Grand Canyon Paddling Speed Record Broken Twice in Three Days

The speed record for paddling the length of the Grand Canyon was first set back in 1983, when three river guides rowed a wooden dory down the 277.1 mile (446 km) stretch of the Colorado River in 36 hours and 38 minutes. For more than three decades that mark stood as the time to beat, although very few people actually attempted to break it. But this past weekend, that record was broken not once, but twice, by two independent teams who didn’t even realize that they were both hoping to achieve the same goal.

Outside magazine has a great piece on their website explaining the entire story, and it is an interesting one. Essentially, no one really cared about this speed record until author Kevin Fedarko wrote a book called The Emerald Mile back in 2013 detailing the 1983 record row. That sparked a renewed interest in trying to beat the old record within the paddling community, with kayakers Ben Orkin and Harrison Rea trying to set a new record last January. They failed in that attempt, coming up an hour and ten minutes short.

But last week a new team of paddlers hit the water with the hope of chasing the record. Ben Luck, Ryan Casey, and Matt and Nate Klema set off on January 20, with Matt actually reaching the finish line in 35 hours and 5 minutes, shaving an hour and a half off the previous record. Of course the foursome were ecstatic over their success, but they soon began to hear rumblings of another kayaker who was about to attempt the record himself.

Ben Orkin, who had missed setting the record last year, was back out on the river on a solo mission this time. He had no idea that the other team was even trying to set the record, let alone that they had already accomplished that goal. He was preparing to put-in the Colorado on Saturday morning when he received an email from Ben Luck informing him of the new time to beat. Knowing that he’d now have to go even faster than he had previously thought, Orkin moved forward with his plans.

The paddle wasn’t an easy one. Orkin grew exhausted after paddling for hours on end completely on his own. He also flipped his kayak in some of the rough rapids, costing himself precious time. But in the end, he was able to best Matt’s new record, covering the distance between Lee’s Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs in 34 hours and 2 minutes, 57 minutes faster than the two-day old record.

You can read a lot more about this story on Outside Online, where more details of these record-setting paddles are shared. The interesting thing to watch now will be how many more people will attempt to kayak the Grand Canyon, and just how low this time can truly go.

Kraig Becker