Paddling down the Mississippi River in a canoe is something that people typically only dream about. KJ Milhone did it once when he was a young man, recently made a second attempt and now has visions, at age 60, of a third try.
Milhone, an executive coach in Minnetonka, Minn., has never traveled leisurely on the river and doesn’t plan to next time either. In 1981, Milhone and his friend Steve Eckelkamp, then both 22, canoed from the headwaters of the Mississippi in Itasca, Minn. to Mile Marker 0 in the Gulf of Mexico. They set a world speed record of 35 days, 11 hours and 27 minutes, which landed them in the Guinness Book of Records.
Reflecting recently on that achievement, Milhone said that, at the time, he was “the woeful visionary” and Eckelkamp “the calm force and the planner.”
“Over the years, we often talked about it and how we know we would never have been successful without each other,” said Milhone. “What I would also say is that we would never have made it past that first day on the river without Steve’s steadying hand.”
An Unexpected Loss
Earlier this year, Milhone was the one with the steadying hand when he, Eckelkamp’s nephew Kevin Eckelkamp and Nate Lastinger decided to make an attempt to once again break the world speed record for paddling the Mississippi, which now stands at 18 days, four hours.
The motivation for the trip was bittersweet. In June 2017, Steve Eckelkamp died suddenly of a heart attack at age 60 while mowing his lawn. Milhone was rocked by the loss of his good friend, with whom he had recently been discussing another record-breaking Mississippi paddle.
“At the celebration of his life, I told stories about Steve and about our first trip,” said Milhone. “Kevin, who was the exact same age as Steve was when we did the Mississippi, came up to me afterwards. He’d heard about our canoe trip before and was enamored with the idea of getting into the record book.”
Their Mississippi River Training Plan
Milhone agreed to help Eckelkamp and Lastinger train for the endeavor, flying to St. Petersburg, Fla., where they both live, several times over the course of the year to paddle with them.
“They were practicing with a GPS; Steve and I used maps and compasses,” said Milhone. “I told them that as far as preparation for tracking [was concerned] they were very ahead of where we had been. But in terms of their physical conditions, they were nowhere near where they needed to be.”
Milhone compared the type of endurance required for the 2018 record-breaking adventure to “the equivalent of running 10 marathons in a day, 18 days in a row.”
The young men listened carefully to his advice, which included adding a third person to the team, per the plan that Milhone and Steve Eckelkamp had preliminarily put together. While Milhone didn’t necessarily see himself in that role, Kevin Eckelkamp and Lastinger did. They asked him to join them for the May 2018 trip.
Testing the Waters
“I admit, it was in the back of my mind when I suggested a third, but …,” Milhone said with a smile. “My heart said ‘yes’ but I didn’t know if I could physically do it.”
The next step was to test the waters, so to speak. Milhone began doing three-to-four-hour workouts per day. “I was surprised that I held up pretty well. My number one priority was not to hurt myself,” he said of his tough aerobic and core-strengthening regime.
When Milhone became convinced he could physically handle the rigorous journey, he asked for advice. “I talked to my wife and daughter and both of them said, ‘We can’t believe you haven’t said ‘yes’ already,” he explained.
The Adventure Begins
As soon as the trio launched at Lake Itasca on May 10, technology — and social media — became an additional component of the trip, sometimes in unexpected ways.
“We were in touch with our support team via texts on our GPS feed. My wife and daughter, Kevin’s parents and others were updating our social media and our Facebook page as often as they could,” said Milhone.
Compared to when Milhone and Eckelkamp took the original trip, with no one tracking their progress except the two of them, now people — many of them strangers — were able to follow the expedition in real time.
“In Minneapolis, a classroom of students from a nearby school came to the banks of the river to cheer us on,” said Milhone. “Further down, there was a guy in a kayak with his young daughter. He wanted to know if we needed anything, but also said he wanted his daughter to see what he called heroes: three men paddling the length of the Mississippi River.”
And then day six arrived; the team had just reached southeastern Minnesota. Lastinger received a call from his wife saying that their young son needed surgery.
“Nate was really torn and didn’t know what to do. I told him that the hardest decisions we have to make are always between competing things that are good. And family is the most important,” said Milhone.
Now down one paddler, Kevin Eckelkamp said he was determined to keep going and they did. For two more days.
As Milhone explained, there is a definite around-the-clock pace that has to be maintained during a record-breaking attempt like this one, and the pair just couldn’t keep up.
“We were falling behind faster than we’d ever been [behind] since we started on May 10,” said Milhone. “Physically, we were holding up, but it was the sleep deprivation that got to us.”
Milhone told Eckelkamp he was willing to keep going “as long as we have a chance to break the record.” However, it was soon evident that their goal was rapidly slipping out of sight. After a few more hours on the water, Milhone realized they were near the end. Still, Eckelkamp was hesitant and wanted to continue.
“Kevin finally said, ‘I don’t know enough to make the call. You’re going to have to do it,’” Milhone said. “I told him: I think we need to be done.”
And that was it; they pulled out of the water in Guttenberg, Iowa.
Reminders of the First Trip
Before the May attempt, Milhone knew there were things he would remember about the river trip with Steve Eckelkamp, including the feeling of peace that he has always found on the Mississippi River.
But some memories weren’t quite as peaceful. “I remembered blasting into some rocks on Lake Pepin with Steve, and sure enough, we did the same thing this time,” said Milhone with a laugh, admitting that both times, “I was the one who took us into the rocks.”
Answering the Inevitable Question
So, will Milhone try again? He said with a smile, “Now I know that physically, I can do it. At 60, that feels pretty good.” However, Milhone’s most authentic reason for considering a third attempt is a more spiritual one.
“This experience reminded me that quests are really important to me,” he said. “And if you haven’t experienced failure, you can’t experience what’s behind it.”
For that reason, the thwarted attempt in May is serving as renewed motivation for Milhone. He is currently contemplating whether 2019 is the year to try again.
Milhone is quick to credit his millennial companions with the lessons he took away from the recent adventure.
“You often hear about older people mentoring younger ones, but in this case, Kevin and Nate helped me reconnect with my hopes and dreams,” Milhone said. “That’s a gift.”
Finding a Friend
Milhone is also working on a more personal project — a book he’s writing about their friendship for Steve Eckelkamp’s sons, ages 12 and 16. Not only does it include a detailed section on the Mississippi River trip, but also stories about their journey to Alaska and their incredible experience in the Amazon.
“I think about Steve all the time. One of the messages I want to give his sons is to find a friend like I had with their father,” said Milhone. “We were a little bit like a lock and key.”
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