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WKC Bids Farewell to One of Its Founders, Tom Steinburn

Published on 5/17/2018

By Kurt Reidinger

Tom Steinburn, 1924 - 2018

Tom was born near Seattle and spent his early years on a farm in what is now South Seattle. As a young man he worked as a riveter in the shipyards and joined the Army during WWII but did not serve overseas for health reasons. 

After WWII, he worked for the USGS surveying Alaska's North Slope, floating down Arctic rivers, escorting geologists and their equipment in order to map the landscape. This work presaged his later kayaking career. He also took up mountain climbing in the postwar era and was skilled enough that he, Fritz Lippman, and Dave Collins successfully summited Denali (then McKinley), one of the more difficult and harrowing peaks in North America. They were the tenth expedition to climb Denali and years later he shared his experiences with an online narrative and slideshow:  He took from this experience that while mountaineers had to carry their own equipment, for kayakers, the equipment carried them. 

Not long after his Denali adventure, Tom began his association with Wolf Bauer and the Washington Foldboat Club (later the Washington Kayak Club). Kayaking was in its infancy at the time and Tom joined other club members in pioneering many runs down rivers in the Seattle area that are still used today. That pioneering spirit led to even more adventurous runs farther afield like the Bruneau-Jarbidge Rivers in northern Nevada and Idaho. The pioneers also turned to sea kayaking and made the first trips to the west coast of Vancouver Island and other BC destinations. These initial trips led to many more, and Tom almost invariably planned one or more each summer for years, introducing newcomers to the sport. 

Tom saw into the future and realized that human population growth in the Puget Sound region would seriously restrict access for paddlers in the coming years. Shorelines that were once relatively open were now becoming off limits. He, along with friend Tom Deschner and others, decided that a system of dedicated access points spaced along the shoreline was needed, and the water trail concept became their goal. They worked hard to convince Washington State Parks and other parks that the idea was viable. Eventually Washington Water Trails Association was born. 

Tom was a master at kayak camping, consulting cookbooks for interesting recipes that didn't require refrigerated ingredients. He developed a compact, efficient cook kit built around a wok that was easily stowed in the hatch along with a small, two-burner Coleman stove. He had a knack for picking out the "kitchen" site soon after landing at the campsite. Up went a blue tarp to shield the sun or shed the rain. Beach logs were re-arranged to form tables and seating places. Others on the trip had to agree to cook one or two dinner meals for the entire group, so each person took his or her turn at the cook stove with the understanding that rest of the party handled clean-up. Tom's kayak camping expertise even led to a career as a guide for others willing to pay for the experience. 

Tom pursued advanced education during the 1950's and sociology was his chosen field. He obtained a master’s degree in the late 1950's and later a doctorate in the 1960's, both from the University of Washington. This led to work with troubled youth in Seattle, and also a period at Western State Hospital. His training and early grasp of computer technology brought him to state government where he ultimately rose to become the State Registrar of Vital Records (now Vital Statistics). He retired from this position in the 1980's. 

Tom had wide-ranging interests beyond outdoor adventure sports. Gardening and working the soil were a passion. He was keen to try new and unusual plants and fruit trees. He was an avid food preservationist, not only canning fruits and vegetables, but drying them as well so they would keep and serve as lightweight provisions on a kayak trip. He very much enjoyed cooking and having friends over for dinner. 

Tom also traveled widely, from the desert southwest, where he had a fascination for the arid beauty, to old world Europe and its cities, and to his getaway "the Nest", on Hood Canal where he was intrigued by oyster farming. He read widely as well, and occasionally attended plays both at home and in Ashland, OR. 

Above all he was an open, welcoming, and generous spirit. He will be sorely missed. 

Tom Steinburn

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