This summer, SUP Explorer Karl Kruger will take on the untamed wilderness and attempt something that has never been done before.
At a young age, Karl Kruger already had more experience on the water than some people garner in a lifetime. His father grew up in upstate New York surrounded by a strong paddling culture and his mother’s father was a skilled sailor. The first time he got on a standup paddle board (SUP) he felt like all the different types of water activities he’d experienced throughout his life were brought together into “one perfect little nut”. His love of SUPing has not slowed as he has sought new adventures as an SUP Explorer.
In 2017 Karl became the first person to finish the 750+ mile Race to Alaska, unsupported, on a SUP (he clocked 766 miles). This year, he’ll attempt something no one has ever tried – to SUP the unpredictable, unforgiving terrain through the Northwest Passage in two months.
Karl’s first attempt at completing the Race to Alaska (R2AK) was in 2016 after his wife suggested he paddle the race, ultimately deciding to SUP. He got as far as Nanaimo, BC before the carbon composite board he was using succumbed to the pounding stress of the ocean. After being forced to pull out on the third day (still in 4th place), he immediately started working on the 2017 race.
His ethos for the 2017 race was to do it alpine style and carry as little cargo as possible – just enough to support his life during the journey and that would enable him to move very quickly over the water. Finding the right board became his main focus.
He reached out to Joe Bark, an iconic hand shaper based in Torrance, California who Kruger says has an amazing “visceral knowledge of how water works because he hand paddles.” After a couple hundred back-and-forth hours of communication, Joe was able to produce the board Karl wanted and he immediately began to train on it.
An immense amount of strategy goes into any race like this. Physically, Karl is constantly training on the water, and on land works out with his friend local fitness coach, Chuck Silva, four times a week to stay in prime shape. Mentally, Karl says you have to look at the coastal route holistically. He studies how systems roll in and out of each area on the course and analyzes the microclimates in each inlet as well as the tides, shipping traffic, and time of day. All of this with the goal of positioning himself to best take advantage of the next obstacle coming up.
Using an augmented accelerometer with GPS he is able to keep track of his mileage, speed, and time by taking a photo of the computer at both the start and the end of each shift.
Beginning in Port Townsend, WA Karl faced one of the biggest obstacles of the race – getting through the first day. Day One of the R2AK has two challenges: making it to a certain point within a specified time limit or risk being disqualified; and the fact that you have to “commit” to a dangerous piece of water.
After successfully completing Day One, Karl was set to face the Northern Strait of Georgia that he refers to as “a washing machine.” And right behind that challenge was Seymour Narrows which has been known to flow at up to 16 knots. Then in heavy waves up to his shoulders, he surfed from Hornby Island to Campbell River where he saw a forecast calling for a strong southeastern gale through the Johnstone Strait – very favorable weather for the month of June considering the area is known for strong northwesterly events that create extremely intense winds. He rested for an hour and a half, ate a bunch of hamburgers, and took back off in the dead of night, paddling for 20 miles in the pitch dark through Seymour Narrows to get to Johnstone Strait. This portion of the race was extremely memorable for Karl as he recalls it being a magical night of calm sultry waters and surrounded with bioluminescence.
The next day Karl got into Johnstone in time to catch that south easterly gale and rode the waves at an average speed of 12 knots (a couple times reaching 15 knots). He slept a bit that night but saw that the forecast was calling for calm through Queen Charlotte Strait – a very exposed piece of water. He decided to gun it and take advantage of the weather forecast. He paddled for 72 miles in 13 hours that day – a distance equivalent to paddling from Seattle to Orcas Island – Karl’s hometown in the San Juan Islands.
When he was initially asked how long it would take for him to complete the R2AK he responded, “Two weeks, if everything goes right.” He paddled into Ketchikan exactly two weeks after he began the race. Of 62 boats, kayaks and SUPers, only 27 finished the race – Karl was the only SUP.
“The closest I came to a psychological state of a wall was the day before I finished [the R2AK],” says the SUP Explorer. “I was bummed that it was almost over. I was happy to finish, but at the same time, there’s almost a depression that comes on. The most natural thing in the world is for that next opportunity to pop into your head.”
And what an “opportunity” he has chosen.
This July and August Karl is set to attempt to do something no one has ever done before – SUP the Northwest Passage. There are only seven “towns” on the route he plans on taking. The rest of the journey will take him through the true Alaskan wilderness. He will only have a short period of time to finish while ice is not present.
His plan is to take the Amundsen Route, hugging the mainland through the Northwest Passage. He hopes to get an offshore breeze which typically happens during an ice out and would mean he could sleep on shore instead of on the ice – giving him a little more safety from bears as well as better access to water. From there he is hoping to paddle east and would love to end up in Pond Inlet, but weather conditions will determine how far he actually gets.
Karl will execute the same type of strategy as the R2AK but will also face some unknowns such as polar and grizzly bears. He has been preparing a “bear protocol” by talking with Northwinds Expeditions.
“You can’t prepare for everything.” Karl says. “The only thing you can do is run scenarios through your head and think about how you can work through them. But really, you have to be self-sufficient.” He will have a consulting physician he can contact via SAT phone and will also be carrying some antibiotics, painkillers, and a few other emergency items in case he needs them.
What’s Next Next
True explorers will tell you they are always thinking about the next adventure. Karl is no different. When asked if he’s already thinking about the “next thing” post-Northwest Passage his response is no surprise. ”Always,” he says. “There’s a logical progression. The idea for the Northwest Passage came to me during the Race 2 Alaska. I keep thinking of some big crossings. My mind hasn’t settled on a specific one but I think I’d like to take on a big SUP crossing.”
And Karl’s advice for fledgling adventurers?
“Make sure whatever goal you’re setting for yourself, it’s coming from your own experiences. [Your goals] need to come from your own pool of experience. Don’t just jump into something that looks cool, because you might not be up for it. It’s a dangerous thing. It’s awesome to inspire people to chase their own dream but I’ve been paddling and sailing and skiing my whole life and out of that comes a goal for my own challenge.”
We’ll be covering Karl’s journey on our blog as he attempts to SUP through the Northwest Passage this summer. Sign up for our newsletter to stay updated and learn more and support Karl through his GoFundMe page.