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In his latest story, Canadian photographer Pat Valade recounts the time he spent loosely following the Olympic Adventure Route in the Pacific Northwest. Heading out with a rough plan and a ragtag bunch of friends, he uncovered a wealth of beauty and history along the way. Find Pat’s story here…

Words and photos by Pat Valade (@bikestachelessvalade)

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that this trip took place on the territory of the Coast Salish Peoples. Specifically, the land of the Nəxʷsƛ̓áy̓əm, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. We were very fortunate to gather and travel on these lands.

I hate being late, but I’d worked longer than planned, and was rushing to the ferry to meet Shawn and Geoff. I made a few less-than-savoury driving decisions and pulled into the long-term parking at the Tsawwassen ferry terminal with some time to spare. This left me with a few moments to play every travelling cyclist’s favourite game, bike-bag Tetris. It’s a game where the rules and strategies seem to change with every pack and unpack.

  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route

As usual, I was off to ride, push, and pull my bike with little sense of where I was actually going. This I did know: we were boarding a ferry to Vancouver Island, to board yet again another ferry and embark on the high seas to Port Angeles, and the start of The Olympic Adventure Route. There’s this romantic notion of just grabbing your bike, the bare necessities, and setting off into the sunset, everything you need, tucked tidily away into this bag, and that. The rugged simplicity of spinning the pedals of any old bike, with only supply points and caloric needs dictating when and where you stop. In this case, my lack of specific knowledge was due to the fact that my friend (and perpetual riding partner) had done all the research for the trip, and I had undertaken only the complex task of blocking it off on my calendar. I’ll attribute not doing my fair share of planning to laziness at the time, plus an irrational fear of maps. These days, though, planning trips is something I legitimately enjoy, and I think of it almost as an artform (my partner Alycia may have a different opinion about how much I love planning, but we can leave that for another story).

The cast of characters on this adventure included me, Geoff, Geoff’s partner’s sister’s partner Shaun, and two American neighbours, Sam and Dave. After spending a quick night in Victoria, we double-checked our passports and hopped aboard the Black Ball Ferry and began our journey south. We’d be joining our American counterparts on the other side of the border.

  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route

I’d only spent two days riding into Missoula on the Great Divide with Sam, after we randomly met him at a coffee shop along the route, sharing some snacks and becoming fast friends. I’d never met Dave, but just assumed we’d get along. One of the wonderful things about bike travel is that you can generally expect someone who likes to strap very specifically designed bags all over their bike to have an easygoing nature. This isn’t always the case, of course, but I find the bikepacking community in general to be an accepting, and easygoing bunch to be around. That being said, it’s important to recognize that there are a lot of people and organizations working very hard to make the bike industry a more accommodating and accepting place for everyone.

Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route

Our slow parade gathered at a local coffee shop, an ideal starting point. A damn fine cup of coffee and a pastry or two is the best way to kick off any trip. Last-minute prep and grocery shopping was done, and our group was off and rolling. Our bags were bursting with snacks, wine, and cameras. The excitement was palpable. What people can strap to a bike never ceases to amaze me. We had three or four days for this trip and we were not in a rush. This wasn’t an objective-based ride, we just wanted to spend some time together, see the sights, and be flexible in our plans. This is a beautiful part of the world and we wanted to take it in, so grocery resupplies would have to be interspersed by coffee resupplies, in turn infused with liquor store stops. This was all in the effort to keep things as light (figuratively) as possible, which in turn made things literally heavy.

We pedaled along in the heat of the day while the pavement twisted beneath our tires, slowly giving way to the meandering gravel ribbon that is the Olympic Adventure Route. It’s worth noting that while this story references the Olympic Adventure route for context, consider our route an interpretive version, we were only very loosely following a line on a map.

The first hours of a ride always seem to be a way to test your setups: you pull on this strap and that, and shake the cobwebs out of everyone’s various systems. Everyone had their own personal touch, the bike giving just the smallest glimpse into the rider. Dave with his bar-mounted pink flamingo and panniers, Sam with his big leather boots, hunting knife on his hip, and his yoga mat rolled to his front rack. Geoff with a bag of whiskey dangling off the back of his seat pack and the biggest Salsa Fargo you’ve ever seen, and Shaun, free from any convoluted bikepacking set-up, with just a single dry bag, plus a 40L backpack strapped to his rear rack. The route passed through tight trees, into shocking clear cuts, and through to perfect gravel roads. We stopped as often as we needed, and it felt as if we’d already been riding for days. That day eventually led us to a small knoll and a perfect camp spot. Of course, the usual explosion of unpacking took place, and everyone tucked into their various dinners. A small fire, and the fading light gave way to the blue hour. A stillness settled over our view of the Olympic Peninsula, and I took just a few quiet moments of appreciation.

Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route

The freedom that bike camping allows is almost cliché to describe in this era of bicycle travel, but there’s an inherent truth in that cliché. While we weren’t exploring far-off corners of the globe and many people had been where we were, each experience is unique. The wonderful thing that travelling by bike allows is a chance to slow down, and to interact with the world around you or just breeze past it. It’s easy to get bogged down the in minutia of the ever-changing world of bike tech, but when you lose that one small integral bolt holding your rear rack together (as Shaun did), or you can’t seem to get your shifting to work (me, with all my bikes, all the time) the simplicity of bike travel becomes all too obvious. Problems often have obvious, straightforward solutions.

The hot sun greeted us the next morning. After copious coffees and the challenging repack that follows the first night of camping, we were off again. The day was a blur of amazing landscapes, fast-rolling trails, and of course, more coffee, snacks, and chats. No one checked the time—or their email—but we did occasionally check the map. We were soon presented with a section of challenging navigation through some deadfall (read: a lot of hiking) and recent logging, followed by a relaxing descent all the way down to the campground at the end of Lake Crescent.

  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route

It was raining, and almost dark, and we were deciding whether we should knock out the chunk of highway riding in the dark, with less traffic, or to just relax and take our chances with the highway construction that was underway the next morning. Cooler heads prevailed, and we chose to set up camp, watch a beautiful sunset over the lake, and hit the road again in the cool, damp Pacific Northwest morning.

As we sat around camp the night before, an idea started to develop that would change the tone of the trip ever so slightly. While we’d been loosely following a wonderful route for the last two days, there was an exploratory feeling in the air. Sam had come up to Washington a few days before we had and had spent some time exploring the Elwha Valley. What he told us seemed too good to be true: a washout had rendered a road closed to cars, and what remained was a dystopian strip of pavement running up into the mountains. It sounded like the perfect change of plans that we didn’t know we needed. We decided to continue on for the time being, with the plan to head back almost to Port Angeles and continue on up to the hills. We managed to skip the section of highway construction by cramming all of our bikes into a city bus driven by a very accommodating and patient bus driver (it takes far too long for five bikepackers to decide which bags to take off so that they can play an entirely different game of bike Tetris). A frantic resupply at a general store along the way made sure we had an adequate stock of chocolate, Rainier beer, pocket-sized red wines, and doughnuts. Were we riding bikes? Yes. Were we fueling our bodies as careful Strava tracking athletes would? Nah. Judge lest ye not be judged, I say.

  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route

It was with a combined sense of anticipation and trepidation that we came to the spot on Olympic Hot Springs Road where the Elwha River had washed away the asphalt, as if in protest to the encroachment of its banks. Due to heavy flooding, the road was left as is, and anyone venturing into the park had to use a side trail that made its way around the washout. By horse, foot, or bike were the only options. Lucky for us, this meant a lovely hike-a-bike that we were all too happy to make. We passed a few sweaty, albeit smiling trail builders on our way down, and after giving our thanks, we popped out of the trees, seemingly into another universe. A perfect abandoned road unfurled in front of us, and we pedaled on, heads spinning side to side in amazement.

  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route
  • Pat Valade, Elwha Valley, Olympic Adventure Route

We began our climb up to the former site of the Glines Canyon Dam, also known as the Upper Elwha Dam. This was the site of one of the largest dam removal projects in US history, demolished in 2014 and restoring more than 70 miles of river habitat for migrating salmon and other wildlife. It was the second largest ecosystem restoration project in the history of the National Park Service. The removal of the dam also revealed a ceremonial creation ground of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which had been submerged since the early 20th century.

Hopping off our bikes, it was amazing to see where the water line of the dam reservoir once stood, and how quickly the landscape was returning back to its former state. The earliest human use in this area dates back to almost 8,000 years ago. This often happens on trips like these, but this place made us feel increasingly small, which is not always a bad thing. We weaved our way up through deadfall and silent pavement. After a quick night’s camp, and some laughs and stories, we found ourselves cruising back down 10 miles of pavement the next morning. It all seemed like a dream.

The next day, we loaded our bikes back onto the ferry, and I felt a great sense of contentment. It had been a full experience, a loose plan turning out better than we could have imagined. The goal of these trips can often be somewhat elusive, and that’s okay. Besides getting ourselves and our bikes safely from point A to B, I felt like I had hit that hard-to-find reset button. How long that reset would last, who knows, but hopefully at least until the next time I found myself frantically packing, signaling the start of another bike trip.

Pat Valade

About Pat Valade

Pat Valade is a photographer based on the West Coast of British Columbia. He grew up riding mountain bikes in the dry interior of the province, and now mostly just rides bikes in the rain. You can often find him getting lost on some trail, on skis, on the end of a rope, or consuming an ill-advised amount of coffee and pastries while running around with a camera. Find Pat on Instagram @bikestachelessvalade.

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