These days Don Banducci describes himself as "primarily a hook and gun kinda guy." Bluff and avuncular, with a penchant for offbeat jokes and a contagious, gravelly chuckle, it's easy to imagine him exchanging fish stories in front of a campfire or striding, rifle in hand, through a field accompanied by his pack of Springer spaniels.
"I'm a hunter-gatherer-fisherman kind of guy," he says. "I guess I kind of run counter to the general trend, which is non-consumptive. You know, taking pictures of birds rather than shooting them." Running counter to the general trend describes the man well. But a life spent choosing the extraordinary over the comfortable has been a successful one for Banducci, a Humboldt native who built a legacy around his love of this region's wild places and natural beauty.
Banducci's roots in the area run deep. His paternal grandfather ran a store on the Arcata Plaza in the 1800s. His maternal grandfather owned a butcher shop in Eureka. His great aunt was a cook and a laundress in a lumber camp when construction was underway for what is now Highway 36. His parents, though both Humboldt natives, met in San Francisco, and the Banducci family spent summers in Redway, paddling rowboats and swimming in the Eel River. Banducci describes those summers as some of his most formative experiences. His love of the outdoors was instilled by the deep cool waters of the Eel, shaded by stands of old growth redwood, where his uncle taught him to fly fish.
Then one summer he returned to find the landscape changed dramatically. The woods had been logged. The redwoods were gone.
"Seeing that, it had a profound effect on me." Banducci was around 6 at the time. "I always remembered that."
In the fall of 1969, he started school at Humboldt State University, but found his attention drawn back again and again to the outdoors. He worked summers as a river raft and kayak guide in Idaho and Montana. He bounced from subject to subject at HSU — art history, English and forestry — but admits that he mostly stayed in school to avoid being drafted to go to Vietnam. If he'd had a choice, he says, he would have been outdoors instead of in academia.
Banducci and the woman who would become his first wife, Maggie Kerwin, spent several months travelling through South America after college, river running in Chile, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. In 1979 they acquired Yakima, an innovative roof-rack company that was born, Banducci says, "out of a love of kayaking."
At the time, he and his bride were living in a treehouse above the Rogue River, but they decided to move the company to Arcata. The manufacturing and small business sector in the region was limited at the time, with most of the local economy reliant on timber and fishing.
"I wanted to show people you didn't have to cut down trees or net vast amounts of fish to make a profit." Other small, local businesses such as Holly Yashi jewelry and kayak equipment company Kokatat were also getting their start back then.
Yakima and Banducci rose to success at the same time as the infamous Timber Wars, when the county was torn between environmental activists and logging traditionalists. Banducci, a prominent local businessman, found himself at the center of the controversy. He describes himself as "wanting to bridge the gap" between the two sides. That childhood experience of finding a place he loved degraded by clearcuts, swaths of forest where only stumps are left, informed his voice and passion as a spokesperson for both the forest and the rural lifestyle.
Since selling Yakima and retiring in 1997, Banducci has devoted himself to side projects that put his multiple enthusiasms to good use. He brands himself to businesses as a "marketing insultant," and considers his brash manner a useful tool in a world he describes as increasingly oversensitive. He's also working on a novel set in Southern Humboldt and he's written scripts for several Humboldt tourism videos.
"The off season here gets a short shrift," he says, referring to the fall, winter and spring months known for torrential rains, "We have a lot of great attractions: fine dining, great festivals, art galleries, steelhead fishing season." Banducci can be observed taking advantage of Humboldt County's natural splendor in all seasons, usually accompanied by his pack of spaniels. The mention of the dogs brings a soft glint into his eye. He and Roxanne, his wife of seven years, are expecting a litter of puppies from one.
"They're so much work and so much fun," he says, adding that Humboldt is a uniquely dog-friendly place. He and the pack often romp across the Samoa dunes and other open beaches.
Other times of the year will find Banducci on the waters of the Eel, the Smith or Trinity River, enjoying his new drift boat. He especially loves the Klamath in the fall when the canyon is turning colors.
One of his enthusiasms is exposing newcomers to the wild places he loves. There are a thousand small sandbars along the river to camp overnight, secret fishing spots and places to sit and watch the storm roll in. Don Banducci knows them all. It's hard to talk to him and not feel inspired to throw your things in a backpack, grab a tent and head off to Stone Lagoon or Agate Beach. Don't be surprised to see a familiar, slope shouldered figure already there, a pack of spaniels at his feet. •