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
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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.