Cycling the San Juan and Gulf Islands
May 2-17, 1998
During May 2nd to 17th, the American San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands located between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia and Washington mainland became the temporary home and adventure land of 21 Edmonton Bike and Touring Club members. With bikes boxed or bagged and panniers packed, 16 eager cyclists arrived at the Edmonton International Airport at 6:00 AM ready to load the Westjet flight to Victoria. The remaining members chose to drive to Victoria and meet enroute.
This unsupported tour would take us to the San Juan Islands of San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw and the Gulf Islands of Mayne, Saturna, Galliano, Pender, and Salt Spring. Over the next 16 days, we would experience up to 17 ferry rides, 700 – 900 Km of rolling green and colourfully bloomed countryside, “enchanted” forests, coastal geography, and wildlife sightings of National Geographic caliber.
We would endure 7 flat tires, uncountable jammed chains, three chain breaks, several brake adjustments, handle bar problems, and a variety of derailleur ailments. Some members would establish intimate relationships with the knowledgeable and helpful staff of several bicycle repair shops.
We would consume 500 – 650 bananas (av. 1.5 – 2 bananas/person/day) and over 1000 pastries, muffins, pies, cinnamon buns and other bakery goods. And we would have visited every outhouse and public washroom facility on the islands. (A book may be forthcoming – “The Best Places to “GO” in the San Juan and Gulf Islands”)
Our first ferry ride from Sidney to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island initiated us into the science of securing our bikes on deck with bunji cords and locks, a technique we would master over the next two weeks. And, as with future ferry rides, we were entertained by occasional sightings of whales, porpoises, and seals.
Friday Harbor greeted us with a San Francisco feel and drug sniffing dogs that took particular interest in one members panniers. It appears they also liked the smell of cheese! Narrowly escaping and with cheese laden panniers, we sought our country-style B&B complete with a swinging bench seat on a large verandah. Oh, have we mentioned the hot tub?
The next two days were spent touring this pastoral island with its more forgiving hills than islands to come – hills dotted with Alpaca farms, herds of sheep, and rolling green countryside with quaint and Tudor-style homes.
Roche Harbor, like many more to come, offered a taste of history, the hustle of a harbor, the relief of washrooms, a verandah lunch deck, and for some, Haagen Das Ice-cream.
The next six days found us on Orcas Island accommodated in luxury condos in Eastsound. The scenery was incredible and it was on this Island that we learned the real meaning of the word scenic (hilly.) Reeling from the shock of the hill climbs like 500 feet to the start of Moran State Park and 2400 feet to the summit of Mt. Constitution (Destitution), we found solace in the promise of pastry and gleefully dipped 400 feet to the Olga CafÈ for decadent blackberry pie. An unforgivable law of nature – a 400 foot descent one way means a 400 foot ascent the other way. Undaunted, some cyclists ventured even further to Doe Bay, a commune-like retreat and chanced upon its au natural hot tubs (if you know what we mean). They did not partake.
On Orcas, the group began to gel and people fell comfortably into their own cycling styles. While one member discovered the “Brainless Chicken Ranch”, another was being chased by two BIG dogs down a dead end road, thwacked his way through the forest, carried his bike on his back across a beach, scrambled his way back up through the forest and eventually escaped the dogs by hitchhiking a ride in a pickup truck. Meanwhile, others were observing what they thought was an Orcas-style wedding parade complete with tailed tuxedos and high rubber boots. It was, in fact, a photo shoot. Some cyclists basked in the sunshine at a Lopez winery and a group of unfortunates, soaked and freezing, huddled like bedraggled fledglings under the dripping verandah of the Nunsí store on Shaw.
“Lost” was not a foreign word and signs can be partially blamed. One sign had three arrows labeled “This Way – That Way – The Other Way.” We knew, however, that we had arrived at our destination when we discovered another sign that said “Somewhere” And many appreciated the warning sign from a local farmer that said “For anyone crossing the pasture, make sure you can do it in 9.9 seconds because the bull can do it in 10.”
From Orcas, we took day trips to Lopez, a flatter island with memories of Holly Bís Bakery and our only incidence of theft – gourmet gummy bears stolen from the panniers of one unsuspecting cyclist by a very smart crow.
Some chose also to visit the Island of Shaw with its almost uninhabited feel and very unique rustic library. This island of 163 people is basically controlled by an order of Franciscan Nuns who operated the ferry terminal and the only store. We suspected they were somewhat protective of their lifestyle when they stated “Cyclists get killed on these roads every year you know. Youíre real easy to hit” . We stood briefly pondering was this a cautious warning or a threat.
Returning to Canadian soil, we relocated from Orcas to Springwater Lodge on Mayne (the oldest continually operating lodge in Canada). Although here only briefly, this “lumpy” rural island presented us with the many wildlife sightings – deer with fawns (one with twins) only a few days old, raccoons, and sea otters playing on the peer.
A day trip to Saturna Island found our bikes strapped to the benches and sides of a water taxi while we squished ourselves (not unlike sardines) into the remaining space. This was a warm and welcoming island with some people accepting the invitation to join in the Mothersí Day Pancake Breakfast hosted by local residents. This island offered a beautiful shoreline ride on one of our sunnier days. It was a day without incident except for a brigade of wild turkeys that temporarily barricaded the road to Eastpoint. With patience and careful negotiations we eventually broke through the resistance and were rewarded with a spectacular cliff top viewing of huge sea lions, curious harbor seals, bald eagles, and a panoramic view of the ocean and islands.
Some also took the opportunity to visit Galliano Island where we climbed, climbed, climbed in the rain, rain, rain. Here, we enjoyed the view from Loversí Leap on Bodega Ridge and returned home to Mayne via the local “school bus” ferry.
The next stop – North and South Pender Islands. Continuing with the “roughing it” theme, we were indulged with breakfast in bed, a hot tub, a great bed, wonderful food and exceptional hospitality at the Inn on Pender. It was on South Pender that a lucky few witnessed a spectacular moment when two bald eagles teamed to hunt down and capture a seagull in flight at unbelievably close range. A word of advice about Pender. This island did not have great or abundant water. Be prepared.
At our next destination, Ganges on Salt Spring Island, some settled into the home-style comforts of the Wisteria B&B whereas others became acquainted with “bikers of a different kind” at the Harbor Inn. This renowned artisan island presented us with the realities of urban island life – a big increase in traffic, more shops to browse in, more restaurants to feast in, and home-made Wisteria B&B granola to die for. (Watch future issue for recipe.) The south end of Salt Spring Island offered a different texture. A trip to Ruckles Park threw us onto the path of a bagpipe playing hitchhiker. An afternoon at the park, found many of us exploring the colourful life of tide pools and warming our weary bones in the sun. In the evening, under the watchful eye of the “flush patrol”, 19 sweaty cyclists were forced to schedule and stagger toilet flushes and showers. The water pressure problems, however, were easily forgiven with exceptional service and food.
Farewell to the Gulf Islands. The final two days of our holiday, immersed us further into the urban life of Vancouver Island where we enjoyed the beauty of Victoria and the sights and sounds it had to offer.
On the 16th day, with “thighs of thunder” and feeling full and satisfied like the contentment that follows a nourishing meal we boarded the plane home. Next stop – Edmonton. Flatlands. Our thighs begin to shrink.
In conclusion, we offer you
Some bike tour guide translations:
Ocean View = Private – No beach access
Rustic = Run Down
Quaint = Small
A little further = Fooled ya! Ha!
Canít miss it = Itís not marked – youíll miss it
Scenic = Hilly
Hilly = 600 foot climb with a 20% grade
Words that bring bikers together:
Bakery, Pub, Outhouse (not necessarily in that order)
Definition of a bike trip: 21 people having 15 consecutive bad hair days (helmet heads)
Ode to the San Juan and Gulf Islands … by Bicycle Poets:
Over the Hill
Around the bend
Down the hill
Look at the map
Words from the Wise:
Donít swat at wasps when careening down hills – *! ?*#!*
40 Km/hr + loose gravel + unbalance panniers + a sharp turn = a bad mix
How would we have trained differently for this trip?
Weíd have cycled the Edmonton river valley and other hills more
Weíd have done more bakery tours and eaten more jelly donuts
Judith Morrison and Loreen Morling