Updated 1/25/16: Ben Orkin finished his run Sunday morning with a new record time of 34 hours and 2 minutes. CLICK HERE for the full story, including details of Orkin’s harrowing midnight swim through Lava Falls.
* * *
Leave it to the river gods. A record that has been elevated to the level of myth around Grand Canyon campfires for 32 years could fall twice in one week.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, four paddlers — Ben Luck, Ryan Casey and brothers Matt and Nate Klema — were preparing to make Grand Canyon history. They loaded their kayaks, three Pyranha Speeders and a Perception Wavehopper, and arranged their tracking devices to begin transmitting. The men knew that if they could maintain a pace of just over 7.5 miles per hour for 277 miles, they would beat the non-motorized speed record set in 1983 by a wooden dory named the Emerald Mile. At exactly 4:30 a.m. on January 20, 2016, they shoved off into the moonlight.
It wasn’t the first time that someone would challenge the dory’s time of 36 hours and 38 minutes that was set in June of 1983 during the largest flood the Grand Canyon has seen since the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. In 2012, river guide Harlan Tanney rode a simulated flood of 40,000 cubic feet per second through the canyon but was forced to abort his attempt at Phantom Ranch after sustaining an elbow injury. In 2014, the Emerald Mile‘s run, which was completed by Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds, saw even more attention when it became the subject of a best-selling book by Kevin Fedarko. In January of 2015, Ben Orkin and Harrison Rea were on track to beat the record until Rea’s boat was damaged in Crystal Rapid and they were delayed by repairs. Orkin went onto set a new kayak speed record of 37 hours and 48 minutes but missed the Emerald Mile‘s time by just over an hour.
On Saturday morning at 1:00 a.m. PST, Orkin launched for a second attempt, solo this time. Less than 36 hours earlier, the four paddlers who set out on Wednesday had finally done it: they’d all passed the Grand Wash Cliffs that mark the end of the Grand Canyon ahead of the Emerald Mile‘s record.
One of the group, Ben Luck, checked in with C&K on Friday night to report that fellow Colorado boater Matt Kelma, 31, had broken away from the group in the upper reaches of Lake Mead. Klema clocked in with an unofficial time of 35 hours and 5 minutes, more than one-and-a-half hours ahead of the 1983 non-motorized record. Klema also finished 38 minutes ahead of the motorized record that was set in 1993, becoming the fastest person to traverse the entire canyon. “Matt’s the strongest person I know — mentally and physically,” Luck says of his longtime paddling partner. Luck finished about 20 minutes behind Klema and was closely followed by Nate Klema, also from Durango, Colo., and Ryan Casey of Idaho.
Luck learned of Orkin’s pending bid upon finishing his run and attempted to find him while running shuttle at Lee’s Ferry on Friday. He also looked at the Cliff Dwellers Lodge where Orkin was reportedly staying. Upon failing to find him in person, Luck notified Orkin of the new record via email on Friday evening, but it’s not clear whether Orkin became aware of the new development before setting out.
“What are the odds two teams would try in one week?” says Luck. “This is shaping up like some kind of Shakespearean comedy.”
As of mid-day on Saturday, Orkin was matching pace with the crew that set the new record, averaging just over 8 miles per hour. The last transmission from his tracker at 10:06 a.m. PST showed him below Hance Rapid at the top of the Inner Gorge.
—READ the full story of both speed runs.
More from C&K