Bodie Hilleke didn’t have to run the Pearce Ferry Rapid on the Colorado River. He’d already paddled all 280 miles of the river from Lees Ferry without any issues, becoming the youngest person to ever kayak the length of the Grand Canyon. But he paddled on, joining his dad and brothers in the gnarly and rarely-navigated rapid when the Grand Canyon fades into Lake Mead.
“I think Pearce Ferry was probably the scariest,” the 10-year-old from Glenwood Springs says. “But I thought we probably weren’t going to come back for a long time and I figured I should just do it then and not regret it on the way home.”
The youngest paddler in the Hilleke clan, which includes legendary kayaker dad Tommy, mom Polly and older brothers Dax, 11, Daniel, 13 and 14-year-old Kelly, this month kayaked the Grand Canyon in 18 days, setting what is likely a world record as the youngest kayaker to ever navigate the mile-deep gorge. (The family and friends are filing paperwork with Guinness World Records.) But they didn’t do it for the glory. Bodie and his family did it because that’s what the Hillekes do: They pursue adventures at every turn.
“We just always did what Tommy and I liked to do and we brought them along,” says Polly, remembering carrying the boys in backpacks on hikes and ski trips. The two expert paddlers even kayaked easy stretches of river with the boys as babies tucked into their boats.
“We just kept playing with our kids and we haven’t stopped,” Polly says.
Bodie first started kayaking when he was about 5, spending hours in his kayak chasing his older brothers during a descent of Idaho’s Main Fork of the Salmon. Last summer, he started sticking his roll, the paddle-sweeping maneuver needed to right an upside down boat. Earlier this summer, after missing his roll and swimming from his boat at the bottom of the swollen Yampa River’s turbulent Warm Springs rapid, “he just made a decision that he wasn’t going to swim anymore,” Polly says.
“He hasn’t swam since,” she says.
That swimless summer included several major river adventures, including three trips to Idaho, several laps of Numbers and Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River, a run down the Westwater stretch of the Colorado River and hours in the Glenwood Springs wave near his home.
The Hillekes finished their second weeklong trip on Idaho’s Main Fork of the Salmon earlier this summer and had collapsed into their Glenwood Springs home late on a Saturday night after a 17-hour drive. Two days later, Polly got word of a cancellation of a permit for the Middle Fork of the Salmon, leaving that Thursday.
“I got home from work on Monday and she had all the dry bags laid out with all the gear and backpacking food, Jetboil, sleeping bags,” says Tommy, who couldn’t make the trip since he’d just returned to work at Snowmass ski area after a 10-day holiday. “I was a bit jealous, but at the same time I was so stoked she was able to do that.”
Polly and the boys were home for two days when they left for another six-day river trip in Idaho. It was the four paddlers’ first self-supported trip, meaning no rafts hauled their gear. All their food and necessities were packed into the back of their kayaks.
Polly packed snack bags for each of her boys and two freeze-dried backpacker meals for each dinner. They hardly feasted. Kelly burned through his snack bag after two days. Bodie kept his going for four days.
“Then I got really hungry,” says the fifth grader at Carbondale Community School.
At mile 65, a little more than halfway down the Middle Fork, the backcountry Flying B Ranch offered hope for replenishing those depleted snack sacks. But the ranch was cleaned out.
“I spent $60 on peanuts,” Polly says. “Everybody got two packs. We made it work.”
Making it work is part of the Hilleke mantra. The boys push each other in all endeavors. All four are members of the Aspen Valley Ski Club, with Kelly and Bodie focusing on big-mountain skiing while Dax and Daniel are pipe and park skiers. Every year for the past few years the whole family has hiked and skied the 12,966-foot Mount Sopris.
And not surprisingly, the youngest in the group is developing at the most rapid clip. It’s a scenario seen across outdoor sports, where some of the most exceptional athletes grew up chasing older siblings.
As Bodie stepped up his kayaking this summer, Tommy and Polly wondered about the Grand Canyon. He had the skills, so if they could somehow secure a permit, Bodie could become the youngest person to navigate the 280-mile stretch. It wasn’t the only reason to get down the canyon, but it certainly sparked a quest to see if it was possible.
Polly has had her name in the lottery for a Grand Canyon permit for 20 years, since she was in high school. The Hillekes tried for canceled permits all through August and September with no luck. They emailed and called the Grand Canyon rangers weekly to check on cancellations. Then, on a Friday In late September, the Park Service rangers who control the permit system announced there was a rare fall permit available for October. The first person to reach the office at 8 a.m. on a Monday could have it.
Every phone in the Hilleke house that Monday morning was hitting redial trying to get through. So were friends and family across the country. Tommy’s mom in Alabama happened to reach the Grand Canyon ranger office.
“My mom is talking to the ranger and Polly had been emailing the guy about trying to get a permit and he asked my mom ‘Is your daughter Polly?’” Tommy says. “My mom just gave him Polly’s number. And he called us right then.”
And the Hillekes had their golden ticket. They recruited Tommy’s sister and her family. His parents. A few expert guides. They had 16 on their 18-day trip. Eight of the 16 were kids, ages 8 to 14. And four of those kids were in kayaks.
Bodie was a bit timid in the first couple days, “but by the end it was game on for sure,” says Tommy, who was a pioneering kayak superstar in his teens and 20s.
Ian Anderson, a friend from Carbondale, joined the trip. Last time he was in the Grand Canyon was in January, but he was seated backwards and it was mostly dark. And his effort — more than 30 hours perpetually rowing — fell short of setting a speed record with the U.S. Rafting Team.
This time he brought his 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter and rowed his own raft.
“Being with my kids, sitting and watching all of those Hilleke boys paddle into some of the biggest holes and waves in the Grand Canyon was really, really inspirational,” Anderson says.
The Hilleke boys ran the hardest, rowdiest lines of every rapid, where Polly, who is an accomplished kayaker but plays it a bit more conservative than her husband and boys, paddled around the big holes.
“The joke on the trip was that the boys ran the meat and Polly, she ran the veggies,” Anderson says.
Anderson says watching eight kids experience the Grand Canyon “was incredible.”
“They had such positive energy and this sense of awe and wonder and this true zest for life, just sprinting up every hike into every little side canyon,” he says. “It made the trip so very special as a parent.”
(This might be a good spot to note that Bodie isn’t the first 10-year old from Glenwood Springs to set a record in the outdoor realm. In June 2019, 10-year-old Selah Schneiter became the youngest person to climb 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.)
Paddling nearly 300 miles in 18 days is grueling. Especially in the flat sections between rapids. Bodie would flag a bit in those slow sections and he’d fall back behind the group.
The Hillekes are not helicopter parents by any stretch. They would make sure their boys were safe in the big rapids, but in those flat spans, they just let the kids be.
The parents would coax Bodie with snacks when he fell behind.
“He pushed through and he persevered and it was really impressive to watch, but I’m pretty sure there were moments of motivation driven by just the snacks,” Anderson says. “I would hang back sometimes and tell Bodie I had Swedish Fish, and that would get another couple miles out of him.”
Tommy and Polly always made sure Bodie wasn’t suffering just to set a record. They told him he could crawl into a raft anytime.
“I told him if it stopped being fun we would pull the plug, but he never quit,” says Tommy, who admits there were some tears in the sustained flat miles below the last major rapid.
After they took the rafts out at Pearce Ferry — the official end of the Grand Canyon — and everyone else left, Tommy took the boys to check out the notorious Pearce Ferry Rapid about a mile downstream of the take-out. The rarely run stretch of whitewater is the hardest in the canyon, just as the river makes a sharp bend into Lake Mead.
Kelly was fired up to run it. If Kelly was going to do it, then Daniel was, too. Tommy, Dax and Bodie set up safety above the scary hole, ready to throw a rope if Kelly or Daniel got stuck. The older brothers paddled cleanly. And that inspired Dax. And Bodie wasn’t going to be the only brother to not paddle it, so they followed their dad through what is among the most challenging rapids on the entire Colorado River.
“I was super confident and the line was totally legit and I believed in their ability to make it,” Tommy says. “But I was having a bit of a hard time wondering if this was loose decision-making for a parent. I don’t know where the line is in believing in their ability level and trying to keep it safe, but I think I was pretty close right then.”
Anderson said watching the athletic ability of the Hilleke family was “something special.”
“I’m confident in saying we will be reading about and seeing the Hilleke boys doing great things in the future,” he says. “This is only the beginning for that family.”