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Earth Notes: Speeding Through the Grand Canyon

John Blaustein

Floating down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon can be a leisurely, relaxing experience. But for a handful of river runners, speed is the real objective.

In 1983, Flagstaff-based boatman Kenton Grua and two others set a record for rowing all 277 miles of the river through the national park in just over 36 hours. They did it in a small wooden dory called the Emerald Mile, taking advantage of an unprecedented high river flow caused by a strong El Niño pattern that nearly caused the water in Lake Powell to crest over the top of Glen Canyon Dam.

Credit Rudi Petschek
Kenton Grua relaxing on the Emerald Mile.

Grua’s speed record is highlighted in a book by Flagstaff author Kevin Fedarko called “The Emerald Mile”. He writes about how the trio snuck onto the water without a permit, while federal officials scrambled to deal with the near-overflowing Lake Powell. Grua and his team rode the nearly 100,000 cubic-feet-per-second flow right into Grand Canyon lore, clinching the record for fastest non-motorized boat trip.

They weren’t the first to hold the speed record title. Brothers Jim and Bob Rigg did it in 1951 in 52 hours. But Grua’s Emerald Mile held a certain mystique of adventure. The record stood until 2016 when it was broken twice in three days, with a kayaker from Colorado named Ben Orkin shaving the record down to 34 hours and 2 minutes.

Earlier this year, an eight-person crew set off in a customized raft to try and break Orkin’s record, but they fell a few hours short. There’s little doubt the record will fall again though, as the lure of the Colorado River continues to push adventurers into the unknown, and the speed run remains a fantasy for many boaters.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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