ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — It was exactly 6am, on May 4th, on Minnesota's Lake Itasca when four men took off in their canoe, trying to make history. Scott Miller, Joel Ford, Perry Whitaker and Adam Macht are racing down the Mississippi River in a custom-made vessel, attempting to set the world record for fastest canoe trip from the source of the river all the way to the sea.
They call themselves the Mississippi Speed Record.
Along the way, the group is livestreaming their experience on their Facebook group, and accompanied by a dedicated support crew following them both by land and by boat.
The guys will be traveling non-stop along their 2,350 mile journey - with three men always rowing and the third on a six hour break to sleep.
"If they set this record it'll be 17 days of non-stop paddling. Roughly they get six hours of break a day, so if they slept the moment they got that break they'd get six hours... but that doesn't happen," said Todd Foster, lead advisor of the support group and longtime best friend of captain Scott Miller. "They're wired up so they're getting four to five hours of sleep, probably even less."
Foster, a veteran canoer himself, says for Miller, it's been a long journey to even get to this point. He originally began training for the trip in 2018 with a different group of paddlers. But just as they were set to take off for the gulf, the pandemic hit and forced them to push back their plans. As Covid-19 drug on, the team eventually drifted off and formed two new teams.
Even more dramatic, the other team that once planned to make the trip with Miller just broke the record themselves, on May 10th.
That team is named Quest MMZero, and made up of KJ Millhone and his daughter Casey, along with friends Bobby Johnson and Rob Price. They were looking to beat an 18-year record of 18 days, 4 hours and 51 minutes. When Quest MMZero rolled into the gulf, they did it in just 17 days and 20 hours.
Perhaps even sweeter, daughter Casey Millhone is now claiming to be the youngest woman to ever complete the speed trip.
But her win might be only a few days away from defeat. As of Monday, May 17th, Mississippi Speed Record was ahead of Quest MMZero's time by over five and a half hours, and only a few hundred miles left to go.
"So friendly banter back and forth for sure," said Foster. "Scotty has the advantage to know what the record is, but also knowing probably weighs on their minds too."
But what exactly goes into a record-setting canoe trip down the Mississippi?
When the team began up in Minnesota, the river often wasn't wide enough for a support boat, so their crew followed them on land for the beginning part of their journey. Then, after reaching Minneapolis, a support boat was able to start traveling in the water with them. After the four reached St. Louis, two more support boats hooked up with the team.
"So when all the boats get to the gulf I think there's gonna be about 35 people supporting the paddlers either from land or on the boats."
During the first half of the river, while the team was around the Quad Cities region, all of the locks and dams along the route were great drop-off points for food.
"They try to schedule food drops when they're at a lock. Anytime you can be doing double duty it makes it that much better," explained Foster. "There are some Guinness record rules where you can't be in the support boat when they're moving down the water - you can't touch them in any way - but they can get close enough to throw something."
Once the second and third support boats joined the water crew, they were better able to look ahead for barges and other water traffic. Especially south of St. Louis, Foster says the giant cargo ships that float down the river would have no chance of seeing a tiny canoe on the water.
But when it comes to those locks and dams, boats can sometimes be held up waiting in line. According to Guinness rules, even if there's a fifteen hour wait at a lock, the canoe must wait and pass through it if the lock is operational. However, if the lock and dam is closed to water traffic, the team is allowed to get out and portage (carry) their canoe around it.
Foster recalled one thrilling adventure during one of the first few evenings on the river. As the Mississippi Speed Record was about to approach a lock and dam north of the Quad Cities, they realized they were neck and neck with a barge also headed for the gates.
"The canoe radioed ahead to the barge master and the master radioed the barge," said Foster. "The barge was like 'oh no, we love that they're trying to set the record, we'll back off,' and let the paddlers go through the lock first."
He says that's just one example of all the kindness the team has been shown along their journey.
"One of the amazing things about this is the community that's coming out. There's people coming out to every lock, every access, some of them will bring cowbells to ring. They're bringing cookies and bars to our support crew, it's just amazing. To bring all of these people to the river and give them some kind of enjoyment out of the trip - even if they're just following along - is wonderful."
The crew got a particularly loud welcome as they passed through the Quad City region - racing through Savannah and Sabula, zipped by our cameras in Camanche, and being greeted by bullhorns and crowds by Port Byron and Le Claire.
And as they finally passed through the Rock Island Lock & Dam #15, just after 2 o'clock in the morning on Wednesday, May 12th, one spectator cheered in the pitch black for the crew.
"They're a breed of their own. I mean, I do not get it, but they're awesome. They're beasts and beastests to attempt this," said Rock Island native Jo Mason.
Mason did the very same trip with her friends in the 70s - although she admits it wasn't at quite the same speed.
"So now I kinda try to pay it back like all the people that helped me on my journey," she said.
From the evening hours of the 11th until early morning on the 12th, Mason traveled with the team - from Fulton all the way until Rock Island. Along the way she gave them gyros and Whitey's ice cream.
"Just to kind of say, hey this is the Quad Cities. You had a good time here, people are nice and kind," said Mason. "There's so many people here in the Quad Cities that don't realize - that cross over the river every day going to work or whatever and they take it for granted. We live along the mighty Mississippi and it's a big deal. People come from all over the world to see it and we're right here. So it's a pretty big deal... it's a pretty cool thing."
As the group continues their journey to the gulf, we'll continue to keep you updated here on WQAD. If you want to help out the group, you can either bring some refreshments to their crew or the canoe itself and you can follow along with their journey on their Facebook page.