The Mississippi River. The Father of Waters. Old Man River. Whatever name it goes by, the mighty river holds a unique place in this nation’s history. Today, by some, it’s seen as a pathway for cargo ships and commercial fishing vessels. While others view it as a playground for boaters and sportsmen. For KJ Millhone of Wayzata and his daughter Casey Millhone, who attends school in Colorado, it’s seen as a record waiting to be broken.
In 1980, KJ and his friend Steve Eckelkamp set the Guinness World Record for fastest time canoeing the entire length of the Mississippi River, completing the run in 35 days and 11.5 hours. Eckelkamp passed away in 2017, and his nephew decided he wanted to try to break the record and asked KJ to be a part of the team. While they didn’t break it at that time, KJ realized his body was still in good enough shape to make the trek down the river again. It also intrigued Casey. “When they got back, I told him, ‘If you ever decide to do this again, I want to be on the team,'” she says.
The next few years were spent preparing Casey for the trip. On April 22, 2021, KJ and Casey, along with fellow team members Rod Price and Bobby Johnson, set off from the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca in an attempt to break the then-current record, and 17 days, 19 hours and 46 minutes later, the team reached the end of the river, breaking that record by nearly nine hours.
A trip like this doesn’t happen without complications. Tornadoes, blizzards and sleet squalls are just a few of the weather-related challenges the team faced on its journey. At one lock and dam, the team members had to persuade the lockmaster to let them through despite the 40 mile-per-hour winds during a thunderstorm on the other side. “I told him I’d write him an email releasing him of any liability if anything happened to us,” KJ says. “If he didn’t let us through, we were done.”
The team had to paddle nonstop in order to break the record. Three members paddled at a time while the other rested. This strenuously pushes a body to the limit, making it unable to replenish all of the calories it burned. “Your body literally starts eating your muscles, and hallucinations set in,” KJ says. “We found out when I hallucinate, I see small animals and talk to dead presidents.”
Despite the challenges, the team beat the record, and it was verified by Guinness through GPS tracking and a 470-page application. Along with the record, KJ and Casey have a lifetime of memories from completing the journey together. “It was a relief and a little anticlimactic when we finished,” Casey says. “Maybe I’m still waiting for it to set in that we beat the record.”