SAN JUAN ISLANDS — The big ferry sloshed away from the dock at Anacortes and chewed west into the wind and waves of Rosario Strait, off the Washington mainland. Kathleen, Sherry, and I, ensconced in the ship’s comfy spectator deck, shared hoots and high fives. The 4½-hour drive from Portland, Ore., was behind us, and a week of island-hopping was ahead.
Our bicycles and gear, packed minimally for six days across three islands, were below, lashed to the walls of the ferry’s auto berth. They seemed to be the only bikes aboard; it was mid-October, the iffy edge of tourist season in the San Juan archipelago, a time of alluring hotel rates and dismaying forecasts for rain. But we were psyched for cycling.
Sherry, a lean ultramarathoner and retired RN I had met only the night before, would surely set the pace. Kathleen, my longtime friend and four months retired, had just a week before completed a 14-day cycling tour in France averaging 60 miles a day. That topped off her decades of bike-commuting in hilly Portland.
And me? I love cycling, but lacked the achievements of my companions, as well as their indifference to rain (both reside in Portland, which gets 155 wet days a year; I live in southern Indiana). Nevertheless, I aspired to keep up. The trip might be a challenge for all of us retirees: three islands — Lopez, San Juan, and Orcas — over six days, the terrain hillier at each one.
Now, though, any worries I had about keeping up or weather were overcome by awe. The huge sky was a simmering pot of molten silver. In any direction, it seemed, pale-shouldered mountains rose and fell along the far horizon, while closer up, islets dotted the strait like the backs of animals, bristling with spiky evergreens, their resin scent strong on the wind.
The archipelago has more than 400 islands, but just 128 of them have official names, many Spanish from the explorers who arrived in the late 1700s. A century later, British and US expansionists contested each other’s claims to the islands, and in 1871 a mediator (Kaiser Wilhelm, no less) awarded the archipelago to the Americans. Today a symbiosis of farming and tourism dominates the San Juans, with mild, wet winters and cool, sunny summers; woodsy or pastoral landscapes loaded with salt air or sea views; and just enough resorts, B&Bs, artisanal shops, and restaurants to serve seasonal visitors without killing the charm.
These attributes, along with off-season timing and our carless circumstances, served us well; luck also played a role. While we’d taken care to reserve rooms within pedaling distance of dining or groceries, little else was planned ahead. Happily, nothing was crowded, though some shops and restaurants were closed for the season. And pedaling everywhere let us dine lavishly without calorie-counting, see sites and sights not common to the car-bound, and limited our souvenir shopping to the little we could carry.
Lopez, which we knew had the flattest terrain of our itinerary, delivered the first surprise off the ferry. In a light rain about 5:30 p.m., amid the descending gloom of evening, we began our 5-mile ride to the resort with a long, steep climb. I was astonished to find myself ahead, with enough of a lead at the hill’s crest to dismount and photograph my companions! I relished the moment — rare, it turned out.
There would be more delights the next day, starting with an unstinting breakfast at The Galley, serendipitously near our hotel. As we unlocked our bikes there, sunlight broke out of the fog, never to hide again until evening, when we clinked a wine toast on our hotel balcony to a spectacular bank of gold-edged clouds across the bay.
In between those cosmic moments were stuffed eight hours of discovery. Drawn by a whim, we traversed a skinny barrier beach and perused harlequin ducks, hooded mergansers, western grebes, and spotted sandpipers as kingfishers chattered and ravens quorked nearby. We relied on maps to find Iceberg Point. A poorly marked entrance abutting a neighbor’s “KEEP OUT!” sign nearly fooled us, but persistence paid off with a high-cliff overview of a bay where beds of bobbing, streaming kelp so convincingly imitated a herd of seals that I thought I heard barks. We snacked and rested our leg muscles there on sun-warmed rocks before another long ride, this amid wide pastures roamed by horses, cows, sheep, pigs, and a screeching rooster or two.
On many roadsides, Washington’s iconic apple trees tempted us with reachable, ripe fruit we only barely managed to resist. In other stretches, the ribbon of asphalt sported bright green bands at the little-traveled edges: moss. To observe such magic (whether shared or cherished like a secret) while my legs were making countless revolutions and my lungs were pumping seemed to make it indelible. I can replay the still-intact images at will.
Our distance for that day topped 30 miles; I was exhausted. Not so Kathleen, nor did Sherry admit fatigue, but we all slept like the dead that night and all the other nights that week.
The next day we rose early, packed the bikes, and rolled back to the ferry, which churned this time to San Juan Island, largest in the archipelago. Rain again, and busy Friday Harbor was a fine destination for drizzle, with eateries and shops (including an antiques-curio-art bazaar one floor below our charming rooms). Sherry opted for a run, while Kathleen and I meandered for postcards and pedal-friendly edibles. We dined stylishly that evening at a harbor restaurant with a view of ferries coming and going and shoreline firs fading into darkness. I had a Dark & Stormy (rum, lime, ginger beer) and willed the next day to turn out sunny; it worked.
Long hills, a horse atop a hillock, a snake coiled at the roadside, a witch’s cabin, a melody of blackbirds, a fawn behind a fence, and a deer antler, still bloody at the stem, lying in the road near a hill’s crest: San Juan Island presented one surprise after another. Lime Kiln State Park, tame but for jaw-dropping mountains-frame-bay views, balanced out ritzy Roche Harbor, which beckons the yachting crowd with arbored gardens and several yummy ways to satisfy hunger. After sampling one of them, we hauled ourselves back to town, pausing at small wonders along the way, and hit the grocery for supplies. Another 30-mile day had passed, leaving its imprint.
Day 5 arrived and we departed Friday Harbor (true to form, in steady rain) for Orcas, the two-lobed land mass that crowns the archipelago. Alas, the whales of its name are a summer treat we were much too late to see. Still, there was whale-shaped terrain: hills and more hills, and even a mountain to challenge the most ambitious cyclists.
Our accommodations on this final leg were commodious — two-bedroom cabin — but more than 8 miles from the ferry. Our legs soon confirmed that Orcas was the hilliest part of our itinerary. I was happy to arrive at West Island Beach Resort when we did.
Orcas was a grand final spot. It had the most dramatic vistas, and an artsy vibe with museums, several huge, shiny kinetic sculptures on mysterious display along the roadsides, and a lovely garden housing the wares of a pottery collective. It also posed the most challenging biking of our trip. Previous pedaling paid off in endurance and confidence, enabling me to mostly keep up, even on the monster hill leading to Mount Constitution State Park. We dined well twice in Eastsound, a bustling town at the heart of the island. Our cabin had a toasty woodstove and was perched above a cove, with access to a resort hot tub and a tiny store with coffee, snacks, souvenirs, and nice wines. Our week was complete, in every sense.
As we rode the ferry back to Anacortes on the mainland, I had to conclude that my goal of keeping up had been achieved, but it had also been made irrelevant. I’d pedaled up and down in rain and shine, resisting whining, but in truth relished the creature comforts at least as much as conquering unknown hills on two skinny wheels. So, it seemed, did my companions — and so might you.