Witnesses For Water

A former Michigan treatment plant superintendent and his wife paddle the entire Mississippi to raise funds for Water for People.
Witnesses For Water
Linda and Gary DeKock

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It’s said a drop of water takes 90 days to travel from Minnesota’s Lake Itasca down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, some 2,291 miles.

Gary DeKock and wife Linda plan to make the trip in less time, paddling a kayak the full length of the river to New Orleans for the 2014 WEFTEC conference, Sept. 27 to Oct. 1. They’re doing it to emphasize the value of every drop of water and to raise funds for nonprofit Water for People, which helps provide safe water to communities in developing countries.

Both retired, the DeKocks have ample experience paddling rivers in and around their home state of Michigan. Gary was superintendent of the Grand Rapids Wastewater Treatment Plant at the end of a 30-year clean-water career. “I’ve been canoeing and kayaking for a lot longer than that,” he says.

Making a difference

The DeKocks set out from Lake Itasca on July 19 and had given themselves 70 days to reach New Orleans — they need to average 33 miles per day, traveling in a 26-foot-long sea kayak.

The trip helps fulfill an aim to be productive in retirement. “When you retire, all of a sudden you’re faced with choices about how to spend your time,” says Linda. “We came to retirement knowing we wanted it to be more than not working and having a good time. We wanted to do something meaningful.”

Gary connected with Water for People at a WEFTEC conference in Chicago about 10 years ago and later started a Water for People committee within the Michigan Water Environment Association. At last year’s WEFTEC show in Chicago, he helped with a bicycling fundraiser, and that inspired him to do more.

“Water for People is a great avenue for helping a community for a very small investment,” he says. “It’s just a matter of bringing some expertise and persistence to the task. You can really change the lives of a lot of people through the work of Water for People.”

Gathering funds

The couple set an initial fundraising goal of $5 per river mile — $11,455. They aim to reach it through industry and personal connections and the Crowdrise website; as of early August they had raised more than $11,800, exceeding their goal. They’re paying their own travel expenses, so every dollar of every pledge goes to Water for People.

Sponsors who pledge at least $1 per mile ($2,291) will have their names or logos displayed on the kayak and on materials promoting the trip. “We hope to be able to display the kayak in the exhibit area at WEFTEC, and we will also recognize our supporters at all Water for People events in New Orleans,” says Gary.

While on the river, they’ll try to create publicity for the charity. “We wanted a platform to talk about Water for People, and this gives us a whole 10 weeks to talk about it,” says Gary. “We want to connect along the way with some youth communities and some water and wastewater treatment plants. We’re going to fly the Water for People flag on our kayak.”

Up to the challenge

The DeKocks will document their journey as they go. A satellite tracking device will enable them to show on a website where they are at any given time. They’ll upload photos, video clips and messages to the extent time and battery power permit.

They try not to be discouraged by people who warn them about the river’s perils: Asian carp, barge traffic, insects, the hardship of camping on the river’s islands. Instead they listen to people who have paddled the river and say they can’t wait to go back. “They are nothing but encouraging,” says Linda. “They say it is just a wonderful river. They’re passionate about it and tell us we’re going to have the time of our lives.”

Gary adds, “We’ll be paddling for about eight hours a day, probably seven days a week, with a few rest days. You’re going downriver. Other people have done it. It’s just a matter of taking one day at a time until you get there. You don’t have to be a superhero to paddle a river. We’re hoping for low water, gentle rains and few mosquitoes.”

And lots of sponsors and donors. You can follow the DeKocks’ progress or donate to their cause by visiting www.mi-waterforpeople.com.   


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