The 4 Ferries Ride

A few Wednesdays ago I woke up, ate breakfast and dressed for my usual 7-mile bike commute to work. I checked the weather, then determined this was the day to try the bike route I had planned for several weeks. Well, I hadn’t really finished planning it, but the weather forecast called for clear skies and temps in the 70s. I called work to get the day off then rode down to the 7:40 AM passenger-only ferry in downtown Seattle that goes directly to the north tip of Vashon Island. I rode my steel commute bike and carried my messenger bag, which still contained a change of clothes as if I still planned to go to work. I had one water bottle, and tossed in an extra Gu packet and granola bar. I also had a couple of maps: a Pierce County Bike Map, a King County Bike Map, a ferry schedule, and some handwritten directions I copied from reviewing a part of someone else's route on several weeks earlier.

I decided I would take my time and see the sights, and not be in a big rush. So I brought along a camera, too. Despite – or because of – having so many maps, I didn't really know how many miles this would be, or how long it would take. I knew that Vashon Island, north to south, was about 15 miles. I planned to take several ferries but figured I would show up at the dock and just wait for the next one, rather than try to stick to a schedule.

And this is how ill-prepared I was for one of the hilliest, hottest rides of the summer. But it was a lot of fun. Follow along by clicking the link to the route as recorded by my Garmin GPS:

The ferry ride to Vashon was a fast catamaran, and took only 20 minutes. The ferry is operated by King County so I got on free with my bus pass.

I got off the ferry and had to climb a steep mile-long hill up to the main road across the island. This was how the rest of the day went - an unexpectedly big climb after each stop, when I was not warmed up or had just eaten. At the top of the climb on Vashon I heard my Continuous Glucose Monitor beeping, telling me my blood glucose was low. This was another trend that stuck with me - although I ate and ate I don't think my bg ever climbed above 90 mg/dl all day, and I was constantly reaching back to my CGM to silence the alarms. Vashon Island is a rustic place where time stood still. Maybe not in years, but at least months: an ad on the side of a bus promoted the JDRF Beat the Bridge run, which was held on May 16.

I saw lots of farms, harbors and great views of Mt. Rainier and the Cascade Range. I stopped and took many pictures, but now that I look back on them I can't identify where I was. Take enough pictures and they all begin to look the same. I saw a couple of deer off the side of the road at one point, lots of rusted farm equipment, and lots of boats.

At the south end of Vashon I was in time to catch the small ferry from Tahlequah to Pt. Defiance in Tacoma, which was surprisingly close. Onboard I looked at my Pierce County bike map and tried to plan out the next leg of the trip. This was a state ferry where my county-issued bus pass didn’t get me on board, but riders only pay a fare when going to Vashon, not leaving it, so it was another free trip.

I rode around Pt. Defiance, and looked at the zoo and old Fort Nisqually, stopping to take pictures here and there.

I consulted the map again and found Ruston Way, which runs along Commencement Bay and has a bike path and several restaurants and bars. I figured this was a good place to stop for lunch, but it was 10:30 AM and everything opened at 11. Why was I hungry at 10:30 AM? Oh yeah, my bg was still low, and I had been riding for more than 2 hours. I rode back and forth on Ruston, and by chance saw a bike shop off the side of the road. I stopped in and bought several energy bars, Gu packets and Clif blocks to treat my low. I chatted with the bike shop guy for advice on getting to the Narrows Bridge, but when I consulted my bike map afterward his advice seemed to take me back the way I came, and didn't include much of a bike trail that I had read about online. I wanted to ride this bike trail that was featured prominently on the bike map, so I planned a different route. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant perched on pilings over the water, and ate a chicken burger & fries, and drank 2 diet Cokes and 2 glasses of water. I bolused 2 units of insulin and figured I would be high and could later take some insulin to drive it down. (Spoiler alert: WRONG)

I got back on the bike and rode south, with a plan to intersect with Stevens Street, which was marked as a good bike route on the bike map. Stevens also ran into the start of the Scott Pierson Trail, a pedestrian-bike trail that ran from the middle of Tacoma all the way across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Bike maps usually mark streets or routes that are hilly. Pierce County did no such favors, and did not provide fair warning about the street I took (N 36th Street) to reach Stevens. This long climb had grades of 15% at times, and I struggled to keep going under the hot sun at high noon. It was also a struggle to keep lunch down. I stopped near the top and took a picture looking back down. See the water? That’s where I started.

Once on Stevens, the terrain flattened out a bit and I rode on a wide shoulder for several blocks, watching for "Snake Lake Park" and the trailhead for the Scott Pierson trail, which ran alongside Highway 16. I found Highway 16 (the heavy traffic was a giveaway) but not the trailhead or the park. I turned in at a transit park & ride and ride to consult my Pierce Co. bike map again when I noticed a sign welcoming me to the Scott Pierson trail. Problem is, there was only a sign, and no trail heading west. Worst of all, there was no "you are here" marking. The parking lot was full of glass, and the trail sign was hard to read.

I was on the south side of Highway 16 and the bike map wasn't very clear about what side of the highway the bike trail was on. I explored the surrounding area a bit but was frustrated. The bike map listed a phone number for questions or comments about the bike map, so I called. I figured I would be asked to leave a message, and I could vent a little about the unmaintained trail and poor markings. To my surprise, a woman at Pierce County Public Works picked up, but she said the bike map had been "pulled," so she was surprised anyone had a copy and she couldn't follow what I was talking about. But she forwarded me to a guy in the department who she knew rode a bike. He didn't have a map, either, but once I explained where I was at he figured out that I needed to backtrack and go under Highway 16 to get on the north side of the trail. He explained that eventually the trail crossed over once more, and the trail ran on the south side of the highway as it crossed the bridge. Thanking the guy, I hung up and backtracked to where I found an unmarked sidewalk on the other side of the road. I followed this and it ran into an elaborate bike tunnel that finally gave me some hope that I was on the right path.

After another hundred yards, I came to a sign that almost made me lose hope. There was no detour listed nor was there anything in the "Info Box." I continued on the trail and saw that construction was going on and the trail was indeed blocked, so I needed to figure out my own detour. I wasn’t sure if the path across the bridge was closed, too, and I wondered if I would have to abandon my ride and plan on some other way of returning to Seattle.

Pulling out my bike map again, I took a guess at how to go around the construction and eventually intercept the trail just before the Narrows bridge. I rode for a few blocks and turned, then saw another cyclist waiting at a red light. I asked him if he knew where to get on the Pierson Trail closer to the bridge and he said he didn't know but he was going to try to figure it out. Turns out he was a retired guy who was trying this for the first time, too. He was riding a hybrid bike from Puyallup to visit a friend in Gig Harbor. So we puzzled it out together. Of course there was no sign and several wrong turns, and even a few pedestrians who didn't know there was a trail. But we found it. As I look now at the picture taken from the trail it looks like I am about to be hit head-on by a car. Maybe this was how Scott Pierson got a trail named for him.

I realized that the street we crossed just before getting on the bridge was the street recommended to me by the kid at the bike shop back near Ruston Way. Huh. I don't know if his route would have been flatter than the one I took, but it almost certainly would have saved me an hour or more. Just part of the adventure, I guess. Once on the bridge, I took several pictures of the fabulous view. And of the guys strapped to the girders, repainting it. (For a neat story about the old bridge over the Tacoma Narrows, be sure to Google “Galloping Gertie.”)

I apologize if “Galloping Gertie” returned some unsavory websites that I hadn’t anticipated. Really, this bridge fell down in a well-known engineering disaster in 1941. I noticed that the route markers from last year's Rapsody ride were still visible on the approach to the bridge, and I remembered that they might follow part of the route I planned to take to reach the Southworth ferry dock. I took a bike trail then turned north at Gig Harbor and skirted along the waterfront until I reached Soundview Drive, which eventually became Harborview Drive. Whatever - there was always a view of something and I was tired of taking pictures.

From my stop in Gig Harbor, I could see on the now dog-eared Pierce County bike map that I needed to reach Crescent Valley Road. For the first time that day, and I was able to get there without any wrong turns. Because the roads veered left and right and changed names often it was tricky, but as long as I could see the coastline it should be ok. I recalled from looking at the route online that I would head north on Crescent for awhile, then take a turn to reach the ferry at Southworth. But once on the road I realized that my Pierce County bike map didn't show the portion of Crescent that traveled into Kitsap County. Due to my incomplete planning, I hadn’t noticed that Crescent Valley Road crossed into Kitsap County, and that there was a lot more riding on Crescent Valley Road than what I could view on the Pierce County bike map. And I didn't know how hilly it would be. (Not that I expected any bike map to tell me.) Here is where it became very hot, and very steep at times. I was out on a narrow country road with no shade and lots of rolling hills. I stopped several times to eat and I finished up all the Gu packets and drank all the water I had.

I didn’t take any pictures of the long haul on this road because it was the least scenic stretch of the day. I pulled out my CGM and discovered that it was no longer reading my bg level, probably due to the transmitter slipping off from the sweat. Fine – all day it beeped away, warning me I was low, but I was doing ok despite of it all. I had a blood test meter and I found that my bg was still low. Rather than wait and hope the Gu packets helped out I chose to continue so that I didn’t tighten up.

Crescent Valley Road reached a fork in the road. With no map to guide me, I had a decision to make - go right, and continue following the coastline, or go left, which took me away from the coastline and my eventual destination. In the notes I scribbled down before leaving I wrote that Crescent changed names a few times, so whichever one I was supposed to take should change back to Crescent. The road to the left was called "Olalla." The road to the right had no name (or maybe it was Olalla) so I chose to go right and follow the coastline. I saw that the Rapsody route markers had riders go left, but I wasn't sure if the Rapsody ride eventually wound up at Southworth or if it went over west to Poulsbo.

The road I chose was later revealed to be Banner Road, not long after turning I was confronted with the steepest climb of the whole day, on a day rich with steep climbs. Not the longest (that would be the 36th Street turn off of Ruston Way in Tacoma), but definitely the steepest grade. My bg was low, I was thirsty, and ticked off because I didn't have a map and didn't know where I was. It was so steep that I considered stopping midway to take a picture, but I knew that I would have trouble starting up again. What if Banner Road turned out to be a dead end? But I didn't turn around, because the road was so steep I was sure that I wouldn't be able to stop at the bottom and would go over the cliff. Yes, just like mountain climbing, it was more dangerous to go down. But I was still going north, and the coastline was on my right side. I eventually found a place to look back and take a picture.

Banner flattened out and my heart rate returned to normal, but I never did find myself back on anything called Crescent Valley Road. I rode for several miles, up and down rolling hills, hoping to see Crescent Valley Road or possibly the next road where I knew I needed to turn, called Sedgewick Road. I slowly churned up a hill to an intersection and saw that the intersecting road to my left was Ogalla. And the Rapsody route markers began again. Dammit. So if I had taken Ogalla, and followed the commonsense route that Rapsody planners chose, I might have avoided the hills.

I continued north. I knew that if I ever looked over to my right and saw the Seattle skyline, I had gone too far. Finally, I saw Sedgewick Road. Then a turn to Southworth, where I saw the 3:00 pm ferry to Fauntleroy just pulling away. I missed the ferry by 3 minutes, but another would be along in 45 minutes. I road to a mom & pop store on the corner and bought Gatorade, snacks and water, and I sat down and rested outside in the shade until the next ferry. I stood up now and then to avoid cramping. Or falling asleep. It had been a long day.

The Southworth-Fauntleroy ferry ride was enjoyable, because I could see I was getting closer to Seattle. (And once again, the return trip to Seattle was free.) But it was still a long ride from West Seattle to home. I tested my bg level and it was 90 mg/dl. A new high for the day. Upon docking at Fauntleroy, I rode along to Beach Drive and Alki Beach, where I rode along with the young guys in convertibles who were cruising the beach. I reached the dock where the West Seattle water taxi could ferry me over to Pier 50 on the waterfront, where I began the day.

The next boat left in 15 minutes and would save me about 12 miles of riding. On a normal day with good traffic I can beat the water taxi to Pier 50, but I was not willing to do it. I bought another high-glucose Gatorade drink and took my fourth and final (and again, free) ferry ride of the day. An older couple on board asked me if I had taken the ferry to work that morning as part of my commute and was now returning. I laughed and briefly explained my route and my ferry rides of the day, to Vashon, Tahlequah to Pt. Defiance, then up the Kitsap Peninsula to Southworth. The couple smiled and nodded. I asked them if they were riding the water taxi for the first time and they said yes, they were visiting from Illinois. "Oh," I said, "then you have no idea what the heck I was talking about! Well, it was a long bike ride, let's just say that." I excused myself and went up to sit outside on the deck in the sunshine and the breeze, because I was so sweaty and smelly that I offended even myself.

I got off the water taxi at Pier 50 sometime after 5 pm, then followed my normal bike commute home along Alaskan Way. One final climb to my house, which put the daily elevation gain to more than 5,400 feet over 77 miles.

Do I wish I had taken more time to plan and chart out the course? Maybe. I really thought so when I stood and ground my way up Banner Road. I would definitely bring more food and water. But riding on empty roads and seeing beautiful scenery while being just a little bit lost was worth it. Next time I’ll probably avoid Tacoma entirely, though.