As the ravages of the pandemic dragged on throughout the months—with seemingly no end in sight—many folks resigned themselves to life indoors; A life shut away from the world. What else was there to do besides wallow and wait? Turns out, much more.
When Connor Froyen Harron, the Study Tour Director for Bellingham, WA-based Experience International (EI), realized that the organization’s travel programs were going to stay halted for the foreseeable future, he got to work finding alternative opportunities and a new source of revenue to support EI’s programs. But it wasn’t about the money.
Experience International is an educational nonprofit originally founded in the late 1980s to facilitate international internships and exchanges, primarily focused on agriculture and natural resource management through relationships built abroad. As the Study Tour Director, Harron was in charge of organizing group experiences for students on the international study tour, so once the pandemic hit, a transition from overseas to local seemed like the thing to do.
Backed with a Ph.D. and MA in Social Ecology from the University of California-Irvine, as well as a BA in Environment Studies, Harron has spent much of his adult life internationally, living and working on rural farms. Sustainability is important to him. Community is important to him. So, he found a way to incorporate these ideals into a thriving new business that celebrates fresh air, exercise, and all-local-everything: Bike Northwest. A group cycling experience with a variety of field trips and pit-stops ranging from farm-fresh food to wineries and breweries, Bike Northwest was envisioned to give folks a larger sense of the community they’re a part of, with rides that capitalize on the stunning backdrop of northwest Washington.
“We were trying to figure out how we could be of service to our local community. We’ve been wanting to find a way to work with our local communities for years, and we just haven’t had the bandwidth. So, with all our international trips basically just disappearing overnight, it was really the opportunity we needed to reach out to those friends and partners,” explains Harron. “Bike Northwest was kind of my brainchild. I came up with using bikes as a way to get people back together in person while allowing us to respect local protocols. It was a way to be physically distant but socially intimate at the same time.”
Growing up in Washington and working with agriculture most of his life, Harron already had deep relationships with many breweries, farms, and wineries in his “backyard.” But he wanted others to have the opportunity to meet these people, too.
“My vision has been influenced heavily by my international experience. I spent two years living in a rural village in Costa Rica, where I was reintroduced to what community-based living used to be like pre-industrialization. It highlighted for me how important our relationships are with our neighbors, especially during a pandemic,” says Harron.
When you sign up for a tour with Bike Northwest, you fully immerse yourself in the local treasures hidden along these less-traveled roads. These people and businesses are the local backbone of the region’s unique character, and paired with the exhilaration and mental clarity of a challenging (or easy!) bike ride; you leave feeling educated and connected to your community in new ways.
Currently, Harron handles everything but the marketing. He launched his first ride in April 2021 during the Tulip Festival and has since hosted a dozen successful trips. Their rides thus far have been capped at 12 spots, but a weekend in October, with slightly laxer protocols, saw a record-breaking 17 guests for a family-friendly seven-mile adventure on the interurban trail in Bellingham.
Bike Northwest’s operational season ran from April – October 2021, and Harron is offering nine tours from June through September in 2022. For this season alone, Harron personally partnered with 15 different farms around Whatcom County. The routes available to book for 2022 range from “Edible Everson: From dairies to berries and pigs to mushrooms and veggies” that spans over 20 miles, “Eagles, Estuaries and Oysters” that also spans 20 miles, as well as half-day excursions, such as “Sea to Table,” a five-mile exploration of the beauty of Bellingham. A handful of other routes are available by special request only, and Harron plans to continually tweak these based on popular demand.
When asked how he’d like to see this new operation evolve, Harron sounded hopeful, stating his desire to offer more versatile rides, from half-day, full-day, and even multi-day excursions. His latest project is partnering with Wyndham hotels, where guests could stay and regroup between days of adventure. The hotel would even include bike rentals as part of their rate.
No matter how big Bike Northwest gets, Harron is grateful for the opportunity to be a bridge in his community.
“I feel how disconnected we’ve become in so many ways, both from our food and where it comes from as well as from one another. Our real mission behind Bike Northwest was to create a program that can help bring people back together again, build those connections with one another while also learning how we’re connected through food, and start to rebuild those relationships with the farmers that grow that food.”
Harron believes that food is the ultimate medium for breaking down societal barriers and rebuilding connections in a world where misconceptions and judgment are prevalent and that sharing a meal with your neighbor is the quickest way to heal communities, strengthen bonds and experience the beauty of Cascadia.
Learn more about Bike Northwest at www.expint.org/study-tours/bike-northwest
Ainslee Dicken is a freelance writer, poet, and aspiring novelist. Born and bred in the Pacific Northwest, she harbors an obsession for fantasy and science fiction. When she’s not writing or reading, she’s moving; whether on hikes, travel, or walks around the neighborhood.