May 28, 1984 12:00 PM

Spring hardly seemed a month old the morning of April 27 as Verlen Kruger and Valerie Fons slid their canoe into the icy waters of Minnesota’s Lake Itaska and began to paddle. That first evening chilling thunderstorms closed in on the 61-year-old retired plumber and his 33-year-old companion, and morning brought a change for the worse: snow, ice, choppy waves and windchill factors of 15 below.

That is not everybody’s idea of a swell spring outing, but canoeing’s odd couple had been preparing for eight months for just such delights. Before them stretched the entire length of the mighty Mississippi River, 2,348 miles from Lake Itaska to the Gulf of Mexico, 95 miles below New Orleans. Along the way they would pass through 10 states, four major cities and untold tons of debris brought down by the spring river’s high waters—which would also make the going faster. Their goal: to beat the record time of 35 days, 11 hours, 27 minutes set in 1980 by two men from Minnesota. “We plan to stay in the canoe for 30 days and nights nonstop. No one’s done that before,” says Kruger, who is from Lansing, Mich. and has nine children and 22 grandchildren. “We’re as unlikely a team as you’ll ever meet—a woman and a senior citizen. You expect record setters to be big, sturdy athletes. But there’s more to being best than age, size and strength. There’s spirit, guts and determination. When we set this record, it’s going to tickle the hearts of a lot of people.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Kruger actually paddled the Mississippi upstream in 1981 during a 3½-year, 28,000-mile canoe trip that he took through and around North America—a jaunt he completed just last December. He met Fons in Seattle. A divorced geological technical assistant, Fons had established herself as a premier canoeist in 1982, after racing only one year with the Seattle Canoe Club, and was on the first women’s team to finish the grueling World Championship Au Sable River (Mich.) Marathon within the qualifying time. Kruger signed Fons on for the 2,411-mile segment of his trip from L.A. to Yuma, Ariz., and the two forged an irrevocable bond when they barely survived a hurricane off the Baja peninsula. “Verlen is stable. I’m volatile, so we balance each other well,” says Fons, who conceived the Mississippi Challenge later that year.

For this harrowing journey down the heart of America, Kruger designed an ultralightweight (70 pounds) Kevlar canoe, specially equipped with a canopy for protection, two small chamber pots, headlamps for night travel and foot pedals so that one partner can steer while the other sleeps. Their schedule calls for two three-hour sleep shifts a day, with 12 hours of joint paddling and six of paddling solo. Though a support team consisting of Fons’ brother and sister-in-law has followed by van, with food and supplies, no one can spare them canoeing’s hardships: cracked hands, “butt raspberries” (similar to diaper rash), bleeding tailbones and back pain. “The start is always hardest,” says the rocklike Kruger. “Your body will protest and lie and tell you you’re tired when you’re not.” Adds Fons: “It’s mind over matter. Physical pain is something we’re ready to cope with.” By the second day, in fact, Valerie’s hands were so swollen she could hardly paddle, and by the 10th they had puffed to twice their normal size. “If I had acknowledged how bad I felt, I might have stopped,” she admitted later.

Near Dubuque the team, which had been averaging 100 miles per day, hit a spell of driving wind, and their speed and morale sank. But by Osceola, Ark., 18 days and 1,564 miles along, their health and spirits were better: the weather had warmed to 85 degrees, and they were four days ahead of schedule. Last week, near Greenville, Miss., the indomitable team was five days ahead of schedule and 541 miles from the zero mile mark. Yet to the two canoers, whose motto “With Equal Effort” is painted on their craft, that point marks merely a temporary finish. “I might just get the itch to keep going,” says Kruger with a wink. “We might just pass that zero mile mark—and wave as we pass by.”

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