On the morning of January 7, 2015, after 12 hours and nearly 100 miles of hard paddling, Ben Orkin dropped into the Grand Canyon's Crystal Rapid. Aware of the massive hydraulic that makes Crystal infamous to Grand Canyon boaters, he hugged the right bank, leaving a wide margin between himself and the rapid's meat. But when he looked back upstream to check on his paddling partner, Harrison Rea, he saw an 18-foot composite sea kayak cartwheeling end over end in Crystal's biggest hole. "I knew something wasn't right," says Orkin with some understatement.
The pair had launched at 9:15 p.m. and paddled through the night, determined to continue nonstop for 277 miles and become the fastest non-motorized boaters to traverse the Grand Canyon from Lee's Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs. The time to beat was 36 hours and 38 minutes. Orkin and Rea were on track to finish in about 36 hours. And then came Crystal.
It wasn't the first time that Crystal played the spoiler in a Grand Canyon speed run. More than 30 years ago, with the Colorado flowing at a raging 72,000 cfs, three men put on the canyon in a wooden dory called The Emerald Mile, and capsized in a monstrously inflated version of the very same hole that upended Rea's kayak. The men aboard the dory–Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds—weren't pausing to scout any rapids, and they too had rowed through the night. But unlike Rea and Orkin who were in the canyon with a Park Service permit, the crew of The Emerald Mile was evading park authorities on an illegal descent of the canyon. Unaware that the hole in Crystal was so swollen by the flood that it had caused a fatality the day before, the boatmen entered the rapid, quickly flipped, and suffered a horrendous swim. They managed to regroup in the eddy below and went on to set the speed record.
Now Orkin and Rea were trying to beat that time. "We knew it was possible before trip," Orkin told C&K on Thursday. "We wanted a challenge."
The two met a few years back on the Illinois River near Orkin's home in Portland, Ore., and they began discussing the run in March. While the majority of other speed attempts were undertaken by seasoned Grand Canyon guides with up to 100 trips under their belts, Orkin, 24, had paddled the Grand only seven times, most recently on a training trip that finished just six days before the speed run. Rea, 23, was even less experienced. When the Georgia-based boater paddled away from the ramp and into the dark, it was only his second time in the canyon.
The kayakers decided to make their attempt in January, with its long nights and near-freezing temperatures, not for any strategic reason but simply because it was the only date they could get a coveted Grand Canyon permit. And even though they were riding a river cycling between 10,000 and 18,000 cfs—a fraction of the volume that sped along The Emerald Mile—Orkin and Rea were each paddling an Epic 18X Performance sea kayak, a far more efficient craft than a dory. They knew they had to average just over 7.5 miles per hour and thought it was possible maintain that speed in their light, hydrodynamic boats.
But speed means sacrificing durability. The 18X's hull material–a composite of fiberglass, carbon fiber, and Kevlar–is no match for plastic. In Crystal, "Harrison's kayak actually hit the bottom of the river," Orkin says. "It was cracked along the top and bottom of the deck and quickly filled with three to four inches of water." Slapping a quick patch on the boat in the eddy below Crystal, the team ran a few more rapids before they realized they needed to pull over. They emptied the water and waited for the boat to dry so they could do a more substantial repair job.
"We probably lost a an hour and a half total," Orkin added. "And it took us a while to get back in the groove just because it was a little disturbing; you don't really want a hole in your boat."
Shaken but determined, they paddled on. Snow lined the banks, and each had only one pogie to keep their hands warm after a pair was lost in the second rapid of the run. A few rolls but no other delays occurred that day.
As night fell, however, Orkin's spirits began to drag. "The first night was much easier. By the second night, we'd been up for 36 hours. We were stressed by trying to make up time from the boat repair. Energy levels were low."
They arrived at Lava Falls at 10 p.m. When planning the trip, they'd hoped the moon would be up by the time they reached the canyon's largest rapid. No such luck. "It was completely dark," Orkin remembers, "and sitting in the eddy above Lava was a little terrifying." Forced to rely on the 12-volt Rigid Industries ATV lights they'd mounted on their boats for light, Orkin and Rea had trouble lining up for a clean run. Orkin flipped but rolled up and both finished the big rapid unscathed.
With the most intimidating whitewater behind them, they kept each other up by singing and telling jokes, though unseen currents in the dark constantly frustrated them. "The sea kayaks really like to turn around in eddies," Orkin says. "It was so demoralizing when you facing upstream in an eddy and Harrison was 300 yards ahead."
As daylight broke, they knew they were behind schedule if they still wanted to beat The Emerald Mile's record time. Before the trip the two had discussed what would happen if one person was a stronger paddler and had the chance to break the 1983 record. They agreed they wouldn't split up before river mile 217, but would consider paddling the last 60 miles solo. "I was going a little faster than Harrison at 217, but we didn't end up splitting up until later," Orkin reports.
But even as Orkin ground on ahead, the delay from the boat repair proved too costly. He arrived exhausted at Grand Wash Cliffs 37 hours and 48 minutes after launching, one hour and 10 minutes slower than The Emerald Mile's flood-assisted run. Orkin was asleep when Rea pulled up to the Pearce Ferry takeout.
Despite failing to beat the non-motorized record, the pair became the fastest kayakers to complete the canyon, taking the lead in a category legendary whitewater pioneer Fletcher Anderson started in the late '70s when he completed a solo kayak descent of the canyon in 49 hours.
"I'm feeling surprisingly well," Orkin said after a big plate of post-takeout chicken fajitas. "A little faster would have been a little nicer, but that's how it goes."
—Read more about the history of the Grand Canyon speed record.
—Check out the map of Orkin’s and Rea’s run.
Watch a video of Orkin’s training run down Lava Falls in his Epic 18X Performance sea kayak: