Orcas Island in the Snow

ferry_morning

The San Juan Islands are only a short distance north from Seattle. Why not go cyclotouring for a weekend? It was still dark when we took the 7:30 ferry from Anacortes.

sunrise

As our boat headed toward the islands, the sun rose over Mount Baker. Ferry rides are always beautiful, but in January, we didn’t linger on deck for long. The temperature was below freezing!

signs

The sun started to make a tentative appearance as we disembarked at the Orcas Island ferry landing. We cycled along empty backroads across the island. January cyclotouring has an advantage: There is almost no traffic.

eastsound

Orcas Island is my favorite among the San Juans. The roads dive in and out of the many bays, offering beautiful views. Eastsound was a great place for breakfast and warming up at a café, before we continued our exploration of the island.

ice_fall

A week of unseasonably cold temperatures had frozen the roadside springs into beautiful ice sculptures.

singer_campeur

I hadn’t ridden my old Alex Singer camping bike in quite a while. When I bought it almost 20 years ago, it was one of my first 650B bikes. Back then, it was a revelation, and it has had a pronounced influence on our bikes today. On this trip, it was fun to re-acquaint myself with the Singer, even though it was loaded far below its capacity.

climb_bridge

Orcas Island has an added attraction for cyclists: Mount Constitution is one of the few mountain climbs in Washington that are not closed in winter – at least usually. A winding road leads from sea level to the top at 731 m (2400 ft). Up there is a great view across the islands and the Puget Sound, framed by the Cascades to the east, the Olympic Mountains to the south, and the Vancouver Island Range to the West.

Yet during our visit, even this relatively low road was covered with snow. We started the climb anyhow…

testing_ice

…testing the slipperiness of the surface from time to time, and walking our bikes when it got too icy.

forest_path

Instead of pushing all the way to the top, we took the road to Mountain Lake, about half-way up the mountain. At the end of the road, we continued on frozen trails.

picnic

A good thermos is essential equipment for winter cyclotouring. Hot tea made our picnic by the frozen lake enjoyable and fun.

hotel

It was dark by the time we returned to the ferry landing, where we had booked a room at the quaint Orcas Hotel. Another advantage of winter cyclotouring: Last-minute reservations are no problem.

ocean_route

Rain was moving in the next day, as we cycled along the water to Westsound and onward to Deer Harbor. This beautiful road winds along the water, with beautiful views of the neighboring islands.

live_life

The quiet roads invited us to stop and explore. When there is no traffic requiring your attention, you suddenly notice the little things by the roadside…

ferry_leave

The rain showers became more frequent, and we decided to return to the hotel, where we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon tea before taking the ferry back to the mainland. It was a wonderful way to start this year’s cycling season.

Further reading:

Photo credits: Natsuko Hirose (Photo 3, 5, 9)

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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18 Responses to Orcas Island in the Snow

  1. Steve Palincsar says:

    So how did the Singer compare to your Mule?

  2. Matthias Krogmann says:

    I’m afraid this is off topic, but I wanted to ask this question many a time:

    When I see your photographs, mostly riding in wool garment, I’m always wondering about your clothing and what you would wear here (North Sea/danish Border), possibly you’ve been here. After two hours riding I’m frozen to the core, wind and high humidity, salt in the air…

    • On this ride, temperatures were below freezing, so a few extra layers were useful. I wore 3-4 layers of wool, Natsuko also has a down jacket. Wool is great in light rain, too, because it insulates even when it’s wet. I don’t like shells, as I get clammy on the inside, especially during spirited rides. I haven’t found synthetic clothing that works as well as wool. (And wool’s resistance to odors is a plus when cyclotouring!)

      I do wear a breathable shell when a) it’s raining very hard, b) I am heading into a long downhill where speeds are high, but my energy output (and thus heat generation) low, or c) cyclotouring when speeds are very low, and I don’t exert myself much.

    • Jacob Musha says:

      Matthias – I ride year-round in Madison, Wisconsin. We don’t have high humidity or salt in the air, but I have plenty of experience biking in weather at or below -20C.

      My advice is so simple that it probably sounds stupid: whichever part of your body is cold, that’s the part you need to protect better. For me the hands, feet, and face were the most difficult to figure out. If you are “frozen to the core” you just need to wear more layers on your body. I don’t have many fancy or expensive clothes. In cold weather I generally wear a cotton t-shirt, long-sleeve cycling jersey, and a cheap polyester light jacket. Wool is a better choice though.

      It’s very important not to get sweaty when you ride. Besides being uncomfortable and annoying, it can be very dangerous if you stop because then you will really freeze!

      • It’s very important not to get sweaty when you ride.

        It’s hard not to get sweaty when climbing Mount Constitution. Key is to keep the transpiration from building up, and wearing clothing that doesn’t lose its insulation value when it gets moist. Cotton doesn’t insulate when wet, which is why it’s a poor choice for spirited riding. Some synthetics are better than others, but in my experience, wool remains unsurpassed.

  3. Morgan Jones says:

    It looks like you guys had a great time! Congratulations.

  4. christian says:

    Is there a reliable way to get bikes to somewhere near Anacortes from Seattle via public transit (rail?)?

  5. Tim Nielsen says:

    Amazing island! Orcas sports such a comanding peak, the view is worth the effort for sure. Interesting to me that it has such a great height, considering glacial activities were the responsible agents which formed much of the area, correct?

    • The glaciers that covered the Puget Sound were a mile high, so Mount Constitution would have reached only half-way to the surface of the ice. I don’t know why it didn’t get eroded by the ice… I’d have to check my geologic maps. I suspect it’s a more resistant bedrock than the surrounding areas.

  6. Christoph says:

    Seems like you had a great excursion! Two things are puzzling me, though:
    Firstly, why did you choose the Singer instead of one of your other bikes? With its relatively narrow tires and old-fashioned lighting system, it seems somewhat ill-suited to winter touring on rough roads and single trails. Was it because Natsuko’s bike is sporting the same size tires, and you didn’t want an advantage over her?
    Secondly, what the heck did you carry in all those bags (in addition to Natsuko’s spare down jacket)? Maybe you just needed some weight up front to optimize the bike’s handling? Just kidding.

    • The Mule is in Japan right now, the Herse doesn’t have low-rider racks, and the Firefly has neither fenders nor lights. The Urban Bike could carry the load, but I ride that all the time. So the Singer was an obvious choice. Beyond that, I really wanted to ride it again. It worked fine – it’s not like we rode hundreds of miles on gravel roads. The panniers held our two laptops, off-the-bike clothes, food and a few other things. This wasn’t just a cycling trip, but we also had work to do, and we wanted to enjoy our time off the bike… plus the cold weather necessitated far more clothes than a summer trip.

  7. Jan and Natsuko: I enjoyed reading about your adventure. Happy New You to both of you.

    Rod

  8. nin says:

    Great read!
    What’s the red thing on the Singer’s front rack’s right side?

    • It’s a reflector. The original owner specified many braze-on fittings on the racks for reflectors. I removed most when I restored the bike, but kept these to honor the original owner. The same applies to the dual rear brakes – doesn’t really make sense, but it was his idea, and to me, that is charming.

  9. parkercouch says:

    I was just planning a tour for February and wasn’t sure what the islands would be like in the winter. This confirms that I need to do it!
    By the way, it was nice meeting you last night at the Swift event (Parker from Kirkland Bikes). Looking forward to working with you and the Compass crew in the future. Maybe we can do a joint ride or campout this summer?

  10. Hey Jan, sorry to have missed you; next time you’re on Orcas please stop in at our shop, Wildlife Cycles in Eastsound! We love what you’re doing. Having built over 100 steel lugged frames between 1975 and 1990, we appreciate your classic approach.

    And you’re right about the resistant bedrock of Mt. Constitution.

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