Dale Sanders celebrated his arrival at the Gulf of Mexico last fall with a much-deserved glass of champagne. He’d spent the previous 80 days paddling the Mississippi River, a 2,300-mile stretch of water known for its difficult portages, countless dams and intimidating freighter boats.

Even when Sanders reached the salt waters in his Wenonah Wilderness, what he’d achieved hadn’t entirely sunk in. In addition to raising over $22,000 for Type 1 diabetes research, Sanders had set a world record. At 80 years old, the “Grey Beard Adventurer” had become the oldest person in the world to solo paddle the river from source to sea.

80-year-old paddles Mississippi River source to sea

1 Who was your canoe Anna named for?

My grandniece, Anna, was diagnosed with Juvenile Type 1 Diabetes when she was four. I had considered several different causes, but none of them seemed to click, until I got that feeling in my gut that this was the thing—to paddle for the kids.

I saw so much suffering from diabetic children whose parents brought them to the water’s edge. I paddled the full Mississippi River—under every bridge, around every dam, through life-threatening conditions, in record high waters—all for those kids suffering from T1 Diabetes.

80-year-old “Grey Beard Adventurer” Dale Sanders stands smiling while holding a paddle
Dale Sanders prefers Tchaikovsky to Beethoven. | Feature photo: Paul Colletti

2 When did you decide you wanted this world record?

All my life, I’ve had a competitive spirit. The first world record I had was for holding my breath underwater back in the late ‘50s. (Editor’s note: Sanders held his breath for six minutes and four seconds.) In the mid ‘60s, I was the United States champion underwater spear-fisherman, and I was in the circus for a while as an acrobat. I’m only 5’6” and sometimes I think I wanted to overcome my stature and show that I’m bigger than I really am.

3 Where on the river did you fear for your life?

Blanchard Dam [in Minnesota] is the mother of all portages. I knew a storm was brewing, but I didn’t want to get caught on the lake. I decided that maybe I could get all my stuff to the other side before the rain came in. That wasn’t the case. It took five trips—three-quarters of a mile each way—to get all the gear through the woods, over old railway tracks and up some hills. After my second trip, the storm came. It was 35°F and raining hard, with lightning and wind. That went on for about three hours. I was near hypothermic.

4 Why do you listen to classical music when you paddle?

Classical music is unbelievable for soothing the mind. You’re already slowing your life down by paddling, and getting into that music just puts you into a trance, a mood. I could paddle probably eight to 10 hours now, without ever getting bored.

5What’s the next adventure?

Hundreds of people of age have said to me, “You will never know how much your journey down the Mississippi River has given me hope.” That’s one of the reasons I have to try and become the oldest person to hike the 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 2017. If I can do that, I feel I really will become an inspiration for the older people in the world.

PFF_2023WorldTour_Colour.pngDale Sanders has since returned to again reclaim the title of oldest person to paddle the Mississippi. His journey is documented in Graybeard, an official selection of the 2023 Paddling Film Festival. Available to stream today as part of the Adventure Program.

Cover of the Early Summer 2016 issue of Canoeroots MagazineThis article was first published in the Early Summer 2016 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

Dale Sanders prefers Tchaikovsky to Beethoven. | Feature photo: Paul Colletti



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