Riding the Northwest Circuit

My boss called me into her office and sat me down to tell me I was being suspended.

“One week without pay starting Monday,” she said solemnly.

“Ah man,” I said trying to sound disappointed. Never mind that the reason for my suspension was ridiculous or that the job itself had been destroying my soul for some time. I had plenty of reasons to be furious, yet I dejectedly accepted this punishment while quietly rejoicing my good fortune. I had long since used up my vacation time and what ever unpaid time I could squeeze. Basically, I had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting any more time off any time soon. Therefore PTO, suspension, leave, short of getting fired they all sounded like vacation to me. And here was my boss offering me a full week of vacation right in the middle of a Washington summer, bless her soul. As far as I was concerned I had nothing to complain about and I knew exactly what I was going to do.

I have cycled in the San Juan Islands, Gulf Islands, and a bit on Vancouver Island utilizing the terrific ferry systems. For this trip I planned to put the pieces together for a grand loop from Seattle to Vancouver Canada via Whidbey Island, Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island, and then down the sunshine coast. I would be taking seven ferries and cycling over three hundred fifty miles in what I hoped to be a splendid tour of the coastal pacific Northwest and what I know believe is one of the finest tours in the country.

Anyone unfamiliar with the Puget Sound and coastal British Columbia need only look at a map to realize that it consists of thousands of miles of coast line protected by the olympic peninsula in Washington and Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The hundreds of islands that speckle this region are the remnants of what glaciers were kind enough to leave behind when they splint Vancouver Island off from mainland Canada and gouged out the Puget Sound through Western Washington.

Saturday morning I loaded up my panniers with light clothes, sleeping bag, bivy sack, energy bars, and started off from the Fremont neighborhood where I was living on my sailboat. Picking and choosing my route out of Seattle I headed toward the Mukilteo ferry and over to Whidbey Island where my real ride would begin.

Whidbey Island is often overlooked by island getaway seekers who opt for the San Juans to the North. Yet Whidbey has the same island charm and quirky shops of all her island neighbors. Stretching about thirty five miles north to south, Whidbey Islanders proudly, and inaccurately, claim to be the longest island in the continental United States… it is actually the fourth, but don’t tell them that. Nevertheless, it is a charming island with sparse traffic, rolling hills, and beautiful meadows which are Island County’s signature. I swing by Langley, where the barber is the mayor, and I grab sandwiches and coffee at the the funky and delicious Useless Bay Coffee Company.

At the North end of Whidbey you come to Deception Pass State Park, so named for the narrow sea channel which cuts Whidbey off from Fidalgo Island and whose turbulent tidal currents have deceived more than a few boaters into the rocks. There are great hikes and views on both sides of the pass. However, a view not to be missed is the sun setting below the suspension bridges from the north end of Cornet Bay.

A word of note, during this trip I simply threw my sleeping bag and bivy sack most anywhere I pleased and this was usually some sort of beach in a small park. My favorite aspect of cycling is that you are able to go undercover in a way that would never be possible with a car. I like to pack light, and so with beautiful weather on the horizon and no need for a tent I am generally able to hide away at dusk and I’m always on my way by sunrise. For those who do not have the appetite for clandestine camping, or any camping for that matter, there are countless options from fancy bed and breakfasts to unimproved campgrounds in and around every place I mention throughout this article.

From Deception Pass a short ride across Fidalgo Island takes you to Anacortes which is the main port of departure for the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island. I ferried right on through the San Juans which are a cycling paradise in themselves with Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez Islands each offering terrific tours which I have done in the past. Yet for this trip I was passing them up in exchange for the Canadian Gulf Islands. I arrived in Sidney which sits atop the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria. The peninsula has several great established bike trails leading to Victoria including the Lochside and Interurban Rail Trail. Victoria claims, quite rightly, to be the most English City in the world and is very worthy of a visit. After checking into Canada it’s a fourteen mile ride southwest to Buchart Gardens and Gowlland Tod Park which is where I headed.

Idling away an afternoon in the resplendent gardens is a great siesta and a chance to rest weary cycling legs. The fifty five acres of amazing gardens was once a depleted limestone quarry which was carefully cultivated into the Sunken Gardens, Japanese Gardens, Rose Gardens, Italian Gardens and others sporting an impossible array of flowers. Stop in on Saturday nights throughout the summer for a spectacular fireworks display.

From Butchart I looped back up the peninsula to the ferry terminal with my namesake, Swartz Bay, and then on to Salt Spring Island. It was getting late so I beat rubber for Ruckle State Park which has terrific camping along the rocky seashore. The east facing park overlooks the neighboring islands and I was treated with a beautiful sunrise that next morning.

The Gulf Islands along Vancouver Island’s southeast coast are a true gem of the northwest. Distinctly different from their American neighbors to the south, the San Juan Islands, they tend to be long and skinny with rocky bays and steep cliffs. There are many different ferry routes from the mainland, Vancouver island, and between the different islands, such that one could link up with any or all of them at your pleasure. Salt Spring Island alone is serviced by three different ferry terminals.

Because the islands are only accessible by boat or plane the traffic tends to come in short waves departing from the ferries and then then you are more or less left with the road to yourself. The same is true for other ferry serviced communities including the San Juans, Whidbey Island, and the Sunshine Coast. Furthermore, the islands are covered with provincial and marine parks and, as a sailor, I can attest that they are generally spectacular.

From my campsite I head for the idealic town of Ganges which sits atop a long inlet midway up the island. It’s an extremely friendly island town with boardwalk, restaurants, and tourist shops overlooking the marina. A can’t miss in Ganges is the Tree House Cafe which boasts of one hundred eleven consecutive nights of live music and where I enjoyed a hearty biker’s breakfast and coffee. Afterwards I cycle north cresting rolling hills and passing fields and farm land on my way to the ferry terminal in the tiny town of Vesuvius. I retain the road to myself and once at the north end it’s all-aboard back to Vancouver Island.

Notable side trips in the mid and southern Vancouver Island region, which I did not have time for but are nevertheless on my cycling bucket list, include the Cowichan Valley and the Pacific Rim National Park. Cowichan Valley is Vancouver Island’s wine country and hosts many different bed and breakfasts and an array of cider presses and wineries. Cherry Point Estates in particular has an indescribably delicious blackberry desert wine. For the more adventurous and with two to four days to spare, the Pacific Rim National Park would be a trip never to be forgotten. Access this west coast park by heading north along Highway 19 and then west on Highway 4 to Port Alberni. From there you can ferry all the way to west coast Vancouver Island down the Alberni inlet which snakes a two two thirds of the way across the island. You arrive at the town of Uclete from where you can explore the park by bike or better yet by kayak. The town of Uclete and the even more stunning town of Tolfino, a short ride northwest, have plenty of kayak rental operations and both access different parts of the park. Return by boat to Port Alberni or make a loop by cycling back on the Pacific Rim Highway. Sadly, this trip would have to wait because I had a tight schedule and my sights set on the Sunshine Coast.

Once on Vancouver Island and heading north the traffic is noticeably worse and I became nostalgic for the pleasant isolated roads of the smaller islands served by ferry. I had almost forgotten that roads are generally, and unfortunately, meant for cars.

I had lunch in Nanaimo which has a pleasant old town and I stocked up on sugary baked goods and maple bars for what I was anticipating to be a long day of cycling. Any bike trip has a slog and with busier roads and needing to knock off some miles I was gearing up for this section from Crofton to Comox to be my slog. Highway 19 is a busy multilane road and the primary thoroughfare for all things heading north. Yet except for a short section of this highway just north of Nanaimo, I was able ride Island Highway which hugs the coast and is vastly more tranquil. Not an island country road but certainly nothing to complain about.

I beat rubber up the coast with views of the Strait of Georgia to my right and plenty of seaside towns to get my sugar fix and stare vacuously out at the strait. After a good hundred mile day I wound up staying near the town of Fanny Bay.

The following day I had a short ride into Comox and the ferry terminal which would whisk me away to the Sunshine Coast. A word of wisdom for those relying on ferries for their transportation: do check ferry departure times and do not expect sailings at any regular intervals. Just past ten in the morning I rolled up to the loading docks with just enough time to wave goodbye to a departing ferry which, as I then observed, was the last ferry until five that evening. There was little of note at the ferry terminal and it is a good five miles away from the actual city of Comox. Making the best of things I strolled the waterfront and made myself at home at the only restaurant around, a hippy friendly joint just up the the road, where I ate pancakes and drank coffee for about six hours.

It’s an hour crossing to Powell River and once you are there it’s best to just get out of this rather unremarkable city. But once you’ve hit the road down the Sunshine Coast Highway you’re free and alone once again. Anyway you slice it, it’s a two ferry trip this far up the BC coast due to Howe Sound and Jarvis Inlet which break up the coastline and the highway. Seventeen miles north of Powell River is the lovely town of Lund and the majestic Desolation Sound Marine Park which I have visited by sailboat but not on bike. Heading south the road weaves in and out from the coast and it’s a beautiful tranquil ride with only the periodic bursts of ferry traffic disrupting the quiet. Just shy of the first ferry crossing at Jarvis Inlet I arrived at Saltry Bay Park. Granite boulders gently descending into the Strait of Georgia make a perfect swimming area and the showers just up from shore make it a perfect place to camp. There is plenty of official camping in the park, but I opted to throw my sleeping bag right there at the shore.

The following section of the Sunshine Coast, a fifty miles stretch after the ferry crossing to the town of Sechelt, is arguably the best part of the coast and indeed the best section of riding on the whole circuit. A short detour northeast from the ferry landing on Egmont Road brings you to Skookumchuk Narrows Park where you can watch the rapid-like tidal waters ebb and flow through Sechelt Inlet. Francis Point Park on Fancis Point peninsula further south is also a nice detour, however a must is a hike and swim through Smuggler Cove Marine Park. This park, located just south of Secret Cove Marina, was so named for the protection it offered ‘pirate’ Larry Kelly who smuggled Chinese laborers into the United States from Canada. The cove resembles an alpine lake more then a sea inlet and its shallow water is bathtub warm in the summer. Hike to the further end of park with views of Thormanby Island and where the rocks at the entrance make for fun diving platforms at high tide.

When they say sunshine coast they are not kidding. The coast north of Vancouver lies in the rain shadow of Vancouver Island and it is sunnier and warmer than most anywhere else along the north Pacific. I swam around like an otter and spent the better part of the day basking on the rocks there at the cove entrance. I camped in one of the many cheap and unimproved campsites.

Leaving Smuggler Cove I had the better part of the day to ride to the ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay and the effective end of my trip. There are two coastal roads which offshoot the main highway which made this section very enjoyable. Down Redroofs Road lies the tiny and charming town of Welcome Beach where their annual town festival was taking place. I ate a breakfast burrito from the only store in town, watched a small float parade of children on decorated bicycles, and chatted with the affable grandmother of the fishing contest winner. Further down I again detoured through the town of Roberts Creek which has a friendly small town feel but is clearly more of a summer vacation destination.

As the day grew late I had to make haste in order to catch the last ferry that would get me into Vancouver for my scheduled bus back to Seattle. I raced through the town of Gibson and down to Horseshoe Bay where I was the last person to board the ferry back to Vancouver. The sun was setting over Vancouver Island and the Strait of Georgia, I snapped a few last photographs, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, now that was freaking amazing.’


Map Link: http://goo.gl/maps/8Aud

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