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Four-Man Paddling Team Topples Mississippi River Speed Record

A team captained by lifelong Minnesota native Scott Miller ran the river in a blistering time, breaking the human-powered speed record.

a team paddles on a riverBreaking the Mississippi River human-powered speed record was hard work, but came with some nice views; (photo/Scott Miller)
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From Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico — 2,300 miles along the Mississippi River — in 16 days, 20 hours, and 16 minutes. That’s all it took for paddlers Scott Miller, Judson Steinback, Paul Cox, and Wally Werderich to navigate the length of the Mighty Mississippi. The quartet embarked on May 10 and reached saltwater on May 26 in a modified Wenonah Minnesota 4 canoe.

Along the way, the four paddlers slept in shifts, dodged barges, almost got sucked through a dam, and battled fog, high waves, and crushing sleep deprivation.

But the result was worth it. On Monday of this week, Guinness World Records certified the team’s effort as the fastest team, human-powered “row” from the headwaters to the Gulf. For Guinness’s purposes, the term “row” includes paddling.

“One thing that I love about [this accomplishment] is sort of the epic sweep of it,” team leader and lifelong Minnesotan Scott Miller told GearJunkie in an interview. “The river changes so much over the 2,300 miles.”

Miller cited the sections nearest the northern headwaters and southern delta as his favorites, noting that both sections have a wild, remote feel that might surprise those who think of Old Man River as a tame beast.

four men in a canoe
From left to right: Paul Cox, Judson Steinback, Wally Werderich, Scott Miller; (photo/courtesy Scott Miller)

A Second Try

The accomplishment is the culmination of a 5-year effort for Miller. An experienced long-distance and adventure paddler, Miller had his eyes fixed on the Mississippi record (standing since 2003) all the way back in 2020.

But as with so many other things, COVID-19 changed the plans. After waiting a year to see how COVID shook out, Miller assembled a team and went for it. Their plans fell apart tantalizingly close to the finish when a tropical depression forced them off the river.

Just weeks earlier, a different team had finally broken the 2003 record. Miller’s team was 7 hours ahead of the recently set 2021 record when they bailed.

But Miller learned some lessons, assembled a new team, and hit the water again earlier this year. This time, he and his fellow paddlers found success, though not without hardship.

“We had an incident at Lock 15 where it was close to midnight,” Miller recalled, “and the lock master told us, ‘Hey, you’ve got a barge coming up through this lock, you’re going to have to wait, and it’s going to take them a while.’ Well, he didn’t tell us there are just these incredibly powerful currents above the dam there. And it’s midnight, and next thing we know, suddenly we’re getting sucked towards the dam, and we cannot maintain our position.”

The incident might have ended in injury or death, so it’s fortunate the team’s support boat was on hand to tow them to safety. The rescue didn’t nullify the record, because the team was towed backward and not downstream. Miller said the close call serves to illustrate just how gnarly the river can be.

four men stand side by side with arms around each others shoulders
The triumphant team. From left to right: Scott Miller, Paul Cox, Wally Werderich, and Judston Steinback; (photo/Scott Miller)

“We took a few hours to recuperate on shore,” he said. “But that has its own stress because you’re constantly under the gun to keep [increasing] your lead because you know that no lead is safe.”

No Sleep ‘Til Delta

That ticking clock ended up being the most stressful aspect of the trip, particularly as sleep deprivation took its toll in the latter days.

The team took turns sleeping in shifts in the middle of the canoe, but a few stolen hours of canoe sleep isn’t enough to overcome 16+ hours of daily paddling.

Toward the end of the attempt, the lack of sleep forced the team onto land for several nerve-wracking rest periods. But grit and perseverance overcame, and Miller, Steinback, Cox, and Werderich managed to slice an entire day off the 2021 record.

a view of a large ship passing a canoe
Most Mississippi River paddlers avoid the main channel because of the commercial ships that ply the waters there; (photo/Scott Miller)

Miller grew up within spitting distance of the river, and he still lives nearby. So, even though he’s finally achieved his long-standing goal, he’s still intimately connected with the Mississippi.

His latest venture is a series of Mississippi river races and events called “Two Paddles.” You can find out more at the Two Paddles website. And be on the lookout for an upcoming documentary film about the record by the producers of another Mississippi River film that longtime readers might recognize.

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