I came to the San Juan Islands in the State of Washington by bus from
Colorado, then by ferry from the mainland. Colorado was burning down
during the days I was there. Dry enough to burn all summer. Smoke
filled the urban sky and burned again in the eyes. The dry grass of
the foothills looked like the end of a hot summer instead of the tag
end of spring.
After one night rocking to sleep on the bus I woke to watch the middle
of Wyoming stretch out under an immense sky. The shortgrass prairie
rolled away from my moving window, smooth with early summer green,
sprinkled with thin lines of cottonwood trees, backed with the distant
square shoulders of chalky bluffs. Green ridges bunched and rolled
higher and tighter toward the bright snow-tops of the Bighorn mountains
where the Colorado drought seemed distant, and grew more distant with
each funky little bus station and transfer terminal.
My bicycle wasnt the only bike tucked away in the belly of the
bus. Darryl and Becky were on their way home from five weeks of riding
in Utah, New Mexico and Colorado - where their plans were modified
by fire. She was going home to Seattle, he to Bellingham, and I, through
the ever-deeper green of Montana, by night through Idaho and eastern
Washington, past the mornings cold cappuccino slap of Seattle
urban sprawl, then North to the town of Mount Vernon.
In Mount Vernon -- crown jewel of Skagit County, nice little town
-- I put my bike together while a young local couple verbally abused
each other outside the bus station. In about 45 minutes the bike was
back together, the gear all packed in and strapped down, the water
bottles filled, and I was stylishly dressed in slick lycra, ready
One stop at a cool health food co-op where I got some items unavailable
from bus terminal food counters, and one stop at the Skagit County
Visitors Center for maps and information from the busy hive of grey-haired
The first of many miles, I hope. A back road to La Conner, a small
town on the fertile edge of the mainland, fruit and vegetable stands
on one side (Mmm, strawberries!) and the Swimonish Straight on the
other. A bridge to an island doesnt make it seem like and island,
but I rode over to Fidalgo Island and wended my way toward the ferry
at Anacortes. Roads lined with pine trees. Easy friendly traffic on
the secondary roads that I took. Lakes and smooth-rock mountains.
Thick fringe of holiday homes along the high shore. And what would
have been nice views of the island-filled ocean horizon, except for
all the damn trees blocking the view.
I wheeled my bike onto the ferry, tied it to the wall, and got on
the top deck for a great cruise through the pine-covered islands.
I had to bundle up against the cold breeze to see the the bright sun
on the smooth water of the channels and straights. Kayakers plied
the calm waters between islands. Strange new waterbirds flew past
or dove into the depths. Logs and kelp mats floated on tidal currents.
This was not the Hawaiian ocean Ive grown familiar with. Cold,
dark, swift, and --rumor has it -- much more nutritious for wildlife.
A friend from Kona -- who is now living here -- met me at the ferry
landing in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Annie has been hosting
me for a week now. Shes gotten me started on the feel of the
local life. Ive seen orcas -- killer whales -- every day. Ive
played in the tide pools with the strange semi-aquatic life there.
Ridden through the bucolic pastures of the island interior. Seen seals,
and eagles. Hiked log-strewn beaches.
The weather has been beautifully calm and sunny. (I hear its
not always like this.) There are crystal views of distant snow-covered
mountains. Mountains of mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island
to the north and northwest. The volcanic bulk of Mount Baker and Mount
Ranier to the east and southeast. And south, the early summer snow
bowls of the Olympic Mountains, bright and beckoning across the Straight
of Juan de Fuca.
The Olympics had been calling to Annie, so for the weekend we packed
up her car and headed over there via two ferry rides and the length
of Whidbey Island. She took me on a whirlwind tour of the north side
of the Olympic Peninsula. Funky Port Townsend. The seduction on Sequim.
The desperate attempt of Port Angeles to capture the imagination of
Annie has lots of friends on the Olympic Peninsula from her work there
in other years. To celebrate the first day of summer, we grabbed Nancy
and her telemark skis, stopped by Olympic Mountaineering in Port Angeles
to rent a snowboard and boots for me, and drove into the forest, into
the mountains. The three up us hiked up the Switchback Trail, a warm,
green, south-facing power-climb to a ridge covered with early-blooming
flowers. On the north side of Klahhane Ridge was a big bowl of mushy
I havent been on a snowboard much in the past few years, probably
due to the fact that Ive been spending most of my time in Hawaii.
When I did snowboard, it was on slopes serviced by chair lifts. Id
only gone backcountry boarding one other time, early one Colorado
winter during a particularly arctic windstorm. Id never done
the summer backcountry bowl thing before.
We hiked up in shorts, and while I busted open my pack and began to
dress for snow, I could see a couple problems right off. I was using
rental equipment that I wasnt used to and still needed to dial-in
to my riding style. No problem, except that the top of
the snow bowl -- like a rice bowl -- was steepest at the upper edges.
The easy gentle warm-up slopes were down there, but only reachable
by launching off a steep lip. I stood on the edge, vibrating with
adrenaline for a few moments as Annie and Nancy dropped off the edge
with smooth telemark turns in the heavy snow. Then I summoned my courage
and slid down the steep part on my butt.
Once the slope leveled out a little bit, I stood up and quickly learned
that I hadnt forgotten everything that Id ever learned
about snowboarding -- I still remembered a good 25-30%. I stopped
and readjusted the board a couple times, and made some more turns
down the mountain. I was just starting to get back in the groove,
down a steeper pitch, around scattered rocks, pushing the coarse snow...
when the snow slope ended at some trees and -- Surprise! -- no chair
Annie already had her skis off, over her shoulder, her jacket and
snow pants tied around her waist, and was kicking steps into the slope
and powering her way back up for another run. I clipped out of my
board, stripped partway down, and started dragging my board back up
the slope behind her -- trying to fit my bulky snowboard boot toes
into the sharp steps make by her pointy telemark boots.
A guy and gal from Vermont skied very fast down a steep narrow chute
to our left with their husky dog scrabbling down behind and joined
us on the climb. Nancy took up a gentle steady pace. Annie nearly
ran back up. While I plodded along in the middle, happy that bicycling
and hiking up steep slopes use similar muscles.
While I was in Junior High School I went on a glacier climbing adventure
where I learned to use an ice axe. I dont remember exactly how
to use one, but I remember that they can be used to dig into the snow
and ice to stop one from sliding all the way back down the mountain.
I mention this because there was a point along the way, in the steepest
pitch of the slope, where I was really, really wishing I had one along
Ive always enjoyed the view from the chair lift, so was happy
to find that the view is also quite nice when hiking back up the slope.
And theres much more time to enjoy it. The upper reaches of
the bowl and the two peaks that surrounded it were sharp black rock
against the bright blue sky, and contrasted with the brilliant white
of the sunlit snow. Stunted evergreens fringed the rocky edges. And
the view back down the valley passed into tall forest, to the flatter
coastal land, to the ocean straight, and across to the island we had
left the day before. Nancy lay in the sun like a marmot. I took another
half run. Annie another full run. Then we hiked back up through the
lengthening shadows to the ridge, and back down the switchback trail
to the car.
We camped high under bright moonlight and dark Douglas Firs. The next
day on the way back to town we stopped at the beautifully modest home
of author and adventurer Chris Duff, a very humble and remarkable
man who has done things in a kayak that no one else has done. Hes
paddled solo around the eastern third of the United States (Down the
coast and Up the Mississippi) and around Great Britain. (His
account of his physical and spiritual journey around Ireland is the
subject of his book On Celtic Tides.) The tale of his solo
paddle around New Zealands South Island will be published in
March 03. And hes planning an 03 paddle around Iceland.
I usually like to think of myself as something of an adventurer. But
that thought faded to a dusty blue while I sat on Chris floor
and immersed myself in the scope, scale and risk of his travels.
In the days since Ive returned to the San Juan Islands Ive
slipped and tottered through the green-brown muck of a very low tide
to see the bright colors of ocher stars and blood stars amid the rocks
and crabs and limpets. Ive taken the ferry to Lopez Island for
an afternoon ride. Ive ridden on a fun network of dirt tracks
and trails through the forested heart of the island. Ive spent
the evening, dinnertime and later sitting on the deck of Annies
borrowed house, suspended nearly over the ocean, as the
light of these longest days has lingered into what should be night.
My thoughts return to Chris Duff. I cant help but admire the
solid wholeness of his travels. The circle of an island completed.
I envy his ability to imagine and finish his journeys. My own journey
is in contrast. I seem to move slowly. I do my best to enjoy where
I am. But I never really seem to know where it is Im headed
or exactly what Ill be doing next. This freedom can add a happy
sense of wild openness. But it can also shadow me with a sense of
unrest and doubt.
This latest piece of the Bikeabout has begun, this much I know. I
dont have to be anywhere until October. And -- thanks to Greyhound
-- Ive made it to the San Juan Islands. (I was sorta thinking
Id ride here last summer, but never made it out of Colorado.
Whee!) And -- thanks to Annie -- Ive gotten my feet wet in the
new environment. Whats next?
From where I sit writing I can look across the cold waters of the
Haro Straight and see Vancouver Island. To travel North along this
West edge of the continent seems like as good a direction to go as
any. Ill likely catch a ferry and then creep along on the bike.
Seeing as much as possible. Riding slowly to feel the wind, rain and
sun. Going wherever the wheels are pointed.