The late Verlen Kruger is arguably the world's most accomplished canoeist, having paddled some 100,000 miles in a series of ambitious expeditions that took him up and down the west coast of North America and from the Arctic Ocean to Cape Horn. But beyond his credentials as a long-distance paddler, Kruger's friend Dan Smith will always remember the man as an advocate of clean, healthy rivers. In June, Smith and a group of friends will dedicate a bronze memorial to Kruger alongside the Grand River in Portland, Mich.

Kruger didn't pick up canoeing until he was 41, but he immediately set upon marathon and expedition paddling with fervor. In 1971, he and Clint Waddell paddled 8,000 miles from Montreal to the Bering Sea, completing the first-ever single-season crossing of the North American continent by canoe. In 1980, he and Steve Landick set off on the three-year, 28,000-mile Ultimate Canoe Challenge, crisscrossing the continent, paddling upriver on the Colorado and Mississippi rivers and paddling most of the U.S. seacoasts. Finally, in 1986, Kruger and Valerie Fons completed a 21,000-mile epic from the Canadian Arctic to the tip of South America. In between trips, Kruger was known as the "Shepherd of rivers," organizing clean-ups and river appreciation days on his home river, the Grand. Kruger passed away in 2004 at the age of 82, only three years after he paddled the full length of the Mississippi River for the last time.

"He inspired a lot of people all over the country and especially in our community," says Smith, who still remembers the day in 1983 when he met and became friends Kruger on the banks of the Grand in Portland, near the end of the Ultimate Canoe Challenge. "More than his records, he'll always be remembered for his love of rivers."

The memorial project fundraising chair Stacy Krause, says this year will be a big one for fans of Kruger. All proceeds from the Hugh Heward Challenge, annual 50-mile canoe race on the Grand River held this year on April 24, will go towards the Verlen Kruger Memorial. The organization is unveiling the life-size statue in Portland on June 26. "This is a tribute and reminder of what is possible, not only as a paddler but the responsibility each of us carry as ambassadors of rivers," says Krause. "Verlen's easy nature, paddling accomplishments and concern for rivers landed him a kind of a 'rock star' status which began connecting people, building a strong community of paddlers and non-paddlers who continue working together today to accomplish shared goals." – Conor Mihell