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Reclaiming a record: 87-year-old man paddles the Mississippi River once again

On his 87th birthday, Dale Sanders started paddling to take on the entire length of the Mississippi River in hopes to break the world record as the oldest person to make the 2,340 mile trek, again.

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Dale “Greybeard” Sanders celebrates after crossing the Power Dam on Friday, June 17, 2022, just outside of Bemidji as he kayaks from the Mississippi Headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, attempting to reclaim his record as the oldest person to kayak the Mississippi River.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Dale Sanders, also known as the “Greybeard Adventurer” has been an avid outdoorsman in the field of aquatics all of his adult life.

On his 87th birthday, he started paddling to take on the entire length of the Mississippi River in hopes to break the world record as the oldest person to make the 2,340-mile trek, again.

Starting at the Headwaters of the Mississippi in Itasca State Park on June 14, Sanders loaded his kayak and started paddling. Gliding through the river and crossing the connecting lakes to Bemidji a couple of days later, he stopped to take a picture with Paul and Babe before arriving in Cass Lake on June 19 where Sanders said one of the hardest parts of the journey was over.

“The Mississippi River is probably the most challenging expedition I've come to experience,” Sanders said. “Especially these big lakes (near Bemidji), more so Lake Winnie.”

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Dale Sanders poses in front of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox on his way through Bemidji on Friday, June 17, 2022, as he attempts to reclaim his record as the oldest person to kayak the Mississippi River.
Contributed Photo

Sanders and his crew stayed at Knutson Dam camping grounds in Cass Lake for the evening on the sixth day of his journey. Janet Rith-Najarian, coordinator of The Mississippi River Runs Through US in Bemidji, provided them with a picnic and a short ceremony where she initiated Sanders into the Bemidji community by giving him a Paul and Babe souvenir pin, a plaque and other keepsakes to represent the town.

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“I want to just say the river angles from Itasca to Bemidji are just fantastic, Janet especially,” Sanders said. “They are God-sent and I’m so thankful.”

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Janet Rith-Najarian, coordinator of The Mississippi River Runs Through Us in Bemidji, hands Sanders a Paul and Babe beard sleeve following a short ceremony where she initiated him into the Bemidji community at Knutson Dam on Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Cass Lake.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

This is not a new experience for Sanders as he held the record for the oldest person to complete the Mississippi River Source to Sea challenge from 2015 to 2020, breaking the record at 80 years old in 80 days.

With age records, there is no limit for time. In his kayak with the word “perseverance” painted on the side, he hopes to conquer the Mississippi in 87 days needing to average about 30 miles a day to snag the record back from current record holder Stan Stark who stole his record after making the trek last year at age 81.

“My challenge, if successful, will add six years to (the current) age record. I believe Stan will try and break my new record when he turns 87,” Sanders mentioned on his website . “We are good friends and I believe others will benefit through the examples Stan and I have set.”

According to Sanders, people ask him one question over all others: “Why are you doing this?”

“Since I turned 80, I have had the desire to use adventure, like this Mississippi River paddle, to keep myself in good condition at an old age,” Sanders said. “And of course, to get my record back.”

The thing that motivates him the most, though, is the impact he leaves on other people.

“I almost cry just talking about it, but the thing that keeps me going is the many people that tell me ‘I want to be just like you when I get old’ or ‘you inspire me to grow old.’ The influence on not only the old, but all ages, is just unbelievable. It’s the reason why I’m doing this,” Sanders continued. “I know in my heart that I need to do things like this to inspire and help people.”

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Back in 2015 when he set out to paddle the Mississippis’ at times treacherous current the first time, besides setting a record, he was also on a mission to raise money for juvenile diabetes in honor of his grand-niece who has Type 2 diabetes.

Instead of raising money for diabetes this time around, he has a camera crew following him filming for “Greybeard: The Documentary.” A film that will follow him on the record-setting journey while going into depth on his accomplishments, his downfalls and his ability to stay optimistic and agile.

Sanders is accompanied by the documentary film crew and several other experienced paddlers including Dan Frost and Matt Briggs with his river dog named Meadow. If interested, Dale has a live tracking system where the public can see his whereabouts and follow him along on his journey.

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Matt Briggs and his dog, Meadow, paddle down the Mississippi River after crossing the Power Dam on Friday, June 17, 2022, near Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Humbled and grounded

There was only one moment in his entire 87 years of life where Sanders thought about giving up.

On a different mission to set the oldest age record to hike the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail, he said he stared defeat into the eyes. He had never backed down or quit anything in his life. During the 10-month hike, a whole slew of things went wrong, including his van breaking down and dealing with some serious health concerns.

He packed up his car to give up and go home, but he called his wife and she convinced him to keep going after being cleared by his doctor.

“So many things were going wrong, I packed up all my things and I called my wife and told her I was on my way home. She said to me, ‘You will never forgive yourself if you quit.’ I got (my groove) back because of her and the next day I was hiking on the trail.”

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Sanders and his wife have been married for 43 years, in fact, one of his first big adventures was backpacking around the world with her by his side shortly after they were married.

“She saw what these adventures were doing to my life and other people’s lives,” Sanders said. “She has really supported me with all of this.”

In October 2017, Sanders had another record under his belt becoming the oldest person to hike the Appalachian Trail at 82 years old.

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Pictured from left: Matt Briggs, his dog Meadow, Dale Sanders and Dan Frost stand at the Mississippi Headwaters on June 14, 2022, at Itasca State Park.
Contributed Photo

Where it all started

Sanders’ love for adventure started when he was a child. Growing up on the banks of Whippoorwill Creek in Lickskillet, Kentucky, his earliest memories were spent in the water.

His thirst for adventure was never quenched as it continued to grow into his 20s when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1958. He spent the next 37 years as a Hospital Corpsman, a Hard Hat Deep Sea Diver and serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa, Japan, where he was put in charge of the Third Marine Division sport diving program.

Sanders’ time in the military brought him to discover a newfound passion for spearfishing. By his mid-20s he was nationally acknowledged through competitive sports such as swimming, diving and spearfishing. A short list of his recognitions at that time were Central California Diver of the Year, California-Oregon Spearfishing Champion and Spearfishing Athlete of the Year for the United States.

He didn't stop there as he went into his professional career in Parks and Recreation for nearly six decades until retiring in 2002 to be a full-time adventurer.

A few years after conquering the mountainous Appalachian Trail, in 2020, he attempted to break the record for being the oldest person to complete the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike. On Oct. 10, 2020, he broke the old Guinness World Book record at age 85.

“And that was the easiest world record I've ever got,” Sanders laughed.

Follow Sanders on his journey to the Gulf of Mexico and other adventures on his Facebook Page or his website at greybeardadventurer.com.

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Dan Frost paddles down the Mississippi River after crossing the Power Dam on Friday, June 17, 2022, near Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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The Mississippi River Runs Through Us members Beth Haan, left, and Jenna Claypool help initiate Dale Sanders into the Bemidji community on Sunday, June 19, 2022, with Paul and Babe puppets at Knutson Dam in Cass Lake.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Maggi is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on outdoor and human interest stories. Raised in Aitkin, Minnesota, Maggi is a graduate of Bemidji State University's class of 2022 with a degree in Mass Communication.
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