Belfast grandchildren ask her what it’s all about

Troy grandmother to kayak from Maine to Guatemala

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 2:00pm

Story Location:
101 Front Street
Belfast  Maine  04915
United States

BELFAST - On Monday afternoon Deborah Walters parked at the west end of the Armistice Bridge and unloaded a modestly-sized sea kayak. Her husband Chris Percival wheeled it down to the pier at Front Street Shipyard, along with what appeared to be enough gear to fill three or four kayaks. 

In a little less than a month, Walters is planning to embark on a solo trip from Maine to Guatemala. During the 2,500 mile journey, she hopes to raise money for, and draw attention to the work of Safe Passage, a nonprofit working on behalf of children and families who live in slums near the Guatemala City garbage dump. Many of these families are recyclers out of necessity, earning whatever they can by combing the dump for salvageable materials.

Literature that Walters sent in advance to The Penobscot Bay Pilot highlighted that she is a grandmother, which is notable given of the scope of the trip, and considering that the original beneficiaries of Safe Passage’s programs were children, shows an intergenerational commitment on Walters’ part.

In that spirit, The Penobscot Bay Pilot enlisted two lifelong grandchildren — the reporter’s daughters, Alice and Eliot — to ask Walters about her upcoming trip.

Eliot: I have so many questions.

Deborah Walters: Let me give you each pictures. This is me kayaking in the Arctic, because I don’t have a picture of me kayaking to Guatemala yet.

Penobscot Bay Pilot: So you haven’t done this before?

DW: I’ve done solo expeditions before. A lot of them up in the Arctic and along coast of Nova Scotia and Maine and some down in the tropics.

E: I’m glad you’re doing it. They must feel really bad for their parents and themselves.

DW: They are actually really appreciative. They are always going around smiling and saying “Thank you,” because now they’re going to school, which they couldn’t do before. They still live in the garbage dump, but things are looking up, and they’re learning to read.

E: Things are going to look up even more after you do this.

DW: And I look up to them because they work so hard for what they’re doing.

Walters talked about the boat she will be using on the trip, an 18-foot, Chesapeake-style sea kayak. Shestarted building it herself 16 years ago. Recently, she had the deck overhauled and the structure strengthened by professional boatbuilders. 

DW: And what I love is that it’s all made out of recycled materials. Because that’s what the parents [in Guatemala City] do. They’re recycling in the garbage dump. These are just parts that were lying around the boat shop that they put together to make a boat.

Alice: How do you carry all your materials?

DW: Amazingly all this stuff fits in the kayak.

E: where do you sleep?

DW: Not in the kayak hopefully.

E: Because if you slept outside the kayak on some floaty thing or something, wouldn’t the kayak just drift away?

DW: Good point, yeah. So, I have to take the kayak out of the water every night. That’s why I have these wheels that are coming with me. They go up on the back deck.

E: Do you just use your camping gear and put it down on the ground and sleep there?

DW: Right. Or if I’m, like, in the mangroves down in Florida, where there’s no land — it’s all swamp — then I have a hammock I can put across the mangroves to sleep in. And then the tide comes in underneath you and you’re sort of stuck. My big problem is that there’s that lapping water sound all night. Makes you really want to get out and pee, but it’s hard to do.

E: How long is it going to take for you to get there?

DW: It’s going to take about a year? [Astonishment all around] Yeah. Because I’m not going to be going that fast.

Walters said the design of her kayak is “relatively fast” — GPS readings tracked it traveling at 6 knots, though she was skeptical. When it’s fully loaded — the total weight will be around 350 pounds, including Walters — she estimated her pace at more like 2.5 to 3 knots.

E: So, two years completely, because there and back?

DW: Good question. Actually, I’m cheating a little bit and getting a ride back on a yacht as far as Miami and then my husband is going to pick me up.

Her route heading south hugs the coastline from Maine to New Jersey then makes use of the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida. Due to safety concerns, the trip across the Gulf of Mexico will be made aboard a larger vessel that will drop her off in Belize for the last leg of the journey.

E: You’re so brave to do that.

DW: Well, I’m hoping it will get a lot of people asking questions like you are, and interested in what’s going on down in Guatemala.

PBP: How did you get involved with Safe Passage?

DW: Through Rotary International. I started by helping to write some grants, but then they said, come down and visit. And I said, wouldn’t it be better if I just gave you the money for my airfare?

They insisted that she visit, so Walters went to Guatemala City and talked to the families that were recycling garbage there. This was nine years ago. She recounted how the mothers said they just wished their kids would be able to go to school. Walters signed on with Safe Passage and served on the board of directors, but said she eventually felt like she wanted to do more.

DW: I wanted to combine my love of long distance kayaking with my passion for the kids down at Safe Passage.

A: Will you have to stop along the way to get more food and water?

DW: Actually, I’m not going to be camping all the time. People are volunteering to put me up. On our website there’s a Google form people can fill out. And people are doing it all up and down the coast, saying, ‘When you come through Florida ...’ or ‘When you come through North Carolina come and stay with me.’ So it’s really nice. A lot of people are getting involved.

A: Is there a crew that’s coming with you?

DW: Good question. Boy, you are good. Yeah, unfortunately not. But there’s a crew that’s calling all the Rotary clubs along the way, getting me places to stay, speaking engagements. In each major city I go through like New York and Boston, they’re organizing lots of events.

E: Are you bringing a coat even though it’s almost summer here, in case it’s colder there?

DW: That’s another great question. You guys should come with me and ask questions. When I start out, it’s going to be summer here in Maine and then it’s going to get hotter as I go down the coast. Then it’s going to get colder, sort of like autumn here in Maine, when I’m down in North Carolina and North Florida. Then it will start getting to be summer again.

E: What about winter?

DW: I’m not going through ... It shouldn’t get below 40 degrees. So I’m taking a coat with me but not a very heavy one.

A: How long have you been kayaking?

DW: Since ‘81. I used to do a lot of mountain climbing. Then I moved from England to Western New York and there weren’t any mountains so I started canoeing and kayaking.

PBP: The founder of Safe Passage, Hanley Denning, was from Maine. Did you know her?

DW: Yes, I did. When I first went down to Guatemala, I had a chance to meet her and she told me about how she went to Guatemala to learn Spanish that she needed for graduate school for her second masters’ degree and while she was there, she was doing some volunteer work in the mountains and someone said, you’ve got to go visit the garbage dump.

Walters said Denning initially resisted but later went to the dump and talked to children, who typically worked alongside their parents. The children wanted to go to school but between the cost and local prejudices against the “garbage people,” the obstacles were seen as insurmountable.

DW: Hanley contacted her family and said, ‘Sell my car, sell my computer, turn down my graduate fellowship, send me the money and I’m going to start a program to get these children going to school.’ So, she did that. Now 15 years later, there are around 600 students served by Safe Passage. Many have graduated from high school.

Denning was killed in a traffic accident in Guatemala in 2007. At that time people, Walters said, many Safe Passage participants in Guatemala thought that spelled the end of the program. Walters traveled there shortly after to reassure them that there were people around the world committed to Denning’s dream. 

PBP: Is it a secular school?

DW: It is. We’re not associated with any political parties or religious affiliations.

PBP: The [Maine to Guatemala] trip is a fundraiser. Are you doing that through donations?

DW: People can go online and sponsor me by the mile, or make outright donations. And we’re going to corporations for donations. 

PBP: How does this compare to the longest solo trip you’ve ever done?

DW: The longest was six weeks in the Arctic, but that’s because the ice is only melted for six weeks. That’s in total wilderness where you have to take everything with you. This will be different because I’m going along a very populated area. So it’s not like a camping trip. But it’s a lot further, and I’m a little older. 

PBP: How old are you?

DW: I turned 63 on Saturday. It’s going to be a challenge. If it was going to be easy, I wouldn’t be interested in doing it. And I guess I’m sort of inspired by the parents at the garbage dump. A grandmother at the age of 73 wanted to learn to help her grandkids with their homework, so she went to Safe Passage for just a few hours a week and learned to read. Recently she wrote the story of her life using a computer. And I’m going, ok, she inspires me. You’re never too old to do something extraordinary to help other people. I really believe ordinary people like me can do extraordinary things if you just do a little at a time.

Walters departs on July 11 from Yarmouth, Hanley Denning’s hometown. A larger send-off event will be held in Portland, July 13.

Ethan Andrews can be reached at