There are recent reports in the news of a buffalo “attack” in Catalina, so I thought this would be as good of time as any to talk about my experiences running into these big bastards, and how to avoid getting into a situation where you are being airlifted off the island and cutting your camping trip short.
First things first, for the most part, the buffalo on the island are docile. I have passed by them on a number of occasions without any incident. The first time I hiked the Trans Catalina Trail I did it as a solo thru hike. For the most part I was on my own, on what felt like the hottest November day we had ever had! I had stopped at Hypress recreation area for much needed water, and shortly after filling up, decided to take a little rest on a bench. As a sat there, a buffalo came out of the bushes, walked right past me, and headed on his merry way.
At the end of day 1 I found myself hiking under a super moon to get to camp, and the night hike had me thinking there was a buffalo around every turn. Luckily I didn’t run into any during my night hike, but I did pass a herd (Pack? Gaggle? Swarm?) while making my descent into Little Harbor.
As I hiked the trail approaching the Little Harbor camp ground, there was a herd (maybe about 30-40) of them grazing on the west side of the road. As I continued to hike, I was about 10-20 yards away from them, but they didn’t seem to care about me, so I didn’t give much of a thought to them. I passed by, took a couple of snaps, they stayed put and I headed down to camp without any issue.
My second up close encounter with the buffalo came when I hike from Two Harbors to Little Harbor with a friend of mine. As we came close to the peak on our initial climb, we could see what looked like a couple buffalo on the trail. As we got closer, we realized there was a full herd on the hill, and it just so happened they were also covering the trail. So there we were, approaching this herd of buffalo that were on the trail, and each side of the hill around the trail. In all there were probably around 40-50 of them this time. Since I had been in a similar situation in the past, I told my buddy, “It’s ok, they’ll just let us pass by.” We slowly moved our way forward and approached the heard, when one of the bulls started grunting, and lifted his tail (this is a sign you are about to get chased by a really large animal!) At that point, we slowly started to back up and said, “Well! Looks like we need to find another route!”
We ended up walking off trail, and started to make our way around the herd when I heard my buddy shout “HEADS UP!!!” to which I could hear to stomping of the hooves against the dirt, and as I turned to look, there was bull about 40-50 yards away who was running straight for us! Naturally, I proceeded to shit myself, then was running with my full pack towards a huge cactus bush thinking surely he wasn’t dumb enough to run into it as well.
As I jumped into the cactus, I turned back to get the status on my big, pissed off, friend and realized my approach was a success! He had stopped at the edge of the cactus about 15 yards away from me, and just stood there staring at me with his tail waving and saying in his eyes, “Your move squirt!”
I waited a couple minutes and thought, “Maybe he has chilled out by now…” and started toward the trail again. As soon as he realized I was on the move, that big bitch also started on the move after me again! For about the next 20 minutes we played “Jump from cactus to cactus” until I was far enough from the herd that he decided “Fun’s up… I’m heading back to the herd!”
My buddy and hiked another nervous half mile and constantly had an eye on our friend, until we got to the bench/gazebo at the lookout point. At this point, we pulled off our packs, rested, and laughed our asses off about what had just happened.
While we waited we saw another couple hikers come up on the same ridge, and were wondering how they were going to approach the situation. One of the hikers decided he was going to ditch his pack and run full speed at the herd! Well, this wasn’t the best idea. Some of the buffalo scattered, but that bull that chased me was now onto a new hiker! They ended up doing the same thing we did and worked their way around the herd as well by playing cactus Frogger until they were in the clear.
The third time I encountered the buffalo at Catalina, I was hiking from Parson Landing to Starlight Beach with a different buddy. As you hike the trail leaving Parson’s Landing, you end up passing a few vistas with amazing views. As we approached one of the vistas, I notice a big buffalo laying down admiring the view. Thinking we were going to be able to scoot right passed the guy, I kept hiking and caring on. When my buddy realized there was a massive buffalo on the trail he looked up and shouted, “STOP!!!” This woke the big guy up, and was now standing about 20 yards away, staring right at us in a cloud of dust. At this point, I think he was pissed we woke him from his nap (I would be) so he did what was natural, grunt and tail up. At this point we looked for an alternative around the big guy, and ended up going off trail to get around him. He stayed put, we hiked on.
So… What do you do if you come across a buffalo while you are hiking? Don’t panic! For the most part these guys are harmless. I have passed them a number of times without issue, and have only been chased once (not reassuring, I know, but they aren’t really interested in you). If you are hiking on a trail and they are on the trail in front of you, try waiting it out for a bit and see if they move on. If they are staying put and you want to get on a move, look for an alternative route that can get you around these guys.
If you are in a situation like our recent hiker friend who got gored recently, first try to put something between you and the buffalo. There are few trees in Catalina, but if you are at camp, there are usually a couple trees and benches. Try to get something between you and the buffalo and play a little game of cat and mouse with them until they move on. Do I recommend jumping into a cactus bush? Absolutely not!! This was a last ditch effort to keep from getting trampled for me, and just so happened to work for me.
If it comes to a worst case scenario in which you find yourself going toe to toe with one of these big bastards with nothing around to help you… FIGHT!! Fight your ass off!! Fight like your life depends on it because reality is… it probably does.
Just remember, these are not domesticated animals like cows! They are every bit wild, even though they live on Catalina. Your best bet in any scenario is to keep your distance and try to avoid the big fellas so you can make it to camp and enjoy an amazing night sleep on the beach.