Orcas Island resident Karl Kruger single-handedly paddled 420 miles of the frigid Northwest Passage this past summer on his customized stand-up paddleboard.
This trek is no small feat in itself, especially due to the fact his route took him to the edge of the world along the thin line where the icy Tundra and the Arctic Ocean meet near the 71st Parallel.
No stranger to pushing his limits, Kruger, a professional outdoorsman and nature guide, has spent thousands of hours exploring and guiding people through some of the most beautiful and rugged regions in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. His adventure expeditions range from introducing his guests to the great outdoors aboard his 64’ steel cutter S/V Ocean Watch, to becoming the first — and only — person to solo the entire “Race To Alaska” (RTK) 750-mile route from Port Townsend to Ketchikan on a stand-up paddleboard.
According to Kruger, he has always felt a deep connection to the ocean and outdoors his entire life. His father introduced him to paddling when he was three. Kruger then taught himself to windsurf at age 12 and by 17 was teaching others how to sail. He chose this trip to the Arctic to push his own personal limits.
“What happens is you get out there and you realize that there’s something much deeper that you really hadn’t even understood yourself until you get out there and start doing the thing,” he said.
For Kruger, participating in the Race to Alaska — and the trip to the Arctic — were about growth.
“I did it because I wanted to see if I could. I learned a lot. I grew in ways that were really important, but when people ask me if I’ll do it again, I answer ‘Why? It’s over,” he said. “In terms of actually doing the RTK and navigating, it didn’t scare me at all. I knew that I knew the coast.”
Kruger had traveled up and down the coast to Alaska over 25 times at that point in his life.
”I knew where I was going and felt really safe and secure,” he said. “When I got to the end of the RTK with a very deep knowledge that I was capable of a whole helluva lot more. That next time I could bite off a much bigger piece and see what goes on. I started casting about for a project that scared me.”
That’s when he settled on paddleboarding the Arctic’s Northwest Passage.
Although COVID delayed Kruger’s original plans by a few years, in 2022 he set off on the first 420-mile leg of a multi-leg trip that he expects to finish in 2026, when he stitches together a route that will have begun in Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories, eventually ending in Pond Inlet in the Ikiqtaaluk region of Nunavut, Canada, on northern Baffin Island.
For Kruger the trek opened his eyes to the fragility of humanity, but also the connectivity humans are losing in today’s modern hi-tech world.
“In the world today it’s easy to lose sight of that fragility when you’re so taken care of here in the system,” he said. “If I went right now and I tripped and fell and hit my head on the sidewalk, or whatever, it would take seconds and there’d be flashing lights and a whole herd of people there to help me out. When you’re out there you find yourself in this place where you look over your shoulder and you verify that yes, indeed, you left land behind and you’ve got some number of miles before you see land again. And then you lose sight of water too because of the fog. And you’re just in this bubble, in a place where if things did go south, if I fell down and broke a leg or something, you’re a goner. I mean, you’re in an incredibly fragile place, a delicate place, and no help is coming.”
Kruger adds that the experience helped sharpen his senses and focus his attention on the subtleties of nature and the world around him.
“When you’re out there alone what do you have, what’s left to you? What is it that you go to? What is it that helps you? And what I started realizing is that I was tuning into these just really subtle tugs. We all have those, but I think we get desensitized to them by living the life that we live,” he said.“If you get a little bit lost and you whip out your phone and go to Google you get the answer, and off you go. To be in a place where you don’t have any of that, all of a sudden you’re forced to go back to what it is to be human. And you tune into these little tugs, and I always deeply regretted it when I ignored them.”
During the trek, Kruger described a sense of grandeur but also acknowledged that for much of the trip there really wasn’t much to draw his attention to, so he focused on the little things like a beluga whale surfacing nearby or ripples on the sea surface.
“There are forces acting upon you up there that are beyond cosmic. It’s like the size of the sky, you’re at the top of the world and you’re literally feeling the very last tips off of the tidal waves as it penetrates into the Arctic Ocean,” Kruger recalls. “And you’ve got the ice breaking up and thundering. It’s as if the environment just breaks you open in every possible way, and it takes away all the cues.”
As a professional navigator, he shared that it was the most fascinating part of the trip for him as binoculars and compasses were worthless. He began really diving deep into watching the swell angles and paying attention to that as a means to navigate.
“There’s nothing to look at. There’s the blue part and the brown part and where they meet is not correct because the ice moves everything around every year,” Kruger said. “You’re so far north that a compass just spins. The requirement was finding other means of navigation to rely on. It was then, on the third or fourth day when I started to realize what this trip was going to be about.”
He also described the experience as a spiritual journey.
“What it became is this deep dive into connecting with the ancestors,” says Kruger. “I found myself talking to the ancestors. I found myself asking the ancestors just to show me the way and I promise I’ll do the work.”
Fourteen days and 420 miles after Kruger set out on his arctic journey he arrived safely in Paulatuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. Kruger says he’s truly opened his heart to the celestial spirits and that “it’s changed how I do things. Since I’ve come back I’ve made a commitment to not ever stop navigating this way. To navigate successfully in life requires an open heart and honesty … and that’s why I’m drawn to human-powered stuff. There’s something really special about transiting by paddle. It’s powerful.”
Kruger intends to return next summer to continue his solo Arctic journey. To learn more about his expeditions visit www.krugersea.com/.