In 2016, I received my first assignment from Paddling Magazine, then known as Canoeroots. Dale “Greybeard” Sanders, had just finished paddling the 3,700-kilometer-long Mississippi River—a stretch of water known for its exposed lake crossings, countless dams, difficult portages and dangerous freighter traffic.
It was an extraordinary feat, made more extraordinary by the record Sanders had set. At 80, he was the oldest person to paddle the Mississippi from source to sea, and I was asked to interview him.
“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,” he told me then. “All my life I’ve had a competitive spirit.”
It was that competitive—some might say stubborn—spirit that led Sanders, now 87, to do it all over again. Sanders had a title to reclaim. His record on the Mississippi had been broken by 81-year-old Stan Stark in 2020.
So, in June 2022, Sanders set out in his 15-foot canoe, Perseverance, and invited a documentary crew along for the ride. The resulting 90-minute film, Greybeard: The Man, The Myth, The Mississippi, chronicles Sanders’ journey from the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca, Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico—as well as provides the origin story for the serial record-setter.
Born on June 14, 1935 in Lickskillet, Kentucky, Sanders first discovered his competitive nature as an acrobat, and later as a springboard diver, spearfisher and free diver. A true Renaissance man, his adventures haven’t been limited to watersports either. In total, he’s set nine world records (some official, some not) including becoming the oldest person to hike the Appalachian Trail when he was 82. But all the records Sanders holds aren’t the most notable thing about him—nor is his age. Instead, it’s Sanders’ infectiously positive attitude and approach to life that are impossible not to be swept up in.
In celebration of reclaiming the Mississippi age record and his recent documentary, I spoke with Sanders again—just shy of his 88th birthday. He told me why he’s a canoeing purist—and even shared his three-ingredient recipe for everlasting youth.
A conversation with Dale “Greybeard” Sanders
Paddling Magazine: In 2015, you paddled the Mississippi River in 80 days at the age of 80. In 2022, you did it in 87 days at the age of 87. How did the two experiences compare to one another?
Dale Sanders: I expected it to be easy this time. And because I was already in good shape, I didn’t train right. I paddled one day for a couple of hours and that was it—so I did not train at all. I was overconfident, I think, and probably should have spent a little more time with a paddle in my hand than I did.
I was able to do it, but it was actually harder than the first time. We had record-low water, so it was really slow. I also wanted to start on my birthday on June 14, but that put me on the Lower Mississippi River right in August; right at the time of year when it’s very hot and humid. It was unbearable at times and the mosquitoes almost took me away. So, to put those three things together? It just made for a tough trip, although I never thought about quitting. But there might have been another factor, too: I’m 87 years old.
Us old people, we can get in and out of shape, just like at any age. But it probably takes us longer to get back into condition. I’m just really fortunate to be healthy.
PM: Why does a canoe remain your watercraft of choice?
Sanders: I was really active in my younger years as a lifeguard and swimming instructor, and became a canoe instructor in 1954.
The way Guinness Book of Records has it written, I could have paddled a kayak or canoe down the Mississippi. As a matter of fact, Stan Stark paddled a kayak when he broke my record to become the oldest person to paddle the length of the Mississippi in 2020. So really, if we want to get technical, he didn’t break my record because I had a canoe record—but Guinness-wise, it is a record.
I prefer canoes over kayaks—it’s the historic and classic way of paddling. That lifelong connection to canoeing certainly has had a big play in it.
PM: You’re an active river angel on the Mississippi, with paddlers invited to sign a wall of fame in your home. You even hosted Stark when he was attempting to break your Mississippi record in 2020. In the film, we meet some of the river angels along the way—but are there any who stand out to you?
Sanders: Venice is very special for its river angels. The Gulf of Mexico’s saltwater is 110 miles south of New Orleans and 22 miles south of Venice, which is the last town on the road. There’s nothing beyond Venice. There’s no trail. It’s all mangroves and it’s just a mess of water. The only way to get back up is in a boat. Somebody has to bring a powerboat to help us get our boats back. So, the last day on the river is very special—but it’s also a very special place for river angel support.
PM: When it comes to group adventures, attitudes can mean the difference between a unified team and a fractured one. While most struggle to stay positive in moments of adversity, you seem to have the opposite problem—in the documentary, your paddling mates struggled at times with your relentless positivity. How do you keep morale up, even when everyone around you is struggling?
Sanders: You hit the nail on the head because anything you do in life with other people—especially adventure—you have to, have to, have to stay positive and keep the negative words out. That’s really important.
When we were paddling the Mississippi, we tried to stay positive. Occasionally we’d break down and once in a while we’d have an argument, but we would always end it with, “Hey, let’s put it aside,” shaking hands, and then looking at each other and laughing.
Once in a while, I wanted to get off by myself and paddle and get out of the rigamarole of communicating and not hearing well. I didn’t hear well even with my hearing aids, so it was very frustrating trying to carry on a conversation. If I had one thing that I could ask for—for doing an expedition with other people along with me—it would be better hearing. It can be really rough to try to do an expedition when you can’t hear well.
PM: If we gave you one of those “real age” tests—which measure how fast you’re physically aging—how old do you think it would say you actually are?
Sanders: I don’t know what an 87-year-old is supposed to feel like, but I don’t feel old. I don’t feel 87.
There are studies to suggest that if you’re happy, then the body can ward off disease better. And if you’re really happy and active in life, your body is filled with adrenaline, which also keeps the brain working.
I live a really happy life. I’m active. I have a good spiritual life. And if you put those three things together, that’s a pretty good formula to ward off disease and have a productive life.
Someday, I’ll get old.
PM: The last time I spoke with you was in 2016. If I call you again seven years from now, you’ll be 94. What do you think competition will look like for you then?
Sanders: Well, God willing I stay healthy and the creek don’t rise, I’m gonna try to do the Appalachian Trail again.
In 2021, my friend Nimblewill Nomad [83-year-old M.J. Eberhart] took the record, so I don’t hold that age record anymore. I would really like it. I could pull that off.
PM: I’m having déjà vu. When we last spoke, you told me you were planning on hiking the Appalachian Trail next—and then you went on to set the record a year later.
Sanders: Well, don’t wait seven years to call me again. What about you call me when I’m 90?