Pedaling the coast
By Carly Hubbard
It’s mid-October, late evening, and the autumn rain has begun. Snuggled into a 15-degree sleeping bag, the patter against our four-season tent soothes me and I’m glad my tarp-tent idea was vetoed.
“Hey,” my cohort says, “sorry to wake you, but this is kind of important.” He has been rifling through belongings for several minutes and now sits amidst a chaotic heap of clothing and gear. “Do you remember if I had my jacket on when we fled the coon ambush?”
I mentally rummage back an hour in time. The image arrives: two characters on bikes, one looking exceptionally akin to a hobo. The entire contents of his “panniers” are fastened via a bungee cord to the four plastic buckets affixed to his bike frame.
“Hmm… Hard to be sure. Think so. Keep looking.”
We are camped at the Columbia River’s mouth on a beautiful spit ironically christened Cape Disappointment by jaded explorers. Upon arrival earlier this evening we saw a gorgeous sunset and ripening moon rise against a backdrop of the Pacific while filling our bellies after the day’s 90-mile pedal. Following dinner and a stroll, I returned to our primitive hiker-biker campsite at the state park entrance to a scene of man versus raccoon.
My compatriot stood brandishing a club of burning driftwood against an assemblage of glittering eyes.
“Coons everywhere! I turned my back and there were two on the table finishing the leftovers!” The troop appeared keen on our metal food box. “They’re not even afraid of me!” my baffled partner exclaimed still gripping the blazing stick. This was no band of novices, as we apparently were.
I glanced toward our recently staked tent with its thin walls and back again to the extended family of clawed creatures upon whose territory we were obviously trespassers. They did not appear to be retiring anytime soon.
Raccoons and rabies have long been synonymous in my mind. Accepting the flaming weapon, I marched toward my bike, unfortunately close to the coveted food box. “Watch out, coons!” Their marble eyes gleamed in the firelight, but they didn’t budge. “They’re not even afraid of me!” I echoed in awe and fear.
With simultaneous unspoken conviction to relocate, we hastily gathered items strewn about the site, fastening each haphazardly to our bicycles.
“See, the thing with those is they’re pretty simple to quickly load in the event of a night-time raccoon invasion,” my partner said with perhaps a hint of longing. He was commenting on my expensive and spacious waterproof Ortlieb panniers. I had sprung for them early on in our trip planning and never regretted the decision.
My partner eschewed such finery, opting instead for four plastic buckets fastened with nuts and bolts to front and rear racks. They spoke of thrifty ingenuity if not sophistication. In a previous incarnation, the front orange and yellow containers once housed kitty litter. On the rear rack, two white mayonnaise buckets completed my partner’s gear stow. We were accustomed to the bike’s appearance, though it had drawn frequent stares from strangers.
We relocated, re-pitched camp, and peacefully settled in. As my tent mate continued reacquainting himself with each item of personal inventory, I recalled how our duo came to be on the border of Washington and Oregon.
10 Days Earlier:
“What’s the time?” I ask my companion as we pedal up a slight rise in the hazy October dawn. He passes an incredulous look in my direction and bares his naked wrists. My cell phone, our one legitimate tie to Pacific Standard Time, remains stowed inaccessibly in the deep reaches of a rear pannier. I hope it is not long after eight, but last minute adjustments and an odd bike weighing exercise delayed our intended early departure. We share a worried glance and silently quicken pace.
It is October 4. We are passing through a green tunnel of maples toward a shot of ocean. The marine fog shows promise of burning off by mid-morning. Perhaps sunshine today will even give way to a couple weeks of fair weather, as my companion and I optimistically reassure each other will happen.
This being the Pacific Northwest and myself a born-and-raised native, I have no excuse for naïve autumnal weather forecasting. My fellow wayfarer is a transplant from the Rockies – though after living for three years in the “North Wet” he, too, can hardly claim ignorance of rain in the fall.
We are bicycling from my hometown to Tsawwassen, B.C. where a ferry will deliver us to the shores of Vancouver Island. My uncle will meet us at the Swartz Bay terminal on the other side and take us to Victoria, unless we miss the 9 a.m. ferry. From Victoria, we will board a second ferry to Port Angeles on the Olympic peninsula.
After a night in the local campground, westward pedaling on Highway 101 and a southern turn to follow the coastline, there will be no looking back until we are greeted by the Redwoods of northern California. This Pacific Coast bike tour will encompass the four remaining weeks of October and ultimately land us in San Francisco in time for Halloween. But first, an international border crossing.
We chose to begin our journey here on the isolated peninsula of Point Roberts, Washington for its proximity to the B.C. Ferries terminal, and to my parents who are graciously caring for our dog while we adventure down the coast. Dangling from British Columbia’s Lower Mainland into the Strait of Georgia, this geographic anomaly is not physically connected to the rest of Washington state.
Lacking an airplane or boat, one must pass through a border check into Canada to leave the Point. Doing so minutes later concludes the first of several odd and memorable crossings we encounter along our journey.
We catch the appropriate ferry with minutes to spare and content ourselves on various homemade delicacies atop the boat’s blustery high deck. Gulls circle in hope of errant French fries. Entering Active Pass our eyes saucer at the looming green and rocky slopes of the narrowing channel walls. All about us islands beckon with the curious beauty of unchecked terrain. This crossing never ceases to stun me. I wonder as always about the lives of those mysterious folk living on the remote outlying banks.
My uncle kindly meets us as we funnel off the ferry’s vehicle deck aboard Surly bicycles. We discuss our road ahead – planned stops for camping, provisions and repair kits. Passing under leafed canopies that hint at a rainbow of colors to come, we roll by agricultural fields brights with pumpkins, and the largest sow my eyes have yet witnessed. Approaching Victoria, we enjoy a meet and greet with a local bike shop, enduring a stream of exclamations directed at the novel rigging system my companion cooked up. Mayo bucket panniers are apparently not all the rage in the randonneuring circles of greater Victoria.
Following a warming lunch of soup and panini, we say so-long to my uncle and the island, board the Black Ball Ferry and prepare our passports for inspection as we re-enter the U.S. Evening approaches and the sky darkens, but Port Angeles is a small town and we have little trouble directing ourselves to a nearby campground. There, we chow down and set up camp. We are in true rainforest territory. An approaching mass of gray overhead gives me pause and I spend my final wakeful moments in gratitude for our supremely waterproof tent.
The following days see us down the Peninsula coastline, our route undulating beside the rolling and frothy ocean. Our view from the highway shows a rich ecological history scarred by recent human activity. Through Forks and Kalaloch we drink in gorgeous stretches of glimmering water, then turn inland to Lake Quinault where we spend a night of tranquility near a spruce tree of deservedly reputed enormity.
Further on, verdant old growth forests transfix us with their ancient vastness. Our human lives are a brief blink by comparison. We contemplate the juxtaposition of tracks of sudden clear-cuts during our hours of pedaling. Passing through nostalgic Aberdeen and the remains of a dwindling timber industry, we chew on thoughts of our human propensity for greed and error. We ride rolling emotions inspired by this ineffably beautiful landscape as we follow the curling reach of highway each day. At night we sleep hard in lush campgrounds balmy with salt air. We rejoice under frequent blue skies by freeing our extremities from Gore-Tex shells, baring skin to slanted rays.
Continuing down the road, the sparkling spit of Cape Disappointment State Park greets us and heralds the close of our Washington state leg.
I am jostled from my reverie by a celebratory whoop. My elated companion flourishes his found jacket: success! Nestled in my cozy sleeping bag in the state park, I think about tomorrow, when we will turn eastward for some miles before arriving at the Astoria-Megler Bridge, our gateway to Oregon.
We wake, drink in the final views off the spit, ride inland to the bridge, pull off the shoulder and stare. I gulp several shallow breaths, feel my heartbeat quicken and hazard a look my partner’s way. He is taking in the impressive stretch of concrete linking the Columbia River’s north and south banks. It is long, and missing much in the way of a shoulder. It appears to be a windy place out beyond our sheltered end.
Built to withstand Pacific gusts of up to 150 miles per hour and river currents of 9 mph, this 4.1-mile-long bridge boasts the longest section of continuous truss in the U.S. (1,232 feet). Near the Astoria end, it rises to an impressive 200 feet above sea level, finally depositing daring crossers in charming Astoria via a 360-degree corkscrew off-ramp.
I do not want to cross it. I don’t even want to look at it anymore. Forget brilliant engineering strategies: I wonder about the potential for flats along that endless and wobbly edge, about the two-lane highway of wind-buffeted traffic so near the white line, and that exquisite second of forgetting to pedal, half a revolution all it would take to terminate uphill progress and commence a rapid retreat back down the steep bridge. I gaze into my comrade’s eyes with the earnest hope of one who desperately requires a different option and silently plea for a route change.
It is to no avail. My would-be savior ends our conversational lull. “Ready?” More prod than question. I break eye contact, mount the steel frame that’s taken me this far, and begin the tooth-gritting crossing that marks another indelible passage along this captivating coastal journey. x