San Juan Islands
June 27 , 2002
Smugglers Cove

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 wasn’t 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 morning’s 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 to ride.

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 lady volunteers.

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 doesn’t 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 I’ve 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. She’s gotten me started on the feel of the local life. I’ve seen orcas -- killer whales -- every day. I’ve 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 it’s 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 us tourists.

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 warm snow.

I haven’t been on a snowboard much in the past few years, probably due to the fact that I’ve been spending most of my time in Hawaii. When I did snowboard, it was on slopes serviced by chair lifts. I’d only gone backcountry boarding one other time, early one Colorado winter during a particularly arctic windstorm. I’d 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 wasn’t 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 hadn’t forgotten everything that I’d 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 lift.

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 don’t 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 with me.

I’ve 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 there’s 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. He’s 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 Zealand’s South Island will be published in March ‘03. And he’s 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 I’ve returned to the San Juan Islands I’ve 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. I’ve taken the ferry to Lopez Island for an afternoon ride. I’ve ridden on a fun network of dirt tracks and trails through the forested heart of the island. I’ve spent the evening, dinnertime and later sitting on the deck of Annie’s “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 can’t 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 I’m headed or exactly what I’ll 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 don’t have to be anywhere until October. And -- thanks to Greyhound -- I’ve made it to the San Juan Islands. (I was sorta thinking I’d ride here last summer, but never made it out of Colorado. Whee!) And -- thanks to Annie -- I’ve gotten my feet wet in the new environment. What’s 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. I’ll 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.




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