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Michael Chiacos: Santa Barbara’s Nature Boy

What happens when you raise your kid in a mountain cabin in the backwoods of Santa Barbara? Well, he turns out awesome. That is how Michael Chiacos describes his youth – running through the creeks, exploring nature and having a really good time. His father, Lee Chiacos, is a well know local bohemian, part of the original Mountain Drive artists colony. Lee has an unmatched knowledge for Santa Barbara’s lore, natural history and architecture. So when Lee introduced his son to me and mentioned he wanted to guide trips, I knew someone special was joining the crew. Michael is a local and naturalist who knows the  trails, creeks and surf spots by heart. It is his home.

Michael worked with Adventure Company for 2 years. Guests always loved him; his enthusiasm for nature and the outdoors is contagious. So I was thrilled and saddened when Michael was selected to work with the Community Environmental Council, we lost a great one to an even better cause. Since leaving Adventure Company he has been doing great work on high profile environmental projects. I caught up with Michael between organizing our locally loved Earth Day Celebration and educating locals on ways to preserve Santa Barbara’s natural environment.

Name: Michael Chiacos
Age: 31
First Car: 84 Toyota Corolla. Next one will be electric.
Best beach in town: Rincon, when winter swells are in. Butterfly beach in the summer for lazing around and people watching
Greatest Adventure: 8 month traveling through Asia, from surfing in Indonesia to mountain climbing in Nepal
Favorite Quote: Everything in moderation, including moderation

How long did you work for SBACo? What was your favorite trip to guide? Favorite memory/part of the job?
I worked for SBACo for about two years, and continued working the spring week long rafting trips for another two years, until my full time job made those trips hard to do. My favorite trips were the surfing lessons, because I got to get in the water, share the stoke of surfing with excited clients, and do something that I truly love. Doing the rafting trips was also quite fun, as it is so great to get away and spend a week camped right out next to a flowing river, get to spend some quality time with the other guides, and of course all the great rafting, kayaking, hiking and fun up on the American River. And then there was the time my neophyte whitewater kayaking skills got me over my head, literally, but that’s another story!

Any advice for someone wanting to be a guide? How to run a great trip?
My advice is to have a great attitude, as having a fun and positive attitude will rub off on the clients and make them rise to the occasion. I always hope I inspired people to not only have a lot of fun, but also learn something new about the environment we were playing in. Through that interaction with nature they learned a few things and also hopefully became more conscious of protecting the environment.

You’re a Santa Barbara local – what was it like growing up here?
Growing up in Santa Barbara was great – I grew up in the mountains in a little 1930’s cabin in a community called the Trout Club and was part of a feral pack of boys that ran around building forts in the oak trees and playing in the creek. My dad used to blow a conch shell at dark to round us up for dinner.

However, like most kids I didn’t realize how good it was until I left Santa Barbara. I lived in some cool places, Portland, Oregon, the Big Island of Hawaii, and traveled all around the world. However, every time I came home I was blown away by the natural beauty of Santa Barbara and all the access to amazing outdoors we have here. I can ride my bike from my house and in 15 minutes be hiking or biking through the mountain trails of our front country or hop in my car and be surfing in 5 minutes. On the culture and community side, Santa Barbara has the accoutrements of a much larger city and lots of great people. Those things made me want to move back here to Santa Barbara and experience living here as an adult. Well, that and the fact that every Christmas break when I’d come home I’d go hiking in the mountains and the smell of winter sage after a rain touched me so deep inside. The chaparral is where I grew up, and is in my blood. I had to come back.Michael at Earth Day

Currently you are working for the Community Environmental Council to raise awareness about the most pressing environmental issues that affect Santa Barbara. What is the most pressing issue affecting our environment? How can we make a difference?
We are lucky here in Santa Barbara and the US in that we’ve made huge progress on most environmental issues. Compared to India, Peru, Kenya, and other places I’ve travelled we have relatively clean air, water, and cities, though things could always get better.

The biggest environmental challenge humans have ever faced is now pressing on us, but oddly not pressing too hard. Climate change is something distant and faceless enough to think about that it is hard for humans to rally around and agree to tackle it. Our whole economies are built on cheap oil, coal, and natural gas, and we need to totally transform many things to address our dependence on fossil fuels and the environmental, social, and economic issues with them. I believe there will be huge economic benefits, amazing new technology and a whole new economy that emerges as we transition to the clean energy economy, but in the meantime there are powerful vested interests and a whole infrastructure that needs to be changed.

Here’s an example. As the Transportation Specialist at CEC I work on everything from bikes and carpooling to electric cars and better city planning. Lately I’ve been working a lot on electric cars, and they are a great example of the new green economy. They get around 100 mpg equivalent, emit zero tail pipe emissions, and on California’s green grid cut greenhouse gas pollution by around 70% compared to gasoline cars. Our local utility, SoCal Edison supplies 20% renewable energy to our local grid, and that will go up to 33% by 2020, so these cars actually get cleaner as they age, not dirtier like a internal combustion engine. Even more inspiring, many electric car early adopters also get solar panels, so they are driving on sunshine instead of oil! These are the things we need to be moving toward, and where we can have some competitive advantage over China and India. We are working right now to build charging stations and make it easier to use electric vehicles in Santa Barbara –you can check out a short video of our efforts at Plug In Santa Barbara or watch it below.

You just finished working on the Santa Barbara Earth Day celebration. How did it go this year?
Amazing! We had over 38,000 people over two days and the most fun, educational, and peaceful vibe ever. We’ve been able to grow tremendously (around 8,000 attended in 2007) while keeping a great vibe and an emphasis on not only having a fun time with the community, but also learning some positive things to take back and incorporate into life the rest of the year.

Where can we find you when you’re not working these days?
Well, lately making raised beds and laying brick and flagstones as I transform my front yard from a grassy weed patch into a food forest! It’s been a lot of work the last couple months, but is now starting to look great. I bought a house 6 months ago and have been working on it a lot lately – mostly on the outside as thankfully the bones of the house are pretty good. I now have over 50 types of edible fruits, vegetables, and herbs growing on a little downtown lot.

After this big front yard project is over I promised my girlfriend that instead of working on the house three weekends a month, and going on an adventure one weekend a month, we can revert back to our old schedule of three weekends of adventures a month! So starting this summer you’ll see me a lot more in the mountains, in the ocean, and out on the islands.

edible garden

Thanks for lots of great memories Michael. Look forward to seeing you around town and at the 2012 Earth Day Celebration!

If you have a memory of exploring nature with Michael, please share it in the comment section below. I am sure Michael would love to hear from you.

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