Saturday, June 9, 2007

Lava Rapids

In March 2005, I began a nearly three week journey down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The trip was organized by Paul Butler, geologist at The Evergreen State College. I was on the trip with 16 classmates. We rafted nearly 300 miles in four, four-passenger wooden dories. Our journey started at Lee's Ferry on March 13. On the 26th of March we ran Lava Rapids - the most anticipated and challenging rapid in the Grand Canyon. The following is an excerpt from my journal written the same day:

"According to my 'official' rafting guide, on a scale of 1-10, Lava Rapids is a 10. Chuck (one of our boatsmen) stated that Lava Rapids is a rapid that can be run perfectly and still result in a flipped dory. Today is the day we ran Lava Rapids.

Yesterday, Andy read us a story of Lava Rapids - in part because it is a fun story - it names all the different routes one can take through the rapids and highlights several heroic runs as well as several disastrous flips. Andy also read the story because it is tradition immersed in superstition. Like a baseball player who refuses to wash his hat or change his socks, this story was read to bring good fortune. It was a good story - but it was a story - what I am about to write is the reality of Lava Rapids as I experienced it.

I woke up at 5:20am, in time to watch a full moon drift behind the steep vertical walls of the canyon. A deep resonating bugle of a conch shell broke the morning stillness - this was our official wake-up call.

Breakfast, packing, loading the Fern Glen (our large motorized pack mule), and we were on our way.

How were we arranged? Paul, Ryan, and Morgan were in their kayaks; Connie and Frank in the Fern Glen; Bobbi, Dave, Joanna, and Cassie in Andy's dory (the Temple Butte); Stephanie, Maki, and myself in Doc's dory (the Vishnu); Sedge, Nick, and Robyn in Chuck's dory (the Zoroaster); and Tyler, Steve, Zane, and Amari in Amy's dory (the Coconino).

A mix of early morning grogginess, thoughtful anticipation, and placid water made for a tranquil beginning on the river.

About 15 minutes later Doc whisper "Lava," and we could begin to hear the distant roar of the rapids. As with all large rapids we pulled over to scout.

Hance, Specter, and Crystal were all large rapids. Lava was different. It was not only big but it seemed angry. The water was loud and fomenting as it ran into huge boulders creating deep water holes on the downstream-side. A mix of truth and wild imagination convinced me that these "holes" were hungry for small wooden dories. Even my amateur eyes knew that this would be the run of all runs on the Colorado. I was standing next to Sedge - a heavily tattooed, heavily pierced, wildman from Minnesota. He was white as a ghost when he turned to me and pleaded, 'I don't wanna go in that water.' I was thinking the same thing.

Fern Glen went through first as the rest of us watched from the shore. Fern Glen is a 37 ft long and 22 ft wide, inflatable, motorized rig. This makes her nearly 3x's the size of our oar-powered wooden dories. Before Lava, I imagined Fern Glen as a big, tough school-yard bully. But, as I watched her get tossed from side-to-side, crumble, and nearly disappear in the rapids, the words puny and weak were the first to come to mind. Regardless, Fern Glen made it through! She did it by tackling the so-called "Right Lava Run." Fern Glen came away with her feathers ruffled but dignity intact.

Now the kayakers. They took the left side of the rapids. Morgan and Ryan both flipped and temporarily disappeared. All three were swallowed-up, but all three made it through and looked pretty good doing it.

After a few hugs and good-luck wishes it was time for the somewhat clumsy and inflexible wooden dories. One-by-one we loaded up and pushed off our scouting bank. Andy was first, followed by Doc (the dory I was in), then Chuck, and finally Amy.

Things happened fast after that and my mind recalls the events as a series of still photos. Here were the captions:
Picture 1: Andy enters rapids
Picture 2: Andy disappears
Picture 3: Andy shoots back up!
Picture 4: Andy gets slammed (hard) from the left side.

Before Andy's left-side slam, rafting in the Colorado was fun and exciting. After Andy's left side slam river rafting became adventurous with potential consequences. The bridge that linked the fun domain with the adventure domain was a sharp and immediate verbal 'holy s**t.' I was now in adventure mode.

Andy made it through - I could see that. I don't know how he made it through, but he did. Now was our turn. Would we be as fortunate?

Another small group of rafters were watching from the left bank. They were scouting us - learning from our successes (and mistakes). I looked at them and gave a Joe DiMaggio type wave then looked at my companions in the two dories coming after us. I was ready (then again, what other choice did I have?).

Then we picked up speed like the dory received a thrust from a jet engine. Doc stood up to get a better look as to where he would try to steer. Then we went up followed by a very big down - we were smack dab in the middle of the dory-eating hole. It stopped us cold and filled the dory with water. I thought for sure we were going to sink, but the dory kept floating and somehow we made it out of the hole. Doc said he steered the dory and the water moved us out. However it happened we ended up in a second hole. Doc said latter he thought for sure we were going to flip in the second hole. A huge (and I mean huge) wave hit us and knocked Maki clear off the bow of the boat onto the flat of her back. By now, the gunnels of our dory were underwater. Foolishly, my instinct was to start bailing. This kept me busy and made me feel productive. More importantly, the dory kept moving forward. Moving was good. We were taking huge waves, but we were moving and making our way through the rapids! I was still bailing water at river level when things began to calm. We made it!

I was doing a victory chuckle and thinking wow - that was an incredible ride. Once I realized we were safe, I looked back at Lava in time to watch the Zoroaster and Coconino come through. The Zoroaster was finishing their run and they were looking good. I could see water being hurled from its sides and knew that the bailing meant that they were safe as well.

However, where did the Coconino go? I had that gut-wrenching feeling and knew something was wrong. Then I saw confirmation: broken pieces of wood, an oar, a pair of gloves came floating by. I saw a yellow object floating off in the distance and yelled, 'we have swimmers.' Then I saw the Coconino, upside-down floating toward us. That vision was a bridge to another domain - from adventure to serious concern. The yellow object was Amari and she floated through another set of rapids called 'Son of Lava.' She was not a good swimmer and she would disappear under the surface for 15-20 seconds at a time. I truly feared the worse. Besides Amari, I saw nothing of Steve, Tyler, Zane, or Amy. In those moments, the sight of the upside-down Coconino became more and more disturbing. The Coconino (like the other dories) was a symbol of this trip, our guides, the great time we were having. To see the Coconino all broken and empty was disheartening.

There were several more minutes of confusion and concern and floating debris before we caught word that everybody was safe and on the Fern Glen.

After uprighting the Coconino and making it to shore we got everyone dry, into warm clothes, made a fire, and retold the event from each of our perspectives.

A few minutes later, more debris came floating by. First, it was a large white cooler followed by clothing. This was confirmation that Lava Rapids claimed more victims - obviously members of the party who were scouting us minutes earlier. We later found out that two of their rafts (along with one of their catamarans) flipped.

It appears that in the battle of superstitious stories vs. the misfortune of a full moon - the full moon clearly won this round."


Anonymous said...

You are amazing

Anonymous said...

Wow! Very impressive John!

Anonymous said...

In May 2007 I went through Lava Rapids on Amy's boat. she didn't flip. In my story I wrote" until you are about to go through Lava Rapids, you don't quite know what the meaning of "Oh My God!" really is!

Anonymous said...

Great posts, especially this one – thank you! :-)