By Howard Meyerson
Every now and then we get an opportunity to express in life those things we hold dear – a point where we live our ideals. Gary and Linda DeKock are two such people who do that regularly, but on July 19, when they launch their tandem kayak on Minnesota’s Lake Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi River, they will be challenged to do that daily.
The Grand Rapids couple plans to paddle 2,291 miles down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. The trip is a fund-raiser for “Water for People (WFP), a Denver Colorado nonprofit that provides safe, clean water to villages in nine third-world countries. The DeKocks hope to raise at least $11,455, using a crowd-sourcing website called Crowdrise. That translates to $5 for each mile paddled.
“The cool thing about Water for People is they work on sustainable solutions,” exclaims 63-year-old Linda DeKock, a self-employed vocational rehabilitation consultant. “First-world people usually go and put in a well – then stand back and say: ‘There! Everyone is happy.’ And five years later the well doesn’t work – and the women are still walking five miles to get water. Water for People tries to go beyond that and have local communities invested in the outcome.
“Gary wanted to do a bike trip from Chicago to New Orleans, but I didn’t want to; I don’t like being on highways. So I said: ‘Why don’t we paddle from Chicago to New Orleans?’ He got a look on his face and said. ‘If we’re going to be on the Mississippi, we should do the whole thing.’”
The DeKocks plan to be in New Orleans in time for a national Water Environments Federation Association conference expected to draw 20,000 water quality professionals. Gary, 63, retired last year from his job as plant supervisor for the City of Grand Rapids Waste Water Treatment Plant. He is a member of the Michigan Water Environment Association and chairman of its Water for People Committee. His 30-year career has involved assuring that people have clean water. The Mississippi trip continues where his job left off.
“This trip fit with my profession and interests,” Gary said. “I’ve worked in waste water treatment and have been involved with providing that service to our communities. But there are a lot of (other) communities around the world that don’t have that and with a little effort we can make a big change.”
The DeKocks have no illusions about the trip. It won’t be easy. Both are experienced paddlers. But, making 30 miles a day on a sustained basis is taxing for anyone. Both have participated in the Hugh Heward Challenge, the annual 50-mile race from Diamondale to Portland on the Grand River, They’ve paddled with whales off the Atlantic coast and spent more than a week, navigating backcountry routes in Wabakimi Provincial Park a 3,444-square-mile wilderness in Ontario.
Each knows the Mississippi River will present many challenges. There are long portages on the northern segments. Fully 600 miles of river flows through Minnesota. The lower river is a vast waterway full of commercial barge traffic known to push up wakes that can capsize a kayak. It won’t be the quiet, pristine waters each prefers to paddle.
Gary’s inspiration hails from the late Verlen Kruger, whom he got to know. Kruger, died in 2004 from prostate cancer, but his long-distance paddling legacy lives on. A memorial in his name was erected along the Grand River in Portland. Kruger held 11 Guinness World Records for long-distance paddling including on the Mississippi River.
“I met Verlen in 1972 and thought about him all my life,” Gary explains.
Linda, who is getting ready to retire, said she was looking to do something special – and meaningful.
“Paddling the Mississippi is about taking a journey across country, only from top to bottom,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to wave at people and get to know who they are, to learn about the history of the Mississippi River.
“I fully anticipate that three weeks into it, I could be thinking ‘Was I nuts?’ But I am looking forward to getting through it, an hour at a time, sometimes maybe 15 minutes at a time. It’s the kind of thing you want on your obituary – paddled the Mississippi River.”
To follow the DeKocks on their adventure or to contribute to their cause see: mi-waterforpeople.com/
This column appears on MLive Outdoors