Leader Spotlight: Bruce Durham

Leader Spotlight is a monthly blog to showcase our incredible volunteer leadership at The Mountaineers. Meet this month's featured leader: Bruce Durham. He is a self-proclaimed "paddling enthusiast" who continues to plan and schedule kayaking day trips that allow fellow Mountaineers to get out into the great outdoors during the pandemic.
Sara Ramsay Sara Ramsay
Volunteer Development Manager
August 29, 2020
Leader Spotlight: Bruce Durham

For our Leader Spotlight this month we talked to Bruce Durham, a volunteer leader with the Tacoma Branch who has ramped-up his paddling during the pandemic. He eventually hopes to lead a series of day trips - 22 of them! - originating at Budd Inlet near Olympia, paddling north through Puget Sound to the Straight of Juan de Fuca, then going west out to Cape Flattery and around to Hobuck Beach. It  will be a 229nm adventure.

Name: Bruce Durham
Branch: Tacoma
Where do you live? Gig Harbor, WA
How long have you been a leader? 3 years (member since 2016)
What activities do you lead? Sea Kayaking

Leadership Questions

What inspired you to lead trips for The Mountaineers?

Before COVID-19 invaded all our lives, I enjoyed getting out to paddle at least once a month and I swam at the YMCA for exercise. Since that’s no longer viable, I’ve upped my game to kayaking and mountain biking for exercise. I now try to lead a paddle at least two or three times a month. I really enjoy the socializing that’s part of being a Sea Kayak Leader. Plus it accomplishes my exercise needs.

What is the best, favorite, or most memorable trip you've led for The Mountaineers?

So far, I've led two trips that stand out.

  • Pre-COVID-19. Last Summer, I circumnavigating Harstine Island in a one-day outing with current assistance. We paddled 21.8nm in 7 hours, and we had an opportunity to stop in Dana Passage at a privately owned, not posted “Private Property Beach”. This beach was so well-maintained. It had nice benches, well-groomed grass, and it’s own Port-a-Potty. Since then, I've reached out to the owners of the joint property and they've given me permission to stop there anytime I want. I’ve led two additional paddles from two different locations to that beach in the last year. That Harstine Paddle last summer really opened up future opportunities. This paddle is normally done in two days, and it was a big deal for me because I hadn’t paddle that far in one day before.
  • COVID-19 Phase II. This summer, I led a Marrowstone & Indian Island circumnavigation paddle. We practiced social distancing on the water and we wore masks when on the beach or at "bio" breaks. That morning, we saw an Osprey with a nice fish in its claws and several Bald Eagles. After lunch, most of us spent time practicing our rolls as the currents drew us out into the tidal exchange. This creates some pretty wild tide races, so we chased and played in the rough water caused by passing boats. Then it was a 6nm paddle with no places to stop around Indian Island, as it’s a military occupied island that’s off limits to the public. We covered 17.4nm on the trip and we reached a top speed of just under 5kt, with an average pace of 3kt. It was a great day with friends, blue skies, white clouds, and lots of sun with assistance of a NNE breeze at our backs riding a flood tide and currents pushing us down the coastline of Indian Island. 

How has your leadership style evolved as you've gained experience?

The Mountaineers leadership program teaches you the basics of how to lead trips successfully. But I’ve learned it's the people who participate in the paddles that make the trips enjoyable. It's having a common goal of wanting to continue practicing our skills, like rolling. And should you be forced to do a wet exit, we have an opportunity to perform our new Social Distancing Modified Assisted Rescues. A fellow paddler, Rohan Theiss, found these on YouTube and shared them with me and the Tacoma Branch. 

I've also developed patience, taking time out of the planned day and adding mini adventures that allow each participant the opportunity to do their own thing. I personally enjoy the millions of migrating birds and “fishers” as I call them, the Grey Herons. One of these magnificent birds came and landed near us at a bio break a couple of weeks ago during our Marrowstone Paddle. It’s creatures like these that keep me adventuring: eagles, seals, black porpoises, huge polar-bear-looking sea lions, and whales. I’ve yet to see a whale up close, but I’m hopeful to have the honor of occupying the same space up close in our wild playground. Last year, while friends of mine were paddling the Narrows, a whale surfaced right in the middle of their kayaking group.

Any learning experiences you can share, such as take-aways from a close call or a near miss?

A "learning experience" was last year paddling in Deception Pass during a flood tide under Canoe Pass bridge. I was an Assistant Leader on the Currents & Skills paddle that Micheal Everett and Alison Reinbold co-led last summer. I had been doing boat watch and I was the last one to leave the area after we had finished our day of playing. Micheal contacted me on the radio letting me know everyone was ready to head back and that I should join them.

I had been parked in a small back eddy watching this whirlpool develop and become stronger as the current built, 7.1kt flowing over a very sharp outcrop. I had crossed it earlier in the day and it was a breeze. So off I went, intending to cross perpendicular to the flow, which immediately and authoritatively turned my kayak in a downstream direction. I continued paddling very aggressively and was within inches of reaching the end of it when I realized I was no longer moving forward. I was being drawn backwards and still paddling. To complicate it more, a huge canyon where the whirlpool was had turned into a two foot deep hole 10’x 20’. I instinctively mooned it (tipped/edged the boat toward the hole with the bottom of the boat facing the whirlpool) and attempted low, and then high braces, before being heaved over into the canyon. I attempted my roll with no luck at all. Hanging onto my paddle and the kayak, I wet excited, righted the kayak, and continued the round and round ride in this giant whirling torrent. I realized I was on my own, but I also noticed I was only a few feet off shore. So I stretched out my foot and caught hold of the bottom. I then was able to stand up.

As I was emptying my kayak, Will Wade paddled up and asked me if he could help. As we were assessing our next move, Michael contacted us on our radios. He suggested that we raft-up in order to overcome the violent, whirling torrent of water between us and easy paddling. After considering all our options, we went ahead and did exactly that. Even being rafted-up, it was still a very exciting maneuver. One of us was paddling, the other was hanging onto the other kayak, and once in the whirlpool, the hole in the middle was so deep it darn near turned us both over. I shouted that Will should commit to his kayak, and if he hadn’t, we would have flipped over. We then hung on with all we had. It took us three full 360° rotations of bouncing off the cliff walls a couple of times before we eventually floated out through calmer water. It was invigorating and fun.

Looking back, my-take-away from this: Be sure to read the water carefully before attempting what appears to be an easy crossing, and if at all possible, go around it. Otherwise be prepared to have all your skills put to the test.

What advice do you have for aspiring leaders in The Mountaineers community?

I try to anticipate all the what if’s, then I just try to roll with what’s happening. I’ve learned to be open. Paddles don’t always work as planned. Be prepared to be flexible and have fun with it.


I enjoy the company of other paddling “enthusiasts” like me, who just want to get out and enjoy the great Pacific Northwest as we continue striving to keep working on our skills to safely navigate them!

Lightning Round

What's your go-to place for a post-trip meal? Steamers at Titlow Beach; Buzz's Bar & Grill on Eld Inlet in Olympia; and Tides in Gig Harbor for lunch on the water.
How about your best trail snack? Mixed nuts and grapes.
What "luxury item" do you bring on most trips? Freshly home-brewed tumeric and ginger tea from grated, frozen roots.
What's next on your bucket list? Paddling all the rips and rapids around Washington State and leading trips from the south Puget Sound up and out to Hobuck Beach by kayak. It’s approximately 229nm. Once we can safely car shuttle again, it could be accomplished with approximately 22 separate paddles of 10-12nm in length each.

is there Someone that you'd like to see in the spotlight?

Send an email to Sara Ramsay to make a recommendation for one of our upcoming Leader Spotlights!

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Bruce Durham
Bruce Durham says:
Aug 10, 2020 11:56 AM

Mooning the Canyon refers to if I were edging my boat to the right sideThe left of my boat would be lower in the water then the right and the right bottom of the boat would be facing the canyon which we as Kayaker is referred to as mooning.

Chi Tran
Chi Tran says:
Sep 01, 2020 12:29 PM

Great Spotlight piece. How can one get information about upcoming paddles or training for the Tacoma Branch Sea Kayaking?

Sara Ramsay
Sara Ramsay says:
Sep 08, 2020 11:20 AM

@Chi - You can search for upcoming courses (https://www.mountaineers.org/courses/courses-clinics-seminars#c9=&b_start=0&c4=Sea+Kayaking&c7=Tacoma) and activities (https://www.mountaineers.org/activities/activities#b_start=0&c4=Sea+Kayaking&c8=Tacoma) on our website, and I'd suggest getting in touch with Charlie Michel (https://www.mountaineers.org/members/charlie-michel), the current chair, for additional info!

Kevin Bulley
Kevin Bulley says:
Sep 04, 2020 10:11 PM

I was lucky to be on Bruce's Harstine and Marrowstone Island paddles, as well as many others. Bruce has an infectious enthusiasm that makes his trips fun while staying safe and within the advertised goals of each trip. Bruce is mentoring me on my own leader paddle in the near future. I aspire to meet his expectations and provide at least a fraction of the leadership skills he brings to every one of his paddles.