An Impromptu Adventure

forest

Ryan’s e-mail started like this: “I haven’t cycled on the San Juan lslands for a long time. We could leave in the afternoon and catch the 10:30 PM ferry to Orcas. We would be on top of Mt Constitution by 2 AM…”

I didn’t need to read any further. Instead, I picked up the phone: “Count me in!”

Climbing Mount Constitution at night sounded romantic. Add ferry rides, riding on empty backroads and eating good food… It had all the ingredients for a perfect day-and-a-half outing. That is, despite the weather forecast predicted a front coming in.

leave_town

We met at 3:30 p.m. and left Seattle on familiar roads and trails (above). We crossed the Skagit River Delta through powerful head- and crosswinds. We explored a new bike route into Anacortes in the dark, which took us on an amazing pier across the bay. After 160 km (100 miles) on the road with a single, brief stop, we had an excellent dinner at the deli of a grocery store. Once again, we marveled at how efficiently good randonneur bikes can cover large distances.

When we reached the ferry terminal shortly after 10 p.m., there was a ferry at the dock, but we were the only people there. A sign on the toll both read: “Will be back at 4.” Huh? We double-checked the schedule and discovered the fine print: The 10:30 ferry only runs on Fridays.

Fortunately, the waiting area was open. The janitor showed up for work just as we started to get comfortable, and soon turned off the lights without asking us to leave. So we slept there. It was drizzling outside, so this was probably more comfortable than bivying in the forest on Mount Constitution.

first_ferry

We took the first morning ferry at 5:30. I had only cycled on Orcas Island during summer weekends, when the roads and ferries were crowded with tourists.

empty_road

Today, we had the roads mostly to ourselves. The few local drivers were friendly and returned our waves. After the long winter, it’s amazing how green spring is. The early foliage has a more yellowish green hue, and the mist made it seem even more vibrant. The evergreen trees’ tips were also lighter, where this year’s growth is coming out.

surreal

After the dips and rises of island’s interior, the road wound its way along this magic bay, into a surreal landscape shrouded in fog.

turnoff

We reached the turnoff to Mount Constitution almost before we knew it. From here, the road winds its way up the mountain to gain a total of 730 m (2400 feet) in elevation.

fog

We had the road to ourselves, except for a single car that passed us on the uphill. We wondered what happened to it, since there is no turn-off, and it wasn’t at the top.

climbing

We pushed the pace, since this was our first mountain pass for the year – important training for the rides we have planned for the upcoming season.

last_bit

The last bit was a steep gravel footpath. Nobody was around, and we rode up that as well.

top

At the top is an observation tower, built during the 1930 depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put unemployed people to work. Usually, the tower offers grand views of the surrounding islands, the Cascade and Olympic Mountains, and even Vancouver in British Columbia. Today, all we could see were fog and clouds. Deserted and cut off from the world, it was perhaps even more special.

along_bay

The downhill was exciting, and then we took a different route that led us through Eastsound, Orcas’ largest town. With some time until the next ferry, we decided to enjoy a good meal.

brunch

Orcas has enough locals to support their infrastructure without tourists, so we had no trouble finding a bustling café. We ate a multi-course meal that really made Eastsound a destination. Then we caught the ferry back to Anacortes.

On the ferry, Ryan learned that his presence was required at home, so we split up. While he headed to Mount Vernon, I continued with our original plan of riding across Whidbey Island.

deception_pass

I explored a new backroad on the way to Deception Pass (above), then headed along the coast of Whidbey Island, avoiding the busy highway that runs through the center of the island. The coastal roads are very hilly as they climb and descend one bluff after another. As a result, there wasn’t time for photos, but my pace into the headwind and rain had to increase the further I went.

ferry_coupeville

I caught the ferry to Port Townsend with minutes to spare, and enjoyed a brief rest while the boat crossed the choppy waters. I love having all my stuff in a handlebar bag. While other cyclists fuss with their luggage, I just pull the bag out of the decaleur and head to the heated seating area of the ferry. (Except on this day, I was the only cyclist on the boat.)

townsend

Soon the charming town of Port Townsend came into view, reminding me of many wonderful vacations spent here.

dinner_townsend

This afternoon, my visit was limited to an early dinner at the excellent food co-op, before I took to the road again. Instead of taking the busy and relatively flat roads back toward Bainbridge Island, I re-acquainted myself with the wonderful roads that traverse the peninsula.

old_eaglemount_2

One of my favorites is Old Eaglemount Road (above).

old_eaglemount

We will head the other way on these roads during our Flèche 24-hour ride soon, so I got a preview in reverse.

I reached the 9:45 p.m. ferry at Bainbridge Island with barely enough time to buy a sandwich at the grocery store. Then, on the way home from the ferry in Seattle, it had stopped raining, and I had the first tailwind of the entire trip! By 11 p.m., I was in bed, after an exhilarating 30-hour vacation.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
This entry was posted in Rides. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to An Impromptu Adventure

  1. Fred Blasdel says:

    Descending Mt Constitution entirely on the road is quite boring compared to the duff trails that wrap around the mountain and link all the lakes together — why burn all the elevation you gained in seven turns when you could do it in a hundred?

    Most of the trails are legal for bikes in the off-season from 9/15 to 5/15, including the one up to the observation tower that you rode on, and there is pretty good signage. They’re also all quite friendly to Jan-approved bikes :)

  2. RickH says:

    Wow! Almost a magical cycling adventure. With those roads in your reachable neighborhood how could you not like riding a bike, any bike.
    I looked but what was your overall distance?

    RickH

    • I don’t have a bike computer, so I don’t know the exact distance. Ryan has a computer, so I know that the first day was a little over 160 km, and the ride to Mt. Constitution and back was about 65 km. The ride up Whidbey would have been 58 km (I checked maps to make a schedule) without the new road, which added perhaps 20 km. From Pt. Townsend to Seattle may have been about 120-140 km. So the overall distance was about 400-450 km.

      When you are out there riding, it doesn’t really matter how far you go. You enjoy every mile of it, except perhaps a few miles of busy highway on Whidbey Island that are hard to avoid.

  3. Bruce Hodson says:

    Does the phrase “embarrassment of (cycling) riches” mean anything to you?

    • Greg says:

      You said it, brother. Lucky dogs! Also, those road surfaces are fabulous! I live in the state that officially has the worst roads in the nation (Michigan), and that’s about what our roads look like the day after they are built! Then we ignore them for thirty years, so they can ‘age’ properly. Ugh. My kingdom for a decent bit of tarmac!

      • Around here, road surfaces are variable. The really small roads see so little traffic that they don’t deteriorate into potholes. It’s just that the asphalt washes away between the aggregate, which makes them rough on a micro-scale, but smooth on a larger scale. So you need good tires to absorb the vibrations, but you don’t need a full-suspension bike to absorb the big hits.

        One of the main reasons the backroads we love see so few cyclists is that they just aren’t much fun on 25 mm tires.

      • Greg says:

        I think climate (variation over each year of time) has a lot to do with it (although, when you cross the Michigan border into any other state or province, the roads get immediately much better, so that certainly isn’t all of it!). Our temperature can vary forty or even fifty degrees Fahrenheit in any given location in a matter of a day or less, and it crosses the freezing point repeatedly during Winter. Add to that the enormous amount of road salt used as a de-icer, and truck load limits that are double (!) what surrounding states allow (150,000 pounds vs. 75,000), and you have a very bad situation. To add insult to injury, our roads are typically very poorly constructed in the first place, hence the honor of ‘worst roads in America’ per the over-the-road truckers (by popular vote…). We often joke that ‘at least it sells a lot of tires, rims, and shock absorbers’ though that is a bit of whistling past the graveyard, I must say….

      • Seattle might try to get annexed to Michigan – our urban roads look a lot like what you describe. Here, it’s not so much the freeze-thaw, but the incessant rain. After a week of rain, the asphalt is totally soaked through (yes, it’s porous), and then potholes appear where cars (and especially trucks with their large unsprung weight) pound them. These days at least they try to fix them before they become huge.

    • Matthew Joly says:

      Greg – At least Michigan gets rural (and rather lovely) fairly soon as one rides away from its larger urban areas. Depending on direction, one must ride nearly 120 km from Chicago before passing all the suburban sprawl.

      Between Jan’s and Lovely Bicycle’s amazing ride reports on roads within hailing distances of large, sophisticated urban centers, I am beginning to think it may be worth it to find a job somewhere other than Chicago. Even if it means a pay decrease and probably tax increase (Chicago property taxes are low – Illinois income taxes and sales taxes average).

      • Chris L says:

        I’ve relocated many people from the Chicago area for various companies. Cost of living is pretty comparable if you’re talking about Chicago proper though the suburbs of Seattle are generally higher than suburbs of Chicago. Our property taxes are higher but we also have no state income tax. Sales tax rates are almost the same (9.5% in Seattle). The job market in the Puget Sound is also pretty good and more diverse than many other parts of the country. We have a lot of high tech companies (Microsoft, Google, Facebook, etc.) but we also still have lots of manufacturing jobs (Boeing, the maritime industry). We certainly have the best bike riding (and yes, I have lived in the Bay Area).

      • Matthew – I’d encourage you to really explore a place before you make any relocation decisions. Here around Boston, we do not have scenery nearly as dramatic as what I see in Jan’s pictures. Also, my photography is rather strategic and deliberate, carefully leaving out the suburban sprawl, of which I assure you Boston has plenty! Finally, the older I get the less tolerance I have for the harsh winters and incredibly hot, humid summers here. I don’t know that I would really recommend this area.

        Whats made riding here enjoyable for me over the past year and a half is having made cycling friends and discovered “secret” backroads routes. I can’t help but wonder whether the Chicago area has a hidden network of similar routes to avoid the unpleasantness you describe.

      • Matthew J says:

        Hey LB: Unfortunately Chicago area does not offer much when it comes to pleasant back road riding. That is areas that one can ride directly or take the regional mass transit to. There is an approximately 14 mile MUP (Skokie Lagoons for locals) that heads from the city north and west there is the Illinois Prairie Path/Fox River Trail which combined are somewhere around 50 miles or so (albeit with many road crossings). These MUPs are very popular leaving them frequently less than optimal for all but cruiser rides.

        Road riders out of the City have three options (1) join the crowds riding roads north of the city through populated suburbs along Lake Michigan; (2) Put the bike in a car and head to Wisconsin; or, (3) Take Amtrak to West, Central or Southern Illinois.

        The first is easiest -and admittedly passes pretty homes and beaches. Been doing it rain and shine, hot and cold going on nine years now. It gets somewhat boring. A lot of possibilities with Amtrak. So many are now taking advantage of the service that some conductors are limiting the number of bikes per train. Amtrak is trying to resolve. Federal funding as may be expected is a problem.

  4. Rod Bruckdorfer says:

    The romantic pictures you describe in your story remind me of Frank Patterson’s pen & ink drawings of cyclist traversing an unspoiled countryside. You are very fortunately to live near Mt. Olympia. Of course this does not surprise me, knowing Ryan and you cycle with the randonneur gods that reside on Mt. Olympus.

    Although I am mortal, I am hoping my Boulder Bicycle Brevet will give me such joy, when it finally arrives. Thanks for sharing your adventure. It is very inspirational.

    Rod
    Baltimore, MD

    • We really are just a bunch of middle-aged guys enjoying ourselves. We do have excellent bikes, and we do some focused (and fun) training. Optimizing these factors, plus years of experience, allow us to do things that may seem exceptional. Vélocio said that rides like these are within reach for ordinary people, and I hope we are proving him right.

      • William M. deRosset says:

        >We really are just a bunch of middle-aged guys enjoying ourselves.

        Dear Jan,

        A bit of false modesty, perhaps. More people have stood atop Mt. Everest than have finished PBP in under 50h00.

        Best Regards,

        Will
        William M. deRosset
        Fort Collins, CO

      • Not all of us have finished PBP in 50 hours, either. You came close, and it was your first attempt. With the experience you gained, it’ll be a lot easier next time.

    • Paul Ahart says:

      Rod,
      You will indeed enjoy your Boulder Brevet bike..I got one about a year and a half ago, and it’s just great. A deal for what you get. Mine is 700c, and the key was to install large section high-quality tires, like Grand Bois or Challenge, and it will ride great. I run Challenge Eroica 700×30 (plenty of fender clearance!), at about 75psi.
      We in the Northwest do indeed have wonderful cycling terrain. Living in the San Juan Islands, I bike this stuff nearly every day, and always enjoy my commute. Reading Jan’s blog, and the distances he and Ryan rode, is awe-inspring. My daughter and I cycled Mt. Constitution on December 31, and had to quit 1/4 mile from the summit due to 6″ of snow on the road. Quite the ride.
      Paul Ahart, Friday Harbor

  5. Matt Sallman says:

    As usual, you stories are an inspiration to get out and ride. Thank you!

    I have to go to work now, but I’m anxious for our weekly ride to Detroit tonight. It will lack the beauty of your photos, but I’m sure we will explore some new areas.

    Every mile counts while training for my first 200K Brevet in 18 days.

    • Rod Bruckdorfer says:

      Matt: You must know Tom Dusky. Enjoy your ride.

    • Harry Harrison says:

      Good luck Matt,
      I rode my first 200km Brevet last month, I was on my randonneuse & teamed up with 3 recumbent riders after 35 kms & stayed with them the rest of the way. Their style matched my own – roughly 23kph average on the flat, slow up the hills and pretty fast down them. We rolled in to the finish in 11.5 hrs having stopped for a good lunch half way. I smiled all the way. The furthest I had ridden this year prior to this was 50kms. I’m nearly 50 and 5kgs too fat. It’s all in the mind ! Have a great time and take time to enjoy it.

  6. Erik Dasilva says:

    Great story, thanks for sharing :)

  7. Thank you! Very nice trip and wonderful pictures. It’s so hard to get such beautiful places here in Moscow — small towns, free roads…

  8. Ty says:

    Jan,

    Great vacation! Sounds like a great time!

    Question though: I know you have covered this in previous posts, but I was curious as to what you carried in your handlebar bag for that quick trip? For example, You had mentioned you had slept the night. I can’t imagine it was sleeping bags! Space blanket, etc.?

    I ask as I have a large Berthoud bag on the front of my bike, and I always seem to pack too much. If not to much trouble, Perhaps a re-cap of how you pack or a link to your earlier post on the subject?

    • Here is what my handlebar bag held:

      Sleeping: space blanket (large size).

      Clothing: rain jacket, wool gloves, Gore-Tex mittens, wool tights. (I also wore leg warmers.)

      Tools/spare: 2 spare tubes, 3 tiny Mafac wrenches, spoke wrench, glueless patch kit.

      Toiletry: toothbrush, dental floss, toilet paper.

      Food: A few Clif Bars, a bar of chocolate.

      Wallet. Camera. Hand-written route sheet for the leg on Whidbey Island. (The rest, we navigated by memory.)

      I think that is it. The bag had enough room in case I needed to take off the long-sleeve jersey…

      • Chris L says:

        I could never do the space blanket thing. A good option to look into is a military surplus poncho liner. These are basically nylon quilts meant to be tied into a poncho for added warmth. They’re enormously popular among troops as they weigh substantially less than a sleeping bag and pack up small. They provide plenty of warmth for summer use. They’re also pretty cheap – $20-30.

      • The space blanket is not intended for a full night’s sleep, but for a short nap. As it turned out, we did get most of a full night’s sleep, but inside the ferry terminal where a space blanket was adequate.

  9. Greg says:

    A great adventure! My wife and I cycle-camped the San Juan Islands (and Vancouver Island) for our ‘honeymoon’ in 1985. We enjoyed that trip very much. As long as we kept going East on the (Washington) ferries, it wasn’t necessary to pay for another ticket. We are still married, and still have the bikes we used on that trip, fwiw.

  10. Rasmus Teilmann says:

    Thanks for sharing this inspiring adventure!

  11. Chris L says:

    Great timing, I’ve been thinking about a late summer/early fall 2 day get away. I think in my case I’d take the train from Seattle to Everett and ride from there to the Anacortes ferry. The roads from our neighborhood north to Everett have grown old for me. I’d ride to Anacortes via Whidbey and then take the less hilly route through Stanwood and La Conner on the way back.

  12. Jim Langley says:

    I was up there last summer, Jan, so it was wonderful to be reminded of the glorious rides through your words and pictures. I too was amazed at how few cars there are on Mt. Constitution. I went up it several times and was only passed a handful of times. Of course that was starting at 5:30 in the morning, but still, I rarely find such car-free roads. You story made my day. Thanks.
    Jim

  13. Tim Bird says:

    I really enjoyed your latest adventure Jan – the whole “lets just go for it” approach and the way you often take the opportunity, whilst out there, to further explore a new side route. Your coastal forays have me reaching straightway for my hallowed copy of Harvey Mannings’s “Walking the Beach to Bellingham” which has pride of place on my Yorkshire bookshelf. Staying put and exploring one’s home place was Harvey’s message and your rides illuminate for me, his Thoreauvian Puget Sound strolls.

    Space blankets – inspired by your use of them Jan, I deployed my first one late last night in a deserted chilly bus shelter whilst cycling through County Durham and, by golly, it helped. I got a short snooze in and thus am slightly less wrecked today!

  14. Daniel says:

    This is quite the ride, in distance, weather (you seemed to mention rain very little, except to say it finally stopped), the scenery, and the adventure. It sounds like great fun. I’d like to go there again.

    • It was great fun, and it really didn’t seem like a big deal. The rain isn’t really felt when you ride at a good pace, as you generate enough warmth to stay dry. (I wore my rainjacket only for the descent off Mt. Constitution.) I know we’ll do it again!

  15. Benjamin Van Orsdol says:

    Yet another great post. My first long distance tour started in Orcas Island on the way to Los Angeles. The people and farms on the Island make it special beyond the great riding and beautiful scenery. I stayed for 3 nights on Bullock’s permaculture farm, and made some lasting friendships with the farm crew there. Port Townsend is also amazing. There is a wooden boat museum/ school and many interesting shops. Asking a stranger at a bar about a place to camp prompted him to offer his guest room. We talked about cycling adventures for a while, but he had to wake up early, so he just told me to lock the door on my way out in the morning. I awoke to a 10-ish point buck next to my window.
    What a great area you live in!

  16. Rick says:

    Thanks for this post! My wife and I are going to be doing some bicycle island hoping this year. We do a kayaking trip there every year for a few days and we always have a great time. Such an awesome place.

  17. AndrewGills says:

    Your rides always look AMAZING!

  18. Audunn says:

    Great post Jan. Randos should also know that there is an amazing 100k permanent #844, Orcas Climb, that covers most of Orcas Island and goes up Mt. Constitution. I rode it last summer on an afternoon trip from Friday Harbor and it was one of my most memorable rides of last year. The remote locations of some of the controls made the ride very interesting and in one spot I had to clear some overgrown brush to find the answer to the info control question. Make sure you get the fish and chips and sit at the bar at the Orcas Hotel after the ride. You can see the ferry terminal from there and you can simply pay your bill and leave when you see the ferry arriving.

  19. Jeffrey James says:

    Jan, thanks for the great ride report! I do that ride every year in May and your writing and photos have me eager to get rolling. If you do that ride again try turning right from the Orcas ferry dock. Dolphin Bay Road is mostly unpaved and great fun on wide, low pressure tires. It also sees little traffic even during the height of the summer tourist season.

  20. lardavis says:

    Thanks for sharing this ride in words and pictures – a great story, well told – and gave me joy to read and longing to ride.

  21. Bill in Roswell says:

    Wow, does destination on Mt. Constitution brings back memories. Wife and I spent a week in the San Juans during a major heatwave. The B&B owner recommended we take advantage of the clear, dry air to get the sunset view from the stone tower. The incredible 360 degree view took in the Olympics, Cascades, the Canadian islands and most surprisingly Mt. Ranier, which really shined in the low angle light of sunset.

    We didn’t ride on Orcas, too much traffic in August, but we did ride on Lopez and San Juan. Hopefully I’ll get to spend another week in the San Juans, maybe in the fall when it’s not so crowded.

Comments are closed.