Alumnus kayaking trip aims to raise awareness about climate change
Almost everyone has their own idea of what constitutes fun. For Will freund ’17, kayaking 1,000 miles on the Intracoastal Waterway from Miami to Norfolk, Va. sounded like fun. At least that’s what he said to himself in 2018 when he first came up with the idea.
Since then, that epic adventure aboard a 16-foot boat, which he dubbed Climate, Kayak and Conversation, has evolved into an awareness campaign that tested Freund’s courage and deepened his commitment to fostering understanding of our changing environment.
After graduating from the College of Charleston with a major in biology, Freund worked for several years as an environmental educator and coastal researcher. When he had the idea for this adventure, he immediately understood that the trip had to be something more than himself. So his thoughts turned to using travel as the basis for creating a documentary film. His mission ? Engage residents along the way and learn about their experiences regarding climate change.
“In fact,” he says, “I deliberately avoid that term – climate change – because it has become such a politicized subject. Instead, I ask people how the coast has changed where they live. I’m asking about environmental changes, changes in species, what fishermen see with their catch – that sort of thing.
Besides the documentary he is creating, Freund has also chronicled his journey on the project site, climatekayakandconversation.org, and on social networks (on Instagram, Facebook and Youtube). He started the trip in the spring of 2020, but the global pandemic forced him to take a break just 17 days after starting his trip.
“It was really unexpected,” he recalls. “I was about 200 miles from the trip and almost overnight all the marinas all started to close. They wouldn’t accept passing boaters like me. So with very little notice I had to pull over, tow the boat to North Carolina, and put the project on hold for almost a year.
Freund restarted the adventure in mid-April 2021, and since then has made his way from Florida, along the Georgia coast, through the salt marshes and rivers of South Carolina and up to to the coast of North Carolina. He hopes to finish in Norfolk around July 4th. Freud received financial support for his expedition through equipment sponsors, private donors, and grants, including a grant from the Environmental Educators of North Carolina.
When sailing, his small boat can travel at about six miles an hour, and about half that speed if he uses only the pedals. But rapid transit is not one of Freund’s goals. Having in-depth conversations about what the people of this region have been through in terms of environmental change is his real goal.
“I’ve talked to people like the former mayor of Amelia Island, Florida,” he says, a recreational outfitter in Beaufort, South Carolina, and shrimp and commercial fishermen in a bunch of coastal communities. I have discovered that there is a wide range of beliefs and opinions regarding climate change. We tend to think that people believe it to be human or not, but in fact the majority of people hold beliefs somewhere in between these two extremes. It has been instructive for me. It taught me that those of us who want to see more talk about it and greater awareness, can’t treat it like a binary situation. Ultimately, if we are to take action on the issue, we must approach every conversation about climate change with an open mind. “
For Freund, the most effective way to get someone’s attention to climate change is to find ways for them to experience an emotional connection with their immediate surroundings.
“People are not going to respond if you tell them the polar caps are melting,” he explains. “They won’t be moved by the fact that the Pacific Islands are inundated. But show them how much it matters on a personal level, how changes are happening in their own backyards, and it’s a connection. To do that, we have to get people out. We need them to get our hands dirty and engage with their environment locally. Ultimately, if you can show them how those things they care about are threatened by the collective activities of man, you can get them to act.
Freund hopes that individual action on climate change will be the eventual legacy of his Climate, Kayak and Conversation project. At the end of the trip, he will devote his time to editing the images he captured and refining the documentary. Then he plans to speak in public about this incredible experience. But before all that, he will have to complete the expedition safely, sailing his little boat through the rivers, streams and streams that mean so much to him.
“One of the most empowering things about this trip,” he says, “is that it showed me once again how connected nature is in every way. It doesn’t matter city borders, county borders, state borders, etc. What happens in one area of nature will ultimately affect other areas. It’s just like that. And given that, it is clear that we are all in the same boat, and we need to understand and solve this problem together. This is my big takeaway.