Dale Sanders, known as the Grey Beard Adventurer, climbed out of his canoe and flashed a huge grin. It was Saturday afternoon when Dale and company arrived at the Vicksburg riverfront, having paddled around 1,900 miles since they put in at Lake Itasca, Minnesota on June 14, Dale’s 87th birthday.
They were met by Layne Logue of Quapaw Canoe Company and Paul Ingram, who were serving as ‘River Angels’ for the group – showing the paddlers some hospitality by providing lodging and a chance to resupply before resuming their journey.
Dale is on a mission to reclaim the Guinness World Record of the oldest person to paddle the entire length of the Mississippi River from source to sea. Locals may remember Dale from when he broke the record back in 2015, when he paddled the Mighty Mississippi to raise funding and awareness for diabetes. Then-80-year-old Sanders made the trip in 80 days in a Wenonah canoe named ‘Anna’ after his great-niece who’d been diagnosed with Juvenile Type 1 Diabetes.
In 2020, Dale’s buddy Stan Stark took the record, completing the feat at age 81. “He’ll have to wait a few years to take it from me again,” Dale joked.
“Vicksburg has become a significant stop for me. Quapaw Canoe Company is actually one of my sponsors for this,” Dale said, gesturing toward Logue, who was busy strapping down their canoes in the back of his truck. “Last time I was here, well, it was a really emotional day.”
It was in Vicksburg in 2015 that Sanders’ friend and traveling companion, Richard Sojourner, was advised by doctors not to complete the journey due to heat injury. Sojourner, who was 70 at the time, planned to finish first and hold the record briefly until Sanders would break the record again a few moments later.
“They told him he could die,” Sanders recalled. “He was devastated. So was I.”
Sanders shook off the emotion swelling up from the memory and flashed another toothy smile. “So, where do ya’ll keep the shade around here?”
A picnic lunch of fried chicken and fixin’s was planned for the group at Catfish Row, but dark clouds threatened to rain on that parade. The group opted for the cover provided by the parking garage nearby.
Paddling with Greybeard are Dan Faust, who paddled the entire river last year, Matt Briggs, who did it in 2018, Iraq war veteran Matt Taylor and last but not least, an adorable Pomeranian named Meadow. No one could be sure, but it was the general consensus that Meadow would be the first Pomeranian to make the journey. The whole crew, including Meadow, enjoyed their parking garage picnic. As you can imagine, paddling over 30 miles a day can work up an appetite.
Paddling the length of the Mighty Mississippi is impressive at any age, but achieving the feat at 87 is especially astounding. What’s more, that may not even be the most impressive thing about Dale, he has made the most of his 87 years.
He joined the Navy in 1958 and became a Navy Hospital Corpsman, Hard Hat Deep Sea Diver and served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa. In ’83, Dale and his wife Miriam traveled the world, traveling on foot as much as possible as they backpacked through 26 countries.
Sanders worked full-time in Parks and Recreation for nearly six decades, including 37 years with the Department of the Navy. He holds a Master’s Degree from Pepperdine University and continued his post-graduate education in Morale, Welfare, Recreation and Parks until his retirement in 2002. After that, he volunteered as a river guide for the Memphis, Tenn. based Wolf River Conservancy and even joined the staff for a time as the Director of Outreach. He’s since retired from that role as well and took on what he calls a “Life after Eighty adventure,” earning several age-related records.
In 2017, he earned a world record as the oldest person to hike the 2190 mile Appalachian Trail. Dr. M.J. “Nimblewill Nomad” Eberhart broke his record this year, but Sanders says that, “God willing and the creeks don’t rise,” he plans to set the new record in 2025, at which time he will be 90 years old.
Then in 2020, Sanders was awarded another Guinness Record, this time for the oldest person to hike the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim. He completed the feat in just six days and called it the easiest world record he’s ever received.
Today, Sanders also serves as a River Angel, taking fellow river rats into his Bartlett, Tenn. home as they enjoy adventures of their own.
The Greybeard Adventurer has another 437 miles to paddle before he reaches the Gulf and reclaims the world record. If all goes according to plan, he’ll finish the journey on Sept. 8. 87 days of paddling to match his 87 years of adventure.
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