Photo: Valerie Fons

Verlen Kruger paddled more than four times the distance around the earth! This humble adventurer held many canoeing records, including Guinness World records, many that will remain unchallenged for years to come.

 
 

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All Things Are Possible

By Reinhard Zollitsch

I had been keeping track of Verlen Kruger's long-distance endurance canoe trips and other accomplishments for a long time, but especially since I bought my own SEA WIND sea canoe (hull # 61) from him exactly ten years ago (in Spring 1997). So asking me to review the first big biography on Verlen's life may turn out to be a tad biased. But so is the author Phil Peterson Sr, being an old friend of Verlen's, paddling a SEA WIND only slightly newer than mine. But so be it - at least we both know from first hand boating experiences in a "Verlen Kruger Special" what Verlen accomplished. Phil also knew Verlen personally quite well from their 2002 Yukon River trip and other joint ventures, and was hand-picked by the old master to write his biography.

And what a book it turned out to be. It has a handy almost square format with lots of heft, is printed on heavy slick paper to show off the more than 250 pictures, which are nicely integrated into the text.

The book takes you through 29 chapters of Verlen's life, starting with a baby picture, of course, to a last wave good-bye and the funeral procession showing lots of car-topped Kruger SEA WINDS.

But this book goes far beyond retelling the tales of Verlen's basically three big trips by concentrating on Verlen the paddler, husband, father, mentor and friend, with all his strengths, skills and dogged determination, but also his shortcomings and admitted mistakes. The Verlen of this book does not end up standing on a lofty pedestal, but comes down to amongst us normal mortals/boaters, especially when obsession clouds his mind and makes him hurt those people who really love him. I am thinking of his first (and again, fourth) wife Jenny in particular.

To most small craft boaters, Verlen is no stranger. He has made the Guinness Book of Records several times and has been honored as one of the greatest long-distance canoeists in most every boating magazine around. Verlen is as esteemed in the US as Bill Mason is in Canada - our North American "Twin Peaks" of canoeing.

You can read his own accounts of his record-breaking trip from Montreal to the Bering Sea in one season, following the old Fur Trade Route with partner Clint Waddell ("Cross Continent Canoe Safari" of 1971, or "CCCS" for short). Then there is the 28,000-mile-plus "Ultimate Canoe Challenge" of 1980-83, (or "UCC" for short) along both the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, as well as going up and down most every major river in between, including the Mississippi and the Colorado - a great feat, but definitely showing symptoms of a man possessed/obsessed.

The author of this book relates the essentials of each trip but also allows real insights into what motivated Verlen to set out on those mammoth ventures. He points out that Verlen always maintained that "all things are possible" (see title of this book), "with God", as Verlen always insisted, being a staunch church person (cf. Book of Matthew, Mark, Luke). After reading this biography, however, I would be tempted to add the phrase "but at a price".

Verlen started rather late in life as a canoeist (at age 42), and after a few years as a successful marathon racer, decided to go on those long trips to gain recognition, make history and possibly fetch some fame. Already on his first big venture, the "Cross Country Canoe Safari" from Montreal to the Bering Sea, he had arranged for a videographer to take pictures of him and Clint along the way to record the event for posterity. Verlen even waited up for him for days on several occasions, when the photographer was delayed. Recording his feat was oh so important for Verlen. The trip alone, so it seemed, was not enough, and never was. Even when Verlen went up or down the Mississippi, he did this to set a new record and made sure that an official for the Guinness Book of Records was there.

Early on, Verlen lost his canoeing partner and best friend Jerry Cesar, who drowned in an unscouted rapid (Angel Falls on the White River, Canada in 1975), while Verlen was able to grab a tree branch and pull himself to safety. Jerry's family as well as Verlen were devastated, but Verlen soon partnered with another accomplished paddler, Steve Landick, starting his longest trip ever, the "Ultimate Canoe Challenge" (1980-1983), or UCC for short. And when in 1982 Steve experienced the tragic loss of his newborn child to SIDS, he interrupted the UCC along the California coast near Long Beach, saying he might not continue the trip. They had already paddled together for 20,000 miles, but Steve too was quickly replaced, by a young female fan from Seattle, Valerie Fons, who only had minimal experience in ocean paddling, but was very enthused and extremely eager to learn from the master. Jenny immediately foresaw the end of their marriage.

Verlen knew only one thing: his trip had to go on. And when grief-stricken Steve was finally ready to resume the trip, he was bluntly told by Verlen that he had already committed to a new partner. Valerie was smitten by the old master, who in turn was so flattered that he was willing to drop his dear wife of many years, saying: "If you cannot accept Valerie in my life, there will have to be a divorce". (What was he thinking?) The divorce came in December of 1984, at the end of the UCC.

Steve, on the other hand, was not willing to throw away 20,000 miles, got a new partner (Ed Gillet) and paddled tandem the entire stretch from Long Beach to the southern tip of Baja and back up to the mouth of the Colorado, parallel to Verlen and Valerie, only much faster. And at that point, would you believe it, Steve replaced Valerie again, and the two men set out to establish yet another "world record" ascending the Colorado/Grand Canyon by canoe. (But why? Who really cares?) Valerie went back home to Seattle for a while, while Steve's partner Ed took home the tandem canoe he and Steve had paddled. When Steve came down with mono, Verlen went on, eventually replacing him with Valerie. After a month out, Steve then had to play catch-up for the grand finale with Verlen in Lancing, Michigan. Valerie was relegated to a place in the welcoming crowd, while the two "big boys" who started the trip together stood grinning into the cameras.

If all this does not sound like playing musical chairs, bordering on a sad soap opera, I don't know what does.

At the end of the famed UCC, Verlen was a changed man, or as he put it: "I just never came home from the UCC." He got a divorce from Jenny and married Valerie. Steve and Sarah also got divorced. Almost immediately after their return, Verlen and Valerie started planning their next big adventure, the "Two Continent Canoe Expedition" of 1988-1989, or "TCCE" for short. Verlen was only used to looking forward; the past was history.

The new trip looked like a wonderfully laid-out trip of 21,000 miles from the Bering Sea to Florida, across the Caribbean to Venezuela, up and down a few big rivers to Argentina and on to Cape Horn proper. And Valerie and Verlen did it - what a feat. I am impressed, despite the fact that they accepted some help here and there from other boats, hitching rides across big open water stretches and using a small outboard at times. This trip was definitely not a clean, unassisted trip as the UCC was.

Coming home was again hard on Verlen, and he eventually divorced Valerie, got married to yet another younger, very enthused (unnamed) paddle friend in 1992 for his next big venture, the "Paddle to the Sea - Great Lakes and Beyond" trip, which never took off - nor did his third marriage, which ended in a quick divorce. Instead, he went back to his first wife Jenny, who finally, after years of renewed courtship, took the remorseful Verlen back, now being his first and fourth wife. His church was not so forgiving. The wedding took place on June 7, 1997. Verlen was 75, Jenny 70, and they lived happily ever after.

Verlen felt renewed and properly grounded again, found his old self, further developed and built his favorite solo SEA WIND and two person CRUISER, as well as a kayak-topped version of his SEA WIND named DREAM CATCHER, and plain enjoyed being someone people would look up to and admire, as well as being loved and at peace with the world, in a very humble and simple way, without being conceited.

In 2002 Verlen planned his last big canoe trip down the entire Yukon River, a life-long dream of his, since he knew time was running out for this 80-year old. He invited all Kruger-boat owners to join him (including the author of this book review, who, however, already had plans to paddle the entire German coast of the Baltic Sea to fulfill an old boyhood dream of his). As an outward sign of unity, as well as convenience, Verlen and Jenny rafted up their two SEA WINDs, and in true Kruger fashion finished the 2,000-mile trip, arriving just in time for the plane shuttle out and back to Lancing, Michigan.

On August 2, 2004, at the age of 82, Verlen died of cancer. He had previously apprenticed Mark Przedwojewski to make sure his boats would continue to be built in future years. Mark is now building Kruger boats in Irons, Michigan. (see his website: www.KrugerCanoes.com)

The author of this book (Phil Peterson Sr) in my estimation did an excellent and accurate job of weaving the various strands of action together with actual interview quotes from all major players, as well as offering the reader insights into the respective motives for each important moment of this novel-like life of Verlen's. The book is thoroughly researched and has an easy flowing way of telling the tale, making the reader wonder what could possibly happen next. It could have been a very boring "and then...and then" type of biography, but it is not. It also is not another book of hero-worship, but rather gives the reader a fair account of all the "stuff" that lies behind a great man and a great achievement - a real human being, strong and frail at the same time. Only Valerie's point of view comes a tad short, in my opinion. For that I might have to read her account of the UCC in her book KEEP IT GOING.

All in all, I enjoyed reading ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE on many different levels, as a trip log with the many pretty pictures, but also as a human interest story about Verlen, Jenny, Steve and Valerie. And of course, being a long-distance paddler myself, I am interested in seeing how Verlen coped with all the challenges, stresses, fears, hardships, and temptations of such long trips and how he dealt with his own obsessing (if at all). Verlen most often shows paddlers or others questing in outdoor adventures what to do, but also with his own mistakes in life what not to do. He knew he was not perfect, and that makes this book a very readable story.


Reviewed by Reinhard Zollitsch, April 2007 and is reprinted with permission.

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