At Eddie Bauer, our company has long maintained a connection to the San Juan Islands, and not just because our founder was born and raised there, and hunted and fished in the Islands. In the century since, much has changed for this iconic Washington location, which was just named America’s newest National Monument. But through the decades the San Juans have remained an active epicenter for everything from fishing and boating to biking and hiking. Yet the one activity that most epitomizes a San Juan experience is sea kayaking combined with watching the resident orca pods. So when Eddie Bauer headed to the San Juans this spring, we connected with Clark Casebolt, longtime owner of Outdoor Odysseys and one of the most respected sea kayak guides in the Islands to get his take on both subjects. This is part three of our conversation series with a man who has introduced hundreds to the experience of sea kayaking the San Juan Islands. -LYA Editor
Images by Outdoor Odysseys, Tomas Hoeffgen and Jeff Lipsky
In the 25 years since you started the operation, it seems like the San Juans have really exploded in popularity. But there’s also been a focus on the San Juans as a more sedentary destination, where you go rent a house and hang out on the beach. Do you think people sometimes overlook the active potential in the San Juans in terms of what it offers as an adventure destination?
Well, it’s obviously a big place for retirees, for people to move there when they stop working but, to me, if somebody’s going to do a vacation-rental-by-owner type thing, they’re still going to be out there renting from Susie’s Mopeds or going with us on a day trip on the west side or going zip-lining or bike touring. Even though they may not be going on a longer overnight kayak tour, they’re still definitely recreating outdoors and doing all the cool things that would appeal to your typical Eddie Bauer client—people with more of the adventuresome or outdoor ethic.
Still as much Outside magazine as Evening Magazine?
I think so. Yeah.
My wife’s a nurse practitioner in Seattle and when she comes up, one of my favorite things to do with her—we make a tradition of it every year—is to just take a day, jump on the inner island ferry, go over to Orcas and then hike up Turtleback Mountain. They’ve got that new preserve up there, and it’s so much fun to get on a different island and see the view from a different area. There are some wonderful little hikes especially on Orcas, so just being able to stretch your legs and go for a run or a hike is a really great part of the whole San Juan Island experience too.
What’s the biggest change that you’ve seen over the years that you’ve been kayaking out there? What’s the most powerful thing that keeps drawing you back there personally?
When I first started running tours out of San Juan County Park, there wasn’t much of a commercial whale watch operation at all. In fact, you’d paddle out of the mouth of the little bay there and if the whales were in the area, usually you would hear them. You could hear their exhalation/inhalation thing.
Now the industry has matured. When you look left or right, you look to see where the boats are. If there are a lot of boats, you know that eventually you’ll see the whales. So probably one of the biggest changes for me, as an owner, is seeing this growth. And along with that was when the whale J, K and L pods were listed five or six years ago as an endangered species.
That brought NOAA and some increased regulation, which we’re still sorting through. Probably the biggest change is seeing the increased concern about the whales’ health and livelihood. And an awareness of them being an endangered species because of their lack of food source, which is salmon. To me, that is the biggest concern and it’s huge.
The second thing is just the amount of chemicals that are found in their bodies, so the exposure to toxic chemicals is a big one.
The third item that was listed by NOAA was a concern about the whales getting loved to death, and the efforts three years ago to curtail or restrict what whale watch companies were doing. There was some concern that NOAA would designate a half-mile no-boat zone off the west side of San Juan Island, but at the last minute the industry got wind of it. I have a part-time guide, Connor Inslee, whose dad was running for Governor of Washington at the time and was in the House of Representatives. I called Connor and he talked to his dad. His dad put one of his staffers on it and he talked to the West Coast NOAA person. They made some changes and struck out that half-mile no-boat zone, much to our relief.
That’s a good guy to know in that situation.
What keeps you coming back out there? If you could boil it down to one element, what really keeps drawing you to the San Juan Islands?
The Islands are such a unique place. There just aren’t that many places in the world that when you get out on the west side, you’re in this incredible, beautiful marine environment, and you’re paddling in this cool boat that has this ancient lineage…and you look up and you’re ringed by mountains.
You’ve got Mount Baker and on a really clear day you can see Rainier, far to the south, then the Olympics. And there are not that many places in the world where we could be paddling in that green environment and have whales juxtaposed against mountains.
The ability to share that experience in a craft that you’re paddling by human power versus a stinky petroleum-burning boat is pretty cool. I guess kayaking is the closest thing you’d ever get to being a marine mammal. Having that water-level view and being in a sport that is quiet and unobtrusive and lets you get so close to inter-tidal stuff and marine mammals— it’s pretty neat to be able to share that with people. It’s a pretty cool way to make a living.
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