Locals use kayaks to share environmental message

jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.comMarch 30, 2014 

When I first met Ken Campbell nearly a decade ago, kayaking was his business. He ran Azimuth Expeditions on South Tacoma Way. He sold kayaks and gear, he taught lessons, led trips in local waters and wrote books about his greatest adventures.

Today, Campbell uses his kayaking skills to spread his environmental message.

The pace of that effort picks up next month as Campbell and partner Steve Weileman premiere their second film on their efforts to track debris on remote beaches, and then they embark on a trip from one end of Puget Sound to the other aboard a kayak made of plastic bottles.

The film, “The Secrets of Augustine,” is based on a trip the two made last summer to paddle around Augustine Island at the mouth of Cook Inlet in Alaska. It is a follow-up to their 2012 trip in which they paddled from Neah Bay to Ruby Beach on the Olympic Peninsula looking for signs of debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. That trip resulted in their first film, “Ikkatsu Project: The Roadless Coast.”

Comparing the two trips in a recent phone conversation, Campbell said there were some differences.

“As citizen scientists, we’re a little more ahead of the game versus when we did the roadless coast trip,” he said.

“Paddlingwise, this trip was a little more demanding because it was quite remote. When we got dropped off at Augustine Island, we didn’t see another soul for 12 days. We saw one airplane go overhead.”

While there was plenty of debris — mainly plastic — not much of it could be attributed to the tsunami of 2011.

They did find, on a beach on the north side of Cook Inlet, a fishing net float that was covered in Japanese characters.

Some investigation after they returned to Tacoma revealed the float was part of fishing gear lost by a Japanese husband and wife. They returned the float, along with a soccer ball found on the Olympic Coast in 2012.

Campbell said they found some beaches clear of debris and others holding plenty of items.

“The debris is definitely there. But there were no beaches that were as bad as the one we found in 2012 at Portage Head, in terms of layers of plastic garbage. As the storms have come in, it has resulted in a layering of plastic garbage there.”

In addition to surveying beaches on foot, the two also collected more than a dozen water samples. Researchers in Maine found microplastic in each sample, including one that had 71 pieces of microplastic in the 1-liter sample.

Looking back, Campbell said they found as much debris as expected.

“The big surprise was the concentration. Some beaches were clean and others were loaded,” he said. “In Washington, we found it on every beach we stopped at.”

Finding debris in such remote locations, however, should be a warning.

“The fact that you can go to some Arctic beach and count debris should give us pause. You can find it everywhere,” Campbell said.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Campbell is he is not a zealot. He understands he often is preaching to the choir, thus he looks for new ways to tell his story. In fact, communications is part of the studying he is doing as he works toward a master’s degree.

“Part of telling a message well is not telling it the same way over and over,” he said.

That pursuit of new communication vehicles led to their next adventure, scheduled to launch April 12. The plan, Campbell said, is to paddle a 16-foot kayak made of about 450 discarded single-use plastic bottles from Olympia to Bellingham. It should take about a month to do the 150-mile trip.

Measuring 29.5 inches wide, the kayak has a wooden fame to keep it rigid.

When I asked Campbell how they kept the bottles together, he said, “Hopes and wishes – and a lot of glue.”

The craft, named Hyas yiem for a Chinook term that translates as “telling a tale,” was one of those middle-of-the-night ideas, Campbell admits. But, he has discovered, it is a great conservation starter.

“You don’t have to bring up the subject of plastic bottles if people are following you through the parking lot as you get ready to launch it,” he said.

Along the way, the pair will participate in beach cleanups organized by local environmental groups and parks departments, as well as give presentations on the issues facing Puget Sound in the 21st century.

They also will be continuing their checks of marine debris in shoreline areas and collecting water samples for microplastics studies.

“But the most important message we’re trying to get out is that single-use plastic packaging is a wasteful convenience that our environment can no longer afford,” he said.

Campbell said he always considered himself an environmentalist, but it wasn’t until the Olympic Peninsula trip that he realized what he needed to do.

“Our first beach out of Neah Bay, from 100 yards out it looked really clean. But as we got close and looked at the vegetation line, there was all kinds of plastic. Here we thought it was a pristine beach and there was plastic everywhere.

“We already had a debris problem, but it wasn’t easy to see,” Campbell said. “We realized we needed to be the eyes and ears of the people.”

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640 jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.com thenewstribune.com/outdoors

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