Mid-October Escape to Lopez Island. This Time Solo.

by Eric Shalit on January 2, 2015

View near Agate beach I think.

No one but the Great Pumpkin knows for sure what the future holds, but November is right around the corner, and likelier than not it will be rainy and cooler. Believing this past weekend, the second weekend in October, to possibly be the last of the mild weather for many months to come, I escaped to Lopez Island for a 3-day weekend of cycling and exploring. The forecast called for a dry weekend, and that was all I asked for. The weather far exceeded my expectations. Although the mornings were crisp and blustery, by mid-day it was sunny T-shirt weather.

Everyone I met had the same idea. Initially it seemed I had the entire Spencer Spit beach campground to myself. By Friday afternoon it was full of tent campers, kayakers, kids, and dogs — mostly fellow Seattle escapees having a final end of summer outdoor adventure. About 3/4 of our tent city on the beach was occupied by REI corporate office staffers and their families. From the conversations I overheard, gear testing and development was never far from their minds. Of course, they were very well equipped.

Camping on the beach at Spencer Spit.

In the past this would have been a family trip. With my older son off to college, and my younger son away for the weekend, I decided to head out solo. My wife doesn’t cycle. Although I traveled solo, I was rarely alone, as I met people everywhere and even made a few new friends. Lopez Island is 100% bike friendly — perhaps even a cyclist’s paradise. The locals (Lopetians?) consistently waved at me as they drove by. Not the one-fingered wave you sometimes hear about.

Horse Drawn Plow Farm.

Horses interested in alternative modes of transport.

Lopez is the most rural of the San Juan Islands. Lots of open farmland, rolling hills, and back roads. While San Juan & Orcas Island have seen more residential and resort development, residents of Lopez who I spoke with, have worked hard to keep it in a more natural and rural state.

Spandex-free or nothing!

One hidden treasure is Iceberg Point, a natural preserve at the southern tip of the island that juts into the Middle Channel. The white monument in the photo serves as an international boundary marker and commemorates a 1905 treaty between the US and Canada. It’s difficult to find the trail entrance leading to Iceberg Point. I suspect that may be an intentional way of protecting the fragile rocky ecosystem. Please tread lightly should you visit.

Iceberg Point

Kayaks off Iceberg Point

Sustainable Island Living
Mornings were cold, and I was stiff from sleeping on an older leaky inflatable Thermarest camping pad. Fortunately, Lopez Island has two of the essential elements necessary to sustain life — great coffee and an exceptional bakery. Each morning I dragged myself out of the tent, struggled to throw my leg over the bike, and rode from the beach, past Horse Drawn Farm, into Lopez Village. There I started each day with a hazelnut latte at Caffe La Boheme. They serve Graffeo coffee from San Francisco. The baristas were always helpful with ferry schedules and recommendations.

Caffe La Boheme

Adjacent to Caffe La Boheme is Holly B’s Bakery. Holly B’s is exceptional, with a vast array of handmade breads, pastries, pizzas, and croissants. As a non-sweet baked goods connoisseur (junkie?), I was more than satisfied, and primarily lived on an assortment of Holly B’s scones, breads, and pizzas during my 3-day adventure. That mixed with a daily hazelnut latte and a few apples scavenged from an old abandoned tree provided the energy for 90 miles of cycling.

Holly B's Bakery

Sitting outside the cafe and bakery I met many locals who were very happy to have a conversation with me, a somewhat odd looking unshaven guy in a bike helmet with an air freshener hanging from his saddle. They were not the typical polite but aloof northwesterners I’ve gradually grown accustomed to over the last 25 years.

Lopez Bicycle Works

Lopez is home to 2 bike shops. Lopez Bicycle Works repairs and rents bikes. Black Dog Bicycles sells and repairs bikes and also manufactures their own line of bike trailers. I somehow managed to miss their shop, but will be sure to visit on my next trip. I love trailers. Both shop’s hours are longer in-season, and shorter during the off-season. However, their advertising and signs say they’re available even when closed. This is a very bike-friendly place. Seems almost un-American!

On Saturday, while having coffee and a pastry outside Holly B’s bakery, someone asked me if I was going to the Community Center’s Tenth Anniversary Celebration & Potluck Dinner. I had pangs of guilt about crashing the party, but justified it in the interest of writing a good story about the town. I bought a beer, sampled a plateful of local home-cooked fare and made a few new friends. I’ve felt more of an outsider at my own kid’s school auction dinner in Seattle than I did crashing this community party on Lopez. There’s a saying that goes something like, “No strangers, only friends you haven’t yet met”.

Lopez Community Center

View from the ferry after departing Lopez Island looking toward Mt. Baker. Not too shabby, methinks!

Gear Review: MSR Carbon Reflex 2-Person Ultralight Tent
I spent years camping with inexpensive tents, usually bought from Fred Meyer or Costco. Those tents are fine for car camping or short hikes. However, their relatively heavy weight and bulk make them impractical for bicycle camping. I’ve been thinking about getting an ultralight tent for cycling for some time. After a great experience bike camping with my two teenage sons this summer using a 3-person (7+ lbs.) MSR Mutha Hubba tent, I contacted MSR and asked if I could borrow an ultralight 2-person tent for review. When I received the tent I mistakenly thought it must be missing parts, since the sack was so light and compact. I went online, reviewed the photos and set it up in my office in under 2 minutes. It was not missing any parts.

MSR Carbon Reflex 2 Tent

Weighing in at an incredible 3 lbs. (with rain fly & stuff sack), the MSR Carbon Reflex Ultralight 2-Person tent seems ideal for bicycle camping. It’s beautifully designed with simple yet meticulous detailing. With only 2 ultralight carbon fiber poles, it relies on corner stakes for structural integrity. It’s the simplest tent I’ve ever set up. The rain fly creates a spacious vestibule, perfect for protecting panniers, shoes, and helmets from the elements. Its primary design function is to push the envelope on providing shelter space for 2 people within the lightest weight possible. In order to achieve this, the footprint is at a minimum. I slept in this tent comfortably by myself and tried to imagine sharing it with another person. Choose your tent companion wisely! You might be comfortable sharing this tent with someone you are very very intimate with. Examining the product diagram on MSR’s specifications page, it looks like a tight fit for two. No tossing & turning allowed. Best to keep your arms folded across your chest (another great use for those old bicycle inner tubes). If you’re someone who goes insane when someone’s arm is touching yours on an airplane, you may have issues with using this as a 2-person tent. It’s possible that professional mountaineers and serious backpackers are willing to sacrifice body space for weight.

That said, I consider it a perfect 1-person tent for me — but I’m willing to share it in a pinch if I have to. It was chosen by National Geographic Adventure magazine for a 2009 Best of Adventure Gear Award. The $400-$500 online price tag for the ultralight Carbon Reflex 2 tent compares to $240-$300 for the similar but 1 lb. heavier MSR Hubba Hubba. The cost differential for that 1 lb. weight savings will appeal to technical users and serious gear junkies. The cost of either tent may be a worthwhile expense for those of us who already have major investments in our bikes, and want to travel further off the beaten path. When compared to the cost of staying in hotels, motels, and B&Bs it’s easier to justify the cost. At any rate, a lightweight or ultralight 2-person MSR tent is essential gear for the serious cyclist or very very close cycling duo.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Louise October 14, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Aah, Lopez. Whenever I feel stressed or can’t sleep or just need to relax, I think of the ride between Spencer Spit State Park and Lopez Village. Heaven on a bicycle. And I never locked my bicycle, even when showering at the community park’s restroom.
Sometimes I think I shouldn’t talk about the place so it stays the charming way it is.


I. Ponder October 14, 2009 at 7:32 pm

The locals swear there is zero bike theft on the island. Showers? Wish I’d known about that.
Sounds like a group ride is in order.


crystine November 17, 2009 at 9:06 pm

I know you were camping, but do you know of any simple yet lovely and on the inexpensive side places to stay indoors? We don’t need much and we are 2 adults and one 4.5yr old. We’re hoping to go this weekend!
Thanks. Sounds like a lovely trip.


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