Fall is my season, and signs that it is on its way give me deep satisfaction. This opinion is not popular in my household where summer is the perennial favorite. We are all pretty happy now that we are still in summer but leaning towards fall. I wonder if the month of September in the Pacific Northwest might not need to be granted a micro-season status. If a name is needed, I’ll throw “heaven” into the mix for consideration. When this fog I am surrounded by clears, the sun will shine and the temperature will rise to around 80F. But by nightfall jackets will be required, and the next dewy morning will once more be shrouded in a deep fog. The weather doesn’t really turn wet and nasty here until November sometime, but by convention everyone stops clogging the streets, parking lots, anchorages and campgrounds of the region.
I practice a reverse boating season, I have discovered. My last big trip got me to Port Townsend, sometime before Memorial Day. Now that we are past Labor Day, I am looking out across the water again. But in that space between Memorial Day and Labor Day I was not idle, and I have something nautical to report: A fine substitute for boating around the islands of the Salish Sea is biking around them. In Spring I toured the San Juan islands for a few days. My friends and I first camped on Lopez Island, but when we learned of a “Tour de Lopez” that was to bring a rumored 1,000 bikers to the quiet island, we de-camped. To San Juan Island. That busier island was nonetheless quiet and lovely, covered in parks, vistas, young bike enthusiasts from Victoria, B.C., camels, and wineries. It was lovely, though I longed for the pastoral solitude we had left behind on Lopez Island.
Later in the Summer I toured north from Victoria on Vancouver Island, crossed the water to the Sunshine Coast, and then returned by ferry to Nanaimo for my return trip through Victoria, Port Angeles, and then the Discovery Trail to Port Townsend. It was marvelous and reinforced a lesson that I started learning on Lopez Island: When bike touring, first try to choose an island, then choose the island with the worst ferry service for cars. As a practical matter this reduces road traffic. In the case of a small island with ferry service (San Juan Island counts, though it is hardly small), at least the road traffic will be cyclical, leaving you the road for the better part of an hour before the next rush. In the case of an island with infrequent or passenger only service, you will feel like the whole road is a bike path.
But the appeal of a small island with little traffic is about more than safety on the roads. Like Darwin’s finches, small islands have developed strange variations on the mainland norms. The further you get from regular service, the closer you get to that strange magic that can happen when you travel. That magic where you think “Can there be a place like this? Really?”. You can feel that way standing in the ruins of an ancient Roman coliseum, but the feeling exists as well when orcas play offshore of a ruined fort from a forgotten war that you only just learned was ever fought, or when stoned hippies explain that there are no cops on this island, no services of any kind, but they do mint their own coins.
It has never let me down, so I repeat: go where it is hard to go, and where there are few people, but where there would be many if it were easier to get there. The ones who are there will be interesting. Bikes, like boats, help you get to hard to reach places. My friend who biked through B.C. is still out there finding the interesting people. He has much to say.
My new home of Port Townsend fits into the hard to reach category, perhaps. You can drive here on excellent roads, but though it is near Seattle, it is often a 2 hours drive away. And you will have to wait for and pay for a ferry ride. Olympia is also 2 hours away. Remoteness and circumstance have kept the population here constant since 1897, when the last impressive buildings were put up. Back then sail power was still in vogue and Port Townsend has the first good anchorage after you are inland of the Strait of Juan de Fuca headed south. Very big sailing ships considered this town their destination, until steam power allowed them to chuff on for Seattle. With a history like that and an architectural heritage to match, Port Townsend has positioned itself as a haven for Luddites, and the home to the wonderful Wooden Boat Festival. That event attracts 30,000 to this town of 9,000. I volunteered this year, so I got to wear a t-shirt and act important.
The festival made me want to get out sailing pretty badly, and a friend invited me to sail in his boat from Bellingham down to Port Townsend. I am a confirmed motor-sailor. If I am tired of being out there and the motor fixes the problem, I have a range of over 300 miles and I am happy to use it. I go 6 knots in any direction. My friend is from the other camp, carrying a few paltry gallons of gas for the outboard to help in port. He has the skills and the sails to match. But we needed to get the trip done on the weekend, and the winds and the tides were not our friends. We found ourselves just outside of the shipping channels north of Port Townsend in dense fog at sundown. With boats honking all around us (we heard 7 blasts once), it took a few nervous hours to work our way against the tide towards Point Wilson. When we finally pulled into Port Townsend after bobbing in the pitch black off Point Wilson, the fog cleared and we were sailing fast in almost no wind with 1,000 sq feet of sail up on a 26 foot boat.
But those fog horns still echo in my head. Sometimes going where people don’t normally go can be scary.