When Rick Kowsky dons a Santa Claus suit each year, he climbs aboard the 100-foot Victoria Star 2 tour boat owned by Drew Schmidt of San Juan Cruises and sets sail on the Bellingham Central Lions Club's Christmas Ship.
He brings Christmas cheer to children on remote San Juan and Canadian Gulf islands, many of whom would otherwise have no opportunity to see the jolly fellow.
This year marks the 66th sailing of the Christmas Ship, which began in 1947 with the Bellingham Jaycees and was passed on to the Lions Club in 1997.
Club president Don Wight - son of the original Christmas Ship captain - takes the helm each holiday season. This year's sailing is scheduled for Dec. 14-15, with an initial visit to Lummi Island on Dec. 13. It's an ambitious volunteer venture.
"We put in hundreds of hours of preparation prior to the sailing," Kowsky says.
"Don really is the glue for this thing," Kowsky continues. "His heart is in this, and he's 100 percent driven."
Kowsky, the president of Cascade Ambulance Service in Ferndale, is a lifelong Bellingham resident. His great-grandfather, Robert Emmett Hawley, was one of the area's first white settlers.
Kowsky came on board as Santa Claus a dozen years ago and shares the St. Nick duties, currently with Tim Benson and previously with Tom Lingbloom. Other volunteers dress as elves, pirates and clowns.
"It's quite an event," Kowsky says.
The Christmas Ship sails out of Fairhaven on a Saturday morning and visits Waldron Island and then several Canadian Gulf islands before spending the night in Ganges Harbour on British Columbia's Saltspring Island. Sunday brings stops at several more San Juan islands.
The crew disembarks at each port and sets up a Christmas experience to be remembered.
"You have kids of all different sizes getting up and down off your knee, and you've got to stay upbeat," Kowsky says. "You miss a beat one time and they've got you nailed."
Kowsky knows it may sound strange, but he says he becomes Santa Claus during the excursions.
"Once the suit is on, you have to play the role whether the kids are there or not," he says. "You have to stay in that mode because if you don't, you slip up pretty easily when you get in front of the kids."
Each island is special to Kowsky and the crew, but one tends to stand out.
"One of the most memorable stops every year is at Waldron Island," Kowsky says. "It's pretty remote. There's no ferry service. There's a variety of kids, some in bare feet. It is an amazing stop."
Many of the islands that the ship visits are fairly mainstream, with kids asking for the typical gamut of high-tech toys. But not Waldron Island.
"They really don't want anything," Kowsky says. "They just look forward to visiting with Santa. Their wish might be a new pair of gloves, or to simply spend the holiday with their family."
Kowsky and his fellow Santas bring a stuffed animal or candy to give each child. At Waldron and some of the other more secluded islands, they take a different tack.
"We might give handmade wooden toys, something more functional," Kowsky said. "Kids will bring toys we gave them five years ago, to show Santa that they still have them."
Over the long weekend, Kowsky and crew mingle with upward of 800 kids.
"You get on Saturday morning and come back Sunday night, and you're just absolutely whipped," he says.
But he's quick to point out that he receives as much as he gives.
"They also give things back to Santa," he says. "Not just mentally, but trinkets or things they make, handmade ornaments. It's very, very moving.
"When I think about all the kids over the years," Kowsky says, trailing off. "It's one thing seeing that 700 or 800 kids over a two-day period. But when you think of the thousands of kids you see over the years, it's amazing."
Stacee Sledge is a freelance writer in Bellingham.