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The Paddler Versus The Passage

The Paddler Versus The Passage

Karl Kruger is on a mission to become the first person to stand-up paddle-board the Northwest Passage. Last July, he turned back before hitting the water. This summer, he’ll be ready.
By Dan Rubinstein
Jan 13
2020
From the January/February 2020 Issue

Before ships carrying hundreds of passengers started cruising the Northwest Passage, before southerners came up periodically to row or jet ski or snorkel through, before men named Franklin and Amundsen sailed over in search of a new trading route, people who lived in communities along the Arctic coast hunted whales and seals from their kayaks. Now, aluminum boats with outboard motors are the vessel of choice for locals, and longer ice-free seasons are attracting a widening stream of waterborne visitors.

One of those visitors arrived in Tuktoyaktuk last July in a pickup truck with Washington plates. The driver was a fit, long-haired, six-foot-tall, 47-year-old named Karl Kruger. He travelled north with a 17-and-a-half-foot stand-up paddleboard (SUP) on top of his truck and an ambitious goal: to become the first person to SUP the Passage.

A few days later, when he was about to push off from shore and begin what would have been a 3,000-kilometre journey from Tuk to Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Kruger hit the pause button. He packed up and drove home. This summer, he’ll try it again with a better read on the ice, a more precise packing list, and food drops arranged along his route—logistics that proved impossible to organize over the phone. It took visiting the North, spending time with locals and standing on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, to learn what he'll need for the expedition. This summer, he’ll be ready.

Kruger made the Northwest Passage his goal three years ago, after competing in the annual Race to Alaska (R2AK)—an unsupported, non-motorized race from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, AK. He covered the 1,200 kilometres in 14 days to become the first (and still only) SUP finisher. It was good for 17th place overall in a sailboat-heavy field of 34. The voyage was epic. He surfed a gale across British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait. Humpbacks accompanied him for hours up the Inside Passage. He scooped sea urchin off rocks for snacks and made a restorative pit stop in the Heiltsuk village of Bella Bella.

“To me, a trip like the R2AK or the Northwest Passage is a dose of medicine,” says Kruger, who lives on his boat on Orcas Island, Washington, where he runs a sailing charter business and a carpentry company. “There are no externalities—no phone calls, no email, no paying bills or checking to see how much money is in the bank. There’s nothing except staying alive. That’s easy. That recharges me. Having this on my radar is vastly better for me psychologically and emotionally and spiritually than anything else.”

An accomplished sailor, skier, and climber, Kruger believes it will take six to eight weeks to paddleboard to Pond Inlet—a trip inconceivable without the warming impacts of climate change. He’ll tent and travel light, resupplying with caches at fish camps and resting in the handful of communities along the route. To prepare, he’s consulting with veteran northern explorers, working out with a mixed martial arts trainer and drawing from a deep well of experience, including years spent as a wilderness guide in Alaska and the U.S. northeast.

Wind will likely be the biggest challenge in the Northwest Passage, but 24-hour daylight will allow Kruger to wait for favourable conditions for crossings and long stretches of exposed coastline. As a sailor, he has an intuitive understanding of tides, currents and wind, as well as extensive experience with ice from working as a climbing and skiing guide. His kit will include a satellite phone, a GPS, an iPad loaded with sea charts, a portable electric bear fence for sleeping and a solar panel for keeping equipment charged, plus a fishing net and gun. Months of intense gym time and nutritional tablets provided by one of his sponsors (a mix of carbohydrates, protein, healthy fat and auxiliary nutrients) will boost his stamina.

Any ambitious expedition requires months of careful planning and carries an expectation of success. Kruger is mindful of ‘Kodak courage,’ when athletes succumb to the pressure to perform and risk getting into hazardous situations. Despite driving to the far North last summer with all his gear (and a film crew that’s documenting his journey), he still turned back. After consulting with local experts, Kruger realized that by waiting a year he’d be able to better prepare for the trip he envisioned. With pre-arranged food drops made by local fishers and hunters, he can limit his load to 75 pounds and spend more time resting and hanging out in communities such as Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay.

One of the hardest parts will be dealing with the ‘wall’—that mental and physical barrier endurance athletes must confront. Kruger’s strategy is to concentrate on the moment when his paddle blade slices into the water. To focus on his breathing. To think about the ravens overhead or the fish below. To just be there.

“When I paddled to Alaska, all I did was go for a long paddle, like millennia of paddlers have done before me,” says Kruger, who grew up with a paddle in his hand in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, canoeing and hiking and climbing with his half-Algonquin, half- Austrian father. “My joy in that experience was slipping back into the skin of what it means to be a human being and move through this environment happily and safely and comfortably, and not just survive but thrive. I paddled far and lost weight, but I finished the race stronger than when I started. If I could have carried more food, I could have kept doing it indefinitely. There was no reason to stop.”

The question people have for him most often is how he handles being alone for so long—the mental impact of that isolation, of weeks spent rattling around in his own head. “Which shocked me because I don’t have that problem at all,” says Kruger, whose troubled father imparted violence to his son, but also a timeless connection to nature. “To me, it’s absolute freedom.”

To the uninitiated, SUPs look precarious. Or stupid. If you want to paddle from A to B, why try to balance on a board when you can instead sit in a canoe or kayak and enjoy much more stability and speed (not to mention all that storage space)? But talk to the paddleboarders—and there are lots of them, as according to a 2016 report by The Outdoor Foundation it’s one of the world’s fastest-growing sports— and they’ll tell you that it’s easy to find your equilibrium, even in dynamic ocean conditions. Moreover, because you’re upright and moving all your muscles, constantly shifting and stretching, it wreaks less havoc on your body than sit-down paddling over long periods. And if you’re wearing a dry suit and leashed to a board, with your gear lashed on securely, the worst-case scenario for falling into rough or frigid water is that you climb back aboard, with no boat to bail out afterward.

Kruger was introduced to paddleboarding during a surf trip on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in 2010. Back on Orcas, a friend hooked him up with a board and he took it for a spin with no leash, no personal flotation device and a paddle that was too long. He was gone for three hours—“I loved how it felt from the start”—and never looked back.

“I love the fluidity, the fact that you’re using your entire body,” he says. “Right from your toes to your fingertips, every little thing is singing.”

Kruger got a SUP and experimented with different stroke techniques, skipping work to “downwind” whenever a weather system blew in. He began to enter races throughout the region and trained by circumnavigating Orcas, struck by how efficiently one could travel on a paddleboard. “When I’m out paddling, that is my heaven; when every fibre of my being feels at home,” he says.

The Northwest Passage is another chance for heaven. Kruger picked the route because he enjoys the cold more than heat. Because he prefers travelling along shorelines to open-water crossings. Because it feels like being in his beloved Alpine. And also, because of climate change. But rather than add his voice to the chorus warning about warming temperatures and the loss of sea ice, Kruger wants to address one of the root causes: our fractured relationship with the outdoors.

“We’ve evolved for millions of years to use our bodies to interact with the environment and in, what, two short generations, we’re all stuck behind our computers and are messing with our phones,” he says. “We’ve forgotten how to be human beings.”

Unlike many adventurers who go North with foolhardy schemes, Kruger isn’t trying to win any prizes or accolades. He’s attempting this journey because SUPs are an elemental way to tap into the curative power of water. To him, it’s not a macho adventure—it’s an act of healing. Tackling the Northwest Passage is the ultimate expression of our ancient bond with maritime systems, he says, and a hopeful reminder, in this era of diminishing capacity in the wilderness, that there are ways to rekindle our vital yet broken bonds with the natural world.

“We crawled out of the water a long time before we walked,” he says. “It’s integral to who we are. And it’s a living thing that spans the globe, with new conditions every minute.”

Forget all the gear, the nutrition tablets, the tent, the bear fence and satellite phone. For Kruger, being on that paddleboard is an “unfiltered” connection. It’s just him and the sea.

“It’s the most satisfying form of being on the water,” he says. “Which is the most satisfying place to be.”

SAY HELLO TO KARL THIS SUMMER  
DEPARTURE: Tuktoyaktuk, late July, 2020
PLANNED COMMUNITY STOPS: Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven, Taloyoak, Pond Inlet
TRAVEL TIME: 6-8 weeks 
VESSEL: Custom-made carbon fibre, 17’6’’ SUP with integrated gear pods 
PADDLING ATTIRE: Drysuit, base layers
GEAR WEIGHT: 75 pounds 
FOOD: Nutrition tablets, sports drink, recovery shakes, whey protein isolate shakes; freeze-dried meals; miso paste for soup; coffee; fishing net for catching char 
WATER: Capacity to carry 18 litres (but will carry less and collect water from streams) 
COOKING: Backpacking stove (with additional gas canister in food drops) 
CAMPING: Tent with mesh insert; down sleeping bag and parka 
BEAR DETERRENT: Desert Eagle .44 Magnum; portable electric bear fence for sleeping 
COMMUNICATIONS: Satellite phone with data capabilities; GoPro for filming video; solar panel and battery for keeping equipment charged 
NAVIGATIONAL EQUIPMENT: iPad loaded with charts; weather info via Iridium; GPS-based compass watch with barometer 
ENTERTAINMENT: Books on iPad for bad weather days 
OTHER CLOTHING: Approach shoes, neoprene dry boots with Gore-Tex socks, gloves and mittens of several weights and styles, bug shirt with integrated head net, rain gear and shell gear for shore days