Last Tuesday morning, I watched Ben Luck pull out of my driveway with a yellow Perception Wavehopper strapped to the roof of his car. Luck, a college friend, had stopped at my house in southeastern Utah on his way to the Lee's Ferry where he was meeting three other kayakers. They were about to attempt to break an obscure record that had circulated among the paddling community for three decades: the fastest river descent of the Grand Canyon.
"I had no energy left. I grabbed onto my boat and pulled my skirt." — Ben Orkin on his harrowing night swim in Lava Falls
A few hours after Luck drove off, I received an email from Ben Orkin, a paddler based out of Aurora, Colo. I'd interviewed Orkin one year ago when he'd tried to set the same record.
"Just wanted to give you a heads up," his message read. "I’m launching Saturday for a solo attempt at the Grand Canyon speed run."
Neither party knew of the other's plans. This was going to get interesting.
* * *
George Mallory's famous quip regarding his motivation for climbing Everest — "Because it's there" — could be applied just as easily to racing a boat down the Grand Canyon at top speed. Why not? But only a handful of boaters have taken up the challenge over the years since making a nonstop descent of the 277-mile run requires running rapids such as Lava Falls in the dark after more than 20 hours of continuous paddling. The Riggs brothers made what could be considered the first speed run in 1951 when they rowed a cataract-style wooden boat through the canyon in 53 hours; Fletcher Anderson, a pioneering Southwestern boater, made a 49-hour solo kayak descent in the late 1970s; and in 1983 Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds completed a now-legendary run on a flood of 70,000 cfs in a wooden dory named the Emerald Mile. Their record of 36 hours and 38 minutes was the time to beat.
In early 2015, Ben Orkin and his paddling partner Harrison Rea proved that breaking that record in a kayak was possible, even without a flood. They missed the Emerald Mile's time by about an hour but were delayed when they were forced to repair a kayak at Crystal Rapid. They'd done it on relatively low flows (the river was cycling between 10,000 and 18,000 cfs). They'd launched at night in the dead of winter and had done most of the run in the dark. After getting back into shape on a 95-day canoe trip in northern Canada last summer, Orkin was itching to give it another shot. But the difficulty of obtaining river permits combined with the Park Service rule that limits paddlers to one Grand Canyon trip per year required him to wait until January before he could make another attempt.
Luck, 27, had been discussing a potential speed bid with two of his closest paddling friends, brothers Matt and Nate Klema of Durango, Colo., since a Flagstaff boater named Harlan Tanney had gone for the record in 2012. An injury forced Tanney to hike out at Phantom Ranch, but Luck's interest was piqued. When he won a January river permit last fall, he quickly began laying plans with the Klemas. Both brothers were veteran Grand Canyon guides for the company Azra. The elder brother Matt, though only 31 years old, had over 80 Grand trips under his belt and Nate, 27, wasn't far behind. An experienced Idaho paddler named Ryan Casey rounded out the group. The 38-year-old was champion of the first North Fork Championships on the Payette River in 2012, which many consider to be the most challenging event in whitewater kayaking.
Together the paddlers sometimes refer to themselves as Team Beer, a name they took on a largely under-the-radar mission to paddle the last unrun tributary of the Amazon River, Peru's Rio Huallaga. The remote, Class V canyon had already thwarted two high-profile groups of kayakers, but it would be the unsponsored Team Beer — a six-man crew consisting of the four speed paddlers along with Matt Wilson and Evan Ross — that would notch the first descent in 2010. In the years since, Luck and the Klemas have crisscrossed the globe with different incarnations of Team Beer, making remote, exploratory runs from Siberia to Chile. Needless to say, all four paddlers were well qualified to take on the Grand Canyon's Class III-IV whitewater, even under the demanding circumstances of a speed run. "We wanted to challenge our abilities as a team on an aesthetic river, which is what we love to do," Luck said. They borrowed plastic downriver boats, three Pyranha Speeders and Luck's Wavehopper, and mapped out their plan. At 4:30 a.m. on January 20, they launched.
"My dad told me I'd have to be my own cheerleader, and he was right," Orkin laughed.
The Klema brothers' guiding experience proved to be a major asset for the crew. "There wasn't any point in the run — even if when it was the middle of the night — that Matt didn't know exactly what river mile we were at," recalls Luck. "Matt would tell me the mile and I'd calculate how fast we were going." Their goal was to average eight miles per hour which would bring them to the end of the canyon roughly two hours ahead of the Emerald Mile's record.
The brothers had blinking red lights on the back of their boats so Luck and Casey could follow them through rapids they'd have to run in the dark. For Matt, one of the highlights was seeing the canyon he knew so well from an entirely different perspective. "It was amazing just to experience the whole canyon in one fell swoop," says Matt who's worked for twelve full seasons as a Grand Canyon guide. "One of the coolest river experiences I ever had was paddling the stretch above Lava at night. I didn't turn my light on once. The moonlight was just incredible."
Team Beer had barely paused since setting out. They'd eaten a three-pound bag of fried chicken between strokes (a culinary pro-tip Luck received from whitewater legend Tommy Hilleke) and scooped their drinking water straight from the river. Despite their fatigue, they all continued to nail their lines into the canyon's lower whitewater; none of the team would roll during the entire run.
A few hours from the finish line, Matt Klema broke away from his companions. "I knew I had a lot left," he said afterwards. "I definitely dug as deep as I could for the last two hours of the lake. I was going about as hard as I could paddle." With his forearms inflamed with tendonitis, Klema cut open the gaskets on his drysuit to increase blood circulation just as the Grand's first speed kayaker, Fletcher Anderson, had done close to 40 years earlier. The push paid off; when Klema crossed the Grand Wash Cliffs, he officially became the fastest person to traverse the length of the canyon, beating both the Emerald Mile's time and a motorized record set in 1993. The others all arrived shortly thereafter.
As Team Beer was floating down to the Pearce Ferry takeout Thursday afternoon — exhausted, blistered and chafed after almost a day and a half of paddling — Orkin was driving to the put-in at Lee's Ferry, still unaware that the record had just fallen. "I had no idea there was even another attempt in the works," he said later.
On Friday, Orkin arranged his gear and was able to get an early checkout from the ranger. He decided to push his start time back by 19 hours and launch on Saturday morning at 2 a.m. After midnight, he was driving to the boat ramp when he checked his email one last time. There was a message from Luck: "Wanted to let you know that a group of four of us put in on Thursday and completed the river in 35 hours," it read. "Just felt like you should know. Best of luck out there."
"One of the coolest river experiences I ever had was paddling the stretch above Lava at night. I didn't turn my light on once. The moonlight was just incredible." — Matt Klema
Orkin was stunned, both by the news and by Luck's willingness to compromise his team's record by getting the word out. "It was incredible of [Luck] to let me know there was a new time to beat," Orkin remarked. "There wouldn’t have been anything worse than finishing in 35 hours and 30 minutes, thinking I'd got the record but actually being 25 minutes too slow. So I'm very grateful he did that even if it was hard for him."
Knowing about the new record helped Orkin concentrate at the daunting task ahead of him, which was made even more difficult by the fact that he knew exactly how hard the next 277 miles were going to be. The email "got me in the mindset to push myself," he said. "Once I heard somebody else had set a record, I knew it was game on."
As dawn broke on Saturday morning, Orkin was feeling strong and was somewhat surprised to find that he was averaging around eight and a half miles per hour, a speed that, if maintained, would bring him through the whole canyon two hours ahead of Matt Klema's new record. Orkin was paddling a composite Epic 18X sea kayak, a boat much lighter than the models Team Beer had used and with nearly four more feet of waterline. "I let go of my worries and realized I really could do this," Orkin said.
That optimism had begun to wane, however, by the end of the day. He flipped several times and was having trouble with his roll. "I was having some major issues. I don't know what was going on," Orkin admitted. The biggest rapid was still to come: Orkin would have to run Lava Falls in the dark–and alone. "I had a bad feeling about it," he said. "I thought I was going to roll or swim."
Unfortunately, that intuition came true. As he dropped into the right slot of the rapid, he flipped in the surging V-wave at the top. He tried to roll but felt himself being pushed onto the large boulder on river right that is infamous to rafters: Cheese Grater Rock. By the time his boat slid back in the current, Orkin was spent. "I had no energy left. I grabbed onto my boat and pulled my skirt." Just when it seemed like things couldn't get any worse, Orkin felt water soaking into insulating layers under his drysuit. He'd accidentally left his zipper slightly open and now the waterlogged suit was dragging him down as he floated through the waves of Lower Lava rapid. "My headlamp wasn't doing much from water level. I knew I'd have to abandon my boat or leave it try to swim to shore." About a quarter mile downstream, he felt himself wash into an eddy. For 20 minutes he floated in a circle, knowing shore was close by but unable to kick himself to safety. Again, Orkin considered dropping his boat, an action that would almost certainly require him to call for a helicopter evac after a long, cold night on the riverbank. He decided to make one final push. "I gave it everything I got," he stated flatly. Soon, he felt sand beneath his feet.
Orkin looked at his watch. He realized he could still beat the record, but there was little time to waste. Barely pausing to catch his breath he slid back into his kayak, and with water still sloshing in the legs of his drysuit, he pushed on. It was close to midnight. He'd been on the water for 21 hours.
"I think I lost an hour from the swim. I wasted so much energy getting to shore, and I was sitting in a pool of cold water for the rest of the trip. That drained a lot of energy."
Nonetheless, Orkin didn't want to take any chances on missing the record and having to decide whether to make a third attempt. He ground out the next hundred miles with a steadfast determination. "My dad told me I'd have to be my own cheerleader, and he was right," Orkin laughed. Midday on Sunday, he passed the Grand Wash Cliffs with a time of 34 hours and 2 minutes.
The Emerald Mile's record, which had stood for over three decades, had been broken twice in three days.
Team Beer was following Orkin's progress from back home as he crossed Lake Mead. Watching his GPS tracker move downriver, they knew their efforts had been bested.
"It's good for everyone, I think," Matt Klema said after hearing the news that his time had already been beaten. "[Orkin] gets the fastest time and we got to break the [Emerald Mile's] record. And more importantly, we got to have this amazing river experience."
Luck concurred. "We knew that somebody was going to be faster eventually, so what's the difference if our record lasted three decades or three days? We crushed what we went down there to do in borrowed plastic boats with our best friends — and we did it straight off the couch in true Team Beer style. That's what matters to me."
For Orkin's part, he's just glad he came out with the top time and in one piece. "I wanted to push myself to my own limits, and I achieved that goal. I've never been so sore though," he added. "I'm headed down the Black Canyon [a flatwater stretch of the Colorado River] tomorrow with my family and I'm definitely looking forward to soaking in the hot springs."
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