Verlen Kruger canoed the full length of the Mississippi River several times over his 82 years. For most people, just one trip would provide bragging rights to last a lifetime. Kruger wasn’t most people.
It’s not just that boasting wasn’t part of his repertoire, it’s that he logged an insane amount of miles in his canoe. With expeditions crisscrossing the entire Western Hemisphere, Kruger paddled more than 100,000 miles. That’s more than 42 runs of the Mississippi River, or four trips around the equator. Take your pick.
Born in 1922, Kruger grew into a charismatic and confident man. His friends would recall how he seemed fearless, excepting of course, his phobias of bears and armadillos, which he’d only cop to when talking in his sleep. At 41 years old, he started canoeing. He spent the next 41 years making up for lost time.
Driven by an obsessive devotion to his new sport, he redefined expedition canoeing. Measured by mileage or by ambition, his adventures were nothing short of colossal.
In 1971, at 49 years old, he and partner, Clint Waddell, followed old fur trading routes from Montreal, Canada, to the Bering Sea in Alaska. Dubbed the Cross Continent Canoe Safari, they covered approximately 7,000 miles in 176 days. It’s presumed to be the fastest time ever for that route.
Speed wasn’t always the primary goal. In 1980, Kruger and partner, Steve Landick, put in on the Red Rock River, in Red Rock, Montana, and didn’t stop until they’d covered 28,040 miles of North American rivers, lakes and coastal waters. The duo paddled from the Beaufort Sea to Cabo San Lucas and ran the lengths of the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines of the United States. For the inland segments, this audacious trip included upstream runs of the Mississippi and Colorado Rivers, including eddy-hopping up through the Grand Canyon. They finished in Lansing, Michigan, in December 1983.
Eager for more, Kruger expanded the latitudes for his next major expedition. From 1986 to 1989, he and Valerie Fons canoed 21,000 miles from the Northwest Territories, Canada, to Cape Horn, Tierra del Fuego, Chile. This expedition ramped up the danger. There were overnight open-water crossings on the Caribbean, flooded rivers, and navigational morasses through the maze of the South American river system.
In and around these big trips, Kruger tackled smaller events. In 2001, at age 79, he raced with Bob Bradford in the Mississippi River Challenge. They finished in 24 days and placed first. The next year, he celebrated his 80th birthday by running 2,040 miles of the Yukon River.
If it was his obsessive nature that drove him to take on expeditions of such massive scale, it also proved to be the spark that inspired nearly everyone he met. In finding his life’s passion at 41 years old, Kruger was an open book of encouragement for others to do the same.
“I believe that most people have such dreams. We need to reach out. And in reaching out, you grow, you learn, and you find out you can do things that you’re not sure you can do,” he said.
Kruger died in 2004. He’s been honored with statues, memorials and posthumous awards. His legacy survives in the more than 40 prototypes of expedition canoes he designed, three of which are still in production under the name Kruger Canoes (www.krugercanoes.com). His spirit lives on in everyone who follows their dreams with abandon. —Brook Sutton
Note: All mileages are approximate, due to differences in measuring techniques and
lack of precise location estimates. Despite these inconsistencies, Kruger’s achievement
of paddling more than 100,000 miles is not in dispute.