Date: July 24
July mileage: 536.5
Ever since I acquired my Pugsley, about a year ago, I've had this desire to use it to circumnavigate Douglas Island. I guestimated about 45-60 miles around - 15 of that is highway; the rest is unimproved shoreline. I was certain I would need at least two days for the trip, so I mostly put it out of my mind until I found a good time to do it. But inspiration from Epic Eric's recent off-trail adventures planted the seed again, and today I set out on a scouting trip to assess the summer conditions.
I didn't get out of the house until a half hour before low tide, which I knew wouldn't leave me much time to explore. Ideally, beach travel should straddle the low tide. High tide swallows up the rideable sand and gravel and forces land travelers up on the rocks ... slippery bouldering in areas almost impossible to climb around while hoisting a big bicycle on your shoulders. I decided I was limited to a short trip. And, in my own bad tradition of trying to hold myself to short trips, I didn't take any food.
Early riding at low tide was a lot of fun. It's been a while since I've ridden out toward South Douglas. There are always interesting things washed up on the shore. This one was new. I couldn't figure out what it was. Some kind of barge? A Tom Sawyer raft? It had a couple of bald tires stapled to the side. You're not far from civilization out Douglas Island, but the mysterious shipwrecks do add to the adventure.
Of course, after about three miles the riding starts to get pretty rough, and continues to deteriorate with only patchy spurts of gravel to break up the barnacle boulders and slippery shell minefields. Once you pass the last reaches of Sandy Beach, it seems for every half mile of riding, there's a mile of really rough, 4 mph technical riding and a mile of walking. That's the nature of off-trail though, and I was making good time despite all the hoofing. The afternoon was really peaceful - a light drizzle with no wind, and rich silence peppered with occasional chirps from seabirds or the hum of a float plane. I was always itching to see what was around the next bend, so I kept going.
I rounded the southern point of the island, cutting across a field to skip a small peninsula that I always thought was an island, and turning the final corner to meet the western side. What I found was tight, steep, almost unnavigable terrain. I left the bike behind and tried to pick my way along the cliff, curious how long it continued like this. Even without the bike, the climbing was a little treacherous - so narrow in points that I had to place my feet on slippery rocks that dipped directly into the deep water. If I slid at all, I'd have no choice but to swim backward through the cold water until I reached a point that I could climb back out. Could it be done before the hypothermia set in? That was the burning question, and not one I longed to have answered, so I was very slow and deliberate with every step. I knew someone like me would never get a bike around there. But I still wanted to see where the shoreline widened again. I continued that way for a half hour. Through the clouds, I could see the long profile of Admiralty Island that told me I was essentially on the other side of Douglas, and could still see no end to the rocky shoreline.
By then nearly three hours had gone by, and the tide was well on its way back up. I tried to pick up my pace, but I was starting to feel the tedium of bike pushing, and pretty hungry, too, and as I moved north, I discovered that all of the gravel bars and sandy beaches I had ridden earlier had disappeared beneath the rising water. So I weaved through the grass and plodded over seemingly endless stretches of big rocks, moving slower by the minute.
Nearly back to town, just minutes before the high tide mark, the water met the cliffside. I had no choice but to hoist Pugsley, in all of his nearly forgotten obesity, onto my shoulders as I waded through knee-deep and sometimes hip-deep tidewater. At one point, I had to wade for more than 150 yards with nowhere to put the bike down and rest. Feel those biceps burn! I was more than ready to have my little adventure over by then, and I still had to cross the big creek, which was so swollen with tidewater that I had to cross up high with the fast-flowing whitewater, pick my way through the rocks and grass of the last narrow beach, and stumble home. It took me less than three hours to ride out and four and a half hours to limp back. Not an epic day by any means - but definitely a longer one than I had bargained for. Although once you add in the "no food" aspect, it was nearly Epic-Eric-esque ... in a small, wimpy way.
It also opened my eyes to the fact that I will probably never ride my bike around Douglas Island. I agree with Geoff now. The way to circumnavigate Douglas Island - faster and easier, I'm now convinced - would be to do it on foot. Bring some waterproof gear bags, and I could swim if I had to. I'm learning more and more with my Pugsley that just because I want to take a bike somewhere, doesn't mean I should. But that's a good lesson to learn.