It couldn’t be more than 20 feet away.
We made eye contact, and the absurdity of the situation struck me. A 2000 pound, very hairy, wild bison was staring me down, here, on Catalina Island – 23 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. Though the bison had planted itself right in the middle of the path my friends and I were following, thankfully it seemed supremely uninterested in us and lethargically wandered off as we snuck by. We had seen it from farther off earlier in the day, when a professor explained that a few bison had been brought to the island in the 1920s and had since multiplied. My personal encounter proved that despite their size, they’re pretty harmless.
It was March 25, 2011, and I was on Catalina with some of my friends from my floor in Birnkrant Res Hall, on a free retreat with USC’s ATPS (a club for Trustee and Presidential scholarship students). For one weekend every year, ATPS takes 80 students to USC’s Wrigley Marine Science Center (WMSC), a small environmental studies institute nestled among the hills of Catalina and surrounded by nothing by wilderness. Aside from its 2 towns, Catalina Island is one big wildlife preserve. The WMSC is about a mile away from the nearest of the towns, and provided a great natural setting for a 2-day escape from the hustle and bustle of LA and its city streets.
A fun and bouncy boat ride, during which we saw some seals and were chased by dolphins, brought us out to the island. Along with a visit to the WMSC’s hyperbolic chamber and our bison experience, one of the highlights of the first night was some experiments with plankton we did with the help of some of the institute’s staff. Before the retreat, I had no idea plankton give off light when under stress, but they do! When it was dark outside, we all gathered by the dock and watched as a woman from the WMSC poked at the seawater with an oar, and sure enough there appeared dozens of little brief sparks of light under the water every time she swished the oar around. She handed the oar off to me, and I got even more sparks going. I couldn’t help but feel some measure of guilt as I was whacking these poor little creatures with a comparatively enormous kayak oar to make them light up out of fear and self-defense, but it was nevertheless very interesting. We also dragged a net through the water and inspected the numerous insect-like, many-legged organisms we caught under microscopes. I found this equally fascinating until my enthusiasm was dampened by the realization that every time I accidentally swallowed seawater at the beach, these were what I was eating.
The next and final day was filled with kayaking and hiking. While kayaking, we rowed out of the harbor, along the coast, out to sea, and back. We took a rest at one point in a pretty little cove in the island’s coast where you could see the anemones and kelp swaying on the sea floor while sunlight bounced off the water and shimmered onto the white cliffs. And while hiking, we had to briefly dodge some droppings from the bison I got so friendly with earlier and then got some amazing views of the ocean and the island’s hills, eating edible wild plants and oats and berries along the way. Both the last activities allowed us to get up close to nature and immerse ourselves in it for the first time since we had come to USC. Our untouched, picturesque surroundings made for a relaxing fun-filled trip to a mini-USC campus in an exotic place I hope to return to soon. I can’t help but wonder if that bison will pay me a visit.