A Couple of Paddlers Traverse Big Rivers to Help Provide Water for Those in Need

Gary and Linda De Kock plan a fourth self-propelled voyage, this time down the Missouri River, to raise funds for Water for People.
A Couple of Paddlers Traverse Big Rivers to Help Provide Water for Those in Need
Gary and Linda De Kock on the Wisconsin River.

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Gary and Linda De Kock have paddled more than 3,800 river miles and raised some $39,000 for their favorite charity, Water For People.

Gary, a former lab chemist and supervisor at the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Water Resource Recovery Facility, adopted the charity as a retirement project. This year, he and Linda plan their most ambitious voyage yet, canoeing all 2,341 miles of the Missouri River.

Their mission is to raise awareness as well as funds for Water For People and its projects that provide water and sanitation service for developing communities in nine countries. Their first three voyages all ended at the home city of the WEFTEC conference — twice in Chicago and once in New Orleans.

First came a 2014 kayak trip down the entire Mississippi River (2,291 miles). Last year, they canoed 1,176 miles on a Five Rivers Voyage on the Wisconsin, Mississippi, Illinois, Des Plaines and Chicago rivers. In between, they paddled 400 miles from Jackson, Michigan, to Chicago.

On their Missouri River Voyage, they aim to raise $10 per mile, or $23,410. They’ll start in June at Three Forks, Montana, and cross seven states before ending in September at the confluence with the Mississippi just north of St. Louis. The two talked about Water For People and their river adventures in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: Gary, what is your background in the clean-water profession?

Gary: I started in 1982 at the Grand Rapids facility as a chemist. After 11 years, I moved to the Muskegon County (Michigan) Wastewater Management System and was a lab manager there. In 2004, I came back to Grand Rapids and retired in 2013 as operations and maintenance supervisor.

TPO: How did you make the connection with Water For People?

Gary: At WEFTEC in Chicago years ago, I attended a Water For People event and talked to a number of people who were leaders of the Michigan Water Environment Association. I noticed that while the Michigan Section of the American Water Works Association had a Water For People committee, the Michigan Water Environment Association did not. About 10 years ago, we started a committee to support Water For People, and I’ve been the chair and co-chair.

TPO: What makes you so passionate about Water For People?

Gary: In the United States, we’re used to having safe and clean water, but people in some countries around the world do not. Water is global, and in communities in developing countries that are struggling, a few dollars can go a long way. It’s a lot of bang for the buck.

TPO: Have you ever taken part in Water For People projects?

Gary: No, but Linda and I have done some traveling in Uganda and Kenya, so we have seen the challenges some communities are facing. We’re focusing on activities here that will engage the Water Environment Federation membership, raise money and, we hope, keep sustaining the organization.

TPO: Why did you choose paddle voyages? Aren’t there easier ways to raise funds?

Gary: I’m from Michigan, and everybody here is born canoeing. Furthermore, there is so much competition for people’s attention that you have to do something different — you have to go big or go home.

TPO: What have you done to generate the attention it takes to raise funds effectively?

Gary: Linda shares pictures and stories through our Facebook page. Our Michigan Water Environment Association committee meets about six times a year, and we talk about what we can do to support next year’s voyage. At this year’s joint expo with Michigan Section AWWA, we held a silent auction and had a table with information about Water For People. We were the keynote speakers at the Missouri Water Environment Association/Missouri Section AWWA joint conference in March where they have a strong Water For People committee. They did some fundraising, and we talked about plans to paddle the Missouri River through a number of their communities.  

Linda: We’ve had coverage on the WEF and Water For People websites. We also hope to connect with other states. We’d like to visit wastewater treatment plants along the Missouri.

TPO: How much money have your previous voyages raised?

Gary: We raised nearly $13,000 for last year’s Five Rivers Voyage. Two years ago, we raised about $9,000 in our paddle from Michigan to Chicago. In 2014, we raised more than $17,000 on the Mississippi trip. The Missouri trip is more miles and more days than we’ve done before, and we hope that translates into more dollars, too.

TPO: What are some of the hardships of spending so much time on the rivers?

Linda: I’m 67, and Gary is 66. You hurt more when you’re older, and you don’t recover as quickly. That’s one of the difficulties. Then, there’s getting into the boat in the morning and not knowing where we’re going to lay our heads at night. That can be stressful. The size of the trip can get to you. There’s wind and rain. We worry about ticks, and the mosquitoes are annoying.

TPO: Have you faced challenges with weather?

Gary: Last summer, we had to get off the river a couple of times due to thunderstorms. We can get weather forecasts, so we can tell when weather is coming. If a storm gets too close, that’s the time to get off the water and wait for it to pass.

Linda: From what we hear about Missouri, the storms really come thundering across the prairies, and they come fast. So we’ll be paying attention as closely as we can. We’re hoping for a nice, calm summer, but we’ll take what we get.

TPO: What about dealing with boat and barge traffic on those big rivers?

Gary: We travel in shallow water, and the boat traffic tends to be in the deep water. You get used to the barges and how they travel. They tend to be very predictable. We give them lots of room and take our time. We’re the smallest thing on the river, so we just assume people don’t see us. We stay out of the way and stay in safe areas.

TPO: What about the joys of life on the water?

Linda: After three or four weeks, you start living on river time. You stop thinking that you have 2,000 miles to go and just think about where you are that day. You become less worried about having to stop because it’s raining. You tend to roll with the punches and start experiencing the outdoors in a different way, noticing when the wind changes and when you smell something different. You feel more in touch with Mother Earth.

TPO: Is it a solitary life, or are there connections with people along the way?

Linda: On every trip, we run into people, total strangers, who walk up and say, “What are you doing?” And their next question is, “What can we do to help?” You don’t often see that kind and generous side of people in day-to-day life.

Gary: One of the most common things we hear from people is, “What do you need?” Sometimes we don’t even have to ask. The next thing we hear after that is, “Be safe.”

TPO: Have you made any advance connections with people along the Missouri?

Linda: As soon as I posted the Missouri trip on our Paddle With Purpose River Voyages Facebook page, I put a link to the Missouri Paddlers page, and within 24 hours, I had a list of eight people along the way who said, “We’re here to help.” One guy in South Dakota who’s with a canoe and kayak club says, “We’ve got you for the dams in South Dakota.” He’s saying people will come with a pickup truck and portage our boat when we get to those dams. Other people say, “We’ll have a hot meal waiting for you — just let us know when you get here.”

TPO: If you were to make a sales pitch for donations to support your Missouri voyage, what would you say?

Gary: Water For People is the charity of choice for the WEF, and a lot of our peers support the organization. We believe in it, and we believe in the value of water and the value of community. A small gift can mean a world of difference in communities around the world.

Linda: After we did the Mississippi, someone came to the Water For People booth at WEFTEC and said, “You have to realize you’re not just raising money — you’re saving lives.” I think about that a lot when I’m on the water. We don’t know exactly what impact we’re having, but it’s a real privilege to do something meaningful at this point in our lives.

TPO: How can your peers in the clean-water profession follow your Missouri voyage?

Gary: We’ll be carrying our satellite communicator, which will tell every 10 minutes where we are, within 30 feet. People who want to follow that can see us moving down the river. To support our voyage, they can visit the Missouri River Voyage Crowdrise page. To see photos and videos, they can visit Paddle With Purpose River Voyages on Facebook.

Linda: They can email us at gdekock@gmail.com, and we will look for them as we pass by. Tell people we hope to see them on the river!


About Water For People

The beneficiary of the Gary and Linda De Kock paddle voyages was established in 1991 by CH2M‘s Ken Miller, a former president of the American Water Works Association; Wayne Weiss of Black & Veatch; and John B. Mannion, a former AWWA executive director. They shared a vision of a world where all people have access to safe water and adequate sanitation.

Water For People is an international nonprofit working in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, Bolivia, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi and India. Recognizing that 2.1 billion people around the world lack access to safe water, the charity promotes the development of high-quality drinking water and sanitation services.

Its projects include not only building wells, installing toilets, and setting up pumps, but also supporting long-term, sustainable change by learning what community members, governments, and business owners need to feel healthy, safe, and empowered, and then building capacity to change entire systems so that water and sanitation services will last for generations.

Water For People has strong partnerships with AWWA, the Water Environment Federation, the Water Quality Association, the National Association of Water Companies, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

In recognition of the De Kocks’ contributions, they received two honors at WEFTEC 2017: They received the Robert W. Hite Outstanding Leadership Award given by Water For People as well as the WEF President’s Recognition from President Rick Warner, a Water For People supporter.



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