The following was originally featured as the ‘Unfiltered’ profile in our August 2013 issue.
Steve Landick, 60, was the silent partner in perhaps the greatest canoe journey of modern times, a 28,000-mile route that crisscrossed the North American continent from 1980 to 1983. His partner in the so-called Ultimate Canoe Challenge, the late Verlen Kruger, has become a cult figure in the sport. Landick merely kept paddling, quietly accumulating a list of marathon canoe-racing titles that spans four decades. Most recently, the middle-school math teacher raced the 444-mile Yukon River Quest with his son Conor. — Jeff Moag
When I graduated from high school, I bought a kayak and I paddled from Maine back to Michigan. That was what really got me going. I put in at the dock there in Rockland and it was the first stroke I ever took in a kayak.
It took me almost 56 days. Two months and 1,600 miles.
I had just come up the mouth of the French River and met three guys in a wood-canvas canoe. They told me about these marathon paddlers from Michigan who were going from Montreal to Alaska in one season. Of course that was just rumor, but it got me inspired. I’ve got quite an imagination.
Verlen had a movie about that trip he did with Clint Waddell, and it was being presented at the local school. He told me that if you really wanted to know how to paddle, you’ve got to race. So, I thought, ‘Heck, I’ll check that out.’
We started talking about doing a long one. At first we were looking at going maybe from Key West up to Point Barrow, Alaska. The idea never occurred to either one of us to come down the ocean. That wasn’t part of our paddling experience.
I joined the Navy in ’76. I like to be outside and I like hard physical work. So for the most part, I enjoyed the [SEAL] training. I wasn’t always good at taking orders.
Stationed in California, I got the idea of hooking our canoes together like the catamarans I saw out there. So I’d come home on leave and say, ‘I think we could come down the coast.’ And then Verlen might have said, ‘If we do that, then why don’t we just paddle home?’
There aren’t too many options to get back to Michigan from the West Coast. So it was a bit of a mental adjustment to paddle upstream through the Grand Canyon. We talked to some people who knew about it and they weren’t real encouraging.
Half my life I’ve been paddling upstream. I’ve heard every comment imaginable, you know, ‘You’re going the wrong way.’ But the fact is I just find it a lot more interesting.
Verlen just loved to talk to the press. So whenever there was an article written about the trip, it was always written that I was his Tonto and he was the Lone Ranger.
Off Cape Blanco in Oregon, the wind picked up dramatically—the Coast Guard told us later it was 50 knots—and Verlen flipped over. And the thing is, he really wasn’t a very strong swimmer at all.
Of course neither one of us was wearing a life jacket. He grabbed the back of my boat and he got his chest up so his legs were dragging in the water. We were a mile and a half offshore.
We stopped at Long Beach and I went home to see my daughter, and that’s the night she died. She died of SIDS when she was three months old. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue on that trip.
Verlen called Valerie Fons, who he’d met in Seattle, and they went ahead from Long Beach all the way around Baja. It was maybe three weeks later when I went back to Long Beach. Verlen was just that much ahead of me and I caught up with him.
One of the things Verlen learned with Clint Waddell was that two people on a trip like that are better off if they have some separation at times. And I think he was right about that. We were both pretty independent anyways.
He’s still in my dreams. He’s such an unusual person and he had so many good qualities. And at the same time he’d drive me crazy.
The reason we called it the ‘Ultimate Canoe Challenge’ is so people might sponsor us. You’ve got to get their attention. I never meant ‘ultimate’ as an end-all. I’ve been at this thing for 40 years.
My son took his first trip with me when he was three years old, but he got away from it. He’s 22, and last year he asked to race the Yukon River Quest with me. Now he’s got the bug.
All the time I spent in a canoe and all the different things I’ve done, nothing compares to racing with my son. So, yeah, I’m pretty lucky, really.
CLICK TO WATCH MORE OF ‘THE INSIDE LINE’