Think you can paddle a canoe for 18 hours a day for 18 consecutive days at or near race pace? Perry Whitaker of St. Louis believed he could. He, along with three other adventurers, came very close last summer to breaking the Guinness World Record for the “Fastest Time to Row the Length of the Mississippi River by a Team.”
Of course, this wasn’t Whitaker’s first rodeo, so to speak. He’s competed in 13 Missouri River 340 (MR340) races. That annual event takes place on the Missouri River and runs 340 miles from Kansas City to St. Charles. Racers must finish the race within 84 hours.
Whitaker’s love of paddling was sparked about 15 years ago. “A friend invited me for a kayak trip on the Illinois River from Pere Marquette State Park to Grafton, and I immediately went out and bought a kayak afterward,” he explained. “Before long, I had a garage full of kayaks.
“I’ve lived within walking distance to the Mississippi for most of my life. Nonetheless, my relationship with the river was limited to bridges and books by Mark Twain until just a few years ago,” Whitaker continued. “Since I started kayaking on the Mississippi, my relationship has evolved quite a bit. I’ve become much more cognizant of the immeasurable number of people who’ve traveled on the river before me — the indigenous people, the explorers, the historic figures, people escaping bondage, the traders, the musicians, and the people like me who just enjoy being out there.”
Whitaker helped form the race team Mississippi Speed Record (MSR) along with Joel Ford, a national champion adventure racer from the Baltimore, Maryland, area; Scott Miller, an oncology nurse in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Adam Macht, who works at a canoe outfitter in Ely, Minnesota.
When I asked Whitaker for something personal he could tell me about his teammates, he replied, “They all smelled really bad after a few days on the river.”
The Record Attempt
On May 4, after over a year of training, Team MSR began its record attempt at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. The team would need to average roughly 120 miles per day to beat the record set by Bob Bradford and Clark Eid in 2003, who recorded a time of 18 days, 4 hours, and 51 minutes.
But, much to their surprise, another group, Team MMZero, made up of father and daughter Kirk and Casey Millhone and paddlers Bobby Johnson and Rod Price, broke the world record six days after Team MSR disembarked with a time of 17 days, 19 hours, and 45 minutes. The stakes were raised.
Team MSR chose a Wenonah Minnesota IV canoe, which was about 23 feet long and made of aramid (Kevlar is a brand of aramid).
“We used a few different paddles during the trip. I mostly used a Wenonah Black Lite carbon paddle, and the other guys mostly used ZRE carbon paddles,” Whitaker said.
The team was actually quite a bit larger than just four paddlers. A support crew of over 25 people on land and on boats handled challenges such as managing safety, communication with barges and locks, food and water, support gear, monitoring weather, updating social media, and more.
“The support team was absolutely amazing,” said Whitaker. “They made it possible for us to just concentrate on paddling and not worry about carrying food and water, extra gear, etc.”
Whitaker estimated the entire effort cost in the neighborhood of $25,000 to feed the entire crew and fuel their support vehicles.
Highs and Lows
Although Whitaker was calm and optimistic at the start of the adventure, doubt crept in.
“I vacillated between ‘There’s no way in Hell we’ll be able to do this’ and ‘I’ll guarantee we have this record’ multiple times per day. Sometimes, I went back and forth between those two extremes multiple times in just a couple hours,” Whitaker remembered.
At least three people paddled non-stop while the team rotated a six-hour sleeping shift. “We had a covered sleeping area that was wet pretty much the entire time we were on the river,” said Whitaker, laughing.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. “We had a few problems along the way. We hit a rock in the middle of the night while going through a whitewater section in Minnesota, and that sent us all for a swim. Then, we poked a hole in the boat at Nauvoo, Illinois,” Whitaker said. “Things like that are expected on 2,300-mile trip. I think the trip was relatively problem-free until the last few minutes.”
As Team MSR approached the end of its attempt, it calculated it was almost two hours ahead of Team MMZero’s record-breaking finish. But roughly 135 miles before reaching Mile 0 in the Gulf of Mexico, in the middle of the last night, 4-foot waves and strong winds put an end to the team’s efforts. Its canoe was taking on water, and the Mississippi River foundered the team’s canoe. They all made it safely to the support boat, but the dream was over.
While the record-breaking attempt is done, for now, paddling and other adventures continue. I asked Whitaker what he does when he’s not trying to break world records.
“I hike, kayak, bicycle, build trails, clean rivers, and work at the Alpine Shop [in Kirkwood, Missouri],” he said. “I teach Wilderness First Aid classes, kayak classes, Leave No Trace workshops, and anything else that can help people get outside safely and enjoyably.”
To learn more about the Mississippi Speed Record adventure and to see more photos, check out MSR’s Facebook page: facebook.com/mississippispeedrecord.
Author: Morgan Paar is a regular controbitor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: Team Mississippi Spead Record and support crew.