Gardner at the Yukon River locks on the canoe leg of his 6,000-mile journey. Photo: Darrell Gardner

Gardner at the Yukon River locks on the canoe leg of his 6,000-mile journey. Photo: Darrell Gardner

Conor Mihell

Darrell Gardner is an overachiever. How else to describe the 8.5-year, 6,000-mile expedition from the Mexico border to the Arctic Ocean he completed last year? When he started in 2004 at age 50, Gardner was an outdoor enthusiast but by no means an expert. He'd dabbled in backpacking, spent a few hours in aluminum canoes and he'd had a harrowing experience whitewater kayaking in New Zealand. He dreamed of hiking the 2,700-mile Pacific Crest Trail. But once completed, that success only led to more route dreams: canoeing the Skagit River to Puget Sound; sea kayaking the Inside Passage to Skagway; Alaska; crossing into Canada on foot on the Chilkoot Trail; canoeing the Yukon River; trekking across the Brooks Range; and then hiking and packrafting to the polar sea, west of Prudhoe Bay. So he set off and did it.

The kicker? Gardner, now 59, pulled off this epic journey largely under the radar and with minimal sponsor support, piecing together expeditions between short-term contracts as a registered nurse in his hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here's how he did it.

Inspiration "Working in acute care has given me the unique opportunity to be with people in their darkest moments," says Gardner. "On of the things I found out early on has become a common thread: There's a sense of lament in people when they realize they are never going to be able to do something again. That really struck a note with me."

Logistics "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 Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Then I thought, 'I love Alaska. Why not find a unique way to get there?'"

Execution Casual employment is Gardner's key. "I work as a per diem nurse," he says. "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."

Secret Weapon Sea kayaking the Inside Passage was Gardner's most audacious move. He had no ocean paddling experience when he bumped into Seattle-based instructor Bob Burnett. "He took an interest in my trip and offered to help me get ready for it," says Gardner. "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."

Persistence Even with the training, the Inside Passage proved to be a "serious challenge," says Gardner. "I paddled most of the Inside Passage in 2008, the coldest, wettest, windiest summer in 30 years." He soldiered on, finishing 2009, "the warmest, driest, calmest summer ever in 30 years." Gardner demonstrated the same indefatigability on the home stretch, hauling a laden toboggan up steep and snowy pipeline grades to reach the foot of the Brooks Range.

Payoff "The final miles were surreal," says Gardner, who reached Arctic tidewater on August 30, 2012. "I realized, 'Damn, I did it!' It's an amazing feeling to look at a map of North America knowing I have a personal connection to a huge part of the continent."