BEMIDJI, Minn.-- Stan Stark doesn’t plan to sit around wasting his golden years. As he puts it, "he aims to wring every bit of joy out of the rest of his life like a washcloth."

At nearly 81 years old, he’s doing something he's always wanted to do -- tackling the Mississippi River in a kayak from its headwaters at Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico -- and may just break a world record in the process.

Stark is vying to become the oldest person to complete this voyage.

“I thought I’d maybe give a little inspiration to those of us who are let’s say, a little older than most,” he said. “People who are my age, maybe 60 on up or 70 on up, you don’t have to roll over and play dead. A lot of folks you know, they grow old before they should grow old.”

The Vermont native is no stranger to the water. He’s a retired master chief petty officer with the Navy SeaBees, and has spent a fair amount of time in a kayak -- he’s been racing them for years and has completed numerous long trips. But none like this, the 2,400-mile trek down the full length of the Mississippi River, often called the journey “From Source to Sea.”

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The spirit of competition is fueling him to complete the task. Stark’s friend, Dale Sanders, is the current record holder at 80 years old, and if successful, Stark will beat him when he turns 81, along the river.

It’s all good-natured though, Sanders will be waiting at the gulf to “hand off the key,” so to speak, Stark said.

Kayaking companions

Stark took off from Itasca on July 15, and only five days into his 85-plus day journey, he’s already made some friends. He didn’t expect to be accompanied on his trip, but after a chance meeting and common ground at the Mississippi headwaters, he is now headed toward the gulf with three new companions, the Following the River group.

The team is composed of adventure enthusiasts: couple Jill and Clayton Corbin and their friend, Brian Hoover.

Clayton, like Stark, is also a retired Navy veteran.

The trio recently hiked the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. They joked about how their hiking journey worked their leg strength, and this one will work out their arms. They also acknowledged while the gear required for both adventures is similar, paddling is more solitary, and so far, they haven’t passed many other through-kayakers.

Pictured from left: Kevin Johnson of myBemidji and his dog Norway, Beltrami County Commissioner Reed Olson,  Stan Stark,  Janet RithNajarian of Mississippi River Paddlers.  (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Pictured from left: Kevin Johnson of myBemidji and his dog Norway, Beltrami County Commissioner Reed Olson, Stan Stark, Janet RithNajarian of Mississippi River Paddlers. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

The gang arrived in Bemidji on Monday after making their way from Itasca State Park, and Tuesday morning, took off once again.

The group estimates they will likely reach the Gulf of Mexico in 85-90 days.

Neither party has any plans to slow down after this -- Stark hopes to perhaps paddle the whole Missouri River, the Corbins want to use their sailboat to explore the world, and Hoover plans to take on an extended bicycle trek.

A good cause

Stark isn’t just doing this for the adventure, he’s also supporting a cause close to his heart -- Sarge's Place, a homeless veterans’ outreach program, shelter, and support services center located in Forks, Wash.

“For those that can afford it, it would be nice to contribute,” Stark said. “It’s a real cool place.”

The Corbins and Hoover decided to direct any interest in supporting them toward Sarge’s Place as well.

Those interested in donating can do so via a link on Stark’s website at stanthekayakingman.com. Anyone interested in following along on the group’s journey can also track them there.