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A California vacation spot that’s more than a pretty place

SHARE A California vacation spot that’s more than a pretty place

Santa Catalina Island is more than just another pretty place.

It's got depth - and we're talking beyond the murky waters of the Pacific Ocean. This getaway island 26 miles across the sea from Long Beach has history, legends and ecological treasures.And from July 5 through Aug. 31, you can learn all about them through the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy's series of nature walks and hikes, campfire chats and slide shows.

"It's a wonderful way for people to learn about the island - for free," said Misty Gay, director of education for the conservancy, about the summer programs.

The conservancy's goal, Gay said, is to "preserve and protect the 88 percent of the island we own in perpetuity" and the programs are one way to do that.

"We have a lot of rare plants and animals on the island. When people learn how important the island is, they're less likely to pick flowers, litter. . .," said Gay.

Led by naturalist Jeff Chapman, the programs are geared to tourists even those who are just spending the day. He keeps the events at two hours or less so there's plenty of time to take in Catalina's other features before heading back to the mainland.

"What I try to do in a two-hour or one-hour class is give them an idea of what the island was like," Chapman said.

He offers all kinds of tatalizing tidbits of information. You probably didn't know, for example, that: a) eight plant species on the island are found nowhere else inthe world; b) the Catalina Island fox is the largest predator on the island, and the Catalina ground squirrel is the largest native herbivore (plant-eating animal); and c), Catalina has always stood alone - it was never connected to the mainland.

Chapman talks not only about the ecological aspects of the island, but about the American Indians who once roamed the hills, the explorers who dropped anchor here and the Wrigley family that encouraged tourism to the island.

The progams originate at either the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens or Hermit Gulch Campground about a mile from downtown Avalon (the island's only city). Tourists can disembark from the boat that brings them across the ocean, walk a block or two down Crescent Street to Tour Park on Catalina Avenue and hop aboard the Avalon Community Transportation tram ($1 per trip) to get to the gardens or the campground.

Reservations aren't required for the programs, which are free and include:

Nature walks: Offered at 10 a.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays, the walk is a 1 1/2 hour amble around the botanical gardens that offers a primer on the island's ecology and history.

Nature hikes: Somewhat more strenuous than the walks, the hikes leave at 10 a.m. Sundays from the botanical gardens and cover up to three miles. Along the way, hikers are introduced not only to the island's natural history, but some breathtaking views of Avalon, the ocean, even the other Channel Islands, of which Catalina is a part. Participants should bring water and sturdy shoes of hiking boots.

Campfires: For one hour on a cool summer evening, you can sit aruond a campfire and hear the naturalist spin stories and legends of Catalina's past - and recount history and facts, too. The campfires are at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays at the upper fire ring at Hermit Gulch Campground. Bring along your marshmallows for roasting!

Multimedia series: Topics ranging from the native people of Santa Catalina t the island's animal and plant life are explored via talks and slide shows at 8 p.m. sundays at the botanical gardens. The shows last an hour.

Now for inquiring minds who want to know now about those eight plant species original to the island. They are: St. Catherine's lace, Catalina Yerba Santa, Catalina liveforever, Catalina mount mahogany, Catalina manzanita, Catalina bedstraw, Cataline ironweed and Catalina monkey flower.