The San Juan Island Cycling Adventure

"Cast Off"

“Cast Off”

The previous weeks of thick, gray freezing fog slowly began to fade away from my memory as the brilliant early morning sun began to heat up the back of my neck. For the moment I was nestled into a cozy bench seat aboard the WSF M/V Yakima, sailing for the San Juan Islands.  My Rockhopper was lashed to the bulkhead on the car deck, with a distinctive panache of nautical seamanship, if I may be so bold as to pat myself on the back for trying to keep the skills of the able bodied seaman alive amidst the mediocrity of the average Washington State Ferry deck lackey.

I took up a watch station on the port bow and, head on a swivel, scanned the waters for any indication of killer whales.  Even though orca sightings are far more common in the spring, the resident killer whales can be spotted anytime of year… Hence the name “resident”.

Orcas Island

Orcas Island

Our vessel did a quick touch-n-go at Orcas Island and then steamed on to Friday Harbor.  Sadly, no whale sightings to report.  But not for lack of searching.  I pedaled the half mile up to the Wayfarer’s Rest and popped in to check out the traveler’s bunkhouse where I planned to spend the next two nights.  A nice young lady showed me around and invited me to drop off any gear that I wished, assuring me it would be completely safe there.  I was already traveling pretty light but I did off load a small mesh bag containing some freeze-dried food and a change of clothes.  I sent a text home to Susan to let her know that I had arrived on the Rock, then I saddled up and took off for American Camp and Cattle Point, on the south tip of the island.

Cattle Point Road

Cattle Point Road

A word about the roads on the island would be appropriate at this point.  Rough!  Ok, that says it all.  Well not really.  Hilly! The roads are mostly rural farm roads, some paved, some not.  For the most part the traffic is light and the drivers are all used to seeing bicycles on the road, although far less so in the winter months. The asphalt or tarmac or bitumen, or what ever you choose to call the road surface is rough as a cob.  Certainly no worries for my big old 29er’s, but if you have any notation of zipping around the island on your carbon-fiber time trial bike… Well, I think you’re gonna be crying yourself to sleep at night cause it won’t be any fun at all.  But, sleep will come easy because every destination seems to be uphill both ways.

American Camp

American Camp

American Camp was a delight.  I visited with the volunteer ranger for a bit and then strolled around the grounds.  I tucked down in the redoubt (a military gun emplacement) to get out of the chilly wind, and ate the last of my food.  A bagel, hard boiled egg, and an orange was going to have to hold me till I got back to to the bunkhouse.

Cattle Point lay another several miles down the road and soon enough I was zooming along the two lane road, high above the Straight of Juan De Fuca, awestruck by the stunning views.  I snapped photos and shot video as I climbed and descended this coastal roller coaster.  The old Cattle Point light was looking a little scruffy and worse for wear.  The foundation was beginning to crumble and a sign at the base advised folks to stay clear while the powers that be tried to arrange the allocation of funds to effect the repairs.  I gently leaned my bike against the whitewashed structure and took a photo before the whole thing tumbled into the sea.

Cattle Pass

Cattle Pass

Cattle Point

Cattle Point

Cattle Point Lighthouse

Cattle Point Lighthouse

As with every sweeping descent, a grinding climb was sure to follow.  I ground up several on my route back to the Wayfarer’s Rest.  Fortunately I’d packed some chow for dinner and once I wheeled my faithful steed around to the back, near my window, I was ready to be done for the day.  A cup of tea, chili mac, M&M’s, and iBooks finished out my evening.

Here is a little slice of irony for you… Earlier in the day as I rolled up to American Camp my phone received an automated text message advising me that I was now in Canada, and I would be charged special international data roaming charges… Blah, blah, blah.  Of course I deleted the message before I really even read it, holding my iPhone up so it could see the sign, I yelled, “See that, that sign says American Camp, not Canadian Camp”.  “Suck it ______”.  I continued to scold my phone as I stuffed it back in the pouch… “That was the whole point of this disputed boundary, and the military build up that led England and America into this now famous Pig War”.  “Sheesh”!

Stand by for your ‘Pig War’ history lesson: 

At this point I just can’t resist the temptation to include a little “Pig War” history.  For the complete story click this link NPS Pig War

American Camp - Then & Now

American Camp – Then & Now

The same favorable living conditions that drew the Coast Salish Native American people’s to the islands were destined to draw the first Europeans as well.  Temperate climate, protected harbors, fishing, gathering, timber, all situated in the middle of a major inland waterway… What’s not to like.  Spain, Great Britain, and the United States all had claims to the Oregon Country (as it was then known).  By 1818 Spain had abandoned its interests and that left the UK and the US to bump chests over the rights to the land and its vast resources.  

9th Cav Soldier

9th Cav Soldier

The Treaty of Oregon was signed in June of 1946 and that settled much of the dispute by dividing the two nations claims along the 49th parallel, then west from the Rockies to the channel that separates Vancouver Island from the mainland, and then down to the Straight of Juan de Fuca.  The only problem was there were really two channels, Haro Straight off to the west of the San Juan archipelago, and Rosario Straight to the east.

The Hudson’s Bay Company  (HBC) had a well established foothold on the islands, as it had all a crossed much of North America.  Their Belle Vu Sheep Farm on the southern shore boasted 4,500 sheep.  Then in spring 1859 eighteen Americans moved onto the island and staked claims on some prime sheep grazing land… Confrontation was inevitable!

June 15, 1859 American farmer Lyman Cutlar shot a HBC pig that was rooting in his garden… Sparking threats of arrest, and an eventual military build up by both sides that nearly brought the two countries to war – again!

Insignia of the Royal Marines

Insignia of the Royal Marines

British warship and Royal Marines squared off against the US 9th infantry.  The names mentioned in the history chronicles are familiar to me from studying local navigation charts as they are assigned to many of the bays, islands, and mountains.  The names are also a who’s who of American history – Capt. George E. Picket would later become a  well known civil war leader, Lt. Henry M. Robert would later write Robert’s Rules of Order, and British Capt. Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, RN… Ah, I don’t actually know what he’s famous for but I really get a giggle out of pouncing his name with a corny English accent.  

Pickett

Pickett

Eventually the Americans dug in at Cattle Point on the south tip of the island and the British established English Camp at Garrison Bay on the northwest shore.  Negotiations between the to countries led to an agreement of joint occupation and a request for third party arbitration by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany.  After 12 years of military occupation the Kaiser ruled in favor to the US in 1871.  The British packed up and the rest, as they say, is history.  

The only causality in the “war” was the pig.  Understandably he has become a kind of celebrity on the island over the years.  Buts that’s another story. 

Back to the bike ride…

Church Hill Coffee

Church Hill Coffee

The new day brought some lead colored clouds, patches of fog, and really cold temperatures.  I started my day at the Church Hill Coffee House, just a block from the ferry terminal.  The folks that own the bunkhouse also own and run the coffee house.  When I spoke to Andrea on the phone last week her offer of a free coffee for all her overnight guests pretty much ended the search for a place to eat breakfast.  I murdered a plate of ham & eggs and took advantage of the free WiFi to check in with the rest of the world.

I rolled out of town on the Beaverton Valley Road, headed up to English Camp on Garrison Bay.  Even with the chilly weather I had to ditch my jacket to keep from overheating on the long climbs.  I stopped into the Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm and made some new friends.  The alpaca store was closed, otherwise I’m sure I would have bought one those fluffy little guys… How to get him home on my bike was the farthest thing from my mind.

My roof is NOT so bad...

My roof is NOT so bad…

The one lane road down to English Camp provided a thrilling descent through the madrona trees.  I tried not to think about the return trip.  The camp sits tucked away in a very protected anchorage.  It was no wonder that the location had been used by indigenous tribes for over 1000 years as a campsite and foraging place.  When the British Royal Marines landed in 1860 to begin clearing the forest for the camp they reported seeing remnants of long houses and a giant shell midden.  In fact they spread the shells out to use as floors under the many tents needed to house the men.

English Camp

English Camp

I climbed up Officer’s Hill and surveyed the camp from the perch where the commander’s house once stood.  That was significantly closer to officer’s county than I’d ever gotten to in my own short military career.  The views were impressive.  Not the big, sweeping vistas of American Camp, but certainly a commanding view of the tiny little harbor.  The formal English garden and the old blockhouse looked much the same as they did some 150 years earlier.  A peek in the storehouse window revealed a glimpse of a restored cannon.

Blockhouse

Blockhouse

Canon

Canon

Leaving the camp I retraced my route back past the alpacas and turned off on Mitchell Bay Road.  Then I noodled along for a few miles to the West Side Road.  This was the lightly traveled grinder that would take me down to Lime Kiln lighthouse.  And what a grinder it was.  On one particularly nasty climb I stopped to check out some golden crowned kinglets in the treetops next to the road.  It felt so nice to not pedal for a few moments that I just decided to walk up the rest of that hill… I’ll pause here to let you gasp in shock.

Lime Kiln Lighthouse

Lime Kiln Lighthouse

By the time I made another screaming descent down into Lime Kiln State Park I was pretty much out of water.  Imagine my surprise when I found that all the water in the park had been turned off and drained for winter.  Normally state parks always have some type of reliable water source, even during the winter… Oh we’ll, I guess I just needed to do some character building!

I hiked down to the rocky shoreline and began to feel the warmth of the sun on my face for the first time on this brisk day.  I scrambled around on the trails, took photos of the lighthouse, ate some food, and of course, scanned the waters for whales.  I didn’t stay too long because the cool northerly breeze reminded me that I had been pedaling my bike for the last several hours to stay warm.  Sitting at the lighthouse, even somewhat tucked in out of the wind, did not generate the same amount of heat.

Free WiFi at the Library

Free WiFi at the Library

I needn’t have worried, soon I was back in the saddle.  The remainder of the West Side Road was a Gx3 (Granny Gear Grind-off) which lead me to Bailer Hill Road.  I’ll just let your imagine fill in the route profile of that road.  About 9 miles later I coasted back into Friday Harbor.  I made a quick stop at the SJI library, it was closed for the MLK Jr. holiday, but their WiFi was still open for business.  I posted a couple of photos from my travels and checked in at home.

Wayfarer's Rest

Wayfarer’s Rest

I darted through town and found the fastest way back to the bunkhouse.  A long, hot, luxurious shower was job one.  Then a cup of tea and some M&M’s before dinner.  Yep you heard that right dudes, grandpa gets to eat M&M’s before dinner.

A new day and a new challenge.  Roll out for a loop around Turn Point and catch a later ferry, or coast down to the coffee shop for another big breakfast and slip aboard the early morning boat… The French toast was delicious 🙂

Early Morning Roll-out

Early Morning Roll-out

Friday Harbor Ferry Terminal

Friday Harbor Ferry Terminal

The M/V Sealth was one of the older, smaller, vessels in the WSF fleet, named after the chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes.  Chief Sealth was also the namesake of the city of Seattle.  We shoved off  under leaden skies and made the 1 hour and 20 minute crossing without incident, in spite of the thickening fog.  For our return voyage the skipper navigated around the north end of Shaw Island, through the picturesque Wasp Passage.  Something the smaller boats are better suited to do, and certainly my preferred route. The voyage provided the perfect decompression period to adjust from Island Time back to the real world.

Foggy Arrival in Anacortes

Foggy Arrival in Anacortes

Ok, if you’re still reading along with me this far here is a little video for your reward:

Enjoy the ride.  Kat

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About Jeff Katzer

Welcome friends. I'm a cyclist, hiker, motorbike rider, kayaker, photographer, videographer, ukulele player, snowshoer, XC skier, and BEST of all - a grandpa. Somewhere in that list above you'll find the theme of the Adventure Journal.
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6 Responses to The San Juan Island Cycling Adventure

  1. mtbtokyogirl says:

    nice post! and loved the video!!;)

  2. jacklovestosail says:

    nice ride Jeff; I did the ‘convertible jeep’ ride last summer after sailing to Roche Harbor…You just talked me into sailing back next summer & this time doing it on the bike

  3. David Gray says:

    Thank you for an outstanding Video. My wife and I will be up there in September, and this was very helpful.

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