Mississippi River Guinness World Record attempt: Crew of four hopes to paddle the length of the Mighty Mississippi in fewer than 18 days

Record-seeking crew could pass through Lansing Sunday ... As of Tuesday, May 4, the four men pictured above have launched an effort to set a new Guinness Book of World Records standard for paddling a canoe the entire 2300-mile length of the Mississippi River. Picture above, left to right, are Joel Ford, Scott Miller, Adam Macht and Perry Whitaker. According to their itinerary, the group will be venturing past Lansing and Harpers Ferry sometime between May 9-10, if all goes as they initially have planned. Submitted photo.

by Julie Berg-Raymond

People who live near the Upper Mississippi River in northeast Iowa tend to know a lot about that river.

They know about its long (and, increasingly, long-ago) history of commercial fishing, and many of them have their own favorite fishing spots among the great river’s “lakes” and backwaters; their local media provides river levels throughout the season, alongside other news and informational reports. They think of the first barge the way other people think of the first robin - as a sure sign that spring has arrived.

But here’s a fact even many river town dwellers may not know: The Guinness World Record for paddling by canoe the 2,300-mile length of the Mississippi River is 18 days, four hours and 51 minutes - set in 2003, by Bob Bradford and Clark Eid.

What they also may not know is - as of Tuesday, May 4, a team of four canoeists has set out to break that record. The four-paddler Mississippi Speed Record team launched at Lake Itasca, MN Tuesday, May 4; and, according to its projected itinerary, the team hopes to complete the trip in 17 days. The four-man team is paddling a 23-foot Wenonah canoe, and sleeping under a custom-made cover located in the middle of the canoe. Safety support boats will escort the team from St. Paul, MN to the Gulf of Mexico and handle communications with barge traffic and commercial vessels, as well as with Lock and Dam operations.

The approximate schedule has the team paddling from Winona, MN to La Crosse, WI on Day 6 - this Sunday, May 9; and from Dubuque to Camanche in Iowa Day 7 - Monday, May 10. The plan is to paddle 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with team members taking turns sleeping under their canoe cover; so the crew should be paddling past Lansing sometime between May 9 and 10 (see itinerary on Page 2 of the May 5, 2021 print edition and e-edition of The Standard).

As any river town dweller knows, though, the river is the boss. With variables in play like weather conditions and water levels (along with the 29 locks and dams between St. Paul, MN and St. Louis, MO which can cause delays - up to many hours, at times), catching sight of the team as it passes under the Black Hawk Bridge is probably going to involve an educated guess, at best.

According to a press release issued last week by the Mississippi Speed Record team, part of its effort involves having partnered with the 1 Mississippi program - “implemented by the Mississippi River Network (MRN) to encourage River Citizens to take action through education, inspiration and opportunities to embrace and advocate for the Mississippi River” (1mississippi.org).

“Our goal is to set a new record, but our mission is to raise awareness of the need to preserve the Mississippi River Basin,” Scott Miller, Mississippi Speed Record team captain, said in the release.

In the press release, Miller encourages everyone to follow along with the team’s trip on its Facebook page at fb.com/mississippispeedrecord - which will include a link to its live GPS location, as well as videos and updates about how far ahead or behind the record the paddlers are. More information about the Mississippi Speed Record team and the Guinness World Record attempt is also available at www.mississippispeedrecord.com.

Additionally, Miller invites people to sign up to be a “river citizen” by visiting 1mississippi.org. “It’s free and when you sign up, 1 Mississippi will send you updates a few times a year about events, actions and information related to protecting and appreciating the incredible Mississippi River,” Miller says in the release.

Miller first began planning for this World Record attempt in September 2018. His team trained for a year and a half and planned to launch last year; but with COVID-related stay-at-home orders, he had to shut the plan down. Starting over, he had to form a whole new team.

That team includes Miller, age 45, of Minneapolis, MN, who is team captain. Joel Ford, age 36, is from Fallston, MD. Perry Whitaker, age 59, is from St. Louis, MO. Adam Macht, age 36, is from Ely, MN. In addition to individual daily training, the canoeists - each of whom brings a wealth of either experience with canoeing or knowledge of the Mississippi River, or both - have had numerous multi-day training sessions on several sections of the river from Minnesota to Tennessee.

Todd Foster has been acting as lead advisor for the project. Friends for more than 20 years, Miller and Foster met when they worked together at Many Point Scout Camp. They started canoeing together, and Foster invited Miller to join him in 2005 on a canoe trip from St. Cloud, MN to Hudson Bay in Manitoba - a journey of over 2000 miles, chronicled in the book Canoeing with the Cree, by Eric Sevareid, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Sevareid’s trip. For the current World Record project, Foster has been handling website development, acting as media coordinator and online store manager, and serving as a sounding board for ideas.


While the Mississippi Speed Record team was preparing for its attempt to set a new Guinness World Record for the fastest time to paddle the length of the Mississippi River, Captain Miller - an oncology nurse at the University of Minnesota Medical Center - took time to participate in an e-mail interview about the project. That question and answer series between writer Julie Berg-Raymond (JBR) and Scott Miller (SM) follows:

JBR: What is it that is inspiring you about this effort - aside from the desire to break a world record?

SM: For me, it’s about joy. I love to paddle and I love to exercise and be outside and I love to plan things and work as a team. This project combines all of that. I can’t wait to be in the world of the river for over two weeks non-stop. I love looking at the sky, the water, the light, the clouds, the trees, the boats and the cities - they are all ever-changing and fascinating.

JBR: Why did you decide on a canoe trip down the Mississippi as the record to beat?

SM: The Mississippi is my home river. I grew up riding my bike to the Coon Rapids Dam and walking my bike across the river. I live eight blocks from the river in south Minneapolis. Also, it’s America’s most iconic river and the river of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer - it’s a river that conjures a feeling of epic-ness.

JBR: Who are the people who have most inspired you?

SM: My father took me on canoe trips as a kid, and we had such a fun time; so I credit him with instilling a love of the outdoors and canoeing. And then my best friend, Todd Foster, asked if I wanted to go on a long trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (and later if I wanted to paddle 2,000 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay) when I was in my 20s and I learned from him that I could continue to have wild adventures, even as an adult.

JBR: Are you a “traveler” by nature and inclination? Or more of an “adventurer”?

SM: Definitely an adventurer. If you offered me a free trip to Europe or a free trip to the wilderness, I’d choose the latter.

JBR: Tell us about the folks with you on this journey. Why them? What kinds of qualities do you all need to possess, to make this work?

SM: As I’ve asked questions and written about my planning for this journey online, I’ve been active in a few different online paddling groups, including the community of the “MR340” race, a 340-mile race on the Missouri river across the state of Missouri. It’s from this community that Perry Whitaker comes, as he’s paddled the race 12 times. Perry heard about our adventure and expressed interest and I found out he is an expert on the stretch of the Mississippi between St. Louis, MO and Cairo, IL, and has paddled it many times. He also loves to paddle as much as possible.
Next, Joel Ford also heard I was looking for people online; in his case, he heard about it through the world of Adventure Racing, a sport in which Joel has been on a national championship winning team. Joel is an experienced endurance athlete who knows how to work with a team, and he thought what we were doing sounded really fun; and he thought it would be fun to learn the marathon canoe paddling techniques we all have had to learn.

Finally, when I went to buy my canoe from Piragis Outfitters in northern Minnesota on the edge of the Boundary Waters (in June of 2020) I met a guy there whose colleagues all said he was the guy that liked to paddle as often as possible in the Boundary Waters and likes to go as far and fast as he can. In the fall of 2020 I remembered that and called the outfitter and asked to talk to the guy that “paddles fast and far.” They said, “Oh, you mean Adam!” I told him about our plan and he was excited to join the team with his wealth of knowledge and experience.

The qualities you need to have to do this are a love of canoeing, teamwork, training, planning and - most of all - the ability and desire to stick with something 24 hours a day for over two weeks.