By Conor Mihell
Darrell Gardner's eight-and-a-half-year epic self-propelled mission from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Arctic Ocean wasn't inspired by midlife crisis. True, Santa Fe, N.M.-based Gardner was 50 years old when he set off to through-hike the 2,700-mile Pacific Crest Trail (the setting of author Cheryl Strayed's 2012 blockbuster memoir Wild) in 2004, but this expedition was inspired by a dream, not a last-ditch effort to set his life on a new course.
Gardner, a registered nurse, planned the expedition as a personal challenge. "I thought, 'Hmm, if I have this idea, maybe I should act on it when I have the opportunity, the strength and the enthusiasm to do it,'" he says. "I hiked the PCT from Mexico to Canada. Then I thought, 'I love Alaska. Why not find a unique way to get there?' So I canoed the Skagit River to Puget Sound, sea kayaked the Inside Passage to Skagway, hiked the Chilkoot Trail and then floated the Yukon River. I crossed the Brooks Range by foot and packraft and finished on August 30, 2012, at the Arctic Ocean west of Prudhoe Bay."
That's the abridged version. We contacted Gardner, 59, for more details.
CanoeKayak.com: How did you manage to do this while still keeping a job?
Gardner: I work as a per diem nurse. The downside is I don't have a medical or dental plan but the upside is the flexibility to come and go. I got jobs, worked like crazy, saved money and lived simply, and then went off and did another stage of the expedition.
What's the significance of doing it all self-propelled?
The theme of doing it all under my own power struck me after hiking the PCT. Mostly it was the challenge of whether or not I could do it. I wondered if it would be possible to propel myself through different modes of human-powered travel along an extraordinarily long trip. It wasn't about global warming, but the significance struck me when I hit the Arctic Ocean. There were oil platforms on either side of me.
How much canoeing experience did you have before putting on the Skagit?
I went to YMCA camp when I was a kid and learned how to play around with aluminum Grummans. Then as an adult I spent a year in Eagle, Alaska, living on the Yukon River, where I used another Grumman to get between town and my wilderness cabin. In 1998 my ex-wife and I canoed from Whitehorse to Eagle on the Yukon River, but that was about it.
The Skagit was the first major downriver solo trip and I did all the wrong things, like thinking some ballast was all I needed in the bow rather than positioning myself in the center of the canoe. Luckily the winds weren't too bad. Before I canoed the Yukon in 2010 I took some solo canoeing lessons and that made a lot of difference.
On your website you call the Inside Passage one of your most "serious challenges." Why?
For years I was spooked by the whitewater kayaking I did on a leadership course in New Zealand. When I decided I wanted to sea kayak the Inside Passage, things just fell into place. I took a course in Seattle and when I was buying a kayak, I met Bob Burnett. He took an interest in my trip and offered to help me get ready for the trip. He coached me through a whole year of preparation to have the skills and confidence to do it. I spent all of 2007 between Santa Fe and Seattle, contract nursing and taking all the extra time I could to paddle with Bob.
I paddled most of the Inside Passage in 2008, the coldest, wettest, windiest summer in 30 years. I finished the next year, which was the warmest, driest, calmest summer ever in 30 years.
What did it feel like when you finally reached the Arctic Ocean?
I cried. The final miles were surreal. I thought, "Oh my gosh, here I'm taking the last steps of a near 6,000 mile journey that's taken me almost a decade." I realized, Damn, I did it! On some levels I'm still in a daze.
— READ MORE ABOUT GARDNER IN THE UPCOMING MAY ISSUE OF C&K, AVAILABLE MARCH 26 ON NEWSSTANDS.