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.
Ive never been the best at covering lots of miles while Im
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 dont 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 didnt
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.
Ive 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. Thats as close as
Id come to swimming in the San Juans. I was therefore skeptical
of Moran State Parks 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 isnt as buoyant at salt water.) Cool and
refreshing for a warm day. Unfortunately, it wasnt 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 shed 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 its
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 Im 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
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
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 hadnt gotten any closer than my edge of
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 Swainsons Thrush sent its song spiraling dizzily into
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 hadnt washed up on the rocks. he said.
The kayaker wasnt 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 dont 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
After another day on Orcas Island, I headed back to the ferry and
sailed to Lopez Island. Id 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. Its 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
Id 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
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
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. Ive
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, thats what I want
to do. Freedom. Independence.
On this trip its 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 Annies 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
Spent a rainy Port Angeles night in the solid house of one of Annies
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 Ive 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 youre a bat. Even in the
light it was hard for us to remember not to walk through it.
Ive 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 sisters 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
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 Ive 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?