New Record Set for Grand Descent


If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s the mantra of Ben Orkin, 25, who, after coming up a few hours short due to repairing his partner’s sea kayak last year, went back to the Grand Canyon this January to set a new speed record for paddling the Big Ditch at 34 hours, 2 minutes. And his record came just a day after Matt Klema, who launched Wed., Jan. 20, in a party of four in 35 hours, 5 minutes.

The record for navigating the Grand’s entire 277-mile length had stood since Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek and Steve Reynolds
set the record in the wooden dory Emerald Mile in 36 hours, 38 minutes, as documented in Kevin Fedarko’s The Emerald Mile. But while the dory’s crew did it at 72,000 cfs, Klema and Orkin’s mark was set at normal winter fluctuations of between 12,000-17,000 cfs (about 4.5 mph).

Orkin, who left Lee’s Ferry at 2 am Saturday morning, January 23, did his trip in an 18-foot Epic sea kayak. His attempt last year set the record for a kayak, but not the overall speed record.

Klema’s crew consisted of his brother Nate, Ben Luck, and Ryan Casey. They left at 4:30 a.m., January 20, with Klema pulling ahead as the group neared Lake Mead. But their record was short-lived. Orkin, who was unaware of their trip when he launched, paddled at a pace of nearly 8 mph to best their mark. His only close call came when he had to wet exit his boat running Lava Falls in the moonlight, where he says he lost about an hour’s time. He also reportedly lost his GPS at river mile 271, relying on a back-up system.

According to Tom Martin, founder of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association, Orkin needed to be helped out of his kayak at Pearce Ferry, being unable to stand after sitting in his kayak for a day and a half..

Previous speed trips through the Grand:
Courtesy Tom Martin, Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association

1869: Major John Wesley Powell and crew rowed Whitehall oar boats through Grand Canyon on low water in 29 days.

1896: George Flavell and Ramon Montez rowed a small open boat through Grand Canyon on low water in thirteen days, 6 hours.

1939: Four men in two boats rowed through the Canyon in July at 12,000 cfs in 13 days, 4hours.

1949: Five men in a motor boat cruised through the Canyon in June at 58,000 cfs in 6 days,18 hours.

1951 Two men in a wooden row boat on less than 44,000 cfs cruised through Grand Canyon in June, 1951, in 52 hours 41 minutes.

1970: One man in a kayak late (exact dates and flow are unknown) cruised through in 49 hours.

1983: Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds set new record in wooden dory “The Emerald Mile” at 72,000 cfs in 36 hours, 38 minutes.

1993: Three men in a motorized sport boat make the cruise in 35 hours and 43 minutes for new motorized record.

2015: Ben Orkin sets new kayak record at 37 hours, 28 minutes.

2016: Matt Klema kayaks the river in January at 12,000-17,000 cfs in 35 hours, 5 minutes.

2016: Ben Orkin cruised the canyon on the same water level in 34 hours, 2 minutes.

“Each one of the records can be seen as a standalone achievement, but for shear speed, Ben Orkin’s is now the time to beat,” says Martin. “A number of river trips are planned later in the spring to attempt to do just that. Nevertheless, Kenton Grua would have been very happy about what happened. If you had been at Pearce Ferry to see what kind of shape Orkin was in, and listen to his stories, you might reconsider.