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The U.S. Rafting Team was about 4 minutes off pace to beat a speed record for running Grand Canyon when it passed under Black Suspension Bridge near Phantom Ranch on Jan. 10, 2020, about 88 miles into the 277-mile course. About 50 people gathered on the bridge to cheer on the team. (Photo provided by Deirdre O'Connell)

Thirty seconds grew to a minute, to five minutes, to half an hour.

As the miles and minutes passed, the crew on the customized cataraft was feeling strong and pulling hard on their oars, but their pace slipping. 

“We just didn’t have enough water,” said John Mark Seelig, whose Colorado-based U.S. Rafting Team was joined by three veteran Colorado River guides on Friday and Saturday in a speed-record attempt to descend 277 miles through the Grand Canyon.

As the river dipped to 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and the crew outraced a pulse of water released from the Glen Canyon Dam upstream, the record slipped away. 

They finished in 37 hours, 55 minutes, missing the 34-hour, 2-minute record set by kayaker Ben Orkin in 2016. 

The U.S. Rafting Team prepares to launch onto the Colorado River at Loma last month as they test a new raft design for a January mission to set a speed record for descending 277 miles through the Grand Canyon. (Robbie Prechtl, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We were pretty close at the beginning and it just kept bumping up. We were on the backside of that water release and we couldn’t reach the next day’s release quick enough,” Seelig said late Saturday as he drove one of his teammates to a doctor in Flagstaff, Arizona, to check on some potentially frostbitten toes. 

The team of eight arrived at Phantom Ranch, at mile 88, at 11 a.m. on Friday, about 11 hours after they pushed into the Colorado River from Lees Ferry. That was only four minutes off their pace to reach the Pearce Ferry takeout around 10:20 a.m. Saturday. But that was also the peak of the surge released from Glen Canyon Dam. Holding close to a 5 mph rowing speed, the water slowed down with each mile. By midnight, the river had dropped from a daily high of close to 14,500 cfs to around 10,500 cfs

In January 2017, the team’s craft broke in the middle of the daunting Lava Falls, the final big rapid of the 277-mile descent. They spent four precious hours repairing the damage and limped the final 100 miles of flat water, finishing in 39 hours and 24 minutes. But back then, the river was rolling at more than 20,000 cfs.

“It’s amazing, but that extra 8,000 to 10,000 cfs really makes a big difference,” Seelig said. 

Private outfitters on the river had told their clients about the record attempt, so each campsite the team passed throughout the canyon had a cheering squad. Several dozen people had hiked down to Phantom Ranch to cheer the team as it rowed beneath the Black Bridge, one of only two spans that cross the river for hundreds of miles.

“They were cheering us on and having a huge party. It was so awesome,” said Seelig, whose team partnered with Grand Canyon Youth to raise $10,700 for the group that provides river education to youth in the southwest. “The support from the Grand Canyon community was fantastic.”

Speed records have a long history in the Grand Canyon, dating back to 14-day descents in the late 1800s on log rafts captained by adventurers who likely weren’t racing but simply rowing. In 1951 Grand Junction brothers Bob and Jim Rigg set out to purposely set the speed record. They pushed their wooden row boat into the river at Lees Ferry when the river was roaring at 43,100 cfs and finished in 52 hours and 41 minutes. That record stood until 1983, when Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek and Steve Reynolds caught another flood-stage flow and rowed their wooden dory, the “Emerald Mile,” down the canyon in 36 hours, 38 minutes. 

In January 2016, Orkin, an accountant in Aurora, paddled his carbon-fiber race kayak solo down the canyon, finishing in 34 hours and 2 minutes. That record was even more remarkable considering he flipped in Lava Falls and swam from his kayak, alone and at night. 

The team this weekend had a clean run with zero mishaps. 

“We got our revenge on Lava. The boat was fantastic. Everything and everyone held up perfectly. We ran the lines we wanted,” Seelig said. “The water just wasn’t there for us.” 

Orkin was paddling a narrow, sleek craft that sliced through water. The Emerald Mile was a wooden dory meant to cut through the river. The raft carrying eight — even with a pair of narrow pontoons beneath a lightweight frame — pushes water out of its way. It might not be possible for a raft to set a speed record in the Grand Canyon. 

“I don’t think so. But we were talking about it and we are just in awe at what Ben did. His record is fantastic,” Seelig said. 

Maybe if the team could row during a period when the flows are higher they could find their record. But permits to paddle the Grand Canyon are exceptionally hard to secure, except in the teeth of winter, when flows are at their lowest. 

Not that the team is talking about a third attempt. 

“OK, if someone was like ‘Hey, I have a permit on this date and it’s going to be this flow’ and we have a crew that is training — that’s a lot of variables — maybe who knows,” Seelig said. “But right now, I’m like ‘No way. Never again.’”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, daughters and a dog named Gravy. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things Location: Eagle, CO Newsletter: The...