Bicycling in the San Juan IslandsGoing an upscale route at a downscale price
It seemed like they were following us. My buddy and I would wheel our
bicycles into line for the interisland ferry, and a dozen more cyclists would
queue up behind us, their support van idling nearby. Getting off the boat, we'd
click into our pedals and spin up the road, and before long the van would pass
We'd smile and give a thumbs-up to the driver, wondering if he recognized that we were not part of his group. Checking into an inn in the late afternoon, we'd see the other riders' bikes parked in a neat row.
Throughout our weeklong travels in the San Juan Islands, in Puget Sound between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia, we were tailed by, or tailing, the high-priced bike tours whose itineraries we had cribbed from glossy vacation catalogs.
Sure, those riders didn't have to carry all their gear on their bikes. For that matter, they didn't have to know what island they were on, where they were going, or where they wanted to eat dinner. They didn't even have to pedal up the hills, if they felt like riding in the van. They were being herded and pampered, and paying about $1,500 apiece for the week.
We, on the other hand, were brave explorers, charting our own course. Not that we risked getting very lost on islands about the size of Nantucket. As for pampering, we had hot tubs and fine dining and no alarm clock besides the sun. We biked the same roads (nearly 300 miles), saw the same sights, stayed at the same type of inns, ate at the same class of restaurants, and only spent $540 each.
We had known, of course, that a do-it-yourself bike trip would shave big bucks off the price of a commercial tour. But rarely had a self-planned trip so closely paralleled the upscale version, allowing a true cost comparison.
We had spent a few hours on the Internet and on the phone reviewing ferry schedules and lining up bed-and-breakfast accommodations. For the what-ifs of two-wheeled travel, we could rely on the muscles, know-how and confidence we had gained on previous bike tours. For directions, we could always ask the natives, since there was no language barrier.
Lopez Island is the smallest, flattest and least developed of the
three most-visited islands in the San Juans, but by no means flat. Typical
morning fog was lifting at the end of our 50-minute ferry ride from Anacortes,
on the mainland, revealing the island's contours. Before long we made use of the
entire range of gears on our 21-speed bikes.
Even at the height of summer, the island didn't have a busy feel. There were few cars, and bike parking racks stood outside just about every establishment in tiny Lopez Village. At the bakery, we struck up a conversation with some cyclists from Seattle who pointed us to a couple of secluded waterfront spots that didn't look remarkable on the map but would have been a shame to miss.
First was Shark Reef Park, where we had to leave our bikes at the entrance and follow a short foot trail through the woods to reach the rocky coast. Dozens of harbor seals basked on seaweed-coated rocks protruding from a calm inlet, while a handful of humans did the same on drier rocks on shore.
We dropped our panniers midday at Aleck Bay Inn at the southern end of the island and continued exploring without carrying the extra weight -- a fortunate circumstance on the muddy, unpaved descent to Watmough Bay. We walked about 300 yards through a tunnel of trees and emerged at a pebbled beach bracketed by cliffs. A few children frolicked in flat water. Two young men took turns on a sailboard. A couple was absorbed in the Sunday paper.
Back at Aleck Bay, the innkeeper was a little worried about other guests who had embarked on an ambitious paddle in the inn's kayaks, but they returned exhilarated and eager for more. The only restaurant on this end of the island was closed on Sundays, so the innkeeper drove us about eight miles back to Fisherman Bay near the village for dinner at sunset. The $20 round trip he added to our bill for this service was just about the only thing all week that made us scowl.
The state-run ferries between islands are free for bicyclists. The
crossing time to San Juan Island gave us a chance to review our maps and pick up
tips on roads and points of interest on San Juan Island, the most populous one,
from those other cyclists and their tour guides.
Friday Harbor was swarming with people, on foot, on bikes, in cars. Drivers were subject to harsh shouts from city-style traffic police trying to keep vehicles moving safely on the hilly one-way loop up the main drag and back down to the ferry dock. We joined the hustle and bustle with our own agenda: Drop off panniers at San Juan Inn, book three-hour kayak tour for next day, pick up sandwiches and pastries for lunch.
With the food in our jersey pockets and handlebar bags, we headed down the road to look for a more peaceful spot to eat. The yacht club at Roche Harbor fit the bill. Picking up fresh food in town had proved the right thing to do; the Roche Harbor concession had only junk food.
Up the road at the English Camp was a humorous history lesson. The English Camp, and the American Camp on the other side of the island, make up San Juan Island National Historical Park, a monument to the 1859-1872 territorial conflict here between the United States and Great Britain.
The episode is known as the Pig War. Both nations claimed the island and had citizens living on it. A crisis arose in 1859 when an American settler shot and killed a pig belonging to the British-owned Hudson's Bay Co., because it was rooting in his garden. When British authorities threatened to arrest the shooter, American citizens requested U.S. military protection. The United States sent troops, and British troops arrived in warships.
There was no actual fighting. The island remained under joint military occupation for 12 years, and under the 1871 Treaty of Washington, the territorial question was referred to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany. The emperor ruled in favor of the United States, establishing the present-day boundary between the United States and Canada through Haro Strait. Thus San Juan Island is remembered for a military confrontation in which the only casualty was a pig.
Nowadays the San Juans are more widely known as the basis, along with strawberry-cultivating Bainbridge Island closer to Seattle, for the fictional setting of San Piedro Island in David Guterson's 1995 novel "Snow Falling on Cedars."
Our kayak guides picked us up in Friday Harbor for a 12-mile drive across the island to Snug Harbor. Paddling out of the inlet, we were cautioned not to disturb the harbor seals on the rocks. This part of Haro Strait was flat calm, and the paddling was easy. We hugged the shore at first, competing to be the first to spot purple sea stars clinging to the rocks. River otters scampered up the tide-smoothed stones.
Washington State Ferries, (206) 464-6400
Detailed island maps are available aboard the ferries.
BICYCLING BOOKS AND MAPS
Bicycling the Backroads of Northwest Washington
by Erin and Bill Woods (The Mountaineers, fourth edition, 1997)
Touring the Islands
by Peter Powers and Renee Travis (Terragraphics, second edition, 1994)
INDEPENDENT BICYCLE TOURING
Adventure Cycling Association, (800) 755-2453
Publisher of The Cyclists' Yellow Pages and Adventure Cyclist magazine
League of American Bicyclists, (202) 822-1333
Both the League and Adventure Cycling Assn. offer their members bikes-fly-free passes on certain airlines, as well as other resources for bike travel.
Cascade Bicycle Club, (206) 522-BIKE, can provide Seattle-area route advice.
COMMERCIAL BIKE TOURS
Bicycle Adventures, (800) 443-6060
Timberline Adventures, (800) 417-2453
Backroads, (800) 462-2848
Destination Adventure Youth Bicycle Tours, (360) 317-5273