Will the Grand Canyon Speed Record Fall?

Kayakers are in the final stages of the an attempt to break the legendary record

Harrison Rea punching a wave in the Grand Canyon. Photo Scott Martin
Harrison Rea punching a wave on a Grand Canyon trip last winter. Photo Scott Martin

UPDATED: January 8 at 11:30 a.m. MST: Orkin and Rea have reached the end of the Grand Canyon with an unofficial time of 37 hours and 48 minutes. According to a source who spoke with Ben’s father, Arthur Orkin, the padders damaged one of their kayaks in Crystal Rapid yesterday and lost about an hour and a half to repairs. Don’t miss our follow-up story on the speed run with photos and more details.

UPDATED: January 8 at 10:27 a.m. MST: It looks like the 1983, high-water record will remain standing. Orkin and Rea have been on the water for over 37 hours and are approximately five miles from the finish.

UPDATED: January 8 at 9:02 a.m. MST: The latest GPS update shows the pair at river mile 265, only 12 miles from their goal of the Grand Wash Cliffs. Based on their pre-trip schedule, they are about an hour behind where they’d hoped to be at this point. Will they still be able to break the record?

UPDATED: January 8 at 8:35 a.m. MST: According to their GPS, Orkin and Rea passed Lava Falls early last night and were about 20 miles from the end of the canyon when their coordinates were last sent out at 7:45 a.m. A very strong finish could make them the fastest paddlers to descend the Grand.

Kayakers Ben Orkin and Harrison Rea are poised to make Grand Canyon history. The pair is currently on the water attempting to break a 31-year-old record for the fastest non-motorized descent of the canyon's 277-mile length. They left Lee's Ferry, Ariz., at 9:15 p.m. MST on January 6 and paddled continuously through the night, timing their run to face the majority of the difficult rapids in the light of the following day.

According to their GPS tracker, Orkin and Rea made it through the inner gorge before sunset on Wednesday and were still moving as night fell. As of 7 p.m., they were nearing Lava Falls, the crux of the iconic run, slightly ahead of their predicted schedule. If the duo can successfully navigate Lava despite exhaustion and lack of light, they will be on track to exit the canyon at Grand Wash Cliffs under the current record time of 36 hours and 38 minutes.

That record was set in a wooden dory during the flood year of 1983 by Kenton "Factor" Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds. Helped along by an raging 72,000 cfs of flow and a full moon, the team rowed nonstop for the duration of their run, slowed only by an upset in Crystal Rapid.

The high water of 1983 has not been matched since, and for decades the record was considered unbeatable. But the fact that the fastest time was clocked by dory–a relatively slow craft–has long tempted ambitious kayakers who believe the added speed of a fiberglass sea kayak would make the record vulnerable even at lower flows. In 2012, Harlan Taney, an accomplished kayak racer and Grand Canyon guide with more than 100 trips under his belt, made his attempt in a fiberglass EPIC X. Taney paddled through the first night without mishap, but suffered a shoulder injury in Grapevine Rapid and was forced to hike out of the canyon.

The 2013 publication of Kevin Fedarko's remarkably popular The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon, breathed even more life into the legend of the Grand Canyon speed record. Another bid for the fasted time was made last year, but it too was cut short after one of the paddlers swam in the first rapid.

Most recently, Orkin and Rea, of North Carolina, caught the bug. "We have been training hard the last several months and have dedicated ourselves to doing our best and beating the record," they said in a statement last week. "Although we don't have the advantage of high flows, we do have top of the line gear," including drysuits and EPIC 18X sea kayaks, similar to the one Taney used.

Orkin and Rea are under no illusions their wintertime attempt will be easy, "We will be paddling in the dark almost 22 hours in potentially sub-freezing temperatures and nearing exhaustion." But they hope that a successful run will generate interest in larger issues facing the canyon as well as the personal satisfaction of breaking the record.

"The Grand Canyon is facing numerous threats that would…change the very essence—the beauty, the tranquility, the power, the solitude, and the adventure—the Grand offers to the modern-day visitor," they said, referring to a proposed tram at the confluence of the Little Colorado that would take up to 10,000 visitors a day into the heart of the canyon as well as a housing development on the rim, which could dry up some of its perennial springs.

To claim the fastest descent of the canyon, Orkin and Rea will have to pass Grand Wash Cliffs before 10 a.m. on Thursday. But first comes Lava Falls…

Don’t miss our follow-up story on the speed run with photos and more details.

Follow Orkin’s and Rea’s progress here: https://share.delorme.com/grandcanyonspeedkayaktrip

Learn more about the history of the Grand Canyon speed record.

Read Kevin Fedarko’s New York Times op-ed about the proposed development in the Grand Canyon.