San Juans Bike Camping Trip 2007
19-28 August 2007 (60, 80, 100 miles total? Hell if I knew!) :
Now this trip was a long time in coming. I'd lived in Seattle 13+ years, but still hadn't spent much time in the nearby San Juan Islands (SJs), located at the northern end of Puget Sound. Random day trips, plus a couple of weekends, had comprised my sole exposure to that enchanted group of isles - pretty pathetic for a travelin' man. Although practically iconic for the Sound area, they fortunately also have enough isolation to keep the masses at bay, allowing only ferry access for the average joe (who didn't own a plane or yacht).
Of varying size, supposedly there are 176 of these islands and islets that are name-worthy, but this rises to a grand total of 746 at low tide and when adding in reefs and all. Regardless of that, only a dozen or so can be termed noteworthy, having homes and/or parks on them and being og enough size to earn more than passing interest. And of those only 4 had that magical ferry access as of 2007: San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw. Populations 6800, 5000, 2200, and 230 respectively. If a few others had roads or even cars, I actually didn't know - but I knew that those cars wouldn't travel far without publicly-funded roads (which I don't think the non-ferry-serviced islands have).
The SJs have a contentious history, being bandied about between the US and Great Britain not long after the first non-indigenous settlers arrived in the late 1800s. Located among the muddled and broken up cluster of islands in the Northwest U.S. and Southwest Canada (still part of Great Britain then), the islands found themselves in a nebulous territorial zone. The pre-settler natives certainly had other thoughts about such "sovereignty", one could be assured: these had long been their summer fishing and lodge grounds.
But by the time of the settlers, said natives had already lost their battles, sadly. Things had moved on for colonists from fighting with them for the initial land grab to an uppity situation between two colonizing nations' farmers about who owned what, exactly. A "war" of sorts ultimately ensued, The Pig War, which served as the climax of this "sorta" cold war.
This fun got under way when one farmer shotgunned a pig to a better place for being on the wrong side of a property dispute. High times indeed! Somehow this was allowed to simmer under boil for something on 12 years, including having US and British troops sent in to randomly lob shots at each other, until the Kaiser of Germany intervened. Who'da thought? As a result of his supernatural wisdom, lo and behold, the San Juans soon belonged to the US. The Gulf Islands, which seem to form a separated part of the same group, belonged to Canada. The Kaiser wiped his daintily manicured hands clean. Both countries had finally and indisputably earned a vacation spot to overcharge tourists for whale spotting. Whew! Good on the Kaiser!
Really, good ON him - the San Juans really ARE pretty special, something worthy a scuffle over - but not the stuff for warring and explosions. Individually, each island humps majestically out of the sea - no real gradual sandy beaches leading to lowlands here. Instead these dramatic cliffs are dotted with red-barked madrona, spruce, cedar, pine or fir trees jutting out of steep banks. Actually, outside of where land has been cleared, they dot the island interiors rather well, too.
For the longest time, the SJs were supremely isolated, a hermit group of loners' farms in a relatively inaccessible place. They were serviced (at best) by The Mosquito Fleet, a motley of boats that served as an adhoc ferry system. But with the advent of regular Washington State Ferry service, the islands slowly but inexorably began moving toward a life of tourism. Vacation homes soon speckled the various cliffs, in particular on the biggest and best-serviced 3 islands of San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez. Such construction soon entailed a summer high season, which in turn jammed both welcome and unwelcome life into their confines for a spell each year, thankfully over almost as soon as they begin in the patented brevity of Pacific Northwest summers. That's the islanders' take on the status quo, by the way.
Additionally, the SJs find themselves in the rainshadow of Vancouver Island and the Olympic Mountains, so they (supposedly) "suffer" some two months per year less of rain than notoriously wet Seattle. Locals have begged to differ on this touted statistic, noting that grey is grey, rain or no. To which I'd agree, being a SAD sufferer myself. Still, there is a big difference between gray and dry versus gray and wet. On the trip of this writing, the weather would work in my favor as it would turn out. For this, I thanked the Kaiser, of course - why not?
Anyway, for MY San Juan sojourn, a friend of mine (Kr.) decided to tag along for the first part of the trip to serve as his intro to cycle camping. He would join me for San Juan Island, Orcas, and the first night of Lopez; I would stay on longer at Lopez and also check out Shaw to complete the ferry-accessed circuit. My initial plan had been to take the Victoria Clipper, a direct passenger ferry from Seattle to Friday Harbor town on San Juan, chiefly for the ecological reason of biking from my house directly to the islands (humor me - last I checked, my bike couldn't roll over the Sound's bottom particularly well). However, after much insistence on the evilness of the Clipper on the part of Kr., and for reasons never really well described outside of a bad weather trip, my Clipper aspirations were set aside. I ultimately relented to his insistence to drive up in his car to Anarcortes, where one could take the Washington State Ferry to Friday Harbor (and the other 3 stops). He would leave his car there to return home later while I would still take the Clipper back, as originally planned.
Arriving in Anacortes, the first portents weren't great. A forlorn German girl in the ferry parking lot needed some help getting her bike back into her car after a miserable and wet-shortened trip in the isles. She had had a rough go of it, and was happy to be moving on to her next (drier!) destination. She was one unhappy camper, literally. Nonetheless, bidding her adieu and good luck, we remained undeterred and caught the ferry anyway: the sun was shining and it was warm out - WHAT rain?
Indeed it was a great start; a photographer's dream. Ferry rides through the San Juans are known for being the essence of "the journey is the reward," and here we were living that in spades. As with all Washington Ferries, we had the preferred first-on-first-off aspect of ferry travel by being bikebound, so we happily disembarked in front of the motorbound menaces in Friday Harbor. Subsequently, however, this glow dimmed as we had to wait to merely cross the road while the same cars unloaded and blocked our passage - oops. Thus deterred, we decided we might as well hit a bike shop first.
I had fixed one brake cable before this trip, but in my usual style I hadn't carefully inspected the other. Doink! - it was almost as frayed as the other had been. But this would be a quick repair on my part, so no biggie. My friend, in the meantime, gave the first inklings of what would eventually turn into his mantra for the trip: whinging! Until this point in the trip, it seemed like it might be only a slightly annoying aberration on his part that had already begun in the parking lot - surely the beauty of the place would smooth any rough edges over, I figured.
But here we were, already in a bike shop dealing with a problem of his foreseen, something which to me seemed beyond yipping about. He already KNEW about it. It had been the case that, over various phone calls in Seattle, he had been detailing his issues with his adhoc bikepacking system. To this, I had repeatedly and sagely suggested that he put it all together and test it out before the day of our sailing. Duh. No sense in letting the problem surface later at a less convenient place, I proferred. Ha! Now here he was, fussing with his tires and his pack rigging - all the while insisting that they were rubbing together somehow. I didn't doubt his veracity, but his timing was obviously suspect. This wasn't exactly "...and they're OFF!"
Nevertheless, adjusting for the moment, we eventually left the bike shop and Friday Harbor behind satisfied to cross the 12 or so miles over to the county park where we would spend the night. To start there would be some hills to work up a sweat with as we climbed from the harbor to top out in the center of the isle, but we would then again be dropping all the way down to Lime Kiln Park (near our destination, San Juan County Park).
On this initial climb, Kr.'s complaints soon began to pick up a little steam, first concerning the hills, then the heat. Well duh, I thought again. What had I gotten myself into?, I wondered. Indeed, soon a list was to grow concerning the cold, his tent, his mattress, his bike (again), and the (avoidable) heavy load of his baggage. This unforeseen pattern developed rapidly, and as my eyes began their steady roll back to nether regions, I only then began to gather that I was potentially in for a long haul of such nonsense. This was just day 1! Then again, my optimist side said, things could also only get better as he got used to it. Mmm hmm.
The summit achieved, we dropped down to Lime Kiln Park, sitting on the western edge of San Juan Island (and the rest of the SJs, too). It was one of the known spots for whale and porpoise watching, plus it was an obvious spot for great sunsets for obvious (western-facing) reasons. I couldn't spot any whales, but porpoises indeed were out in great numbers, completing their rolling motions in the distance. Not a bad consolation! To witness this spectacle, no one else - other than a rain-geared couple huddling over a thermos, some distance away from us - was in the park. I felt like yelling to everyone and no one in particular "HEY! Look at THAT!"
The sun hadn't set yet, and blackberries were in season, too. I quickly developped a focus in foraging for them - in between eyeballing the horizon for whale fins. No luck with the large mammal front, but I substituted in doing my best substitute mammal (bear) impression whilst scraping myself ragged in search of more and still more ripe blackberries. At home, I'd be thinking pies and jams - TripTrumpet likes his berries!
While basking in these natural wonders, I all the while knew that there was yet another hill between us and the campground. Preemptively, I was trying to figure out how to evade a litany of complaints over its (now cursed) existence. It almost felt like it was my fault, somehow. I now tried the timeworn tactic of warning what was to come, hopefully defusing the situation. This led only to wry jokes on his part, however, of the hell that would be to pay. 'Course, who was going to pay said hell was not left to doubt - who else would have to listen to it all? Fortunately the hill wasn't as bad as advertised, surprising both of us after all of the leadup to trauma, so we rolled into camp without too much ado. Bullet dodged. Then again, few guns only hold one bullet.
My first impression of our campground wasn't good - a FULL sign was the first thing to greet us as we entered. I figured (correctly, fortunately) that that was intended for the car campers though. We eventually found the biker/hiker-only spot on an exposed hillock, then managed to get our tents set up as a light rain began to fall. Fortunately, we got them erected just in time, a reason for celebration. But, as it - of course - turned out, my friend's tent wasn't quite waterproof. Some things would become damp overnight. Sigh. My ears would need to rest up for the new day.
With a wet morning to greet us, and my having gained some experience in my friend's apparent modus operandi, I offered him the choice of taking the long way or the short way to the ferry to Orcas, our next stop. The long way was more scenic, but generally easier. The short way was, well, shorter (directly across and over the top of the island). I believed that he already sensed that I was in tune with his system of complaints, but he nevertheless decided to press on with me to Roche Harbor - the long way.
This was done without incident, hurrah hurrah, outside of watching a woman crash her bike right in front of me on the final approach to the harbor. She was part of a larger group of women in their 50s and 60s doing a cycling tour of the San Juans as we were, albeit well-supported by a van with gourmet food. Yet - good on them! - they were energetic and undaunted. Uncomplaining, as the case was... More importantly, the crash victim was okay, although a bit embarrassed. I promised her I wouldn't say a word.
Roche Harbor, a picturesque little place with restored and new-but-old-styled buildings on the waterfront, was quite active as we arrived. The bicycle touring company's group had concurrently arrived with us, plus it was lunch. A fancy buffet was being set up for the group complete with white tableclothes, but we would be foraging on what the place had to to offer.
Settling on one of the two restaurants on the water, we soon dined on overpriced sandwiches with mediocre coffee. Which, somehow!, I immediately heard about from companion sure never to miss an opportunity. For the record, I found my salmon sandwich quite tasty. And I accepted that prices rose in a beautiful touristed spot that imported almost everything. Now if someone else (who?!?) would accept this reality like I did, I figured that the next days would proceed smoothly. They would not. But MY belly was happy, anyway.
Immediately upon exiting Roche Harbor, there was a very tasteful sculpture garden replete with a goodly number of items to gawk at. The setting, complete with a pond, couldn't have been more serene. To get the full run of the place - an alluring aspect on a less event-packed day as we had planned - would take a small donation. However, neither of us was that fired up to get in there when one could eyeball a lot of it from the road, anyway. And we had to get going for our ferry, anyway. Moreover, the small pond, as we quickly found out, was a great place to raise mosquitos to adulthood. We were shortly on our way, trailing a host of new and eager airborne friends.
At this point, we entered a sizeable stretch of gently rolling hills to get us back to Friday Harbor and our awaiting ferry to Orcas. Even the most griping of people couldn't find much wrong with such easily attained scenery, and we even stopped to pick blackberries (well, I did - Kr. fussed with his bike). Post such feasting, it was soon enough an enjoyable reentry into the capitol - if actually there was one, Friday Harbor was it - of the island county. (Factoid: San Juan County is completely comprised of the island group, plus owned more shoreline than any county in the good ol' U.S. of A.)
With only a short wait before our ferry, we took advantage of this idle time to get a coffee and revisit our newly-favorite bike shop. My panniers had been wobbling all over the place, so I got the owner of the bike shop to help me out with securing them more strongly. Apparently he too had done a long trip cycling Down Under as I soon planned, but in New Zealand (not Australia).
Nevertheless we had some common things to talk about. Foremost, he suggested I not pack too much, which I had been hearing elsewhere, too. I was already thinking very much in that direction for practical reasons anyway, but it was comforting to hear yet another - and practiced - reassurance. After a half hour of fiddling with my pannier and brake systems, I was charged all of $6, proof that it paid to be friendly by my thinking. This positive attitude was reinforced immediately, as my friend paid up all of a dozen bucks or so for a new tube and the labor to change it. That too was still a deal in my book, but on his commenting afterward that he thought the tire change would have been assumed to be on the house, I could only shrug my shoulders.
Indeed, the shoulder shrug - physical or mental - had become MY modus operandi. I had come to think of this complaining ritual to be part and parcel to his politics, which to my understanding were Libertarian. "Live free or die" was understood to be their slogan but, to me, it seemed more to be about being unsatisfied with everything. This lack of satisfaction with anything didn't find the wherewithal to accept that it was those very much decried taxes that provided all of the services found lacking.
Libertarians are that curious mix of liberal and conservative that could forever keep heads scratching. They might love their guns (and my friend apparently was a good marksman in a shooting contest), but they just as likely wouldn't discriminate based on race, sex, or sexual preference (as he indeed didn't seem to based on his friends I knew of). Go figure. Regardless, no libertarians would be winning elections anytime soon with their curious and seemingly conflicting mix of ideals of wanting complete freedom and a host of services.
The latest bike fixes over with, and meals-to-go acquired from a worth-remembering coffee shop, it was soon time for the ferry to Orcas. Prior to the crossing, however, I would first attempt to buy my ticket for the Victoria Clipper (which only came to San Juan Island, which we were now leaving). At the poorly-advertised Clipper dock, only a mentally suspect employee was on watch. Confused by the lack of information available at the dock, I engaged this man doubtfully. And indeed, after a circuitous and curiously non sequitur conversation, I discovered that there was no information to be found beyond a brochure with a phone number in that lonely place. My return trip tactics had failed for the time being, but we soon got onto the ferry to Orcas anyway. That would have to be figured out later.
Post the (beautiful as always) ferry, this was to be our biggest and toughest day of riding. Even for that, though, we would only clock in at perhaps 35 miles total for the day - how bad could that be?, I thought. Half of the distance - the easier half, admittedly - was already completed on San Juan Island. But now on the ferry a couple of experienced SJs riders confirmed the remaining ride's details, ominously calling the long hill up to our night's campground Ass Hill (Flattery Hill, officially). That didn't sound too promising after all. As it turned out, we would soon encounter a couple of Mini Ass Hills as well to start our curl around the island. This would cause my friend to say TO HELL WITH IT! more than once and walk his bike to the bike pull outs.
After these first few mini-hills the way did get easier as we made our way over to Eastsound, the midpoint and main commerce point (that's saying a lot!) of Orcas. We rounded that midsection bend of the island, then finally ran into our good friend Ass Hill. Not before I spotted some relatively almost-solid-white deer, though. Apparently, the deer of Orcas had inbred so much as to create mutants, and we were the beneficiaries of this phenomenon with our cameras and sense of wonder. Such wonderment wouldn't last long, though, as it was soon back to climbing Ass Hill - where I eventually decided to leave Kr. behind walking his bike. I was determined to make my way to camp before darkness would fully envelop us. I might have had another reason for zooping up ahead, too. Cheers, m'ears!
This enlightened sunlit arrival was barely accomplished though, particularly given the scanty instructions from the ranger at the park's entrance. But I persevered - and eventually Kr. did as well, tenting just as darkness fell completely. We unsuspectingly found ourselves to be next to a boisterous group of boys, perhaps a scout troop we guessed. This inevitably led to comparisons with the Lord of the Flies, although we never got so far as determining which one was Piggy. With their endless yipping, however, we agreed that there would be no shortage of candidates for sacrificial rites if the need arose. In the meantime I questioned if I myself would be a sacrifice, upon discovering a humonguous broken branch dangling like the Sword of Damocles some 50 ft. above my tent. Being tired, I decided to let the Greek gods make their determinations as they saw fit - I was going to get some sleep!
After a shower, that was. One particular glory of this campsite was that there was at least a pay shower at the nearby normal (non hiker-biker) campground, available to all. After two days of sweaty cycling, this was a lovely thing! Certainly, our sleeping bags thanked us, too, if not all surrounding living creatures.
The next day I decided to hike up to the top of Mt. Constitution, a small peak with supposedly the "best" marine view in the world at its summit. I don't know how such things get determined, but I'm always willing to think the guidebooks musta get it at least sortof correct, anyway. Actually, I had been there before, although I didn't get much of a view from the very top then. On that February day, the last 100 feet were socked in by a snowstorm which pummelled my friend Jeremy and I with hail to be the icing of the experience. I did catch some impressive views then too, though - on the approach.
Kr. decided to join me on this non butt-to-seat venture, and I was hopeful that the views would put more of a smile on his dour face. When I saw him ready in jeans to climb on this hot day, however, I immediately had some room for doubt of the outcome. Indeed, our trail upward quickly turned into a steep affair, causing an increasing number of comments from Kr. Uh-oh, here it comes!, I again thought.
When Kr. gaspingly stopped for a smoke to rest up, I officially wrote him off to the wolves in contempt. At that point, unbelievably, I was still game to wait and let him join me for the rest of the climb. Still trying to be an optimist, I peppered the remainder of that hike with hopeful comments about the trail levelling off (a guess on my part), but I was soon beaten into submissive quietude with his increasing litany. If silence wasn't golden for him, I decided, it would have to be for me, anyway.
Finally topping out, the views were indeed magnificent. No one, not even Kr.!, amazingly, could deny this. A stone tower capping off the mountain had interesting displays inside, and there were superb viewpoints outside with signboards below each to chart the distant peaks. One disagreeable caveat is that Mt. Constitution also has the rare reality of being reachable by road, so half of Seattle was there to greet and mingle with us, too - after having met only a handful of people on the trail. Certainly, a YMCA group of oversized kids eating junkfood was noisesome, but that was one-upped shortly by a group of people who spontaneously broke into "America the Beautiful" in somewhat harmonized song. Then they did an encore of the same tune. Okay, enough of the views! It was time to go.
There wasn't any "safe" (potable) water at the top of Mt. Constitution, but with my empty bottle and parched throat I decided to take my chances from a hose at the ranger station, instead of buying small bottles of water at $2/pop. I come from a cheap land, my friend! Plus I have a pet peeve about bottled water in a country with generally safe tap H2O: live riskily and die is my non-Libertarian motto, I guess. When Kr. decided to stop for another smoke, this just after I had found the other trailhead to make our way down, I finally let the push come to the shove. I headed down the trail alone without hesitation, leaving him there on his own to make it to camp.
Two benefits came of this immediately. One was my spotting of a six point stag in the brush within a minute of entering the trail. I rarely had seen stags with noble racks crowning their heads - pretty cool! The other plus lay in meeting a local hiker also on his way down the mountain. We engaged in a lengthy conversation about island life that was insightful, although not entirely surprising. Basically his upshot was that it was nearly impossible to make a living on the islands unless you were either rich or part of an oldtimers' line of descendants. Guess I better hold off on the move.
As with many places with a tourist season, the locals wanted your money - and then for you to go away as soon after you parted with it. As my new friend stated, there wasn't any welcome-new-resident mover's kit from the chamber of commerce in San Juan Country, only VISITOR's brochures. Spiting that island spirit, he generously gave me some tips on places to check out off of the beaten path - insider trading, islandstyle. I've always noticed that locals are far friendlier to the traveler willing to do it on the slow, including by bike. Perhaps such an observation comes only as the result of abject pity at times, but hey! I made it back to camp with some new ideas to explore.
The following day, after another night of unending scout troop shenanigans, we decided to head by bike toward the eastern remainder of the island. To start with, there was a cafe to check out just downhill from the park, Olga's. In fact, it was about the only nearby place to get a bite, period. Yet even with that overpriced breakfast - tasty and slightly different than the usual, to its credit - a beautiful day began nonetheless under a warm sun.
This day would ensue first by checking out the rest of the Olga megapolis, consisting of possibly a dozen residences. The Olga Store, a couple of blocks away from the restaurant and on the waterfront, was mildly amusing. Here one had a country general store, theoretically promising the consumer all nature of goods merely by its outpost nature, with practically empty shelves. In fact, generally only one item existed each of the scant products! One had to wonder if the tumbleweed would soon bounce through, too. Well, that would be an exaggeration of course, but let's just say that there was room enough.
The adjacent marina dock had some nice views for pictures, so that beckoned next. There a monstrous jellyfish that looked like a flower (from some angles) laid in wait below the dock for us few idling tourists to gawk at. Now we were talking tourist attraction! The excitement was palpable, if only for the minute it took to notice that it didn't move much. When the shade obscured that novelty, and pictures had been taken, the charm of Olga had waned complete.
From there, we headed further east toward Obstruction Pass and a park I saw on the map. Before arriving there, I decided to part ways with Kr. - the urge to finally play my horn for a bit overwhelmed me. I found an isolated spot in the road, and I quickly prepared to charm all of the snakes of Ireland. Orcas, I mean. Off and onward Kr. went, and I entertained the critters for a spell.
Sometime during this serenade to the squirrels, I decided that it was incumbent upon me to play scout to the rest of the east side of the island. One needed a mission at times. There weren't that many roads, really, so I would just take them each to their logical end and see what was the what. With that in mind, I continued on up to Obstruction Pass Park, where Kr. had headed.
O.P.P. turned out to be a surprising camping jewel, one that I hadn't realized when poking around the internet for campsites. There was a camping area - WITHOUT WATER - by the beach that was very pleasant, and another loop took you out to some rocks that formed at the shore. From there one faced the bay and the sunset to the west with Olga. And, if one was in any doubt as to whether it was indeed Olga, the rooftop tiles of that rather vacant Olga Store cleared spelled out OLGA in a mossy green on black pattern to resolve the matter nicely.
Kr. was eventually found resting on the beach, reading a book. Not wanting to interrupt his reverie in earnest, I eventually tooted just a few notes on the horn to let him know I was there, but then let him be. He actually looked content, finally truly enjoying himself. I wasn't going to mess with that! So I lounged around a bit and enjoyed the views myself, checking out the campsites for future reference, duly noting that I'd stay there next time I was on Orcas. I'd have to figure out the water situation, yeah, but the spot was the thing. Hmmm...perhaps I could carry around one of those 2-5 gallons collapsable water jugs (heavy duty plastic sacks with sealing spigots)...
Regardless, I was soon off exploring again. At the next harbor over, by Deer Point, there was a marina, plus a half dozen cabins to rent right on the shore. These were tiny little things from an earlier time - perhaps the 40s or 50s - when people accepted that a cabin could be teeny without sporting amenities. It was on the beach, and on Orcas Island in the SJs, fer chrissakes! The proprietor was friendly, too, and her marina store was far better stocked than the joke at Olga, so I passed some time speaking with her.
Her father had started the place, but was now retired. Fittingly, his old sailboat was pulled out of the water on blocks right in front of the store. It had been 4 years, but the vessel was ready to hit the seas again any time, so I was told. From her stories of growing up on the boat with him and her Mom, you had to hope it would go out to sea at least one more time with all on board. In the meantime, though, I soon had had enough of a child's screaming from a bee sting. The first half hour was reasonably acceptable, I figured, but by the time an hour was up I could contemplate justifiable reasons for infanticide... buck up, kiddo!
I next moved on to Doe Bay, the next easterly deadend along the road. There, the houses were rather scattered apart until you came to the little resort that comprised the shockingly-named Doe Bay Resort. This place, too, was a bit out of time cabinwise. However, these examples of cozy bliss were littered about a small bluff with elbow room between them, once again likely built circa the 40s and 50s.
A paean to the times, perhaps, the resort store and restaurant - although countryish on the outside - were updated and well-appointed on the inside. There was some nice seating in a few areas, taking advantage of bluff, cove, or cafe-styled views. All nice and cozy! - so I figured I should stay for a bit. The store sold only gourmet-ish items of quality - including my newly-endorsed Amy's Chili (should anyone be looking for the TripTrumpet endorsement, complete with rubber stamping), and there was organic this that and everything in general. One wouldn't starve - in fact, quite the opposite.
The nearby yurts, hot tubs, and more that I soon noticed finished the bringing-to-date of the place, too. This was not done so in a bad way - lowkey was the order of the establishment, and it felt genuine. Being offered free coffee - the cafe had closed - helped to sway my opinion as well. Nothing like free drugs, and a place with views aplenty to imbibe them! One just can't say no, you know... I tied off my arm before slapping the veins.
Now only the final spur remained to attain the point at eastern land's (road's) end. There I noted on the map a preserve that sounded interesting enough to make a goal of, and I decided to eat my packlunch there with some type of view to the horizon (I hoped). Of course, things are never as they seem - one could technically reach the preserve by road, but not actually enter it I found. Access was only by water, making a bit of a liar of the map that seemed to promise so much.
Instead the road ended in a small settlement of cottages and houses, each with "private" and "keep out" duly marked. (In fact, it seemed to never be omitted, those signs - without exception, ever.) I felt bold eating my lunch on a (faux-?)friendly-seeming bench in front of someone's gate, but the few cars that passed me by took no notice. So maybe they were territorial in an official sense, but not in a poke-you-in-the-chest kinda way. I reserved the right to harrumph, however.
My task of sorts completed, I headed back, wanting to make campfall before night. Another shower would be a great thing. As I neared Olga again at a seashore-hugging bend, I was inspired to make some noise in such a lovely setting. Unceremoniously dumping my bike at the side of the road, I tightrope-walked a few logs to a sandy spit in the shade to set up shop. Noisewise, I of course decided to be discrete - if only for the sake of the many ducks and geese at rest in tranquility. Plus, I didn't want to alert any houses in the not-too-far distance to my presence. This went well, some bleating got out of my system, and my eyes had plenty of diversions to take in between tunes and my lips earning some rest. The wildlife didn't stir - success.
As it happened, I was wrapping up when Kr. tooled by to return to camp as well, so I hailed him - he hadn't seen (or heard!) me; he freely admitted to tunnel vision when on the road. We soon began returning together toward camp. Soon enough, Ass Hill was rejoined, so Kr. got off and started pushing. I continued rolling on: if there were to be complaints, I had already decided to outrun them. Not knowing was the new knowing! A mantra to live (or die) by.
A final Orcas fire, a final shower, and a final salvo from the riot of boy scouts - such was the night. Nonetheless, Orcas had already proven a nice stay. The following morning we headed out from camp at different times to later meet at an agreed-to spot at Eastsound, the more-or-less halfway point to the ferry. The grocery store there was a full-on supermarket, so we overloaded our bikes there (our meeting spot) with supplies, not knowing what the future held on Lopez (and Shaw, too, for me).
Heading out of Eastsound, I indicated that I again was going to take an alternate route to see some more of the island and, after some querying hesitation, Kr. decided to give it a shot as well. We weren't disappointed. The Crow Valley road - a hint I got from my new acquaintance walking down from Mt. Constitution - was rolling and pleasant. Plus, it dead-ended into a junction, complete with marina and general store, that put the picture and the esque into picturesque. Detourwise, we hadn't added much to our route, either, and we had evaded the onslaught of ferry traffic. A worthy diversion.
Finally coming up to the ferry landing, we had time to kill. We checked out the adjacent cafe, which had a growing scene of ferry-waiting customers. Over the hour or so prior to the (late) ferry's arrival, the crowd grew generously, including many school-aged musicians who had just ended a chamber music camp. Always enjoying a musical connection, I chatted with a few string players about their experience, which they uniformly took for great. 'Course, one always and forevermore will think of American Pie and a certain flute use when speaking of music camp, but we didn't go there! And the kids were far more appealing to listen to than a couple of khaki-attired men sitting behind us chopping the island into development parcels over coffee. Soon we were off to Lopez in any case, on what turned out to be a very short ferry ride.
Arriving, we disembarked and made a beeline as best as we could to Spencer Spit State Park well before any hint of sundown, quickly rounding quiet Port Stanley on Lopez's north end. (What port, anyway? - There were only a dozen or so houses.) Showing up early in the day to our campsite, we set up pronto and I next scrounged leftover wood from other campsites. This was a perfect task for a born scrounger like me, my arms soon tattoed with the copious charring that the logs brandished from being previously lit. No matter - there would be a fire!
Spencer Spit Park is mostly a wooded bluff pockmarked with campgrounds, plus an adjoining beach below. The beach includes the eponymous spit of sand that practically reaches the next island, providing a great place to relax and flip some pages or fly a kite. Or drop anchor and swim - there were many sailboats tied up to the southern side of the spit this day. So We decided on a bit of before riding over to "town" for dinner at nightfall.
The theory was that we were going to have a few beers and a dinner - Kr. was heading back to Seattle come the morning. After getting to town, and bouncing back and forth along Lopez Village's four or so choices, we finally settled on Bucky's - a place I was familiar with from previous trips. Good fish tacos, I knew. Once seated, dinner took an inordinate bit to get ordered and served, however. Perhaps this was due to the waitress not take too kindly with Kr.'s requests for a new glass - his apparently had some dishwashing detergent film on it. We argued a bit over the wiseness of complaining, with me wondering if I would get some free spit in my meal in addition to Kr.'s, if only based on the waitress's sarcastic repartée with him.
Sigh - I didn't want to suffer for someone else's pickiness. Indeed, we'd both seen the movie Waiting (showing the underbelly of working in a restaurant, complete with threats made good to disliked customers): Kr. agreed with this portrayal of restaurant culture, based on his former and lengthy chef experiences. Great... but why that didn't seem to matter to him in the meantime made no sense to me. Fortunately dinner proved to be quite tasty, and if there was spit in my glorious fish tacos, I could only hope they added to the occasion. Ignorance was bliss, although it would have been more blissful without worrying about the consequences of arguing with a testy waitress.
With that episode as a backdrop, and after a week or so of suffering complaints from Kr., it was at Bucky's that the rub of our travelling together finally did come to a head of sorts: I had decided that it was time to settle up our accounts. I duly tallied our various contributions and came up with a total. However, herein lied that rub: Kr. asserted that I needed to add in the parking tab in Anacortes. Not completely surprised, I jested that he must have been joking - I would be taking the Clipper back while he would get to take his car. Furthermore, I had already tallied in the gas to reach Anacortes. But he was serious in making his point, while I waited for a perhaps more compromising attitude - perhaps a chipping in of some more bucks toward the car's wear and tear or something along those lines.
But such compromise didn't prove to be the soul of the matter at all. Indeed, in further discussing the matter, Kr. brought up the rather-from-leftfield point that I hadn't split a gas bill on a short trip out to Neah Bay several months prior. Now I was indeed thrown for a loop. I had no precise memory of that, but I was at least certain I had split all costs - or certainly tried to. To this, and with clenched smiling teeth, he added that it was just "the last little bit" that I hadn't chipped in on. Huh? I asked why he hadn't brought it up this purported discretion at the time, but here I was only to receive more of that nervous grin.
And there was the rub. I knew I could be thrifty, frugal, even cheap if one wanted to say so - but I felt that we had crossed onto another plateau of penny-pinching. I never like to not pay my fair share. So, seeing that the cause was lost in convincing him that it wasn't really fair for me to split the parking for a car which only he would be returning in (after talking me into taking his car and not the Clipper to arrive in the first place), I decided to cut bait. I quickly offered to pay half of the parking, realizing that he was condemned to a fate worse than the measly dollars that would cost me. It was that "last little bit" that sealed it.
Now, although I had quickly caved in to stave the arguing, the evening and what comraderie there had been was lost. So when we nevertheless moved on to the cafe-bar across the street, at the strangely-monikered Love Dog, for a couple of beers, any spirit of celebration had faded completely. Every last little bit, as it were. Conversation wasn't forthcoming, so we nosed through their copious selection of books, a combination of feminine determinism and picture books. Perhaps apropos, I thumbed through an impressive tome of natural disasters, Fragile Earth.
Some period of reading passed before the place made the motions of shutting up shop, but even then Kr. still wanted to make of an evening of it with drinking - seemingly ignoring the gloomy air about the pesky matter. I gathered that he still was determined to follow through with the checking off of a "had-some-beers-and-whooped-it-up" on whatever list comprised his "must-dos" for the trip, but I was done. I indicated that I was going to head back to camp, and this in turn finally took any remaining bloom from the rose in his thinking. We biked back to camp in the dark, only exchanging a few words here and there before calling it a night.
The morning brought more of the same sprinkling of words, as we took care of breakfast and got some reading in. Rain began to threaten, too. So, not too long after finally folding up camp for his ferry return and my change of locale, Kr. headed off after an uneasy and perfunctory farewell. A weight that had been growing in mass had been lifted: indeed, I had come to feel a burden alone in needing to foreshadow any possibly unpleasant events to him (hills, prices, waits, etc).
Now I wouldn't have to worry about such matters. I could just tool around under the sun and enjoy the beauty of the place again, getting back in my usual traveling headset. I was in the San Juans! It was sunny (enough!). I had nothing to do but read, play the horn, and explore. Life was great, I was allowed to believe again, unfettered by negativism.
And it was! But first I had to shift over to my other Lopez campground, at Odlin. I had been unable to reserve more than a night at Spencer Spit, so Odlin it was. And Odlin was awesome! I found that I had reserved the best campsite in the place, all the way at the end, secluded in trees. This was topped off by a beach bluff serving as my living room, looking over the water to Orcas. Wow! I immediately inscribed campsite #30 into my head for future reference (and 29 warn't so bad, either!). I rapidly set up my tent as the sky clouded up a bit, but I was a kid at play - no worries in paradise! Giddiness aside, I eventually decided to leave camp and go drink coffee in Lopez Village until my eyes popped out, always a worthy exercise. Oh, and have a shower, too.
My new wave of luck soon continued. Checking out the (lone) public shower, I spied one girl coming out as another went in. I stopped, hesitated, and we both turned around. Ca.? Don't I know you? Indeed, it was my brother's ex-girlfriend from several years ago. We had probably only met two or three times, but the recognition was there. Who'da thought? She was staying the summer on Lopez, where her parents had some land. Come summer's nearing end, she would head back to her normal life in Brooklyn. Not a bad sabbatical at all. We chatted for a bit, and then she explained where she and her friend were staying, inviting me to stop by. I said I would try, and we parted.
Soon enough, the needed shower and just-as-needed coffee and pastry later, I headed back toward my campsite along the road that Ca.'s cabin was on. Blackberries were in riot, lining the roadsides - I had to gits me some, of course. Rain, too, was threatening - I had already experienced a sprinkle or two in the afternoon - so the rain gear was already on in case. About the time my fingers were purpled in berry juice goop, Ca. and her friend (Ch.) passed me by and waved. Shortly thereafter, when I rolled by the driveway to her cabin, Ca. was waiting at the road to invite me in.
We ended up passing a few hours in fun conversation, with Ca. particularly revelling in the idiosyncrasies of her abode. This was a cabin that her father had been (very) incrementally putting together, just within the limits of having to deal with the island's building code. Frankly, it was pretty cool, with lots of light in spite of being surrounded by woods. The outhouse, as Ca. loved to explain, was a composting toilet! And it didn't stink! The environmentalist in me was pleased: Go papa!, I thought.
Inside, the cabin was a rather unheated work in progress, but said progress was palpable and it was certainly cozy. Yet cozier still was the rear of the cabin - the original RV trailer Ca.'s family lived in when they vacationed on Lopez. Only now it had been integrated into the cabin, still hosting the kitchen and with a former bunk area still functioning as a private bed alcove of sorts.
Both Ca. and her friend Ch. were former or current lit majors, well-versed in books in movies. So that made for some very good conversation, quite a change from the previous week of halting words here and there. Ch. in particular seemed to share many of my tastes in books and movies, while both took great pleasure in deconstructing the movie schlock that passed for theater fare. We more or less avoided the subject of my brother, as there really wasn't much to say outside of my giving a quick update on his news; both Ca. and Ti. still kept in some minimal contact, both being in Brooklyn, but that was apparently it. Instead, Ca. gave the rundown on island life now and then. That kind of stuff is always up my alley, so I willingly received the insider's look at what was worth the trouble on Lopez according to Ca.
In a word, or two, the foremost place on C.'s mind was THE DUMP. Indeed, she said that pair of words with full-lunged relish. THE...DUMP! Her excitement over the island dump, and it's literal free-for-all market of stuff in its handful of weekly hours, was genuine. In fact, it was generally referred to as "Neil's Mall", with Neil being the guy who ran it. The...DUMP! Watching her joy in describing that slice of island life was enough to make me wonder what an idiot my brother must've been to leave her behind. The breakup had been a tough affair for Ca., as Ch. later explained, so I didn't make a point of pursuing that matter at any length.
Outside of THE DUMP, Ca. promoted Isabel's Cafe as the local's choice, and the nearby bakery as well. The latter was no secret, as the case was. Damned good goods, albeit quite expensive, there. I next got the rundown on the only two full bars - both doubling as restaurants - plus the other few places to get grub. The library got a major thumb's-up, also being a place with a super clean toilet and internet access for free. Important things for travelers. And then, of course, there was the public toilet right next to the public showers. That was free, quite clean and spacious, also important. There, the hot shower had gobs of pressure, was free, and was for as long as you wanted - HEAVEN! (Though not exactly environment-friendly.)
Eventually, I had to leave my new friends behind and head back late to my campground in the dark, still on my bike. Somehow the ride felt balmy enough, and I sailed in a sea of fog on unlit roads, with only my bike's headlamp to more or less guide me. A little moon came in handy, but it was kinda spooky as the otherwise-beautiful fog and mist rested like a blanket up to my chest. After getting back to Odlin Park, groping my way for my new-and-as-yet-sort-of-unfamiliar campsite, I found my tent and got inside. It turned out that the threatening rain finally delivered a bit of its promise overnight, even as I was snug and dry enough inside my portable home.
The next day I finally took advantage of the aforementioned shower - and glorious it was - before staking out the cafe for a long while reading books. I missed the girls for a breakfast at Bucky's, mistakenly not taking into account where they might actually park their car (not in view). But after eating and visiting THE DUMP, they joined me at Isabel's. We passed a good while there, ultimately closing the place down in the afternoon.
Before heading back to the cabin, we made a trip over to the local organic co-op for veggies. Dinner plans of grilling veggies had been made, and I wasn't going to complain. But first we would take in the Fisherman's Bay Spit near Lopez Village, a favorite place of Ca.'s. Why it was such was soon no small wonder, as funky marooned ships littered the small sandbar and birds flocked to the spot, too. The spit, by its mere existence, allowed for a calm harbor between it and the island proper. But the sun was quickly making its way down, so we decided to make the dash to Ca.'s property to catch the sunset from the cliff at her property's end. There, the wind came and went, while the calming view of Shaw Island to our west glowed and slowly faded. When the light was beginning to fail too much to find our way back, we decided it was time to flail through the brush and get to the stove.
Grilled veggies were the meal-to-be, so we all set to work chopping the impressive pile of veggies - onion, shrooms, squash, and taters bathed in lavender salt, then grilled. Eventually that was ready, and as darkness had long since fallen, we decided to give a movie a go. Our cinematic entrée was some schlock with Queen Latifah acting out a final dying wish, but at least that made for any number of caustic remarks about plot, cast members, music, etc. The girls were far more ready in principle than I was to engage in selecting crappy flicks for the sole pleasure of ripping them apart. Nevertheless, I happily joined in the mayhem - even if otherwise I would never have given it a go at home. The food was great, as was the company: what a fortuitous turn in events had I seen on that topic!
Once again, deep into night, I had to return to my tent. And again, the fog enveloped me. I caught the eyes of startled deer, surprised to see a bike plugging away through their midst. And perhaps in spite of the spookiness of the previous night, I enjoyed this trip back even more - the moon was full, the sky was clear, and I knew there were no predators on the island. (The wildlife on the islands, for the record, came from a landbridge that used to exist over to Vancouver Island. Predators had come and gone long ago.) With experience, I had an easier time fumbling to my campsite this evening, and the rain didn't even think about dousing my parade.
I spent the morning having a langorous coffee and some pastries at the bakery - this could get to be a habit! - before returning to my campsite and packing up. I had a midday ferry to catch to Shaw, and I had previously determined that if I didn't see the girls in town, I would indeed see them on San Juan Island as Ch. was coincidentally taking the same Clipper back to Seattle with me. After a little waiting at the ferry dock, perusing the various brochures and the library of left paperbacks, I caught the short ferry over to Shaw Island for my last island night.
Previously, I had only seen Shaw's shores from the railings of ferries, plus there was one time that I had looped it with a group of twelve I had organized for a three-day kayak trip. In that event, we actually had never found Shaw's South Beach Campground in the waning light, instead poaching our campsite on someone's property out of sight.
Also back in those days, a nun used to run the ferry dock operation. For some reason, there had been three groups of nuns with convents on Shaw, perhaps exactly because of the lack of much ferry access. But that group of Christ's brides was out of the loop now, having sold their stake in the island a few years back. Their Little Portion store had morphed into The General Store, and the bulletin board across from it served for the rest of the community functions that effectively made up organized life on Shaw.
After checking out the ferry landing area for a bit, I made my way along the sole road leading from the ferry over to my camping park. A bay (Blind Bay) of sorts made up the northeast portion of the island, so I made my way around this first before hanging the sharp left to cut across the eastern portion of the island to reach Shaw County (South Beach) Park. I paused at a T in the road to play my horn for a lengthy while, basking in the solitude that allows for beautifully wrong notes, and for that I received friendly waves from the couple of cars and bikes that puttered by. Shaw had practically no traffic, a very comforting thing. Although the other islands were awfully easy carwise as well, Shaw's traffic was almost non-existent.
At camp, I found that I was once again on a bluff. But this time, I had a large campspot that also served as the entry point up the bluff for people arriving by kayak, climbing up from the beach. There were actually hand and footholds carved out of the bluff's sandy side, and a knotted rope flopped over the edge helped ease the climbing up or down. I set up my tent quickly, talking up my kayaking neighbors briefly, then decided that I would ride the island.
And by riding the island, I meant ALL of it. There weren't that many roads on Shaw, and it looked like all of them - to their extents - could be covered in a leisurely few hours. I initially trolled about some dead ends on Shaw's east side, eventually ending up in an open field where I had to bushwhack my way back through a weed overgrown road to avoid backtracking. Next I looped around the north end, over by Smuggler's Cove. I got caught in a couple of conversations about island life with a woman walking her dog - the only person I saw on the entire ride. In summary she informed me that Shaw was 1) extremely quiet - perhaps dangerously so in winter, and 2) politically cantankerous regarding change. Conversing with this LA public school's retiree was actually interesting, but it made a muck of my gameplan's timeline. I determined to nonetheless still take it to completion, impending darkness be damned.
Leaving my new friend behind, I zipped about the central loop in the north part of the isle. This was mostly wooded properties with isolated homes, so I next struck out on the road west in the quickly-fading light. This end seemed a bit more prosperous, and there was even a neck of land with coves on both sides to protect it, before giving way to the western "head". Bucolic would best term the place: the beaches only had logs and sailboats at anchor. This probably was the "IN" spot to be on the SJs scenerywise, if anyone was actually around to notice.
When the roads ran out, and with night quickly approaching, I had to make a beeline back to camp. My bike's light would soon snuff out completely - it was slowly but unrelentingly petering out. Rounding the bottom side of the central loop, I struck to the south on the remaining unexplored roads. This immediately turned to unpaved road, slowing down my progress. Luckily it was almost impossible to actually get lost - unless I left the road and plowed out into the woods.
With no traffic, it was only a matter of enjoying the scenery that so few probably ever saw to welcome the night. That number was starting to include me, with so little light left. Still, there was a beauty found in night vision when no one was about, and this turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable. There was just the slow crackling of twigs under my tires, and crickets chirping, as I passed tucked views of light flickering on water.
It was pitch black when I arrived back to my campsite, and I was barely able to make out my exact tentspot. My kayaking neighbors were already in the last stages of calling it a night, but I still needed to make some grub. There would be a lunar eclipse at 2a.m. that should prove spectacular, something to look forward to if I so desired...
I felt no need for an alarm when the hour should come - one sleeps awfully light at campgrounds, with nary a sound escaping one's attention. Indeed, at 2a.m. I did hear someone's watch alarm chirp, followed by a shuffling to feet by my campground campatriots. I, on the other hand, was tired. Mulling over the prospect of viewing an eclipse - requiring 10 seconds of effort to stick my head out of my tent - I instead rolled over and went back to sleep.
Apparently it was a really nice eclipse - oops - but I really was nonplussed by my forfeiture of vision. Three things alone comprised my morning thinking: eat breakfast and fold up camp, then play something on the horn before my lips turned to undisciplined mush (always a background thought for a trumpet player), and finally DON'T MISS THE FERRY. There were VERY few ferry options on Shaw, even with the extended schedule of summer. And my Clipper Ferry from San Juan Island only ran once a day. I was also interested in rejoining the company of Ca. and Ch.
Eating and closing up shop was old hat by my last morning on the islands, so I set out to find a place to practice blaring my brass where I wouldn't annoy the natives. There was some public land nearby, completely wooded, so I dropped my bike on a pathside and pulled out the horn, tooting various scales and lip trills that I assumed most humans didn't want to suffer through. Sure enough, though, a man and his wife soon approached in a beatup truck from the end of the unpaved road, where there was just a small patch of private property at the end of the road. Ah, some local conversation!, I told myself.
Actually, I knew better. With all the "private" and "keep out" signs abounding, I was sure that I'd be told to beat it. However, I decided to preempt his remarks as best as possible, and the conversation went something as follows, with me smiling ridiculously: Him: "It's private property." Me: "Yes, I read those signs at the end of the road. That absolutely is private property, down there." Him: "Yes, it is." Me: "This, however, is public land, isn't it?" Him: "Ah...yes...this is public land." Me: "Yeah, that's great. Beautiful spot here in the public land. I'm really enjoying it." Him, indicating in the distance again with his head: "That's private property." Me: "Yes, the signs say so down there. Yep, that's private." He gave me a befuddled look - I wasn't going to be harrassed from standing my ground. I finally added "Have a great day" with my most winning smile, to which he and his wife exchanged more puzzled looks and, without acknowledging my existence further, rumbled on. Ah, friendly locals!
However, I did have a ferry to catch. I slowly left the woods and rolled back to and around Blind Bay for the final couple of miles to the vacant ferry dock. Slowly, some cars appeared, but I ignored all the hoopla of 2-3 vehicles to pull out my horn and play. Respecting native culture in some odd sense, I played some tunes extremely quietly on a waiting bench with a helluva view. The ferry administrator for Shaw came by shortly, and we exchanged some pleasantries - his brother was a trumpet player, too. Ah, a member of the fraternity! He used to teach music at the high school for the islands, and made much effort in getting musicians together. This had to applauded, for that must have been a sisyphian task of sorts on the islands - the musicians comprised a farflung lot, and were found only in small number.
On the ferry again, I met up with Ca. and Ch. when the boat made its short stop on Lopez. Confusingly, this particular ferry ran backward in a sense - making the schedule something of a mystery to read for tourists and islanders alike. San Juan Island came next. The girls were in good spirits, looking forward to the increased lunch options and shopping in Friday Harbor before the departure of the Clipper.
In Friday Harbor, we immediately looked about for a place to eat that we could agree on, and eventually we congregated at the cafe I had by then given business to three times. Hey, it was a worthy place, and this time we relaxed in the backyard patio area, away from the "hubbub" - HA! - of the street and the rest of the cafe. After eating, I read on a bit, while the girls went on a final shopping spree at a nearby lavender store. There, all things were of lavender - a nice smelling place! I rejoined them shortly and, all too soon, it was goodbye to Ca. - Ch. and I boarded the Clipper.
I had been given reason to worry that my bike would be salted over on the sail back - bikes were kept on the back deck during the passage - but the seas were so calm that this turned out to not be of any incident. Ch. and I had some conversation in the comfortable and overly-air-conditioned cabin, but when that ebbed I followed the route of the Clipper on a map, keeping my eyes open for whales (which didn't deign to show).
I'm one of those people that can travel forever looking out a window watching the countryside pass by, so this watery twist on that capacity absorbed my attention. I saw the various points, islands, and small towns pass by over the three hours, before we abruptly rounded Seattle's Magnolia peninsula to bring downtown Seattle into view. Unloading was a snap, and after a wave goodbye to Ch., plus a brief ride up the waterfront, I found myself finally at home again. Finally, the San Juans were mine! I shoulda planted a flag!
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