a naturalist who lived on and explored every bit of Catalina Island from 1893 to 1912. She made extensive collections of plant specimens from Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Clemente and San Nicolas island, as well as thoroughly documenting the vegetation of Catalina.

The Cercocarpus trees likely support 20 different butterflies and moths, including the California Hairstreak and Mountain Mahogany Hairstreak. For more info about this, see the Calscape website.

The trees have been fenced off to prevent animals from grazing. The wild boars and feral goats have been removed from the island but there are still bison (introduced for a movie) and many deer. After half an hour or so, reluctantly, I left the shelter of the tree in order to see the rest of the endangered flora of the island.

Roya led the way up and out of the ravine, and when she got to a stableish location, grabbed my  heavy pack as I backslid several times and picked up a cactus spine or two.  I definitely need to add some sort of climbing activity to my fitness regimen if I ever get lucky enough to return! Driving through a tunnel of endangered Quercus pacifica, she waited patiently while I took photos, including one dead tree that was studded with hundreds of woodpecker holes and a few acorns for the future. A little further along there was a mama quail and her babies that I missed capturing as they took flight.

A beautiful grove of Quercus tomentella grew on the opposite side of the island.  Roya drove  over some seriously precarious terrain to take me there. I have included a video, but it truly doesn’t capture the fact that this was a narrow path and both sides just dropped away to nothing. She had to stick her head out of the window to make certain there was actually track underneath the wheels.

The tomentella grove was mature and lovely, but also a steep drop down through about a foot of leaf litter. I again employed my rear end as a stabilizer to get to the trunk of the trees. After a few moments Roya remarked that there was a rattlesnake. Luckily, I did not encounter it on my way out. She then drove us to a location where she and others had done a good bit of planting, and there was a lovely healthy Catalina Island ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus) and some dead ones with wonderful structure for my ghost forest images. There were also a number of other plants that she pointed out to me along the trail to the different trees, including these endangered plants:

Catalina Island Manzanita (Arctostaphylos catalinae)

Santa Cruz Island Rockcress (Sibara filifolia

Catalina Island Bush-mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus var. catalinensis)

Coast Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis)

Big Pod Ceanothus(Ceanothus megacarpus)

Trask’s Yerba Santa, another plant named for Blanche Trask (Eriodictyon traskiae)

While there, I got a glimpse of a little island fox darting into the foliage. I tried to take a video with no success, but as soon as I shut it off, he reappeared. 

The Conservancy has done enormously important work restoring bald eagle populations, as well as the island fox. The bald eagle populations were suffering from DDT poisoning which made their egg shells too fragile to be sat upon and hatched. The Conservancy collected the eggs to hatch while replacing the eagles eggs with fake ones to keep them nesting. The island fox suffered a catastrophic decline from rabies after a raccoon was accidentally introduced.

This island is fortunate to have an entity like this to protect their flora and fauna. If any of you should wish to volunteer or donate, they can always use the extra hands or funds.

My deep gratitude goes to Roya Miller for her guidance.

Catalina Island Conservancy

3 thoughts on “Adventures on Catalina Island: Part One

  1. I enjoyed reading about your adventure and learning about the precious trees and animals that reside in that area. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading Sharon!🤗


  2. What an awesome trip and adventure!!! How lucky to connect with someone so knowledgeable to take you around.
    I know you love doing that sort of thing.
    Looking forward to seeing the photos and the resulting art.

    Lucky for sure Dawn!! Stay well and looking forward to seeing you soon!


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