Kristin and I had been to Whidbey Island, WA a number of times over the years, but always either to go mountain biking and hiking at Fort Ebey State Park or to take out-of-state guests to see the majestic views from Deception Pass on the island’s north end. Never had we ventured off the main highway that bisects this lengthy island, the fourth largest in the contiguous United States. And now we know those other roads all too well. We rode onto the ferry in Mukilteo under a soaking drizzle with the temperature sitting at 46 degrees. The “liquid sunshine” would come and go throughout the day, but despite a brief clearing in the skies, the temperature wouldn’t budge.
Our route took us north along the western shore to the first of three state parks. We pulled into South Whidbey State Park for a lunch break, just as the heaviest of the day’s rains came. With no views to be had, we enjoyed our sandwiches beneath a picnic shelter while enjoying the temporary warmth of our poofy jackets. Alas, the sun was soon shining and off we went, continuing northward along Smuggler’s Cove Road towards Crocket Lake and Fort Casey State Park. Unlike Fort Ebey, whose naval guns have long since been removed, the 10 inch artillery guns of Fort Casey remain in tact. I had always thought the fort was from the 1940’s, but in fact it was built in the 1890s, after the government realized there was no major defense along the western coast. The fort was given to the state for recreational use over 60 years ago and now offers visitors camping, history, and unobstructed views across Puget Sound to the Olympic Peninsula in the distance.
With still ten miles to go to our predetermined camping site, it was bad enough that Fort Casey stood atop a hill. Even worse was the sudden, dramatic shift in the wind. With chilled toes and out-of-shape legs already wishing the day was nearing its end, the arrival of gale-force headwinds made those final miles tick by slower than we could imagine. Struggling to go 7mph on the rare flats, it was over an hour before we pulled into the park. And the wind was only growing in strength.
Washington’s State Park’s system, like so many in the country, has been in a budget crisis of late. Suffering from understaffing and a reduction in services, many of the facilities one expects to find are temporarily locked up or missing. We knew the official campground at Fort Ebey State Park was closed through the end of the month but hoped the hiker/biker campsites, located a quarter mile outside the main campground, were still open for public use. After all, what does someone arriving by bike have to do with the needs of an RV? Just to be safe, we slow-pedaled up the road until a park ranger’s truck pulled out of sight, then doubled-back and pushed up into the woods unseen. I’m sure he knew we were there, and probably didn’t care, but it was best to not draw attention to ourselves just in case the no camping rules extended throughout the park. We waited till morning to deposit our $14 camping fee.
A short walk out onto the bluffs two hundred feet above Puget Sound squared us off against sustained 40mph winds and a plummeting wind chill temperature. Nevertheless, it was great to be walking around the park late at night, long after the last dog walkers and mountain bikers had gone home for the night. Sleep came easy, to a soundtrack of swaying trees and the clanging of the buoy bells off the coast.
We woke Sunday morning to find a trail race had been routed right through our campsite, just feet from our tent. Not wanting to be caught in a stampede of half-marathoners, we broke camp early and were pedaling along the shores of Penn Cove by 9:30am. Madrona Way, one of the my favorite roads on the island, isn’t just lined with the namesake tree but also wraps around one of the nation’s great mussel breeding grounds. With two weeks to go before the annual mussel festival, the tastiest tribute to shellfish I’ve encountered, we had no choice but to pedal right on through the quaint village of Coupeville. Our route on the second day led back along the eastern shore of the island, offering peek-a-boo views across the strait to Camano Island. Hill after hill rolled by under our wheels as the scent of Douglas fir and fireplace smoke mixed with the salty air and filled our lungs.
Though the highest elevation we reached all weekend was a measly 420 feet (128 m) above sea level, we nonetheless managed to accumulate some 6000 feet (1800 m) of elevation gain in just 95 miles (152 km) of riding. The wind blew the winter dust off our bikes, but it will take a couple more rides before the same could be said for our legs.