Chuck Graham’s Life Outside

Lifeguard-Paddler-Author-Photographer’s New Channel Islands Book

Chuck Graham’s Life Outside

Lifeguard-Paddler-Author-Photographer’s New Channel Islands Book

By Matt Kettmann | June 9, 2022

PASSION FOR PADDLING:  Longtime Carpinteria resident Chuck Graham turned his love for the outdoors into a dynamic career. He works the beaches as a lifeguard, guides tourists around on kayak, and covers his adventures for multiple publications. His latest book about hiking the Channel Islands came out in March.  | Credit: Sonya Van Dam

Chuck Graham would have reason to celebrate even if it were just his 30th year of being a lifeguard for the City of Carpinteria, where he’s lived almost his entire life.

But saving sunbathers is a small part of this outdoor enthusiast’s resume. He’s also a veteran Channel Islands kayak guide and explorer; a volunteer ranger at San Miguel Island; a longtime freelance writer-photographer for National Geographic, the BBC, and this publication, among many others; and an author of nature-focused books, the first being 2021’s Carrizo Plain: Where the Mountains Meet the Grasslands.

In March, Graham published his second book, a co-authored guide with John “The Trailmaster” McKinney called Hike the Channel Islands: The Best Day Hikes in Channel Islands National Park. Featuring 20 hikes, of which Graham wrote 12 and photographed almost everything, the book outlines the walkable highlights of each of the park’s five islands, from Santa Barbara in the south to San Miguel in the northwest. Even though the islands are becoming a well-known destination both near and far, this book is basically the first of its kind. 

Credit: Sonya Van Dam

“There’s nothing out there, no real trail guide like this,” said Graham. “It’s not just a guidebook that says ‘go here and go there.’ There’s definitely much more of a personal touch for each hike.”

That’s something he can provide. As a boy, he stared at the islands during surf sessions, touched them for the first time in 1987, and then became a regular visitor in the mid-1990s. He’s circumnavigated them all on kayak, often two at a time, and once even all four northern islands. But as he’s grown into his storytelling career, Graham is realizing that less can be more.

Credit: Chuck Graham

“I want to do all four again, but as a photographer and writer, I just wanna slow down and take in as much as every trip allows,” he explained. “I definitely spend more time in one spot, just because eventually you’re gonna see something amazing when you’re concentrating on certain areas.”

Born in Santa Monica in 1963, Graham moved to Santa Barbara 10 years later with his mom and dad, who worked as a stockbroker for Paine Webber. “We moved to Carpinteria in 1975, and I’ve been here ever since,” said Graham, who remembers his parents worrying how they’d pay their $400-a-month mortgage for their Sandyland Cove home. His mom, who died last year, and dad, who died in 2018, weren’t that outdoorsy. “But they were always 100 percent supportive of whatever I did,” he said. “They were great in that way.”

That included his earliest passion. “I was pretty narrow-minded,” said Graham. “I just wanted to surf.”

He eventually found his way through SBCC, Westmont, and then, via a snail mail correspondence course with East Coast professors, the Institute for Children’s Literature. “They showed me how to write stories and create proposals,” said Graham. “I went in that direction. Then I developed a thick skin for all the rejection letters and just moved on from there.”

Graham is probably the most prolific author about the Channel Islands today, at least when it comes to stories about outdoor adventure and appreciating nature. He’s at work on a third book as well, currently titled as Paddling Into Natural Balance: Stories of Kayaking and Conservation on the Channel Islands National Park. 

Does he ever worry that his work is bringing too many people to this special corner of the world?

“It has grown in popularity, but it’s also limited,” said Graham, explaining that visitation is automatically restricted by ferry and campsite capacity. “I definitely catch myself saying, ‘There’s a lot of people out there today.’ But all it takes is paddling around one end of the island — all of the sudden, you feel like you’re far, far away.”

Credit: Sonya Van Dam

Sometimes that gets hairy, like when paddling around San Miguel Island. “It’s so wild and raw, and there’s a lot of water moving around and lots of wildlife,” he explained. But the scariest was crossing the Potato Patch between Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa during sustained winds of 47mph, plus gusts. “I remember having to do a lot of swimming toward the kayak,” said Graham. 

Though still proud of being a lifeguard, Graham is spending more and more time at the islands, usually in his role as guide for Channel Islands Adventure Company ( “I still like the beach, but I’m looking at the islands most of the time when it’s not foggy,” he said. “I like always knowing that I can go back to the islands. The next trip is always coming up real soon.”

See and @chuckgrahamphoto on Instagram.

Chuck’s Channel Islands Advice 

Credit: Sonya Van Dam

First time kayaking?  “Go with a guide first instead of going on your own. There are so many pitfalls with the tides, wind, and swell. It’s better to go with a guide and get a feel for it.”

First time hiking?  “It’s not a bad idea to go with a naturalist, or at least get a good feel from the ranger about what things are like before heading off on your own. Those resources are there, and it’s probably the best overall experience for those that are curious about the islands.”

Fave Santa Cruz Island hike?  “I really love the Montana Ridge Loop, basically a new trail. It shows you a great look at the north side of Santa Cruz, but when you pop out onto Montana Ridge, you get Anacapa, Santa Barbara, and San Nicolas islands.”

Fave hike overall?  “The Point Bennett Trail on San Miguel. Not only does it take you through caliche forest, but it also runs you out to Point Bennett, where the largest concentration of seals and sea lions are in the world. That’s always entertaining out there. There’s lots of drama, lots of sights, and lots of smells.”

Read all of the stories in this year’s Blue & Green issue, “From Big Waves to Tall Trees.”


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