Though I have camped a decent amount in my twenty-nine years—mostly car camping, with a few backpacking trips sprinkled in—I have never done it alone. I love getting out in nature, watching animals in their natural habitats, cooking hot dogs over a fire, and snuggling up in my warm sleeping bag for a night under the stars. Just not alone. I’m not particularly fond of the dark—especially in the wilderness, when my ears and eyes often play mean tricks on me—and I consider myself to have a healthy, if not sometimes irrational, fear of bears. The idea of camping alone had never appealed to me. Until I turned twenty-nine. Reaching that age did not magically dispel my fears, but I felt like I should conquer them before turning thirty. The goal of spending one night alone in the wilderness was the impetus for my entire 30×30 challenge.
I chose to camp at Parsons Landing on Catalina, an island about twenty-two miles southwest of Los Angeles. Roughly twenty-two miles long and eight miles across, Catalina is home to slightly more than four thousand residents, ninety percent of which live in Avalon, a thirty-minute ferry ride from the Long Beach terminal. With its remoteness, a small human population, and a nonexistent bear population, I knew it would be a great place for my solo adventure.
I left in the morning and enjoyed a relaxing ferry ride to Two Harbors. Along the way I was treated to a show of leaping dolphins and playful seals. When I disembarked, I slung my twenty-five-pound pack over my shoulders and began the 7.6-mile trek that abutted the stunning coast. Two hours later, a little hungry and a little sweaty, I arrived at the stretch of beach known as Parsons Landing.
I located my campsite and had barely set my pack down when two crows descended from the sky and alighted on a rocky outcropping above me. They cawed. Not in a friendly way, as if to welcome me to the beautiful area of the island they apparently called home, but rather as a warning to the other animals, as if to say, “We saw her first, so she’s ours the second things go sour—like if she fails to start a fire and is therefore unable to heat water for her hearty and nutritious dinner of Cup O Noodles, rendering her (gasp) hungry for a night.” How they knew the contents of my pack worried me enough, let alone the thought of what they might do to me if things did indeed go sour. I would build a fire, lest falling into the talons of the crows!
Once camp was set up, I set out to find some wildlife; bison, in particular. Bison? Yes, there are wild bison on an island off the coast of Southern California. In 1924, fourteen bison were imported to Catalina for the making of the film, The Vanishing Tale. When the filming was finished, the crew departed and left the bison on the island. Over the decades, the herd reportedly grew to six hundred animals, but has since been monitored and controlled by the Catalina Island Conservancy, which was formed in 1972. An estimated one hundred and fifty bison now roam the island.
After wandering the hills for about forty-five minutes, thinking it was time to head back to camp, have a snack, and rest my legs from the midday hike, I spotted three bison grazing in a valley—one quite happily, as evidenced by his display of the part that indicated to me he was male. When one of the others, also male, saw me, he stopped grazing and engaged in head butting with the bison closest to him. I guess it’s a guy thing: always trying to impress a female, even if there’s no chance of…well, you know. I watched their show of manliness for a while, the setting sun bathing them in Academy Award-winning light, before heading back to camp for the evening.
On the way back, I crested a hill and there, also cast in the perfect light (I suppose they are descendants of Hollywood bison, after all), in all his regal glory, stood another bison. Right in the middle of the path. I immediately stopped and gave him the respectful distance he deserved. He seemed mostly apathetic about my presence, except for a sprinkling of curious glances, and continued grazing and meandering at his lethargic pace. Not to slight him, however, as bison can move pretty quickly if they want to (up to forty miles per hour, according to National Geographic). I watched him in awe, moseying along, until he had had enough of the spotlight and wandered into the bushes.
When I arrived back at camp, I was none too surprised to see the crows once again (or still?) perched on the rock above. Watching. Waiting. Not long after, when the sun was saying goodnight, assuring the bison it would return in twelve hours to give them another day to shine, I set about building a fire. Having watched others make a fire, though never having done it myself—yes, sometimes I’m ashamed to call myself a native Alaskan—I felt I knew the basic idea: amass some kindling, construct some logs in a teepee formation, and set it off with a Bic lighter. I really didn’t know what our ancestors found so difficult.
I quickly understood: the actual starting of the fire. I thought I was doing it right, lighting the paper to light the twigs to light the logs, only the twigs wouldn’t stay burning long enough to set the logs ablaze. Each attempt garnered the same result, and my supply of kindling and paper was rapidly depleting. A few more unsuccessful tries had me down to my last scraps of paper.
I looked up at the crows, knowing they were placing their bets. I shook off their menacing stares and returned my focus to the task at hand. I sighed. I lit the last piece of paper and touched it to the kindling. It caught and, as luck would have it, ignited a log. In moments I had a real, blazing fire! Considering I had been afraid of lighting matches until age fourteen, I was ecstatic! I was all up in that towering inferno! Smoke stung my eyes and burned my lungs, but I didn’t care! (Until the challenge to breathe and the thought of going blind encouraged me to back away). I wanted to lie on the ground and yell, “Freedom!” a la William Wallace in Braveheart, which had absolutely nothing to do with fire, camping, or anything I was doing, but seemed appropriate nonetheless. Just as that wonderful, liberating thought entered my mind, a loud caw jolted me from my Scottish war fantasy and back to reality, which was that if I dared lay on the ground in front of the ever-watchful black birds of doom, they might get the idea I had thrown in the towel and fly down in courses to prey upon me. I tucked away my Wallace reenactment for another time, and then wondered why I had thought of that scene, when the scene of Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland starting a fire in Castaway would have been so much more appropriate.
I heated the water for my dinner and can scarcely remember a time when a Styrofoam cup full of noodles, dried vegetables and chicken flavoring tasted better. In fact, there is little else that’s as satisfying as being alone and self-sufficient in the wilderness. Sure, I didn’t hack down a tree for firewood, or slaughter a chicken for the flavoring in my meal, but I was happy with my accomplishments.
A little writing by the dying campfire, some focused contemplation (thanks, thirty days of meditating), a bout of star gazing, and I was ready for bed. I crawled in the tent, nestled into my sleeping bag and let the chirping insects and waves rolling ashore lull me to sleep.
When the dawn had pierced the night sky, I awoke from my peaceful slumber and took inventory of myself and my immediate surroundings. No snake had slithered into my sleeping bag, no squirrel had nibbled its way into the tent, and, most fortuitously, no bison had trampled me in the night. I unzipped the tent, stepped into the sunny morning, and stretched. Looking up at the clear blue sky, I noticed, lo and behold, the two crows perched on the rock. I stared at their small black eyes, smiled, and gave them a look that said, “Sorry, boys. Not today.”
They stared back without even blinking. The larger of the two, no doubt the leader of the two-bird posse, opened its beak. It cawed. Only this time, rather than the malicious, threatening sound it had unleashed on my ears less than twenty-four hours before, it emitted a humble, respectful caw, as if to say, “Well done, lady. Well done.”