On his 80th birthday Sunday, Dale Sanders of Memphis, Tenn., marked his first month kayaking the mighty Mississippi River. His source-to-sea journey started at the headwaters in Itasca State Park, Minn., and is expected to end in August when he reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

Sanders will average 28 miles a day with two goals in mind: to be the oldest man to solo paddle the entire length of the river – about 2,230 miles – and to raise $20,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Sanders’ great-niece, Anna Silvey, 11, of Olmstead, suffers from Type I diabetes. Her family, with the help of others, started Cruisin’ for a Cure in 2009 in Bowling Green to raise money for diabetes research. They donated $150,000 to JDRF their first year, according to Angie Silvey, Anna’s mom. 

She was surprised and excited that Sanders wanted to dedicate his kayaking adventure to the cause.

Sanders named his boat AnnA and has information on his website about making a donation. Anyone interested can visit greybeardadventurer.com/blog.

He started at the Mississippi River source May 15 and was greeted by temperatures cold enough to freeze the ropes.

Sanders’ sister and Anna’s grandmother, Judi Silvey, delivered Sanders to the headwaters in May. It snowed one of the days she was there.  

“Lake Itasca just melted a couple weeks before we got there,” Sanders said.

Judi Silvey said Sanders’ goal is paddle the entire river in 80 days. 

So far, his trip is on schedule. On Tuesday, Sanders and his team, which includes Richard Sojourner and Tom Graves, both of Memphis, and a film crew called Adventureitus, reached Minneapolis in time to pass through the Upper St. Anthony Lock – a series of three locks that lower paddlers about 75 feet over 2 miles, Sanders said.

The lock closed for good Tuesday to help stop the spread of the invasive Asian carp.

Traditionally, paddlers sign the wall of the lock when they pass through. Sanders wrote, “Rest in Peace,” and included the date. He believes they were the last source-to-sea paddlers to make it through the lock before it closed. Any others who follow will have to find a way to carry their boats and their gear 2 miles downriver without a portage route.

Born in Logan County, Judi Silvey said Sanders was always adventurous. Growing up, they entertained themselves by learning to swim in a nearby creek. Sanders broke a world record for holding his breath underwater for 6 minutes, 4 seconds. He also won a national spearfishing competition.

“He’s always challenged himself,” Silvey said.

Along the Mississippi, Sanders will speak to groups about his great-niece and her need for a cure.

Anna Silvey’s teacher at Olmstead Elementary School introduced Sanders’ adventure to the class before the end of the school year.

“We got to look on the website,” Anna said. The class was able to track Sanders’ progress through a link on his blog. “We made a card for him to tell him happy birthday ... (and) good luck.”

Her classmates were impressed by Sanders’ age and thought it was cool that he dedicated the voyage to Anna.

Anna is an active kid. She plays softball and likes to canoe. She hopes she gets to see Sanders when he reaches Memphis in July. She may get the chance to paddle with him.

“I think it’s really cool he’s doing that just to help us find a cure for diabetes,” Anna said.

On June 8, Anna’s birthday, an unnamed donor offered to match any money raised over 48 hours. The campaign helped Sanders reach 60 percent of his goal. As of today, donors have contributed $12,463.88.

Angie Silvey said research into an artificial pancreas is promising and could help those suffering with diabetes. JDRF does a lot of work on breakthrough technology, she said, and 80 percent of donations made to the organization goes toward research.

“It’s a difficult chronic disease,” Angie Silvey said. “It’s life-threatening in ways we don’t see with kids, but later on when they become adults ... they lose limbs, (develop) kidney disease. We need to find a way to improve their life.” 

— Follow Taryn Phaneuf on Twitter at twitter.com/tarynphaneuf or visit bgdailynews.com.