By Phil Jones
All roads must begin somewhere, and while mentally and spiritually our pilgrimage to the tar sands began months ago, the physical pilgrimage and the very first pedal-strokes began on Saturday, July 11, 2015.
The morning broke brisk and overcast. Filmmaker Phil Walker, who had arrived on Whidbey Island just a day before the ride from Atlanta, GA, came with camera in hand to document the journey. Artist Heather Elder and musician Erika Lundahl came up from Seattle the night before to join the ride. While both are active cyclists, neither had done more miles per day than what they would have by sunset—not by a long shot. Everyone converged on the homes of riders and next-door neighbors, Phil Jones and Derek Hoshiko. Derek’s wife Tatiana, and their nearly two-year old “Mr. T,” would be in their electric car as an escort vehicle. Also along was Ann Linnea of Whidbey Life Magazine.
The team rode together in a “pilgrimage dress rehearsal.” Beginning north along the length of Whidbey Island, the day’s mission was to reach the Tesoro and Shell refineries in Anacortes, Washington, and the end of the southern spur of the Trans Mountain pipeline. The ride itself totaled 68 miles and 3,000 feet of gain, which did a good job approximating a day on The Road to Athabasca.
As first days are, everything moved slower than planned. Sleeping bags to be stuffed. Baby to corral. Dishes to be done. But by 10:00 a.m., Erika, Derek, Heather, and myself set out on our bicycles. The group moved from the forests of the south end of the island into the wide, open farmlands of Coupeville. After getting an assortment of food for lunch and camp, we ate on the Coupeville wharf in Penn Cove.
Penn Cove was the site of a 2012 oil spill when an old crabbing boat caught fire and sunk, spilling oil into the sound affecting the nearby Penn Cove muscle farm floats —a minor example of what kind of damage an oil spill can do to the livelihood of fisherfolk. We passed the floats while riding toward Oak Harbor, the busier and more built up community of North Whidbey Island. Along the way, the riders looked for signs of Phil Walker and Ann Linnea, who would suddenly pop out of the woodwork to take footage, then pass in their vehicles shortly after.
Ann bid the team adieu and turned back at Deception Pass, a dramatic bridge spanning a narrow channel that is the only means of driving on or off Whidbey Island from the north to Fidalgo Island. The traffic in the area, and the lack of shoulder proved to be a challenge, enough so that Tatiana used her EV to escort the riders Tour de France style until the shoulder opened up [[and to rescue one of our riders who had been shaken up after being run off the road]].
The refineries lay on a peninsula just east of the city of Anacortes on the ancestral land of the Swinomish people, who themselves now live on a reservation just to the south near the town of La Conner. Together these locations are at the end of the road for diluted bitumen or “dilbit” now coming here from Alberta via the Trans Mountain pipeline, a conduit that the team will follow roughly to its source.
The refineries are also the endpoint for another extreme energy project, the Bakken oil fields, and resulting “exploding” oil trains that run now through Swinomish land. In April, the Swinomish Indian tribe filed a law suit in the U.S. District court to ban the BNSF railways from moving crude oil through their land, arguing that it violated a 1991 agreement about the number of vehicles that would be passing through their land, and that the railroad never sought permission for the oil trains to pass through.
Riding along the road next to these facilities, it became obvious that the we had passed into a world that contrasted sharply from the water and green islands that formed the backdrop of the scene, much less the beauty of cycling Whidbey Island the rest of the day. We arrived at the refinery near sunset, and stopped to take pictures and witness the enormity of the expanse of skyline taken up by the looming industry. Although we were on public roads, security was quick to find us and “discourage us” from taking photos. We took that as our signal to get to camp. Besides, it was getting dark and we had a few miles to go before we could sleep.
From there, we took a footbridge across the water that offered sweeping views of the majestic San Juans. The water was unbelievably calm. We spotted gulls fishing on the water, and one lone seal bobbing in and out of view. Cutting across Anacortes and camping at Washington Park, we talked a bit and digested the day. High points ranged from just having ridden 68 miles, to the experiencing the open prairies of Coupeville. Low points included the eerie feeling we got when the security car pulled up to us, or contemplating the big black truck that tried to run Erika off the road.
If the rest of living is the too-tidy package of sausage in the store, here was a glimpse of the slaughterhouse, and likely the first of many we’ll see on The Road to Athabasca.