The First Grand Canyon Speed Run


With all this discussion about the latest crew attempt at a speedy cruise through Grand Canyon, I thought to look at the very first rowing river trip in Grand Canyon intended just to set a Speed Record.

There are a number of oar-powered speed records set in Grand Canyon. The “original” speed record for rowing would have been Powell, but he didn’t have any competition and didn’t even know he was in a race. Flavell and Montez beat Powell in 1896 and the duo’s record stood for over 40 years, thirteen days six hours. Harris and Loper bested the 1896 run in 1939 by two hours, but like Flavell, they were not racing and just didn’t stop to hike much.

Then things changed when Jim and Bob Rigg in a Cataract wooden row boat made the run in 1951.

In the early 1950s, just like today, a permit was required to float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. In order to get a permit, one had to write the Superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park. On June 5, 1951, Acting Superintendent Lemuel “Lon” Garrison received a a request for a permit to launch June 9. It was an unusual request, to say the least.

Just three days before, Jim Rigg had posted a letter to Garrison. Rigg was very specific in his letter. “We have two motives in doing this trip. One is to see how fast a cataract boat can be negotiated through the canyon and the other is to find out what the water is like at the stage it is now, so that in future years if we decide to run an earlier Grand Canyon trip, we will have some basis of knowledge on the water. Actually it is a belief that the trip can be made in one and a half days to the head waters of Lake Mead and to this end we will strive.”

Given there was only four days between Garrison receiving the request and the Rigg brothers intended launch date, the Superintendent sent a wire back to Rigg June 5. The wire said: NO OBJECTION YOUR CATARACT BOAT TRIP THROUGH GRAND CANYON BEGINNING JUNE 9. REQUEST AIR MAIL US COPY DETAIL ESCAPE AND RESCUE PLANS GOOD LUCK”

And strive they did. With permission in hand, the Rigg brothers launched on a dropping flow of 43,100 cfs on June 9. Their cruise, the first intended to be for speed, took 52 hours 41 minutes. The river dropped out from under them about 4,000 cfs during their cruise.

The Rigg brother’s time of 52:41:00 stood for over 30 years and theirs was the “original” speed record to beat.

Read Paddling Life story of recent attempt HERE