California Dreamin’ with… Jason Self
I grew up in Austin Texas, the self proclaimed ‘Live Music Capital of the World’. Being surrounded by such a thriving music scene growing up inevitably led me to pursue a career in music early on. I played guitar in bands through high school and college, where I met my partner Shay Bickley in 1995 at the University of North Texas. During college I entered into the music business, founding a national booking agency and concert promotion company which quickly grew to success. After a few years of late nights at venues and endless hours on the computer, I began having nature withdrawals.
A visit to coastal Northern California in the summer of 2002 closed the deal. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew where I wanted to be. Three months later Shay and I sold all of our belongings except our bedding, a computer, and a guitar and headed west to the promised land in order to immerse ourselves in the natural beauty that exists here. Our savings ran out after about two years and we relocated to Portland, Oregon for more employment opportunity. Portland is an amazing place, but we’re not city people and in 2013 we moved back to coastal Northern California to once again immerse ourselves in nature and we’re not planning on leaving any time soon.
How did you start out in what is a very successful career in sea kayaking?
I’ve never heard my career describes as “very successful” before, but if you define success by getting to do what makes you happy for a living, then yeah. I’ll go with that! Can you make sure my girlfriend’s parents see this please?
Before our initial visit to Northern California in 2002, I began perusing gear for our trip at local outdoor stores. Let me just say that the marketing worked. A paddling magazine at the shop caught my eye, and when I flipped through the pages, there was a great photograph of a man cooking dinner on his camp stove on a desolate beach surrounded by pine trees and snow covered mountains overlooking a mirror flat body of water reflecting the scene.
Considering it was July in Texas and the average temperature was 90-100F, I couldn’t think of anything more in the world I’d rather be doing. I grew up swimming and fishing in the creeks, lakes, and rivers, and kayaking resonated with me on many levels. Water has always drawn me to it. At that time the biggest appeal to me was solitude and exploration. The kayak was simply a means of transportation to secret beaches and solo journeys far from civilization. At that point I was hooked and had never even sat in a kayak before.
Once we got to California, I begged every person I met who had a kayak to take me paddling. I couldn’t get enough, and realized pretty quickly I would need to get my own gear to be able to paddle as much as I wanted to. It wasn’t until 2005 that I purchased my first kayak.
Working full time and attending my second tour of college full time left me very little free time to paddle. As I wasn’t heavily involved with a serious job while attending school, I decided the best way for me to get all the time in a boat I wanted was to start guiding and teaching, combining my work and play into one activity. I started leading beginner tours for Portland Kayak Company in down town Portland, circumnavigating Ross Island three times a day, five days a week.
The seasonal conditions of employment there made paying the bills tough, and at the end of the first season I left and started work for Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe. Alder Creek had collected a stable of world class kayakers and it was here that my paddling education and skill would really take off. I had only planned on staying with them through school; a year or two at most. Seven years later I found the obsession had only grown. Unintentionally, sea kayaking had become the centre of my universe and I decided to go with the flow rather than fight the current. I abandoned my plans of world domination and financial prowess to pursue my passion every day.
The ecology of the ocean is central to your beliefs – what sparked the interest?
The ocean has always fascinated me. It’s been a subconscious attraction as long as I can remember and I really can’t explain why. I’ve always had a deep appreciation of nature that was instilled by my parents early on. As a sea kayaker, I had developed a deep love for the ocean, but it wasn’t until my second round of college, majoring in Environmental Science/Fishery and Wildlife Science, minoring in Ecology and Resource Management that I really began to understand what was at stake, not only at the physical level (we need fish to eat and oxygen to breath and our weather to remain within certain parameters for human survival) but also the psychological impact the ocean (and nature in general) has on all of us.
Books like ‘Blue Mind’ have made the affect water has on the human psyche more main stream in recent years, but in reality we are just beginning to understand how important it is to human happiness.
When the BP Gulf Oil Spill happened in 2010, it became painfully clear that there was a real possibility we would destroy our oceans for resource extraction and profit without ever fully understanding the value of the ecological systems to humanity and all life on this planet. The apathy of the American people and the BP response proved that the vast majority of people either didn’t understand the value or didn’t care. If I had to pinpoint one event as the catalyst to go from words to action, that would be it.
What’s been the biggest step forward to reduce plastic trash in the oceans in the last 12 months?
Society in my opinion is no different that High School. If the cool kids do something, everyone else follows. In the last decade, the cool kids have been taking a stand against single use plastics and litter. Bag bans have succeeded in many parts of the US, and a ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetic products has successfully passed at the national level in the last year. Public opinion has turned in favour of reducing plastic pollution by eliminating the non essential use of single use plastics and that’s what it takes to have a major impact and work towards solving the problem all together. What once seemed like a hopeless situation to me now seems like it will eventually be reduced to manageable levels, as long as those working to raise awareness of the issue keep the pressure on the public to act.
What can we all do as a collective to reduce ocean pollution?
We have a saying, “If it floats or blows, there’s only one place it goes.” The reality is if you are using single use plastics you are contributing to the problem. It takes a bit of willpower to change your habits at first, but after a while you’ll find that little things like refusing plastic straws, bringing your own reusable bag to the market, or always having a reusable water bottle with you become just as routine as anything else. It’s hard to imagine these simple things can make a difference, but if you think about what you use over the course of your lifetime, then multiply it by billions of people, it’s easy to see the impact a single person can have.
What’s the most enjoyable encounter with wildlife that you’ve had at sea?
I am lucky enough to live near a spot on the coast where migrating whales seem to enjoy taking a rest. I don’t think I will ever get over the thrill of kayaking with whales, even though it’s become a fairly regular event. I look forward to their return every year like a kid looks forward to Christmas. The only thing that tops it for me is sharing that experience with others for the first time.
One of my favourite encounters occurred two years ago while fishing a reef about a mile offshore of Trinidad, California. I was just a few feet from a wash rock, focused on fishing, when I was surprised to find myself surrounded by a pod of breaching gray whales, all of them surfacing at the same time within 30 feet of me. I pulled up my handline quick as the pod slipped back below the surface and I started paddling towards shore.
After a few hundred yards I turned to see if I was clear, and saw a mother and calf headed straight for me. I continued paddling towards the beach until I could see the bottom, thinking there was no way the whales would come in that shallow. I turned around again to check their position, but couldn’t see them anywhere. I looked down and the calf was directly under my boat looking back at me from just a few feet below. It’s 40-foot mother rested on the surface just a few feet away. It seemed to me that the calf was curious and just wanted to check me out. It swam around me for a few minutes while its mother kept a careful eye before they decided to continue their journey northward.
How does sea kayaking and fishing give you satisfaction?
Both sea kayaking and fishing serve the same purpose for me, which is why I suppose I enjoy combining the two. It’s all about having an intimate connection and understanding of the ocean and a desire for unique experiences with a bit of adventure and discovery along the way. Sea kayaking provides this from the surface up, and fishing fills my curiosity and fascination of what’s below the surface.
Ever been scared out there and by what?
I used to have the desire to fish no matter the conditions, but the last few years I’ve enjoyed kayaking when things pick up more than fighting them to fish. Less wind, current, and swell makes fishing easier, More wind, current, and swell makes playing with sea kayaks much more fun than fishing.
Tell us a bit about your coaching setup and how you help others to improve?
Constant, subtle encouragement and positive feedback, combined with a lot of patience, seem to be the key to breaking through people’s barriers to allow them selves to learn through their own self guided exploration. For me at least, it seems to be more effective than simply sharing my knowledge. Provide the opportunity for someone to safely experiment and explore technique on their own, and they seem to develop faster.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am in the process of releasing my first attempt at producing a documentary film ‘The Search for the Perfect Day’ and have been putting a lot of effort into developing my skill with a camera in the last few years. Ocean paddling is my muse and I’m focusing on producing smaller projects more often. The next being my second year shooting and producing photos and event video for Santa Cruz Paddlefest, the largest and oldest paddle surf competition on the West Coast US.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
I hope that in 20 years I’m doing exactly what I am doing now. I feel incredibly lucky that I get to share my love of the ocean with others for a living, be it through teaching and guiding sea kayaking, photography, writing, or as an ocean advocate with OSOM.
What do you do when not kayaking?
What is special about the Californian coastline?
The combination of incredible scenery, wildlife, and remoteness combined with a moderate climate are to me the perfect combination for a wide range of paddling experience. The Mediterranean climate and temperate nature of the Northern California Coast means when it’s cold and miserable to the north of us in winter, it’s nice here, and when it’s hot and miserable south of us, it’s nice here too!
If you could paddle with anyone in the world dead or alive who would it be?
I would love to paddle with Nanook of the North. If you haven’t seen that film, you should. In the first ten minutes he pulls his wife, two kids, and dogs out of the inside of his kayak, catches salmon by dangling bits of ivory off the edge of the ice to attract them, then closes the deal with his harpoon. The guy hunts and harvests a leopard seal with a handline solo, and then captures and kills a walrus with his group of Inuit kayak hunters. There’s an enormous understanding of kayaking, ocean survival, and nature happening there. I’d love the opportunity to learn from the master.
Which one sportsman or woman has inspired you?
As a sea kayaker, I really admire Paul Caffin. His laid back, low key, under the radar approach to spectacular kayak expeditions is inspiring. Whenever things get complicated I try and think about Paul and his ability to just grab his boat and go with little fan fair and no BS.
Cats or dogs?
Cat’s. No other pet is ok with you abandoning it for a week or two at a time to go paddling.
Facebook or Twitter?
An ideal night out for you is?
Bonfire, barbecue, beers, and good friends on the beach.
What’s in your fridge right now?
My freezer looks like an aquarium right now. I’ve got wild abalone, chinook salmon, black rockfish, butter, and beer. What else could you possibly need?
Many thanks Jason for all of your help on this – we really appreciate it.