Unspun

For Him, "Camp" Means Having a Tent
If Tom Stienstra had his way, the Examiner's sports section would be turned on its head. Boating, hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting -- activities people actually do -- would run on the front page. Football, baseball, basketball, and their ilk would be consigned to a couple of token columns way in the back. But Stienstra's not exactly an objective observer -- he's the Ex's outdoors columnist. Although it's often exiled to obscure nooks of the paper, Stienstra's writing is some of the liveliest, most personality-infused in the paper.

Stienstra is one happy camper, to hear him tell it. During a recent phone conversation from his home near Mount Shasta, he calculated that he spends about 250 days a year doing what he writes about: fishing, canoeing, backpacking, exploring remote spots in the state. He's hiked 10,000 miles in his 17 years as a columnist. He's stayed in every cabin campground in the state and can tell you the most beautiful spot in the Bay Area at any given moment. He still can't seem to get enough.

Although he's a full-time staffer at the Ex, Stienstra only shows up at the office about once a month. Then, he usually flies himself in in the small airplane he bought shortly after he took a ride in a single-engine float plane around Half Moon Bay in 1989. "It cost less than a Ford Explorer," he explains, and cruises at 185 mph. "It really shrinks the state down."

Stienstra's constantly on the move, checking in with his estimated 800 "field scouts," from park rangers to hunting guides. Nevertheless, a day doesn't pass without him committing at least 1,000 words to paper.

Stienstra files with the Ex five times a week, and the copy ranges from detailed fishing reports laden with statistics to writerly columns. Though Stienstra is no John McPhee, a reader willing to troll his space regularly will be rewarded with gems.

Stienstra's subject matter is literally and figuratively all over the map. He regularly takes shots at state environmental regulators, especially high-ranking employees of the Department of Fish and Game. (By contrast, he's usually sympathetic to the people in the field.) Once, Stienstra calculated the number of fishing licenses needed to be sold to pay the salary of a DFG political appointee (4,000). Last Sunday he gleefully reported the successful effort to oust an official who'd angered the salmon sport-fishermen.

But Stienstra can also wax lyrical about his passion -- the outdoors. His beloved battered green canoe, obtained on the death of the old friend who had owned it, was the star of one column. The dispatch detailed the many times Stienstra had almost lost the canoe, including a capsizing that nearly killed him and his brother.

His father, a nursery manager who moved the family to Palo Alto from the Midwest when Stienstra was a child, figures in his columns, as do siblings and other relatives.

The "Stienstra Navy," he wrote in one column about the striper season, has been fishing the Delta since the 1960s. And its members "have watched the decline in this fishery since the Delta pumps started taking 80,000 gallons of water per second, along with millions of fish, and sending it all to points south. Now there's a chance the newest member of the Stienstra Navy, Justin, 16, my nephew, may experience the kind of excitement that first turned striper fishing into a Christmas tradition for our family."

The chance he refers to involves a controversial decision to allow stripers in the bay, despite worries they could threaten salmon.

Stienstra has no patience with environmental groups but is several steps removed from the old "hook and bullet" outdoors writers. While unopposed to bear and mountain lion hunting, he has little sympathy for those who use technology like radio-linked dog packs to stack the deck unfairly in their favor. Neither is Stienstra a purist. He steers readers toward stocked lakes as readily as he directs them to difficult-to-reach waterfalls in remote canyons.

The outdoors writing field has long been a stepchild at daily newspapers. Writers often have had to cut endorsement deals or otherwise compromise relationships with their subjects to bolster their paltry incomes. Stienstra has expanded his income opportunities well beyond the Examiner but insists his coverage for the paper is completely independent of outside influence. His better-known West Coast counterpart at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Greg Johnston, agrees.

"There are two types of outdoor writers," notes Johnston in a not unfriendly way, "those who inject themselves into their stories, and those who don't."

Stienstra clearly belongs to the former group -- and in a lucrative way. Outside his column for the Ex, Stienstra avidly promotes himself and his major sideline, the 10-and-counting guidebooks that he says have sold a collective 600,000 copies. He also makes regular stops on the outdoors show circuit and free-lances steadily for the region's major outdoors publications. Meanwhile, his Ex columns are syndicated to papers across the country.

As a result, Stienstra has developed a cult following of sorts. To cultivate the cult further, he runs an annual "outdoors quiz" that has drawn more than 5,000 responses in some years -- a remarkable reaction, considering the Ex's puny 128,000 weekday circulation.

Stienstra still sounds amazed that he makes a living off of what he does: "Basically being a bum, driving, camping, and fishing with my dog."

But, he says, he can't imagine doing anything else, anywhere else: "Between Half Moon Bay and Mount Shasta is the best place on Earth."

Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

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