Exploring Washington's San Juan Islands on two wheels

"They're flat right?" asked my friend JoAnne, when I proposed a five-day biking trip on Washington's San Juan Islands.

"Well, it says 'rolling' in the brochure," I told her, "whatever that means."

And so, with this limited understanding of the road ahead, the two of us signed up for a weeklong "self-propelled" tour of Washington's San Juan Islands.

A 100 million-year-old mountain-range-turned archipelago, the San Juans grow in number from 428 to 743 between high and low tides. Scattered around the Puget Sound just north of Seattle, many of the islands are tiny only 172 actually have names but our itinerary called for bicycling three of the largest: Orcas, Lopez and San Juan.

It isn't hard to spot the support van when we exit our hotel in Seattle it's loaded to the gills with bicycles and has two standard-issue outdoor gods standing beside it. That would be our guides, Lon and Chris, who make quick introductions to our group before we hit the highway for the three-hour ride to Anacortes.

In Anacortes, we stop in a park to try out our bikes and familiarize ourselves with the gear. A few minor adjustments with the seats and handlebars and we're ready for our initiation ride.

Chris points to a twisting piece of asphalt that disappears into trees above us. "We'll catch you at the top," he announces cheerfully.

"That's rolling?" whispers JoAnne. To both of us it seems pretty uphill. But once underway we have little opportunity for whining; we need all our wind for breathing. And once we reach the top we are less concerned with the incline than the spectacular view: a bright patchwork of autumn colors stretching to the sea.

While we eat our lunch on a meadow overlooking the water, Lon and Chris go over our plans for the next six days. We can go at our own pace, they assure us, with plenty of options for side trips. And a support van would always be available for anyone who gets tired of pedaling.

Chris, a tall, tanned specimen in his 20's, explains that no one need go hungry on this trip.

"All you have to do," he explains, "is yell, 'Calorie emergency!' and I'll be at your side with a snack right away."

With Chris and his goodies at my beck and call, I'm ready for whatever the week may bring.

We pedal back to Anacortes and catch the ferry to San Juan, the largest and most populated island in the chain. When we arrive in the main town, Friday Harbor, we get a detailed, mile-by-mile itinerary that includes side trips and mileage options. The papers all fit in a black pouch Velcro'd to our handlebars, with a clear plastic cover we can follow the route without ever slowing down.

Helmeted and eager, we hit the road. Before long it becomes evident that our outfitter's idea of "rolling" is somewhat different than JoAnne and mine. A few hills are real grunters. Were it not for state-of-the-art 21-speed mountain bikes, we might never have reached the top.

If the terrain is more challenging than we had expected; it is also prettier. Unpolluted blue skies, white billowy clouds and miles of trees in red and orange splendor roll past. Old barns, ponds and fur trees surround us. Traffic is light and the temperature is in the low 70s. A soft breeze blows. We have to face it: Biking doesn't get much better than this.

We coast into the States Inn Bed and Breakfast in time for a quick shower before dinner. Barbecued chicken and ribs are accompanied by beans, cole slaw, garlic bread and fresh strawberry shortcake. Yum.

After a lavish breakfast of homemade raisin muffins and blueberry pancakes, we set off for a full day of biking. Our first stop is at Lime Kiln State Park for whale watching.

"Anybody having a calorie emergency?" asks Chris, arriving in the van. Was he kidding? After our breakfast I can't imagine more food. After a short but futile whale watch, we press on.

The next morning we board the ferry for our second island stop: Orcas. We've been warned that this is the most challenging island, terrain-wise. Hillier than the others, and offering an actual mountain for those looking for a real workout. A light drizzle is falling by the time we reach the ferry docks on Orcas. Steeled for 16 miles of hilly biking ahead, we set off.

Some of the route is on dirt and gravel, decidedly more of a challenge than cement. The island is more wooded than San Juan, which makes for some spectacular leaf peeping, and the terrain is definitely hillier. But my bike's fantastic gearing system helps me overcome every hill but one.

Most of us opt for a break from biking the next day. Instead, we spend the morning kayaking and the afternoon hiking. However, one stalwart member of our group does get back on his bike, joining Chris for the five-mile ride to the top of 2,400-foot Mt. Constitution.

The next day, we catch a midmorning ferry for Lopez Island, the smallest and flattest we visited. After arriving, we saddle up for the last time. My biking legs are feeling pretty good, and there is plenty of time for a leisurely pace and frequent stops. We take a break at Agate Beach Day Park, overlooking the sea, and soak up some sun while Chris entertains us with wheelie demonstrations

Lined up in the late afternoon to get the ferry back to mainland, Chris opens the back of the van and utters his now-familiar cry for the last time: "Calorie emergency!" Cookies, fresh fruit and bite-sized candy bars come tumbling out of boxes and bags. "Can't let 'em go to waste," he says gleefully, devouring a chocolate chip cookie.

And so, with stomachs full and legs still aching from an amazing week of exercise, we head back to the less-perfect world of clogged roads and gasoline propulsion. On the ferry, JoAnne and I are already talking about where to take our next trip. Napa Valley? The Oregon Coast?

We even discuss the possibility of a biking trip through the Colorado Rockies. Seems our definition of "rolling" has been forever transformed as well.

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