After a drastic career switch, sea kayaking guide Clark Casebolt spent 26 years introducing clients to the spectacular saltwater experience of the San Juan Islands. Casebolt started sea kayaking in 1981 and during his 26-year tenure as owner of Outdoor Odysseys, he led trips for the Seattle Aquarium, REI Adventures, and for corporations such as Nike and Microsoft. The company earned National Geographic Adventure Magazine’s award as one of the “200 Best Outfitters in the World” for 2009. So when Eddie Bauer headed to the San Juans for our spring season trip—before the Islands were named America’s newest National Monument—we called up Clark and asked him what made sea kayaking in the San Juans so spectacular. This is part two of our conversation with one of the longest-tenured kayak guides in the Islands. -LYA Editor
Images by Outdoor Odysseys, Tomas Hoeffgen and Jeff Lipsky
I know the bulk of the traffic in the San Juans is in the summer but speaking specifically to the spring: Why is that a great season to be out in the San Juans?
Well, it’s nice because you just don’t get the crowds. As you well know, living in the Northwest, spring can be a little iffy. But I think the big appeal with the spring is that it’s not the summer high season, and the chance of hitting a beach or just doing stuff when there aren’t going to be the crowds of the summer is huge. It’s fun to be up there when the flowers are just starting to bust out.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Yellow Island.
No, I haven’t heard of that one.
It’s this tiny little island owned by the Nature Conservancy, just off Jones Island, and they have this phenomenal wildflower display in the spring. What the Nature Conservancy has done is that they’ve been pretty proactive about doing controlled burns. The island was owned by this couple that built this amazing house, this Gandalfian-looking house that they constructed out of flotsam and jetsam from what washed up on the beach. It’s really an amazing little place with a caretaker who lives there in the spring, summer and early fall, but it has this amazing wildflower thing that happens in April. It’d be hard to get to if you didn’t have access to a kayak or a boat of some kind because it’s a tiny little postage stamp island, but it’s a pretty cool thing.
Do the guides that work for you generally just spend one season in the San Juans? Or do they come back year after year?
Well, that’s one of the things that separates Outdoor Odysseys from some of my competitors. I have a hiring policy where I ask for a two-year commitment. It took me a little while to figure that out. Fifteen or 16 years ago, I hired this great staff that all left at the end of the summer. Since they didn’t come back the following year, that’s when the lightbulb went on in my head. For the good of the company, but also to offer our guests the best trip they can, you want somebody that knows the Islands and can have an idea about what’s going to happen when the tide or the current turns and you’ve got a three-night current running through Spieden Channel.
So for Outdoor Odysseys, the average age of my guides is now 30 or 31. I’ve been in business long enough where I don’t need to really hire kids coming out of college because the turnover on my staff is pretty small. I would say the average amount of time that guides have worked for me is probably around three years, so that’s quite a bit different than some of the other companies that kind of have a revolving door.
For all those people that you’ve introduced to the San Juans, do you see them coming back? And if so, what draws them back to the experience of being out there?
That’s a great question. We obviously see people write about our tours on Trip Advisor. We had this one woman who lives in Seattle that had gone out with us about ten years ago and had this great trip, a three-day tour with us, and she booked with us again this year. In this case, she’s ten years older and she took out her grandson, who is now 13. She said, “I just always had this great memory of paddling in the Islands, and doing this great trip with really knowledgeable guides and the great cuisine that you fixed.” And she said, “You know, I was just blown away by how much fun it was, ten years later, being able to share that experience with my grandson and expose him to sea kayaking.”
So for me, as the owner of the company, that was really gratifying to have somebody come back and bring their grandkid with them and be able to, not replicate, but to kind of have the same level of quality and fun and experience of Orcas, including a Dutch-oven-baked cobbler.
One other story: I live in Seattle in the winter, and we’ve got a little flecked retriever. I took Celeste out to to this one small park and there was another woman with her dog there, so we struck up a conversation.
She asked, “Well, what do you do for a living?” I said, “Oh, I have a sea kayaking company in the San Juans.” And she said, “Oh gosh, what’s the name of your company?” I said, “Oh, it’s Outdoor Odysseys.” And she said, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe that.”
She said, “I went on one of your tours, one of your six-day tours.” We used to run some longer tours. She said, “My husband and I had the best time and that tour basically kind of changed our lives. We were living in Chicago at the time. We both had high-powered jobs and I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. We came back from that tour, and traveling from Seattle up to the Islands, we kind of fell in love with Seattle.” The experience on that tour was kind of the catalyst for them quitting their jobs in Chicago and moving to Seattle. They bought kayaks on their own, and it was this amazing little story about how this experience, paddling the Islands, really changed their whole life and focus. It maybe sounds a little hokey, but she got involved with a nonprofit and so it was a life-changing experience on one level.
Clearly that doesn’t happen every time we go out, but it’s interesting when you run into that occasional person who is wearing out their Odyssey T-shirt or something.
There’s no guarantee of a life-changing experience?
Yeah, I know. You can put that down there, so yeah.
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