The Powtown Post

Stories and photos from Powell River, BC.

I did the BC Ferries Circle Tour in one day…. on a bike

Posted by on Jul 28, 2017

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Strava Map - BC Ferries Circle Tour by Bike

Having been born and raised here in Powell River, ferries have just been a way of life. If you have to leave Powell River, you are most likely doing it via ferry, and you’re stuck making plans according to the schedules.

That is how this adventure began, pouring over ferry schedules and estimating riding time to see if it could be done. I was optimistic I could ride the 232km in one day, but not sure the ferries would all line up to make it all happen.

Cycling has always been one of my favourite pastimes. At the age of 12, I would pack some food, my map of the back roads (no phones or GPS back then!), find a friend that wanted to ride too, and literally ride all day. Many rides were over 100km, taking us from town up the logging roads to Dodd lake, Goat Lake, and many other destinations. At that age, it was all about freedom and independence, and pushing ourselves to see if we could make my (back then) new technology bike computer bike read over 100km in one day. Sure it was possibly dangerous… how many parents nowadays would let their kids leave the house without a cellphone? And sure it was kinda crazy being that far away from safety, but it felt so amazing to be able to accomplish those long rides and see all there was to see on my self-propelled two wheels.

I discovered road biking later in life, and I started thinking about some big rides that would be fun to accomplish, and one idea that I had tossed around was if it would be possible to ride the circle route in one day on a bike…

Over the years I had thought about it, and finally sat down that night and crunched some numbers and schedules. After an hour of analyzing this is what I had come up with.

  • Wake up: 3:45am
  • Leave the house: 4:00am
  • Ride to Saltery Bay to catch the 5:35am ferry
  • Land at Earls Cove: 6:30am
  • Ride 87km along the Peninsula to catch the 10:50am ferry to Horseshoe Bay
  • Layover in Horseshoe Bay until the 12:50pm ferry to Departure Bay
  • Land in Nanaimo: 2:30pm
  • Ride 126km from Departure Bay to the Little River ferry in Comox and arrive around 6:45pm to catch the 6:50pm ferry on a Saturday home?????

The plan would have to be a Saturday as I would be off from work, but if everything went flawlessly on the 123km Island highway segment in the blazing sun after already riding over 100km, I would arrive 5 mins before the last sailing to PR. Well, that wasn’t really feasible. Riding skinny tires at 120psi, flats are a reality, and after 100km on a road bike at my less than optimal fitness level, anything could happen. I had to make a decision, would I chance a whole day of riding over 223km and miss the last ferry and fail at my goal of completion in one day, or were there any options?

I could go on a weekday, where the last ferry is 7:15pm, giving me an additional 25 mins, but that still didn’t seem like enough of a buffer.

But, wait! What do I see on the ferry schedule? July 9th only – a 10:30pm additional sailing for the BC Bike Race.

At that point, being that it was July 7th and the only chance I had in 2017 to attempt this, I quickly wrote an email to my employer with the subject line: “Big Ask and Tempco Sponsorship Opportunity.” (I have a Tempco bike jersey and said I would wear it for the ride.) My boss Tye agreed and the plan was set.

Up before sunrise for the Circle Tour

I would say my conditioning was pretty low as I had maybe logged 250km on my bike in 2017, but how hard could it be? The night before, I got prepped and organized, and my bike tuned and ready. The plan was to pack minimally–some Clif and Power Bars, extra tube and tire, 2 water bottles, a ferry card and a credit card.

3:45am came early that day; I quickly and quietly got ready and got outside, and of course it was still dark.

I had flashing lights on board, but no headlight to see the road. I quickly went into the garage and grabbed my headlight. I started my ride, turned on the light and away I went. Made it 3 blocks, turned the corner and after about 100m my headlight died, so there goes that plan. So I continued on cautiously with my flashing lights and anxiously waited for the sun to rise as I made my way out to Saltery Bay. Nice and steady, I arrived with time to spare and boarded the ferry.

Sunrise on BC Ferries - Circle Tour

On the ferry, I was fortunate enough to find a BC ferries employee and fellow cyclist who agreed to transport my headlight and dead battery pack and arm warmers back to town so I didn’t have to haul them. (Only in Powell River!)

The ferry docked a bit late (due to a crew member sleeping in), but I was still on track for the 10:50 ferry. Now I have been on the Peninsula road so many times in a vehicle and as a kid been car sick in the back seat many times (my mom used to pack an ice cream bucket for us kids), but I had not anticipated how it would be to ride my bike along that 84km section of Highway 101 that twisted up and down.

Horseshoe Bay - BC Ferries Circle Tour by bike

I kept a slow and steady pace, and ignored my legs and body, and stuck to the side of the road–although in some places there is no side and the white line is missing, but I made it to Langdale, literally rolling onto the ferry just in time for an earlier sailing at 10:05. As I walked up the stairs from the bottom car deck, my legs were a wee bit sore, but with lots of water, some food, and some Aleve pain killers from the ferry gift shop, I was in good shape when we docked in Horseshoe Bay.

Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo - Circle tour

I rolled off the ferry and relaxed in the park for 2 hours and waited for the 12:20 ferry to Nanaimo. That ferry was a great opportunity to rest and drink more water, and get ready for the longest stretch of the journey. We landed late at 2:30 and as I rode off the ferry before the traffic unloaded, I found out there was no shoulder on the two-lane road leaving the ferry, so I was forced to pedal frantically until I reached the upper highway, and away I went.

The last stretch of the journey was over 120km, and I decided the inland island highway would help get me through the ride quicker.

Matt McDowell riding the Circle Tour with BC Ferries in one day

The sun was hot and after about 90km I turned down towards Union Bay to find some cold water and sports beverages and a snack. I then made a call to the ferries booth at the Little River ferry terminal to check the status of getting on the 7:15, and was told it was overloaded and I would not get on. I knew I could make that ferry, but if I did miss it, I would be sitting at the terminal for 3.5 hours with a vending machine and an uphill ride back to town for food as my two options, neither interested me so I decided to stop for some sushi and some groceries and then proceeded to the ferry. I arrived at the terminal at 7:25 and watched the ferry minutes from the dock pulling away and then found out they took all the walk on traffic. It was a beautiful night though and BC ferries were handing out free cookies and water to all the other vehicles that didn’t make the ferry so I took it as a win. The ferry returned and loaded for 10:30 and we cruised back to Powell River in the dark.

I rolled off the ferry at 11:58 and made my way up Courtenay Street to Joyce Avenue just to see what the legs had left, and surprisingly made it to the top.

I turned on to Barnet and rolled past the Police Station when suddenly 2 small dogs took hot pursuit of me and me and started wildly chasing me for 2 blocks, but I put it in to overdrive to outrun them, and made it safely home after 232km, with 10 hours 19 mins ride time, and four ferries behind me. It was a great feeling to be done and quite a long day, but 100% worth it! The next day, to my surprise, I could walk and felt pretty good, and started pondering the next adventure I would undertake.

Matt McDowell

Matt McDowell

Contributor at Powtown Post
Matt McDowell was born and raised in Powell River, and works for Tempco Refrigeration as a Refrigeration/HVAC technician. He likes to make short videos of his adventures with his son Carter, aka Little “c”.
Matt McDowell

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