Old Man River
For years, Memphis, Tenn.-native Dale Sanders has been hosting Mississippi River through-paddlers in his home. Then, the self-proclaimed “Grey Beard Adventurer” decided to canoe the length of America’s second longest river himself, launching in late May on Lake Itasca in Minnesota. At 82, Sanders is bidding to be the oldest to complete a Mississippi source-to-sea, fundraising for research to find a cure for juvenile diabetes. We caught up with Sanders 10 days into his 2,400-mile expedition.
CanoeKayak.com: After hosting so many Mississippi River paddlers, why did you decide to do an expedition of your own?
Dale Sanders: Well, I guess it just seemed logical to do it. I just got excited when people would come through and seeing their excitement about their journeys in there eyes, but I’ll tell you the more important things about why I am doing it is age. I found out that I’ll be the oldest person to ever paddle from source to sea and it seemed like the thing to do. If I can paddle from Itasca to the Gulf and break a world record at the same time, I’ll do it. I realize it may not seem easy but I’m 300 miles down it already. I was going to do the Appalachian Trail but the oldest person to do that is 82 and I said, I better wait a couple more years till I try that one.
Did you do any special training to prepare for weeks of 30-mile days?
Yes. With a bit of age you have to be physically and mentally ready for an expedition like this. It’s 2,402 miles, I’ll be out there paddling alone in the boat. I have people following me but I will be in that boat alone. I have to do all the portages and the work that comes along with canoeing myself. I trained by paddling like heck in the pond behind my house. It’s at the outflow of a dam, so basically I just paddled in one spot my hardest, many times a week. I have a hill in the backyard and I dragged the boat up and down the hill to train for portaging. The neighbors thought I was crazy—and I might be—but it worked to get my arms and knees in shape for the trip. I’m in good shape, there’s no question about it. Getting ready mentally was a thing my wife and I had to work on together. Just have to set your mind mentally that I’ll be out there for 80 days paddling without all the comforts of home.
How long have you been canoeing?
When I was in high school I got a job as a lifeguard at Kentucky Lake, Tenn. I then got a scholarship from the local VFW. They sent me to the Red Cross Aquatic School and I became a certified canoe instructor in 1954. I didn’t really canoe around the time of the Red Cross Aquatic School but I started paddling regularly in 1989. So I would comfortably say I’ve been paddling 25 years, which is the age of our youngest film crew member.
Tell us about your canoe. What special modifications did Wenonah do for you?
Being old and all I had to paddle in a canoe. After I did and excessive research a dear friend of mine, John Ruskey of Quapaw Canoe Company, was able to get a boat ideally rigged for me. It’s a Wenonah Wilderness in ultralight layup. I still had to make modifications though, most importantly lowering the seat four inches. I had to rig my own seat trusses—a challenge because of the thin skin of the craft. So far it has held out perfectly. There are a few more such as installing an umbrella mount, my Bluetooth sound system and installing a solar panel on my canoe cover. Blaring classical music as I come down the river is a favorite of mine.
Why are you dedicating this journey to your grandniece?
When I had paddlers come though my home, I would have them sign what I like to call the “Paddlers Hall of Fame.” And I would ask them why they were on their journey. Some people had a “just because” and some had a mission of some type or purpose to their trip. It seemed like having a purpose put on extra pressure, but more like a support system that helps me in the long run to not quit. My grandniece Anna is 11 years old and has been struggling with juvenile diabetes since the age of 4. It makes life very difficult for her. I thought it would be a wonderful thing because my sister has always tried to raise funds for it to raise awareness and ultimately find a cure. If I can do anything in my power to help I surely will.
Sanders latest (Week Three) update:
Why is it that Type 1 juvenile diabetes goes relatively unknown in our society?
I think it is ignored too much. People just don’t realize the significance of this disease. I can tell you this, if there is someone in your family with juvenile diabetes it doesn’t go unknown. Everyone gets involved because it is a family effort [to deal with it].
What are you most looking forward to on this journey?
Paddling into my home of Memphis will most certainly be one of the high points of the trip. Seeing my wife, my dog, and enjoying my home for a few nights will be a nice break in the trip. There will be many friends and family that will be paddling beside me in that area. Fingers crossed, Anna will be accompanying us for a day on the river as she is the namesake of my boat. I’ll tell you though, hitting that Gulf is going to be a magical moment as well. I have waited a long time for a trip like this, ever since I started hosting paddlers coming through.
Week two update
Week one update