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A day mission to shred Orcas Island

Thirty minutes in, I almost gave up; took a foot off the pedals and stopped. The steep of this mountain road was mortifying. My face was burning, my legs disintegrating.

Sure, I got that it was about “earning it,” but if it weren’t for glimpses of the near-mythical beauty of the San Juan Islands flirting with me from between the trees, the summit may not come at all.

“We’ll shuttle the next one!” Diamondback Bicycle’s Jon Kennedy had assured us with a sly smile at the halfway point before hopping on his 29er hardtail and high-tailing it to the top. The seven other guys in our motley pack followed suit; Kevin, on his single-speed. Bike junkies, these guys relished this kind of punishment.

A little more than an hour ago we were already three hours into our trip to Orcas Island, largest in the San Juan archipelago off Washington’s northern coast, when the December sun rose behind the ferryboat, injecting the dawn with an orange and pink spotlight between the clouds and the dark, cold waters of the bay. We were headed toward an exotic mountain bike adventure in the Northwest mystic. But as Seattleites, we were spoiled to take such adventure on a short sojourn—making a day-trip of a spirited mountain bike quest.

The peak of Mt. Constitution was the mission, and the multitude of trails that draped from it. At 2,409 feet, the peak is the pinnacle of the islands, and Jon and his buddy had lured us up it with promises of flowy all-mountain trails and tight downhill lines that represented the “true essence of mountain biking.” Besides, the islands harbor some of the driest winter shredding grounds in these parts and from September 15 through May 15, mountain bikes are welcome on the hiking trails.

When the boat had docked, we’d been convinced the lurch was a time-shift, evidence of which lay across the island in antique farmhouses, boutique churches and flocks of grazing sheep that we passed as made our way in toward Moran State Park. Though largest of the islands, Orcas is less populated (5,000 at last count) than next-biggest San Juan Island, and here, time it seemed, was content to stroll idly.

Nearly to the summit, I was happy that time—and my bike—were still moving at all.

But all that huffing and puffing ceased at the top as the goods were delivered. From the lookout, we gazed out on a panorama of bright sea punctuated by undeveloped islands. The gradient sky and strewn clouds threw light and shadows across the vista. Below us, evergreens layered upon each other like cardboard cutouts. Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker commanded the horizons.

The look-out is crowned by a castle-like tower. We took a few minutes to explore it and refuel.

Then, we dropped in.

The trail cut straight into stands of lodgepole pine anchored by bright green that veiled the technical gauntlet of rock gardens and tight switchbacks. It then jet sharply out to the edge sheared off by blatant exposure. One wrong bounce off the protruding rocks could send you hurling into the most beautiful abyss.

Moving swiftly, we were back in the dense woods again, where the path undulated with exaggerated rises and falls. With hardly the time to stop pedaling before ferociously spinning the gears again, any attempt at rhythm was lost completely.

As we cut along the mountain’s flank, the beauty of the woods cruised by in a palette of browns and dry green. Though a group, each of us was obligated to our own mission, pedaling out whatever needed to be pedaled out, and coaxing in whatever thoughts need be allowed back.

When we stopped midway down, Jon couldn’t help himself: “To me, this is the epitome of mountain biking,” he proclaimed. “Just being out here—this is where I talk to God.” This terrain wasn’t gnarly by any definition, but it captured that purity of mountain biking—that escape into a wonderland on two wheels that restores a bit of peace to this crazy world.

Back at the parking lot, the clanking of beers signaled a victory. It was merely half past noon.

After a snowy November, December had dried out across the Northwest. And even here, where the trails are drier than most this time of year, the conditions were more fall-like, than winter, with hardly the cool breeze. No one in this group was complaining, of course. But me, I still felt odd in light of Mother Nature.

The winter evening would fall early, though, so as promised, we shuttled the next two runs. The first was simply a reward for the punishing morning: a fast singletrack with stretches of playful trail that shot across the mountainside, switched direction on a hairpin, and kept going into more rock ramblings and sudden little drops. Here, we all were likely talking to God. With rapid descents, the trail darted from wooded thickets to grassy clearings, and back.

Rejuvenated after that romp, we headed back up, this time to a locals’ trail, which turned out be more slopestyle than dh. Carved in some razed area between the trees, it offered lofty jumps and sketchy drops that took the boys down the mountainside at swift speed. Or would have, if they didn’t stop to session each feature. I got my share too of the steeps and little lips that gave way to hauling-ass runouts. The locals have put in a lot of work crafting and maintaining trails here; we tried to respect good trail karma. Beneath the creeping dusk, we made our way down the rollercoaster track.

We rode the final section engulfed in darkness, feeling our way through the steep s-berms and fast finale of a descent. Charging out of the deep darkness into the clear night, we soon raised another to a well-earned day.

The morning climb had been soul-pummeling for sure, but it yielded a bounty of manicured all-mountain trails and wild locals-sculptured dh runs whose secrets are whispering on the wind in this region. We knew not everyone has access to such winter treasures, though, and we felt grateful while rehashing the day’s journey.

Not surprisingly, we missed our ferry back and had to wait for the next. But that was fine by us. Time moves slowly out here, and we were content to stroll with it.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jon Kennedy #

    You are so amazing Adrienne… I absolutely love your writing. You really know how to capture the essense of a story.

    January 3, 2012
  2. Great review! I’m eager to get up that’a way this winter.

    January 3, 2012
  3. Chris Hamilton #

    Lovely, descriptive piece about our island. However, I must point out that Orcas is not named after the whales, but after one of the Spanish sailors that discovered the islands (San Juan, Lopez and others likewise).

    January 5, 2012
  4. Adrienne #

    Makes for a lovely (and appropriate) name in a lovely place. Thanks, Chris!

    January 5, 2012
    • Chris Hamilton #

      You’re welcome! Hope you enjoyed your stay in paradise! Ya’ll come back!

      January 5, 2012
  5. Orcas Island – I’ll remember that…

    April 19, 2012

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