San Juan Islands, Round Two
July 15, 2002
San Juan Island

It takes a guy like me much longer than usual to escape a place like the San Juan Islands. When I last wrote I was about to ride off into the sunset to Vancouver Island, Canada. (The sun sets pretty far to the North this time of year.) I was going to jump on a ferryboat and ride it across that straight and set foot and wheel on that island for the very first time. Explore some new territory. See some new things. Meet some new people.

I’ve never been the best at covering lots of miles while I’m touring. I tend to go slowly. Let my surroundings soak in. To give strange opportunity the chance to knock.

There was still plenty of opportunity in the San Juan Islands. I headed to Orcas Island. From the ferry landing I spent the next several hours riding 10 miles or so to the middle of the island. I watched a mink as it weaseled along the shore searching for food. I hobnobbed with Paul Evans, a bicycle frame builder at his shop. I stopped to eat salmonberries ripening along the pinetree-lined gravel road. I stared into the water of a lake. I poked my head down some side roads toward the coast. I goggled at some wildly-designed sculptures along the road. I stopped and watched the tide moving down the beach.

When I got to Eastsound, the main town on Orcas, I stopped again. Talked about mountain bike rides with the owner of the Wilderness Bikes. Stepped into an art gallery and ended up having a great chat about digital cameras with the in-house photographer. Stocked up on food. Then rode over the hill to Moran State Park.

Moran State Park turned out to be an idyllic spot for the Bikeabout traveler. There was an inexpensive primitive campground for those willing to bike or hike into the forest a short way. There were hot coin-op showers elsewhere in the park. There was a large lake warm enough for swimming. (Though it was infested with a small pod of dangerous inflatable killer whales.) Best of all, there was riding to be done. Oh, and some scenery and stuff.

My San Juan Island friend Annie joined me in camp that night after biking in from a later ferry. (I don’t think she stopped to eat salmonberries or in every bike shop along the way.) In the morning we challenged ourselves with the penultimate bicycling climb in the islands, the top of mighty Mount Constitution. It probably didn’t take us more than an hour of dillydallying to reach the 2400 foot summit, proud of our strength and individuality -- just like the other 600 cyclists who had ferried over from the mainland and had ridden to the top that sunny Sunday morning.

We tipped off the back of the mountain, down to some sweet, smooth, pine needle-covered trails, deep in the cool forest. Miles of smooth trail turned to a rough, loose, icky powerline trail that took us back down to Cascade Lake.

I’ve become accustomed to the nice warm ocean in Hawaii. The ocean here is -- for lack of a better word -- cold. I went wading off San Juan Island and my feet went numb. That’s as close as I’d come to swimming in the San Juans. I was therefore skeptical of Moran State Park’s Cascade Lake. Annie stepped in, then took off swimming. Still not convinced, I delicately toed into the water and found that it was indeed warm. Not Hawaii warm, but warm enough that one needed not scream too loudly when water overtopped groin level. I swam happily for several minutes, only sinking to the bottom once. (Fresh water isn’t as buoyant at salt water.) Cool and refreshing for a warm day. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite a warm day. The sun was out. A nice crisp breeze helped me to dry and also helped suck the remaining heat from me. As soon as I was nearly dry, I put on all my clothes, pants, jacket, hat and sat in the sun shivering.

While I tried to warm up I was entertained by groups of kids playing on the lawn under the towering Douglas Firs or splashing around in the roped off wading area. Also by Annie who I watched swim all the way across the lake and nearly out of sight a half-mile away. As she swam back across the lake she seemed to be getting slower and slower in the cool water. I kept hoping she’d make it, because the last thing I wanted to do was to take time out of my busy shivering schedule to swim out and get her. She did make it, dried in the breeze, and we both sat shivering until we got up and rode our bikes up couple long hills. She rode off toward the ferry and home. I rode back to camp and into a cold rain.

There are lots of reasons that I ride a bike. As transportation it’s inexpensive, simple, easy on the planet, quiet, and a breeze to park. But I really ride because I like it. I like the feeling of the miles rolling along under me with nothing between me and the scenery. I like to know that I can turn food into distance. I like to feel the skin of the earth through the tires, the handlebar, my hands; the crackle of gravel, the muffled skim of pine needles, the pounding of stair step rocks. I like to use my breath, my muscles, my balance, rhythm and nerves to growl up steep pitches, to smooth an unruly trail into speed and wind. I like the grin that grows on my face when I feel like I’m flying, whooshing past tree trunks and through underbrush on a thin ribbon of the whole big landscape.

The next day on the trails of the Southeast corner of the park, I got deeply into exactly what I like. The trails were fun and challenging. I rode through the tall forest with low-growing greenery crowding the trailside. Even an occasional view of the surrounding sea and islands. Or the bright blue sky above a sunlit lake. A small paradise of mountain bike riding? Not quite.

Some of the plants growing alongside the trail seemed to be trying to kill me. Long stems of stinging nettles leaned into the trails and swiped my arms and legs with poison needles. Beautiful foxglove flowers -- filled with digitalis, deadly to take in excessive doses -- pushed their purplish flower stalks into my way. I tried to remember not to eat them (in excessive doses). An assortment of thorny berry bushes and wild rosebushes ripped small amounts of flesh from me. I took my revenge by gathering up ripe berries and eating them. I ended my ride back at the lake for a cleansing swim. Then loaded up all my gear and headed waaay down the road (Maybe 5 miles.) to Obstruction Point.

I hiked the last bit along a rough half-mile trail -- using my trusty 2-wheeled cart to carry my gear. Obstruction Point has almost nothing by way of amenities. No fresh water. I planned on one night, but conserved my bottles and stayed for two. There seemed to be so much to do in such a small area.

There were a whole host of geological attractions. There were rocks to climb on. Rocks to lay against. Flat stones to skip on smooth water. Smooth stones to polish against my skin. Rocks to align. Colored pebbles to sort.

The first evening, in the golden light, I walked the around the point along the rocky cliff side where red-trunked madrone trees reached over the water. Around to where the main beach shifted from sand to pebbles to stones to shaley chunks. In the grey morning I watched a harbor seal nursing her pup, half hauled out of the water on some off-shore rocks. I checked back on them throughout the day. The pup would paddle around like a puppy, then follow mom down underwater. Soon the pup would bob back to the surface and paddle around for minutes until mom came back from feeding below -- always with a sharp eye to me, making sure I hadn’t gotten any closer than my edge of the shore.

I watched as gulls flew past. Oyster catchers stuttered out their cry and skimmed the water. Auklets fished the deeper water. Guillemots dove out of sight. A heron passed above on the slow beat of primordial wings. A Swainson’s Thrush sent its song spiraling dizzily into the treetops.

I spent time being fascinated by the layer of life that emerged from the sea as the tide drew away from the island. Seaweeds and sea grasses and kelp, barnacles and limpets and starfish and tubeworms. I lay on the rocks staring into a small tide pool, amazed at shrimp -- smaller than the heads of pins -- swimming in dotted lines of dash-and-pause being hunted by dime-sized crabs. “Hello?” I sat up and looked around. A lone kayaker was paddling past. “I just wanted to make sure you hadn’t washed up on the rocks.” he said.

The kayaker wasn’t the only boat on the water. The wildlife must get tired of this regular Flotilla the Hun, with wave-slapping speedboats, puttering sailboats, hard-working fishing boats, small flat transporters big enough to hold one truck, passenger ferries, auto ferries, and bigger knots of kayakers.

A few other people visited my beach, and a couple others were camped there as well, keeping to themselves. I had time to myself as the scattered sun of the day tapered into grey on my second evening, then burned into a fiery sunset over the silhouette of pine-covered islands.

By camp tradition I don’t stop exploring until after dark, which is awkward when it doesn't get dark until 10:30. After cooking a meal in the dark, I usually head for bed. But this time I headed back to the beach. Out of the trees, in the open sky over the water the clouds had vanished and the stars were bright. The rising Milky Way spilled a glowing path above the dark water. But wait. How dark was the water? I looked again. Each small wavelet seemed strangely bright in the darkness. I tossed a handful of sand into the water and saw the surface light up with sprinkles of blue-green that faded quickly away. The water was rich with phosphorescent plankton -- small creatures that give off tiny amounts of light when jostled. I threw in handful after handful of sand and pebbles. Then for a long time I dangled on a log leaning over the water, stirring spiral galaxies into the water with a stick.

After another day on Orcas Island, I headed back to the ferry and sailed to Lopez Island. I’d been there for an afternoon ride with Annie, but I wanted to see more. Orcas Island is known for its natural beauty. The mountains are higher. The forests are thicker and taller. But Lopez has a beauty of its own. It’s more agrarian, with open views, hay meadows and pastures amid dark bands of trees. Some spots along the coast were among the most beautiful I saw in all of the San Juans.

I visited the coast at Watmough, where a rocky cliff meets a pebble beach bay -- a pristine location that invited silent contemplation. I had to settle for noisy contemplation as small nap-deprived children screamed senselessly, as families held noisy rock-skipping competitions, as youths scrambled over the rocks, as small dogs yipped at nothing, as picnicking middle-aged ladies turned a beach log into a see-saw and laughed as they teetered and tottered with two of them on each end.

I’d picked the wrong day for silent contemplation. It was the fourth of July. Independence Day. The day in which we celebrate -- um -- something or other by cooking meat over open fire and bursting bombs in the air. I think that most of Seattle had come out to the San Juan Islands to celebrate. Especially to Lopez Island, which is said to have the second largest fireworks display in the State of Washington.

I did find some quieter corners of the island. At Agate Beach there was only the sound of a naked grey-haired couple padding over the polished beach rocks and into the icy sea for a quick dip. At Shark Reef there was the silence of the tide sliding past and the sun angling toward sunset.

As day ended, the warmth of the sun was replaced with an icy wind. I rode into Lopez Village and cruised along Fisherman Bay where huddled masses of locals and tourists were gathering, barbecuing, drinking and waiting through the long twilight for the fireworks to begin. I rode up the long strip and back. Up and back again. Looking for allies, trolling for an invitation, knowing from experience that the brightest fireworks loose much of their color when seen alone from within a crowd. None found. Cold, tired, hungry. I was back at my camp cooking dinner in the dark when the first explosions boomed from across the island.

My own personal Independence has been celebrated frequently. I’ve traveled alone. Perhaps due to aptitude or ineptitude, or the realization that I could wait forever if I were to wait for someone to travel with. Too many of my years were spent waiting. Years of rarely getting further from home than I could travel in a day. Until I seemed to slowly grow to sense -- and then make peace with -- the thought that I had more to lose by waiting than by taking the risk and going forth.

I enjoy the freedom of making my own travel decisions, never needing to go slower or faster than I want to. Stopping when I want to stop, eating when I want to eat, sleeping as little or as long as I like. If I want to spend an hour taking pictures and mini video of a giant slug eating a bread crumb, then, by golly, that’s what I want to do. Freedom. Independence.

On this trip it’s been nice to balance my “independence” with time spent and adventures shared with my friend Annie. On the fifth of July we met in Anacortes and took her car and a ferry ride to the Olympic Peninsula once again. Instead of snowboarding, we had a full schedule that started off with a Friday night fiddle concert, featuring home-grown musicians from all over the continent. Saturday we found sand dollars on the beach, helped dig and fill to build a gravel path, and rode our bikes on fresh trails on the Miller Peninsula.

Sunday morning we joined Annie’s friend Lisa and headed to the wild outer coast for a hike on muddy trails through the resonant quiet of tall old-growth forest, down to a cliff-backed beach. From there we walked along sandy and stony beaches and over high headlands to Toleak Point, where the rocky coastline had marched partway into the sea, leaving scattered boulders and tall towers of stone to be shaped by waves and wind.

I saw my first sea otter in its spiky brown coat, swimming quickly on its back past dark cliffs. Seals lay in sleepy piles on the flat shoulders of outer rocks. Eagles pressed their rusty metal cries from the forest edge. A snake curved over the small desert of drifted beach sand. The tide was moving out, leaving behind orange and purple sea stars, huge green anemones, blue-shelled mussels, and green fields of sea grass.

For our visit, the winds were calm and the waves small. Swirls of grey cloud locked out the blue sky and occasionally breathed out fine rain. Then pulled away to brighten the gold stone of towers, the gold tone of exposed seaweed.

I was prepared to stay on, to chronicle the changes of light and sky, of tide and time. Prepared in attitude, perhaps. But I had only a raincoat, a couple snacks, limited water. It was time to go. We hiked back the way we had come, me dragging my feet on the last stretch of beach.

Spent a rainy Port Angeles night in the solid house of one of Annie’s Peninsula friends. The next day was happily squandered until time for our mad rush for ferries to take us back to San Juan Island for one of the most unusual opportunities I’ve had. It was Bat Night at the National Historical Park.

There is an old empty house on park property. Empty of people, that is. But the warm, dark attic has become the summer home of our warm, fuzzy, leather-winged friends. Bats. But how many and what kind, and what were they doing in there?

Roger, the bat man from North Cascades National Park was there to find out. And we were there to help. In the last rays of sunshine, Annie and I joined several other park employees, biology interns, and group leaders. We helped set up mist nets in likely corridors around the house. The black thread-fine mesh of the nets is supposed to be hard to see in the dark even if you’re a bat. Even in the light it was hard for us to remember not to walk through it.

I’ve been fascinated with bats since childhood. From long before I ordered a realistic life-sized vampire bat with glow-in-the-dark eyes that ACTUALLY FLIES! from the back of a comic book. (A small -- yet life sized -- rubber bat with a string and a pulley, plus two round glow-in-the-dark stickers arrived in the mail and provided me with hours of entertainment. Much to my sister’s distress.) The fascination begat education, and I learned from everything available in our local library. I learned of their ability to navigate in the dark by echoing inaudible chirps off objects near and far. Of their singular ability among mammals to fly. That many species catch and eat insects in mid-flight. I also leaned that they would fly dizzily toward me when I threw a small tight ball of grass into the air of a summer eve.

Roger set interns at likely exit spots and we waited until... Twilight. The bats began to emerge. First from a crack under the eaves, then from under a corner of the porch, then from about anywhere along the whole length of roof flashing. Interns were busy counting bats while Roger excitedly waved around his AnaBat equipment -- sound detectors that changed the ultrasonic bat echolocation sounds into sound we could hear. He also had detectors hooked up to a computer that could analyze the frequency to tell us what species of bat was making the sound.

We had Little Brown bats. We had Yuma bats. We had Big Brown bats. All three species living in the same house -- something Roger had never seen. We had hundreds and hundreds of bats living in that old house. Estimated a thousand. All out flying hither and thither. Not a single one foolish enough to fly into our nets.

Roger went up in the attic and scooped up two juvenile Yuma bats in a butterfly net. Brought them down in a small soft bag. Pulled one out with a gloved hand. A tiny beautiful creature. Soft golden fur. Small bright eyes. Large alert ears. With arms and hands stretched into efficient wing-struts for the thin, tough skin of its wings. A miracle brought to us by millions of years. A strand on the web of life that covers the surface of our planet.

The question was asked: “How can we get them out of the house? How can we get rid of them?” But perhaps a better question would be: How can we keep them? How can we keep them flying through the sky at night?

I learned more about bats that night. As I’ve learned something more of the motion of tides, of shore crabs, eagles, ferns, mosses, forests... Of rock and stone, sky and water... Of bright points of light in the sky, of bright points of life stirred in dark seawater... A mere a brush against the grand scope of the planet.

It is, I suppose, a strange opportunity I have. A season spent mostly outside. Moving over the earth on quiet transportation. Closer, perhaps, to the whir of the natural world. As I go, it is good to know that I can never really know. That mystery will remain.

Where am I going next? What will I do? Who exactly is this Annie girl?




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