One reason that a Grand Canyon trip looms atop so many bucket lists is sheer length, both in mileage (277 from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs) and in river days (up to 27 on private winter trips). For a few paddlers, however, traversing the canyon as quickly as possible is an irresistible challenge. The Rigg brothers’ 1951 descent in a cataract-style wooden row boat was the first Grand Canyon speed run, setting the bar at just shy of 53 hours. In 2012, Harlan Taney’s sea kayak attempt (aborted after an elbow-injuring flip in Grapevine Rapid) revived the race to establish a new record. As rumors mill of another non-stop attempt this season, we highlight the canyon’s greatest benchmarks for speed.
Above photo: Brown Town. Kenton Grua during a more relaxed run of Crystal Rapid in 1974. Photo from John Blaustein’s ‘The Hidden Canyon’
PADDLERS: George Flavell and Ramon Montez
CRAFT: Open skiff
TIME: 13 days
Making a 13-day Grand Canyon run is a bit rushed by today’s standards, but in the late 19th century, it was record setting. As beaver trappers, Flavell and Montez were the first to run the canyon free from the scientific or surveying agendas of previous expeditions. They were also innovative boatmen, rowing the rapids facing downstream instead of pulling their way through for speed. River historian Tom Martin calls them “The Cheech and Chong of Grand Canyon history,” noting how, after an arduous portage of Soap Creek and decision to run every rapid downstream, the duo also made the first descent of Lava Falls.
YEAR: Late 1970s
PADDLERS: Fletcher Anderson
CRAFT: Fiberglass wildwater boat
TIME: ~ 49 hours
The date is debated. The feat is not. Fletcher Anderson, a Southwest kayak pioneer, made a full solo descent of the Grand in just over 49 hours with no sat-phone, no GPS tracker, no support crew. Walter Kirschbaum had set the solo-paddling speed record—and notched the canyon’s first complete kayak descent—in 1960. Paddling a wildwater racing kayak, Anderson made the run in less than half Kirschbaum’s time, finishing, as family legend has it, with his forearms so inflamed he had to cut off his paddling jacket.
PADDLERS: Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds
CRAFT: Wooden dory
TIME: 36 hours, 38 minutes
The legend of The Emerald Mile’s flood-stage speed run survived around campfires and guide houses until it was immortalized in Kevin Fedarko’s 2014 book of the same name. Taking turns rowing through the night on a surge of over 70,000 cfs—a flow which has not been matched since—the three boatmen evaded park service authorities to make the fabled run. They narrowly averted disaster after flipping in Crystal Rapid. If kayakers should ever beat their non-motorized record, which has stood for more than 30 years, it won’t make this feat any less impressive.
PADDLERS: John Weisheit, John Williams, and Clyde Deal
CRAFT: Motorized rigid inflatable
TIME: 35 hours, 43 minutes
In the summer of 1993, a trio of boatmen from Moab, Utah, ran the length of the canyon in a rigid inflatable sport boat. After damaging their 50-hp motor in Bedrock Rapid, they happened across none other than river guide Kenton Grua, who’d set the speed record in The Emerald Mile 10 years earlier. Grua helped repair the motor and the crew went on to beat the dory’s time by 55 minutes.
PADDLERS: Ben Orkin and Harrison Rea
CRAFT: Epic 18X sea kayaks
TIME: 37 hours and 48 minutes
As night fell on January 6, Ben Orkin and Harrison Rea launched a pair of 18-foot Kevlar-reinforced sea kayaks with bow-mounted ATV headlights. After the first night, they were on track for a 36-hour descent—until a morning run through the incarnation of the same hole in Crystal that flipped The Emerald Mile. Rea cartwheeled several times and cracked his hull. “We probably lost an hour and a half total to repairs,” says Orkin, who was shaken but unbroken. Despite baseline winter flows and minimal daylight, Orkin survived a terrifying run of Lava Falls that night to finish slightly ahead of Rea and claim the canyon’s fastest kayak time.
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