Inside the U.S. Men’s Rafting Team Attempt to Bend ‘River Time,’ and Break the Grand Canyon Speed Descent Record

Grand Canyon Black Suspension
The team passes under the South Kaibab Trail Black Suspension Bridge. Courtesy courtesy Deirdre O'Connell

There is a phenomenon that occurs on monumental multi-day rafting trips commonly referred to as ‘River Time,’ where schedules in the traditional sense cease to exist and travelers simply float in rhythm with the river. Hours in the day, even days in the week, drift into the ether as a paddler’s sole purpose at any given moment is to merely flow downstream.

There are other variables to consider, of course, such as what to eat when you’re hungry and where to sleep when fatigue sets in, but as a general rule the river is in charge of the pace. It ushers paddlers swiftly through whitewater rapids and resists any urge to rush through the lulls in between.

As seasoned veterans of the whitewater world, members of the U.S. Men’s Rafting Team understand this balance of power arguably better than anyone. The Colorado-based team consisting of Kurt Kincel, Matt Norfleet, Jeremiah Williams, Robbie Prechtl and team captain John Mark Seelig has made a name for itself as the nation’s speediest crew of river runners, perhaps most notably for bending the River Time continuum just enough to become the fastest group to row an inflatable raft down the 277-mile section of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon in 2017.

Yet on the team’s second attempt to set the record for the fastest overall descent through the Grand Canyon last weekend — this time enlisting the aid of experienced Grand Canyon guides Lindsay Hupp, Justin Salamon and Omar Martinez — the racers were given a refresher course on nature’s chain of command, recalibrating River Time as a fluid calculous of cubic feet per second over miles per hour diminished by the factors of wind, sub-freezing temperatures and deep winter’s minimal daylight. While the crew managed to best its previous mark of 39 hours and 24 minutes, its Saturday morning finish in 38 hours, five minutes, fell nearly four hours shy of the 34-hour, two-minute record set by Colorado kayaker Ben Orkin in January 2016.

Grand Canyon Speed Record Falls (AGAIN)

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“It’s just totally a crapshoot,” Seelig said on the drive home from Flagstaff after shuttling a teammate to the hospital with frostbitten feet. “So many things are out of your control and you’re hoping they all fall in line, but something always happens. Last time it was the boat; this time it was water and weather. It’s safe to say this is the coldest we’ve ever been.”

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The team made some frigid, pizza-fueled winter training runs on the Colorado River near Fruita, Colo. Still, nothing could prep them for the cold of a midnight launch last Friday night in the dead of January. Robbie Prechtl - Courtesy U.S. Men's Rafting Team

The decision to launch beneath a full moon at midnight on January 9 proved to be the team’s ultimate undoing, although there was no realistic alternative. There are no special river permits allotted for world record attempts, nor are water managers willing to boost river flows to meet the requests of rafters — although that didn’t stop Seelig from making a phone call to see if it was possible to get more water released from Lake Powell before their launch.

“He told me it really doesn’t work that way,” Seelig said. “But I thought I might as well ask.”

Typically, water flowing through Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam tends to run on the higher side this time of year, surging overnight in order to generate electricity for downstream power demands. In 2017, for example, the rafting team rode peak flows of more than 20,000 cfs on their January 13 launch, pushing their custom-framed cataraft downstream at a pace two hours ahead of the speed record by the time they reached the run’s largest rapids, Lava Falls, some 20 hours into their initial attempt (pictured below). But the river’s power proved too much for raft’s carbon-hybrid rowing frame, which broke and punctured a tube that took almost four hours to repair in the dark of night. Deflated and defeated, the men limped to the takeout and began calculating ways to improve their odds.

Posted by US Whitewater Raft Team on Saturday, August 12, 2017

The result of that brainstorming session was a slightly different boat design fabricated by Steamboat Springs, Colo.-based standup paddleboard maker Hala Gear, the company’s first foray into raft design and construction. The 40-foot cataraft tubes used for the team’s most recent attempt lopped eight feet off the 2017 model in order to increase maneuverability, and incorporated Hala’s patented carbon stringers throughout the length of the tubes in order to increase rigidity and responsiveness through the river’s flatwater sections.

“I’m not sure if it made the boat any faster, but it was definitely more rigid and responsive, so we were able to keep the boat more on line, making us more efficient,” said Williams, Hala’s Colorado tech rep. “And this time we went into the run fully confident in our craft, which was important.”

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This attempt at the speed record, the crew was ready with shorter, reinforced cataraft tubes. Robbie Prechtl - Courtesy U.S. Men's Rafting Team

While the boat stood up to the test, the river failed to cooperate. For whatever reason, water flows released for the team’s 2020 attempt measured at roughly half of their previous effort, dropping to a low of about 10,500 cfs halfway through the run. The crew had planned to launch with a surge of high water pushed through the dam for power generation and ride the 14,500-cfs bubble into the inner gorge. There, steeper gradient would quicken their pace and ideally enable them to catch the previous day’s bubble in time to ride that surge to the finish line at Grand Wash Cliffs, two miles above the Lake Mead takeout at Pearce Ferry.

They reached Phantom Ranch (Mile 88) by 11 a.m., greeted by a crowd of 50 cheering fans lining the Black Suspension Bridge as they fell about four minutes behind record pace. That’s when the bottom fell out. Over the next 12 hours the river dropped some 4,000 cfs and the rowers simply couldn’t make up the difference.

Speed Run from Black Bridge at Phantom Ranch

No record, but we have walked away changed! We had clean lines and never stopped pushing! The water was too low for a record, almost half of our last attempt. Besides freezing and having to make a hospital visit for frostbite we will all mend from the suffering. We will walk away changed by the experience. We felt so supported the entire time. The Grand Canyon and Flagstaff community support was overwhelming too. One old Grand guide said, “I think you have re-inspired the speed run to this community. Thanks so much!”
There was over 50 people cheering us on at the Black Bridge!
More details to come!

Posted by US Whitewater Raft Team on Monday, January 13, 2020

Video by Zach Fitzgerald

“We actually ran smoother this time. We just didn’t have enough water,” Seelig said. “It was just the luck of the draw going in. The day before, we crunched the numbers and wondered why we were even doing this. But we also knew that anything can happen. There are so many different factors in play as you get closer, so we decided to just give it a try. Maybe we’d get a tailwind. Plus Lake Mead is kind of an X factor. Unfortunately, we got there at sunrise and were met with a headwind that slowed us down even more.”

The gamble on conditions is likely a primary reason why only a handful of boaters have taken up the challenge of speed runs through the Grand Canyon over the years, beginning in 1951 with brothers Bob and Jim Rigg from Grand Junction, Colo., who rowed a cataract-style wooden rowboat through the canyon in 52 hours, 41 minutes. Southwestern boating pioneer Fletcher Anderson eventually raised the bar with a 49-hour solo kayak descent in the late 1970s, and in 1983 Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds completed a now-legendary run on a flood of 70,000 cfs in a wooden dory named the Emerald Mile, setting a record of 36 hours and 38 minutes that endured until 2016.

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

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Since the styles of boats and boaters is virtually limitless, no one is really categorizing records beyond the overall fastest time. Whether using oars or paddles, rigid boats or inflatables, team or individual, everyone faces a unique set of challenges on every attempt, including current record-holder Orkin, whose 34-hour solo run was all the more remarkable considering he flipped and swam from his kayak in Lava Falls on a cold winter night. It’s that “second midnight,” after more than 20 hours of continuous paddling, when River Time tends to take a dark turn for racers and the demons begin to emerge.

“You go into some dark places down there, so having teammates around you is beneficial,” Williams said, adding that he lost a lot more sleep in the months leading up to the team’s second attempt because he knew what awaited them. “Going solo is something else entirely. Orkin did something special down there for sure. I hope that’s recognized and his record lasts a long time.”

The debate over whether Orkin’s time will ever be topped takes on a new set of variables in the current era of water management, overallocation and climate change. Certainly the team venture, with a crew of oarsmen in a plus-sized inflatable craft, demands more water than the U.S. Rafting Team and company was offered, and quite possibly more than any follow-up attempts will ever see. Compounded by the vagaries of permit lotteries, weather factors and fitness demands, the likelihood is further diminished.

Just the same, Seelig says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“In reality, yes, the record is cool, but doing an adventure like this with these guys is more important than anything else. The ability to share an experience is better than the experience itself. We’ve done a lot of stuff together, we like each other, and we kind of like the suffering together and being there to support each other,” Seelig said. “As soon as we got off the river we all said we’re never doing that again. But ‘if’ we did, we’d definitely pick a different time, not winter, and we’d try to make sure the water levels would be ideal. How? I have no idea. The stars would have to align.”

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Courtesy U.S. Men’s Rafting Team, warming up again with the second attempt in the books.

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