TACOMA — On a sweltering Thursday in July, two women paused in front of a curious sight wedged under a highway overpass in a Tacoma parking lot: a school bus with stand-up paddleboards strapped to the roof.

Doug Barclift, owner of Big Bus Paddlesports, popped his head out the window. He gamely answered their questions — yes, you will get a little wet; no, paddleboarding doesn’t have to be strenuous; yes, there are techniques to avoid aggravating a neck injury — then gently invited them to sign up for his weekend instructional classes.

As they walked off in the direction of the beach, one woman told the other, “We just found ourselves something to do this weekend.”

Barclift pulled his head back inside the bus and flashed a victorious smile. “Lately I’ve been doing my damn hardest to get Black women into the water,” he said over the soft reggae music playing in the background, which mingled with the occasional rumble of freight trains.

He sat back down at the shop’s front desk, which triples as his kitchen counter and dining table — Barclift, 37, lives full time in the converted school bus.


Despite the heat wave that made Commencement Bay look so appealing, it was an otherwise slow day. But the relaxed pace gave Barclift time to chat with passersby and invite them into his unique live/work vehicle. By the end of the afternoon, he’d signed up one person for a lesson and assuaged another that nothing in the water will eat her — the worst-case scenario is a jellyfish sting.

While Big Bus Paddlesports gives off the impression of a small-time seasonal rental business, Barclift’s easygoing demeanor belies the harder work he’s putting in beneath the surface to diversify both access to outdoor recreation and the slate of entrepreneurs that run outdoors businesses.

A circuitous journey

In the spring of 2020, Barclift realized his job as a cellphone tower climber wasn’t coming back anytime soon due to pandemic lockdown restrictions. He wasn’t sure what to do next, but knew “I just didn’t want to go back to working for somebody else.”

Barclift had already cycled through a varied career: He enlisted in the Air Force Reserve at 17. Later, he worked for his family’s credit-repair agency. At one point, he managed a boatyard in New Orleans.

Love brought him to the Pacific Northwest in 2016, as he followed his then-wife’s new job at Delta, bringing along the couple’s two daughters and settling in Tacoma. Love of a different type kept him here after the marriage fell apart. His ex-wife moved the girls back east, first to Kentucky then Atlanta. Barclift stayed, despite the distance.

After a nomadic life that yielded 23 addresses across three time zones and a few stints stationed overseas, he couldn’t imagine leaving.


“In no place that I have been can you wake up, go surfing, that afternoon go climbing,” Barclift said. “Be ready to ski or snowboard the next morning, and be ready to fish the same weekend.”

“Look around, it’s gorgeous,” he said. “This is the place of my childhood dreams.”

Peace Peloton Fresh Air Splash and Spin

Big Bus Paddlesports will be at Fritz Hedges Waterway Park, 1117 N.E. Boat St., Seattle, on Saturday, Aug. 20, from noon to 5 p.m. in partnership with Peace Peloton, Seattle Parks and Recreation and REI. More info at st.news/splash-and-spin.

To deal with the breakup, Barclift found solace outside. He leaned into old hobbies like rock climbing and picked up new ones like splitboarding. In search of companionship, he went on mountaineering trips through Climbers of Color, a Washington-based initiative to give people of color more alpine experience, then cast lines with Soul River, a Portland-based organization that takes veterans fly-fishing.

Without those outlets, he said, “I don’t know where I would have been.”

But the journey from those outdoor pursuits to Big Bus Paddlesports was not obvious. His experience with water sports in Tacoma was limited to renting kayaks on the Foss Waterway with his daughters a handful of times. He was more drawn to surfing than paddleboarding and had never even owned one before buying a fleet of them. (“Paddleboards are expensive and huge,” he quipped.)


He was a passionate sailor in New Orleans, but gave it up upon moving here. “It was a rough breakup with me and sailing,” he said. “We have a great sailing scene, but sailing in general is just not super conducive to Black people.”

Barclift’s mother ignited the paddleboard spark inadvertently while browsing the wares at a Florida trade show in October 2019. She pitched her son on clear-bottom kayaks for a rental business. Barclift asked her to check if a palm left a handprint. It did. Now imagine cleaning sweaty butt prints after every rental session? No thanks, they agreed.

Besides, the Salish Sea is too turbid to see much marine life from under a kayak.

But from clear-bottom kayaks, Barclift’s mind wandered to paddleboards. As a teenager, he once paddleboarded in Roanoke Sound on a family trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and he passed over a school of stingrays. “I could hear their fins slapping against the bottom of my board. They were completely unbothered by my existence,” he said. “It was a magic moment.”

Six months later, he decided that would be his next professional venture.

Skoolies out for summer

Investing in a fleet of paddleboards requires a means to store and transport them. Neither a trailer nor box truck allowed for more than a bare-bones rental operation. He wanted paddleboard rentals to serve as a vehicle for building community around outdoor recreation — a third space like his old climbing gym in New Orleans, with a dash of the Crescent City’s friendly front-porch culture.


That’s when he found “skoolies.”

School buses, it turns out, can be transformed into efficient tiny homes on wheels.

“If they can live in a bus, I can run a business out of a bus,” Barclift realized.

He put together a business plan, but was shot down by 22 different banks. Eventually he took a four-digit loan from friends. The bus, meanwhile, was a Facebook Marketplace find sitting in a Portland junkyard, just a month out of service. The bus was so fresh, in fact, there were still lice in the seats, which Barclift discovered during a frenetic month of 18-hour days in May and June 2020 as he installed flooring, shelving, a composting toilet and solar panels.

By July, he was ready to debut Big Bus Paddlesports, but it was too late to secure a formal operating permit in a city or county park. He spent his first summer parked each day across from a waterfront restaurant, but the location wasn’t ideal — he had no long-term guarantee for future seasons and there was no crosswalk across busy Ruston Way.

Still, social media and online marketing brought a steady stream of customers, whether connections through Climbers of Color or fellow skoolie devotees eager to check out the region’s latest school bus conversion. Not to mention, the blue-and-yellow behemoth — unintentionally vintage Mariners colors — was its own best advertisement on Barclift’s daily commute to and from his home in Bonney Lake.

“The bus is a huge spectacle,” he said.

Walking on water

Barclift bought the bus as a work vehicle. The September 2020 wildfires that nipped at Puget Sound’s wildland-urban interface (a designation for built-up areas that abut forests and wild vegetation) caused him to make the bus his home. With his rental cottage in Bonney Lake under mandatory evacuation, he drove the bus to safe harbor, strung up a hammock and spent the night. It was surprisingly comfortable and prompted a question: “Why am I paying rent?”


With that fateful query, Barclift moved his life into the bus and spent the winter of 2020-21 on a friend’s farm in Woodinville to make upgrades with money earned from a short-term job delivering for FedEx. It was a cold start — he didn’t have a wood-burning stove until late January — but by Memorial Day 2021, Big Bus Paddlesports was both Barclift’s living quarters and livelihood.

Barclift is self-effacing, cracking jokes that his bus under the bridge only looks like a meth lab. In the Pacific Northwest, there is a thin line between the dirtbag romance of living in your recreational vehicle at a remote trailhead and the bleak reality of vehicle homelessness in city neighborhoods. (Barclift returns nightly to legal rented parking in Parkland and spends off days at the Woodinville farm.)

“My girls have a love/hate relationship with the bus. When they were smaller, they loved it. Now they’re heading into preteen. Dad lives in a bus and it’s kind of weird,” Barclift said. “Dad having his own business is weird, too, but I hope that they are learning and this is providing the footing of independence.”

In the offseason, he received a commercial permit from Metro Parks Tacoma to base out of Jack Hyde Park, where he returned this summer. He just completed a new entrepreneurs program with Seattle-based Ventures business incubator and is currently enrolled in another through the Greater Seattle Business Association.

Tacoma’s waterfront allows Barclift to serve the Pacific Northwest city with the highest percentage of Black residents. “I appreciate the diversity of Tacoma,” he said. “I feel more comfortable here than I do in, say, Bellevue.”

While he has explored other locations in Pierce and King counties, and eventually hopes to expand his range, red tape has been a hurdle.


“We welcomed Big Bus Paddlesports, as renting paddleboards isn’t something we currently do,” wrote Metro Parks Tacoma spokesperson Rosemary Ponnekanti via email. “While race is not really a factor in the commercial use review process, in general Metro Parks makes every effort to support minority-owned businesses and making our parks and facilities welcoming and inclusive for everyone, especially historically underserved communities.”

Many of those customers find their way to Jack Hyde Park, like the hesitant women Barclift chatted with in July. When customers are comfortable, Barclift likes to document visitors on the Big Bus Instagram page.

“In general, my client base is always going to be the people who say, ‘I want to get in the water but it looks scary,’ or, ‘I just bought this thing and I don’t know how to do it,’ or, ‘I just want to try something new and get into nature,'” he said. “But they’ve got a lot of barriers. Making sure I’ve removed the barriers to entry, access is easy and I’m treating my customers with empathy are key.”

In the end, Barclift comes back to paddleboarding’s most magical attribute as a selling point: “It’s a special thing,” he said. “You get to walk on water.”