September 3, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Claire Barber | Photo by Isabel Hicks
From Minnesota to the Gulf the mighty river is no place for a four-person canoe… or maybe it’s just the right place for one?
On the Mississippi River, Jolly Ranchers are currency. Your father yells: “Huh! Oh, I thought that tree was Sasquatch,” because, you see, hallucinations are par for the course. Nothing is normal. You sleep for three hours while the rest paddle for nine. You wake up, you paddle more.
Well, at the very least, that’s Casey Millhone’s Mississippi.
Millhone ’22, along with a team of three other paddlers: Bobby Johnson, Rod Price, KJ Millhone, and a support boat – Team MMZero – set the all-time speed record on the Mississippi this past spring with a time of 17 days, 19 hours, and 46 minutes. The crew broke a previous time set in 2003, paddling around 2,300 miles.
Casey Millhone’s father, KJ Millhone, set the speed record back in 1980 with his friend Steve Eckelkamp. In 2017, Eckelkamp died tragically of a heart attack. This paddle, along with a separate attempt made in 2018, were both dedicated to the legacy of Eckelkamp.
But paddling the Mississippi is anything but an easy way to honor someone’s legacy. At the very least, the feat requires a massive amount of mental and athletic fortitude.
“You can’t train enough for this to know that your body can do it,” said Millhone, “You’re training yourself so that when you do this event your body will withstand the deterioration.”
This was Millhone’s first marathon canoe attempt. She grew up paddling the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, sailing competitively in high school, and completed the Everglades Challenge, a 24-hour canoe race, in early March of 2021 – but nothing like this.
On the second day of their paddle, MMZero hit a white-out blizzard. Other days, the team hit sleet, hail, rain, or mind-boggling heat. “I either woke up shivering or sweating. I don’t think I ever once woke up and I was comfortable,” said Millhone.
The record requires near constant motion. The team paddled continuously for the first 24 hours and then transitioned to a shift system where one team-mate at a time would sleep for three hours. For context, that’s paddling a boat for 18 hours per every 24-hour period for just under 18 days.
Millhone served as the “command center” for the trip. That meant she was responsible for navigating and finding the fastest water and would help keep an eye out for barges, especially at night. This also meant she was responsible for making sure everyone in the boat was safe: aka not falling asleep and falling in the water.
At one point, the team had to pull over for a massive tornado. Despite their danger, Team MMZero drifted off to sleep while they leaned on their paddles until the all clear. On a separate occasion, Millhone recounts nearly spilling over a dam. On another, their boat was pulled into a whirlpool at the end of a wing dam:
“My dad was hallucinating, so he sat down for a nap and I was paddling in the back… we get pulled left immediately and then Bobby’s just gone. Bobby was in front of me and now there’s no Bobby and I’m three feet higher than I used to be.”
Johnson was pulled underwater by a whirlpool, but luckily the team made it out safely and without a capsize. Just several inches of ice-cold water in the boat.
Even more impressive is that this boat was a mere 23 feet. That’s a big canoe, but a small vessel for the Mississippi. As the team neared their final miles, large ocean-going vessels would honk in support as the boat raced toward mile marker zero at the Head of Passes: their end point, an anticlimactic finish miles from the nearest city. Arriving at 4 a.m., “you don’t feel like you’re doing something big,” said Millhone.
But their success story was big and dangerous. Another team attempting to break the record raced about a week behind Millhone. The rival team was on pace with MMZero until they lost their boat to bad weather near New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
In recollection of her memories, Millhone exclaimed, “This is wildly dangerous. You probably shouldn’t do this.”