In a kayak, athlete finds strength and solitude

After her fiance's death in 2002, she is taking this trip solo


Renata Chlumska has looked down on the world from its highest point. Now she's seeing the United States from sea level.

With a battered red kayak as her constant companion, the Swedish athlete is making her way around the perimeter of the country, an 11,000-mile journey just beyond its halfway point. When bad weather or terrain prevent her from paddling, she hitches her 240-pound load to a harness and pulls it behind her as she mountain-bikes or in-line skates.

Early yesterday morning, she paddled into Maryland with a full moon illuminating a sparkling welcome mat from southern Assateague Island to Ocean City.

"The sun was coming up and the bay was calm. I could hear the roar of the ocean on the other side of the barrier island. I saw wild horses and it was fantastic," said Chlumska, 32, recalling the scene as she sat at City Dock in Annapolis after receiving a ride from the beach resort.

This morning, she'll give a talk at the Helly Hansen store, 132 Main St., at 10:30. Then she'll walk back down to City Dock and lead the public in a free paddling session from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Although Chlumska has stood atop 29,035-foot Mount Everest, guided clients on Mount Kilimanjaro and ridden a motorcycle from India to Sweden, she still cherishes small treasures with every measured dip of her paddle.

"It's so hard to pick one thing," she said, when asked about her favorite memory so far. "It's a beautiful country. People here have been fantastic. They've invited me into their hearts and homes. It's like going for the summit of Everest every day."

She has faced hailstones and 40-mph gusts, huge supertankers and menacing men who threatened to take her boat. "Those days, you forget when you see the sunrises and the dolphins," she said.

Chlumska set out alone July 4, as fireworks filled the sky over Seattle. It was a journey she had planned more than four years ago with her fiance, Swedish mountaineer Goran Kroop.

The two had biked 4,000 miles from Sweden to Nepal in 1996 for his solo climb of Everest and then pedaled back home. Chlumska was at base camp when eight climbers died in the blizzard recounted in Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air. Three years later, she became the first Swedish woman to reach Everest's summit.

The 480-day "Around America Adventure" was something they could do together, from start to finish.

But Kroop died in September 2002 in a climbing accident in Washington state, shortly after the couple moved from Sweden to Seattle.

Their dream adventure sat on a shelf for eight months while Chlumska dealt with her grief. Finally, she threw herself back into the project only to meet a bureaucratic hurdle.

U.S. immigration officials refused to allow her in the country on a three-month tourist visa, saying she could not complete the journey in that amount of time.

It took two years of wrangling and intervention by Helly Hansen, an international outdoor clothing manufacturer, for her to gain entry as an "alien of extraordinary ability."

Chlumska quickly pulled together her itinerary. "I'm a curious person," she said. "It was too good of a project to leave undone. When I look at the map, it's unbelievable that I've come so far."

Her kayak is crammed with gear: a tent, a sleeping bag, food and water, a satellite phone and laptop, as well as a solar panel for power.

"And a microwave oven," she said, joking, her suntanned faced breaking into a smile. She navigates by compass, GPS unit and a simple mantra: "Keep the land on the left."

Each day she gets 25 miles closer to the finish, but runs a 5,000-calorie deficit, no matter how much she eats. Popular low-fat foods make her wince. "Give me fat," she said. "You can eat as many pancake breakfasts as you want if you do this."

Chlumska faces a more serious obstacle as she paddles north and then west: Her visa expires in September. Without official intervention, she'll probably have to return to Sweden before she can finish her adventure.

"I guess I'll have to start paddling faster," she said, clearly distressed at the idea of unfinished business.

But as long as she's here, Chlumska remains committed to sharing her philosophy that ordinary people should set for themselves extraordinary goals.

"There's so much more. Everything doesn't have to be higher or longer. Maybe it's learning something new," she said. "This is a land of dreams. You can do anything you want, if you try."

To follow her progress, go to

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