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Biking Washington’s San Juan Islands 

by Mark Dhruv

Tucked away in the northwest corner of the United States there is a tightly clustered gathering of islands known as the San Juans. While just a scenic ferry ride from either the thriving city of Seattle or one of Canada’s most beautiful cities, Victoria, the San Juan Islands provide a unique getaway from the fast-paced bustle of the mainland. Quaint little towns dot the larger of the 750 islands and islets where state run ferries will transport residents or visitors to the four largest islands of San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw Islands. Most of the other islands are accessible only by private charter and many only at low tide. Close to 300 islands are inundated with the rising tide.

The channels between the islands are excellent fodder for the kayaking and wildlife enthusiasts. Orcas, or killer whales, are commonly seen traversing the icy waters in search of a run of delectable silver salmon or an errant harbor seal. From just about any vantage point on all the islands at the right time of year, a casual observer can see their spire-like fins slice through the crystal waters, or perhaps catch one breach in playful antics or just plain showmanship. If not a fan of frigid waters or mammals with the word “killer” in their name, one might want to consider biking the beautiful byways of the islands and take in the breathtaking scenery atop Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island.

My girlfriend and I were looking forward to a relatively inexpensive vacation and had heard rumors about the adventure and serenity of biking the San Juans, so we decided to spend the July 4th weekend doing just that. Packing up our dog, Jasper (a boxer-chow mutt mix) we drove to Anacortes where we would board a ferry to take us to the charming little town of Friday Harbor located on the main island of San Juan. Opting to leave our pollution spewing motor vehicle behind, we boarded the ferry with just our bicycles, two over-weighted backpacks and one very energetic, powerful dog. Leaving the car behind was the first of many mistakes. We soon found out, albeit a little too late, that it would have been cheaper to take the vehicle then to pay for parking and the walk-on ferry fee with 2 bikes and a dog. Who knew?

Setting the theme for the rest of the weekend we exited the ferry amid a slight bone-chilling drizzle. Did I mention that this was the 4th of July weekend? Accompanying Krista and I on our excursion were three friends. I’ll refer to them as our intelligent friends because they wisely chose to take their car and forego on the bikes and dog. While Krista, Jasper, and I shrugged on our packs (no, we did not have bicycle packs) and began the uncomfortable ride to the far side of the island where our reserved campsite awaited, they opted to stay awhile in Friday Harbor- at a warm tavern enjoying a pitcher of northwest microbrew and local conversation.

Through the steady unrelenting rain we pedaled our bikes on the narrow country road between the cars whizzing by and the non-existent shoulder. I yelled up to Krista a question that was oft to be repeated throughout our trip: “Where exactly did we hear that the San Juans were a biker friendly destination?”

Like the weather, I got nothing but a chilly reply.

Like most of the coastal Pacific Northwest, hilly terrain seemed to dominate the landscape. And much to our chagrin, the road builders followed the countryside contour with excruciating detail. It was on a smooth down slope that Jasper, securely fastened to my wrist via a short leather leash, spotted a deer and without a moment’s hesitation, took off after it. Or tried to. Without a chance to brace myself, our kind and gentle dog pulled me off my bike at twenty miles per hour. I bounced on the slick asphalt a few times before Jasper, despite the forty pounds of weight on my back, managed to pull me on to the road. Krista waited at the bottom of the hill, trying to suppress a laugh despite the terrible weather and my certain death had a car come around the curve. I was hurt, wet, and tired … if I were hungry I would have killed the dog and ate him on the spot.

We reached Snug Harbor campground prior to dusk, just about the time the rain stopped. Had I not been so miserable and now hungry (Jasper kept his distance) I would have been exceedingly disappointed with the condition of the cramped campsites. With barely enough space to pitch a tent and park a vehicle, sitting around a campfire would have been out of the question. Luckily we were anxious to climb into our surprisingly dry sleeping bags and call it a day. A quick dinner and a good night’s sleep lifted my spirits as the new day approached.

As we broke camp on July 4th the skies remained an ominous steely gray, but we were energized for what this day would bring. Nothing could be worse than our first day. Ignoring our sore behinds, we straddled our bikes and rode east (mostly downhill) until we reached Lime Kiln State Park, or more commonly known as Whale Watch Park. Back in the 1800’s much of San Juan Island was excavated for lime. A primary ingredient in the making of cement, great kilns were built at various locations around the island to process the lime. Now these old structures are evidence of times long since past. This particular state park, named for a kiln in that location, is a popular spot to watch the resident pods of Orcas pass within sight of the naked eye. Built in 1917, the enchanting Lime Kiln Lighthouse sits on a bluff overlooking the eastern most portion of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The lighthouse provides a cozy place where whale biologists can observe the passing marine mammals and record the presence of specific individuals. On this particular weekend, we were amazingly blessed with a whale sighting. A pod of Orcas are made up of an extended family, sometimes consisting of as many as 50 whales. Smaller maternal groups may branch off the larger pods, which is what we observed that rainy afternoon. This particular group had at least 15 individuals, with a jovial calf putting on quite a show.

Then a boon came our way. Not looking forward to the 13 mile ride back to Friday Harbor, we noticed a bus stop sign at the entrance to the park. A few other enduring bikers were waiting patiently for it. The island shuttle came and we tentatively climbed aboard and paid our fare, not quite believing our incredible luck. They even allowed our soggy dog. Happy for the moment, our tight weekend budget was soon to be grossly exceeded.  

As planned, we met up with our intelligent friends in Friday Harbor and waited for the ferry to take us to our next stop- Orcas Island. Resembling an obese horseshoe, Orcas Island is slightly larger then San Juan Island and its terrain is a bit more diverse. Like San Juan, Orcas has its share of farmland, but it also houses Moran State Park where the 2407-foot Mt. Constitution resides. Along with a few more little towns and resorts, Orcas provides a variety of forms of recreation. Landing at the ferry terminal, we had the option of biking our way around to the other side of the island following Horseshoe Highway, which covered about 12 miles or take another shuttle. After counting our dwindling supply of pennies, we opted for the shuttle.

After perusing a limited variety of shuttle services, the best (cheapest) choice seemed to be the Tortoise and Hare Shuttle Service. The name should have given us a clue as to his variable timetable. The driver, a friendly, laid-back individual with Rastafarian-like tendencies would have fit much better in Jamaica than the northwestern lifestyle of the San Juans- but I was not to judge, just to ride. He happily took us to the campground in his yellow bus with the Tortoise painted on the side, all the while singing along with Bob Marley. Thanking him for the ride and booking him for the next day’s trip back to the ferry terminal, we entered the Moran State Park registration booth, ready to get to our campsite and put an end to a long frustrating day. That’s right about when we learned that our reserved site was three miles up the road. And when I say up, I mean vertical. The winding road up Mt. Constitution rose 2000 feet in three miles. By car you’d probably not notice it. Lance Armstrong probably wouldn’t either. But I did.

Krista, on the other hand, got a break. Our intelligent friends, on their way to our campsite, beeped their horn as they came up behind our creeping bikes and picked up my rapidly fading girlfriend. A pair of fresh, enthusiastic legs known as Cary took her bike the remaining distance. I lagged behind with most of the camping gear and man’s best friend.

Upon reaching what felt like the summit of Mt Everest, I dropped my bike and lay in the damp grass of our absolutely beautiful lakeside camping spot. With the sun fighting to break through the clouds and the rain having stopped earlier in the day, I felt the first comforts of a true vacation. Jumping up I decided to take a swim.

Thoroughly refreshed, but a little chilled, I dried off and prepared to don the last of my dry clothes. As I attempted the relatively easy and well-practiced task of slipping into a pair of Levi's, I realized I was too near the water, the ground was slippery and I was off balance hopping on one foot. True to the theme of this trip, I slipped down the muddy bank right into the water. For me, dry clothes were now a thing of the past.

My sleeping bag was still dry and after a fire, some dinner and a good night's sleep, I felt my spirits lift in anticipation of the next day.

I awoke the next day with a friend so rarely seen: the sun. Having no plans until we were to catch the shuttle in the afternoon, I decided to do what I came here for- mountain bike. But as luck would have it, all the better more challenging bike trails were closed during peak season due to the number of freakin' hikers! I did find a somewhat satisfactory trail, but it was short and uneventful. As the afternoon wore on we broke camp and waited at the base of the mountain for our friendly Rasta bus driver. Not surprisingly he was late, so by way of apology he offered us a kayak trip for only 10 dollars. With the sun shining and time to kill we took him up on the offer and kayaked along Crescent Beach in East Sound. The crystal clear waters provided us great views of numerous stars, anemones, and a variety of sea urchins.

After the kayak trip we waited for him at a predetermined spot so he could take us to the ferry terminal where we would finally rid ourselves of these pesky islands. Not surprisingly he was late. Very late. Not wanting to miss the last ferry of the day, we stomped around in frustration and yelled curses until he finally showed up. Chucking our bikes on the bus and racing across the island to the ferry terminal, he screeched to a stop in front of the departing ferry where we grabbed our bikes, packs and dog and practically leapt onto the giant ship. Taking a moment to catch our breath and make sure we had everything, we heard laughter from the deck above us. Our intelligent friends stood at the railing, sipping Snapples and enjoying our spectacle. Taking a final look back at Orcas Island, in the glare of a bright afternoon sun I could barely make out the yellow bus with a tortoise painted on it. My scowl slowly changed to a smile as I heard the voice of Bob Marley singing in the distance.

Though our trip was strife with hazards and poor planning, the charm of the islands and the allure of such a pleasant lifestyle left a lasting impression on Krista and I. So much so that a year later, we were married at the magnificent Roche Harbor on San Juan Island.

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Email:  Mark Dhruv

Mark Dhruv  holds a degree in marine biology from Texas A&M. He has tried to take advantage of what he describes as "the adventurous lifestyle of a researcher." From braving 50-foot swells in the Bering Sea to analyzing tiny critters in the depths of the Sea of Cortez, his travels have just begun. An avid backpacker and outdoor enthusiast, he has trekked through India’s northern states on a shoestring budget and floated the maze of rivers in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin.

While living in Arizona, Mark divided his time between carpentry and working as a diver in the Gulf of California. Now he spends his time in the Pacific Northwest, drinking lots of coffee, kayaking the Puget Sound, and exploring Washington and British Columbia’s numerous ski resorts for that perfect run. (More about this writer.)


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