They were aware that "the river decides" when, as a group of four paddlers, they attempted to travel the entirety of the mighty Mississippi the fastest over the last 17 days.
On a harrowing overnight Thursday, within 150 miles of finishing at the Gulf of Mexico, the decision was made.
"The Mississippi said, 'All right, you guys, you're done," said team leader Scott Miller of Minneapolis.
Miller and his team had to abandon their adventure north of New Orleans in 30-mph wind gusts and water that swamped their canoe. They were rescued by their support boat, a houseboat, that struggled itself in the conditions to get everyone safely to shore, Miller said Friday morning.
Miller, 45, said the team was pushing through bad conditions for hours in the river channel, jockeying with barge traffic and other anchored obstacles in a heavily industrial part of the river. "Our margins for error dwindled quickly," he added, as water started filling the canoe and team members disagreed on the best approach in eroding conditions.
Paddler Perry Whitaker, in the bow, finally made the call to the safety vessel. When the paddlers came alongside the boat, they bounced in the waves and struggled to keep their grip on the listing boat and their stricken canoe, Miller said, sounding still a bit dazed by what they'd experienced. They eventually leaped into the support boat, and the canoe was lost.
The situation was so bad that the support crew and the rescued paddlers settled for refuge on a remote stretch of shore, where they had to ride the night out alone, Miller said, who recounted the scene from his hotel in the French Quarter.
Miller's other team members, all elite long-distance paddlers, are Adam Macht of Ely, Minn., Joel Ford of Maryland, and Whitaker of St. Louis.
Miller said the group was in a feverish push to claim the Guinness World Record attempt, coincidentally set unofficially by another Minnesota-led team May 10. KJ Millhone of Minnetonka, his daughter, Casey, and two others traveled the 2,300-plus miles in 17 days and 20 hours. The previous mark was set in 2003 in 18 days, four hours and 51 minutes.
On Friday, Millhone was disappointed for Miller, whom he had partnered with for a 2020 paddle for the 2003 record before COVID-19 altered their plans.
He downplayed his "disagreements" with Miller in 2020, which produced competing runs at the speed record weeks apart this spring.
Millhone said he'd exchanged texts with Miller. "I only have respect" for what they attempted, he added, recounting the physical and mental toll on a wild, unpredictable landscape. "People understand competition. They probably don't understand the rare air we had by trying to do this thing. ... I would much rather have seen whether they could beat our record."
Millhone, 62, recalled his own team's bout with everything from high winds to hail to temperatures that swung wildly. Some of their days were in the low 20s; others in the high 80s by the time they ended.
The sweetest takeaway, however, might be the family connection. Millhone, who set an earlier Mississippi record in 1980 with Steve Eckelkamp, found joy in setting a new standard with his daughter.
"I wouldn't have done it without her," he said.
As for Miller's squad, Whitaker posted to his Facebook page Friday morning, recalling the great support of cheering strangers and the nightmarish end to their adventure:
"... Unfortunately, with less than 150 miles to go, my River humbled us. Heavy winds swamped our canoe in the middle of the night and we lost everything in a few short minutes. I had a firm grip on the safety boat, and I struggled to hold on to the canoe as long as I could until the current took her down. ...
"... I'm sad. I'm disappointed. But mostly, I am astounded that so many people took time out of their busy lives to encourage and support me in this little adventure, and I am very, very appreciative of everyone."
Will there be another try?
"Not ruling it out!" Miller replied.