We Sail, We Climb, We Conquer – Orcas Island, WA

Yeah, I'm a little like this sometimes....
Yeah, I’m a little like this sometimes….

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….

We Sail….

Romance or just chilly?
Romance or just chilly?
Squeeze in, yet again
Squeezed in, yet again

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….

Waiting, waiting...at pretty Cascade Lake
Waiting, waiting…at pretty Cascade Lake

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.

We Climb…

Mount Constitution Profile from climbyourbike.com. Metric units.
Mount Constitution Profile from climbyourbike.com. Metric units.

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.

Mapped route from the park entrance to the mountain top.
Mapped route from the park entrance to the mountain top. Just a few turns on this one…..
Crossing the lower bridge
Crossing the lower bridge
A mud-flap scraping turn
A mud-flap scraping turn
Finally...tucked in and home!
Finally…tucked in and home!

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 :)

First look at the view...oh yeah, baby!
First look at the view…oh yeah, baby!

Useful Links:

  • 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.
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do

    • libertatemamo says

      I’ll be giving more info on how we found this deal in the next blog post (yup, I’m a tease). And you’re right. NO fog up here. We’re actually above the clouds most of the time.


        • libertatemamo says

          That’s a short question with a potentially long answer. Overall we’ve been very happy with the girl. The engine rocks, layout is spacious and we’ve had very, very few general issues.

          Only two things I’d likely change if we were to do it over ->

          First is we would get a smaller rig. 40 foot is really too big for the kind of wild camping we prefer to do.

          Second I would never again buy a rig with the fridge in the slide. The only significant issues we’ve had in 4 years have been to do with our big slide that has the fridge in it. Poor design to put such a heavy object on there.

          That’s it. We love the rest. Here’s a post that summarizes some of this:


          • Ray says

            Thanks for the response, I agree we have been fulltime for almost 4 years. We have a 35ft Seabreeze I would not consider a larger rig…no full side slides either, we had a 5th wheel with a full slide too much weight on the slide. We are considering a Holiday Rambler in the future.
            Thanks, Ray

  1. Jenny Waters says

    Wow, that is quite an adventure and the view is fabulous! I can’t wait to hear about the volunteer position and see more pictures.

    • libertatemamo says

      LOTS more pics coming. In fact this is a bit of a photographer’s paradise. I’m clicking away…


  2. Rowanova says

    Sounds like a really fun adventure to me. I’m glad that it all went well for you. And the ferry savings are always a good thing too. I’ve thought different times that Paul has to be a pretty good drive to get the beast into some of the places you’ve taken her. Now he’s gone and proven his skill to us all. Job well done! By driver and copilot. :)

    • libertatemamo says

      He definitely did well. I’m going to be driving “the beast” on the way downhill. It’ll be a BLAST!


  3. says

    What’s up with this? No death defying moments almost falling off cliffs? No stalled engines? Oh come on.. entertain us a little here :)

    (just kidding)

    Amazing story and so glad it was a smooth journey.. and enjoy the adventure up there! Sounds absolutely divine!

    • libertatemamo says

      Yeah, the drive was actually very uneventful…well apart from the nail-gripping drama of course hahaha! It was fun!


  4. says

    Nicely done! I’m jealous of your Mt. Baker views. Born & raised in the Skagit Valley – you’re there at the best time of the year.

    • libertatemamo says

      Mount Baker is beautiful from the top. We get last rays of sun on her face too. I’ve got a pic with alpenglow which was so much better in person than I could even capture it on digital.


  5. Kate Roberts says

    Hurrah!!! Sounds a bit like our trek to Ecola Point, outside Cannon Beach, OR. We left sea level and ascended into the clouds. It is possible to hold your breath for 2 or 3 miles! Congrats. kjr

    • libertatemamo says

      It’s actually interesting how different the weather is, even at this moderate altitude. Temps are ~10 degrees cooler than downtown, cloud/fog-level is generally below us and even some of the flora/fauna is different. Mount Constitution has it’s own little system.


  6. Ralph says

    Made it one piece! Looks like you had a gorgeous day for the ferry ride. Glad the “Beast” is safe and happy in its new spot. The view from the top…is stunning!

    • libertatemamo says

      Couldn’t have asked for better weather for our sail/drive. In fact it’s been unseasonably warm this past week.


  7. Doug says

    At last, the post I have been waiting all summer to read! What are the first ten ascendments of Mount Constitution called? The Bill of Heights, of course.

  8. says

    You two never cease to amaze us and we are not at all surprised that Paul was able to get the beast up the mountain. I cannot believe the views…OMG! Looking forward to hearing much more about the volunteering gig. :)

  9. says

    Oh shoot… Been there, done that! Well… minus the beast of course!!! I sure hope you get to see some Orcas!!!! We did, and we were only there for an afternoon! Cheers!

    • libertatemamo says

      We haven’t seen any yet, but we’re going Island-hopping over the next two days (our days off) so we’re hoping we catch some there.


  10. Kathie Maxwell says

    And this is what the full-time RV spirit is all about. Well done, Nina and Paul. Thanks so much for sharing.

  11. says

    You absolutely captured the steepness of the drive up there. Great photos of dragging the mud flaps around the corner. You two have true grit to take the Beast up there. The view, however, is spectacular!

    • libertatemamo says

      There’s a definite “feel” to Island living. You sense it as soon as you drive over here. I can totally see how it could be addicting.


    • libertatemamo says

      LOTS coming about our volunteer gig. Hoping to get others excited to volunteer at Moran too. It’s a sweet spot.


    • libertatemamo says

      Our view is, most definitely, the best on the Island. And what’s even better is that they close the gates at night so we have the whole thing to ourselves. Pretty sweet.


  12. Diane says

    You two are beyond amazing!!! I’m a new RVer and after 5or6 nearby trips under my belt, I decided it was time to learn how to tow my car. Mind you, I only have a 25 ft RV and a little Ford CMax hybrid, but I live on a mountain and it was very harrowing to me to go down, and back up for the first time. I’m not looking forward to the second. But when I think how scary it was to come up the mountain in just the RV, just a few months ago, now it makes me smile. I also travel alone, so I’m pretty proud of myself. I was…until I read what you just went through. Pros! Pure pros! Enjoy the fabulous island.

    • libertatemamo says

      The mountains definitely get easier. I still remember how terrified we felt the first time we climbed a grade (it was Hwy 12 in Utah). I had my eyes closed most of the ride!! Now, we find most mountains pretty easy. Of course it helps that we have a huge engine and great engine-brakes.

      GOOD FOR YOU getting out and travelling alone. Hope you have many wonderful adventures.


  13. Lee and Shelia says

    Oh My….. I do hope your writing a book…. You both are truly blessed.

    Thank You so much for sharing…

    Looking forward to the next post….

    • libertatemamo says

      Maybe one day I’ll write a more formal book. We’re so busy I don’t know how I’d find the time LOL :)


  14. says

    We both read this post with baited breath–what a climb you guys!!! But that view is simply stunning–how long will you be there–that view could become addicting!! Can’t wait to see more photos!!

    • libertatemamo says

      We’ve only got a month here, sadly (we had prior commitments at Cape Blanco for Sept/Oct), but I could certainly see coming back. Our fellow camphosts (the hosts down at the campground) like it so much here that they have already decided to renew their gig for the entire season next year.


  15. says

    I’m a little late in writing this. Your blog was the topic of conversation at dinner last night with Terry and LuAnn. First, everyone so enjoyed your running commentary of this most harrowing trip. Second, we couldn’t believe you did this and were the ground breakers with your size. And lastly, the utter disappointment of not knowing what you will do there!! Did your neck tingle as we discussed you two…all good I must say:)

    So glad you made!! Now we are anxiously waiting to see many more photos and hear what you will be doing. Don’t let Polly fall off the top:)

    • libertatemamo says

      Too funny. I thought I felt a little burn coming on last night! Nice to see you four hook-up again.


  16. Beartracksblog says

    Beautiful view! Great job getting the beast up there. I know I’d never have the guts to do that! Looking forward to reading more about your gig up there.

  17. Liz says

    Not sure if you guys are crazy or just true adventure junkies. Looks like it was well worth all the stress though. Can’t wait to see more pictures and especially can’t wait to see how you get down. Want some detail on that.

    • libertatemamo says

      Bit of both? Honestly the drive ended up being perfectly fine, although the excitement before and during was palpable. I plan to take the big wheel on the way down, so should be fun.


  18. says

    It literally “takes a village” sometimes :-)))). I love that your docking crew was able to close down the mountain road, and you were greeted by an audience! I’m sure the advance planning was lively as well :-). Certainly it will all be worth it – can’t wait to see all the fun you get into up there!

    • libertatemamo says

      All the volunteers who helped were great. Of course I think our drive up the mountain was a bit of an “event” too LOL. We’ve had a few other folks contact us these last few days and say “so YOU were the guys that drove up there in the RV?”….locally known, we are :)


  19. says

    What an adventure! Enjoyed the trip, felt the anxiety along the way and the elation upon completion. And what a view! Can’t wait to see all your post about that spot.

  20. Doug says

    I have to admit, of all the volunteer gigs you’ve done, this sounds the most interesting. And I haven’t even heard all the details yet! Are you going to join in the triathlon on the 31st?

  21. Wayne Dyer says

    Catch the return ferry on higher tide. Your front bumper will probably scrape cement on the driveway if tide is not in favor. It might hang you up on the dock side. Great trip for what you did getting there. I held my breath a few times for you.

    • libertatemamo says

      Yup, we already checked the tide tables for our return trip. We’ll be going back at a much higher tide.


  22. says

    I have said many times, “I would follow them anywhere,” but that may be one drive where I watch from distant shores. LOL! You guys must have received rock star status with the locals after that one.

    I am soooo eager to hear what you discovered on your days off, but I will be patient, as I know it will be worth waiting for!

    (Another “Nina Tip”…I had my first Mocha yesterday in PT. HOOKED!!)

    • libertatemamo says

      Yeah, after our week there those Port Townsend Mocha’s were making a serious dent in our Mocha budget. Glad you like ’em.


  23. janis harrison says

    Oh my goodness you had me sitting on the edge of my seat for this whole post. What a great adventure and what a great storyteller

  24. Carlene says

    OH MY Goodness… I so hope to be in your place a few years down the road… What an amazing location… how could you not volunteer at places like this. I’ve bookmarked every link you’ve provided and I anxiously await your next posting.

    Thank you so much for sharing your adventure.


  25. says

    While I can imagine making this climb on a bike,doing it in the Beast is beyond my comprehension. Would have been white-knuckle for me all the way. Looks like a great reward at the top!

  26. John Audette says


    My wife and volunteered for this and will be hosting May-June. May I use some of your pictures to send to my family? Who all think We’re daft by the way.


  27. says

    Well, I’m finally catching up on blog reading. This is adorable – the drama, the suspense, the applause. And what a gorgeous view. I’d love to spend time on the islands.


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