We Sail, We Climb, We Conquer – Orcas Island, WA
It was going to be the longest 30 miles we had ever done. We knew this up-front. I mean it’s not everyday you take a 40-foot monster on a boat, cross an island, climb a steep mountain and park at the top. In fact this was going to be the very first time an RV of our size had ever done this exact route. A mountain first, breaking ground, forging new paths….that kind of thing, or rather exactly the kind of thing I like to do. In usual Wheelingit fashion I was super-excited and not the least bit worried, right up until the very day itself where I spent most of the day worrying myself half to death. This is our dynamic you see. Paul worries beforehand so I don’t have to, while I worry during the event so Paul can relax. Our “conservation of worry” works out rather well since I’m ready to leap and do just about anything, while Paul will calculate (inducing a modicum of restraint) and helpfully follow along when I push him off the proverbial cliff of adventure. Every couple has their thing, ya know.
But I know that’s not the story you came here to read. What you really wanted to know is how did our trip to the top of Mount Constitution, the highest point on the San Juan Islands, actually go??? Did we make it across?? Are we on the mountain?? Did the beast overheat?? Are we forever psychologically damaged??
To know all, you must read on….
The day started off as a perfect PNW summer day, 60-degrees and gloriously sunny. We squeezed delicately out of our site at Deception Pass and motored the short drive up to the ferry terminal at Anacortes. Unlike our previous ferry ride, this terminal doesn’t (yet) offer reservations, so if you’re coming across in the craze of summer it’s recommended to arrive at least 2 hours before departure. Also earlier is better since ferries fill-up as the day goes on and any extra cars (or RVs) are simply bumped to the next boat. Thankfully our helpful volunteer coordinator (Michel) had warned us of all this ahead of time, so we were parked bright-eyed and beastly-tailed at the terminal at exactly 10:20am which got us smoothly onto the 12:30pm ferry. Also, thanks to a tip from blog reader Chris we went unhooked (RV and car separately) which, on this particular ferry, saved us ~$60 in crossing fees (snazzy little tip, is it not?)
Two hours later we were squeezed in, even more tightly than our last ride if you can believe it, and we were off. The 1 hour 15 min ferry ride was easy and relaxed, with calm seas and blue skies the whole way. Our only tricky moment (the slap-your-hand-to-the head and cringe moment) was coming off the ferry onto the Island. You see it was low tide on arrival meaning the ferry was sitting below the dock, something we had not considered at all. On the way out we angled very sharply on the ramp, scraping our rear bumper almost down to the hinges, but thankfully not much else. Another foot, another inch and we probably wouldn’t have made it unscathed. Phew!
Psychological step #1 – complete.
We Motor, And Wait….
We were on Orcas Island at last. Rolling off the ferry we took in the view and relaxed for the easy drive to the park. Beautiful green rolling hills, lush forests and well-maintained roads crossed our windshield. Cute farms and houses added to the scene, several offering eggs or fresh produce at self-serve stands on the roadside, something I haven’t seen since my childhood in Denmark. The Island welcomed us and washed away our cares…easing us into the culture of a slower time, a more trusting time, a more relaxed time. We motored the few miles of curving road around Eastsound, passed through the stone archway of Moran State Park and were warmly greeted by Michel and the local camphosts at the southern campground. We parked in a temporary spot and waited for dusk so we could clear the mountain for the climb. The first half of the trip was done!
Psychological step #2 – achieved.
Now to get a proper idea of what’s ahead here, we have to shrink ourselves much like Alice in Wonderland ~99% smaller and pretend to be bicyclists. You see the climb to Mount Constitution is a rather “famous” (infamous?) bike route. Hard-core two-wheelers dress themselves in skin-tight synthetics (to reduce friction, obviously) and muscle the ~5 miles up the hill (most of which they look like they’re about to expire) for the prize and pride of reaching the top. To this purpose you can find detailed contour maps of the climb which indicate the entire 2,409 feet of ascent broken down into sections of grade. This offers the about-to-suffer bicyclist (or RVer in this case) the helpful knowledge that the entire grade will be ~9% on average with 7 sections over 10% and few areas hitting a sweet 15% with a couple of nice hairpin switchbacks of limited width thrown in for good measure.
Indeed, if the climb doesn’t kill you the knowledge of what you’re about to do just might.
Given our beastly size we knew that once we started up this route there was no stopping us until we either reached the top or rolled back to the beginning in defeat. This meant clearing the mountain and giving us free reign of the full road-width for every turn. Around 7PM Michel rounded up her interns and dropped them off along the mountain to halt all traffic. Once the road was secure we added-in two follow cars (one in front, one behind), put on our hazard lights and fired her up. To minimize beastly weight we went unhooked and rode on mostly empty tanks (no water and half-gas tank) providing us ~4,500 lbs of instant slimming (every little bit helps when you’re an ample girl). We were ready and we were motivated. Bring her on, baby!
And what can I say? How can I properly convey to you the excitement of the drive? The panache? The nail-gripping drama? Truthfully it went rather smoothly. The drive was epic, it was beautiful and the beast mastered it with effortless flair. She roared into grades, angled herself elegantly around the sharp turns and recovered with raw power through each section. We scraped a little more of our rear mudflap, swept a few layers of dirt off our roof, but otherwise had no signs of wear. Our 400hp Cummins barely broke a sweat, our Allison transmission warmed to only 221 degrees (just above half-dial) and Paul was able to master the entire drive under 2000 rpm. Plus we delivered some entertainment. The lead car kept a running commentary match-style of our progress and at the top we were greeted by applause. We heaved a massive sigh of relief and felt very much like mountain rock stars. 8 hours after leaving Deception Pass we had made it!!!
Psychological step #3 – conquered.
Finally at our mountain-top retreat, we backed-into our spacious full hookup RV site (the ONE and only site up here), poured ourselves a generous glass of wine and walked the few yards over the parking lot to gawk at the jaw-dropping panorama. Islands glimmered on the sea, Mount Baker reflected the last rays of sun on her face and the view stretched to infinity. Our new home was totally worth the effort and our psychological stress immediately washed away. Magnificent!!
We’ve settled in and already have lots to tell about our new volunteer job, but I’ll keep that story for another post. You will know soon, my friends…but not yet…not yet
- San Juan Islands Ferry (all Islands) – Click HERE for schedule and HERE for costs/fares.
- Anacortes Ferry Watch – live update of how many spots are still open on the next ferry HERE. In summer plan to arrive ~2 hours before your ferry and go unhooked to save $$. Reservations will start in Jan, 2015.