Using Paddling Events for Fundraising: Case Study — RiverTrek and Florida’s Apalachicola River

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A huge cypress knees in Sutton's Lake, Apalachicola River Blueway by Doug Alderson

Story by Doug Alderson

From paddling races to kayak poker runs, many nonprofit groups use events as engaging opportunities to raise funds. Starting with the basics: most of these community-focused events involve the participants paying an upfront or on-site registration fee; and additional funds are often raised through the sale of T-shirts, food, beer and raffles.

But North Florida’s Apalachicola Riverkeeper has taken trail event fundraising to a new level.

In 2007 and 2008, the Riverkeeper organized group kayaking trips down the entire Apalachicola River from Lake Seminole to Apalachicola. These 107-mile trips featured educational presentations by scientists, activists, commercial fishermen and timber men. Inspired by these trips, Earl Morrogh, then a volunteer on the Riverkeeper board of directors, added a fundraising component. He called it RiverTrek, and the idea was for paddlers to solicit sponsors in a type of paddle-a-thon to raise funds for the Riverkeeper. The first few trips raised a few thousand dollars each year, but as other volunteer coordinators were brought in and the groups became larger and more focused, significant funds were raised for the Riverkeeper to the tune of $50,000 to $60,000 per year.

Rob Diaz de Villegas and his son Max paddling the Apalachicola.

The annual RiverTrek occurs for five days during the second week in October. Around 15 paddlers are selected from a pool of applicants and there is usually a near equal mix of men and women, millennials and baby boomers. They hail from Florida, Georgia and sometimes other states. Some have completed the trek several times, while others are new to the experience.

On RiverTrek, participants paddle more than 20 miles a day, braving heat and possibly rain, camping on sandbars and sharing group meals and stories. They swim, laugh, and enjoy first-hand one of Florida’s most diverse and inspiring rivers. Large bluffs—the tallest in Florida—can be seen along the upper reaches, and most of the shorelines throughout the journey are forested and undeveloped. At low to moderate water levels, long sandbars are ideal for rest stops and camping, and for studying tracks left by deer, bear, turkey and other wildlife. Bald eagles are commonly seen, either fishing, soaring or perched on tall shoreline trees.

Estifinulga moonrise along Apalachicola River Blueway.

From guest speakers in the evening, paddlers learn about the incredible number of plants and animals the river supports, including tupelo trees that contribute to sweet tupelo honey and world-famous oysters in Apalachicola Bay, and how upstream water use in Georgia has impacted these industries. The United States Supreme Court weighed in on the issue in 2018 and ordered a Special Master to hear oral arguments and return with recommendations.

“Our advocacy and education programs are supported through RiverTrek donations,” said Apalachicola Riverkeeper Georgia Ackerman, “and the community awareness-raising aspect of RiverTrek is tremendous. The paddlers are all out talking to their respective neighbors, colleagues and friends about the importance of the Apalachicola River and Bay.”

Volunteer fundraising efforts have included events at breweries, neighborhood and community meet-and-greet gatherings, an ice-cream social, fish fry and bingo party. Each paddler is asked to raise at least $1,000, but as with every RiverTrek, a friendly competition occurs as to who can raise the most money. First-time RiverTrekker Lee Rigby of Woodville, a leader in the elevator business, raised an all-time individual high of $13,000 in 2019. “I called in lots of favors,” he said. “The Apalachicola Riverkeeper is an important organization working to protect one of our most valuable river systems.”

For Britney Moore, a planning coordinator with Florida’s Office of Greenways and Trails, RiverTrek has been an annual tradition for five years. “I thought what better way to promote trails than to gain firsthand knowledge of one of our most treasured resources so I can share with others the importance of protecting and conserving our natural environment,” she said.

Learn more about the Apalachicola RiverTrek by logging onto http://apalachicolariverkeeper.org/rivertrek/.

Doug Alderson is a volunteer coordinator for RiverTrek and a journeyman author with 13 published books and numerous magazine articles. His current book project, about the cultural history associated with the American Alligator, is being published by Lyons Press. Visit his website for more information:  www.dougalderson.net.