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Pair paddles for environment

TERRY TOMALIN
Published June 20, 2004

TREASURE ISLAND - Arthur Hebert and Larry Koenig never know where they will eat, sleep or get their next shower.

"We just keep moving along," Hebert said. "The Gulf of Mexico is pretty big. You have to keep paddling."

Since February 2003, the kayakers from southern Louisiana have been slowly working their way around the Gulf of Mexico.

"We are hoping to bring attention to the problem of coastal erosion," Hebert explained.

"In our home state, we are losing 25 square miles a year." Hebert, a 46-year-old building contractor, and Koenig, a 50-year-old emergency room physician, began their journey in Grand Isle, La., and headed down the coast for Isla Mujeres, Mexico, a distance of 1,894 miles.

Ten years ago, Hebert paddled from Isla Mujeres to Grand Isle, except instead of following the coast, he cut straight across the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

"It was a 738-mile crossing," Hebert explained. "I had to eat, sleep ... do everything in the kayak."

Hebert's Gulf crossing is nothing short of legendary in the close-knit sea kayaking community. But he said his recent La Costa del Golfo (Spanish for the Gulf Coast) is equally demanding.

"Phase 1 took 139 days," he said. "That is a long time to be in a sea kayak."

Paddling south to Mexico, the two men had the wind in their faces the whole time. They would stop when they saw a town or village, and the locals would come out and greet them.

"We called it the Gringo Loco Show," Koenig said, "because that is what they called us, the loco gringos." Koenig and Hebert had hoped to paddle across the Yucatan Channel to Cuba, but they had to cancel that leg of the trip for logistical reasons.

So they headed home, regrouped and this spring began Phase 2 of their La Costa del Golfo mission.

"This leg of the trip has been far more enjoyable," Hebert said. "The Texas and Mexican coast was very desolate.

"There is a lot more going on here in Florida."

They started last month in Key West, paddled up the Florida Keys then across Florida Bay to Everglades National Park. Then they worked their way up the coast, stopping every 20 to 30 miles until Wednesday, when they found themselves in Pinellas County's Treasure Island.

"We like this coast a lot," Koenig said. "The pine trees are all pointing north, which means the wind is usually at our backs."

They haven't had any trouble with wildlife interfering with the progress of their 17-foot sea kayaks. But both men said they were surprised by the number of sharks they have spotted in local waters.

"Larry had a 10-footer swim right under his boat a few days ago," Hebert said.

Koenig smiled when he recalled the encounter. "It was impressive," he said.

The Baton Rouge, La., resident is no stranger to adversity. In February 2001, Koenig was returning from Sweetwater Kayak's Seakayaking Symposium in Fort DeSoto when he was involved in a car accident near Tallahassee. He spent nine days in the neurosurgical unit of a local hospital before beginning a long, slow, painful process of recovery.

While in rehab, Koenig came up with the idea of the La Costa del Golfo expedition. His friends didn't know if he'd ever sit in a sea kayak again, let alone paddle 4,000 miles around the Gulf of Mexico.

But this week, Koenig found himself halfway to his goal.

"We plan to be home by Aug. 26," he said. "The next day is my wife's birthday, and she is the one calling the shots on this trip."

Hebert said the trip along the coast is more than just another paddle.

"We hope that if people hear our story, maybe they will start thinking about shoreline erosion," he said.

"Maybe then they will be able to do something about it before it is too late."

TO LEARN MORE ...

ABOUT THE TRIP: www.lacostadelgolfo.com

ABOUT COASTAL EROSION: www.americaswetland.com

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