Where the buffalo roam

Where the buffalo roam

We started the day hoping
to see a buffalo
and now we were completely
surrounded by a hundred

boat passengers with bikes photo of bicycles

Twenty two miles and a world away from Los Angeles California rests a sleepy little island with a colorful past. Catalina Island is no secret, but like many things that lay in the long shadow of Los Angeles, the island has a history that is forgotten about because of its star studded neighbor. And while the island is well within reach of La La Land, what never did reach the island was the mainland’s urban sprawl, leaving the island much how it was a hundred years ago.

boat at dock

In 1938 a Silent Film Director would re-create the wild west on the island, complete with Cowboys, Indians and a herd of 18 Buffalo. Enough to feel like a presence but still small enough to manage, that was of course until production wrapped and the crew left the island without their furry, one-ton friends. Leaving the Bison on the island to their fate. And Like they did on the great planes, the bison thrived and multiplied on the island, making the Island theirs.

Three men riding bicycles on a gravel road

But how rooted are the buffalo really? How much have they made this island their home?
Are they now native to the land?

... And so assembled a small group of riders from Southern California, who knew each other through working at Masi, with the intention of getting a first-hand look at the island’s most notorious residents, to see if the buffalo really were wild or was this some kind of white washed, Disney-pacified, tourist trap to get people to visit the island?

We landed on the island with aspirations of simply a sighting of buffalo, and we would leave two days later with a feeling of luck that our too-close-for-comfort encounters with the furry friends didn’t lead to one of us being crushed like an aluminum can. As the sayings go… be careful what you wish for, we got more than we bargained for, slippery slope, in over our heads, all of that… Once we began seeing Buffalo, we kept seeing them, and eventually would get to a point where we had gotten our fare share and were ready to call it a day with the American Buffalo.

three men riding bicycles up a hill
man jumping his bicycle two men riding bicycles on a gravel path two men riding bicycles up a gravel trail
photo of a buffalo laying down

The first sighting was of a single buffalo, sitting on the crest of hill, overlooking a long rolling valley. She was calm and confident in knowing that we were no threat to her. She let us pass with simply the knowledge of her presence, she let us know that the buffalo were there and as we dropped into the valley she was overlooking, her presence was, in hindsight, our gate keeper into the land
Where The Buffalo Roam.

We began hearing them before we could see them, which was unsettling, we would spot them up on the hill sides overlooking the valley that we were riding down. In one case we watched as a thousand pound Buffalo broke pace and began to run down the hillside, we could literally feel it’s gate in our chest as it barreled down the hill, crossing the road right in front of us, keep us on our toes, we were on their island and they were allowing us to ride amongst them, if only begrudgingly.

three men on bicycles riding near buffalos

Half way through the first day we came upon Middle Ranch, one of the few ranches in operation on the island. As we entered the ranch we saw a group of Bison sitting on the side of the road, they seemed to be a bit unsettled by our presence but kept their distance as we passed and approached a curve in the road. However, the end of this curve in the road would reveal no less than a hundred head of bison, on both sides of the road and they were on the move… We started the day hoping to see A buffalo, and now we were completely surrounded by a hundred, it may have been as low as thirty, but it felt like a hundred.

two buffalos

We were literally sitting ducks in an angry mob of buffalo. Why stop? Why not just keep going you ask? The loan buffalo, one single buffalo, that stood just slightly to the right of dead ass center of the road in front of us. That thing may as well have been the GREAT WALL OF CHINA!!!!! Bison have horns you know… And their horns a sharp as hell looking too you know... In order to get by this big fella we needed to skootch ourselves within three feet, and I don’t know about you by three feet seemed at the time to be about the perfect stomping a gorging distance for a full grown buff. The perfect distance to really lean into it, and send us back to the mainland via buffalo head-butt.

"Don't stop!!! Keep Going!!!"

So as we sat and bison started to cross the road behind us, boxing us in on both sides of the ol’ road, we nervously smiled and discussed what’s next. Then we hear the voice of god! No shit…. the voice of GOD! A loud voice from an unknown source yelled "Don't stop!!! Keep Going!!!" None of us saw were her voice came from, but we all heard it.

three men riding near a buffalo

The loan buffalo is still in the road ahead mind you, but now the rest of the herd was getting closer by the moment and more and more irritated by our presence in their herd. So after a couple seconds of light panic the group pressed on and SLLLLOOOOWWWLLLYYY, one by one, passed the Loan Buffalo. We pedaled a couple hundred yards past the herd and out of the ranch, coming to a stop to collect ourselves and breathe a sigh for survival. We had ridden with the buffalo and lived to tell about it!

scenic photo of three men riding bicycles

We exited the valley of the buffalo and began to climb the bluffs towards Little Harbor, the climbs on Catalina are breathtakingly beautiful, and also just breathtaking… The climbs are long, winding and pristine, not a single building in sight and the endless horizon of the Pacific surrounds us. Before long we were making our decent off the bluffs and into Little Harbor, a sweet sight and a little piece of paradise to end our day and begin the next.

campsite cookingcampsite setup bicycles at a campsite bicycle leaning on tabletwo men fishing

Camping on the island is casual and comfortable, you’re only allowed to camp at the designated campsites and so while there are only one or two dirt roads that lead to camp, they had amenities like showers, fresh water and decent bathrooms. and so in regards to bike packing, camping on the island is pretty luxury.

three men riding bicycles on a gravel trail 
at sunset

On the last day we had about a 25 mile ride from Two Harbors to Avalon, with a few thousand feet of climbing mixed in, the ferry left at 2pm, and so we got an early start in case we had any delays... As we ascended towards the Island’s Airport in the Sky, we crested a climb to find the last buffalo of our trip, waiting for us on the side of the road. A big and majestic beast, sitting in the grass, looking over the endless ocean that spans out below, and now watching us as we past. The buffalo stood up and watched as we rode by, maybe to send us off with the spirit of the herd, or maybe to send us off the side of the cliff, it wasn’t obvious. We stopped for a moment after we passed the last buffalo, taking a minute to watch it as it watched us. we we’re taking in the moment, reflecting on the success of our adventure so far. A last little encounter with a larger than life animal from a time gone bye, and now it was our time to leave

three men looking at a buffalo while riding their bicycles

We stopped at the airport to watch some planes takeoff and get some ice cream from the store before heading out to Avalon. A few climbs and descents later, we could see signs of Avalon in the distance, and not long after that were the tour busses, rental scooters, sunglasses and sunburns. We had ridden to the land Where the Buffalo Roam, humbled and satisfied on an adventure well lived, and remembered well.

scenic photo of Catalina man on bicycle near air stripthree men resting on their bicycles

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