Skagit Valley Touring

Fidalgo Island, Washington

15 September 2007 (32-4 miles)

A week or so since my last ride, the itchiness becomes acute. The Seattle End of Summer Panic rash is in full bloom. Diaper rash has nothing on this. Well, okay, it does - but this lasts longer. Worse, this panic has been preceded only recently - like by two months or so - by The Seattle Beginning of Summer Panic hysteria, its twin in the unique summertime maladies of the Great Northwest. Symptoms that might be perhaps merely annoying in, say, Eugene, Corvallis, or Portland - all in calm and staid Oregon - become turbocharged and downright life-threatening in the Northwest's unofficial capitol, heavily tech/outdoor/over-caffeinated Seattle.

With our two-months-blink-and-you-miss-it summers, a spastic frenzy descends on the land sometime in late July. Prior to then, all beautiful days - of which there are actually plenty - are considered bonuses. One can languish guilt-free on such surprisingly warm, buoyant days prior to the "official" concept of summer. Long-sleeved and rain-deterring clothes likewise earn a surprising repose, the reward for pitiless endurance the rest of the year. A nervous twitch might be evident in someone's behavior in these halcyon days, but that's more likely the manifestation of a sixth sense of what's soon to come - and all the plans and thinking that went with it.

When the "guaranteed" summer - those sunny days without rain that Seattlites count on more than the rain of the other 10 months - arrives, however, hysteria sweeps through. Weekends completely book up in your calendar and that of all of your friends; exceptions are not made. Summer will soon be over! No time to talk about it! Gotta run!

Thus it's in the backdrop of THAT mentality that I decide I'd better get on my bike for at least SOME of the nice days in the window of opportunity, regardless of my motivation. From a physician's point of view, something unhealthy can undoubtedly be found in this, but that'd be from a physician who enjoys "full" summers. Fortunately, there can be a good side to such panic: it was the previous year's antsiness which introduced me to the wonders of cycling up in Skagit County.

Less than an hour away lies its wide pastoral and agricultural fields, an area laced by safe roads which offer up bountiful vistas of rivers, islands, and even the pleasantly monotone landscapes of crops - including perhaps the largest tulip fields outside of Holland. I've somewhere swiped a map containing bike rides for the area; it's that which has come to represent a broadsheet of possibilities for if and when the weather cooperates. What I didn't do the previous year, I'll surely do the next - or so I've told myself confidently.

Well, here it is, already the end of summer and my bike hasn't seen an inch of that blessed Skagit asphalt. But on this morning, and with rain and uncertain weather forecast for the upcoming days, I finally achieve a flurry of preparation and head out the door at noon. It's not exactly an eager beaver start, but the panic nevertheless works in mysterious ways. Inexplicably as well, I decide to use up precious time by taking some back roads that I'm not familiar with. They take me through the Swinomish Reservation between La Conner and Anacortes.

But this isn't a wasted exercise of a detour: This is an area I've been thinking about doing some riding in as well. Why not check it out a bit since it's on the way? What I find is that it's not exactly inspiring countryside, however, not what with all of the rundown homes that speak more of a careless neglect and disinterest than anything else. I've previously noted that outward appearances of homes must not rank very high in the priority lists of Native Americans (who I hear prefer to be called the less PC term "Indians"); This area proves no different. I figure that that's purely their business, though. I nevertheless make the mental note that I don't have to ride in it, either.

I finally manage to reach my destination, dumping my car off in a park near the San Juans Ferry in Anacortes. Time to ride! For all of my typical prevarication beforehand, the ride itself should clear my head of its usual tangle of thoughts - if only by the sheer necessity of paying attention to what I'm doing. Of more import by far is the sheer pleasure of being out on my bike in a beautiful slice of nature.

For one thing, it helps that Fidalgo Island is in many respects like the San Juan Islands in topography, fauna, and flora. It's far more convenient, however, since it lies also in a no-man's-land of definition that comes from being well-connected by a bridge to the mainland while still being separated from the San Juans proper by the Rosario Strait. The good of this is that one can see much of the islands' beauty in Fidalgo's nearby islands and shores - but minus the fee and timing hassle of catching a ferry.

The ride south, along the island's west side, starts with 5-10 miles of significantly rising and falling roads with no shoulder really to speak of... until I finally came upon Pass Lake. This anchors the southern end of the island, a quiet retreat from the road. From there it's only a few minutes more, now of flat rolling along a busy spur further south, to reach Deception Pass, one of the crown jewels of the Washington coast. There a magnificent pair of bridges span the short distance between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands from on high - wow! - as below the current races through in a swirl of eddies and undercurrents that have claimed their shares of lives over the years. It's truly dramatic.

Big ol' bridge.

For a bicycle, however, the Deception Pass area is a bit hellish. Road shoulders - which do exist - are blatantly ignored by tourists, all gapingly pressed to windows to idle or park their cars to take in nature's show. The bridges themselves offer little help, either, as pedestrians stroll along their wired-off sidewalks while the grated road offers no shoulder for the cyclist to let car traffic by on. The bicycle is the odd man out here.

Having been to this spot numerous times before, however, I decide to only tool around part of it and mostly stay out of the way. It being a sunny weekend day at the end of summer, I'm not going to let the panic of others make a statistic of me. I stroll around a bit, then turn around and get myself back to Pass Lake ahead of the traffic as fast as I can.

Fast current.

That ends the most dangerous part of the ride, but I'm to find that the next section - on Highway 20 - will be no more comfortable. I'm now looking for a side road that'll get me off of the highway, but the signage has apparently changed or disappeared. I thus keep on HWY-20 for significantly longer than hoped for before finding the next place that make senses to leave it, at Gibraltar Road (the 2nd appearance of it by sign; the first sign was the one missing). From this point forward I have no more problems with traffic. My relief is palpable as numerous trucks had been menacing the road shoulder before and after passing me. They've made their points, as undoubtedly intended.

Characteristic peeling-red-bark madrona, often growing seemingly right out of rock.

Free of HWY-20, I fly down a steep hill and around a beached cove. This winds me way back toward the Reservation I've driven through earlier. However, already decided against spending my riding time there, I cross over HWY-20 again to the island of sorts formed by HWY-20 and the massive refineries that reside at March's Point. These comprise something of an anomaly in a region typified by nature's wonder with a sprinkling of small towns, but there you have it. Shell, Tesoro, and their cohorts have long had this presence right on the water's edge; all traffic heading to the charm of the San Juans via Anacortes first take in their view on the way.

For a cyclist, however, it's still kind of interesting - the Point has a road-less-traveled feel as one circles its rim. It's open to traffic, too, even if it's mostly only used by cyclists and refinery workers - of which there doesn't seem that many of on this particular weekday. To the one side, a cyclist takes in shoreline, islands, and waterfowl... while on the other he takes in hissing pipes, belching smokestacks, and outsized storage tanks. Such a choice. Where oh where to feast the eyes?

A surprise nevertheless awaits me when I round the point and re-near HWY-20: a pedestrian bridge of great length has been built across the bay to connect the Point with Anacortes proper. Huh. This somehow is something I've never noticed before, even though it's completely visible from the road to Anacortes. The elevated structure allows one to avoid the dangerous ferry and local traffic racing into Anacortes on HWY-20 and its spur, too. Sure, there's a tire puncture hazard from the numerous shells dropped by birds on the plastic-wood deckway, but otherwise it's a pleasant zip over the water to town. Most important is that it's unexpected, always the hoped-for "supersizing" of any traveler's itinerary.

Pipelines to hell, ruining an otherwise great view of the islands. Biodiesel, anyone?

Back in Anacortes, I decide to take a touristy dawdle to see what's the what. I've always liked the little bits of Anacortes seen in previous visits, but those practically always have been ferry-catching-related. So , after first lazing by a very busy skate park with hordes of local kids, I move on to the nicely preserved downtown with its main street and brick architecture.

While not exactly a lively place, commercial Anacortes certainly is far from dead. The waterfront is extensive both in and outside of downtown, pointing in various directions, plus there are varied views seemingly at each lookout. March's Point, Chuckanut Mountain, Mt. Baker, Guemes and Cypress Islands, the San Juans: Those don't make for a bad menu of morsels to feast the eyes on. The housing in the downtown area is quaint and traditional, too, even if the prices of the few homes for sale aren't: I'm a sucker for cool-looking tiny houses. Here there's no shortage of them to check out.

Now making my way back on the last leg toward the car, I stop at the tiny Guemes Island Ferry to ponder a quick crossing to check out that somewhat forgotten island. That'd be a nice capper to the day, especially since it has a reputation as something of a green haven: I've heard that hippie-like solar installation classes are given there. But I've just missed the ferry by minutes, and with an hour until the next one I ultimately decide to just return to the car. Besides, at this point coffee reigns supreme in my mind to stave off sleepiness. I've got an hour's drive ahead in the dark which beckons wearily... but I next find that the cafes have shut down in Anacortes. Sigh.

Once again, then, I decide to go through the Reservation to make my way back. This time I'm passing through specifically for the reason of taking my chances of getting some joe in La Conner, though, the town lying just across the Swinomish Channel from the "rez". My diagonal shortcut takes a further bad turn, however, when I have to wait for the removal of the wreckage of a single car (SUV) that's rather spectacularly and unsuccessfully taken on a tree. I surmise it was (stereotypical, I know, but...) an alcohol-related incident on the reservation, but I'll never get the details. That dealt with, and a miraculously late cuppa cawfee later at the remaining open cafe in La Conner, finally I'm back on the road to return to Seattle with nightfall. There's only a little more panic time left in summer. Maybe I shouldn't even put my bike away.

DIRECTIONS: To get to Anacortes from Seattle, take I-5 North to SR-20 north of Mount Vernon. Take a left and continue for 20 minutes on SR-20 West. You'll pass farm fields, an Indian casino, and a refinery before hitting the main junction to get to town. There take a right. To get to Washington Park, follow the signs for the San Juan Islands Ferry when you get to downtown Anacortes in a few minutes from the junction (where you'll take a left). The Park lies just beyond the ferry turnoff.

Guemes Island and Padilla Bay, Washington

16 October 2007 (~35 miles)

Guemes Island

The weather forecast gives an inkling of a surprise for this day - there's to be a high of 69, sunny even. Given that all of Seattle is already hunkering down for the long and gloomy winter, this mid-October opportunity can not be taken lightly. Time to panic over letting the opportunity pass by unused in the gloomy NW, in other words. Well, maybe not, since it's not that panic-inducing by the sheer nature its unexpectedness - but I'm sure not going to waste the chance.

I've had a couple of unfinished business rides in the Skagit area that I've been meaning to get at, including two featured on my handy Skagit Rides Map. One's Guemes Island, of missed-ferry fame (see the Fidalgo Island entry). That one found me too impatient to wait the hour for the next ferry. The other is to run the coast at Padilla Bay, to the east of Anacortes. I'm not sure how long either ride will be, but the map suggests that if I don't do a slug start like my previous Skagit foray, I should be able to do both to my heart's content in one day.

Motivated, I get out of Seattle by at the crack of 10:30 a.m. - after my usual routine of trumpet and yoga, then more trumpet, which has a way of slowing things down. First things first, I think. Moreover, the yoga always pays dividends when the ride is over and the aches think about starting up. I still get myself up to the Skagit by noon. Once again I take back roads to La Conner, deciding that it'd be a fine thing to have a stop for an early lunch. Jonesing specifically for a sandwich, my forlorn look at the fish and chips stand - which offers none - procures for me the desired advice for where to head instead: I need to just head down a few buildings to the fruit and produce store, where there's a kind of restaurant, too.

There I'm rewarded not only with a cheap and tasty sandwich of eggs, cheese, and sauteed 'shrooms, but they also offer an unheard of 30c cup of joe. How about that! Sure it's still 25c above what it probably cost them, but I take progress in all of its forms. Plus there are plenty of seats on their sunny deck overlooking the river (actually the Swinomish Channel, I believe, but that's splitting goat whiskers). Yes, good omens abound in La Conner, a town in the process of falling back to its autumnal sleep on a weekday post the tourist crush of summer.

After enough relaxing and reading my book (What Is The What, by Dave Eggers, about the Lost Boys of Sudan - RECOMMENDED!), I'm ready to ride. I mosey over to the local county ferry at the end of Anacortes' I Street, change in the car, then head down to the dock. The ferry schedule's somewhat confusing, however, showing only one list of times for the ferry. There's no GOING and RETURNING to discern between. Hmmm. Turns out that every ferry heading out of Anacortes to Guemes Island immediately turns around, so one only has to add five minutes to each time to create a return schedule - which wouldn't exactly be a bad thing to actually state on the schedule, but hey - it's THEIR island. An employee of the ferry is a fellow friendly cyclist, meanwhile, so I also soon get the general info on riding Guemes. In its entirety it's at best an easy rolling of two hours.

Overlooking the ferry to Guemes Island from Anacortes, with its counterpart across the Guemes Channel in view.

Quickly the ferry jets across the small Guemes Channel; Soon the island is mine to explore. I say goodbye to the few people on the ferry I've chatted with and begin my route -which should cover virtually all of the pavement of the island. More specifically, Guemes' road system is merely that of a figure eight, plus another loop. It'll entail a slight repeat of a couple of connectors, plus some small random spurs that I'll check out as I see fit, but there'll be no real route-finding hijinks.

Cruising around the full extent of the island indeed only requires about 2 hours, of which 1-1/2 could do the job easily - if not for some of my dawdling. But dawdling is what it's all about, of course! I started by running the southwest shore, then zip up the west coast, then cut through the middle up to the N tip. Traffic is less than negligible over the course of the entire ride - less cars/trucks are encountered than I have fingers. And that's even true if I chop a few off. Businesses, too, are almost nonexistent - there's only a general store offering gas near the ferry, a community center/library, a church, some personal "artisanal" shops, plus the famous solar school.

It's the solar school that first brought Guemes to my attention. Previously, I'd circled around the island in my sea kayak a few times, always on my way to other places. In those kayak-water-centric days, I preferred to only go to the places that didn't have people, not to mention roads! But Guemes, notwithstanding my scorn, has ideas of its own with which to give itself value. A nascent sustainable movement which has been taking over the island is one of them. To that end, a friend of mine took a weeklong solar panel installation class on the island some time after my kayaking days - coincidentally right around when he was building a haybale house. He lauded the experience and Guemes started to sound pretty cool, after all. Now, looking about the island as I whiz by on two wheels, I indeed see the evidence of solar panels partout (everywhere) - I like this place!

North end island view of Mt. Baker.

As for nature's bounty, although there isn't much of the island that can be termed parkland, there are some beautiful spots to view the other islands. There's even a nice view of the nearest mongo volcano, Mt. Baker. THAT beast is thoroughly impressive, brooding with its gleaming white summit from fresh snows. A beach park on the north end of the island (not available for camping, unfortunately) is the main public land. Beyond that is seemingly only the area outside of the community center and the playground in the center of the island. Completing the NE corner of the isle, meanwhile, there's a resort consisting of a few buildings adjacent to the park. This appealing place has rightfully tacked "pleasantly bucolic" to itself on such a gorgeous day.

Outside of stopping for a few views, I mostly enjoy just staying in motion. This probably will be the last day where I can ride around in a T-jersey and shorts, after all. There isn't a cloud in the sky; Even the wind on my skin feels balmy. I pass only a handful of people walking about, all saying HI, and ultimately make my way to the SE corner of the island via what can rightfully be termed a cathedral forest. This is the most populated and hilly part of the island, with a network of looping and connecting roads, yet calling it congested would be a vast stretch of terminology. Such things are always relative.

Another view from the above spot.

Making my way about this SE territory, I make a point of trying to put rubber to almost all of the pavement. I only skip a few bits that I can see would dead-end quickly. A highlight of this road research is bumping into an old-timer, a man originally hailing from Eugene who's now been on the island for seventeen years. From him I get the necessary island local lowdown. That's always high on my cycle touring agenda.

Apparently he's in the process of photographing every solar installation on the island, an eco-enthusiast like myself. He admits that there are certainly a handful of people-shunning hermits on the isle, but by and large everyone is friendly and takes time out to talk with each other as happenstance dictates run-ins. He notes, and I take interest, that one can also tour the island by timing the tides. That let's someone walk about twelve of the sixteen miles of shoreline uninterrupted. Pretty cool, I think - I'll have to check into that! Frankly, I'm tickled with the feel of the place, thinking it to be the best of the islands I've been visiting by bike. This conversation just adds cement to the sentiment.

My sunny impression of island life is simultaneously and brilliantly misted like a steaming sun-shower brimming with the eco-sense of the place. One can't ignore the great ferry service, for one thing. Infrequent ferry service, as other Washington isles have, can isolate a place too much. Even just as a bridge can connect too much. But with a long ferry schedule that averages every 30-45 minutes at $3/roundtrip, not to mention access to nearby Anacortes and all of its 100,000 citizens in arm's reach, this isolation isn't pushed down Guemes' throat. In fact, it seems to be a perfect balance. With house/land prices cheaper than the San Juans (I've been eyeballing them), my attention has certainly been drawn. Followup will be required!

In the meantime I have a ferry to catch. I briefly check out the general store and, although not purchasing anything, am satisfied that good food and drink is at hand. An organic focus pervades; the place just smells good. Which it better, since this is the only obvious hangout spot for the island when one needs to see another face. Run by solar panels, it has biodiesel, too! Seriously, followup IS required. But my ferry has come, replete with school children returning from the big city (Anacortes). It's back to Anacortes with my ilk.

Getting back to the car, I quickly stuff the bike inside to make my way over to Padilla Bay. This is the wide expanse of water off of Anacortes and March's Point, where I had previously ridden when I was in the area. There are a few park trails on the east side of the bay, so I decide to park the car at Bay View State Park, right on the water. I grab an extra shirt in case the temperature should drop, then head off straightaway to run the coast at a goodly speed.

From the map, I chose an obvious objective: Samish Point, the end of the road. I don't know how long it'll take to get there, but I'm reasonably certain I'll be back by dark. Fortunately the ride passes pretty much to script. It's probably about 10 miles to the Point against a slight headwind, but the road is in good shape and it's mostly flat to boot. The landscape is comprised mostly of a marsh to one side, perhaps a bit tidal, and the area in general has mostly been converted to farmland for hay and other crops I don't recognize right off. With the sun slowly setting, a reddish haze descends with it to add a nice glow to the ride as the temperature slowly eases down.

The flatlands east of Padilla Bay, in the shadow of Mt. Baker.

Outside of the flats that make up most of the ride, the only real terrain change comes near the Point itself, an incline so mild that I almost don't even slow down. After Guemes Island's mouth-gaped touring, I have more of a chomp of the bit on this ride. I'm interested in maintaining a good clip, particularly until I get to the Point and have removed the unknown aspect of the ride - its length. After that is easily accomplished, the following return to the car allows for more wistful riding. The only surprising aspect of the ride is how many expensive homes lined the route. Most have great views over the bay and islands, making sense that people would take advantage of it - but I was just previously unaware of the community's existence.

I make it back to the car with only a short time of sun left, pleased with my timing. To reward myself, I decide to head back into still-nearby La Conner. I want a clam chowder, or any really good seafood soup, really, but here I'm finally thwarted from completing a perfect day. For all of the appeal of La Conner falling to its autumnal snooze, the other side to all of the tourists leaving for the season is that the shops are closed early, too. No clam chowder for me! Fortunately I've brought things to munch on - I'm not going to starve or anything - but upon finally heading home I'm disappointed in being denied my treat. I'm generally an optimist, so I figure that there's probably something Zen in this ending. Then again, I really woulda rather had some chowder!

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