Except for his rescue by helicopter from the Pacific Ocean, the high-speed car chase across Wyoming to recover his stolen canoe, and the midnight visit by a grizzly bear to his campsite in Canada, the biggest surprise Verlen Kruger had on his 28,000-mile canoe trip came the day it ended.

Kruger, a 61-year-old plumber, and Steven Landick, his 31-year-old former son-in-law, were met by a Dixieland band and what seemed to be half the people in Michigan when they paddled into Lansing last week after a canoe trip around and across the continent of North America that lasted 3 1/2 years. "I wasn't quite prepared to see the hundreds of people," Kruger said. "Apparently, there's a dream in a lot of people."

Do not adjust your newspaper. Those numbers are real. Three and a half years. 28,000 miles. And the Ultimate Canoe Challenge, as Kruger and Landick dubbed the trip, was harder than it sounds.

More than 6,500 miles of the trip, which began in Montana and touched the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans as well as the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes and dozens of American and Canadian rivers, was paddled upstream. Another 523 miles was traveled on foot. At one point, to traverse the Continental Divide in Wyoming, Kruger and Landick had to carry their canoes and equipment 66 miles.

So last week, you might have assumed that nobody in Lansing would be more relieved than Kruger and Landick to see this trip finally end. Not a chance.

"I'm very happy now that he'll be home," said Jenny Kruger, Verlen's wife of 38 years and mother of his nine children. "I have a large phone bill."

The phrase "iron man" has become rather common in this era of ultramarathons, mountain assualts and solo sailing races around the world. But these guys are the real thing. Before they began the trek April 29, 1980, the world record for continuous travel by paddle was 8,331 miles. Kruger and Landick broke that mark before they had worked up a good sweat.

Kruger planned this trip for five years and designed the 17-foot decked canoes that each man used. But he insists his motivation for the trip had nothing to do with setting records.

"The dream I had was to identify with this country's early pioneers and explorers, the mountain men and fur traders. I just wanted to realize that dream," said Kruger.

Kruger was 41, comfortably overweight and underathletic when he paddled a canoe for the first time. Imagine how Clark Kent felt the first time he ducked into a phone booth, and you've got an idea of what happened to Kruger in that canoe.

"There was a spark in me that needed to be brought alive," said Kruger, who last shaved the day before he began his trek and now sports a snow-white beard. "The canoe was the catalyst that did it."

The trip began in Montana at the source of the Missouri River. They paddled east across four of the Great Lakes, through New York and Maine, into Canada's Bay of Fundy. Kruger and Landick turned south there and followed the Atlantic coast to Florida's tip then moved west, across the Gulf of Mexico to the point where the Mississippi flows into it.

They followed the Mississippi north to its origins, then paddled north some more, through Canada to the Arctic Ocean. After a brief detour through Alaska, the two found the Pacific Coast and followed it for more than 2,500 miles, around Mexico's Baja Peninsula. From there, it was just a matter of going up the torrential Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and into Lansing by way of eight Plains states.

You may pause here for a breath.

The trip was not all high times and panoramic views. Landick began the trip married to Kruger's daughter Sarah and finished it divorced. During a visit home, Landick's 3-month-old daughter died a crib death.

Kruger had his own misfortunes, including the loss of his canoe, twice. The first time was in the Pacific, off the coast of Oregon, and he nearly lost his life because of it.

"The wind was blowing the canoe away from me so fast, I couldn't reach it after I tipped over," said Kruger. For an hour and a half he held onto Landick's canoe. He was suffering from exposure when a Coast Guard helicopter rescued him.

The second loss was the result of a theft. Kruger left the canoe in what he thought was an isolated area while he took a short hike. When he returned, it was gone.

"It was a pretty empty feeling. Like I had lost my best friend," said Kruger. He alerted the police, then entered a nearby church to pray for the canoe's return. When he walked out of the church, the first thing he saw was his canoe, on top of a truck, moving down the highway. After a 90-mile, high-speed chase, police apprehended the runaway canoe.

Asked what impressed him most about his trip, Kruger does not talk about wildlife and postcard scenery. What really stirred him was the people he met.

"There seems to be an instinct in people, when they see someone cold and tired and hungry, far from home, it brings out something good. Whether we were in New England, Mexico, the West Coast or Canada, the response was universal," Kruger said.

"I was surprised to find how many people had dreams that even their own wives or husbands didn't know about. Secretly, they all have things they want to do."

And what advice did he give these dreamers?

"I think there should come a time in everyone's life when they should reach out and attempt something that's irrational."

Neither Landick nor Kruger intends to return to 9-to-5 jobs. They plan to collaborate on a book about their adventure. And Kruger is already thinking about his next journey.

He was asked what his wife would think about losing him again.

"She knew she had trouble on her hands from the start," Kruger said.