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A new start after 60: I wanted to find myself – so I kayaked 6,800 miles alone

Shortly before he turned 60, Mark Fuhrmann realised what he wanted. “I thought: ‘I’d like to see things I’ve never seen before, I’d like to experience things I’ve never experienced before – and I’d like to be alone.’” Fuhrmann (who blogs under the name Mark Ervin) set off on a 3,700-mile kayaking tour, and now, at 65, has just returned from a second voyage, paddling the “Greater Loop” solo. His 6,835 mile-round trip from Nova Scotia took in the great lakes of the US, inland rivers, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.

Fuhrmann, who is Canadian but lives in Norway, embarked on these journeys “to kickstart retirement” from the maritime PR business he ran in Oslo for the past 30 years. Before he set off, in June last year, he swapped his house for a flat, and culled his possessions. “It was good to get rid of all of those things and say: ‘This isn’t a phase; this is a new season,’” he says.

Amazingly, he didn’t plan his trip, beyond committing to fundraise for Médecins Sans Frontières and Captains Without Borders. “I thought: ‘I’ll try to do 40km each day.’ But I never knew where I was going to lay down my head.”

The challenges were psychological, physical, and sometimes life-threatening. In Florida, he was chased by an alligator, but outpaced it. At Lake Huron, he awoke from a nap on the shore to see a brown bear swimming a few feet away; he clapped his hands and the bear left.

In Maine, the fog rolled in, and Fuhrmann paddled the entire state unable to see the coastline, vessels or rocks. “It was the worst mental anxiety I’ve had in my life,” he says. In the Boston area, during his 14th and final month, he saw “a black fin moving towards me like a snake”. He lay his oar across his lap and waited.

“If a great white shark can saunter, that’s exactly what it did. It sauntered past me,” he says. Ten minutes later, Furhmann pulled his kayak into a cove, where he ran into a man who invited him into his home for coffee and apple pie. His whole trip was gilded with these switchbacks and moments of connection with strangers, which Fuhrmann experienced as “a call to authenticity”.

How does he mean? “Nature is innate within us. If you avoid that, you avoid experiencing something that is vital to who you are as a person. I want real things – life isn’t about having more. I think we need to accept where we are at this stage of life, at 60, 65.”

Still, a 14-month solo kayaking expedition goes beyond an act of acceptance – it feels more like a consciously ambitious decision to reach for something more.

“I lived in angst the whole time,” he concedes, mostly due to the lack of planning which left him Googling “harbour” each day and hoping for the best. Often, he let himself into empty lobster boats or cabins, just to sleep. “Every day I thought: ‘What am I doing?’”

Was the lack of planning unusual for him? “No. I always do things more spontaneously,” he says. “I was married to a planner. She died of cancer at 45.”

They had met in Los Angeles, where Fuhrmann moved when he was 26, then relocated together to his wife’s home country of Norway. She was a doctor, and it was after she died that Fuhrmann bought a tandem kayak to spend time with his son, then aged 10.

Now his three children – he also has two daughters – are all grownup, and Fuhrmann, 65, is a grandfather. So what comes next for him?

“I look at retirement as a season,” he says. He embarked on his latest voyage because “I wanted to have a better understanding of who I was. Everyone has an attitude about how you should live your life in retirement. I thought, ‘forget that’. I wanted to have time for my thoughts to wander, to reboot, to discover the value and power of just being silent.”

Above all, kayaking slowed him down. When power boats sped past, he told himself, “There are other things that count – the things that give you value in life. I thought: ‘You might be going the fastest, but I’m going the farthest.’”