Fay Bainbridge in Springtime
a bike camping overnighter from two perspectives!
words and photos by Jonathan M. and Erin B.
You may recall a story I published not too long ago concerning a Memorial Day trip last year, along with its companion piece from my partner Erin. Two weeks ago the stars aligned for another last-minute trip and we decided we would tag team the write-up…
80 degree April days in Seattle? As unlikely as it sounds, they do happen from time to time. And after a week of nearly perfect (if a little windy) weather, Saturday was looking like a hot springtime icing on an unseasonably warm cake. Listen, when it was rainy and freezing just a month ago, that metaphor sounds pretty good.
Some plan cancellations left Erin and I with the whole weekend freed up, and but that can mean some decision paralysis when the weather is so perfect. But fortunately we had a couple of factors to help us guide the decision.
One: we are planning a group bikepacking trip to ring in the summer this coming Memorial Day, a sort of budding annual tradition we started last year (read more about that here, and here). We both had some new equipment (more about that soon) we wanted to give a shakedown before the trip, and we have an easily accessible bike-camping destination just a short ferry ride away, perfectly suited for beautiful weekends such as this.
Two: After many weeks of searching, Erin finally found and ordered a brand new gravel bike that she was itching to break in, and what better weekend than this?
Under most circumstances, I would have been happy to spend our Saturday doing either of these bike adventures with Erin, but early in the week she surprised me with this morning text:
“What are we thinking, trying to decide. Hear me out: What if we did both?!”
And so it was settled: get an early start on Saturday and churn out a quick ride on one of King County’s classic gravel routes: Woodinvilla Thrilla, then head home and pack up the bikepacking bikes and ride downtown to catch an afternoon ferry to Bainbridge.
I’d be using the same bike for both of these excursions: my brand new Rodeo Labs Flaanimal (shout out to State Farm and my local neighborhood tweaker for making that happen).
While I’ll probably do a full write-up about that bike before too long, I’ll go into more detail about my bikepacking setup here.
Perhaps for the first time, I would be going with a fully rack-less configuration. My bike is a flat bar build, specifically so I could carry wide handlebar bags. I went with a Salsa EXP Anything Cradle (originally for its compatibility with suspension forks), which in this case would be carrying my portion of the tent, as well as a down jacket. Down on the fork, I mounted two King Manything Cages with Road Runner buoy bags, storing my camp kitchen in one and my camp closet in the other. On either side of the stem, I mounted two feed bags: one standard bottle-sized, and a larger one that fit my mirrorless Fuji. Moving back, I used my Rogue Panda AZ Flag frame bag to carry food and water, among other miscellany. And at the tail end of the bike, I was excited to use my new upgraded seatpack from Ortlieb to store my sleep system. Lastly, I threw an empty water bottle in the external downtube bottle cage and clipped a camp mug to the seatpack so I would have something to drink out of at camp.
The bike, once fully loaded felt remarkably stable, though there was still some unavoidable minor tail wag from the seatpack.
I completely overhauled my bikepacking bike in the past year. Last year, my bike had dropbars and I loaded up with a (borrowed) frame back and saddle bag. I didn’t even have capacity to carry my share of the goods. This year, I’ve got swept-back bars which open up space for a front rack and basket, and I carry my gear in a Swift Sugarloaf bag and Ortlieb panniers. Not only would our Bainbridge trip be my first trip with this bag setup, but it would be my first portage carrying my own full set of gear.
I’ve done a few grocery runs with the basket bag and panniers, but not a lot of extensive riding. A few days before our trip, I noticed the bottom hook on my panniers coming undone and banging against my spokes while bogged down with a 5-lb. bag of flour. S#!t.
After I cleaned up from our gravel ride, I hastily tried to troubleshoot the panniers. We had a ferry to catch, after all! This all took place in the courtyard of my apartment building and I felt the gaze of onlookers as I fussed with hooks and latch spacing. I kept rationalizing: my panniers were designed by smart people who know a lot about bikes. Surely there’s a way to get them to work.
And…. there was. After lots of moving latches and some unconventional attachment to my rack, the panniers were rock solid. I was ready to go. I topped of the bowl of food for the cat, and was on my way to the rendezvous point with Jonathan.
Said rendezvous took place in front of my apartment, and we cruised down the hill and across the Fremont Bridge on our gracefully laden bicycles. IMO, the ride to and through downtown Seattle is always a pleasant affair, though I don’t usually make the trip without a reason. Today there was quite a bit of hustle and bustle through the streets as the warm weather seemed to bring every Seattlite out of the woodwork. You can tell a lot about the social patterns of PNW’ers on sunny days like this. Despite what they say about the people who live here and their penchant for rainy recreation, the influx of crowds to Seattle city streets when the sun comes out and mercury breaks 80 seems to tell a different story.
We pulled up to the ferry terminal, Erin swiftly and smartly gained access with a cash transaction. I decided to make things a bit more difficult and fished out two different ORCA cards, unsure which had the right amount of funds to cover my fare. The first card we tried of course was insufficient, and it took some doing to cancel the failed transaction. Fortunately, after some fussing, the woman in the booth and I persevered with the second card (which was loaded up with Boeing commuter benefits).
I joined Erin in the bicycle line, and soon a motorcyclist in the adjacent lane started chatting us up about his own preferred routes for peninsular pedaling. “No, no, the shoulder along the main expressway thoroughfare was really not that bad for riding!” he assured us. We’ll have to take his word for it.
The ferry ride was pleasant, and we enjoyed some *serious* chocolate chip cookies we had picked up from Little Lago Deli previously in the day. It dropped us at the Bainbridge terminal, and we had just a few rolling miles to go before we got to Fay Bainbridge park. The riding on the island is simply stunning. Though the steep rollers keep it from being too easy, they are broken up with a couple coastal miles that really can’t be beat for their combo of city views and beach neighborhood charm.
It was just about Golden Hour™ when we got to camp, and obviously the first item on the agenda was snapping some sick photos for the gram (and Medium write-up, duh!). That taken care of, we set up the tent and did some reading before dinner, which tends to fall under Erin’s expertise.
In 2019, I started experimenting with homemade backpacking meals, mostly out of concerns of allergen contamination with popular freeze-dried meals. Since then I’ve been ordering freeze-dried ingredients online and assembling my own dinner combos. I always pack a meal or two more than I need when heading out on hiking trails, which means I tend to finish the summer with a few oddball meals in the back of the pantry.
Coincidentally, these are perfect for “oh dang we’re going on a trip in two days” moments. For dinner, I grabbed two servings of what looked like rice and beans. What was the cook time? Had I added salt or seasoning to the bags? Was that powdered butter in there? These are all good questions. I didn’t have the answers. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to pick up a bag of Fritos and some shredded cheese to spice things up.
Once camp was made, we sat down to enjoy dinner. I enjoyed some reading while the contents of the mystery zip-lock bags simmered. As it turns out, the meals I grabbed were vaguely Tex-Mex…. but more like a Tex Mess. They were unseasoned and the Fritos were key to rescuing dinner. After two pots of carb-y, fat-y goodness, we were good and ready for bed.
Now earlier in the day, we had been a little worried about crowding at the campsite — it was such a nice weekend after all, and Erin had seen some cyclists heading to the island on instagram. When we got there, we saw plenty of spaces available! So our concern then shifted to a sort of loneliness. Sometimes when you’re camping, you want a little bit of peace and solitude; so you head to the backcountry. Other times, with bike camping especially, there’s some fun in meeting other fellow travelers at the state park hiker/biker sites.
In this case, after months of being cooped up inside, and our social interactions limited to a smaller circle, we were kinda thirsty for a little bit of friendly camp socialization with strangers! We lamented that all the party cyclists seemed too have congregated in a different part of the park, and that our immediate neighbors seemed more interested in the insides of their tents. Furthermore, the Fay Bainbridge camp host is not onsite between September and April, so there was no way to buy firewood. Bummer!
Serendipitously, as we were finishing up dinner and drinking a bit of digestivo, a kind stranger rolled up on a tricked out Cannondale Hooligan. This be-hooligan’d stranger introduced herself as Handa, and we started shooting the bull about the typical stuff. What’s more, Handa’s band of bicyclists had grabbed some unused firewood from one of the firepits and she invited us over to their campfire for chats.
Around the fire we also met Ben and Drew, and we swapped stories over a nice bomber of Fair Isle aged sour that Ben generously offered to share with us. We learned Handa is a talented comic artist, and Drew taught us that “street-wise is cool, swamp-wise is awesome!” We knew it was probably time finally to turn in when the fire-twirling guy finished his practice routine and the local Bainbridge teens took over the nearby volleyball court for a raucous beach party.
Morning came and I was looking forward to a fuss-free breakfast and caffeinated bev in the cool morning sunlight. We spread some Justin’s Nut Butter on a couple liege wafels and washed them down with tea and coffee (for Erin and me respectively). This go-round I brought with me a single packet of Voila instant coffee, and I was excited to see if a high quality cup could be had without the fuss of an aeropress and hand grinder.
The first sip of the coffee was pretty tasty, but a little strong, so I added a tad more water to the mix. And then it came out a bit too weak, and I regretted my decision. Alas, I will know better for next time!
We packed up our bikes pretty quickly and started rolling into town. We had some time to kill before the next ferry, and decided the waffles, while tasty, were not quite sufficient to tame our rabid cyclist appetites. When we got into downtown Bainbridge, we got to searching for a nice brunch spot with a premium patio, but everything to our liking had long waits. Instead, we thought, let’s grab another coffee at a nice shop and maybe a pastry to tide us over until Seattle gave us more breadth of options.
We pulled up to Pegasus coffee house and lo & behold, they had a pretty extensive breakfast menu, as well as great patio seating! And so our first brunch dilemma of the year was over, and we made it to the terminal just in time to board the ferry back to Seattle.
One of my favorite parts about riding the Washington State ferries is that bicycles get to depart the ferry first. As the ferry approaches the dock, a line of cyclists eagerly await for the employees to give the signal… “Bicycles may go!”. The impromptu bike gang streaming onto the dock is one of the best parts of the whole trip. Except, this time, I felt the flap-flap-flap of a tire without enough air, and the scraping of my rim against the dock. Ugh.
Jonathan was far ahead, and soon we were going to be spit out into multi-lane city traffic. After lots of shouting and crossing in front of a few other riders (I’m sorry, I swear!) I got Jonathan’s attention and we found a safe place to pull over and change a tube.
I hate changing tubes as much as the next person, and this is my third flat on this wheel this week with no clear source of the punctures. I wasn’t just grumpy changing a tire in front of a line of traffic, I was also worried about whether a new tube would hold for the 8-mile ride home. One thing I like about riding with Jonathan is that he makes bad jokes at just the worst time — and in this situation, that was exactly the mood boost I needed. A few laughs, one struggle to get the bead back over the rim, and we were back on our way.
After the unpleasantness of the flat at the ferry terminal, we were a little anxious to get back home. But not too anxious to take the scenic route back! Our return trip took us along Elliot Bay Trail through the Olympic Sculpture and Centennial Parks, and around Queen Anne back to Fremont along the Ship Canal. Still, by the end we were definitely happy to make it home and unwind, another (nearly) effortless sub 24-hour bike outing in the books.
A year ago, going on a bikepacking trip took a few weeks of planning and mental prep. Heck, three years ago I didn’t even own a sleeping bag. I finished this weekend feeling pretty empowered: I’ve got the equipment and knowledge to head out on an adventure when the weather and work schedules are lined up just right. One of the benefits of staying close to home this year is that it’s given me the openness of schedule to lean into impromptu trips like this, and I’m so hungry for more.