´╗┐Olympic Games and Olympic waves: Cycling US Highway 101

We had crossed North America by bike. So what next? The Pacific Highway (route 101) winds its way down the West coast of the USA, and all across the country people had been telling us how beautiful a drive it was. It’s also a popular cycle route, being a much shorter way (a mere 1800 miles) to cross the country than the East-West route. Six weeks riding by the sea? Ok then. It seemed like a logical next step for us. 

Vancouver, BC. Not a bad place to “rest” for a couple of weeks

First we had some friends to catch up with in Vancouver BC, one of our favourite world cities. This coincided nicely with the Olympics, so we had a couple of weeks swapping cycling for sitting watching cycling. The last time we were in Vancouver four years ago it rained pretty much solid the whole time, but this visit we were treated to sunshine so enjoyed all that Vancouver had to offer. We climbed Grouse Mountain, saw a couple of grizzly bears, made Yorkshire puddings, went to a few different beaches, ate lots of ice cream, took part in a huge water fight… All essential tourist activities. The bikes were away and we barely looked at them. We also spent a few days on Salt Spring Island, right next to a lake perfect for swimming, canoeing, stand up paddle boarding, and relaxing. The sun continued to shine. It was all too perfect, and before we knew it two weeks had passed and it was time to get back on the bikes before we forgot how to pedal.

Hanging out by Cusheon Lake, Salt Spring Island

We crossed back into the USA from Vancouver Island, spending the night in Victoria – probably the most British town in British Columbia. There’s red buses and black taxis and everything. The best thing that happened there was nothing to do with British heritage though. Victoria is on the south coast of the island, and we were riding around the headland enjoying views across the sea to the USA when a guy in a car slowed down next to us and shouted that there were some Orcas (also called killer whales but they are actually the largest dolphin) on their way. We raced round to the next viewpoint and there we saw three of them passing by not far of the coast. They are huge! We felt pretty lucky as people who live there told us they had never seen them before.

The orcas were too far away to get a good picture, so here’s some killer cyclist sign instead.

The next day we packed up and left The Best Place on Earth (British Columbia’s modest tag line) and caught a ferry to Port Angeles on the Olympic peninsula. This would mark the start of our west coast trip, ending in Los Angeles – making it an Angeles to Angeles ride. Unlike most ferries, on this one cyclists are treated as foot passengers rather than cars. Good points: no need to queue with cars to get on, no riding down into the car deck, no hanging around breathing in exhaust fumes, nice waiting room to sit in rather than standing out on the dock. Bad point: wheeling a loaded bike through passenger queues. As we had to go through customs and immigration, this was not easy. The low point was trying to manoeuvre them around the maze of bollards while queuing to get into the US. You know when you queue to check in at an airport and it can be quite hard to get your luggage around the corners? Getting a loaded bike around those corners without dropping it or taking out other passengers was quite the challenge. But we made it, and although we were sad to leave Canada and our friends behind, 1800 miles of coastline lay ahead. Pacific Highway 101 starts here and we would mostly follow it all the way to LA. 

The start of our Highway 101 trip. Next Angeles… Los!
Nice people around.

The Olympic Peninsula in Washington state is the most westerly point of the US mainland and has a wild feel to it. The forests are old and huge and the towns few and far between. The only town we passed through on our way to the West coast was Forks, famous for the filming of Twilight and seemingly living purely off this – not much else seemed to be going on. The Olympic National Park goes right up to the coast so we followed 101 in bright sunshine for the afternoon, looking forward to camping overlooking the beach and our first west coast sunset. But just as we approached the coast, we were plunged into thick sea fog. Suddenly it was freezing cold and we were stood overlooking Ruby Beach, one of the most photographed spots on the Olympic Peninsula, and though we could hear the sea, we couldn’t see a thing. As we rode south down the coastline there was the strange experience of blue sky above the trees to our left, and thick white fog to our right. Arriving at South Beach campground we were offered a spot between two RVs right on the front overlooking the fog/beach. Gradually as we set up camp it cleared and we were treated to the most spectacular sunset over the sea. This is what we had been hoping for!

The sea started to become visible when we got to the campground…
West coast sunset. Hopefully the first of many!

For the next couple of days to the Oregon border the road is mostly inland through more forests. One morning we stopped for a huge milkshake on the recommendation of a local. Later that day we were back by the sea again in a popular oyster catching area, so stopped to sample a couple of fresh cooked-in-front-of-you samples. Debs had a hot tijuana (chilli, lime, cilantro, tabasco) and I had the rockafella (parmesan, bacon, breadcrumbs, oregano, basil). Awesome. The day of great food was finished off with a couple of slices of key lime pie as an accompaniment to the first episode of the Great British Bake Off. The next morning our friendly camp neighbours came over to offer us breakfast burritos – we were cooking porridge at the time but we never pass up a food offer, so after a two course breakfast we were full for at least two hours that morning.

Oysters, milkshake, key lime pie, Great British Bake Off. A good day.
Cycling by the water. Whats not to like?

Crossing into Oregon was probably the worst cycling we have done since Naples. Highway 101 crosses the state border estuary on a narrow 4-mile bridge that was not designed with bikes in mind. The shoulder was about two feet wide, not big enough to ride in easily but big enough to make car drivers think that we should. This is a popular tourist drive, and it was Friday afternoon, so it seemed like every other car was towing either a trailer or a boat – fast. Nobody on their weekend away wanted to be delayed by a bike for a few seconds. Scary stuff. The heavy traffic continued and we were relieved to arrive to the town of Seaside and catch our breath. It had been hot again and I commented to some other cyclists that after a month of hot weather I would quite like a couple of days of cloud cover to stop my skin from frazzling. No prizes for guessing what happened next….

Entering Oregon. Preferably not by bike, but hey, that was our only way…
Wise words. Not sure about the spelling though….

Thanks to Andrea and Dave, and Robin, Dane, Riley and Sasha and all of their friends for an amazing holiday in Vancouver; Robin and friends for the great camp spot at South Beach; Marnie and John; Ray and Charlaine; and Neil and Carrie.


Pacific Island Hopping (kind of)

How to cycle across America in 3 easy steps:
1. Choose start point

2. Choose end point

3. Ride bike between the two.

Sounds easy. It is really. We love riding our bikes, and this trip is just going for a bike ride somewhere new every day. What’s not to love? If you keep going in the same direction, and do it for a long time, you can get quite far. Across a continent even.

Our flags were starting to look as tired as our bodies felt

But we made quite a basic mistake. In our eagerness to ride, we skipped step 2 and rushed ahead with step 3. Our end point was always “somewhere on the Washington coast”; as we got nearer it became defined as the small port town of Anacortes where we would celebrate with a beer before catching a ferry to explore the San Juan Islands at a slow pace for a few days. Great plan. However we looked at a map and realised that Anacortes is not west facing, so it not at “the end”. This would not do. It is however situated on a peninsula with a west-facing coast, so that was our vague end point. But even that didn’t quite go to plan.

We only had 20 miles to ride on our final day, leaving plenty of time to find a decent spot, dip the wheels in the Pacific Ocean (we had a ceremonial wheel dipping in the Atlantic in Boston) and maybe even spend the afternoon relaxing. After the hard ride across Washington we were very excited about this plan. We looked at the map, and realised we could ride a slightly longer route via Deception Pass, a famous high bridge with decent views out to the ocean. This might even fit our requirements for a West facing end point. With only 20 miles to Anacortes, what would be the harm of a little tourist detour? We had all day after all. So after a long leisurely breakfast in Burlington we rode the flat route towards Anacortes and then turned off towards Deception Pass. Uphill. On a fairly narrow, busy road. Sweating and questioning our judgement we climbed and dropped, stopped to buy a 6-pack of beer, climbed and dropped some more and arrived at Deception Pass only to find it completely covered in fog. We couldn’t see an amazing view; we could hardly even see the sea. This would not do as the finish point. So we ate a quick lunch and rode on.

The road on the West of the peninsula looked to be right along the sea, but as with many places in North America a strip of private land with waterfront properties kept us away from the edge. There was a beach marked on the map – we aimed for that only to find that was private too. The road was steep and hilly, it was boiling hot and the day was slipping away from us along with our dreams of having a few hours to relax with a cold drink. Finally we came across a vacant lot with a ramp down to the water, facing out to the ocean. Not ideal but we could touch the water with the bikes. So we wheeled them down the ramp and got our coveted picture, almost losing the heavy loaded bikes to the ocean. But we had made it. The end of almost 5000 miles across the USA was a steep concrete ramp on an empty scrub of land that we had to climb under a very heavy chain to get to. This was not quite how the “end” had been played out in my head over the past week. And as we were trespassing we thought this probably wasn’t the ideal place to sit, so we hauled the bikes back up the ramp, over the vacant lot, under the heavy chain and back to the hilly road until we found a place high up where we could sit and see the ocean and drink our beer. It was almost 5pm. Not much time for contemplation or reflection. We had cycled across the huge continent that is North America. How did it feel? Just the same as any other day.

We were lucky to be staying in Anacortes with a wonderful family who helped us celebrate with a big dinner and berry dessert – we had been picking roadside blackberries. The next day we caught a ferry to Shaw Island, the smallest of the four San Juan Islands that can be reached by public ferry. The island has a permanent population of about 200, has no town, just a country park and a small grocery store at the ferry dock. There are no printed maps, just a hand-drawn one at the port. The beachside campground with only 11 sites seemed like the perfect place to set up camp for a few relaxing days.

Clockwise from top right: Riding on San Juan Island; relaxing island style; the map of Shaw Island at the port; picking berries; enjoying the ferry (ice cream and a jigsaw, perfect…); deer by the camoground; riding on Shaw; the ferry ride

A great thing about the islands is that once you have paid to get there from Anacortes, the inter-island ferry is free for foot passengers (and bicycles) so once you are there you can ferry to the other islands as much as you like for free. So we did. The first day all we did was take the ferry to San Juan Island, the biggest of the group, eat fish and chips and ice cream (separately), then take the ferry back. On the second day we stretched ourself a bit more and took our bikes to Orcas Island, the hilliest one, and rode up to the highest point on the islands. This was a 40 mile round trip with 5 miles steep uphill to the summit of Mount Constitution at 2400 feet. It was 8-10% grade for most of the climb, which our unloaded bikes managed without a problem. From the top the view was spectacular over the islands, and in the distance you could see the snow-covered Mount Baker back over the border in Washington.

Our campground was small and quiet, and right by the beach. As with most North American campsites, it was full of people who take camp cooking very seriously. One night we were treated to paella cooked in a proper paella pan, followed by individual chocolate puddings cooked on the campfire in a Dutch oven. It doesn’t take much to beat our pasta dishes but this was some serious camp cooking, and we enjoyed testing the results.

After four days it was time to head to Vancouver, a couple of days ride north. Here we planned to have a proper holiday, and hang out with people we knew for the first time in months. As we crossed the Canadian border and arrived at The Best Place On Earth (British Columbia is very nice, but that’s quite a claim), it felt maybe like this was the end of our coast to coast trip – a familiar place where we were going to see familiar people. Welcome to Vancouver!

Thanks to Pat and Don; Jude, Carrie and the rest of Team Apple; John and Bill for so,e company on the islands; the Seattle campers for the paella and Dutch oven cooked goodies; Reid, Erin and family.

Slow travel and fast food

It was about two weeks into the USA cycle trip, whilst riding through another small town where fast food restaurants seemed to fill around 50% of the buildings, that we realised that we had not yet set foot in one of these seemingly North American icons. No McDonalds, no Dunkin’ Donuts, no Subway, no Starbucks, not one, not even to go to the toilet. At the time I was about 90% pleased with that realisation, 10% disappointed with myself – we are burning up calories in the centre of the fast food universe, with every excuse to tuck in to a different chain every night. But then two weeks turned to three; we spent over a week in Canada and cycled past approx 3500 Tim Hortons (ok that might be a slight exaggeration) without entering one. Back in the USA we are now over a month into the trip and are starting to wonder whether this is something we should actively try to keep up as long as possible. How far can we get across North America before we spend money in a fast food chain restaurant? I say spend money, because it’s close to miraculous that I haven’t needed to go in to one to use the toilet yet, and this can’t possibly last much longer.

Typical lunch

Maybe the health conscious reader wonders why this is even a big deal. After all I never eat in McDonalds at home, so why would I start here?! As it happens the big Golden Arches are every cycle tourists best friend during difficult times. Toilets, water refills (with ice if you are lucky), air conditioning/warmth and wifi; one place to satisfy so many basic needs (admittedly wifi is a luxury – until you see a storm ahead and want to find a place to stay without riding around for ages first). And cheap calories if that’s what you want; or a cheap coffee if you just want to spend a bit of cash to access the basic needs. While we were cycling in Canada during the 2012 Olympics they often had the action on the big screen and we’re giving away coffee during the games so they became our daily break locations. As we again cycle in North America in an Olympic year, we will have to see if we can resist this pull.

Lunch purchases from a menonite store

Who wouldnt try snickerdoodle cookies?

Avoiding fast food chains won’t mean that we will be on some kind of health kick. This is North America after all, even the brown bread tastes of sugar. We do our best to eat as healthily as possible, but we also need volume and low cost. Our options for calorie dense snacks are limitless. We will not be wasting away, don’t worry. What it does mean is we can give our money to local/independent businesses where possible. Such as these delightful snicker doodle cookies from a small Mennonite house.

How our low quality bread looks after a day squashed in a pannier

Certainly not on a health kick. Little Bar independent restaurant, Marine City MI

I almost gave in to temptation on our final day in Ontario last week after seeing an advert for cake batter flavoured milkshake at Mac’s, a kind of fast food chain but also a gas station brand. We had ridden 60kms with no shops and I was thirsty and hungry and clearly a bit weak at the knees. And who doesn’t like the sound of a cake batter flavoured milkshake? I told myself it wasn’t really a fast food chain; it was my birthday treat; I needed the sugar to keep going; and if all else fails, this would be a Canadian purchase so the challenge to not eat in fast food places in the USA could continue unscathed. Into Mac’s I went convinced that I was doing the right thing, only to find the milkshake machine broken. My heart sank. But then my mind cleared. It was a sign from the universe. I had come close to succumbing to a moment of weakness and only a mechanical problem had stood in the way. This was a let off. Be stronger next time!

Really definitely not on a health kick….

So how long can we keep this up? 

A little Canadian holiday

So after nearly two weeks riding in the USA it was time for a new country and a holiday north of the border. Cutting through Ontario made sense distance wise, and although we had already cycled around the area before it meant we could have a catch up with some of Debs’ family and a few days off the bike.

A cold day by Lake Ontario

Crossing the border meant swapping US dollars for Canadian dollars, restrooms for washrooms, miles for kilometres, a crazy presidential campaign for a stud premier, Dunkin Donuts for Tim Hortons, and other barely discernible differences. Oh and the accent apparently (eh) but I’m rubbish with those. After the Niagara Falls border crossing day (see here) we had our coldest day riding yet in North America. The planned bike route along the shore of Lake Ontario became a stay-as-far-away-from-the-lakeshore-as-possible route as the wind whipped up off the lake and smashed us around. We stopped at a boarded up ice cream cafe and reminisced about relaxing here in baking sunshine previously whilst we sat huddled in thick coats using the building as a shelter and eating cheese wraps with two pairs of damp gloves on. Not all days on the road are glamorous, and this was one of the least enjoyable yet.

But we made it to Milton, Ontario and the home of Wendy, Phil and Nathan which was to be our respite for a few days (that easily became six). Time passed quickly as we ate good food in good company, slept, tuned up the bikes, washed our clothes (twice, luxury), went for some walks, watched squirrels, had a day out in Toronto and witnessed Leicester City win the Premier League. Watching our small city back home swallowed up by such an insane achievement and the associated celebration brought a tear to my eye more than once. Listening to it repeatedly on the news over here brought home the scale of this – and they even pronounced Leicester correctly. It’s still tough to explain the achievement over here as there’s no real comparison but once we say that they were 5000-1 at the start of the season that seems to hit home. If in doubt, resort to the global language of betting odds.

Getting back on the bikes is always tough after a break with great company but they weren’t going to ride themselves so we set off west again. Unfortunately, and as will be the case for the most of this trip, the wind was blowing from the west making progress half as fast for twice the effort. Our first stop was with friends from our previous visit and Gail and Gerry pulled out all the stops to give us another great evening (that just happened to be my birthday) and threw in a tour of Stratford, the home of Shakespeare in Canada and the mighty Justin Bieber. As the sun set over the river Avon I thought again how lucky we are to meet kind and welcoming people over and over again on this and previous trips. 

Sunset over the river Avon, Stratford

This stretch of Southern Ontario is open, mostly flat farmland which made for pleasant riding along country back roads, particularly as the wind gave me a late birthday present and switched direction for a day practically blowing us to the border. The two final days in Canada were uneventful but followed the typical bicycle touring rhythm that becomes the norm for body and mind after a short while – get up, eat, ride, eat, ride, eat, ride, eat, ride, find a place to sleep, eat, sleep. It’s funny how in this respect every day follows the same pattern, yet the details make every day completely different to the last. One day we ate lunch by a fishing lake; the next it was on a small patch of grass outside a bank by an intersection listening to Fleetwood Mac on the iPod. Not the ideal picnic spot but it worked for us. 

Gas station snack stop
Intersection picnic

After a ride down the St Clair river that forms the border between Ontario and Michigan we were just a short ferry trip from being back in the USA. Goodbye for now Canada – see you again in British Columbia! (A mere 3200 or so miles away…)

Big thanks to Wendy, Phil and Nathan; Gail and Gerry; and Tom and Val.

Not going out

It’s Saturday night, April 30th and we are not going out. Our hosts for the evening have departed for drinks and it is with relief and tiredness bordering on exhaustion that we sit down to eat several hundred grams of pasta and tuna. Our day started almost 100km, a country and 14 hours ago…
Waking up in the tent the air was colder than we thought. Despite minimal camping recently we packed up very efficiently and rolled the bikes along the canal to Main Street, pleased to see the diner we spotted yesterday was open. It was 7.45am. We spread the tent out over the bikes to dry in the sun and ordered breakfast. There was a dizzying array of options, but we order a special #1 from the blackboard for me, Mac n cheese pancake for Jo. The diner was everything you would imagine/hope for in a small town diner. The waitress was friendly and knew all the other customers by name. When an old guy parked his truck up and came in she actually said “hey there Snuffy, I’ll get your coffee.”

When my breakfast arrived, it was 2 full plates of food. The first had 2 blueberry pancakes the size of my face on. The other had eggs (scrambled), bacon and home fries (without onions). I did share. Jo first had to negotiate an appropriate sauce for her Mac n cheese pancake. She went for ketchup, despite the server’s assurances that most people prefer syrup. It was quite the carb hit, but she soldiered on through a blueberry one with maple syrup. 

A few cups of coffee, use of a bathroom, refilled water bottles and a dry tent later, we hit the canal trail at about 8:30am. There were a few people out walking dogs and jogging, but saw no other cyclists. The path got busier as we approached the impressive flight of locks that climb the Niagara escarpment. It was short but steep, and signalled the end of our canal following. The wind followed us as we continued west and we picked up speed towards Niagara Falls. After a sun cream stop we noticed a few cyclists on road bikes around. Specifically, they were passing us. A rider with less ‘full kit’ slowed to explain that there was a 50 mile charity ride going on. He said that following their signs would bring us right to downtown Niagara Falls.

This seemed like an easy navigation option. It also meant that at the event’s next refuelling stop we were waved into a car park by many enthusiastic volunteers. They weren’t at all disappointed to discover that we were not on their ride and were very excited by the idea of our trip. There were several conversations going on at the same time, about cycling, food supplies, my sunscreen (“Girl, you so dehydrated your lips are white!” – “It’s sunblock.”), our British flags (“You girls from Australia right?” – “No England” – “Ah I knew you some accent”), the charity, the fact that there were two Deborahs, it all got a bit confusing and Jo started taking her jumper off. Not from panic or confusion but because somehow in the midst of being made a peanut butter and jam sandwich and explaining that we had cycled from Boston, she had been stung by something.

Fully packed up with bags of orange quarters, bagels and sports drinks we left the cheery volunteers and immediately lost the bike ride signs. Needing a stop to investigate the sting situation, (suspect wasp, moderate swelling) we also re-routed ourselves on a straighter road to make back some time. Somewhere along this stretch we realised w had missed our 9000th trip kilometre and opted for photos of the landmark 9019th instead.

The outskirts of Niagara Falls, NY were not so pretty. Long stretches of shops, gas stations, intersections, fast food places. At least there were plenty of options for a bathroom stop. (Gas station, alcohol sales only between 8:30am-2am). At a red light an SUV blared rap music and a car full of tattooed young people pulled up next to us. The passenger leaned out the window and in an apologetic tone said “Excuse me, Ma’am, I just wanted to let y’all know that not all Americans are ignorant like that. Some of us like real music. I hope you enjoy your visit.” The light went green and our unlikely trio (gangstas, hipsters, cyclists) went our separate ways. There were lots of empty lots and for sale buildings but as we got closer to downtown the road became less busy and there were many more houses and nice residential areas. 

The US side of the falls is a State Park, and as international tourist attractions go it is fairly moderately done. There is a cinema experience, a walk behind the falls, a walk somewhere else, a boat trip and plenty of ice cream available, but you can also just walk (or cycle) around the various look out points and be amazed at the volume of water pouring over the edge which is exactly what we did. At times the people watching was as engaging as the falls.

Riding across the Rainbow Bridge cost us the princely sum of 50 cents each. Last time we crossed this way on bikes there was a very long queue to get into Canada. Today it seemed like the universe was smiling, the sun was still out and we rode right up to the border control board. The world may have been full of the joys of spring but our border guard was not. We were not expecting this from Canadian staff. It is very hard not to sound facetious/know-all when standing astride a heavily loaded bike and answering the question “what is the reason for your visit?” with “Cycling?!”

The view is best on the Canadian side so we had a choice of primo picnic stops to eat our packed lunch from the charity bike ride folk. The falls are very impressive if you are ever in the area, the horseshoe one is over 400m long. Travelling North, the gorge downstream is also pretty, with plenty of scenic viewpoints along the bike path. We met some other cycle tourists at a few of the stops, three boys from Illinois who we had heard about from another guy the day before. Even in a country as big as this the road can be small. More surprising was that we had caught them up. It has never happened that when we know of someone going the same way in front of us we actually meet them. We are too busy riding slowly, snacking and stopping for Jo to take photos. The boys must do the same.

The last 20km was relatively flat and fast past vineyards and well kept houses. Jo’s sting swelling was still growing in size. We crossed the Welland Canal and passed an impressive war cemetery with many tiny Canadian flags blowing in the wind. Our lovely hosts are keen cyclists and direct us to bike storage and food. They have been in a running race today and are celebrating with dinner out. We wash, eat and sit. We are too tired to go out. As we are cycling on a day like this we often have a conversation about something that has happened, and because of all that goes on in between it seems like it couldn’t still be the same day. Did I really have a pancake the size of my face THIS morning? Did we really ride our bikes to Niagara Falls? What lucky little people we are.

Thanks to: the charity riders and volunteers, Dan & Emily in St Catharines – hope the red bull race went well!