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FRIEND OF THE WATERWAYS

Kurt Zuelsdorf was a nature tour guide for more than 20 years in Wisconsin. Today, he owns Kayak Nature Adventures, which gives eco-tours of Clam Bayou Nature Park in Gulfport. In addition to cleaning up the water and the shoreline, Zuelsdorf's mission is to promote green living while educating people on the importance of preserving Earth's resources.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

Being in nature. Nature pulls you into the moment. I work about 80 hours in the office and work my tail off generating interest and marketing. All of that disappears and makes those hours worthwhile when I come out on the water. It occurs for everyone whether they know it or not when they come out in nature.

What is your least favorite part?

The trash and the office work. I know the office work is necessary, but I really can't stand the trash. I have to turn it around in my mind as an educational opportunity. When trash comes in we bring groups out on field trips and teach them. We get funding to bring schools out.

Where do you get the funding?

One of the funding grants that I get is from the Southwest Florida Water Management District. In the past few years it has funded me to take thousands of people out here on kayak cleanups. We don't do land clean-ups. We come out and do two-hour lecture tours to teach people and along the way we pick up trash. I always make sure each kayak has a garbage bag. That is what has produced the 100,000 pounds of garbage.

How much money can a kayak tour guide make per year?

Last year, I made $35,000. Part of that was thanks to the grant that I got. I'm trying to get more this year because it allows me to bring out more groups. It enables me to bring them out for free. With funding I'm also able to make videos and bring them into the classrooms and educate the students that one can or a little piece of paper does make a difference. Last year, I was able to impact 700 kids by either bringing them out here or going to visit them. We are constantly trying to encourage recycling and the use of reusable shopping bags.

What made you choose Clam Bayou Nature Park for your eco-tours?

Clam Bayou Nature Park is a very important estuary in the Tampa Bay region. An estuary is a semi-enclosed coastal body of water with fresh water intrusions. We have two freshwater creeks that empty into this area. That freshwater combined with the water coming from Boca Ciega Bay turns water in the estuary into brackish. This brackish water in combination with the mangroves makes the estuary the perfect fish hatchery. All life begins in these estuaries. With all the fish that live in Clam Bayou come the birds. Keeping this area clean is crucial for the survival of the creatures here, and four years ago we started a cleanup program in this park because the trash was so overwhelming. The thousands of people that have come on these kayak tours with me have removed more than 100,000 pounds of garbage from this park.

What kinds of things have you found in the water?

We have removed more than 300 tires; we stopped counting shopping carts at 50. Everything you would find in a Wal-Mart, from every department, we have removed. Television sets, wheelbarrows, clothes hanging in the trees were unbearable. One guy found a bag of money, it was only $28, but still we find all kinds of things. We have found all kinds of parts to cars, full sets of patio furniture, motorcycles and electronics. One of the largest things we pulled out was a sofa and one of the hardest things to get out was a 500-gallon automatic Dumpster.

What is next for the kayak tours?

We still have so much work to do. We get great support from the local community. We have people come from all states and countries to do this tour. It is a great way for tourists to learn something and help the environment. The cleaner our waterways are the more people will visit our restaurants and our shops. That is why I do what I do.

For more information about Kurt Zuelsdorf and Kayak Nature Adventures, visit kayaknature.com.

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