At the nightly campfires on Colorado River trips through the Grand Canyon, stories make their way into legends, passed down from veteran boaters or guides, or read from books kept in the “library box” on one boat.
Some of the names in those stories are those of people who died in the canyon, some are the brave folks who first explored it, and one is the river guide who thought he could pilot a wooden boat down the Colorado faster than anyone ever had – and did, in 1983.
Kenton Grua is the star of author Kevin Fedarko’s bestselling book, The Emerald Mile, as the driving force behind the fastest run of the Grand Canyon ever: 277 miles from Lee’s Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs in just under 37 hours. Grua teamed up with fellow guides Rudi Petschek and Steve Reynolds to ride a massive 70,000 cfs rush of water through the canyon, switching out rowing shifts every 15 to 20 minutes and continuing on through the darkness to beat the previous record by more than 10 hours.
Grua was born in Salt Lake City and moved to Vernal, Utah, the birthplace of commercial raft guiding in the United States, when he was 12. He took a trip on the Green River for his 12th birthday and was hooked. His father bought him a 10-person raft, and Grua spent his teens exploring his backyard rivers, biding his time until his 18th birthday, when he could approach Ted Hatch about a guiding job with Hatch River Expeditions in Vernal. After his first quarter at the University of Utah, Hatch gave Grua a job patching boats in the warehouse for the winter, and three months later, Grua went on his first training trip through the Grand Canyon, with a group of older guides. He lied about his age, saying he was 22, and told them he’d been working in the Canyon for a couple years-then he almost flipped a boat in Lava Falls.
After four years working as a raft guide, Grua found his calling in the canyon: Rowing wooden dory boats for Martin Litton’s Grand Canyon Dories. Safely navigating a wooden boat through the canyon is an art form, which Grua learned, then mastered, earning the nickname “The Factor” because he was so much of an additional factor to consider on a river trip. He acquired one of the wrecked dories, The Emerald Mile, and began to rebuild it on his own time, and eventually recruit Petschek and Reynolds for his speed attempt in the resurrected boat.
As much as Grua’s prowess at the oars made him famous within river circles, his obsession was what truly made him The Factor. Grua read Colin Fletcher’s famous book, “The Man Who Walked Through Time,” in 1969, and was upset that Fletcher more or less claimed to have walked the length of the Grand Canyon, when he’d only done about 100 river miles out of 300-and was also offended that Fletcher had dissed one of his hiking heroes, Dr. Harvey Butchart. So he decided to walk the length of the Grand Canyon properly – by himself. He studied the book, and on river trips, scouted a possible hiking route while looking up at the canyon walls from his boat. On his second attempt, in 1977, he walked the length of the canyon, from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs, in 36 days. He estimated that he walked around 600 miles, because of the circuitous route he had to take. He did nothing to publicize his accomplishment, aside from telling a few river guides.
Grua died in 2002, at age 52, when he suffered a spontaneous aortic dissection while mountain biking on a trail near his home in Flagstaff. He had worked for Grand Canyon Dories for 30 years of his life. In 1990 and 1997, river guide and television producer Lew Steiger conducted a series of interviews with Grua, and in one of the interviews, Steiger asked Grua what he thought happened to the clients he took down the Colorado on river trips.
“You’re just blown away that this river could cut this canyon, that could just go on and on and on,” Grua said. “It seems like as the trip goes on, you get into it a few days and it just goes on and on and the canyon is different every day, different every minute and every second. Huge river and just this unfathomable amount of water is flowing by over these rapids and flats, and the walls just keep getting higher, and it just keeps getting better and better and better and better every day, and it just seems like it’s going to go on forever, and then all of a sudden, boom, it’s over. You just go, ‘Wow!’ My first trip was like that. And I think most people’s first trip, when they come down there, is just like this… It’s kind of like it’s going on forever and it’s like this whole lifetime that goes on and you start out this little baby, and you grow up, but before you know it -and it’s probably just like being alive-it’s all over, and you want to do it again. It’s probably like being alive, really.”