Washington State has the largest ferry system in the U.S. and it’s no wonder since so many of our land masses are separated from each other by big bodies of water. It's also not surprising that some of our best bicycle touring can be found at the end of a ferry ride.
But a big part of the fun is riding the ferries themselves, especially if you've arrived on a bicycle. Bikers get special treatment. We get to go to the head of the line of cars and we get to board first; no motor vehicles are allowed to even start until we’ve tied our bikes to the railings. We’re also the first to get off.
Most ferries have galleys that serve up cold beer and hot food and the views from your table are spectacular, though sometimes you have to chug your brew to finish it before the ride is over. That's because with the exception of the trip to Bremerton, sailings across the sound to the Olympic Peninsula are short, usually running 20 minutes to half an hour.
The ride to the San Juan Islands is a bit longer, usually lasting an hour or more, and I prefer these longer sailings because it gives me time to settle in, get to know my fellow passengers and watch the world go by; even catch a nap if I'm in the mood.
The other day, I was riding the Edmonds to Kingston ferry when suddenly the boat stopped mid course. The skipper came on the PA system. “If you’ll all look off the starboard side of the boat, you’ll see a pod of killer whales. We’re obliged by law to slow or stop the boat to let them get by.”
Of course we all ran to the railing in time to watch a family of orcas cruise past. Out about 100 yards we could see half a dozen dorsal fins rhythmically breaking the surface. Closer, right next to the boat, there were two orcas swimming. I was looking straight down and could clearly see their sleek black and white bodies a few feet under the water.
Inevitably, during the summer at least, there are other bikers on the boat. Most are commuters but often I’ll run into other tourers. These chance meetings always provide an opportunity to chat and trade stories and information over a beer and a bag of popcorn.
There's a lot more to see from the ferry; sailboats, cool beach front homes and a myriad of other wildlife, but as with all good things, the trip comes to an end. And as the boat nears its destination, we gather our handlebar bags and head down to the deck to get ready to land. Since our bikes are at the front of the boat, we get a great view of the approach. The boat roars up to the dock, then at the last minute, the big engines reverse, kicking up a maelstrom at the bow and the boat shudders and slows and stops. The deck hands go about their chores of tieing up and lowering the ramp and now we get ready to go.
The deck hands always stop to talk and ask about our trip. Many of them are bicyclers too. Once the boat docks and is tied up, it’s our turn to disembark. We pedal off first up an empty ramp then around and in front of the que of idling cars. Drivers have been waiting for up to an hour for their ferry to arrive; they're tense and impatient and you can almost see in their eyes the envy they feel for us as we pedal past.