A team of four paddlers has unofficially set a new Guinness World Record for the fastest time to “row the length” of the Mississippi River, voyaging some 2,350 miles from source to sea in 16 days, 20 hours and 16 minutes.
Setting A New Mississippi Speed Record
Team Mississippi Speed Record (MSR) captain Scott Miller said the effort was dramatic to the end. Miller described coursing down the river in the pitch black toward the buoy that marks the finish, feeling a tunnel vision and a palpable roar of energy propelling them to the finish.
“We’re going down the river, and it was like some demonic influence took over, and my teammates were pumping so hard to get to the end,” Miller recounted on Saturday after a few hours sleep at a hotel in Louisiana. “Of course, I’m worried we’re going to slam into the mile marker zero buoy and ruin everything because they were going too fast.”
Sore, blistered, chafed and sleep-deprived at the finish, Miller and his teammates Paul Cox, Judson Steinback and Wally Werderich climbed the buoy at the Heads of Passes, pumping their fists, hugging and taking selfies while dozens of family, friends and support crew members cheered from nearby vessels.
“I had three incredible paddling teammates. They supported me. I learned a ton from them because they’re really the expert paddlers,” Miller said, referring to their resumes in endurance events like the Great Alabama 650 and Missouri River 340.
Willing A Record Run
The MSR team set off from the headwaters in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, on May 10, and arrived at the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana just after 2 a.m. on May 27.
“Such amazing things happened literally every day: the ice, the fog, the rain, the big, huge lakes, the rapids,” said Miller. “It takes my breath away to think of the epic quality.”
Mother Nature put on a show — and threw in a few favors. “To set this record, you’ve got to be really good and you’ve got to be really lucky,” said Miller, noting the good weather, low wind and short wait times at locks and dams.
Their first days in Minnesota were a good omen. Their May 7 launch was delayed to wait for ice-out on Lake Winnibigoshish, but after three days, they couldn’t wait any longer. Setting off from Lake Itasca, they hoped to paddle through or around the disintegrating ice by the time they got to Winnibigoshish some 33 hours later.
“It was a gamble. We were running out of time,” said Miller. “We think there’s a pretty good chance that we get through this… but we just have to go. And miracle of miracles, by the time we got there, the ice was entirely gone.”
Avoiding The Brink Of Disaster
The team built up a lead on the 2021 record-holder’s time splits early on, but they never allowed themselves to think they had it in the bag.
“We tried not to ever say it internally to ourselves, even in our own minds … If you had that mindset, you’re just asking for it. It’s dangerous until the last second,” said Miller, recounting how a boat wave bobbled their canoe in the final minutes near the finish. “Had that wave been a little bigger or we hadn’t been paying attention, we could have flipped the boat right there with 15 minutes to go.”
The team’s scariest moment came while waiting for a tugboat to pass at a lock and dam in Iowa. A strong current pulled them toward a dam downstream. The team called in support boat Falcon and grabbed on to be towed back upstream — the Guinness rules only forbid help with forward progress — before passing safely through the lock. Shaken up, they stopped ashore for several hours to recuperate.
The Village It Took
Such efforts from hundreds of people brought them to the finish, said Miller. Volunteers worked 12-hour shifts to set up roving base camps, refuel vehicles and support boats, cook food and shuttle to and from rendezvous points. Local pilots joined support boats on the crowded, expansive southern portion of the river to navigate and communicate with massive barges.
“It’s the kind of world record that depends on athletic ability, but that’s only one small piece of what you need to set this record,” said Miller. “It’s all these other places where you can make up the difference: teamwork, planning, organizing, getting help, organizing a crew.”
And then there’s the hundreds of supporters who drove out to bridges, locks and dams to cheer the passing canoe even in the middle of the night.
“You’d get on the shore and you could see somebody showed up just to see us, just to be a part of it,” remarked Werderich in a video posted to social media.
Steinback added: “I felt like we were hometown heroes. It was wild!”
“You just keep asking, and people want to be a part of the big adventure. This energy builds, and you’re able to do something you’d never, ever be able to do with a smaller group,” said Miller. “If it hadn’t happened organically, it would be totally overwhelming.”
Redemption For Miller And A Journey Reason Enough
The victory was satisfying for Miller, who also made an attempt in 2021 but capsized in bad weather in Louisiana. Even if they hadn’t succeeded on his second try, the journey was reason enough.
“I wouldn’t have done it again if I didn’t have fun last time,” he said. “Really, the record is the excuse to organize a big fun project to get out on the water.”
“If you take your boat out on a river, you’re guaranteed to have an adventure, even if it’s just for a couple of hours — or sixteen days.”