Erik Schorr graduated from the University of Washington in 1993. He worked his way through college as a commercial fisherman in Alaska which forged a deep love of the sea and a healthy respect for its power. Erik met his wife Megan (co-owner of AKT) and together they lived on San Juan Island for seven years, working as kayak guides and Erik as a captain of a whale-watch boat. In the off-seasons they traveled widely throughout the globe (including a stint on “The Ice” working for the United States Antarctic Program), and spent a considerable amount of time exploring the canyons of the American desert. In 2004 they moved to Anacortes and founded Anacortes Kayak Tours. In the same year they gave birth to their first son, and then the real fun began!

As Anacortes Kayak Tours and his family continues to grow, Erik enjoys spending time finding new ways to create memorable experiences for his guests. During the off-season he spends his time coaching his sons’ soccer teams, taking trips with his family, ocean kayaking, and preparing for the next season. It’s not a quiet life, but he cannot imagine doing anything better!

Erik Schorr with his wife Megan and sons Taiga and Tashi
Erik Schorr with his wife Megan and sons Taiga and Tashi

How do the experiences you offer at Anacortes Kayak Tours give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of your region?

There is simply no way to experience the nooks and crannies of our beautiful islands in a more intimate way than by sea kayak. Gliding silently through kelp beds at a walking pace, or drifting along in the current, allows the scenery to infuse itself into our minds. Every wavelet lapping against the rocks, every breath of a porpoise or snort of a curious seal is felt as much as it is heard. The smell of the salt air, and the aroma of the sun-warmed fir trees along the shoreline, complement the sense of being part of a place. When we allow ourselves to contemplate all of this against the background of time, the deep-time of the shifting plates which formed the islands, and the more recent glaciation that sculpted their shapes, the movement of indigenous peoples who made subtle but unmistakable impressions on the landscape, and the contemporary impacts of modern culture, we cannot help but feel like we are part of a bigger story. Our guides strive to try and help our guests make these connections in the hopes of being a catalyst of that personal transformation that can happen when we feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves.

How have the experiences that you offer evolved since their inception?

AKT started out as a fairly one-dimensional company. We were on the path to bigger things but, with a new baby on the way and all of the pitfalls of starting a new business, we felt that it would be prudent to only offer 3 hour kayak trips departing from Anacortes and paddling off of the west side of Fidalgo Island. Growth came quickly for us and we expanded to running 6 hours trips as well, using a local water-taxi service to bring us out to the Cypress Island Marine Protected Area. As both of these trips gained in popularity our confidence grew and we were able to be awarded with the exclusive concession to operate tours out of Deception Pass State park, the most visited state park in Washington. This concession allowed us to offer shorter trips for families with very small children, as well as for people who might be nervous about their ability to paddle.

It didn’t take long for the AKT momentum to really take off and before long we were offering overnight trips to destinations all over the San Juan Islands. Presently we offer a wide variety of trips throughout the San Juans, we offer private tours, single kayaks for more adventurous folks, custom outings for educational purposes, even the occasional “advanced” tour option for experienced people who want a little more challenge. It has definitely been the biggest adventure of our lives, and one that keeps on challenging us to be innovative. We love it!

San Juan Islands, Kayaking with a Gray whale
San Juan Islands, Kayaking with a Gray whale

What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?

I’m glad that you asked this question because I feel that my answer is important but very difficult to communicate effectively to potential guests in a way that does not come across sounding like a cliche.

I think that most guests probably do not notice that our guides are among the most well-prepared trip leaders out here in the San Juan islands. Behind the charismatic personality, behind the knowledge of natural and cultural history, there is an individual who has participated in a rigorous training program that far exceeds the industry standard out here. All of our guides are required to show proficiency in handling themselves in dynamic water conditions that exceed anything that we would take our guests out in before they are allowed to lead tours on their own. Guides are expected to continue this training throughout the season. It is a lot of work but we do have a higher duty of care and so we are committed to this standard of excellence. Besides, it is a ton of fun, and great bonding, for our team to rescue each other out of the roiling waters of Deception Pass!

What do you wish every guest knew as they consider participating in the experiences you offer?

Well, the majority of our guests come to us incredibly well informed, and I love that!

I suppose that I would hope that everyone would know how relatively easy this activity is. Kayaking is often portrayed as an extreme sport, with young people throwing themselves off of waterfalls or hurling through rapids. Well, sea kayaking, in the context of these trips, is the ultimate in what I call “soft adventure”. We deliberately make every attempt to avoid conditions that would cause fear or discomfort. Our guides are there to make sure that everyone feels comfortable on every trip.

Another kernel of knowledge the I would like to impart is that these trips are fun, rain or shine! Luckily we have outstanding weather here in the San Juan Islands, but those occasional days with “liquid sunshine” are often our best trips.

What is one travel trend that really excites you?

Oh boy, that is a tough question! With our focus on providing rewarding experiences for families with young children I am very happy to see the trend towards multi-generational travel. There are few things more fun than accommodating three generations of family and being a part of creating wonderful lifetime memories.

However, speaking more practically, I am super excited about the innovative technologies that are helping travelers to solve the problems that we inevitably face while on the road. With our smartphones or tablets we can easily find the lodgings, restaurants, or activities that best fit our needs. We can arrange transportation or change reservations with incredible ease and speed. Also, our confidence in the choices that we are making can be increased by simply reading reviews that other travelers have posted about their experiences. This last fact puts a lot of pressure on business owners to make certain that their product is the best that it can be at all times. I think that this is a good thing for both the consumer and for the businesses. There is a lot of discussion about the pitfalls of living in the technological age. I would agree with some of the concerns, and our tours offer a brief but tangible escape from those problems, however we have never lived in a more convenient time for travelers due to this same technology.

What sets AKT apart from other, similar, adventure travel companies?

I think that all of the companies out here are proud of what they do, and provide meaningful experiences to thousands of travelers every season. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of side by side comparisons that inevitably leave one party looking bad. I guess that one of the things that sets us apart, here in the San Juan Islands, is our headquarters being located in Anacortes. Being here in the Home Port to the San Juan Islands, and the only island connected by bridges to the mainland, has incredible logistical advantages. Our guests can get all of the beauty, and all of the wildlife viewing opportunities, without the need to plan their vacation time around a ferry schedule. If you are traveling in Washington State and only have limited time, then this is your best option. If you are lucky enough to live here then you can have a fabulous day in the islands, and still make it home for dinner!

Inter-tidal kayaking, san juan islands
Inter-tidal kayaking, san juan islands

We are also the only company out here to offer regularly scheduled trips that depart from San Juan Island and Orcas Island. If you also take into account our multi-day trips then nobody even comes close to operating as widely throughout the archipelago than we do.

Last of all, I think that we are the most family-focused operation out here. Many companies have long lists of rules and contingencies that apply to families with kids. Others simply refuse to allow smaller children to join them. At AKT we relish the opportunity to create fun experiences for the kids. As parents to two small boys we understand the challenges that families face on the road and we want our tours to be one thing that really stands out as a positive memory.

Great options, quality kayak tours, that is what we do.

What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?

To get the most out of these kinds of experiences requires that we set up reasonable expectations before we go. We can all hope for warm and sunny weather, but how will we respond if it rains? We may want to have a close encounter with a certain large animal, but if that doesn’t happen then what else can I see? The few times that I have been disappointed in my travels were when I had set my expectations too high, so I would advise travelers to relax and enjoy themselves regardless of the weather, or the wildlife, or other things beyond their control. Be open to the experience as it is unfolding and do not try to bend it to your expectations. I’m reminded of the yogi saying; “Be Here, Now”. (Haha!)

As business owners, I think it is extremely important that we are completely open and honest about what can reasonably be expected. Too many promises being made will inevitably result in stealing the potential for someone to have a meaningful experience.

If a traveler has certain expectations that they feel are critical to their enjoyment then I urge them to ask direct questions before booking.

What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?

We have always been committed to a marketing message that people can believe in. Consequently we have built a business where people trust that they are going to get the best experience that we can deliver them. I am sure that some people are drawn towards exaggerated claims (“Kayak with the whales!”, etc) which may cost us the opportunity to provide them with our services, but over time I feel that we are better off. Our exceptionally high rate of referrals and return guests is a testament to this strategy.

Kayaking San Juan Islands, Washington
Kayaking San Juan Islands, Washington

Like every family-owned small business, our personal relationships to our guests is critical. We are proud of the fact that some of the families that we have taken out now have grown children who want to work for us because of the influence we had on them as kids.

What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?

Focusing on my family, volunteering in my community, and coaching children in sport serves as a continual reminder that selfless behavior is its own reward. I am inspired and energized to be an active member of society.

Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.

There are so many great moments. I have the most rewarding job in the world! It would be easy to recount moments where there were fantastic whale encounters that blew people’s minds, but I think that the times where our guests have reached a new level of personal growth on one our trips are the best.

I recall one instance in particular where a young woman came in with her husband and family. She was very scared about the trip because she had very limited experience with the sea and could not swim. She was literally crying. Of course, we would never have made her do anything that she did not want to do and so we offered to find another activity for her to do while her family was out. She didn’t want to quit, and so we suited he up and made sure that she was outfitted in a tandem kayak with the strongest member of her group. We also sent out an extra guide that we instructed to stay near her and help make sure she felt secure. We really wanted this trip to be a positive experience for her. Now, wouldn’t you know it….she and her partner were looking at a crab in a kelp forest, leaned over too far, and sploosh! Capsize. Of all the people who we would not want this to happen to, this was the person. Our guide immediately got her back into the kayak and to his surprise, she was laughing! Something in that moment transformed her perception of her fear of water and she was able to almost instantly get past it. She did not even want the extra clothes that we pack on every tour. Back in the office after the trip she was still elated and kept thanking us for providing that moment (like we planned it, ha!). Her family signed up for a 3-day trip later that summer and this time there were no tears, only excited anticipation. It may sound silly, but I truly feel blessed to have an occupation that can impact lives like this.

Erik’s email:
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AKT on Twitter:  @anacorteskayak
AKT on Instagram:  @anacorteskayaktours
Phone: (360)588-1117, toll free (800)992-1801

TravelDew is a community based platform for leaders in experiential travel from around the world. Through our interviews we honor the variety of this industry while simultaneously creating the opportunity to learn from one anther.