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Mississippi River paddlers abandon record-breaking expedition attempt

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The paddlers drift from Lake Itasca, into the Mississippi River.
On May 9, the paddlers drifted from Lake Itasca, into the official headwaters of the Mississippi River. Nearly 1,000 miles into their Mississippi trip, the crew stepped away from their goal.
John Enger | MPR News

K.J. Millhone is back in his Minnetonka house, taking hot showers and sleeping in an actual bed, instead of the bottom of a canoe, headed down the Mississippi River. It's wonderful, he said, but he still dreams about the river. He wakes up, expecting to spend the next 16 straight hours with a paddle in his hands.

Millhone, 60, along with Kevin Eckelkamp and Nate Lastinger, two men in their 20s from St. Petersburg, Fla., set off from Itasca State Park earlier this month, hoping to paddle the full length of the Mississippi River in less than 18 days, the previous world record.

Then, last week, Lastinger had to step away from the expedition due to a family health issue. Millhone said he and Eckelkamp continued on for a few more days. They couldn't quite keep up a record-breaking pace, and without their third paddler, they couldn't sleep either.

"Finally," Millhone said, "I had to tell Kevin, I don't think we can do this. I think we have to call it."

They landed at Guttenberg, Iowa, after paddling nearly 1,000 miles in 8 days. Millhone went home, but Eckelkamp is still on the water. Eckelkamp's father, Kenny, was a member of the support team. Once a world record was off the table, he volunteered to help his son finish the trip, at a slightly more relaxed pace.

"That's as it should be," Millhone said. "Steve would have wanted it that way."

The whole expedition was inspired by the death of Steve Eckelkamp — brother of Kenny, and uncle of Kevin Eckelkamp.

Steve was also Millhone's longtime paddling buddy. Together, they broke the Mississippi paddling record, back in 1980. But Millhone said Steve never took records seriously. He just liked the trip.

"This is not a failure," he said. "As human beings, we are at our best when we're striving. It doesn't really matter what we're striving for, or if we get it or not. You get all of the advantages of striving."

And next year, in May, he says there's a chance he might be back at the Mississippi headwaters, ready to try again.