Sometimes ending a wild trip is the hardest part.
Just ask Todd Wells and high-water kayaking cohorts Aniol Serrasolses, Tyler Bradt and Brendan Wells: What was the hardest part about setting a new, 24-hour distance paddling world record? Well, besides a sore butt and stiff legs, it was the last four hours after hitting the 24-hour mark, still having to paddle out to reach their takeout.
The foursome set the world record, still pending approval from Guinness, this weekend (June 3-4) by paddling a high-water run linking Idaho’s Middle Fork, Main and Lower Salmon rivers, clocking a whopping 287.5 miles in 24 hours. “The previous record was 274 miles,” says Bradt, who celebrated his 31st birthday on the record-setting excursion, “and at the end of a big 24 hours of continuous paddling our GPS read 287.5.”
The previous two distance records came on the Yukon, first by Ian Adamson’s 261-mile sufferfest, and in 2010 by wildwater paddler Andy Corra, from Durango, Colorado, who broke it by paddling 273.5 miles in 24 hours during the Yukon River Quest.
“It’s the go-to river for records like this,” says Wells. “It has big volume, fast current and 24 hours of light. Ours sort of took it in a different direction.” He adds he thinks it would still be possible for someone to do more, but “we gave it our full effort.”
With Bradt and Serrasolses paddling Jackson Karmas and the Wells in Dagger Green Boats, Wells says they’d been thinking about a record attempt on the stems of the Salmon for years. This year, the stars all aligned with the highest water in a decade and the paddlers’ schedules in sync. “We’ve had the idea for a while and knew it was a big snowpack year,” Wells says. “Everything came together perfectly.”
The team accomplished it knowing they would have to better the previous mark’s average of 11.5 mph. They did this by having a pace-setter paddling up front, and trading positions as you would in a bicycle peloton. “Someone would be up front leading, and then we’d trade off so they could take a break.”
The key, Wells adds, was constantly monitoring the GPS. “We kept an eye on our average time the whole way,” he says. “Halfway through we were at 12.3 mph, but we knew the darkness would slow us down. So we kept paddling pretty hard … we tried to give ourselves a little buffer.”
Just before it got dark, right after the confluence of the South Fork of the Salmon, they took their one and only 15-minute break to stretch their legs, put on headlamps, and attach glow-sticks to their helmets so they could see each other on the water. “It was right at the transition to nighttime,” Wells says. “We had pretty good moonlight until about 2 a.m., but then it disappeared right around Riggins. The next three and a half hours was the most psychedelic part of the whole trip … it was pretty fast water and we weren’t paddling that hard because we were trying to see.”
“The night paddling took some getting used to,” adds Bradt. “The moon helped, but it went black just past Riggins. The hardest part was from then until day-break, and the final few hours of light until 8 a.m. Correcting our longboats in big boils with our energy sapped got pretty hectic towards the end.”
Soon, however, the 24-hour bell chimed and they stopped, realizing they had set the record. “It went super well,” says Bradt. “High water had most of the rapids washed out into big crashing wave trains, and there were no real mishaps.”
One of the hardest parts, Bradt adds, was being confined in a kayak that long without any breaks. “Sitting in the kayak for that long without getting out and continuously paddling hard was something none of us have really done before,” says Bradt, who also still holds the world record for highest waterfall descent (set in 2009 on Washington’s 186-foot Palouse Falls). “It started taking its toll around 18 hours in.”
The hardest part for Wells came after the ordeal was over and record was set. “We took a rest after the end near Eagle Creek, Idaho, but we still had a four-hour paddle out and we were totally exhausted,” he says. “So we put back in, with the river flowing nearly 100,000 cfs. Aniol and Brendan went first, then Tyler. Then I peeled out and in about 100 yards I went straight into a huge hole and started side-surfing in my Green Boat. After about 30 seconds I told myself, ‘Well, I guess I swimming’ and pulled my skirt. I self-rescued and then we paddled the rest of the way out. We got a good chuckle about it afterwards.”
“It was a mission,” Bradt concludes, “and birthday to remember.”
— Stay tuned for the full account and exclusive video documenting the crew’s historic record-breaking expedition.
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