Canals and comraderie: With renovated boat, Ocean Shores family continues to offer free tours of freshwaterways

Like many whose lawns abut the 23-mile freshwater canal system in Ocean Shores, Jeff Owen considers the water an extension of his backyard. But to Owen, the water — or at least the 16-foot pontoon he uses to navigate it — is also his living room.

And he wants to share that living room with as many people as he can.

For the last eight years, Owen, first with friend Bob LaBorde and now with his wife, Jennifer, has offered free tours of the Ocean Shores canal system to anyone willing to “come on and take a free ride.”

Now, Owen’s recently-renovated Suntracker, a former bass boat, is more ready than ever to share the beauty and surprise of the sometimes-overlooked canals.

“You come out here and you see something different every time,” Owen said as he cruised his canopied craft to the entrance of Duck Lake on a sunny Friday morning in June.

The boat ramp behind the Owens’ house near the heart of the canal system provides easy access to three waterways: the Grand Canal, a central artery that stretches five miles north to the IGA grocery store; the “bell” canals, a cluster of limbs reaching to the west; and what Owen calls the “jungle cruise,” a journey through a shaded tunnel of overhanging alder on Fishhook Canal that eventually broadens into Duck Lake.

Dredged in the 1960s and ‘70s, the freshwater lakes and canals in Ocean Shores are manmade, creating a wet web between houses where neighbors can visit without ever using — and sometimes dipping underneath — asphalt roads.

But with the glistening Pacific Ocean only a short distance away, many tourists don’t drive any farther south than the Chance A La Mer roundabout, heading straight for the beach. And points of public access to the canal system are minimal in comparison to the rows of private docks lining the water.

That’s part of Owen’s emphasis, to give people a different glimpse of Ocean Shores.

Owen has always had a connection to water. He grew up in Stanwood near Camano Island, near the Stillaguamish River, and then from 1979 to 1983 served in the Navy out of San Diego on an aircraft carrier.

When he and Jennifer first moved to Ocean Shores about 16 years ago, they had a house on a cul de sac in the woods.

“I thought it was paradise, until I found the canals,” Owen said.

Shortly after Owen and LaBorde began offering canal adventures to the public eight years ago, they named their tour group Canal Brothers of Ocean Shores. The name was derived not from biological relation between the two men, although their thick beards do create at least a hint of resemblance, but from a close friendship that began merely by chance in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn.

“He asked me to move my car because he was going to paint the building,” LaBorde said. “We’ve been best friends since.”

The two became close through a local men’s group, and by taking Owen’s old little blue boat out on the water. But other than a few friends, they didn’t begin hosting canal tours until a neighbor requested they entertain a birthday party for an 80-year-old.

“I fell in love with it,” Owen said. “With all these people on board, I was like ‘This is cool, I want to do this all the time.’”

Owen said that when he first started out giving canal tours he was also considering running for mayor.

“I think I can have a greater impact in sharing this part of Ocean Shores with people than being a politician,” Owen said. “So this is what I choose to do. And there’s no stress out here.”

To get the tours rolling, the Canal Brothers tapped into a new pool of clients. On Saturdays they would cruise West into the Bell Canals, dip under the Razor Clam Drive Bridge and navigate to the south end of Lake Minard, where guests at Oyhut Bay Seaside Village would hop on for a free tour.

To accommodate more people, they cleared out the boat’s bass fishing specifications to open up more seating. They even made the boat wheelchair accessible.

And the personality pairing was perfect. Blessed with the gift of gab, Owen entertained by reciting Ocean Shores history. He also developed a knack for spotting wildlife — deer paddling to an opposite bank, ducks and geese splashing in the slackwater, bald eagles and herons spreading wings above, and large trout and carp swimming below. He enthused about “cormorant island,” where, in the middle of Duck Lake, large flocks of the birds rest in the trees during the summer.

Meanwhile, a soft-spoken LaBorde kept a steady hand at the helm as captain.

“I pretty much sat there and drove and let him do all the talking,” LaBorde recalled.

Navigation can sometimes be tricky in the canals, which, according to Owen, drop by up to 18 inches in the summer and sometimes fill with motor-clogging vegetation.

They developed a handful of “regular” clients, giving educational tours to students through the Coastal Interpretive Center, and helped prospective home buyers check out estates from a waterway perspective.

But after a vessel upgrade and several years of tours, LaBorde took a job in California, where he lives.

With one of the Canal Brothers down south, Owen and his wife, Jennifer, continued tours and kept the name. In the summer of 2020 Owen logged 90 hours and 400 miles of boating on the canals. The couple’s chihuahuas, Chica and Annie, often came along for the ride, and still do.

After so much wear and tear, their boat needed repairs. Last fall they took it to the shop, and the repairs ended up taking about nine months. With the boat out of the water, Owen said, “it was pretty depressing. I mean, this is my sanity.”

A few weeks ago, when Owen got the call that the boat was finally ready, it proved to be worth the wait. The like-new vessel has sleek blue and white leather upholstery lining the interior seats, and a crisp new decal flanking the exterior, in white font, reading “Canal Brothers, Come On and Take a Free Ride!”

And to help debut the renovated boat, Owen’s old buddy Bob LaBorde visited from California to celebrate the eighth anniversary of Canal Brothers. The Owens hosted a party to honor the achievement, highlighted by a concert from Ocean Shores band SR 109. They also collected more than 20 grocery bags of food and delivered it to the local food bank.

Owen said a list of people have been calling and contacting them through the Canal Brothers Facebook page to sign up for a free tour on the new boat.

“This is truly my happy place,” Owen said, sitting behind the wheel of his boat.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or

From left: Bob LaBorde, Alicia Roman and Dale Vacknitz accompany Jeff Owen on a tour of the Ocean Shores canal system on Friday, June 2. LaBorde and Owen founded Canal Brothers of Ocean Shores eight years ago, and LaBorde now lives in California.

From left: Bob LaBorde, Alicia Roman and Dale Vacknitz accompany Jeff Owen on a tour of the Ocean Shores canal system on Friday, June 2. LaBorde and Owen founded Canal Brothers of Ocean Shores eight years ago, and LaBorde now lives in California.