Emerald Mile Oarsman Rudi Petschek on the Breaking of his Grand Canyon Speed Record

The two back-to-back speed records set in the Grand Canyon last week sparked off a series of debates across social media and in river runners’ living rooms: Could racing through such a beautiful place ever be justified? Was it possible to compare the kayakers who made the 277-mile speed run to the previous record which was set in a wooden dory? Wasn’t that like comparing apples and oranges, or, as river historian Tom Martin put it in a comment on our website, “apples and pasta”? With arguments still flying, we decided to get an expert opinion on these questions. We caught up with Rudi Petschek, the last surviving member of the three-man crew which set the previous speed record.

In 1983, Petschek, along with fellow river guides Kenton Grua and Steve “Wren” Reynolds, traversed the canyon’s entire 277-mile length in just 36 hours and 38 minutes, besting a time of 47 hours Petschek, Grua and Wally Rist set in 1980. For both runs, their craft was a wooden dory named the Emerald Mile. On the latter trip, the three men took turns on the oars, rowing — illegally — through day and night on a flood of 72,000 cubic feet per second, the largest the Grand had seen since the construction of Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s. The boat flipped in a mammoth incarnation of Crystal Rapid, but through combination of luck and honed whitewater skill, the trio was able to climb back aboard the dory in the runout to the swollen rapid, right it, and go onto set the record time.

The story of this epic run became widely known through Kevin Fedarko’s 2013 book also called The Emerald Mile, which relied heavily on interviews conducted with Petschek. Now a resident of Nevada City, California, the 82-year-old river guide who’s been down the Grand Canyon a whopping 94 times, shared his thoughts on the recent events over email.

Grua resting in the Emerald Mile. Photo by Rudi Petschek.
Grua resting in the Emerald Mile. Photo by Rudi Petschek.

C&K: It’s been a wild week. Your non-motorized record, which lasted more than 30 years, has been broken twice in three days.
Rudi Petschek: I have written congratulatory messages to Matt Klema and Ben Orkin expressing my admiration. I am very impressed that Matt and Ben succeeded on relatively low-volume fluctuating flows in mid-winter, and I’m surprised that the new record was set on an average flow of barely 14,500 cfs.

Many people have been discussing whether it’s fair to put your dory run in the same category as a kayak descent. What are your thoughts?
The challenges faced by kayakers attempting a Grand Canyon speed run are, for the most part, entirely different from those faced by an oar-powered row boat, so much so that it becomes a stretch to compare the two (apples and oranges). For instance, the three of us took turns at the oars, while paddlers are on their own the whole way. We could intermittently relax our bodies because we took turns rowing, but not our minds because of the extreme turbulence. Matt and Ben could intermittently relax their minds because of so much flat water, but not their bodies. So you see, the challenges are opposite, except for overall endurance which is common to both.

The Emerald Mile‘s 1983 record run was perhaps more risky on account of our scant familiarity with the extreme turbulence of 72,000 cfs, which kept us constantly on edge. On the other hand, the physical demands on a record-breaking kayaker on a continuous 277 mile run through Grand Canyon are such that they require a top-rated athlete in peak condition performing at 100 percent. The Emerald Mile crews that set the 1980 and 1983 records were, although very experienced in Grand Canyon, just journeymen commercial river guides attempting our speed run during a break in our commercial boating schedule.

Both your 1983 descent and Ben Orkin’s recent run required overcoming some pretty intense swims to go on and set the record.
Ben’s recovery from his Lava experience, solo in the dark in mid-winter, makes his feat infinitely more impressive. This is a story of a super-man deliberately pushing himself physically to his limits, which the Emerald Mile story is not.

Rudi Petschek on the river. Photo by Kenly Weills.
Rudi Petschek on the river. Photo by Kenly Weills.

For many boaters, I’m sure hearing about Orkin’s swim puts him in a super-human category, but swimming Crystal Rapid at 72,000 cfs sound equally terrifying!
Orkin’s Lava flip and recovery has every bit of the drama and suspense of the Emerald Mile‘s Crystal episode in ’83. Perhaps even more so as this story focuses on one single individual. Just reading the account had me on pins and needles and induced tachycardia.

Did you, Kenton and Wren realize that your time could be beaten by kayak at normal flows?

By kayaks, definitely! At normal flows, definitely not. But we were only after the ‘oar-powered’ record, not the ‘non-motorized’ nor the ‘human-powered’ records. That these came as a bonus and lasted a third of a century was truly unexpected.

What’s one of the best memories from your speed runs?

In 1983, as we turned the last corner into the open Lake Mead, I remember, as I sat on the EM’s stern seat, tears coming to my eyes as a lump lodged in my throat. I mused about the majestic Colorado on steroids taking pity on this little nutshell of a boat audaciously zooming through Grand Canyon in a day and a half. That same canyon had been a major, three-week survival challenge for Major Powell’s crew. I tried in vain, at that moment, to imagine Powell’s incredulity about the time we had just set, as I was overcome by a feeling of deep humility that the powerful river looked favorably upon this little boat, slapped it around a bit just to put things in their proper perspective, then allowing it through to complete its mission.

There’s a rumor that Kenton built another dory specifically for a speed attempt. Do you think a team in such craft could challenge the Emerald Mile‘s time at normal flows or on a 40,000 cfs pulse flow?
No, no such dory exists, but Kenton did have plans for such a boat. It would have been longer for better straight-line speed, and outfitted for a solo run. Kenton felt (I disagreed) that such a dory custom-designed for this purpose would allow him to break 24 hours on a solo run. This was his fantasy — a sub-24 hour solo dory run. Firstly, such a project would require sponsorship (which Kenton recognized) and long-term planning. Secondly, a longer dory would sacrifice ease of pivoting. I argued that if he were to follow this plan it would be more realistic for him to set 30 hours as a goal, but he remained adamant about a sub-24 hour run. On normal flows, I don’t think the extra straight-line speed would have sufficed; on a 40,000 flow the boat’s extra length would have been a handicap in the turbulence which began to manifest itself at that level. But … Reality check: many (though by no means all) of Kenton’s hair-brained ideas turned out to be not only feasible but also practical. Still, in this case, I remain super-skeptical.

One thing ‘Team Beer’ emphasized was how, for them, making the speed attempt wasn’t so much about getting the record as it was about bonding with good friends under very demanding circumstances. Would you agree based on your speed descents?
Well, it really is about securing the record, but I agree that on both EM runs the experience was profoundly bonding among the participants.

What brought you back for multiple speed runs?
There were two equally important factors that determined our attempts. First, the idea of breaking the record set by the Rigg brothers originated with Wally Rist as far back as 1973. Neither experimental flows nor the big flood were considerations, as at the time these were beyond even our imagination. Plans were limited to the highest releases that occurred regularly each summer. The big stumbling block was fluctuation, which would cause a speed run begun on the high to stall out as it rowed itself into the preceding low. A steady flow (not in the cards) would be essential. Then in 1980 the Bureau achieved its ill-timed goal of filling both reservoirs. This resulted in a temporary steady release of 37,000 cfs, which brings us to factor number two: OPPORTUNITY! Wally quit waiting for a sustained pulse after the 1978 season, whereupon Kenton, silently, took over the watch. As soon as fluctuations gave way to a steady flow, Kenton called Wally and told him the time had come to do it. Then in ’83, again opportunity, this time to set the record to where the oar-powered record would be near unreachable.

The tale of your speed descents has no doubt inspired new generations to take up the challenge presented by the canyon. Was there story that inspired you in the early 80s?
I have an ongoing admiration for the Rigg brothers, who in 1951 set their 53-hour record (scouting only Lava Falls; no Crystal then, no night rowing) with a cumulative experience of only three trips total between the two of them. I find this impressive beyond words, especially compared to us with our 200+ trips of combined Grand Canyon experience at the time of our record run. I try to picture myself in the EM during our speed run, in the thrashing turbulence and the monstrous waves which, as the boat approached them, kept changing the direction so we wouldn’t know how to point the boat to hit them straight, often requiring a major adjustment at the very last instant. Once I get my mind into that mode, I then try to make myself believe that this is only my second or third trip, and my admiration for Bob and Jim Rigg goes up another notch.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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