On August 2, 2004, the paddling world lost a legend. Verlen Kruger, arguably the greatest canoeist who ever lived, passed away after a long fight with prostate cancer. He was 82.
Verlen’s canoeing accomplishments are widely known in the paddling community, but bear repeating since they are so remarkable. Over his 41-year canoeing career, this retired plumber and father of nine grown children from Lansing, Michigan paddled more miles (100,000 plus) than anyone else in the history of the sport; competed in every major canoe race in North America; earned 11 Guinness World Records for long-distance canoe travel; took 3 1/2 years to complete the “Ultimate Canoe Challenge,” a 28,043-mile paddle around and through North America; and followed that up with a 21,000 mile, two continent canoe trip from the Arctic Ocean to South America’s treacherous Cape Horn, a voyage that lasted two years and nine months.
In 2001, as he turned 79, he and paddling partner, Bob Bradford, 58, placed first in the longest nonstop canoe/kayak race in history–an epic marathon of 2,348 miles down the flood-ravaged Mississippi River, taking only 24 consecutive days. And in 2002, to celebrate his 80th birthday, he canoed 2,040 miles down the length of the Yukon River. To laud his achievements, Verlen was awarded the American Canoe Association’s “Legends of Paddling Award,” joining the ranks of Ray McLain, Ralph Frese, and other notables in the world of paddlesports.
“His death is still difficult to accept,” said Dan Smith, 53, one of Verlen’s best friends and paddling companion for the past two decades. Just a few weeks before his passing, remarks Smith, Verlen was doing what he loved most–paddling his canoe on the Grand River that flowed past his home. “Verlen always said that he was happiest when he was moving, that being on the water is the best therapy for the soul. Even when he was dying, few of us paddlers could keep up with him.”
Whether canoeing the Buffalo River in Arkansas or the Yukon River in Alaska, Smith fondly reminisces that traveling with Verlen was like traveling with a rock star. “No matter where we went, word spread faster than we could paddle that Verlen Kruger was on the river. We were always treated special because of him. It was a great privilege to have been his friend; an honor to have paddled with him.”
Those paying their respect to Verlen filled the Heritage Baptist Church in DeWitt, Michigan to overflowing. Many showed up wearing Tilley bush hats (Verlen’s favorite headgear) and carrying canoe paddles. The procession to the grave site was nearly two miles long, with over 50 vehicles car-topping custom Kruger Canoes in homage to their designer and builder. “Never have that many Kruger Canoes been assembled at one place at one time,” said Smith. “Verlen would have been proud, because equal to his paddling accomplishments, he was proud of his expedition-quality boats. He designed them for people who have some big trip in mind–like he always did.”
Verlen was put to rest in a small, rural cemetery just a quarter-mile from his home, where his wife, Jenny, still resides. His grave lies under the spreading limbs of an oak tree overlooking his beloved Grand River. “He loved being on the rivers and in the wilderness. He loved the freedom of just being out there,” said daughter Nancy Norris, 57.
I was fortunate to spend four days with Verlen in September, 1999, as we paddled and portaged the Sylvania Wilderness Area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with its necklace of clear blue lakes. Nearing the end of our trip, I asked him if he could envision himself paddling on and on into the sunset. “I certainly hope so!” he said, sitting up straight. “But, of course, there comes a time when we all must leave. And I think more about that now, about being ready.”
Verlen stated that he was preparing for this inevitability by getting to know God. “We’re not left without a map; we have a book that tells us, if we want to know. I’ve read the Bible cover to cover at least ten times. It tells me where I’m going, therefore dying doesn’t frighten me. It’s like another journey. You plan for it, you even anticipate it. You’ve got to go where the river goes.”