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Q&A with Dean Burke

President and CEO Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier

By Marguerite Cleveland

Photo by Samantha Elise Tillman

When Dean Burke was 4 years old, he saw a family friend’s vacation photos of Oregon and Washington. He couldn’t believe such a beautiful place existed, and it became a goal of his to live in the Pacific Northwest. He achieved that goal and has now lived in Tacoma for 26 years with his wife, and his two sons were born in the area. For someone with such a love for the area, his position as president and CEO of Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier is a perfect fit.

Q. You are an avid paddleboarder and had a close encounter with a pod of orcas. Was that a life-changing moment for you?

A. I’ve had many close encounters with orcas, humpbacks, gray whales, dolphins and more. When you spend enough time on the water, it’s going to happen, especially in an eco-system like the Salish Sea. Naturally, it has a pretty profound impact on you. I’ve been alone many times, far from shore with no one in sight, and had whales approach me. It’s a very personal experience. Anyone who’s been around whales will tell you, the encounters where you and the whale exchange looking one another in the eye … that’s the stuff that re-wires you on the inside.

And while those encounters by themselves have a fantastic and whimsical appeal to them, the importance of telling them is the why. For a natural whale encounter to happen, you first have to have clean access to the sea. And sometimes people lose sight of the fact that for almost a century, there was almost no access to the sea via Tacoma’s main shoreline. When people around here wanted to seek those experiences, they loaded up and drove elsewhere to have it.

Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Ruston Way and Foss Waterway shoreline of Tacoma had seen a shift in its economy, and in its wake, had left a toxic legacy. Tacoma had the first EPA Superfund water site in the U.S. and then went on to claim eight Superfund water sites in Commencement Bay in total. Today, that number is back down to just one (on the Hylebos Waterway). And thanks to the efforts of a lot of people, today we have almost 9 miles of accessible shoreline with some 11 locations of access; five of those with walk-in access.For

someone like me, that unlocked the potential for big wild experiences to happen. I don’t want to lose sight of those efforts it took to get here.

Q. What is it like to give a TED talk? Do you get to choose your topic?

A. TED was a really great experience. It opened a lot of doors to talk in front of some amazing audiences. I also spoke on THE WILD podcast by KUOW/ NPR at McCaw Hall in Seattle in 2019, and a dozen other podcasts and outlets.When TEDx team first approached me, the ask was simple: “Tell us something about Tacoma we might know, but probably forgot.” And they left it at that. I knew I wanted to tell the story of our shoreline transformation, and the idea that because of shoreline access, an everyday guy like me could have a massive life-altering experience with orcas in the wild seemed like a good fit.

Q. You describe your travel style as off-grid and at-sea. Can you have any of those types of experiences in Tacoma?

A. People invest a lot of time and money to find places where they put a little distance between themselves and the next person in the outdoors. Having access to the Salish Sea and the waters of the southern Puget Sound sector grants access to a lot of space. It’s also 600-feet deep in the bay. The weather can get real. Whales happen. So yes, you can find yourself having some pretty big experiences while still in view of an urban skyline.

Tacoma also serves as the launching point for an epic race called the SEVENTY48. It’s a human-powered only (no motors, no sails and no support) race from Tacoma to Port Townsend; 70 miles and you have 48 hours to complete it. SEVENTY48 is an experience that draws competitors from all over the world. So yes, you can definitely have those kinds of experiences here.

Q. What community causes or nonprofits are your passion?

A. My philanthropic and volunteer efforts mostly point toward human-powered access on shorelines. Clean access where a person can carry their canoe, kayak, paddleboard, or just walk in for a swim. When you create that access, lives change. My own experiences are a testament of the efforts of those before me. So, I move around a lot, helping in as many places as I can. I give time to a lot of parks boards, paddle or rowing clubs, nonprofit water events. I give talks and slide shows to students from grade school all the way up to University of Washington.

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