Tom Stienstra: Ambassador to the Outdoors

Iconic columnist and guidebook author has shared his adventures in California and the West for 30 years

By Pete Gauvin

Tom Stienstra: Ambassador to the Outdoors

In 1978, as a young sportswriter for the Peninsula Times Tribune, Tom Stienstra was covering an Oakland Raiders’ game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, when a life-changing epiphany seemingly fell out of the Wisconsin sky.

“In the third quarter, I realized I was sitting with 60,000 people in need of exercise, watching 22 guys in need of a rest. And I asked myself, “What am I doing with my life?”

He realized that life as a spectator/sportswriter was no life for him. The thought of a career sitting on his bum, watching and writing about a few lucky men playing a game, struck him as ultimate boredom, the personal equivalent of caging a wild animal.

Little more than a year later, Stienstra was tipped that Ed Neal, the outdoors writer for the San Francisco Examiner, was retiring after 40 years in the biz. Stienstra went to the newspaper’s offices and managed to sneak past security into the newsroom just five minutes after Neal announced his retirement.

“I walked up to the sports editor, and said, ‘I’m your new outdoors writer.’”

“Word gets around fast,” quipped the editor.

He must have been impressed with Stienstra’s stealth and enthusiasm because he gave him the job.

His dream job in hand, Stienstra ran with it and never looked back. Thirty years later, Stienstra’s newspaper columns and best-selling guidebooks have made him the unofficial poster-ambassador for generations of California outdoor adventurers, particularly during this, the height of the summer outdoor season.

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With amiable blue eyes peeking out under a broad-brimmed black leather hat and a full beard crowning his usual outfit of hiking boots, jeans and a button-down work shirt, Stientstra is as likely to be identified as TV’ s Grizzly Adams as he is a San Francisco newspaper columnist, and that’s without noting the bear-claw necklace that often hangs from his collar.

But there’s nothing remotely Hollywood about this mountain man. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a character truer to life. Stienstra’s appearance has been tailored by experience, by an ever-growing smorgasbord of adventures each year that have helped make him the most prolific outdoors writer in California, if not the country. He’s the nation’s top-selling guidebook author.

In fact, Tom spends close to 200 days each year in the West’s great unroofed — from hiking the alpine high country of the Sierra to fishing the briny Pacific … from scaling Mt. Shasta to exploring the myriad wildlands, lakes and pockets of open space that ring the Bay Area.

“He looks like Grizzly Adams, has the outdoor sense of Marlin Perkins, the spirit of Johnny Appleseed, and literally, the range of John Muir,” said Charles Cooper, the editor who hired Stienstra at the Examiner before becoming the managing editor of the Newark Star Ledger in New Jersey.

Indeed, county for county, trail for trail, Stienstra is arguably the most knowledgeable scribe about California’s wealth of natural beauty and recreational opportunities, roaming the state with the same sort of inquisitory awe that Muir displayed. From our most famous national parks to overlooked wild gems, including many just a short step from the clutter of urban life, you can bet that Stienstra has explored and written about it, and taught others to appreciate it.

“I’m really blessed that my editors let me roam around as much as they do,” says Stienstra, 55, who grew up in Palo Alto but now makes his home in the foothills below Mt. Eddy, west of Mount Shasta.

In addition to his ongoing role as outdoor writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate.com, Stienstra (pronounced “Steen-stra” — two syllables, not three) has written or contributed to nearly 20 books about exploring and recreating in California and the West — fishing its rivers, lakes and coastlines, hiking its most remote peaks and trails, discovering its best campsites — all the while marveling at and celebrating the awe-inspiring subtle natural splendors too often taken for granted.

Currently, he has some 10 titles in print, including four new guidebooks just out this spring focused on camping in Oregon and Washington. California Camping, now in its 16th edition, is the top-selling guidebook in the U.S. Twice it’s been ranked as the #1 outdoor book in the world by Amazon.com.

“The reason is not because I’m writing puffed out prose,” says Stienstra. “It’s because you can’t get this information anywhere else and rely on it. It’s because I’ve been there firsthand and done the adventure. It’s the whole reason I became an outdoors writer in the first place.”

His peers have noticed. He’s been inducted into the California Outdoor Hall of Fame and has twice been awarded National Outdoor Writer of the Year, newspaper division, by the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

Over the years, he’s also branched into radio and TV. In the Bay Area, he was a monthly guest on Evening Magazine and made numerous appearances on “Bay Area Backroads.” And for two years he hosted his own show, “The Great Outdoors with Tom Stienstra.” On the radio, he can be heard on Saturdays on KCBS-74.

Stienstra said he’s currently being considered for a national TV show on a new cable network. But even if he gets the show he would not leave his post at the Chronicle. Having written all his books while fulfilling his newspaper duties, he says it would be no problem to juggle both. “I learned that if you don’t watch TV and don’t have to commute, you’ve got time to write one book a year.”

As a TV persona, Stienstra’s mentor was Mike Rowe of the popular program “Dirty Jobs.” Rowe used to host Evening Magazine when Tom was a guest. “He completely transformed how I connected with the camera … Mike is every bit the great person that he appears to be on his show. He taught me more in a minute (about being on camera) than I’d learned in years.”

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It’s one of Stienstra’s more obscure book titles, Sunshine Jobs, Career Opportunities Working Outdoors, which provides the best clue to how he charted his career path.

Little did he know it, but he took his first step down the path when he was a lad of eight. As a class assignment, he wrote a story about his dog, Sport, which had run away and suddenly returned, titled “Searching for a Lost Friend.”

“You couldn’t read it without crying,” he recalls.

His second-grade teacher took the story to the local paper, the Palo Alto Times, where it was published. For young Tom, seeing his story in print was a thrill comparable to his first loves — hooking fish and playing baseball.

Stienstra continued to write through his youth and sold his first feature story at the age of 16. But writing still took a backseat to fishing, basketball and baseball, the latter at which he particularly excelled. In fact, on the pitcher’s mound he was skilled enough that the Oakland A’s give him a tryout in 1973. Fortunately, in retrospect, his fastball wasn’t big-league material. For the first time, he realized his fortunes were more likely to be determined by his ability to deliver a deft sentence than a strike on the outside corner.

Stienstra went to San Jose State University, graduated with a degree in journalism, then went to work as a sports reporter for the same hometown paper that published his first story, the Palo Alto Times. In 1979 the paper merged with the Redwood City Tribune to become the Peninsula Times Tribune and it wasn’t long after that Stienstra had his career-changing revelation in Green Bay.

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Years ago, Stienstra took me for a flight over the Peninsula and along the San Mateo coastline in his single-engine Mooney, a plane he had for 20 years before selling it when fuel prices spiked and it became too expensive to fly. He used it to commute to the Bay Area and for reconnaissance missions over the Sierra and other remote terrain.

“From the air you get such a tremendous perspective of the land. I’d see a place from the air and then go on the ground. I’ve discovered many of my favorite places that way.”

On this day in 2002, Stienstra invited me along as he checked out reports of off-road vehicle damage on Montara Mountain. From the Palo Alto airport, we flew across the Peninsula, over the redwood forest of Butano State Park, then north along the coast.

“It’s pretty incredible that we’re in an area with six million people and the odds of seeing another person in some nearby parks are about the same they are in Alaska,” Stienstra said flying up the coast. “The Bay Area has 1.2 million acres of greenbelt. There’s no place else in North America that has this much protected open space within its proximity.”

It was being in the pilot’s seat over California that convinced Stienstra to stay here, after thinking he might move to Alaska to become a guide and bush pilot. For only then did he realize how much wilderness was left to satisfy his adventurous spirit. “Once you have a perception of how much landscape there is left to explore,” he says, “there’s little need to go far.”

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As an outdoorsman, Stienstra is impossible to pigeonhole, except that he loves adventure in many forms. This gives him broad appeal among various camps of outdoor enthusiasts, including those with seemingly disparate interests. He can write about the thrills of hunting and fishing for rod-and-gun sportsmen and also appeal to take-nothing-but-pictures naturalists.

He might be fishing for striped bass in San Pablo Bay one day, hiking to a remote waterfall the next. “I don’t like to the same thing everyday. If I went fishing yesterday that’s the last thing I’ll do today,” he says.

Stienstra has paddled the length of the Sacramento River and backpacked the 211-mile John Muir Trail. He’s canoed the Owyhee River from Nevada to Idaho to Oregon and hiked 126 miles around the Bay Area in seven days. He’s hauled in 148-pound sturgeon (on 20-pound line) and an 11-pound Rainbow trout on a fly rod, among many other fish (see complete list on his website, tomstienstra.com).

In his columns he shows no particular allegiances for one type of adventure over another and palpable enthusiasm for whatever the adventure is at the moment. He often reminds users of all stripes what they have in common.

“I always try to network with enough people to get the complete scope of the story,” he says. “I get to see the goodness that most people have in them when they’re sharing a place that they love.”

“When you’ve done your reporting and done the adventure, I can hardly wait to sit down and write,” he adds. “It’s no problem for me to get up in the morning and write 2000 words.”

Despite his equal-opportunity approach, Stienstra is known to take strong stands on issues such as public access and conservation. He has long been an advocate of opening the Crystal Springs watershed, controlled by the San Francisco Water Department, to hikers and other low-impact users. He’s even received threats after he wrote columns pointing out that some of the water district’s employees lived in subsidized housing in these spectacular locations and treated them as their own private backyards, enjoying many of the activities off limits to the public, such as fishing and hiking.

Stienstra has also spoken firmly for people who want an unspoiled and serene experience in the outdoors, undisturbed by users whose fun intrudes on others or degrades the environment. For instance, he voiced strong support for banning noisy, fume-spewing two-stroke personal watercraft from sensitive coastal areas and alpine lakes.

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Despite troubled times in the newspaper industry, Stienstra doesn’t see his job with the Chronicle vaporizing in cyberspace.

“We have more readers than ever,” he says. “It’s like buying shoes. There are just as many customers as ever but instead of buying shoes at the local store, they’re going to a different store online to get them.”

Stienstra’s Sunday column is part of the Chronicle’s “exclusive to print” content; readers need to buy the paper or subscribe to the online edition to get it, or wait until Tuesday for it to appear in the free edition online.

“We have the most popular news site in the western United States. We’re hoping that enough readers think it’s worth paying a few pennies for content that’s independently verified and free of faction,” Stienstra says. “Almost everything you read on the Internet, there’s a public relations link behind the content. That’s why the newspaper business is going to survive in the long run — We’re the only ones that provide those two things. It may be delivered in a different form, but in the end you want to read information you can count on. It’s the same reason my books are so popular.”

It comes down to attribution and trust, he adds. “There’s a lot of people who think they’re journalists that aren’t willing to do the work of a journalist.”

By the sound of things, it looks like anyone hoping to sneak into the Chronicle to introduce him/herself as the next outdoors writer is going to have to wait a while. Tom’s got the job he always wanted and there’s never a lack of adventures to be had in California.

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