Speed Descent in the Grand Canyon

By Alex Guimont

If you were at the 2019 edition of the Ottawa Adventure Film Festival then you saw the film ‘(People) of Water’ and are very aware of the United States Men’s rafting team’s desire to get after it well beyond the confines of the racecourse. In the film, the US raft team takes on the daunting task of training for and racing in several outrigger canoe races across both the lower 48 and Hawaii. With that adventure behind them, it was only a matter of time before the next one came calling.

If you did indeed see (people) of water, then you didn’t miss Robbie Prechtl’s larger than life personality and infectious smile, we had the chance to chat with him only a few weeks after their second speed record attempt down the Colorado River as it flows through the Grand Canyon. This most recent attempt was the second for the team after having experienced a boat malfunction in 2017 at one of the bigger rapids.

Without a huge amount of whitewater experience, Robbie Prechtl was brought onto the team as someone who could lay power down and make a raft move fast. Since that 4 years ago, Prechtl has become a fixture of the US raft team and a crucial component in the team dynamics and hence it’s success, this of course was no different when it came to doing speed decent attempts of the grand canyon.

Anyone who is even remotely interested in the history of the grand canyon has heard of the Emerald Mile. Now the title of a book recounting this historic descent, the Emerald Mile was the name of a wooden dory paddled by Kenton Grua and two companions during the record-breaking highwater event in 1983. Despite their fair share of challenges and hurdles, the crew etched their names in history as the fastest grand canyon descent in history, until it was broken by a solo kayaker in 2017.

This wooden dory is the Emerald mile, the boat that for over 25 years held the speed record.

Like many, this book was Robbie Prechtl’s introduction to the idea of a speed descent down the grand canyon. So when it came to the US raft team’s search for a one-off event outside the confines of the slalom gates, the idea of a speed descent down the Grand Canyon was quickly brought to the table. Prechlt said they “decided that the speed run was the most interesting adventure to us as it’s the Grand Canyon which we hold as the holy grail in our minds for the most part.”

The team attempted their first speed record descent in 2017 but encountered a boat malfunction at Lava Rapid, the biggest rapid on the descent. It was not a sure thing that they would be back in 2020, said Prechtl. Later saying that “when we got the permit is when we truly decided that we were going to give it another go.”

The Grand Canyon permit system works off of a weighted lottery. Meaning that everyone who hasn’t done the Grand Canyon in the 5 past years can apply for 5 dates. For the Robbie Prechtl and the US raft team, they all applied for winter dates but also dates that fell on a full moon as they were to paddle through the night.

In the most recent lottery season, over 6000 people applied for a permit, so to get one requires some certain amount of luck, especially considering the much of the team did not have their full 5 lottery points as they had done the grand previous within 5 years (the first speed attempt).

Unfortunately, despite the team’s serious dedication to the preparation and the training required for such a descent. The river flows were lower than had been anticipated, and the team, minute by minute, then hour by hour, fell short of their goal of 34 hours.

The flow of the Colorado River as it flows through the Grand Canyon fluctuates as it is dam controlled. The flow fluctuates by as much as 5000cfs. The idea for the team was to ride the bubble of higher water as it was released, but since the bubble of high water takes longer to travel down the Grand Canyon than they were hoping to, they had to outrun the bubble and thus encounter the lower flows and slower water.

The team, near the end of the push, knowing they were off pace and wouldn’t make it, but taking the time to enjoy the experience of being in the Canyon.

Despite this, Prechtl was stoked on the descent and said that “it’d be great to break the record but in the end, it’s about living a bit, we’ve done it before but it’s still intimidating and the unknown is there.” Prechtl also commented on how he loves the experience of turning what, for most people is, a 20 day trip into a 40-hour push.

The team pushing hard early on the speed record attempt.

Although the fire of going back is still burning strong, for now, Robbie is back in the hustle of balancing kids, film-work, and still trying to get out and paddle when he can. Robbie’s stoke for the next adventure and his energy practically had the phone bouncing off the desk and it’s his passion and energy that came through so strongly in people of water that makes his films and his adventurous pursuits what they are.