Michael Cohen, the owner of Santa Barbara Adventure Company, comes straight at you, with a big friendly smile and firm handshake. “Hi,” he enthusiastically exclaims. “My name’s Mike Cohen!”
That’s how I first met Mike a few years ago, and I was taken aback by his confidence, a trait I’ve admired in him ever since. He’s the type of person who sets goals and, despite the odds, he achieves them. It’s because of that chutzpah that Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which he started from scratch 16 years ago, has been so successful and is the premier travel adventure outfitter in the Central Coast.
He showed more sense of adventure by eagerly answering the Proust Questionnaire.
What is it you like most about your job?
I feel truly blessed to have one of the greatest jobs on earth. My job is to show thousands of people from all over the world the amazing wild and scenic places of the Santa Barbara coastline, mountains, and Channel Islands. Our mission is to connect our guests with nature. Call me a tree hugger!
One recent example is the NOAA Bay Watershed Education Program (B-WET), put together in partnership with Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper and the Ty Warner Sea Center. We take kids from low-income school districts kayaking in the harbor and to the Sea Center, and our naturalists lead beach walks. You should see these kids smiling and laughing while commanding their own little boat. For many kids, it is their first time in a kayak or even at the beach.
Who do you most admire?
Yvon Chouinard. He was just a dirt-bag climber who created one of the most impressive outdoor clothing companies in the world, Patagonia. My guides use his gear every day. I also admire some old river outfitters out in Idaho and Arizona. They have been rafting and living the dream in the outdoors for over 35 years and they taught me how to stay connected to nature. What a great bunch of role models!
What is your greatest extravagance?
I allow myself one incredible river trip a year, rafting and kayaking for four days with some hilarious people on the Rogue River. The river is wild and scenic, and we boat into rustic lodges every night. Talk about location! We stay in the middle of a great wilderness with hot food, showers, cabins, music, campfires, and great friends.
What is your current state of mind?
I am happy with my family and feeling lucky to be able to have spent quality time with my sons during their spring break. I am also incredibly proud of my crew and business. The guides who work for S.B. Adventure Co. are so invested in leading amazing experiences. We really are blessed with such committed and professional staff.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Family and friends around a campfire under the stars after an incredible day outside (surfing, kayaking the Channel Islands, laughing, etc.). There is something magical about this setting.
What is your greatest fear?
Losing love, family, or dear friends, but who’s focusing on fears? Fear is a defensive emotion that must be heeded and put aside. Fear can be a major obstacle to true happiness and success. I have so much to be thankful for. Having the love of family and friends, living in one of our nation’s most beautiful beach towns, and growing a sustainable tourism business makes all those fears wash away like the tides.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Honesty, a hard-work ethic, and a good sense of humor. You can be whatever you like in this country if you have these three characteristics and a dash of luck. If a local boy like me can build a sustainable business by kayaking with these three ingredients, then anyone can.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Pettiness or unwarranted arrogance. True character comes out in people’s actions and deeds. As Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
What do you most value in friends?
My true friends are loyal, have a huge heart, are funny in most settings, and have a strong propensity towards uncommon adventures. One of my greatest birthday surprises was being tricked into going kayaking at Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island, off of the dive boat Truth. I had been lured down to the harbor in the morning to “help” with a broken down van. As I started to work on the van, my friends were hiding in the back. It was a true joy to be with such a close group of friends.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I would think of myself as a leader. My friends and family might think of me as aspiring comedian or a bossy pants on any given day.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
In my business of adventure travel, I often say leadership phrases like “preview, do, debrief” or “use your safety talk and checklist.” My most overused phrase is when I ask my kids to get their shoes on so we can get out of the house.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I feel helpless when the computers break at my office. I am at the mercy of the I.T. guy who shows up when he can. I am also learning guitar and piano and these take a lot of practice to be decent, so I need to practice more.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I am outspoken at times and sometimed wish I could hold back. I have learned you have to be who you are. Who else is going to be you?
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Besides raising my kids and staying happily married, I feel proud to have built a top-rated and respected adventure business from nothing. Fifteen years ago, I started this little kayaking, surfing, and wine tour business using credit cards to finance my seed money and running every tour myself. I remember setting up lunch on a kayak tour at Refugio Beach and sneaking around the corner to check my cell phone messages and book the next day’s trips. Cut to 15 year later: We are taking thousands of people a year on high quality adventure trips and outdoor education programs.
One of the greatest goals I have achieved is earning the permit to lead trips in Channel Islands National Park. The Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary are true national treasures that we have so close to home. I am blessed to be able to guide in these places.
Where would you most like to live?
Where else would be better to live than here in Santa Barbara? Santa Barbara is where I grew up. I traveled after college for about 10 years where I worked as a guide in some amazing places, but I never found a place more to my liking than home. I suppose Hollister Ranch might be nicer than my neighborhood, but now we are splitting hairs.
What is your most treasured possession?
My surfboard: a sky-blue 8’2 epoxy pintail, shaped by Wayne Rich. When I get a really good wave on that board, the feeling is pure joy and good for the soul.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My two sons! Knock-knock jokes with a 5- and/or 7-year-old at the breakfast table can make milk squirt out of one’s nose unexpectedly.
My guides also make me laugh by telling stories from our tours. One guide, Ryland Grivetti, was cracking me up talking about two curious harbor seals visiting his group in the sea caves at the Channel Islands. The seals were popping up in the middle of his group, swimming under the boats, and looking at him through the drain holes in the bottom of the kayak. They were blowing bubbles and grabbing his paddle! He said one seal was lying on its back under his boat looking for a belly rub just like a puppy. However, he didn’t feel okay petting the wildlife!
On what occasion do you lie?
I really do not like to lie. I think the only time it is okay to “stretch the truth” is when you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Like when my mother-in-law makes a special dish and asks how I like it. I always say “I love it” even when it may be just “okay” because she put so much into making something special for the family.
What is your motto?
It varies from day to day: “Hey y’all watch this”, or “No crap, there I was.” My most used motto is: “Reduce risk when you can. Try to make the trip amazing. Try not to break stuff.”
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
John Wesley Powell. In 1869, he lead the first descent of Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with nine men, four boats, and food for 10 months. He could not swim and had a missing arm. The tale of his passage through the canyon was truly amazing. It took over three months to make it through some very dangerous rapids in wooden boats, traveling 930 river miles. He surmounted incredible hardship and faced real risk while achieved his goal for the good of the nation. Did I mention he couldn’t swim and had only one arm?