Saturday, 26 January 2008

On how I got into cycle touring, part 3. Sunshine and Rain

Day 2 of the trip started somewhat overcast as we took the ferry from San Juan Island to Anacortes. However, there were marine mammals to amuse us with their antics, including some sea lions, probably Steller's. However, sun peeked through the clouds to give us a rather spectacular display.
The sun had hidden itself away again by the time we arrived at Anacortes. We pedaled through light rain at times along a road that climbed and dipped amongst evergreens. Around mid-morning, we arrived at Discovery Pass between Anacortes and Whidbey Island. The sun came out and the ground seemed to steam. The place was incredible. There was a significant current going through because of the tide, the 1930's bridge provided a strangely elegant contrast and a large sea lion added to the sense of wonder. Alas, I had thought the sea lion was a log for a bit, only to have it submerge just after I realized that it was, in fact, an animal and that it might make a wonderful photograph. I was not quick enough on the draw with my old Minolta SLR. Instead, I had to make do with this shot.
While my SLR does take good photos, I began to recognize its limitations compared to digital cameras. For one thing, it was significantly heavier that Margo and Chris' camera. As well, you could know instantly whether you got the shot, or whether you needed to take another shot. And as you are less likely to take another shot with a film camera, you might not take another. As a case in point, I submit to you this shot.
I had asked Chris to take off his helmet so I could take a photo. Only, as I took the shot, he shaded his eyes from the sun! To be fair to Chris, his eyes are rather sensitive to light.

We crossed the bridge to Whidbey Island. As was becoming our custom, we hit the stand of tourist information to find a local map of the place before heading on. We rolled on with a question of navigation unresolved. At least one of our maps showed that there was a road running down the western side of the island, that was very close to the sea and therefore likely to be very scenic. However, because it was in Whidbey Island Naval Air Station (or N.A.S.), i.e. a U.S. Navy airport, it was not clear whether the road was open to the public. Fortunately, the detour to find out if it was, was quite short, more so because once we saw the gate was quite firmly closed and unmanned, we didn't have to bother explaining to the U.S. Navy why a trio of hippy-ish (two with beards) Canadians wanted to access the base.

The runway of the N.A.S. ran East-West across Whidbey Island, so the road we rode South on took a significant jog to the East. For an aviation buff like myself, it was a rather fun ride as that seemed to be touch-and-go landing practice day for the aircraft based at the N.A.S. They were mostly Orion maritime patrol aircraft, a type of plane for which I have certain fondness. Evidence suggests the locals have mixed feelings about the airfield as one of the streets nearby was called Noisey Circle. Actually, I think this is more wry humour rather than a serious complaint.

We stopped for a rather late lunch in Coupeville. It consisted of some delicious seafood chowder accompanied with some yummy, freshly baked bread. The place we were eating in was a bakery cum restaurant perched on the edge of a horribly scenic bay in a devastatingly quaint old building.

We pressed on through the afternoon until we arrived at the ferry terminal for Port Townsend, our intended stop for the night. As luck would have it, we had to wait for about an hour for the ferry. It was luck indeed as very close to the ferry terminal was Fort Casey State Park. This was interesting for a number of reasons. Fort Casey was coastal defense battery built in the late 19th and very early 20th century. It featured a number of 10 inch guns on disappearing mounts. Really rather impressive. I had read about such guns, but had never seen, or even heard of such large ones. The question was asked against why these defenses were built and against whom. I pointed out that the location was a natural choke point at the entry to Puget Sound, the best U.S. harbour north of San Francisco. Against whom? Well, no one would likely have been publicly specified, but given that we were very close to Esquimalt, then the Royal Navy's main base in that part of the world and that the Royal Navy was the largest naval power of the time, to me it was obviously that the British (which included us Canadians at the time) were the likeliest of potential adversaries.
The assorted observation platforms and the like allowed us a very good view of the Olympic Peninsula across the inlet. While we watched, we were in turn being watched by a trio a of Columbian black tail deer, likely a doe and two fauns.We caught the ferry to Port Townsend, arriving after dark. At the motel that night we worked out the next day's trip. Unlike the previous two days, when we only done a little more than 60 km each day, if we were to make the ferry to Victoria from Port Angeles, we would have to ride 75 km before 2 PM. Not insurmountable but still no mean feat. Especially as the weather turned nasty during the night.

I bless the fact that I had bought new rain pants while in Vancouver and had spent a certain amount of time and money reviving my Gore-Tex jacket. It was wet. Very wet. About the only good thing you can say about the rain was that it discouraged us from stopping to admire the view.
(This photo stop was one of exceptions. It was done for what should considered as a remarkably obscure reason. Robin Hill is the name of the summer house in North Hatley that Margo co-owns along with my mother and my uncle. It has been in the family for nearly a hundred years.)

Of course the rain also hindered us from stopping period with all the water on trail and our brakes. Part of our route was on the Olympic Discovery Trail. This is quite a nice bike path, though in a few spots, it was obvious that bikes were not front and center in the designers' minds with steep downhills followed by sharp turns. Still, we made the ferry and then devoured the ferry company's chili like a pack of hungry stoats.The rain made the use of electronic equipment tricky as when my odometer got too wet, it would cease to register my progress. In addition, the plastic baggy that held Margo's cell phone wasn't as waterproof as we would have wished: she had trouble alerting her son John about our arrival in Victoria. In the event, we managed to give John prior warning of our specific arrival (he'd had a general warning several days earlier) before we arrived at his apartment in Victoria.

The apartment John lived in had previously been the residence of my eldest brother, Stephen. This was not a coincidence: John had moved in as Stephen moved out. I was amused by the fact that it was distinctly tidier on my visit with Margo and Chris than it had been two years earlier when I had stayed during Stephen's tenure. Then again, one tidies up more aggressively for one's parents than for one's siblings. From John's apartment, I made my way to Stephen and his wife, Margaret's apartment.

That night, Margo, Chris, Stephen, Margaret, John, his girlfriend (whose name I've unfortunately forgotten) and I celebrated the end of our trip and Margo's birthday. We made a somewhat unruly and disparate mob of people as we bussed around Victoria going to two restaurants and a supermarket. Still, we had fun. While we were a somewhat unruly and disparate mob of people, we also a somewhat unruly and disparate mob of good-humoured people.

Looking back on the trip, I realized that my worries about my endurance were remarkably silly given that I fairly consistently outpaced Margo and Chris. The latter told me that the telltale day was the third one as that is the day that fatigue tends to peak. On that day, I had been wet but otherwise okay. More importantly, I was now utterly hooked on cycle-touring!

Hence this blog.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

On the utility of family and friends, not to mention drinks

Over the last couple of weeks, I have identified at least two potential beds for the nights on my route. The first is a cousin who lives in Quebec city or thereabouts. From the sounds of things, she should have the space to accommodate a cousin for a night or two. If this works out, it would be especially useful given the potential difficulties of finding lodgings in Quebec City this summer.

The second potential bed, came about from a phone call to my sister, Alice, in Norris Point. I had called to find out her mailing address. She had just arrived back from Corner Brook, where, among other things, she had stopped by a friend from North Hatley, who now lived there. Aha! Thinks I, another potential person with a couch to crash on!

The conversation drifted off on a tangent which led to a discussion of drinks, including the Vesper (the drink invented by James Bond/Ian Fleming). Alice wanted to know the recipe. I promised to send it to her. In the process, I mused about Iceberg Vodka and should someone invent a Newfoundland Martini. I later looked up Iceberg Vodka on the net, only to discover that the company also makes Gin. This led me to come up with this Newfoundland variation on the Vesper:

2 oz Iceberg Gin
1 oz Iceberg Vodka
1/4 oz Cloudberry liqueur

Pour all ingredients into a shaker with ice. Shake. Strain into a cocktail glass. Drink after biking.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

On how I got into cycle touring, part 2. A field of Camlann

Maybe it was the fact that the trip to the San Juan Islands took place in November, a frequently melancholy month, but there was tinge of sadness to the trip. The damp weather common in the area may also have played a part. My eldest brother had questioned my rationale (and rationality) even before I had arrived in Vancouver. He described November as the start of the monsoon season. Then again, he is a "the glass is half empty" type.

The San Juan Islands were the site of the Pig War. While some, if not most, descriptions of the boundary dispute give the casualty list as 1 pig, British, KIA, a careful reading of the history, not to mention a visit to the sites, reveals a different story.

The Pig War was started by an poorly worded treaty describing the water boundaries between the colony of British Columbia (later a part of the Dominion of Canada) and the United States which both sides interpreted as meaning they owned the San Juan Islands. Matters came to a head when a pig belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company ate the crops of an American settler. The pig was shot and eaten by the American resulting in the HBC trying to claim compensation. The bickering got out of hand leading to a military confrontation during the summer 1859. The situation could have resulted in a war between the British Empire and the United States. Both sides were under orders to not to start a fight, but to respond if provoked. This was not a healthy situation. The last battle in the Arthurian cycle was on the field of Camlann. It had been meant as a negotiation, but one knight drew his sword to kill a snake and the glory that had been Camelot was ended.

Maybe I am reading too much into the situation. For one thing, given that the American soldiers were heavily outnumbered by the British, I doubt they would have started anything. However, there was a real danger of war.

Cooler heads prevailed and both sides agreed to disagree about the ownership of the islands and settled down to negotiate a settlement via diplomatic means while small military detachments from either side occupied discretely separate camps on opposite ends of San Juan Island. However, owning to the American Civil War and other events, it took 12 years and the help of the noted pacifist Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany to sort out the ownership of the islands. Those years were not without casualties. I will return to those casualties later.

Margo, Chris and I, with our bikes on the roof of Margo's Subaru, drove to a parking lot near the Tsawwassen ferry terminal. Arriving at around dawn, we got on the ferry to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. After breakfast on the ferry, we rode the short distance to Sidney where we caught the ferry to San Juan Island.

I don't know why the San Juan ferry doesn't stop at Swartz Bay. However, I suspect the reason has something to do with customs and immigration controls. (It might also be because of commercial differences between the BC and Washington state ferry companies.) This was the first time I had officially crossed the Canada-U.S. border by boat. While I knew that Americans had tightened up immigration controls because of 9/11 and the effing Millennium bomber, the number of people involved seemed excessive for such a minor ferry run. There was a friendly, somewhat large, Southern black woman whom I like to think as coming from Georgia who checked our passports in Sidney before we even got on the ferry. There was also a somewhat less friendly man with a sniffer dog at the other end. We wondered what the dog was trained to sniff out. Someone said explosives, but I was (and still am) of the opinion that BC bud was the more likely target.

Another person then did something that amused me as it involved a question based on a mistaken assumption I had hoped would never be asked by a certain class of person. Luckily, he wasn't that that class.

I was born in London, Ontario. This is very minor accident of fate and I have remarkably little attachment to the place as I have spent less than twenty four hours there since I was about three months old. Nonetheless, it is listed as my place of birth on my passport. More precisely, my passport describes it as: LONDON CAN. I had sometimes wondered what would happen if some hijacker would look at my passport and think that I was British and therefore a nasty imperialist running dog or possibly a limey occupier (if the hijacker was IRA) rather than a Canadian dupe. However, in this case, one of the American customs officials, having just inquired about when my uncle became a Canadian citizen (Chris was born in England and moved to Canada as a young man) and seeing my place of birth was "London" assumed that I was also an immigrant to Canada and asked me when had I become a Canadian citizen. While some could construe this as stupidity on his part, in all fairness, he accepted our assurances that the "London" in question was, in fact, in Canada very readily, and thus, hence, therefore, or otherwise I was simply a native-born Canadian citizen.

However, the relatively complicated border crossing process contributed to the sense of sadness. Not so long ago, you could cross into the States with little more than a smile and a few words. Years ago, you could get a car load of people across the border in Derby Line, Vermont, just by saying "Drive-in" in the evenings. It is very sad that the Americans have succumb to a paranoid fortress mentality whilst the Europeans are going in the opposite direction. Last May, when Margo, Chris and I crossed into Portugal from Spain on a fairly significant road, there wasn't even a sign saying: "Bem-vindo a Portugal." So much has been lost in the last decade or so. While the sense of official watchfulness was a mite off-putting, the Americans were friendly enough. There were handy tourist maps of San Juan Island available, the roads had nice shoulders and the drivers were surprisingly courteous. At least to a Montrealer. ;-) As well, Washington State Ferries have designated spots for bikes complete with lengths of rope with which to lash bikes to the side of the ferry.

We had arrived in the early afternoon having had lunch on the ferry. It was decided that we would bicycle around the Island, first heading to the English camp, and then if time and weather permitted to the American camp. So off we went through the woods that made up the northern half of the island. The British had set up their camp in a relatively cosy cove, protected from the winds. While the camp was obviously orderly, it had the feeling of a quiet English garden.
The spot the Americans chose for their camp was a rather exposed and lonely point, relatively near Seattle. It had none of the coziness of the English Camp. That fact may explain why a not-insignificant number of soldiers died there from disease and suicide. These were the casualties of the Pig War. Not all casualties of war are those caused by the enemy. Historically, disease tended to kill more wartime soldiers than battle. World War I is sometimes regarded as the first major war where the enemy was the greater killer. Thus, the Pig War had human casualties, and they were not insignificant given the numbers of potential combatants.
Americans are big on planting signs on their lawns. Some flippant, and others not. It was surprising to see just how confused, if not divided the United States was (and still is). Signs on both sides of the debate about the War on Terror were surprisingly numerous and in some cases, quite heartfelt. Obviously, some were jingoist statements of American pride. Other were simple hopes that "our" service people make it back home in good shape. Some were breathtakingly naïve and reactionary. What was remarkable about one of the latter was that it was it came from the left-wing side. We tend to assume reactionaries are ring-wing. What fools we be. The signs gave me the uneasy feeling that there is considerable political tension in the United States. The War on Terror may yet have casualties that might not show up in history books. And far closer to home.

As we cycled through the gathering darkness to the hostel we had chosen as our rest for the night, I was amused by the notion that we had used our lights twice that day, once in the morning and once in the evening.

That night, we pondered where to go next in light of the weather which promised to be rather wet on the day after the next. After certain amount of dithering and fussing, we chose the riskier but ultimately more rewarding route. Which will have to wait for another post.