On July 12, Deborah Walters launched her sea kayak into the Atlantic Ocean in Yarmouth, Maine, and she’s been paddling ever since. Walters, a 63-year-old grandmother and retired research scientist, is paddling solo down the U.S. Atlantic coast to the southern tip of Florida, where she will sail with a friend to Central America. From there, she’ll continue south in her stitch-and-glue plywood kayak to Guatemala. Her Kayak for Safe Passage Kids project aims to raise awareness and funds for a school for children living in a garbage dump community in Guatemala City. Her fundraising goal is $150,000—enough to add third- and fourth-grade classes to a school funded by Maine-based nonprofit Safe Passage.
We caught up with Walters on a rest day on Delaware Bay, 600 miles into a journey she expects to finish by next May.
CanoeKayak.com: You’ve paddled from Maine to some of the most densely populated regions of the U.S. Tell us about the contrasts you’ve encountered so far.
Deborah Walters: Right now, I’m in not only the poorest county in New Jersey but also one of the poorest in the U.S. It’s a struggling fishing community on Delaware Bay. Some have given up completely because of sea level rise and have moved inland, others are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. I contrast this with the private beach I landed on a few weeks ago. People here may not have much money but they’re wonderful, generous and humorous.
Are the impacts of rising sea levels that obvious to you?
I didn’t expect it to be this dramatic. Some of the communities are deserted, like ghost towns. In the less wealthy areas, people don’t have the money to increase the height of their homes so they’ve sold out to people with more money. You see the fortifications people have built—massive seawalls around the houses. It’s really changing the character of this coastline in so many ways.
How have the varying demographics responded to your message?
You know, what has been striking is that the people who have given the most generously have been in the less wealthy communities. Of course, I have had some very large single donations from incredibly wealthy people, but when you talk to people about children living in garbage dumps, they realize their living conditions are worse than anything we have here.
Overall, the response has been amazing. I’ve only paddled 25 to 30 percent of the total distance but I’ve raised over half of my goal.
What have been the highlights so far?
Most surprising has been that I haven’t seen a single marine mammal so far. They’ve always been my companions on my previous trips in the Canadian Arctic, Nova Scotia and northern Maine. I paddled into New York City without even realizing it. I first landed on a beach on City Island. It was the most stress-free way of arriving in New York that you could ever imagine. The next day, local paddlers led me on a route between the East and Harlem rivers to avoid the waves and whirlpools at Hell’s Gate. It was an unreal feeling paddling through Manhattan and seeing all the landmarks. The paddling community in New York City is amazing. I was joined by nine different paddlers along the way.
Describe your typical day.
It’s been an average of 17 to 18 miles per day. Some days I cover 30 or more miles, and some days are short because of speaking engagements. I’m paddling about two out of every three days because of presentations, weather and to give myself a break. I have paddled in three Small Craft Advisories and every time was it was a mistake.
Are you camping along the way?
That was the plan. I thought I would be doing a lot of “stealth” camping. But except for two nights in Maine, people have put me up every night. I’m still carrying all of my gear and soon I expect to hit some uninhabited areas where I may need to use it.
Where have you paddled before this? How does this expedition compare?
I’ve been kayaking since 1981. Most of my solo trips have been in the Arctic—through the Northwest Passage in the central Arctic, down the Mackenzie River, and along the Hudson Bay coast from Baker Lake to Chesterfield Inlet. This is the first time I’ve done a trip for a cause and that’s made it so different. On a trip for myself, I can stop when I want to stop. But now, because of speaking engagements I’ve had to paddle on some days when I shouldn’t just to keep to the schedule. It’s been more strenuous.
Tell us more about your cause.
I’ve been volunteering in Guatemala for nine years. Families in Guatemala City are supporting themselves by scavenging in a garbage dump. They’re truly entrepreneurs. It’s horribly difficult and dangerous work but it does a great environmental service. There are 10,000 people living like this. I’ve been volunteering there and have learned that their greatest wish is for their children to go to school. Since Safe Passage began 15 years ago, so many of these children have graduated and gone to university and gotten jobs. I’m convinced that with just a little help from people around the world we really can break the cycle of poverty in Guatemala.
There’s been lots of discussion about children from Central America coming across the border to the U.S. This is the solution—to support a program that provides opportunities for kids and makes it better for them to remain in Guatemala.
Where do you go from here?
Pretty soon I get off the open ocean and onto the Intracoastal Waterway. Originally my plan was just to keep land on my right all the way to Central America, but when I learned about the drug cartels on the Gulf of Mexico I decided it was best to find an alternative arrangement. My friend will pick me up in Miami and I expect to be paddling again by April. I hope to finish in mid-May 2015.