The eight of them knew before they started that the record was probably out of reach. A successful speed run through the 277-mile Grand Canyon depends on many factors but none so much as river flow, and as the team launched their custom 40-foot cataraft one minute before midnight last Thursday, the Colorado was flowing at a relatively anemic 14,500 cubic feet per second, and dropping.
“One of the guys on the team is a hydrologist, so we had a pretty good idea that beating the kayak record was probably out of reach,” said team captain John Mark Seelig. Six hours in, there was no question. The record wasn’t going to happen, and they had another 30 hours of suffering ahead of them, give or take.
Most of them had made a speed run three years before in a similar craft, and knew just what to expect: Cold, fatigue, sleep deprivation, blisters, and frostbite, but also moments of magic.
“Everybody experiences the canyon differently,” Seelig said, and a speed run compresses all the lows and highs of a 21-day canyon trip into one glorious 36-hour blur—or less, if you can time the flows properly.
Nobody timed it better than the crew of the Emerald Mile. In 1983, as Lake Powell threatened to overtop the dam and engineers released as much water as they dared into Grand Canyon—some 72,000 cubic feet per second—the trio put on to the maelstrom in the Emerald Mile, a once-wrecked wooden dory rebuilt by the mission’s instigator, the late Kenton Grua. They took turns rowing day and night, and finished the 277 miles from Lee’s Ferry to Pearce Ferry in 36 hours and 38 minutes.
Their record stood until January 2016, when a crew of underground kayaking legends pulled a permit and made an off-the-couch speed run in borrowed kayaks. Scooping water directly from the river and fortified with a three-pound bucket of fried chicken, all four members of Team Beer beat the Emerald Mile’s mark, with Matt Klema first across the line in 35 hours, 5 minutes. Three days later, solo kayaker Ben Orkin lowered the record to 34 hours, 2 minutes.
That’s the time Seelig and his team set out to break earlier this month, albeit in a craft nothing like the sleek carbon fiber sea kayak Orkin used.
“Since the Emerald Mile there’s only been two non-kayak speed runs, and that’s us—both times,” Seelig said, adding that rafts don’t slice through water like a kayak; they push it out of the way.
The crew designed and built a 40-foot cataraft especially for this attempt, rigging it with six sliding-seat rowing setups similar to those found in Olympic racing shells. The design philosophy counters the raft’s inherent inefficiency with brute force—products of the team’s grueling training regime and rowing stations engineered to harness every major muscle group.
The craft is unlike anything in the long history of Grand Canyon river-running, though it borrows DNA from some familiar designs. The steering oar is reminiscent of the sweep boats commercial outfits run on the Middle Fork Salmon, while the six oars give it a passing similarity to a standard oar raft—except that each boatman wields one oar, not two. That puts a premium on teamwork, with the rower in each position having a specific role on whitewater.
In that way it’s similar to the paddle rafts in which the majority of the crew cut their competitive teeth as members of the U.S. Whitewater Raft Team. The core group of Seelig, Robbie Prechtl, Jeremiah Williams, Matt Norfleet, and Kurt Kincel has campaigned together for nine years, racing in multiple world rafting championships and testing their river skills on the ocean at the Na Pali Challenge outrigger canoe race on Kauai. At least that adventure involved their customary paddles. Rowing was a whole new game.
They built their first sliding-seat cataraft for their January 2017 speed run. Riding moderate flows of about 20,000 cfs, they were on pace to beat Orkin’s record until they wiped out in Lava Falls. They spent four hours making repairs as the record ticked away.
This time they engineered a sturdier and more maneuverable raft, and enlisted veteran Grand Canyon guides Justin Salamon, Lyndsay Hupp, and Omar Martinez to drive the unlikely craft through the Canyon’s 130-odd rapids, most of which they ran in the dark.
The cold and limited daylight of a winter run compounded the challenge, but permits in more hospitable seasons are hard to come by. While some river-runners would say that racing through Grand Canyon verges on sacrilege, the community overall has been overwhelmingly supportive. More than 50 people hiked down the Bright Angel trail to cheer the team as they passed Phantom Ranch.
At an event in Flagstaff two days before they launched, an old boatman took Seelig aside. “He was one of Kenton Grua’s really close friends, and he said to me, ‘Make sure you enjoy that nighttime. Not a lot of people get to experience the Grand Canyon and running Lava at night,’” Seelig said.
About two-thirds of the descent was in the dark, with some of the most consequential rapids coming during the second night. They reached Upset Rapid before the rising moon cleared the canyon walls, the only illumination coming from the Milky Way and spotlights mounted on the cataraft. Salamon was smitten.
“The light on the water, the light on the wall, everything sparkling. I’d never seen it like that before,” said the veteran guide, who’s been through the canyon about 60 times.
By the time they reached Lava Falls the moon was overhead, fat and full, casting hard shadows in its silvery light. “It felt like it was the middle of the day. It was breathtaking,” Seelig says. “We could see from shore to shore, we could see the walls, we could see every single feature. It was wild.”
Lava had ended the team’s 2017 speed attempt, and nearly derailed Orkin’s record run in 2016. The kayaker rolled in V-Wave, slammed into Cheese Grater Rock, and swam. He spun in an eddy for about 20 minutes before he was able to collect his boat and himself and continue downstream.
River-runners count Lava among the canyon’s most formidable rapids, but it’s even more of a crux in the dead of night, more than 20 hours into a nonstop speed run in sub-freezing temperatures. “There were lots of moments of doubt before Lava,” Salamon said. “But we were all at our best once the time came.”
This time, their line was perfect.
“It was remarkable,” said Salamon. “The boat’s almost 40 feet long and it’s so intuitive; everybody’s making little corrections. We’re all working together, communicating with each other through the rapids. We really got in our groove.”
The team pushed hard from top to bottom, and while Orkin’s record was never in danger, the Emerald Mile’s record for oar-driven craft was in play well into the second day. They finished in 37 hours and 55 minutes, the fastest time ever for an inflatable boat, but an hour and 7 minutes off the Emerald Mile’s flood-driven pace and nearly four hours behind Orkin’s kayak mark.
With the help of the boating community they did crush one goal however, raising more than $13,000 for Grand Canyon Youth, an organization that provides river experiences to young people in the Southwestern United States. The total surpassed the target of $10,000 and validated the team’s decision to push through despite the low water levels.
“The sentiment was we’re going for it no matter what, because this is just something we want to get to do, but also because it became bigger than us and bigger than the actual event,” Salamon said. “I think it really captivated the community, which was beautiful.”
Maybe that’s why Seelig and Salamon can sound so upbeat less than 48 hours after missing the record, and why none of the crew have had a negative thing to say afterward—though they vented plenty during the run. “We’re yelling in the boat, ‘Screw this! We’re going to burn this boat! We’re never doing this again!’” Seelig said.
“In the middle of the second night, I was kinda making plans to never do an endurance thing again,” added Salamon. “But as soon as the sun came up we all started talking about what could be different. I for one would be there in a heartbeat, but only if we knew the water was going to be higher than what we just had.
Below: Forest Woodward and Brendan Leonard’s short film about the 2017 Speed Run.
To read more about the Emerald Mile run, check out Kevin Fedarko’s book, the Emerald Mile.
Top photo: The team passing under the Black Suspension Bridge, Grand Canyon Mile 88. Dierdre O’Connell via Facebook.