Paddling the Water with Summertide Adventure Tours
Every time they paddle out, the Van Winkles of Summertide Adventure Tours share their passion for the area’s waters.
In a way, the beloved coastal North Carolina waters that have threaded through Cari Van Winkle’s roots have always been calling her. It just took a few decades for her to return the call and make the waters part of her daily work life.
“I’d grown up spending a lot of time on the water,” Cari says. “I was always an outdoors girl. When we went out camping or whatever as a family, we roughed it.”
Which is why opening a kayak tour guide business was a natural fit for the outdoorswoman. She opened Summertide Adventure Tours in Ocean Isle Beach in January 2012.
Cari’s early career, however, flowed against the tide. Originally from Lincolnton, N.C., a small suburb of Charlotte, she graduated from West Lincoln High School and went on to attend UNC Pembroke, where she met her future husband. She also attended Cape Fear Community College, majoring in geology.
The couple married in 2007 and settled down in Sunset Beach, where husband Rip (yes, thanks to that legendary last name, Rip Van Winkle is the name he’s gone by his entire life, though his birth name is Charles) picked up carpentry jobs after his family business, Sunset Beach Island Market, closed its doors. Cari worked motley jobs – vet assistant, restaurant server and property manager at Sunset Properties until 2009, when she got laid off when her son was 5 months old. Shortly after that, Cari was guided one step closer toward the water by a friend who worked at Julie’s Rentals in Sunset Beach.
“He told me that they rent kayaks to folks who don’t really know what to do or where to go and asked if I would be interested in guiding them,” Cari says. “And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’d love to!’”
The mom of then two young children didn’t waste another tide and started guiding tours in the summer of 2011. By January 2012 it was a full-fledged business. Summertide Tours began to be so slammed that Rip had to take summers off to help Cari, who not only needed to guide kayak tours, but also was needed on land to answer phones and schedule more tours.
Summertide Tours has grown to offer about a half-dozen different kayak tours year-round in the waters that surround Sunset and Ocean Isle beaches. Cari leads solo if it’s a group of six kayakers or less; one of her four guides on staff will join her if there are more. Her days, however, are still busy, with typically two trips, each with 15 to 20 people, every day. With 40 kayaks available between her fleet and rentals, she’ll guide up to 30 kayakers out for special occasions like a wedding party, family reunion or corporate team building event.
Cari and her experienced team guide tours to the back waters, salt back-barrier marshes, inlets, tidal channels and creeks in the Brunswick County area and just across the border into South Carolina.
“I educate people,” Cari says. “I give them a sense of what’s going on in our ecosystems, from the water to the grasses to the wildlife. What I love most about what I do is that I get to share it with others. It never gets old to me. I take my time, and I’m always looking in the mud and in the water around my kayak for a crab or something.”
Adventure tours include one out to Bird Island, N.C., an uninhabited nature preserve protecting turtle and bird nesting areas. Kayakers beach in Little River Inlet in South Carolina to swim and explore the jetties; en route, they may spot anything from sea otters to dolphins. The Tubbs Inlet tour specializes in some of the best shelling beaches and inshore fishing spots. And the Blane Creek Tour takes kayakers under the new Sunset Beach bridge and through a network of back tidal channels. The Twilight Tour takes off at dusk for a spectacular sunset show over the marshes of Sunset Beach and Ocean Isle.
Of course, Summertide Tours has to work with Mother Nature.
“When I do my tours, everything is based on the natural elements,” Cari says. “It’s all about the tides and the wind. I’ve explored every nook and cranny around here and know how quickly it can change. I stare at the weather radar every day!”
She describes herself as a people person and says that’s one reason she loves her job. “I love how I meet all kinds of folks,” she says. “There are several groups from out of town that come with me year after year and make a point to kayak with me, plus locals on the off-season as well. There’s one group from Ohio that stays here for two weeks and goes out with me twice.”
Summertide also offers inshore charter fishing trips aboard their 24-foot Triton 240 with Captain Tom Kowalczyk, a U.S. Coast Guard Master Captain with more than 30 years of local fishing experience. Anglers could hook a wide variety of species, from redfish to speckled sea trout to flounder, black drum, Spanish mackerel and more.
When Cari isn’t making strides on the water, she’s running marathons – 10, to be exact. When we talked to her for this story, she was preparing to run her fourth Boston Marathon in April, having qualified for it in the Myrtle Beach Marathon this past March.
For the upcoming season, Cari looks forward to guiding more visitors toward the waters she loves. Look for her 9-year-old son, who got his first kayak when he was 7, to follow her out for some excursions too.
“I just love to show that I love what I do!” she says.
Want to paddle with Summertide Adventure Tours?
Visit Summertide Adventure Tours and their retail store at 59 Causeway Drive, Suite B, in Ocean Isle Beach, call them at (910) 833-2418 or visit them online at summertidetours.com.