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Episode 4: Orcas Island

Bellingham or Orcas Island? A tough decision indeed ....

Previously on Coddiwomple Adventures

We pick up the adventure trail right where we left off last time round. On the previous episode I had ridden the Elkhorn Crest trail to witness a phenomenal natural event - the total eclipse of the sun. That was on a Monday and my return flight from Seattle was not till Wednesday afternoon. So with that I had another day to squeeze in another Pacific Northwest adventure. On my mind I had a tough decision to resolve - Bellingham or the Orcas Island.

Bellingham needs little introduction to any mountain bike enthusiasts. Bellingham is hands down one of the best mountain biking destination in the country, offer a wealth of cross country and all mountain riding, with dreamy “hero” dirt, fun trails, and a great mountain biking community. Mountain bike companies like Transition Bikes began in Bellingham, and a few legends such as Bryn Atkinson and Jill Kitner call it home. No brainer for good shredding destination.

Then there's the Orcas Island. It's a horse shoe shaped island, and largest of the San Juan Islands, at the north western tip of the state. In fact it's a stone's throw away from Vancouver Island. Many, including myself were fooled into thinking that the island is named after the majestic Orca (killler whales). And though it is true that the waters here are home to the Southern Resident Killer Whales (formed of 3 different pods), "Orcas" is a shortened form of Horcasitas, the Viceroy of Mexico who sent an exploration expedition under Francisco de Eliza to the Pacific Northwest in 1791 and discovered these islands. Neat coincidence huh? Anyway these islands offer many forms outdoor entertainment including whale watching, sea kayaking, great hiking and of course some heavenly lush green, mossy and loamy trails. I seem to have a knack of finding hidden treasures. My curiosity for the undiscovered exceeded Bellingham's legendary status, and so I plotted a course to Orcas Island.

Getting there

The journey to get there was almost as perilous as the Eliza expedition to discover the islands. I was setting of from the eastern border of Oregon, and theoretically it would have taken me about 6 hours to get to Anacortes. From there it's a short ferry trip. I had intended to spend the night in Anacortes and take the first ferry leaving the morning, ensuring that I have a full day to explore the island. Trouble is, this was right after the eclipse and everyone was heading out of Oregon. By the time I got off the Elkhorn Crest Trail and back to the car it was just after 2pm. I'll spare you the unpleasant details but I spent the next 10 hours on the road just to get to western fringes of Seattle. It was well past midnight, and Anacortes was another hour and a half away. I surrended to the exhaustion and called it quits for the day. Inevitably the next day I woke up a little later than intended, and with another 90 minutes of driving, I missed the first ferry out, errm and also the second one! Not off to a good start here (a typical feature of my trips). Anyhoos I hopped on the 10.20am ferry, and arriving at 11.25am. The earlier ferries are at 6.00am and 7.25am (as per the summer schedule). I was told bringing a car on the ferry is expensive (around $50, but depends on the size of the vehicle and number of occupants) and requires advanced reservation. Where as getting on as a passenger is only $13.25 plus a surcharge of $4.00 for the bike. Looking at the size of the island I figured it's easy to explore by bike for the day, or actually half day (I was proven wrong), and there were a number or like minded cyclist on the ferry, including a group of women doing a bikepacking trip of the island. The ferry ride was pleasant and I was hoping to catch a glimpse of some whales, but all I got was some sea otters.

Getting around the Island

From the ferry terminal which is on the western horse shoe tip of the island, I had to traverse to the eastern horshoe tip of the island to reach Moran State park. I hope that description makes sense - if not look at the map below. On map the island looks deceptively small and I ignorantly assume that it is flat. Wrong on both accounts. It's roughly a 12 mile trip on the road but it has some hills, big enough to burn my legs which had already done quite a bit of climbing in the last 3 days. Along the way I passed number of small towns, including East Sound which looked pretty jazzy. Sadly I had no time to sample any of it as time was of limited supply. I did not bring anything in case I miss the last ferry and get starnded on the island. After much huffing and puffing I rolled into Moran State Park. I'm surprised by the lack of public transportation on the island. There is a bus service, which as allows bikes, but to my disappointment later on, the service only runs from Friday to Sunday.

As you enter Moran State Park, you will be greeted by Moran Lake, a nice hub with sheltered swiming area, rentals for paddle board and canoes, and snack bar serving gourmet ice creams, which later found its way into my belly.

Shredding the loam

But first, one must get to the loam. The trail I wanted to sample is the Moran Lakes Tour, a 13.7 miles loop through the forest and lakes. There is also a 2,241 feet of climbing to deal with. Yes, the suffering has not ended. All that ascent starts right away, climbing on the road which snakes up to the highest peak of the island - Mt. Constitution. Needless to say I took plenty of breaks along the way. Thankfully the forest canopy offers almost uniterrupted cool refuge from the sun. Having dispatched the climb, I merged into the loamy trail and pointed the bike towards a more favorable and fun direction, and let gravity do its thang....

I have spent many nights drooling over YouTube videos of PNW riding, and this did not disappoint. Lush, vibrant mossy green goodness paired with loamy dirt is what peanut butter and jelly is to a sandwich. If I had anything to criticise is that the loam was on the dry side, thanks to the very dry spring and summer - I was told not a drop of rain has fallen in the 56 days prior. But, that did not take anything away from the ride. There was a nice mixture of fast flow, with sprinking of rooty sections and also the mandatory switch backs. I was having too much fun and didn't pay close attention to the trail signage which led me to sabotage my own ride. I had only completed a third of the loop and made a critical wrong turn, which led me down Cold Springs trail instead of completing to loop, so I missed out on some major fun. Don't get me wrong, the descend down Cold Spring is pretty awesome but it is a lot shorter than what I had intended to do. By the time I figured out I was already back down at Moran Lake where I had set off earlier. I didn't have the legs to go back up, so instead I went over to the snack bar and consoled myself with some gourmet ice cream.

Making it back

With my legs reduced to jelly, I was not keen on making the 12 mile return trip back to the ferry terminal and instead waited patiently for a non-existent bus shuttle. As I previously mentioned the bus service only runs from Friday to Sunday, which I wasn't aware of. There is in fact a little sign by the side of the road, indicating a bus stop and the schedule, though no where did it specify that the bus runs on limited days. Misled by this information I waited for over an hour and when I realized there ain't no bus to transport me back. I saddled up for more pain. Thankfully the last ferry doesn't leave till 8.45pm, which left me quite a bit of time and I had a good hour of waiting before the ferry arrived. As dusk descended, the ferry departed towards Anacortes. I made a new friend on that ferry ride, a fellow mountain biker who is currently residing in Bellingham. She kindly offered to ride with me in Bellingham which would have been super rad, but sadly I had a plane to catch the next day (and subsequently greeted by Hurricane Harvey - but that's another story). Naturally we bonded over our shared enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits, I shared details of my previous trips and she asked me whether I was intentionally making these as solo trips. I explained to her that, the intention is always about exploring new places and discovering what you're capable of, and sure traveling with someone is always a lot more fun. My friends have always expressed interest in joining me, and I do always give them notice as to where I'm headed next, but in reality, life and family commitments makes it difficult to get everyone on the same boat. I understand that and this blog is a way to share these experiences with them. Traveling solo doesn't bother me, I know it does for some. But my general outlook on life is that you have to create what you want to be part of. And I want adventure and exploring to be part of my life. If there's something out there you want to do, make it happen for yourself, even if it means doing it alone.