87-year-old nears end of record-breaking journey down Mississippi River

Published 1:33 am Sunday, September 4, 2022


HAHNVILLE — At 87 years old, Dale “Grey Beard” Sanders is just days away from reclaiming the Guinness World Record for being the oldest person to ever paddle the entire length of the Mississippi River.

Sanders passed through the River Parishes Wednesday on day 79 of his 2,350-mile journey down the river. Pulling up to the shore in St. Charles Parish, he was greeted by students from the Satellite Center’s Hotel, Restaurant & Tourism program before being treated to a hot lunch courtesy of Birdies Food & Fuel. Chef Pat Phelan and the culinary arts students prepared a delicious pineapple upside down cake for dessert.

Craig Howat, HRT instructor at the Satellite Center, said Sanders’ journey can teach students a lot about how to set goals to achieve their dreams. The meeting was a chance not only for the students to hear his story, but also to apply what they have learned about hospitality and tourism.

The HRT class worked with Kiki Mannear of Louisiana’s River Parishes Tourist Commission to meet Sanders during his “source to sea” paddle.

“He’s basically a tourist coming to St. Charles Parish, just by boat,” Howat said as the class waited by the shoreline for Sanders to arrive. “He can share some stories about his trials and tribulations, and we can welcome him to the parish.”

Sanders’ adventures over the past five years have included traversing the Grand Canyon from rim-to-rim and completing a 10-month hike through 14 states along the Appalachian Trial.

Sanders began his journey on at Lake Itasca in Minnesota on June 14, the day of his 87th birthday. He hopes to complete the record-setting journey in 87 days.

This trip down the Mississippi River has included some of the harshest conditions Sanders has ever encountered. This past week in particular has brought overbearing winds and torrential downpours over the river, and Sanders has at times asked himself, “Why am I doing this?”

The answer to that question goes deeper than setting a Guinness World Record or having film crews follow him to create the Grey Beard documentary.

The last time he paddled the Mississippi River in 2015, he inspired a woman who was told she would never walk again not to give up on herself. He wants to provide that same inspiration to others.

“My main reason is that so many times, I’ve been told by people, ‘I want to be just like you. How can I stay healthy just like you?’” Sanders said. “I like the fanfare that comes with it. I like being a role model.”

Sanders said it was wonderful seeing the students and having a chance to share his story. While so many try to find the formula to be happy, he’s realized that his own personal happiness involves staying active, being outside, and having a good spiritual life.

This trip has allowed him to experience the big hills and quaint cities of the Iowa and Wisconsin coastline. Even the South Louisiana thunderstorms have provided a silver lining when he finds safe havens of shelter along the way.

On Wednesday, Sanders started the day at river mile 149 and traveled 26 miles to reach Hahnville around lunchtime. He ended the day in Kenner. As of this weekend, Sanders is in the final stretch of reaching the mouth of the Mississippi and tasting the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico.

Sanders became the oldest person to travel the Mississippi River at age 80 in 2015 and held the title for five years. His record was broken in 2020 by 81-year-old Stan Stark, a personal friend who Sanders refers to as a “youngster.”

While Sanders believes Stark will fight to reclaim the record when he turns 87, he’s adamant that this is his final time traveling down the Mighty Mississippi. Even his T-shirt bears the words, “The Last Great River Paddle.”

“There are too many other rivers to paddle and too many trails to hike to repeat something at this stage in my life,” Sanders said.

Sanders can be followed with the spot tracker at https://maps.findmespot.com/s/T5G5/TS#history/assets, and more information about his travels is available at www.greybeardadventurer.com.