Blackfish Team Rider Karl Krüger to become the first human to paddle the Northwest Passage on a stand-up paddleboard

“Go small, go simple, go now” mantra, coined by the Pardeys*, has been inspiring sailors and travellers pursuing the idea of a nomadic way of living for generations. It embodies a dream of a simple, self-sufficient life and an inherently human, insatiable longing for adventure and deep experiences that reconnect us with nature. With the “how much farther…higher…faster…deeper…” I can go mindset, Karl Krüger’s story is an extreme and beautiful tale of immediacy, curiosity and vulnerability, transcending today’s experience culture. TotalSUP caught up with the Blackfish Paddles Team Rider, adventurer, expedition paddler, sailboat captain and activist, as he embarks upon a new challenge of becoming the first human to paddle 1,900 miles of the Northwest Passage on a stand-up paddleboard, highlighting along the way the impact that climate change and geopolitics have on the native Inuit people.

Photo courtesy of Karl Krüger www.karlkrugerofficial.com

Hi Karl, thank you very much for taking the time to join us for this interview. How are you holding up and coming to terms with the “New Normal”?

The global situation is such a strange and tenuous one. The loss of lives is staggering and sobering. I think it is interesting to see the different approaches countries have taken to handle the pandemic. The US policy is, of course, an abysmal failure. Writ large, we see the results of valuing the economy over the health of the planet, and the life it sustains. My heart goes out to all those directly suffering the results of such a failed philosophy. Personally, I have really appreciated the slower pace, and time to paddle, work out and read.

After your remarkable and unsupported, 766 mile SUP journey on a paddleboard from Washington to Alaska, you are embarking on a new extreme challenge and the world’s first stand-up paddleboard (SUP) crossing of the Northwest Passage (NWP). Has the current situation pushed your plans in a different direction?

Right now, it is unlikely I will be able to go back to the Arctic this summer (2020). I will most likely need to postpone until Summer 2021. I just saw an article in Le Journal de Quebec, that Trudeau has moved to close the Northwest Passage (NWP) to all craft this summer. This move is to protect the Inuit communities along the route. I admire the move, even while feeling disappointed I can’t go. Right now, there are still 0 cases of COVID-19 in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Central to this project is my desire to meet people along the way. I do not want to risk the health of the communities up there or prevail too heavily upon their hospitality. So, I will wait. Of all the advice I have received regarding running expeditions in the Arctic…the most common thing I hear is that PATIENCE is central to success. So…I am working on my patience.

The COVID-19 global crisis has radically shifted our perspective and has redefined nearly every aspect of our lives. As an adventurer, endurance
paddler, sailboat captain, educator and activist, what’s your take on the world today?

This is a time for re-calibrating our value systems. I feel at peace with the decision to wait a year to go back to the Arctic, because I don’t want to be inconsiderate of the health of the Inuit. I am at peace staying home to protect my community.

I think this is a time for all of us to consider what is most important. For me, climate change, biodiversity and environmental health are all VASTLY more important than economic growth. Some of the most valuable and memorable times with my daughter, Dagny, have been in the last weeks. I think this time in our lives is valuable for focusing on those things we love most. We had the BEST time recently, very near our home on Orcas Island, watching Foxes and some fuzzy young kits playing outside their den. We had a beach fire at night. My goal is to make as many memories like these with Dagny as I can during this pandemic. I think this is a time to dive deeper into home…and build a deeper relationship with place.

 

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That idea is a huge component of the NWP paddle, and my 2017 R2AK race. I’ve been thinking my whole life about the human relationship with nature. In general, we lack the political will to protect our environment, largely because we don’t have a close relationship with it. To those who make a living directly from the land…protecting the environment is a given.

Lastly, I personally welcome a shift toward sustainability. I hope we can all muster the will to move more in that direction. I look at the current global situation as an opportunity. We could use this as an opportunity to shift ‘business as usual’ into a more sustainable model. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one thinking like this. The current US presidency is using this as an opportunity to move toward a more authoritarian model. Democracy appears to be on the chopping block. I have come to believe that real change will come from the private sector, from NGOs and individuals who are willing to dedicate their lives to making positive change. Anyway…I paddle as often as possible…and let my mind wander over these topics. Eventually I stop thinking and just sink into the activity. That is part of the reason I love paddling so much…it brings joy, and why stop? Might as well paddle some miles…

Your Northwest Passage SUP crossing is more than an endurance paddling expedition. What are the drivers behind it?

So many. So many. Well…first off, the idea came as I was finishing the R2AK paddle. I was about 50 miles from the finish, on my knees, bracing against another squall…and enjoying an absolute calm inside my mind, a rare thing. I realized I was happier than I had ever been. Alone, paddling…with nobody to talk with but Ravens and eagles, whales, seals, bears and the trees at night. I listened for the water wolves at night…I loved their emotive howls. I realized I had no interest in going ‘home.’ I WAS home. I didn’t want to go back to “real” life. I wanted to keep going. So, I began thinking of where I might enjoy a similar, if not deeper, sense of commitment and solitude…for longer.

To call this endurance paddling is a bit of an oxymoron…you aren’t enduring anything if you love doing it. Even on the longest days of that paddle, I felt a deep sense of happiness and gratitude that eludes me in ‘real’ life. I paddle 72 miles one day in something like 13 hours…I pulled up onto the only sandy beach of the trip at the end of that day…and set up camp, and walked that whole beach looking at Cougar tracks and drinking in the solitude…it was a cooling salve to my soul. I look forward to those daily discoveries, thoughts, places.

Also, one of the most pivotal days of that paddle was in Bella Bella. I made friends with a few Heiltsuk people…we talked about the water, connection to place, spirituality…and dreams. I found myself speaking with strangers about topics I struggle to find people in my “real” life to speak with about. They understood. Quickly and easily. Without question. In under two hours, I connected at a level I haven’t achieved over years with people at home. It caused me to think more carefully, and deeply, about connection to place…and community.

My desire to go paddle the NWP is a web of fate, passion, and a lifelong pursuit of depth. I have never felt good about repeating past efforts. The allure dies, the moment a thing is done. I wonder, how much farther…higher…faster…deeper…more fun? Where can I go next with what I just learned? The NWP paddle brings together alpinism, paddling, navigation, survival and philosophical interests into a project that I find irresistible. I’m sure my sailing skills will come in handy as well.

Photo courtesy of Karl Krüger www.karlkrugerofficial.com

There is a coming up and visually stunning documentary “The Next Thing: Stand Up Paddling The Northwest Passage”. Could you tell us more about this film project?

Race to Alaska alum are family. Everyone involved with that race form the largest collection of oddballs, freaks, and wildly skilled folks from all over the globe. Anyway, I told one or two people about my plans to take another leap forward and paddle the NWP. Liv Von Oelreich soon called me and asked if I would be willing to let the R2AK film crew shoot a doc about the effort. I said yes. It is now titled ‘Unguided’.

The doc is mostly focused on the training, logistics of the paddle itself. But, also dives into stories from my childhood.

The doc will tell the tale of a surfer, skier, paddler, sailor, climber. At a deeper level, it makes clear the fact that humans are rapidly moving away from a meaningful relationship with nature. Phones, TV, computers, and pursuit of money conspire to remove us even farther from who we are. Millions of years of evolution in a natural environment have brought us to where we are…and in just a couple of generations, we have removed ourselves from that relationship. The movie features interviews with Indigenous who understand this better than anyone. Of course, lots of paddling shots…

There are recurring themes in the film of “finding the edge of our capabilities and the courage to step beyond” and the inherently human, insatiable longing for adventure and deep experiences that reconnect us with nature. Does it get lonely where you go and nobody else does? Is it difficult coming back after an adventure like your 766 mile SUP journey and plugging back into the society?

I never feel lonely when I am out doing things. I have never had that problem. I run into problems when I come back. Returning is an awful process. Truly awful. I struggle with loneliness back here in ‘real’ life. It has little flavour. Like the colours have drained out of a painting. It is all so scripted and predictable. I get very little satisfaction from going through the motions of this life. I struggle to relate…words fail me. I can tell stories, but they fall short of describing what living the tale does to you. Adventures like that change you, in ways that are very difficult to describe.

I am blessed to have a few people in my life who have had similar experiences. When I get stuck, I can call or write…it makes me feel better to know there is someone out there who gets it. I had a climbing partner, Steve, who always used to say you must have a ‘pure heart’ when it came to the cruxy parts of the climbs we did. He was speaking to the vulnerability required. You must leave your personal baggage behind…or you will surely fail…or worse. The baggage is simply too heavy to carry. After days, or weeks of existing in a state of absolute vulnerability…returning to the callous and superficial is a painful process. It feels like a death.

How do you prepare for a stand-up paddleboarding challenge like Northwest Passage crossing, mentally and physically?

My Tatu artist has made a small fortune off me. LOL. With him…over hours, he reminds me of what it means to sit with discomfort…that there is a well of strength that is deeper than any of us can even imagine…accessible with your MIND.

My trainer, Chuck…an MMA trainer and fighter…teaches me about heart…and I get physically stronger in the process. Chuck is one of my best friends in the world. He gets me.

I paddle as much as possible and focus on the fun…I never want my paddling to be reduced to a job. I read a lot about the Arctic. I let my dreams guide the process.

Could you tell us more about your collaboration with Blackfish Paddles and being a part of the Blackfish Team?

I joined up with Blackfish Paddles a couple of years ago. I’m honoured to be a part of the team. I love that community, positivity, stoke, quality and passion are all worn on the sleeves of all the Blackfish paddlers. There is something inherently wholesome and REAL about how Blackfish presents as a brand. It makes me feel good to support and be supported by a brand that values PEOPLE and community…as well as kickass shapes and designs. I like that reduced packaging is as important as producing a top-shelf product.

 

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What are your Blackfish Paddles of choice?

I most often reach for the Andaman, but the Salish gets a ton of use also. I tend to grab the Salish for longer distances, because it tends to leave me with less fatigue. I grab the Andaman for surfing and shorter outings.

Krüger Escapes is dedicated to adventure, discovery and opportunity for environmental education. Could you tell us more about your venture and what’s in the pipeline for 2020 when the restrictions are lifted?

The goal for Krüger Escapes has always been world-class, expedition level sailing trips that join sailing with skiing, surfing, SUP and environmental education. The core of all of our trips is connectivity. Connectivity with this coast, and with those on our vessel. So many things about life aboard are a metaphor for life on this planet. There is a finite amount of water and food aboard…and we must figure out how to get along. I enjoy pushing people a little past where they feel comfortable…just a little…and then returning them to comfort…for just a while…and showing them the beauty that is right before our eyes. The fact we are here at all is a gift. I feel honoured to work at something that reminds our guests of that fact.

Two years ago, I purchased our new vessel, the 64′ Cutter-Rigged Ocean Watch, and formed a partnership with Project Ocean Watch. I will be captaining Ocean Watch around North and South America. It is a 3 year project, with science and educational outreach as the main goals. We are scheduled to depart in October, if the remaining funding needs are secured. We are almost there. Logistically, we must leave the PNW in Fall in order to make the expedition happen. So, if we fall short of funding, we will need to postpone another year.

Photo courtesy of Karl Krüger www.karlkrugerofficial.com

This Summer, I am scheduled to lead a flotilla of smaller vessels up the coast of BC and into Alaska. We will be fishing, paddling, sailing and learning as much as we can about this coast we call home. So much to learn…

Thank you so much for sharing your story and all the best with your coming up projects.

To find out more about Blackfish Paddles and their progressive, refined, handcrafted designs, visit www.blackfishpaddles.com

To follow Karl’s next adventure, please visit www.karlkrugerofficial.com

*Lin and Larry Pardey are sailors and writers; The quote “Go small, go simple, go now” comes from their first book, “Cruising in Seraffyn” published in 1976.

About the Author

Anna Nadolna

Anna is the Founder of SUPer Whale, a Cambridge(UK!)-based emerging watersports brand and a stand-up paddleboarding community. She is a certified SUP Flat Water Instructor accredited by International Surfing Association (ISA). Anna is also a digital marketing, storytelling aficionado and a growth hacking enthusiast.

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