Friday, August 24, 2007

In 2001 I interviewed Verlen Kruger and Clint Waddell about their historic record paddle journey by canoe. It was the 30th anniversary of this endeavor; which to me is one of the most incredible canoeing accomplishments ever. The story below I compiled from that interview in hopes of getting it published in a canoeing magazine. I had been a friend of Verlens since 1997 when one day I just descided to call him on the phone and talk adventure. This is just one of our many conversations. Sadly Verlen passed away in August of 2004 after a long bout with cancer.

Dared to go Beyond
Thirty Years of Reflection

By:Norman W. Miller

It was October 10, 1971 and the cold wind bit at their grizzled and chapped faces, their hands, stiff and numb from paddling 7,000 miles, pushed the ice-encased canoe onto the shores of the Bering Sea. This ended a six-month trek across North America from Montreal for two modern-day voyageurs—Clint Waddell and Verlen Kruger. No one had done this before.
"I just wanted to get to some place warm, with warm food and cloths" says Waddell, recalling the icy waters of the Bering Sea 30 years ago.
Coined the Cross Continent Canoe Safari (CCCS), the journey was one of longstanding dreams and ambitions and not intended as a stunt to set any record. But set records they did, which still stand today. It was the early seventies—flashback to the Viet Nam War, the hit song Jeremiah was a Bullfrog and the Sonny and Cher Show—when Kruger and Waddell became the first ever to paddle across North America in six months.
For Kruger, who has racked up close to 100,000 miles in his lifetime of paddling, the Cross Continent Canoe Safari remains etched in his mind forever. "It will always be special--that first big effort. A person has lots of dreams and ideas and they get playing with your mind. You begin to wonder if it can be done…finally came the day when it did come true," recalls Kruger.
Slipping their 140-pound homemade sitka spruce canoe into the ice-choked waters of the St. Lawrence on April 1971, Kruger and Waddell had no idea that the entire next week would be nothing but shear torture. The river was so clogged with ice they had to portage 44 miles around it. "We were too psyched up and too stupid," recalls Kruger. It would have been more rational for them to start in open water than to try and break through the ice with the canoe. The strain of carrying the canoe and gear caused their muscles to tighten up in knots; Kruger remembers it took several minutes of lying in the tent before his butt and shoulders would touch the ground at the same time.
For weeks on end, sometimes paddling 36 hours a stretch, Waddell and Kruger inched there way through Ontario, around the North shore of Lake Superior, then through the historic fur trade route toward Lake Winnipeg and beyond. Inspired by the early 18th century voyageurs that opened Canada up to exploration, both men were determined to press on. "Today's man is capable of doing what our forefathers did," claims Kruger. "They were no more supermen than people are now." Looking into Kruger's eyes gives one the impression of a man who has lived in the early centuries as well as the present.
Surrounded by miles of raw beauty, pristine waterways, and the solitude of nature, their determination to press onward became an everyday part of their lives. "I am impressed that two people got along so well for that length of time," says Waddell with a laugh. "We spent more time together than most married couples." Sometimes hours would pass by with only the sound of paddle strokes breaking the silence. Pressed for time, the modern day voyageurs worked their way across the famed Methy Portage, the Clearwater drainage, the Athabasca and Slave Rivers, and down the mighty Mackenzie River. Oft times they were slowed down waiting for a documentary filmmaker who followed them to vantage points along the way. The constant waiting for the camera crew began to eat away at their patience. Winter was closing in as they battled with the arduous Rat River and McDougall Pass. "The Rat was the most physically demanding part of the trip," says Waddell. "We were cold and wet, pulling the canoe back and forth across the river while in flood stage. We had to cut trees down and even lost valuable gear when we swamped the canoe."
By early September, the snow had reached the high elevations and the autumn colors were fading to brown. Winter was closing in for Waddell and Kruger who still had to paddle over 1000 miles down the Yukon before it froze solid. Then on a cold October day they paddled the last stroke, gazing out over the sea and tasting the salt in the water. They accomplished what others had questioned. Against near impossible odds, they arrived on the exact date estimated in their time schedule. "The view was anticlimactic," recalls Kruger. "Nothing but brush and mud bars. But the experience of having arrived was tremendous."
The CCCS has inspired many paddlers over the years, causing some to wonder if they too can pull off such an accomplishment. "People just need to do it," exclaims Waddell. "Even if you fail. Too many people say 'one of these days, I'm going to do this or that,’ well one of these days never comes around."
Not a day goes by where the two are not reminded of their historic efforts. The smell of a musty pack or the call of the geese puts them back on the river. "I was boiling eggs the other day and thought of the time on the Mackenzie River when I was watching a pot of eggs boil only to accidentally drop one in the fire. I wiped off the ashes and ate it just moments before Verlen noticed there was an egg missing in the pot," says Waddell, chuckling at the memory.
Thirty years have passed but often it seems just like yesterday to the two men. The trip calculations estimate they paddled over five million strokes. There were 133 portages totaling 153 miles. Kruger and Waddell covered more distance in six months than anyone recorded has ever traveled by canoe. But for these two men who dared to go beyond these numbers mean little; it’s living the experience that matters. Kruger puts it succinctly: "if you can dream it, then you can do it."

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