What I’ve learned about bike camping

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Three days into this tour and I’ve learned that one of my favorite things about tent camping by bike in the Northwest during this time of year are conversations you strike up with friendly people along the way. It certainly helps that the weather is perfect: highs in the upper 70s, lows in the mid-50s, and virtually no chance of rain this week. (If it was raining, like Seattle experiences the rest of the year, this would really suck.)

Bike sites at Deception Pass State Park, WA.
Bike sites at Deception Pass State Park, WA.

When I pulled into Deception Pass State Park, WA, my smartphone had already told me that the regular campsites were nearly full, but I knew that they had 5 biker sites set aside for travelers on two wheels (and additional hiker sites for those arriving on foot). Here I met a trio of older Canadian women who happened to be cycling the same Vancouver-Victoria-Port Angeles loop as me, though in the opposite direction, and at a more relaxed pace. We compared travel notes for about a half-hour, then poured over my Adventure Cycling maps to help me get better oriented to biking into Vancouver, their home town, as well as Victoria, which isn’t on my map. While both of these cities are exceptionally bike-friendly, it turns out that the place where I’ll be staying on Wednesday night requires some creative thinking to avoid a tunnel that is not open to bicycles. Many thanks to the kindness of Canadian strangers for pointing me in the right direction.

But I have a tendency to mentally overcompensate in cross-cultural communication. You might think, “They’re Canadians, eh? What could go wrong?” No major faux paus, thank goodness, but lots of little ones in my mind. While speaking our conversations were occasionally drowned out by fighter jets taking off and landing at a nearby US naval base, and inside myself I was silently apologizing (“Sorry for the intrusive militarism on our otherwise friendly border”). When one of the Canadians asked me if I knew how cold it would get that night, I knew the answer but mentally stumbled around while trying to be diplomatic and attempting to convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius in my head. (“Is it multiply by 5/9 and add 32? or the other way around?”)

Kids zipping around the campsite loops on bikes.
Kids zipping around the campsite loops on bikes.

Another personal favorite about riding into state parks is watching and hearing all of the kids have an absolutely fabulous time riding their bikes around the campsites. They’re just going in circles—first one direction, then the other, maybe followed by a game of chase, then another dozen circles—but that’s the simple joy of bike riding, with virtually no danger of being hit by a car. Considering how many kids grow up today in auto-oriented neighborhoods that may not be safe for biking, it’s wonderful to hear the freedom in their voices as they zip along the camp loops. Reminder to parents: if you want your kids to spend less time on computer screens, then get involved and advocate for safer bike routes in all of our communities.

But one downer that I learned last night in Birch Bay State Park, WA, at precisely 1:32am, was the sound of a raccoon clawing open the food bag on my bike pannier. Clever little rascals. I got lucky and chased the the critter away before it busted out my dried soup (yes, I too am tempted by the smell of masala lentil pilaf late at night), but I realized how this experience differs from car camping, where I usually put the food in the van overnight. Next time, should I move the food into the tent with me (I always heard this was a bad idea, especially if you’re around bears) — or hang it by a rope over a tree limb (which sounds like a great idea, if you happen to have a long rope, an ideal tree, and no squirrels). More lessons to learn on the bike trail.

Never ride on an empty stomach

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My pre-trip weight.
My pre-trip weight. Hope to see it drop.

Today marks my first full ride, and I’m aiming for 60+ miles up Whidbey Island with my fully-loaded bike. Thanks to my sister Ellen for hosting me in her home last night, just north of Seattle. Her husband Rob kindly cooked us a fabulous salmon dinner last night, and a delicious egg and cheese sandwich, which I enjoyed much more than the food on my ferry. But all of this good chow reminds me of one of the many reasons why I’m riding my bike for three weeks: I’m trying to lose weight. My pre-trip weigh-in on Ellen’s scale is 178.2 pounds. Stay tuned for the post-trip weight, as my track record isn’t great in this department. Bike riding usually makes me very hungry.

My sister Ellen helped me get started on Day 2.
My sister Ellen helped me get started on Day 2.

Follow my Seattle-Vancouver loop 2014

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Before leaving on this bike tour, my son Eli kindly helped his old man craft some code to integrate geotagged Flickr photos onto a map with a blue line to trace the route. Thanks for doing the heavy lifting, Eli, which code-fanatics can view on GitHub. My job is to improve the map appearance and interactivity during this trip, so expect to see some changes (and there’s always the possibility that I’ll accidentally break the darn thing). Scroll around the map below OR click here to view the full-screen version.

See also additional posts I wrote on this bike tour:

    A Northwest adventure begins

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    My niece Cece and nephew Freddy help me set off on my bike tour.
    My niece Cece and nephew Freddy help launch my ride.

    Today begins my Northwest bike tour. I left Seattle on my fully-loaded rig and will be pedaling for the next three weeks. Exactly where? That’s to be decided. For the first leg of this trip I’m headed north to Vancouver, British Columbia, then ride the ferry to Victoria to circle back to Washington state. If all goes well, then I’ll head south to the Oregon coast. But the best part about this trip is that I’m not following any set schedule. It’s a delightfully odd feeling for a guy whose sisters nicknamed him “planner boy” to go wandering on a bike. Many thanks to my partner Beth for allowing me to head off on this cycling adventure, and to my sisters Kris and Ellen for hosting my family in Seattle the week before my trip began.

    Gasworks Park: one of my favorite views of Seattle.
    Gasworks Park: one of my favorite views of Seattle.

    Biking with Eli from Ohio to New York State, 2012

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    Back in the Spring of 2012, when Eli was finishing up his first year at Oberlin College, we spoke on a Skype call. I asked him if he wanted me to give him a ride back home after his final exams. “Yeah, that’d be great,” he responded, then paused to confirm one important detail. “You are bringing the car, right?”

    “No car. Just the tandem bike,” I replied. A few weeks later, I flew into Columbus Ohio with our Bike Friday tandem packed in two suitcases, and my old friend David Levine drove me up to Oberlin the next day. I assembled the bike, and Eli packed his summer gear into the suitcases, which David shipped back East for us. Eli had seven days to ride over 400 miles to central New York State for a family reunion and memorial service for my father, John, who also enjoyed riding his bike. Below is a photomap of our ride (see full-screen version). We originally planned to ride 480 miles across the Northern Tier bike route (by Adventure Cycling) and the Erie Canal bike trail (by Parks and Trails NY) to my hometown of Morrisville, NY. But we modified our trip and rode 429 miles in 5 days, then caught a ride with relatives in Skaneateles, NY to avoid some hills on a very hot day.

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