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Mississippi River paddlers attempt to break record

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The paddlers drift from Lake Itasca, into the Mississippi River.
The paddlers drift from Lake Itasca, into the official headwaters of the Mississippi River. The group is hoping to reach the Gulf in less than 18 days - which would break the existing world record.
John Enger | MPR News

It's 7 p.m. on Wednesday, a little less than 12 hours before he's scheduled to start a full-length paddle of the Mississippi, and Kevin Eckelkamp is pacing around his canoe. It's parked in the grass of his Itasca State Park campsite, just half a mile from the river's headwaters. He checks the seat alignment and the rudder system, and pushes on the paper-thin hull with his fingertips. It flexes like a tin can. 

"It's carbon fiber and Kevlar," he says. "It's sturdy, but it doesn't feel sturdy."

The boat is 18 feet long, holds three grown men and weighs just a breath over 40 pounds. It has to be light: If Eckelkamp and his friends want to break the current record of 18 days, 4 hours, and 51 minutes, they'll have to average about 6 miles an hour, night and day, until they hit salt water.

Nate Lastinger, left, and  Kevin Eckelkamp before they head out.
Nate Lastinger, left, and Kevin Eckelkamp hang out in an RV Wednesday night. The next morning they set off from the Mississippi River headwaters, headed for the Gulf of Mexico.
John Enger | MPR News

Nate Lastinger is the second member of the canoe team. He lays out the plan: One crew member will sleep while the other two paddle, five hours at a time, straight through. 

"We might stop for an hour a day," he said. "Tops."

Lastinger and Eckelkamp are from St. Petersburg, Fla., and shiver as they check and double-check their supplies. They bundle up and talk about their gear.

They're happy right now, and excited to launch. But this whole expedition started with a funeral.

Eckelkamp's uncle Steve died unexpectedly last summer. He left two kids and a wife. Eckelkamp had known his uncle was something of an adventurer, but he didn't have a whole lot of details. But at the funeral service, he met his uncle's old friend from Minnesota,  K.J. Millhone. 

Millhone told him stories about his uncle — like the time, 35 years ago, when the two of them tried to paddle the length of the Amazon River. They lost their kayaks to a flood and had to bushwhack through the rainforest for three weeks, Millhone told him. The story involved jungle prisons, oil runners and, for some reason, a monkey.

Steve Eckelkamp and K.J. Millhone in 1980.
Steve Eckelkamp and K.J. Millhone set the record for fastest paddling expedition down the length of the Mississippi River in 1980. They did the whole 2300-plus miles in a little over 35 days. They're pictured here passing by Baton Rouge.
John Enger | MPR News

He also told him about the time in 1980 when he and Steve broke the record for the fastest paddling expedition down the length of the Mississippi River. They did the whole 2,300-mile-plus trip in a little over 35 days.

Eckelkamp was inspired. He decided to try to break the Mississippi paddle record again, and he talked his best friend, Nate Lastinger, into helping him do it. Then he talked Millhone into going, too.

"I want to continue the legacy," he said. "Maybe get the family name back on the record."

Nate Lastinger stands by the fire in Itasca State Park.
Nate Lastinger stands by the fire in Itasca State Park. He and Kevin Eckelkamp are both from St. Petersburg Florida, and say it's warmer there.
John Enger | MPR News

After the sun goes down Wednesday night, Lastinger checks the boat one more time and goes to bed. Millhone stays up a little longer, at the fringes of their campfire. He's alone, and in a more reflective mood.

It's been a long time since his last trip, and the record has been broken twice since then. They'll need to cut his previous time in half. 

"For us to get the record now," he said, "we're going to have to average between six and eight marathons a day, for 18 days in a row. When I did it the first time, I lost 25 pounds in 35 days."

And the two younger guys —  they don't have 25 pounds to lose.

The crew rolls out at 4:15 Thursday morning. The stars are bright, and it's 33 degrees. 

No one says much over breakfast, or on the half-mile walk from the campsite to Lake Itasca, just up the shore from the official Mississippi headwaters. They slide the boat into the water and get in. 

At 6 a.m. sharp, they paddle away. They wave goodbye, hoping to be in New Orleans before the month is out.

Correction (May 10, 2018): A photo caption previously stated an incorrect location. The caption has been updated.