In a motel room outside of Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, Ben Orkin’s alarm went off at 12:30 a.m. At 2 a.m. he was planning to launch his second attempt in as many years to become the first person to beat a 33-year-old record for fastest non-motorized descent of the Grand Canyon. His first attempt, in January 2015, failed when his partner, Harrison Rea, cracked the hull of his sea kayak in a rapid, causing them to miss the record by an hour.
After that, Orkin had dedicated himself to training all year for another attempt. He had spent a hundred days canoeing in Canada last summer. Last fall, he had quit his job to focus on kayaking, hiking, and climbing.
“I was in the best shape of my life,” he said.
Upon waking up, he casually checked his email one last time and received the last note he ever expected to receive. Another team had, quite literally, just broken the record.
“The email said, ‘Hey, good luck out there. Our time is around 35 hours. Just thought you should know,’” Orkin said. “I was on my way to the put-in. I was like, ‘Oh, man, I can’t believe I wasn’t the first person to break the Emerald Mile record!’”
That record, set in 1983, had become the stuff of legends, told by Grand Canyon rafting guides around campfires. An emergency situation at Glen Canyon Dam resulted in a downstream flood, surging at upwards of 70,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), through the Grand Canyon, a rate not been seen since the dam’s construction in 1966. It was under these circumstances that Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds, an opportunistic trio of wild men, piled into a wooden dory christened the Emerald Mile, and paddled the 277-mile stretch of Colorado River, from Lees Ferry to Grand Wash Cliffs, in an astonishing 36 hours and 38 minutes.
The story was ultimately brought to life in Kevin Fedarko’s excellent book, The Emerald Mile, published in 2013.
“No one really knew if you could break the Emerald Mile record at normal flows,” says Orkin, a 25-year-old CPA from Denver, Colorado. Orkin and Rea became paddling partners when they both lived in Portland, Oregon. It was on the network of Pacific Northwest rivers that the two partners started pushing themselves to run rivers as fast as possible. Sure enough, their times got faster, the stretches of river got longer, and eventually, according to Orkin, “the Grand Canyon was the next obvious step.”
For a number of reasons, kayakers hadn’t been actively trying to beat the record. Zak Podmore, an editor at Canoe and Kayak magazine, explains, “It was kind of an obscure record, and I just don’t know if there were that many people thinking of trying to do it in a kayak. You’d have find people who were willing to blow their one Grand Canyon permit for the year. And it just would be difficult and sustained.”
Permits are issued by the National Park Service using a lottery, with only one permit per person allotted per year.
“There will sometimes be five- or six-hundred people applying for a permit for one day in the summer,” Podmore says. “You might have to wait up to 20 years to get a permit then.”
Winter permits, however, are easier to come by, which explains why Rea and Orkin opted for January on their first attempt. They realized that to beat the record, they only had to average 7.5 miles per hour, which isn’t all that fast in the Grand Canyon, where the current averages between four and five miles per hour. They also used 18-foot sea kayaks, which are much faster than normal whitewater kayaks—not to mention hard-to-steer wood dories like the Emerald Mile—but they are also not built to withstand the abuse of being thrashed up against boulders in whitewater rapids. When Rea punctured a hole in his boat in the Crystal Rapid, the team lost an hour and a half to repairs, ultimately costing them the record. They finished in 37 hours and 48 minutes. Because of the permit system, they then had to wait over a year before making their next attempt.
“I would’ve loved for Harrison Rea to be there this year,” says Orkin, “But I was in the best shape of my life, and I realized that if I wanted to beat the Emerald Mile record, January was my only option to do so. So I decided to go for it alone.”
“I had no idea there was another team going for it, too,” he says. “They just came out of nowhere.”
Enter Team Beer
At 4:30 a.m. on January 20, expedition kayakers Ben Luck, Ryan Casey, and the brothers Matt and Nate Klema, launched their boats from Lees Ferry, and began paddling into near-full moonlight.
The foursome resurrected their old nickname of “Team Beer,” which they originally assumed during a successful self-supported 2010 expedition along with two other kayakers, Evan Ross and Matt Wilson, to paddle the Rio Huallaga in Peru, considered the last un-run tributary of the Amazon.
All four are extremely talented and experienced kayakers. The Klema brothers, for example, are veteran Grand Canyon guides who base out of Durango, Colorado. The elder brother, Matt, 31, has completed more than 80 trips through the Grand Canyon, which turned out to be a huge asset to the team.
According to an article in Canoe and Kayakarticle in Canoe and Kayak, Luck quipped, ““There wasn’t any point in the run—even if when it was the middle of the night—that Matt didn’t know exactly what river mile we were at. Matt would tell me the mile and I’d calculate how fast we were going.”
Team Beer took just one rest to stop and devour a three-pound bag of fried chicken. They drank their water straight from the river.
Two hours from the finish line, Matt Klema knew he had reserves, and broke away from his partners in a dead sprint, paddling as hard as ever. He reached the end with an official time of 35 hours and 5 minutes, besting the Emerald Mile’s record by a whopping 93 minutes. About 20 minutes later, Ben Luck followed. Nate Klema and Ryan Casey finished shortly thereafter.
Canoe and Kayak reported that Luck said, “What are the odds two teams would try in one week? This is shaping up like some kind of Shakespearean comedy.”
The email Orkin received moments before launching his own bid ended up being bittersweet. On one hand, he was disappointed he didn’t get to achieve his dream of being the first person to beat the Emerald Mile record. On the other, he now had a golden opportunity to get a new record—and he knew exactly what time he had to beat.
“I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am that they wrote that email,” says Orkin. “Just because I wouldn’t have gone as fast as I did. Had I not checked my email that night, I would’ve missed it completely. It speaks to how supportive and friendly the whole kayaking community really is.”
The next 35 hours—a 277-mile solo paddle through a remote river wilderness—ended up being one of the great adventures of Orkin’s life. Twenty-one hours into his paddle, Orkin capsized in Lava Falls, considered one of the toughest rapids in the entire stretch. He rolled upright, but over-rotated, and went back under right before a V-wave.
He made the decision to stay under and wait for flatter water before rolling again. Then he felt himself getting tucked against a rock known as the Cheese Grater.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
“It’s not a good place to be,” Orkin said. He slid off the rock, tried to roll, but at this point was out of breath. He pulled his skirt and swam the entire Lower Lava Falls rapid.
“It was probably the worst thing I ever thought could’ve happened,” Orkin said. To make matters worse, his relief zipper was open, and his dry suit had filled with water, making his legs too heavy to get back into his boat mid-stream.
Orkin, now nearing the point of exhaustion, realized that he’d have to make a decision: either say goodbye to his boat—as well as any chance he might have at beating the record—and save himself.
He found himself fighting to swim to shore in an eddy with his boat. After three or four failed attempts to reach shore, Orkin, now nearing the point of exhaustion, realized that he’d have to make a decision: either say goodbye to his boat—as well as any chance he might have at beating the record—and save himself. Or get to shore with the boat.
“And I finally did it!” Orkin said. “But at this point, I’d been fighting for 20 minutes, and I was exhausted, and cold.”
Despite losing an hour to Lava Falls, Orkin looked at his watch and knew he still had a chance. Undeterred, he drained his boat and his suit, and was immediately back on the river.
He finished in 34 hours and 2 minutes, a new record by more than an hour.
Orkin has no doubt that his record could be beaten. “I’m not a great kayaker,” he says. “I’m a little bit above average. There are tons of people out there who could definitely take the record.”
Ironically, it seems unlikely, at least in Orkin’s eyes, that single-push speed descents of the Grand Canyon will catch on.
“I really enjoy spending time in the Grand Canyon,” he says. “And with the stupid one-trip-per-year-rule, I’d rather have my next trip be 25 days than 34 hours.”