BOOTHBAY — Most people who hear her plan ask Deb Walters if she is nuts.
In a few weeks, Walters, 63, is setting off on a 2,500-mile, yearlong kayaking trip starting from a beach in Yarmouth and ending in Guatemala City, near the site of a community living in and around the city’s garbage dump.
“My favorite version of the question is, ‘What went wrong in your life?’ ” Walters said while overlooking the Hodgdon Island bay where she trained this week. “My answer is, ‘What went right in my life?’ ”
Nine years ago, Walters, a grandmother, retired scientist and Rotarian, started volunteering with Safe Passage, a Maine-based nonprofit that sets up schools in Guatemala City. Now she plans to paddle most of the way there to raise money and support for the program, which was started in 1999 by Hanley Denning, a 1992 Bowdoin College graduate who had gone to Guatemala to improve her Spanish and ended up establishing Safe Passage. She built it into a successful program before being killed in a tragic automobile accident in Guatemala in 2007.
Walters was among the many who bought in to Denning’s vision.
“I smelled the methane and the rotting garbage and the choking dust blowing around, the vultures circling overhead,” she said of her first trip to the garbage dump community. “I saw the parents that are actually scavenging the dump for food, clothing, items they can recycle to sell.”
Walters, who lives in Troy, said the first trip that she went on with Rotarians was eye-opening.
“I had a chance to talk to some of the mothers and they were saying how they just wish that their children could go to school and learn to read and have a better life,” Walters said. “That simple dream broke my heart, so I knew I had to do something to help.”
Since then Walters has served on the Safe Passage board, with a stint as president, and traveled to Guatemala City yearly. But, she wanted to combine her love of long-distance, solo kayaking with her love of service.
“It kept nagging at me that I could be doing something more to help,” Walters said.
Walters’ previous kayaking adventures include trips to the Arctic, where she encountered narwhals, polar bears and seals, and the Florida Everglades, where she paddled beside alligators and manatees.
For this trip Walters, who has arthritis, plans to paddle slowly, stopping in coastal cities along the way to raise awareness and funds so Safe Passage can add additional grades to its schools.
The route will take Walters close to the shore from Yarmouth to mid-New Jersey and then along the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida.
To avoid the possibility of armed attacks in Mexican waters, she said she will travel from Florida to Belize by sailboat, with the final paddling stretch taking her along a barrier reef to Rio Dulce in Guatemala. Walters expects to arrive in Guatemala City before the region’s rainy season starts in late May.
“I really believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things with a little bit of grit and determination,” Walters said.
David Holman, the outreach and communications coordinator for Safe Passage, agreed.
“We all think this is great … It’s an extraordinary way to get the word out about what we’re doing,” Holman said. “We’re all nervous (about it going) well, but it’s something that we support and are excited to follow.”
Walters will be paddling a custom-made kayak outfitted with video cameras to document her trip and compartments to store her clothes, gadgets and food. She is also field testing equipment from L.L. Bean, including rain gear, dry bags, outerwear and base layers. “We (L.L. Bean) thought this would be a great opportunity for some rigorous testing of our products, due to the nature of the trip and the dynamic range of conditions she will most likely be encountering,” said Mac McKeever, a spokesman for the Maine retailer. “We know she will put the products through their paces and provide us with some very valuable feedback that will help us make our products even better.”
The yearlong adventure will kick off July 11, with a trip from Yarmouth to Portland.
Walters is encouraging other paddlers to kayak alongside her to Portland, where there will be an official kickoff July 13, and said those interested should email [email protected] for details.