In my research of Camano Island’s beaches I’ve had opportunities to meet many amazing people who love and care for our beaches. Two of those were David and Linda Burbaker.

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David taught in the Biology Department at Seattle University for thirty years. His degree is in Aquatic Biology.  Linda was a Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of Washington. They are part of Sound Water Stewards, which used to be Beach Watchers.

Island County Beach Watchers started in 1994 when a group of people who lived on Camano and Whidbey Island, who were concerned about their beaches and who wanted to care for them got together. It was ten years after the big Exon Oil Spill in Alaska. These Islanders were concerned about the large tankers that went through the Straits of Juan de Fuca, through the San Juan Islands and to Cherry point (east of Anacortes) where they offloaded and onloaded oil at the big oil refining facility in Anacortes.

They worked with Don Mehan who ran the Washington State University’s extension office and who was passionate about developing citizens science opportunities to form a group called the Beach Watchers of Island County. The purpose of Beach Watchers was to monitor beaches on Whidbey and Camano Islands, to provide education for people about beach stewardship. Their initial concern was  in case there was ever an oil spill they wanted to be able to monitor any changes that might occur. To do this they needed scientific data from those beach. Beach Watchers was not an advocacy group. It was an educational group, believing that education and familiarity with their beaches would lead citizens to better care for and to make more informed decisions about their beaches. In June of 2016 this group formally became Sound Water Stewards of Island County (SWS), a 501c3 organization. SWS is run by volunteers; being a locally controlled group gives them more flexibility. It is also not an advocacy group.

Linda spoke of the incredible diversity of beaches along Camano’s 52 miles of shoreline. Camano has beaches that are very muddy, sandy beaches, ones that have small gravel, all the way up to big cobble (2 to 4 inch rocks). They have different plants and animals that prefer that substrate.


By studying these different beaches and the animals and plants which are distributed along vertical tidal zones, they can learn why this variation occurs. SWS’s focus is their intertidal monitoring program, which gets data on the beaches between the highest and lowest tides; they monitor monitor the slope of those beaches, the plants that grow there, and the animals that live there.

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SWS monitors eleven beaches on Camano Island: English Boom, Cama Beach, Iverson Beach, Pebble Beach, Elger bay, Utsalady, Cavalero, Madrona, Camano Island State Park, Onamac and Mabana Beach.

This takes a small group (5-8) of volunteers who receive 100 hours of instruction. Training to be a Sound Water Steward has two parts. The first is in March and April, the second half in September and October. The first half focuses on the science involved around Marine Biology (it is called Marine Biology 101): marine biology, coastal processes, geology, forest effect the coastal environment, the effect of climate, water quality, estuary processes, and marine animals, birds, mammals, and invertebrates. It is essentially an “ecology of the coastline”

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Another focus of the first month of training is to learn the rigorous, scientific processes of intertidal beach monitoring that starts in mid may through end of July or early August during the summer low tide season. I learned from David and Linda that Camano is somewhat unique in its complicated tidal sequence: Camano has two tides each day; two high tide and two low tides. One low tide is much lower than the other low tide. The summer’s sequence of tides are the lowest; in the winter the low tides happen in the middle of the night.

There are close to 300 volunteers in the SWS organization (2/3 on Whidbey, 1/3 on Camano), the majority of whom are retired. SWS is not just a great vehicle for people to get to know their beaches, it is also a great way to get to know your neighbors. People who are in early retirement often have lots of energy, different backgrounds, diverse experiences, and are very passionate about the beaches. 95% of the people in training are not scientists; but they appreciate the science background they are given. While information comes at them fast and furious, it is at their level. And it is applied information. There are lots of field trips.

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Those who participate in SWS gain great familiarity with the beaches. And an appreciation for the beaches in their area. They also participate in the community through education. SWS participates with Friends of Camano Island State Parks (FOCIP) to put on a 2nd Grade and 5th grade nature nature study day at Camano Island State Park. FOCIP leads the exploration of the forested area in the park; SWS leads the beach exploration, their main focus being beach etiquette. David and Linda shared how impressed they are that the children often already know their beach etiquette; they are impressed with the parents and teachers who are nurturing good stewards of our beaches from a young age.

SWS has been monitoring the beaches for so long that they have amassed the longest monitoring data set in the Puget Sound. Currently UW scientists are analyzing the data gathered using strict scientific protocol over all of these years; in the upcoming year a scientific paper will summarize their findings.  In this way, the impact of these citizens doing good citizen science will be significant.

The beach monitoring is done once a season, when there is a low tide of at least minus two. In this way each. They try to get a good distribution of beaches all around the Island, east, west, north and south; and they try to hit as many general types of beaches. They take a huge amount of care to make sure of all the sampling is done at the same place, and done very carefully. The scientific protocol they follow was developed in 1997 and revised in 2003 to ensure they monitor the same beaches in the same, permanent steps.

I was curious about David and Linda’s perspective on the tension between private and public beaches.

They told me that when they first visited Camano Island as a potential place to move they drove around the Island. There were very few views of beaches. They just drove through woods, trees lining each side of the street. They were not impressed. It “looked like we were driving in Enumclaw” David remarked. “You couldn’t enjoy what the Island was all about.” They didn’t know where the public beaches were. Now they live on a steep bluff over the beach and have their own private beach. They share a tram with their eleven neighbors.  They see that inherently there is a struggle between the public and private.

Linda shared how just that morning she was walking their dog and talked to a women who lives north of them who asked her about walking on their beach. Linda said to her, “You can walk on our beach” and said that her eyes lit up: “I can”. Linda told me her private opinion is that she is fine with people walking on our beach. She went on, “Stopping and digging clams, anything harmful to the beach, I wouldn’t like.” She wants people to use the beach with respect; walking on the beach vs. throwing rocks, which would effect the beach in a negative way.

“I can’t see locking up the beauty of the world so that some people have it, and others don’t.” Linda said. She reiterated that this was just her personal opinion.

Linda said that in her teaching she had a sociologist professor who said, “people are part of the environment just as much as deer, bear, salmon. So when you think about the preferred condition, or status, of the environment, you have to factor people in too. You can’t ignore them. That’s where the dilemma comes.”

David and Linda understand the tension between sharing public places and stewarding our natural resources. Linda reflected that National Parks have a big dilemma. They are tasked with preserving these natural areas and allowing the public to enjoy these natural areas. But today those things are not compatible. Too many people using the national parks, and the amount of use is at odds with preserving the parks. So there are times when preserving a place and using it as a resource are not compatible.

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My conversation with David and Linda reminded me that all who live on Camano Island and love its beaches are given the responsibility to be good stewards of those beaches. What is a steward? A steward is a knowledgeable, watchful person who takes responsibility to care for the beaches. Like a parent notices when one of their children is not feeling well in the morning, a steward is aware when a beach is not doing well too.

I hope in some small way Sunnyshore Studio’s Beaches of Camano Project encourages Islanders to be good stewards of our beaches.


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