Cycling the Olympic Discovery Trail from Port Angeles to Sequim

"Where are you headed today?” the U.S. border agent asks, looking slightly amused, as I stand in cycling gear holding three passports at the Coho ferry terminal in Victoria.

“We’re cycling from Port Angeles to Sequim,” I say. “No hills, right?”

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“Just one,” he says.

“Yup, that’s what I heard.”

I must pause to note here that U.S. border officials are much friendlier than they used to be — at least to those of us crossing from Victoria. I even noticed a poster in Port Angeles in which border authorities — and I’m paraphrasing here — pledged to be really nice, and to let you talk to their manager if they’re not.

It’s not like the old days, when they barked intrusive questions about your travel plans and personal habits with all the warmth of a maximum-security prison guard — as if every outlet-store-bound Canadian had a pocket full of heroin or planned to start digging a foundation for a new home the second they crossed the border. The only thing that seemed to give them a flicker of pleasure was confiscating contraband fruit.

Anyway, the other person who had told me about the one steep ascent on our 40-kilometre Port Angeles-to-Sequim biking route was my ridiculously fit colleague Roger White, a marathoner and triathlete who had run the trail multiple times, probably as a pre-breakfast workout after swimming across the strait.

It’s funny how when people tell you there is One Hill on your bike journey, every time you have to gear down for a slight incline, you wonder: “Is this the one?”

Clearly, it wasn’t on the first part of the day’s ride, which was only a small portion of the 209-km Olympic Discovery Trail that starts at the seaside west of Forks and runs east to Port Townsend.

Our jumping-off point was in front of the Red Lion Inn in Port Angeles, where the trail is flat as it skirts the seafront for the first few kilometres. More than half the ODT is walking/cycling paths created from an abandoned rail corridor, and much of it is paved.

On the recent October Saturday when our group of seven pedalled it — including my 10- and 12-year-old daughters and our friends, with an 8 1/2- and 11-year-old — there was almost no one else on it, save a few dog walkers.

That meant the only sound as we cycled was waves smashing against the rocky shore on the left, and the hissing of our tires rolling over wet yellow leaves shed by the bank of alders that rose steeply to our right.

Eventually, the trail turned inland, passing behind a subdivision bordered by a fence decorated with blue and red election signs promoting candidates for judge and sheriff (I was so busy reading them, I sideswiped a bollard, leaving my front brake rubbing the tire for the next 30-odd kilometres). Then it wound behind small acreages under a mixed canopy of trees, the trail now littered with huge orange maple leaves that made a wet slapping sound under our tires.

At that point, we started a gradual ascent that seemed to go on forever. “Is this it?” I wondered.

Alas, it was not, as eventually, after parallelling Highway 101 for a short period, we ducked back into the woods, then came to a steep descent to a covered bridge. Ah, finally: The Hill.

A drop into a ravine, then back up in a hairpin turn (on the way back, I noted that anyone going too fast to make the turn was at risk of plunging into the ravine, held back by only a flimsy barrier of a couple of boards nailed together. Is this why there were so few cyclists on the trail? We peered down into the ravine looking for bodies, but saw none).

It turns out that when people say One Hill, what they mean is One Really Frickin’ Big Hill. It’s not as if you never have to shift down the whole rest of the trail, alas.

Mercifully, however, most of the remaining journey to Sequim was through relatively flat farmland, which offered a stimulating soundtrack of roosters crowing and cows mooing, with the snow-capped Olympics looming in the distance. Mostly, it’s a paved trail, but occasionally the route becomes a bike lane at the edge of a country road.

Once you get into Sequim, however, the path isn’t well marked, and I regretted not downloading the trail map. At one point, the slow end of our group of seven got a bit lost and had to ask for directions. The Sequimmers — is that what they’re called? — we met were friendly. In fact, they were so friendly that while we were asking one man for directions, another stopped his truck and called: “Need any help?”

After we all consulted a small map that was printed on the trail brochure we found en route, we determined that we were only about a block off the trail, and quickly found our path, running adjacent to Highway 101.

By then, a downpour had begun. After following the trail for another half hour in the pouring rain, we gratefully turned left toward the ocean and the cabin we had rented, near the John Wayne Marina. Soon, the interior of the cabin looked like a circa-1890s laundry. (On the comment sheet, in answer to the question: “What did you like best about the cabin?” our friends wrote: “It’s dry.”)

In the end, it had taken us about 4 1/2 hours to do the ride — about two hours longer than planned. That included getting lost, and taking lots of breaks on the many long, wooden bridges that dot the route — as well as bathroom stops at the forest-green Bill’s Plumbing Sanikans.

Nonetheless, I was a bit concerned about the following day’s ride back to Port Angeles, as we had to make a 2 p.m. ferry, the last of the day.

We also had little food, since we had assumed we would pass a grocery or convenience store en route. That never happened, so we were stuck with the prospect of heading back out into the pouring rain in wet shoes and jackets to find dinner, or dining in on granola bars and gummy bears.

Luckily, there is an excellent — albeit pricey for Canadians — restaurant at the nearby John Wayne Marina (named for the actor, who apparently spent a lot of time in the area with his boat), and we considered a fine dinner there a fair reward for the day’s labours.

The next day, we got up early to bike back to the restaurant in the Holiday Inn Express, just off the trail, and fortified ourselves for the ride ahead with a large breakfast. Partly because of the carb hit from the 10-centimetre-tall biscuits and partly out of necessity, we made the trip back to Port Angeles in just three hours.

En route, as the sun came out, lighting up the vivid yellow, orange and red of the leaves overhead, my friend Sheilagh struck up a conversation with a teenage boy wearing football gear and no helmet as he cycled behind us.

“I’m riding a really long way today,” he said.

“Oh — where are you going?”

He named a location about seven kilometres down the trail.

“We’re riding to Port Angeles,” Sheilagh said.

I think he was impressed.

If you go

• For more information on the Olympic Discovery Trail and a trail map, go to olympicdiscoverytrail.org.

• Sequim hosts an annual lavender festival. In 2019, it’s set for July 19, 20 and 21.

• For ferry times and fares, go to cohoferry.com. We paid $13 US return for each bike, $37 return for each foot passenger 12 and over ($18.50 per child, all prices in U.S. funds). You can fasten your bikes to racks equipped with ropes on the main outside deck at the bow.

• We stayed at John Wayne’s Waterfront Resort (johnwaynewaterfrontresort.com), which offers rustic cabins. The Dockside Grill (docksidegrill-sequim.com) at the marina isn’t cheap, but it has a kids’ menu and got seven thumbs up from our group.

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