Image
Image
(Illustration: Alina Drufovka)

The Epic Battle to Break the Mississippi River Canoe Record


How two rival teams fought storms and sleep deprivation to claim an 18-year-old paddling FKT


For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.

Around 4 A.M. on the Mississippi River north of Memphis, Tennessee, last spring, Bobby Johnson was sitting in the bow of a four-person canoe, peering into the night. In front of him, through the dark, he could make out a wing dam, one of the underwater structures used by the Army Corps of Engineers to push water into the main channel. Most boats can’t pass over wing dams without losing a propeller or a motor, but a canoe can usually glide by without a scrape. As the boat crossed it, though, Johnson noticed a pull to the right. For a second, he wondered why Casey Millhone, a 20-year-old in the stern who was taking a semester off from Colorado College, had ruddered that way. He quickly realized she hadn’t: a massive whirlpool was drawing them in.

Johnson, a lanky 43-year-old car dealer from Florida, was one of four people in the canoe trying to break the 2003 record for paddling the Mississippi River from end to end. That year, canoeing icon Bob Bradford and his partner, Clark Eid, raced down all 2,350 miles in just over 18 days.

Johnson’s team was helmed by 62-year-old K.J. Millhone—Casey’s father, who in 1980 set the Mississippi paddling record at 35 days. The elder Millhone called the new crew Mile Marker Zero, after the channel marker south of New Orleans that demarcates the official end of the river. The group was rounded out by a barrel-chested 61-year-old named Rod Price, also from Florida. Both older men were asleep when their craft approached the swirling hole in the river.

The canoe went straight in, riding down it like a hill. The front plunged through the far side of the whirlpool, and Johnson was submerged up to his neck. Fortunately, the spray skirt across his lap kept enough water out that he popped up on the other side.

The stern naturally followed Johnson down into the vortex, then up the other side. When the canoe exited, it spun. Casey screamed as it tipped, then she stood up and—mimicking a sailing move called hiking—leaned out over the water to keep the boat afloat. It worked. The two sleeping team members woke up in half a foot of freezing water, shivering and disoriented. But the vessel righted itself.

The team fractured, turning their joint attempt into a bitter race.

Meanwhile, a thousand river miles to the north, a pursuit was underway. The day before, when the sun rose, another team of four paddlers walked their canoe down to the Mississippi River’s headwaters in northern Minnesota’s Lake Itasca. Team Mississippi Speed Record was helmed by Scott Miller, a bearded, 45-year-old nurse and former Eagle Scout from Minneapolis.

The year before, Miller and the Millhones had been teammates, working together to break the record. Then, just as they were about to set off, the team fractured, turning their joint attempt into a bitter race.

By the time Miller and his team launched, K.J. Millhone and his crew were almost halfway down the Mississippi. This could have been a disadvantage—at the headwaters, the river levels were lower and the water was slow. But there was an upside: by watching their progress, which was publicly tracked on Garmin and the real-time boat-racing site Race Owl, they could see Mile Marker Zero’s times at each checkpoint, so they knew exactly how fast they needed to go to win.

In the 1970s, a young boy in Minnesota was leafing through the Guinness Book of World Records, dreaming about which ones might be broken. K.J. Millhone considered the number of grapes eaten in a minute, which seemed impossible when he put them on a scale. He started training for the rope-jumping record, but gave up after losing several toenails. The Mississippi River, on the other hand, was like a math problem: Millhone figured he could paddle at least 50 miles a day, getting him within range of the 1937 record of 49 days.

In 1978, a British Royal Air Force team of six, paddling tandem kayaks, trimmed that record to 42 days, but Millhone was undeterred. The next year, he started planning an attempt with a friend named Steve Eckelkamp, and in August of 1980, the two put in at Lake Itasca. They paddled for 35 days, 11 hours, and 27 minutes before reaching the end and beating the RAF team by seven days.

The record dropped a little here and there over the ensuing decades, until 2003, when Bradford and Eid, canoeing through lightning storms and high winds that sent trees flying across the river and sleeping just four hours a day, made it in an astounding 18 days, 4 hours, and 51 minutes, setting a nearly impossible standard.

Steve Eckelkamp (left) and K.J. Millhone on their 1980 record trip
Steve Eckelkamp (left) and K.J. Millhone on their 1980 record trip (Photo: K.J. Millhone)

Eckelkamp was mowing his lawn in 2017 when he had a massive heart attack and died at age 60. Millhone flew to Nashville, Tennessee, to speak at his funeral, where he shared stories about their Mississippi record, an aborted trip down the Amazon, and a paddle up Canada’s Pacific coast.

Hearing the wild tales, Eckelkamp’s nephew, Kevin, decided he wanted to take on the Mississippi record himself. So he and a friend, Nate Lastinger, bought a canoe and started training. They called Millhone to ask for advice. The older man dug out his boxes of photos and papers from the trip. He also found a note that he and Eckelkamp had jotted down on the ride back from mile marker zero: it was a plan for how the river could be run in as few as 15 days, using on-the-water support, which no one had yet tried. As Millhone began looking through the mementos, the juices started flowing, and he went to Florida to teach the youngsters how to paddle. He says they asked him to be on their team. Lastinger says it was the other way around. Either way, they launched an attempt together in May of 2018.

By the time they got to Iowa, however, they were down to two paddlers—Lastinger dropped out because his son needed surgery—and were 13.5 hours behind pace. That was when Millhone pulled the plug. “I didn’t want to stop,” he says, “but I also thought, I’m not in this for fun. I’m in this to get the record.”

Back home, near Lake Minnetonka, outside Minneapolis, Millhone considered making another attempt. Having lasted more than 700 miles, he realized he might just be able to paddle the whole river again. Then, one night at dinner, during a discussion about it, Casey turned to her father and said, “Dad, if you’re going to do this, I want to be part of it.”

For Millhone, that settled it. The race against the record was on. “How can a father turn down the opportunity to try this kind of thing with his only child?” said Millhone.

Soon after that, Scott Miller, who’d seen an article about the 2018 attempt, reached out to Millhone on Facebook. In 2005, Miller had paddled 1,854 miles from Minnesota to Hudson Bay. He wanted to know if Millhone was planning another Mississippi attempt.

The two met. They talked. They paddled. They bought a boat. They made a plan. They interviewed other paddlers and signed up a Wisconsin kayak guide named Oliver Simes.

The four trained throughout the summer of 2019. They installed a rudder in their 23-foot, four-person Kevlar canoe and built a modified sleeping compartment, so people could paddle in the bow and stern while two others kept dry and slept in the middle. They went on training trips, and each performed as good or better than the record pace.

He was livid and accused Miller of betrayal.

By early 2020, they were ready for an April launch, but in March, the pandemic hit. Minnesota’s governor put the state in lockdown and issued a stay-at-home order. The water was fast and high. The weather looked good. As their departure loomed, the team discussed what to do. Millhone wanted to go and thought it could be done safely. Miller wasn’t sure. Millhone gave him two weeks to decide.

“If you back out after you make this decision,” Millhone told him, “we’re over.”

Miller agreed to go. But as soon as he hung up the phone, regret rushed in. A few days later, he called to say he was out for 2020 but would go in 2021.

“I just had a stone in my gut,” says Miller. “I’m a nurse and a citizen of this country. We had this terrifying pandemic that no one knew anything about. I wasn’t going to break the stay-at-home orders. It seemed like an unpatriotic thing to do.”

Millhone was on his way back from Utah with a support boat he’d bought for the trip when he received the call. He was ready. He was 61 and didn’t have the rest of his life. He’d already endured one round of back surgery so he could do the trip, and he thought this might be his last shot. He was livid and accused Miller of betrayal. Miller said he wasn’t being a friend. Then Simes bowed out as well.

They divided up the team assets. Millhone wanted to keep the equipment, because he still hoped to find replacement paddlers for 2020. When none emerged, he resigned himself to a 2021 launch. After he’d cooled off, he called Miller to ask him back on the team.

Miller declined. The team was done.

Summer came. The two regrouped and tried to decide how to proceed. They each needed paddlers, so they began to search within the niche world of competitive canoeing. Millhone managed to sign up Price, a Florida canoeist who’d won more than 300 paddling races, including the Yukon 1000, and Johnson, also from Florida, who in a few years of racing had already become something of a legend. In the 2019 Alabama 650, with just 40 miles to go, Johnson came from 20 miles behind to win.

Meanwhile, Miller secured a 59-year-old kayaker from Saint Louis named Perry Whitaker, who had finished the Missouri 340 several times. He also signed up Joel Ford, 36, who was on the U.S. Adventure Racing Association’s 2018 national-championship team, and Adam Macht, 34, a tall, powerful paddler from northern Minnesota who regularly put in 50-plus-mile days through the Boundary Waters.

Both teams trained through the winter. By the spring of 2021, they felt confident and ready. Millhone had world-class paddlers, but weaker support on the water: an aging pontoon, modified for the attempt, with just four people to run it. Miller’s support included three boats and a large crew that had worked with the team on at least five practice trips. His group even had two portable toilets to make bathroom breaks as efficient as possible.

“I’d like to think my team can match them speed-wise, and hopefully even be faster,” said Miller. “But even if we can’t match them on speed, our organization, our teamwork, our planning, our support crew, and our quick transitions—that’s where I’m hoping to get the edge.”

Millhone was out for blood. “I don’t really care whether we start at the same time, we chase them down, or they’re behind us,” he said. “I just want to kick their asses.”

On April 22, 2021, Millhone and his team walked their boat down to the lake’s rocky spillway, where the Mississippi begins. The sun was bright. Lake Itasca looked like glass, and a river of possibilities stretched out in front of them. At 8 A.M., they set their boat in the frigid, clear water and were off.

The team moved slowly at first, behind Bradford and Eid’s 2003 record pace. Then Millhone came down with a flu-like illness. For the first 24 hours, he was unable to keep any food down and became badly dehydrated. At the edge of Lake Winnibigoshish, a 15-mile-wide body of water on the river’s northern stretch, the team’s doctor hooked him up to an IV, and he lay in the RV for two and a half hours recovering.

That night they paddled through a whiteout blizzard, thick snow blocking their view of the tree-lined banks. The next day the snow turned into a cold, endless rain. It was not the initial push they’d hoped for. But as the river widened and grew, they picked up speed. By the time they hit Minneapolis on day four, they were ten hours ahead of the 2003 record pace.

South of the city, the team met its support boat, an overengineered death trap with a heavy canoe cradle mounted on one side. In theory, the craft would anchor, and the canoe would slide into the cradle so the paddlers could be resupplied without having to go ashore; in practice, however, the thing could barely float, it was so heavily loaded with freezers, a microwave, a generator, and other gear. On the first night, it nearly sank in Lake Pepin while its crew tried to anchor. The next morning, the team discovered that two of the pontoons were full of water.

Leaving the support boat behind the morning of day five, the paddlers sped on through Minnesota and Wisconsin, while the support crew—complete with cooks, the doctor, and a social media coordinator, and led by K.J.’s wife, Lisa Millhone—scrambled to find landings to meet them. In the canoe, the team tried to adapt to the schedule: sleep for three hours, paddle for nine.

To pass the time, K.J. told stories about his trip down the river in 1980. Johnson joked, sang, and dispensed relationship advice. Price reminisced about growing up in Florida and kept tabs on their pace. Casey, using an iPad mounted on a thwart, navigated and tried to keep them in the main channel.

They gained time. Their lead grew. One night they were caught in a thunderstorm so violent that a lockmaster nearly didn’t let them pass, claiming it was too dangerous.

At night Casey tried to hold conversations with her hallucinating father.

By the time the pontoons were repaired and the support crew returned to the water, night was falling on day six, and the team was well into Iowa and 12 hours ahead of pace. The four members were a machine, racing around the clock.

Then, during its first night back on the water, the support crew crashed into a buoy, lost its depth finder, and nearly sank again while trying to anchor. The following morning, when the support boat limped into the small tourist town of Savanna, Illinois, it was listing badly, and the right pontoon was full of water again. The vessel was done.

Fortunately, the team was nearly 17 hours ahead of pace. As the canoe made its way south, Johnson carried on a debate about whether it would be better to drive a train or pilot a barge. At night Casey tried to hold conversations with her hallucinating father, who held imaginary dialogues with Richard Nixon and who jumped in his seat when he mistook a tree on the bank for Sasquatch.

With the loss of the support boat, the team’s lead started to slip: first to 15 hours, then 13, then 11. Johnson kept suggesting they switch to four paddlers to gain some time, instead of three people paddling with one sleeping. But when Price suggested they switch during Johnson’s sleep shift, Johnson dropped it. By the time they got to Saint Louis, with more than 1,100 miles to go, their lead was down to nine hours.

One problem was that when team Mile Marker Zero stopped, it stopped—sometimes for nearly an hour. The paddlers sat in chairs and got massages. They ate pizza and talked. K.J. looked exhausted and wandered around like a zombie. Johnson was usually pissed about not being able to find something he wanted. Price would complain about the lack of efficiency, then crawl into the RV and fall asleep. Casey spent a lot of time huddled in conversation with her mom. Whenever they pulled off the river, it felt more like an exhausted beach party than a Nascar pit stop.

South of Saint Louis, the support crew finally launched a new boat, which they had bought in Iowa. Late that night, the team reached Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River pours into the Mississippi. The area was industrial and thick with barge traffic. A storm rolled in, tearing trees into splinters up and down the river, and the National Weather Service advised everyone to take shelter on the first floor of their home. The canoe and the new support boat barely made it to an island, where they stayed pinned down until the tempest passed.

The next morning, their lead was down to seven hours.

Image
Team Mile Marker Zero stops for a shift change south of Vicksburg, Mississippi (Photo: Derek Chin)

On that same morning, Tuesday, May 4, Miller and his team launched a thousand miles upstream. Millhone was chasing history. Now Miller was chasing him.

But things didn’t start well for team Mississippi Speed Record, either. The later launch meant the water level was lower, and the paddlers’ pace was even slower through the shallows and swamps. When they reached Knutson Dam, in the dense pines of Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest, they were already two hours behind Mile Marker Zero’s pace and four hours behind the record. As the boat moved south, the gap widened.

As he predicted, Miller’s team wasn’t quite as fast on the water, but off it his teammates moved with military efficiency—their stops lasted around ten minutes, with only four or five stops each day.

And yet they were losing time and didn’t know why, until Ford, drawing on his adventure-racing experience, concluded that with two sleep shifts of three hours each, they weren’t getting enough rest. So they threw out the old schedule and made a new one.

Now instead of three people paddling at night, they would have two, while the others slept for four hours. At 2 A.M., they would switch. During the day, between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M, they kept three paddles in the water and they each got another four-hour sleep shift, for a total of eight hours.

With this new routine, everyone got more rest. They felt better. They pushed harder. At night they moved faster, energized by two fresh paddlers instead of three exhausted ones. The game had changed.

By day 14, Mile Marker Zero was nearing the end, but the river was taking its toll. With the new support boat on the water and a huge push from an Ohio River raging from the rain, it should have been racking up time. But it wasn’t. The record was slipping away. Two days after the big storm south of Cairo, and one day after the giant whirlpool, the team’s lead was less than four and a half hours.

Speed was not a problem. The paddlers were hitting 10 and 11 miles per hour at times. But they were still stopping every three hours to change positions, which meant eight breaks a day.

Price told Johnson they needed to stop the bleeding, so they started policing their changes more aggressively. They paddled harder.

And then they got a break: Near Greenville, Mississippi, just north of the Louisiana border, the harsh spring weather changed. It stopped raining. The wind calmed. The support boat started to find its rhythm. Their transitions quickened. They moved faster, hitting average speeds of seven and eight miles per hour, covering as much as 180 miles a day.

When they reached Baton Rouge, Louisiana, two days later—weaving between barges and ocean-going ships—their lead over the record was back up to nine hours.

Team Mississippi Speed Record
Team Mississippi Speed Record (Photo: Scott Miller)

Mississippi Speed Record, however, was clawing back time with its strategy. When its boat hit Alton, Illinois, flying past the limestone cliffs north of town, it was only ten minutes behind the pace of Mile Marker Zero. By the time the boat went around the next bend, at the mouth of the Missouri River, the team was 30 minutes ahead.

Things were looking up for Miller, and he and his paddlers were having great time. Multiple times a day Adam Macht would burst into refrains from Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream.” Once a barge captain called over the radio, saying, “Y’all better get to a side, because I’ve got you lined up in my jack staff,” meaning the flagpole on the front of the boat. Over the noise of the river, however, they heard it as “jackstache,” and soon this new term for whatever lay in front of them peppered their conversations.

Currently in their jackstache was one of the most dangerous parts of the Mississippi: a jagged row of boulders, where the river drops roughly ten feet, called the Chain of Rocks. The only way to get past the section is to shoot through a small slot in the middle. The only way around it is a diversion channel, a narrow stretch of water that runs parallel to the main river. Millhone and his team had taken the channel, which cost them several hours.

Miller’s team spent a tense hour debating whether to risk the faster route. In the end they decided to go for it, figuring they had about a 70 percent chance of making it. They had three support boats on the water, so they were able to unload all their gear upstream and have another boat waiting below in case they dumped.

As they approached the chain, fans stood on the bridge overhead, cheering and ringing bells, while some 700 people watched on Facebook Live. The rocks loomed just below the surface. Over the din, Joel Whitaker shouted, “It’s too late to turn back now, motherfuckers!”

They paddled hard toward a narrow V; water sprayed up as they shot through. The bow careered over the drop, tipping forward and down, before leveling out on the water below. They were on the other side, and their lead over Millhone had jumped to two hours.

For Mile Marker Zero, the end was in sight. In New Orleans they cruised past the French Quarter, where the previous night’s vomit was still being sprayed off Bourbon Street.

The river was packed with traffic: cargo ships, Navy vessels, heavy barges, and the tugs that pushed them. The team maneuvered around these obstacles as best it could, while the support crew talked to ship captains on the marine radio. With less than 100 miles to go, the record seemed to be in the bag.

This was an extremely dangerous spot: almost every year, a duck hunter got sucked over the spillway and drowned.

Just south of the city, the new support boat was approaching shore to anchor for a shift change, when the crew heard a loud scraping. The vessel stopped moving; it was hung up on a rock. The pilot gunned the motor, and there was another loud sound as the propeller sheared off.

For the third time, the support boat was down, so the paddlers took whatever supplies they could gather and set off down the last stretch of river. Millhone recognized the danger: night was falling; weather forecasters said a huge thunderstorm was coming, and there were ships everywhere.

Fortunately, the team had been in touch with a river pilot named Joey Cargol, who had canoed the entire Mississippi himself in 2020. He offered to use his boat to help guide them through the treacherous waters at the river’s end.

Cargol took aboard a few support-crew members, and they found a boat landing around mile marker 30 where they could launch. They sped upstream to meet the canoe, to the paddlers’ great relief. When the team arrived at mile marker 25, they unloaded everything they could onto Cargol’s boat. They also installed a fourth seat in the canoe, so all four could paddle to the end.

This move likely saved their lives. The area where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico is full of so-called passes, channels that run sideways from the main river, through bayous, and out to the Gulf. Around the next bend, they came to a series of such channels known as Mardi Gras Pass, where the water spills over a one-foot drop. Cargol knew this was an extremely dangerous spot: almost every year, a duck hunter got sucked over the spillway and drowned.

The drop-off was hard to see in the dark, but as they rounded the corner, Cargol sensed they were too close. He watched as they slipped down through the whitewater and into the pass. His heart sank. There is no way they’re getting out of there, he thought.

But the paddlers knew what to do. They were in sync, and after nearly tipping, they turned the canoe around and started pushing back toward the river with everything they had. Slowly, they climbed back up the falls. Cargol says they found a gear he’d never seen anyone find.

Just before 4 A.M., the team came into an area known as the Head of Passes, where the river splits into three channels. The place was filled with brightly lit ships, dredges, and channel markers. Casey pointed them toward mile marker zero, and they went for it. Cargol radioed a ship captain to shine his spotlight on the small wood and metal tower that is the marker.

At 3:52 A.M., they arrived. The current was so strong that it was hard to keep their position, but Casey and Johnson climbed up the tower and cheered while Price and K.J. stayed in the canoe and held onto the structure.

Forty years earlier, when Millhone reached mile marker zero, he threw his paddle up, embraced his friend, and they tipped the canoe over in their celebration. This time he was content to sit in the boat, exhausted and relieved. They’d done it: Millhone and his daughter reclaimed the record he’d lost. It took them 17 days, 19 hours, 46 minutes, and 49 seconds, beating the 2003 record by more than nine hours.

The only question was how long it would stand.

Team Mile Marker Zero at mile marker zero
Team Mile Marker Zero at mile marker zero (Photo: Lisa Millhone)

Things looked good for Miller and his team. As they passed through towns, hundreds of people who’d been following their progress online gathered along the banks to cheer them on. They were exhausted but determined. Now that Millhone was finished, they knew exactly what marks they had to hit.

And they were hitting them. By the time they got to Memphis, their lead over team Mile Marker Zero’s time had grown to more than seven hours, with just a few days to go.

But over the next few days, weather started churning in the Gulf. North of the historic river town of Natchez, Mississippi, they battled 30-mile-per-hour headwinds. One morning, in a sustained wind of 23 miles per hour, waves crested over the canoe, filling it faster than they could bail. Whitaker, who was sleeping under the spray skirt, woke up and announced that he was going to need a snorkel. They swerved in front of a barge to reach shore. Fifty feet from the bank, they’d taken on so much water that they couldn’t steer. If they’d been another 100 feet from shore, Miller said, they wouldn’t have made it.

The river wound back and forth. When the canoe turned out of the wind, they made up time. When it turned into it, they lost it. Their lead was slipping from four hours to three, two, and then just 30 minutes.

With every wave, the boat was filling, little by little.

When they fell 15 minutes behind, they knew they had to do something drastic. Team Mississippi Speed Record was still 48 hours from the end, but the men decided to put all their paddles into the water. Once they did, none of them would sleep until they reached mile marker zero.

The wind never stopped. Coming into New Orleans just after midnight, they knew they were in trouble: They were riding waves at least four feet high. The authorities had issued a warning for small craft to get off the river.

Again waves crashed over the gunnels. The team was stuck in the middle of the channel. They needed to get to either bank but couldn’t, because there were ocean liners to one side and barges on the other. With every wave, the boat was filling, little by little. They were barely holding on, basically just floundering in the waterway.

Finally, they called the support boat over. They managed to pull up beside it without getting smashed. The paddlers held on to the side while trying to bail. Their arms were wrenched in the waves, and still they couldn’t get the water out fast enough. There was nothing left to do. The cause was lost; the river had won. Throwing what little they could onto the support boat, all four jumped on.

Miller watched as his canoe sank under the waves, curled around the back of the boat, and disappeared into the night.

By that time, Millhone had already been back in Minnesota for a few days. Sitting at home, he’d been thinking about his team’s new world record and trying to figure out what it meant to him. When he got word of Miller’s sinking, his mind immediately went to all the things that can go wrong on the river and to all the close calls his team experienced.

He sent Miller a text. It was the first time the two had been in touch in a long time. Millhone wrote that he was glad they were safe and sorry their attempt had ended that way. He said it made their disagreement seem petty.

Miller wrote back. He agreed that coming so close to dying put their dispute in perspective. He thanked Millhone for setting the bar so high and for helming a team of such worthy competitors.

Millhone replied, saying lunch was on him. He thanked Miller for sending him that first Facebook note years earlier, and for helping to get the whole adventure started.

“Never would have happened without you,” Miller wrote. “Look forward to sharing stories some time.”

“You guys had it,” Millhone responded. “You deserve the record, but no one can take away the memories.”

For Millhone, who has built a life on memories like those, the exchange was a gracious end to a long story. But for Miller, it was bittersweet. He’d come so close. He’d spent years getting to this point. And now he knew the river could be run faster—and that he could do it. So even as he began to pick up the pieces from this attempt, his mind turned, as inexorably as the river, to the next one.