When I lost my job at the end of July 2011 I was thinking I’d set right off on a cross country bicycle tour. However all of the business involved in the lay off necessitated that I be in the area for at least a month and ideally three months. So I took my shorter 2011 tour and began planning for the cross country tour in 2012. I have always found it the case that for the last, say 10% of the tour one finds ones thoughts turning primarily toward the post-tour. That is to say at that point you are ready for it to be done. I use the percentage because this time scales depending on the length of the tour. That is to say it may only be the last couple of days on an 2 week tour but perhaps the last week on a 10 week tour. This has held true for me on all my (self supported) tours which have ranged from 9 days to 103 days. But for the cross country trip I wasn’t sure how touring in the months range would go – my longest tour at that point was just under four weeks (2009). So taking this into account I planned the tour in stages.
The five stages of the tour were:
Stage 1: Seattle to Olympia
Stage 2: Olympia to Anacortes
Stage 3: Anacortes to Glacier National Park
Stage 4: Glacier to Minneapolis/St. Paul
Stage 5: Minneapolis to Bar Harbor
Now I should say that the “planning” for this was pretty loose. I basically have reached a point now where I can just pick up and tour and if I use the Adventure Cycling maps I don’t really even need to think much about the route (beyond getting on to their route that is – usually the first few days). In all honesty I really planned out the first three stages and was rather coy about touring beyond that (see my initial Journey to the East post). The latter two stages, while really always expected, were defined in situ. To give a good overview of the entire tour I’ll describe each of these stages both as planned and as they turned out in two posts. In this one I’ll cover the initial three stages – which is only about a quarter of the total tour – and in the next the last two.
Stage 1: Seattle to Olympia; 2 days (April 30th — May 1st); 88.5 miles
I’d been living in Seattle since returning from my 2011 tour and the first stage involved all the preparation for the tour. I had a storage place while I lived in Seattle and I spent much of the months I was living there selling stuff out of it. I was in a massive downsizing mode. My goal was to get to having all my stuff fit into a 5′ x 10′ storage unit. I also went car free during this time, for the first time since college. Two days before move out day I put everything into a van and put it into a storage unit in Olympia. I returned the truck in Oly and took the bus back. I was then in my apartment with only my touring gear and some cleaning supplies. I cleaned the apartment, checked out and by noon on April 30th I was bicycling away. My Journey to the East had begun.
I had the full load on my bicycle plus an extra dry bag of stuff (mostly clothes) from leaving the apartment. I knew I’d get out of Seattle fairly late due to the check out appointment so I had a pretty short days ride planned. I rode to the downtown Seattle Ferry terminals mostly via trails and took the ferry to Bremerton. From there I took back roads to Twanoh State Park where I camped right on the water. The day was a relatively easy 42 miles but it was definitely tough with that heavy load. This is also the earliest in the year I have camped and it was pretty cold that night. The next day was just a bit more miles to Olympia via the reverse of the route I’d done on several occasions (including the year before). A blustery rainy day it was a good test of my new rain gear.
In Olympia I spent the next 3 days getting ready. I decided to get ride of some of the stuff I was carrying based on the last couple of days ride. I bought an initial supply of alcohol for my stove at REI as well as other needed supplies. My maps from Adventure Cycling arrived (I had waited until the last moment to get these to get the updated maps). The whole packing up my apartment and moving had been pretty strenuous so this break was welcome.
Stage 2: Olympia to Anacortes; 10 days (May 5th — May 15th); 429.2 miles (517.7 total)
The next stage of the tour was getting to Anacortes the start of the Northern Tier. Now I had just the year before ridden from Olympia to Anacortes over three days along the inside of the Puget Sound. However I had several considerations beyond a quick route to the Norther Tier in mind so I decided to do a loop around the Olympic Peninsula. First and foremost all the passes (Rainy/Washington) on the North Cascades Highway had had not yet opened up and it wasn’t looking like they would for at least a week. Secondly while a loop around the Olympic Peninsula is nearly 500 miles it never is that far from cities where I could get any needed repairs, missing supplies and the like. Basically I spent an extra ten days doing extensive shakedown on the gear. With new wheels on the bicycle and a bunch of new camping gear I felt this was a good idea. The final consideration was that I really wanted to go the most NW corner of the United States. Bar Harbor isn’t quite the most North Easterly corner but it is pretty close. Anacortes, though the town I grew up in which I dearly love, is not even on the Pacific Ocean: tt is on the Puget Sound (which I also love). For me a cross country trip should at the very least go from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
I had ridden counter-clockwise around the Olympic Peninsula a number of years before (tour 2007) this so I knew the basic route. But I picked up Adventure Cycling’s Washington Parks route as it differed from my previous route in that it bypassed hwy 101 around Lake Crescent which I felt was the most dangerous section of that road and looked to be even worse east bound. Plus it connected with the route I’d need to take up to Cape Flattery (the most North Western corner of the US). The ACA route had a few deviations from the route I’d taken before which was welcome. I also worked out my first day of riding out to Lake Sylvia where I connected with the ACA Washington Parks route.
This first part of the tour was interesting; cold, especially at night and the parks mostly empty. I also found a number of the places I intended to camp either not open or permanently closed. The addenda that ACA provides for the route was of course not updated for this year so it was always a crap shoot on whether I’d find a place to camp. My second night at Lake Quinault I found none of the four campsites open and ended up staying at a hotel. The night after that I was in the large Kalaloch campground which had only a few other people there besides myself. That night a raccoon unzipped my front pannier and stole my food bag. Luckily I was able to have breakfast the next day at the Kalaloch Lodge and resupply that afternoon in Forks. From that point on I either used a little padlock on my pannier or hung up my food. That same night the campsite I was heading for was closed and ended up going off route a bit to stay at a DNR campground (which doesn’t charge anything for cyclists which is pretty nice. No services though).
Campgrounds were either empty or packed with fisherman. As I headed out toward Cape Flattery I stayed at a campground that catered to fisherman and due to the start of halibut season it was just crazy packed. I stayed there two nights as I rode out to the Cape. The fishermen were generally good people and though the fishing didn’t seem so good this season (nobody I talked to caught their limited of one (1) halibut) they were having a good time. The next day the campground I stayed at was empty again. After two days on hwy 112 – which was a new route for me – I arrived in Port Angeles and the route was now very familiar – The Olympic Discovery Trail (third time riding this) then various roads to Fort Townsend State Park (only person in the hiker/biker area) then a rest day in Port Townsend staying at Fort Flagler for the first time (again the only occupant in the H/B area). After the day off I took the ferry to Whidbey Island and rode very familiar roads (I grew up on these islands) to Anacortes and the end of stage 2.
As I said most of this was familiar routes but with enough variety to mix it up. This is one of the most beautiful areas in the states and I never tire of riding out here. Doing so in the spring and taking some different routes just added to the experience. Everything worked out with the bicycle and gear so by the time I left Anacortes (the biggest town I’d stay in for quite a while) I was in good shape.
Stage 3: Anacortes to Glacier National Park; 19 days (May 15th — June 3rd ); 780.7 miles (1298.4 total)
I was now on the official Northern Tier route which begins in Anacortes. I more or less took the same route from Anacortes to Sedro Wooley that I used in 2011. This route is partly my own devising with overlapping segments with various published routes. I also chose to use the Cascade Trail from Sedro Wooley to Rasar State Park as opposed to the ACA route. This is basically because the route while on very nice back roads is on the other side of the Skagit river. To get to Rasar State Park you have to cross at Concrete and backtrack (which I did last year). Now there are other parks but Rasar has a great hiker/biker site, is on the river and I for one prefer City/State/National/DNR campgrounds over private. Plus it made for a better days ride distance ride at this juncture. I was again alone in the H/B site. The next few days were a repeat of the previous years crossing of Rainey/Washington Pass. The North Cascades National Park campgrounds had yet to have opened up but luckily one of the parks had winter camping which was free, though there was no services. The hwy had only been open for a week or so at this point and there was huge snow walls as I rode over the passes. There was a lot of people engaged in x-country skiing, snow shoeing and other snow based activities at the top of Washington Pass. Once again I wondered why there was nobody handing me a beer as I summitted. Clearly life does not mirror our advertisements.
Coming down Washington Pass I found the campground where I stayed the previous year full and once again skipping the published route I rode into Winthrop. My main motivation in this was going to the Old Schoolhouse Brewery though that necessitated staying at a KOA which I’m generally not in favor of. The next day after a couple hours of riding I turned onto the road up Loup Loup Pass concluding the section of this route which overlapped with the previous year and I was from now on always riding new territory. There were three more passes to do which I did in pretty quick succession: Loup Loup followed with a day off in Omak then Wauconda Pass where I camped a few miles shy of the summit and finally Sherman where it snowed on me as a sumitted. The campground I stayed at near the summit of Wauconda I was again the only occupant. In fact they weren’t technically open for the season so the proprietor let me stay there for free. I ended up having dinner at the gas station/general store/restaurant in Wauconda with said proprietor and his son. I signed the book at the restaurant which was filled with previous Northern Tier riders. This was the first place I’d been to where people knew exactly what the route was all about and were quite familiar with tourons from years past. I received many stories from these guys from various years as well as more info about the area. I also heard about for the first the people that were “ahead” of me – this was a trend that would continue. There was apparently a Scottish fellow who was about a week ahead (and thus crossed Washington Pass the day it opened) and who was determined to be “the first person to complete the Northern Tier in 2012” – he would write such in the books that I’d see as I rode across. There was also a couple that had stayed here a couple of days prior.
After Sherman Pass there is a long descent and you arrive at the Columbia River. I’ve been all over Washington State – first camping as a kid with my parents and such and later on my own and then of course the last decade of bicycle touring but there are still many places I haven’t been. This northeast corner of the state is one of them. Even after the long descent you are still at a pretty high altitude. This would persist all across the “high plains”. The terrain is pretty interesting too – its all scrub and juniper and the like in between the Cascades and Sherman Pass but then you descend to cross the Columbia and enter the Colville National Forest. There is is much more like the Pacific NW with denser undergrowth and evidence of a lot more water. This persists until East Montana. The Colville National Forest is more or less the end of Washington State and at Newport I crossed into Idaho – the second state of the tour.
The weather had been pretty rainy, though in the typical spring on and off style for the last week or so. I was rained on less on the Olympic Peninsula in the rain forest than I was during my couple weeks of negotiating mountains. Of course as clouds cross mountains they do tend to lose water so not a huge surprise. It was cold, especially at night during this period, dropping below freezing the night I camped at Wauconda. This would more or less persist until I was out of the mountains and into East Montana. I took another rest day in Sand Point Idaho where I was able to stock up on locally roasted coffee and drink beers in the local brewpub. The motel I stayed at was the best deal of the tour and was quite nice. It even had a little kitchen which let me continue to make my own breakfasts as is my wont. Soon enough I was back on the road and also quite soon I was in Montana – the panhandle of Idaho could be easily crossed in a typical touring day.
I would be in Montana for a long time – it is the widest state on this route. There were a lot of alternative routes on the ACA maps and I would take them or not as the mood struck. Mainly as long as I could get to services and campgrounds I needed I would take the more out of the way and deserted routes. I was on one of these alt routes, riding on a dirt road as matter of fact, when I unceremoniously crossed into Montana. The first campground I stayed at in Montana was empty except for the campground host as was the next. These were both on lakes and just fantastic. The campground host at the second of these camps regaled me with stories of wildlife and other bicycle tourons he had encountered. I had thought I’d seen a wolf with cubs the day before and he did confirm that that was an area he had seen wolves so seems likely. I’d seen a bear cub the day before (the third bear of the tour) so it really was fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities here.
While most every day on tour is a great day you’ll still have better days than others. For some reason the day I rode into Libby was one of these. I was in this city campground that was just really beat and exposed and wasn’t feeling it too much. So I hung out at the library and then went to a hardware store where I got my windup radio. There being a super market right next to the campground I was able to get get some heavy items I normally wouldn’t want to carry and had a good solid dinner listening to NPR. So was back in good spirits by the next day. It was only a few more days of riding until I reached Glacier and these were some of the wettest days of the tour. Particularly the day I rode into Glacier it had poured rain and I lingered in Whitefish for as long as I could trying to wait it out. It was still drizzling when I finally set out and would continue to do so – with bursts of real rain – all the way to Glacier. This was also the only period where I couldn’t find any HEET for my alcohol stove but it worked out as I ate most of my meals at the restaurant at Glacier.
It rained most of the time I was at Glacier and thunderstoms predicted the day I ended up leaving. So while I had intended to stay at least three days there I only stayed two. The inter park shuttle system had started up yet and barring riding all over the park I had no way to see much beyond where I was. So I ended up taking on of the Red Bus tours which drove to several points around the park. It was again a rainy day and while I got to see much a lot was pretty fogged in. The Going to the Sun road had yet to open so I was not going to be able to ride out of the park on the main route. A pity but I know I’ll be back some day.
So that is the initial stages of the tour. All in all it went pretty smoothly and there hadn’t been anything I could handle. The early days when campgrounds were not certain to be open was the most problematic but it all worked out. There was of course some down days, but surprisingly few. Most importantly by the time I’d reached Glacier I was at thirty-five days of riding and I wasn’t burned out on touring at all. I knew I could continue on from and make it to the east coast of which I’ll recount in the next post.