NAVARRE BEACH — For nearly 40 years, Dave Barker fixed automated sewing machines that stitched together the popular Van Heusen brand dress shirts in Alabama before he retired.
He decided in 1997 to give kayak tours to tourists attracted to the uncrowded, unspoiled and unhurried white sandy beaches of the barrier island.
“I thought I could always pick up beer cans on the side of the road, if I can’t make this kayaking thing go,” Barker said.
The leathery skinned codger with a gray-haired pony tail still paddles 22 years later in the Santa Rosa Sound off Navarre Beach.
Today, he’s a beach icon. That doesn’t earn him many free beers, he said, but it did earn him the nickname “Kayak” Dave from beach bar Juana’s Pagodas.
“They had a lot of Daves,” joked Barker, a Navarre resident for 36 years.
The happy-go-lucky businessman has fended off any competition because there’s “not enough money” in his “Sunset Kayak Eco-Tours.” On his website, Navarre Beach Kayaks, he charges $50 per kayaker for groups of four or more and $60 for two to three kayakers. Barker typically does two to four tours on the sound per week.
“I’m happy to do it,” Barker said. “It’s amazing people pay me. I try not to think about it as a job. Then it wouldn’t be any fun.”
The U.S. Air Force brought him to Niceville from Toledo, Ohio, and he moved to Navarre in 1983 with his wife and newborn son.
Kayak Dave started out in canoes. Then, he tried a sit-on-top Wilderness System Tarpon sea-going kayak and has stuck with it ever since.
“You can hop on and off,” he said. “They’re really simple and they hold up.”
On a two- to three-hour tour with Kayak Dave, tourists see great blue herons, great white egrets, snowy egrets, black skimmers, brown pelicans, double crested cormorants, ospreys, bald eagles, least terns, bottlenose dolphin, southern stingrays, sea turtles and other marine life.
His favorite is the rare reddish egret. Victims of the plume trade, only 1,500 to 2,000 nesting pairs of reddish egrets live in the United States. He once saw one in a tidal pond near Navarre Beach on four nightly tours in a row.
“When you see it, you never forget it,” Barker said.
His love for the beach has led to many volunteer opportunities. Among other things, Barker helped create the Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary about 2,000 feet from the Navarre Beach Pier. He volunteers as a Navarre Beach Ambassador for the Santa Rosa County Extension office. He treats each youth who attends the Navarre Beach Marine Science Station to a 15-minute kayak lesson. He also voluntarily monitors area waters for harmful red tide algae blooms.
Plus, Barker loves to take solo explorations with his kayak. Two of his favorite spots in the southeast are the hour trip down Boiling Creek on Eglin Air Force Base near State Road 87 and the nine-mile journey along the barrier islands, including West Ship Island, off the Mississippi coast.
But Kayak Dave and his kayak have floated together all over the world, including the Pacific Islands. He traveled for six days through Palau, an archipelago of more than 500 islands and part of the Micronesia region in the western Pacific Ocean. He also kayaked and did scuba diving there in Yap.
“It’s the No. 1 diving destination in the world,” Barker said. “The people in Yap still wear grass skirts and the women still go topless.”
Don’t be surprised if you see Kayak Dave at Navarre Beach. He never strayed far from the area after first seeing the beach as a 19-year-old airman.
“I thank the Air Force for bringing me down here from Ohio in the middle of winter,” he said.