Need for speed

Need for speed

When I first ran the Grand Canyon in winter 2020, the last thought on my mind was: “Get me out of here as quickly as possible.”

In fact, I would have gladly stayed in the canyon for as long as possible. (Notwithstanding the fact we launched before COVID became a thing, only to re-emerge as shutdowns hit, toilet paper was being hoarded and people were doing something called elbow-bumping. It wasn’t until our stoned shuttle driver at Pearce Ferry told us “things are crazy out there” that we had an inkling something was amiss. But this is a different story, for a different time.)

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, I was in no rush to leave the Grand Canyon and its endless days of adventuring with friends, running rapids and making people shotgun Pink Vapor Stews for committing river running faux pas.

Some people, on the other hand, try to get out as quickly as possible. Recently, Adventure Journal compiled the “Greatest Grand Canyon Speed Runs” ranked not by speed, but by how amazing the feat was. It’s worth heading to AJ’s website to check it out, but here are a few highlights.

Our personal favorite came in at No. 5 when Walter Kirschbaum charged down the canyon in 1960. Kirschbaum had reportedly built a 14-foot kayak in his Denver home and lowered it out the attic window. When he asked the Park Service for a permit, he was denied because no one thought a kayaker could survive the journey.

Kirschbaum proceeded to engage in a “30-minute shouting match” that resulted in a challenge and a compromise: if he could prove he could run Cataract Canyon in the kayak, he could run the Grand. He promptly did both and became the first person to kayak the canyon without portaging and the only person to do so before Glen Canyon Dam went up.

Coming in at No. 2 is perhaps the best-known descent, famously chronicled in Kevin Fedarko’s “The Emerald Mile.” In 1983, three river runners – Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek and Steve Reynolds – clandestinely put on the river to take advantage of historic flows. They finished the 277-mile journey in 36 hours and 38 minutes. Just read the book.

And taking the cake, according to AJ, is a January 2016 run that broke the more than three-decade record of The Emerald Mile (the eponymous dory used in the 1983 voyage). As the story goes, four friends called “Team Beer” pulled a last-minute permit, borrowed some downriver kayaks, bought a 3-pound bucket of fried chicken and put on the canyon, drinking right out of the river along the way. Just three days after Team Beer took the record, yet another group stole the title.

Good stuff – though personally, I’d like to set the record for longest time spent in the canyon.

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