Karl Kruger stepped onto his paddleboard and began to paddle to Alaska. It was the start of the journey, but also the culmination of a lifetime of outdoor experience that made him ideally suited for the wild adventure.
Just 15 days later, after covering 766 miles, Kruger stepped off his board, the first person to complete the Race to Alaska on a stand-up paddleboard. Along the way, he camped on beaches covered in cougar prints, traveled alongside a humpback whale for 10 miles and paddled through bioluminescent waters as he traveled at night to take advantage of the tides.
Kruger, 45, of Orcas Island, will speak about his trip and show photos of the adventure at the Everett Mountaineers Banquet on Nov. 4 in Lynnwood.
“It’s hard for me to vocalize all the ways that this race was perfect for me,” Kruger said. “I’ve been on the water my whole life and outdoors my whole life. I was completely happy in all those elements. I wasn’t lonely. I was comfortable. All my life history came to bear on that race.”
The Race to Alaska is non-motorized, unsupported race from Port Townsend to Ketchikan. The race, which is in its third year, is notoriously challenging, with only 53 percent of entrants even finishing in the past two years.
Guns went off June 14 this year. Kruger finished the race June 28. He paddled an average of 51 miles per day.
Kruger has been stand-up paddleboarding for about six years, but he’s been paddling his whole life. His father was a canoeist and they ran rivers and raced together. When he was 10, Kruger saw windsurfers and was instantly entranced. Kruger and his father made a deal: If Kruger earned all A’s, his father would help him buy a windsurfer. Kruger earned the grades. He taught himself to windsurf and, before long, was teaching others.
Kruger was in love with windsurfing from the beginning — the beginning of a lifelong passion for water sports. He eventually learned to surf and then to sail. Kruger also has a passion for the mountains, and previously worked as a backcountry guide after graduating from high school on the East Coast. Eventually, after doing backcountry guiding in Alaska, he passed through Bellingham and went climbing in the area with a friend. He was sold. He went home, packed up and moved to Bellingham.
Kruger studied environmental science with a focus on toxicology at Western Washington University. He minored in organic chemistry, which is how he met his now-wife, Jessica, in an organic chemistry course.
“It took me a while to realize after college that I’m not all that employable,” Kruger said. Years of being his own boss as and outdoor guide meant he wanted that flexibility again. “I needed to create my own job.”
The Krugers dreamed of owning their own outdoor business. When their daughter, Dagny, was 1, they decided to go sailing for a few months.
It was his “aha” moment. Kruger felt torn between the water and the mountains, but realized a sailing charter business could allow him to keep both in his life. He and Jess now run Kruger Escapes on Orcas Island. It’s a way for them to pass on their intense love of the natural world, and a desire to care for it, to other people.
Kruger took up paddleboarding after a surfing trip in 2011. A stand-up paddleboarder out in the surf caught Kruger’s attention.
“He was just killing it,” he said, “catching more waves than anybody else.”
Kruger bought a board on Orcas and was immediately hooked. He had already sailed thousands of miles in the San Juans, and felt like he knew them. But the paddleboard, he said, gives him a much more intimate connection to the water.
“It’s my meditation,” he said.
All of that time on boards and sailboats, especially in the San Juan Islands, gave Kruger all of the skills he needed to make a success of the Race to Alaska. Those years of experience have given him an instinctive knowledge of wind, water and weather, as well as physical fitness from a lifetime of active adventures.
From the first time Kruger heard about the Race to Alaska, he was not convinced that the best way to do it was in a sailboat — the choice of many entrants. Kruger points out that, while sailing has developed in many areas around the world, paddling was the way Coast Salish people navigated the area.
“I didn’t believe the Race to Alaska was about sailing in the first place,” Kruger said. “I don’t think that’s the weapon of choice.”
Even so, he signed up in 2015 to sail a trimaran. But then his partner backed out. His wife came up with the idea to do the race on a paddleboard.
“I knew immediately I had to do it,” Kruger said. “As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. It was exponentially larger than anything I had done around here.”
Kruger went for it. He trained well and started the race on a paddleboard in 2016. The first day was tough, a long crossing with a lot of rough water. His board sustained a number of tiny stress fractures and began taking on water. Over the next days, it got worse until Kruger felt like he was paddling a wet mattress. The board began tracking badly and, by the time he reached Nanaimo, he was paddling dramatically more on the left than the right. The stress on his body eventually gave him shooting pain in his back and legs.
“It’s the only time in my life I’ve been dropped to my knees by something like that,” he said.
Kruger called it quits for that year, but immediately began making plans for the next year.
He knew he’d need a new board, to start. He found a man in California who has been shaping boards for more than 40 years. It took a bit of work, but Kruger convinced Joe Bark to take on the project. Together they talked through exactly what was needed, and Bark carefully crafted a board that could go the distance and hold up on the challenging trip.
Kruger knew from his first try that his fitness and nutrition were working. Even so, he bumped up his fitness routine a bit and made sure to spend time on mental preparation, devising strategies to deal with the long miles and challenges he’d face.
When things got hard, he focused on all the things he loves about being on the water.
“The shapes of the waves, the sound of raindrops, the birds, the whales. Between all those things, it worked so effectively that 766 miles went by in the blink of an eye,” he said.
Kruger struggles to summarize the highlights of the trip; there were so many. One night, he watched from his campsite while a whale breached for nearly an hour. At one point he was paddling 20 nautical miles from the nearest land.
The hardest part of the trip?
“Stopping,” Kruger said emphatically. About a day from finishing the race, he really realized it was nearly over — and it was crushing.
He’s already dreaming up his next adventure.
If you go
Karl Kruger is the keynote speaker at a Mountaineers banquet on Nov. 4 at the Lynnwood Embassy Suites, 20610 44th Ave. W. Doors open at 5 p.m. Dinner is at 6 p.m. Tickets are $39 and must be purchased by Oct. 31 online at http://bit.ly/2xB5hml. For more information, email Carrie Strandell at firstname.lastname@example.org.