Our Backroads Vacation in Puget Sound, Washington state
August 1, 1998 - August 9, 1998
Stewart French

Our Group Shot!
Public Market Center in Seattle
Friday Harbor House on San Juan Island


Anne arranged a _great_ limo service, Premium Transportation, to take us to DFW. They picked us up at the house and dumped us at our gate at DFW international. Then on the return trip they were standing with a sign waiting for us to get off the airport, then helped with the luggage and drove us straight home. _So_much_ better than Super Shuttle! and about half the cost!

We arrived in Seattle and caught a courtesy van to the Radisson near the airport. We chose that one because it was a _lot_ cheaper than the downtown hotels, and because we wanted to get close to the airport on the return trip. To keep things simple, we stayed there on the way out and back. We arrived at the Raddison about 4pm and discovered that the shuttle into downtown Seattle would leave at 415, so we hotfooted it to the lobby. The shuttle had just pulled out! We were talking to the lobby receptionist when the airport shuttle driver walked in. He volunteered to drive us over to the Clarion Hotel to catch the bus as it wound its way through the airport hotels picking up folks. The van pulled up at the Clarion about 15 minutes early. We loaded on. The van driver, Leon, was new to driving with this shuttle service. Turns out the shuttle service itself was only a week old and they were working out the "kinks". Leon was definitely a "kink" to work out! He was about 60 years old and didn't quite understand the concept of waiting until the scheduled time before continuing on his route. He arrived early at the hotels, made a pass around looking for guests, then immediately took off for the next one! He was a very nice and talkative fellow, but didn't really get it.

The drive into Seattle was about 20 minutes and dumped us in downtown at the Seattle Art Museum , right across from the Lusty Lady (it's air conditioned, you know!). Downtown Seattle is an interesting mix of 1960s dress, Paul Bunyan shoes, lots of Asian influence. All packed into a small, walkable, central area. We walked down to the waterfront, which was very crowded. We discovered later that Seafair was going on. Seafair is a multiweek event in downtown Seattle that includes boat races, a flyover by the Blue Angels, an evening foot race along the waterfront, and lots and lots of people. We talked to our co-passengers on the shuttle ride into downtown. One couple was from New York (they spoke of "the city" a lot). One couple was from Wisconsin, the other couple didn't say where they were from. They all were either ending or starting an Alaskan cruise. These folks were on a 5 day boat-5 day land tour with Holland American cruises. They were very excited to get started. The Seafair festivities and crowds had the traffic all snarled up and we ran back into these folks at 7:30 to catch the van back to the hotel. The van was very late and when Leon showed up, about 20 minutes late, he was very apologetic. Anne had to sit in my lap on the ride home in order to squeeze us all in! While downtown we ate dinner at Ivar`s Acres of Clams. Although the wait was almost an hour, it sure was good food! We saw lots of people from the waterfront view feeding french fries and fried clams to the seagulls.

Next day, Sunday, We caught the shuttle this morning at 10:00. I guess they let Leon sleep sometimes, because Smitty drove us in today. Smitty was very personable and funny and described the Seattle scenery as we rode into downtown . We walked down to the Public Market Center where they sold seafood to the tourists and had lots and lots of small shops and restaurants all around. The fish market had a show that they did all day where they threw fish over the crowds and scared the kids by making the large fish move by pulling their tails. The kids got a real thrill from it all! We had decided to signup for the Seattle underground tour, so after leaving the market we walked down to Pioneer Plaza and signed up for the 1pm tour. The tour was 1.5 hours. This tour has been around for 30 years and the tour guides were very funny, having revised their schtick for years. There were a _lot_ of people waiting for the 1pm tour. Gail did a very funny monologue then they broke us up into groups of 30 and took us underground. They have 18 blocks of "Seattle Underground" that we could explore. The guides gave us some Seattle history as we wound our way through the subterranean tunnels.

After the tour, we strolled back to the Monorail. From here we rode the Monorail to the Space Needle, about a mile. The monorail was very nice, but extremely short, picking up people in downtown on 5th street and depositing them at the Worlds Fair site. The views from the Space Needle were fantastic, although the Space Needle itself was very, very crowded. It only took a few minutes to get tired of it and get back into line for the elevator down.

We walked and walked the downtown passing the new Nordstroms which is very easy to see, picking up a new downtown map, and ending up at Pike Brewing Co. for a few suds and some appetizers, then back to the Radisson for the evening and to get ready for our early start on Monday.

We really enjoyed Seattle. I wish we had more time to explore, and go to some of the great restaurants. There were lots of outdoor seating at the restaurants and the weather was very fine to enjoy walking. I'd also like to spend some time on the ferries. They leave from docks in downtown and head out to various islands and over to Vancouver B.C. We'd have had to spend a couple of days in order to really explore the ferry destinations.

The Ferries

Anne and I boarded our first ferry in Anacortes, about 1.5 hours north of Seattle. Gary of "Personalized Tours and Travel" ran a van service for Backroads from Seattle to the drop-off points in Anacortes and La Conner, WA. Gary dropped us at the ferry dock where the Backroads van and trailer were already parked in one of the many long lines waiting to board. The ferry system has a strangle-hold on the economy and commerce on the islands. Each island is highly dependent on the tourist trade, goods and services from the mainland, and summer transplants who buy expensive homes on the islands. These all bottleneck at the ferry docks. We had about an hour wait before our ferry was scheduled to depart, so we had some lunch, everyone met everyone else, we talked, read, took some photos, walked around, and generally wasted time until the ferry left. It was probably 10-15 degrees colder whenever we boarded and rode a ferry. It was _very_ difficult to plan for since sometimes all we had was what we could carry on our bikes. The ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor, the main town on San Juan harbor took about 1.5 hours. It ran all day and long into the night. Our room at the Friday Harbor House looked out on the bay where the ferry arrived and we constantly saw it coming and going, dropping off passengers, cars, and trucks, then reloading and heading for the next stop.

The ferriess had large, enclosed, heated passenger decks with a snack bar (expensive) and plenty of tables for everyone to sit. Some of the auto passengers came up, but many just stayed in their cars and slept.

We took another ferry from the town of Orcas on Orcas Island back to Anacortes on Friday. It was very much the same, long lines, long waits, very cold. We watched our ferry come into the bay carefully lineup to catch the dock and abandon the attempt at the last minute for some reason. He backed out, realigned, and tried it again. These ferrys move very fast during docking . When we arrived back at Anacortes we had stashed our bikes all together at the (now) front of the ferry. So we watched up close as the captain brought it in and we docked. Quick, quick, it slowed, they captured the lines, the hydraulic ramp lowered, and we were off.

Bumper Kayaks and Bald Eagles

On Tuesday morning , our first real day of biking , we had an option in Roche Harbor to do some kayaking. Neither Anne nor I had ever kayaked before so we didn't know what to expect (we _did_ know to expect that long, steep climb back out of Roche Harbor on our bikes when the kayaking was over!). Roche Harbor is on the northwest side of San Juan Island about a 10 mile bike ride from Friday Harbor over rolling hills. We arrived about 9am and awaited the other bikers while walking the pier and looking around. Roche Harbor has a large marina with lots of power boats and sail boats, restaurants, and lodge/hotel, lots of shopping. Almost everybody in our tour signed up for the kayaking, so when we all got there we headed to the dock where the kayaks were floating. So many folks signed up that some couldn't get a kayak, they simply ran out. Those overflow folks had to take something other than a kayak (I didn't quite understand what they had to paddle in). Anne and I chose a 2-person kayak, got our training on how to get it in and out, how to paddle, and how to steer. We chose not to wear the waterproof skirt. Our guides said that we probably wouldn't get wet and they are very hot. Anne was sitting in front and did manage to get washed with salt water one time on the trip. This was pretty annoying for her since she had to both sit in the salt water for the rest of the kayaking and to bike with it soaking her bike shorts the rest of the day! Yuck.

After everyone got settled into their kayaks we headed out. Little did we know, kayaking is very much like biking in the sense "see it, hit it." We had, maybe, 10 kayaks out on the water with our group. As we headed out we kept banging into each other. There's all this water and what do we do? We stay all grouped together and bang boats together, get our paddles all mixed up, and generally get into each others way. I don't understand why that happened, but it happened over and over. We headed out of Roche Harbor to the north across the busy traffic lanes and into some small coves on Henry Island. We grouped many times and stopped while our 2 guides gave us short talks on the wildlife in the area. One one such talk we parked on a kelp forest. The guides pointed out an immense floating mass of kelp near small, rocky Battleship Island. He instructed us to paddle hard and go right up onto the kelp until the kayaks stopped then wait for him. We did this and ended up in the middle of this forest of floating kelp. We could literally set our paddles down beside the kayak in the water on the kelp and leave it there. It was a very solid mass. Our guide described the circumstances of the kelp growth patterns and we pulled a bunch of it up to look at it. He said that certain parts were edible but nobody got up enough courage to try it. We then pulled up our rudder and attempted to get off the kelp bed which was no easy task! With a little effort and care we managed to extricate ourselves, moving backwards through the kelp bed, into clear water. Then we skirted the western coast of San Juan island heading toward another small rocky island where harbor seals were quietly sunning themselves on the rocks. On the way our guides quietly pointed out a bald eagle perched high in a tree along the coast. It was far enough away that we cold only tell that it was a bald eagle because of it's white head and size. We saw a number of bald eagles (maybe 10 or so) throughout our trip in Puget Sound. Most were sitting quietly in trees or on the ground. We stopped our kayaks while our guides talked about the bald eagle nesting practices, territorial behavior, carion behavior, and other interesting facts.

Next stop was the small rocky island where lots of harbor seals were sunning themselves. Our guides requested that we not get to close and spook them, so we took a circuitous route circling the island before continuing on.

At one point we pulled our kayaks into a small bay and brought them ashore onto a small, sandy island. This island seemed to be supported by the park service or a private group because it had camp sites setup on various spots. It was also treed with the beaches being mixed rock and sand. Although deserted when we were there, well worn paths wound through the trees and along the beaches attesting to the number of people that regularly walked this island. From the shores we could see Speiden Island, Stuart Island, Sidney Island, and Vancouver Island far in the distance, plus many, many smaller islanding dotting the watery landscape. We relaxed a short while then reboarded our kayaks and headed back to Roche Harbor to disembark and continue our bike ride. Altogether a fine, 3 hour, kayaking experience.

The Wildlife Cruise

On Wednesday morning, our third real day of biking we boarded the Navigator , a tour boat, in Friday Harbor for a whale watching expedition out beyond Stuart Island. We all loaded onto the Navigator with our box lunches, hats, jackets, sunscreen, and cameras and headed out of Friday Harbor . We wouldn't be back here again on this trip. Our luggage was already packed and loaded onto the Backroads van. Jennifer had taken the van and gotten into the ferry queue for Orcas Island, our next stop on our trip. We would boat around all morning looking for whales, porpoises, and bald eagles, then dock at the town of Orcas on Orcas island to continue our biking.

The Navigator took us our of Friday Harbor to the northwest, past Shaw Island, Jones island, small Flattop Island, with Waldron Island off in the distance to the north, then past privately owned Speiden Island. Recently purchased by the Oakley Sunglasses magnate for his private estate, Speiden Island was a beautiful, scenic island. We saw two bald eagles on this island. We continued northwest to Stuart Island and passed around the northwest point, the most northwest point of the United States. We came close into Turn Point and saw the Turn Point lighthouse . One of the guests, Willow's, father was lighthouse keeper there many years ago.

We didn't see any whales. Our guides kept their radios tuned to the whale watch network where all sightings are broadcast. There were no sightings near us all morning so we were unlucky that day. We did spot several playful porpoises on the trip back from Stuart Island to Orcas Island. They cavorted alongside the boat and dodged snapshots . We did see a group of tourist boats in one area hear Jones Island watching and waiting for something. Couldn't be orcas since there weren't any sighted there, so we couldn't figure out what they were doing and didn't join them. We passed many private islands on our trip back. Some were for sale for 1.5 - 3 million dollars. One in particular (Nob Island?) looked like a nob of rock sticking out of the water. It was covered with trees and vegetation above a rocky cliff shore, and there was a single, beautiful house built on the northwest side in amongt the trees. On the very top of the island was a large dead tree with a huge bald eagle nest in the top. We marveled at the island and the house and wondered how it was possible to build such an extravagant house on such an island, and what it would be like to live there. Clearly it was a vacation home for some rich family since it was so isolated, only accessible by boat from Orcas Island.


On Wednesday we took the Deer Harbor option. This option branched near the ferry dock and took us westward to a far point on Orcas Island. We passed West Sound where the tour boat Navigator was docked. Navigator was the boat that took us on our wildlife sightseeing tour this morning. The captain told us to wave as we rode by so we waved to him and his crew. This option circles Massacre Bay and Skull Island to the west. Just this side of Massacre Bay we saw two young boys and a young girl with a lemonade and blackberry stand setup and ready for business. They didn't look like they'd got many people by, so Anne and I stopped and chatted for a while. Their stand was setup in front of a massive row of blackberry bushes. They had picked only the ripest berries so we bought a basket. These kids were very good with their business. Anne asked "How much?" "Whatever you want to pay." Good answer. We fished out a buck and asked if that was enough, "Yes." They were so ripe and juicy that the juice was dripping from the bottom of the basket. We didn't have an easy way to carry the basket back, so we ate about a third of them and put the rest in a ziplock baggie to munch on while we biked. There wasn't much to see in Deer Harbor, my memories are of rolling hills, trees over the road, very little traffic, and periodic bay views. On the way back we stopped again and got some photos of these entrepeneurs . Anne bought some lemonade from them, but found that she only had a twenty dollar bill. Their eyes really bugged out at that! They thought they'd hit the jackpot. But they had change and were willing to part with some of it. I guess we must have been the last bikers because Bill, the leader riding sweep, rode with us part of the option. Thanks Bill for taking the photo!

Orcas Island Pottery

On Wednesday afternoon, after the wildlife cruise and the kids with blackberries, we biked a small westerly jag to Orcas Island Pottery, a haven for pottery artists from all over the US. It is the oldest studio pottery in the Northwest and the oldest existing craft shop on Orcas Island. The Backroads van was sitting at the turn into Orcas Island pottery. Jennifer had already dropped off the luggage and backtracked here to meet everyone as they biked toward Eastsound. The turn led to a sandy, dust road, with a heavy tree canopy. The bright sunny day got dark as we entered the trees. It was a slight uphill to get there with the road branching many times amongst the trees. Hand marked signs led the way. It felt like Bilbo wandering through the woods We parked our bikes in a dark clearing beside a stone wall. Tourist cars were parked in a small parking lot near the stone wall. We walked down a wooded dirt path to a small log workshop. The sun poked through the canopy basking the workshop and grounds all around in a bright, cheery glow. There was pottery everywhere, on the grass, on the walls of the workshop, in front, out back , leaning against trees, all over many picnic tables . There were plates, bowls, cups, platters, clocks, whimsical/decorative items (turtles, frogs, refrigerator magnets, spoon rests, sponge holders, lots of other stuff) The cyclists wandering all around with the other tourists. We searched and searched and found some beautiful southwestern looking plates and a bowl. We also bought a nice bowl for Teresa's birthday. They shipped it all to our house so we didn't have to deal with getting it home. It arrived less than one week after we returned home. I asked a worker if they had a soda and she happily found us some and asked the other folks in the shop and brought them some too! That was sure nice. Anne and I were the last to leave Orcas Island Pottery. Bill followed us out doing sweep duty. Just after turning back onto the main road we start climbing "The three grunts", a _very_ steep, short hill!

Mount Constitution

On Thursday of our Puget Sounds bike vacation we had an option to bike to the top of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island. Mount Constitution is in Moran State Park and is the tallest mountain in the San Juan Islands at 2,027 feet. The option started at Cascade Lake at the foot of Mount Constitution. Our guide, Bill, had given the route rap after breakfast this morning at the Outlook Inn in East Sound . Carefully spelling out the difficulty involved, he suggested that the view from the top would be well worth the 6 mile climb. He also told us about the training climb we'd do for the 3 miles prior to reaching Cascade Lake in Moran State park. Apparently prior trips had complained about not being warned about that 3 mile climb. But it was a great warmup for the big climb to come later! Anne and I biked out to Cascade Lake and took a short break, refilling water bottles, and relaxing a bit, then back on the bikes to attack the mountain. The biking quickly (almost immediately!) degeneraed into the lowest gear, our "granny" gears, with slow, rhythmic strokes. We were going to be an hour and a half climbing, so it was very important to get into a "groove" that could be sustained. Once in the groove, the climbing became reasonably easy. Enough so that I think I have Anne convinced that a bike ride to the top of Mount Locke in west Texas near Big Bend national park would be worth the attempt. The trees quickly folded in around the road as it snaked up the side of the mountain. Long gradual straight stretches mixed with grueling switch-backs as we made our way up.

To pass the time Anne started singing and we sang most of the way up. It was a "6-song" mountain. Part of the time we were struggling to remember the words to the songs, but that passed the time too as we made up and mixed up the words and tunes. It also had the side-benefit of making us control our breathing and pace. It is very easy to increase the pace when the hill levels a bit and overdo it when it steepens up.

The cars were reasonably considerate, especially since we weren't alone up there. There were boy scout troops making the climb too. We passed some, others passed us. One teenager showed me how old I was. I heard his bike back there "clickety-click clickety-click" as he approached. He couldn't get the gears to work right. His buddy behind yelled "What's wrong with your bike??" "I dunno!," he answered. Then they both passed us. Ugh. About half way up I yelled to Anne "Look! There's a cow in the road!" It was walking toward us coming down the mountain slowly on the left side of the road up ahead. Anne carefully pointed out that it was a doe, and that little brown hairy thing beside it was a fawn. They watched us but didn't get much spooked because we were going so slow, and we were very quiet pedaling on our bikes. About the only thing you could hear was our deep breathing. About three quarters way up there was a scenic pull-off . We paused there for a while to take in the view . Our biking buddies from Atlanta joined us there and we traded photo ops and marveled at the scenery looking west. It was incredible what we could see, and incredible that we had climbed that far up! Back on the bikes and onward to the top. At the summit there was a parking lot full of cars and a walk up to the top where a stone wall surrounded an observation area. At the very peak was a stone tower that, we found out later, offered a 360 degree panoramic view of Puget Sound. We took some photos and were overcome by the beauty (or was it oxygen deprivation and dehydration from the long climb?). We rested a while at the summit so we could cool off and the sweat evaporate, then Anne and I both put our jackets on for the downhill. It was both exhilarating and frightening. I had to carefully ride the brakes all the way down. By the time I got to the bottom my hands were cramping. At the bottom the road flattened onto a road that wound left around Cascade Lake back to the Backroads van and lunch. We both cranked up and flew back around the lake. We had done it! To the top of Mount Constitution and back down.

The La Conner Loop

Friday was our last day on Orcas Island. We had an early 3 mile bike option that took us north of Eastsound then west back onto the main route. Although not very long, it gave us the opportunity to see this:

Many Make
Big Mistake
Rely On Horn
Instead of Brake
Burma Shave

Well worth the trip! We continued south passing the turnoff for Orcas Island Pottery. Our trip leaders pointed out the artwork in the trees that we'd see and sure enough there it was! Large metal mobiles (6-10 feet across!) that spun in the wind and caught the sunlight. One after another along the route for about a mile. The route was rolling hills in the morning sunlight and damp, cool temperatures. We arrived at the ferry dock in the town of Orcas and met the van there, already in line, waiting to board. We had about an hour wait, so Anne and I got some coffee and sat outside at a little cafe waiting for the ferry. We took the ferry ride back over to Anacortes on the mainlain and then continued on a complex bike ride with many turns and busy cross streets. This ride was the most hectic of the trip due to the auto traffic. We biked about 18 miles from Anacortes to La Conner ending up in downtown La Conner along the busy, touristy First Street. La Conner was once an industrial town along a channel but has since turned into a tourist area with many, many shops, hotels, and restaurants along and around First Street. We stayed our last night at the Channel Lodge in La Conner. The Channel Lodge overlooked the channel, which wasn't really much to see. The waterway was maybe 150 feet across with many yachts at private docks, and dead and decaying boats strewn along the shore. The Channel Lodge was one of many hotels that fronted First Street and had a large guest porch out back along the channel.

Next day, our final day of biking, started early with breakfast and the route rap. Today's biking would be complete different from any other on the trip. It was flat, flat, flat, and wound its way through farm and cattle country. This ride was a short 15 mile route heading east out of La Conner then south, east, north, and west back to town. The flat land, good road surface, and mild breezes made the ride very enjoyable while Anne and I picked up the pace and averaged maybe 17-18 mph. This ride passed many farms with cattle. There was an overpowering smell reminicient of Vermont. Huge mounds of manure were stored for fertilizer that were "aromatically scenic" when we passed on the down wind side.

On our way west back toward town we crossed paths with Jennifer riding sweep backwards along the route. She yelled "You gonna do it again!?" We just laughed, but I didn't realize that it would be as easy as making the next left and we'd be back onto the route near the beginning. If we'd realized we could have added another 10-12 miles to an fine ride. In any case, we used the extra time to get packed, do a little shopping, and relax near the lodge and in town.

La Conner is a great shopping town with lots of little crafts stores including woodworking, antiques, pottery and lots of other stuff. We picked up a great cat-themed wind sock from "Good Kitty, Bad Kitty" to thank our neighbors for watching our cats, and a t-shirt for our godson, Connor Brew, labeled with his name, La Conner (well, close anyway). When we left the olive shop with a jar of chardonnay garlic olives we realized we'd shopped enough!

We had a picnic lunch to conclude the trip, packed up our stuff into the van, and parted ways. Most people went back to Seattle to catch airline flights or do a little sight-seeing before returning home.