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Kitsap Peninsula expands reputation as outdoor recreation destination

By Rodika Tollefson

KPBJ contributor

Bainbridge Island is a popular destination any time of the year, but the last Sunday of each February the island sees a particular swarm of activity. Thousands of bicyclists ride around the island for Chilly Hilly, a Cascade Bicycle Club event that kicks off the bicycling season.

A tradition for 42 years, Chilly Hilly was named one of four classic rides in the country by Bicycling Magazine in 2010. It attracts an average of 3,000 riders — and about 6,000 in its peak year — from as far as Alaska, New York, British Columbia and even France.

Cascade Bicycling Club’s year-end event also happens to be on the Kitsap Peninsula, with an average of 200-some riders and more than 1,000 in its peak year. Called the Kitsap Color Classic, the September ride offers three loops that wind around North Kitsap. Riders hail from all over Puget Sound and as far as Portland.

Biketoberfest, organized by the West Sound Chapter of Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, is one of numerous popular bicycling events held in the Port Gamble area. “It’s a beautiful ride. The leaves are turning and the colors are absolutely striking,” said Anne-Marije Rook, communications director for the nonprofit Cascade Bicycle Club. “It’s definitely a scenic ride and the fall scenery makes it unique. And the communities along the way are very welcoming and friendly.”

It’s those types of attributes — scenery, friendly local support — among other aspects that have been building Kitsap Peninsula’s reputation as a destination for anyone who loves outdoor recreation and adventure sports. From runners and bicyclists to paddlers and golfers, athletes and leisure recreation travelers alike are creating a notable economic engine for the region.

Port Gamble and North Kitsap in general are especially popular with outside organizers — thanks largely to the extensive trail system and the local support. 

The Stottlemeyer 30/60 Mile Mountain Bike Race is one example. Organized by 4th Dimension Racing LLC, the race brought 450 cyclists to the area from about 20 states in May. As many as 200 of them spent the night, the majority in local hotels (some camp).

“There are not that many trail systems this large in Western Washington,” said Roger Michel, 4th Dimension owner and race director who organizes 25 events a year around the state. 

Besides the trail system, Michel said there’s other important infrastructure that makes the location ideal — including a large field for a staging area, proximity to a town, support from Port Gamble (Pope Resources) and local volunteers.

The volunteers are provided by the North Kitsap Trail Association, which in exchange receives a percentage of the proceeds. NKTA member Carolina Veenstra said the Stottlemeyer 30/60 is the second-largest fundraiser for the organization, after the Poulsbo Marathon, and brought in $2,500 this year. 

Michel said a study 4th Dimension has done estimates that the event generates $100,000to $125,000 for North Kitsap establishments.

“Most bikers are very methodical about their training so they come ahead of the event to pre-ride, and many stay the weekend with their family,” he said.

Other ride organizers are taking notice. In August, Kitsap Peninsula will host a new bicycling event: Obliteride. A grass-roots, Seattle-based fundraiser for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Obliteride raised nearly $2 million in 2013, its inaugural year. 

When organizers wanted to add a longer, two-day route for participants this year, they worked with a scouting group — and landed on the Kitsap Peninsula (perhaps it didn’t hurt either that the organization’s executive director was familiar with the area.)

“We wanted to give our two-day riders a real treat, with gorgeous scenery and challenging terrain,” said Kerri Kazaba Schneider, an Obliteride spokesperson. 

About 100 of this year’s participants are expected to opt for the two-day route. With an after-ride party in Seattle featuring chef Tom Douglas, three former contestants on “The Voice” television show and headliner Michael Franti — plus a good cause — it’s not surprising that the event attracts riders from as far as Texas and Florida.

And there is a residual effect. These kinds of events serve as an introduction to the area.

“Those are all new people who are potential visitors to come back with families or host an event,” said Patty Graf-Hoke, executive director of Visit Kitsap Peninsula. 

Capitalizing on this interest, Visit Kitsap is trying to make the peninsula even more visibleto bicyclists. The county’s designated DMO (Destination Marketing Organization) has introduced a new marketing campaign that includes special rest-stop signs alerting cyclists to locations that offer amenities for them. The signs will be available for farms and other businesses.

The idea was inspired by Nikki Johanson, owner of Pheasant Field Farms, who noted she frequently receives visitors on bikes. After Graf-Hoke developed the concept, she said Washington Bikes executive director Barb Chamberlin liked it so much that it will partner with Visit Kitsap to adopt it as a statewide promotion.

“We are a stop on the leisure bike route. It makes us a more friendly place and helps more people recognize we have a destination that’s welcoming people who are into outdoors and adventure sports,” Graf-Hoke said.

It also helps that Kitsap has an active bicycling community. So active, in fact, that the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, a statewide group with more than 5,000 members, created a West Sound chapter last year. And since then, the chapter grew to be the largest in the state — with about 250 members including some from areas such as Seattle and Olympia.

The chapter’s weekly Tuesday rides attract as many as 50 people, some of whom come on the ferry from Edmonds and Seattle. About 300 people are expected to come to Biketoberfest in September in Port Gamble. The local brews, it turns out, are one of the attractions, said chapter president Brian Kilpatrick.

“The beer is amazing and bringing many people — they come to ride and sample beers,” he said, adding that part of the strength of the area is also the people, who have been “itching to organize” and build newer, more sustainable trails.

Another part of the appeal is the variety of outdoor activities for the more die-hard enthusiasts.

“A lot of people are also active in water sports and trail running and you can do that right here,” Kilpatrick said. “They can come here and do so many things.”

Running, Paddling and Beyond

NKTA’s Veenstra is a typical outdoor enthusiast. She bikes, walks, swims and runs. She says her ideal vacation is a place where she doesn’t have to drive her car around.

“I look at where I can ride my bike, walk and have good food,” she said. “I think there’s a growing piece of the population interested in those kinds of experiences.”

Local races like marathons and triathlons are the perfect introduction to a potential vacation spot for outdoor recreation seekers. Ironically, many of the local events were organized to give Kitsap athletes a local outlet but grew to attract visitors.

Poulsbo Marathon in October is one such race. Now in its fifth year, the Boston-qualifying marathon draw more than 500 runners. About a third come from outside of Kitsap.

“The founders started it because runners always had to go to Seattle. We thought it would be local but we have a lot of people from places like Canada, Japan and Europe,” said Lisa Cragg, marathon co-director.

Out-of-towners usually stay at the Guest House Inn, one of the event sponsors, and this year, organizers are hoping to partner with more restaurants and breweries.

“I think once people get over here on the peninsula and see the trails and the water and the cute little towns, they realize it’s a great destination,” Cragg said.

The Tri Turtle Tri, a triathlon introduced in 2006, likewise brings in athletes from several states. Staged in the Wildcat Lake area, this year’s September triathlon has about 400 entrants registered from as far as Alaska, Colorado and Rhode Island. Roughly a third of participants are from outside of Kitsap, and race organizer Lisa Ballou said she doesn’t do any marketing and simply emails past participants every year.

“The race is large enough to have significant competition but it’s small enough to be personable,” she said.  “I think the appeal is in the beauty of this area. … And the community is very supportive, including the local agencies.”

When WestSound Triathlon Club looked for a venue to start an event three years ago, the appeal of the area was one of the considerations, along with low traffic. “We looked for a place where people can spend a weekend in a nice area,” said Scott Sachi, club president.

Several of the 62 participants for WildHare Triathlon came from out of the area last year, and organizers are stepping up efforts to promote the triathlon as far as Spokane. One reason, Sachi said, is because they want to make it an Olympic distance (currently it’s sprint), which would require 100 athletes. Volunteers also promoted WildHare at an Ocean Shores event.

“Kitsap I think is underrated and an outstanding area for these events,” Sacchi said. “The weather is temperate and we have venues where we can offer different events. Kitsap has a lot of potential for growth.”

Some new businesses are looking to cater to that growth, too — the opening of REI in Silverdale and Kingston Adventures (which offers rentals and guided activities)are cases in point. Sporting goods sales in Kitsap County’s unincorporated areas went up by $2.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2013 after REI’s opening. Although not all that growth can be attributed to REI, the store does attract customers from beyond the area.

“Since the Olympic Peninsula is a great place to recreate during the summer, we see an increased number of tourists from other parts of the state and the country,” said Silverdale store manager Greta Eaton Caulfield. “Kitsap has become a gateway to the Olympic Peninsula.”

People like Graf-Hoke and John Kuntz, owner of Olympic Outdoor Center in Port Gamble, are trying to make sure Kitsap is more than a gateway — and the efforts seem to be working. 

“We’re still in the infancy phase of the tourism boom that I think is coming to Kitsap,” Kuntz said. “Within the past five years we’ve seen a push to make Kitsap a destination. We’re no longer the doorstep to the Olympic Peninsula.”

Kuntz — whose business expanded to add bicycle rentals this year — has also been organizing three events: Paddle Bainbridge, Paddle Kitsap and the BEAST adventure race (paddling, running and mountain biking). He estimates that about half of the people come from outside of Kitsap for these events. Some are already in the Puget Sound region and are discovering Kitsap while looking for something different to do.

And soon, the number of active vacationers checking out Kitsap is likely to grow.  The National Park Service recently designated the Kitsap Peninsula Water Trails a part of the National Water Trails System. Paddle Kitsap on Aug. 23 will coincide with an event in Silverdale celebrating the national designation. 

There are only 14 other national water trails in the United States.

According to the announcement in June by the National Park Service, “the Kitsap Peninsula Water Trails showcases the beauty of 371 miles of coastline on the Puget Sound and some of the most spectacular marine environments on the planet. The trail is a destination for paddlers around the globe because of its unique marine environments, the natural scenic beauty of mountains and sound, migrating marine mammal populations and friendly and inviting ports and towns steeped in tradition.”

Local outdoor recreation supporters say this designation is not only a high honor for Kitsap, but a way to bring even more recreational travelers.

“Most visitors to our area are local to Seattle or Washington,” Veenstra said. “It puts us on the map for people coming from farther away — it broadens our reach to people around the nation.”

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