Part 8: The Lower Canyon, Days 12-13
“One hundred and seventy-nine miles downstream from Lee’s Ferry, directly below Toroweap Overlook, the greatest river in the West runs up against a picket line of submerged boulders, roars over the edge, and detonates. This is Lava Falls, a quarter-mile stretch of white water that is considered by many to be the biggest navigable rapid in North America. Here the river drops almost fifteen vertical feet, creating a marbled chaos of water and rock that had destroyed more boats and shattered the composure of more guides than any other rapid in the canyon.” – Kevin Fedarko, The Emerald Mile
American whitewater rapids are traditionally rated on a I-VI scale, based on a subjective combination of danger and difficulty, with your class I being essentially a riffle and your class VI being so extreme and/or dangerous that they are not commercially raftable. For most rivers, these classifications can and will change based on water level and other elements on the river. My opinion – I would also argue that the higher the class, the more fun it probably is, and the more adrenaline you will have pumping through your body! And who doesn’t like that.
The Colorado River through the Grand Canyon has its own classification system, primarily because it pre-dates the current classification system. In the Grand Canyon, though, it’s all about the volume of water. The ratings are based on river flows from 5,000 to 25,000 cfs (or cubic feet per second) and range from 1 to 10 with 10 being the most difficult. My guess is a 10 is comparable to a V – although I think you are essentially comparing apples to puppy cuddles if you decide to go that route. Oddly enough, I found on the river you don’t talk about rapid ratings or classifications much. I would say part of the reason for that is because it really depends on the level of the water and the volume of water flowing down the river at any given time. If you look at a river map of the Colorado River, you will find that most, if not all, are given a range on the classification scale. For example, Granite rapid is listed as a class 7-8 with a drop of 18 feet. Depends on the volume of water, like I mentioned before.
I think the other reason it’s not commonly discussed on the river is because it just doesn’t really matter! There is big and crazy whitewater in the Grand Canyon among the long stretches of flat, floating water. And the whitewater packs a punch and will be like no other river you’ve experienced – in a great way. It’s the Grand Canyon. It’s just on its own level.
Back to the river.
Day 12 began earlier for some versus others. There was a little – um – incident with the kitchen as I mentioned in the previous post that kept a few guides a little busy in the wee hours of the morning. It turns out that when the water rose early in the morning it caused a couple of the boats to bump up against one of the tables in the kitchen – the one with the four-part washing system – and knocked it over. This also means that the items on said kitchen table were now at the mercy of the river. The final assessment of missing items included: 2 metal water/wash buckets from the washing station, a strainer, a paddle, 2 flat metal lids from the wash buckets, 2 mini mops, 1 copper scrubbie thing, 1 red bucket, and a 1 soap dispenser. I think that was all. Important items, but not trip-ending! We could work around it. Remarkably, all the way up to the moment we were pushing off from the beach most of the items were found in the river, having been covered up by the boats or silt or both. I’ve never heard and felt such enthusiasm as I did when the individual items were being found! Even the copper scrubbie thing received a roar of cheers and applause that could rival the loudest crowds at an SEC football game. The lost items, which are now on the river somewhere with Kesley’s yellow canteen of vodka, are likely having a grand ole time in their new home. We would sincerely miss the paddle, strainer, sweet little mini mops, red bucket, and soap – may they rest in peace on the beautiful Colorado. And may their vodka never run out. Not a bad place to spend your final days.
It was an evening that left me perfectly entertained – finally some late night/early morning entertainment for my non-sleeping self. Also not a bad way to start Lava day!
Lava, Lava, Lava! I can still here Scott and Paul’s chanting…
This morning, we watched as our elite group of guides took special care in tightening and checking, and re-tightening and re-checking, the gear on the rafts. It was a big day on the river. We would soon be coming face to face with the most legendary and infamous rapids on the river, in the country even. Lava Falls. We had a great morning talk with our trip leader around the geology of this section of the canyon and about Lava Falls with the extra aid of maps and a self-drawn map of Lava Falls and its obstacles in the sand. It turns out that map of Lava that Clare drew in the sand was pretty dead on! Personally, I was freaking pumped about Lava Falls. I cannot get enough of the whitewater – I love the good kind of nerves, adrenaline, and anticipation that flows through you when you first hear the telling sound of big whitewater. It is addicting. The unnerving part of being completely at the mercy of the power of the river is a feeling like no other. It’s crazy awesome and crazy humbling all at the same time.
My dad and I jumped in Kim’s boat today for Lava Falls day. The morning on the river started out as a pretty easy going float. We were behind Clare’s boat, getting a few good laughs at the semi-deflated stingray (that was oddly life-like in it’s white-belly-up position in the back of Clare’s boat next to Ben). For whatever reason, it was just hysterical, and at one point we decided it began to look a bit more like an elephant or anteater than a stingray. That sweet, sweet, precious stingray. Kim pointed out the new geologic features we were passing through, notably the lava flows coming off the North Rim, and provided us some background and history. If my memory serves me correctly, Kim said these flows were relatively young, ranging from 100,000 to 700,000 years old. Crazy to even think of what that must have been like! We started to catch up to another trip, so we stopped at Mohawk Canyon around mile for a hike up the canyon and lunch. Dean got himself a little banged up on this particular hike (I naturally hung back and took a nap on the boat – I’m such a sucker for a prime napping opportunity – so I did not see what happened). Dean, my occasional kitchen buddy, was a trooper though and pressed on as normal.
After the hike, and a pretty excellent lunch of chicken salad, we loaded back up on the rafts and made our way towards Lava, while Kim reflected on some great stories of both Lava and other rapids on the river. What I learned from Kim and her stories this morning is that if I found myself out of the raft, holding onto it from the water and she kept telling me encouragingly, “hang on, you’ll be fine” while not actively getting me back into the boat, it means that I am in fact helping weigh the boat down as we go through the rapid and that once I have completed my ‘anchor-duties’, I’d be allowed back into the boat! And now I know! Hilarious. It’s like intentionally tripping yourself while on a hog hunt when you realize the hog is bigger than you are. Sort of.
“What makes Lava Falls so insidious is that there’s not a single good line, a fact that is painfully evident the moment you climb up the cliff of scorched basalt on the right bank of the river that serves as the scouting point.” – Kevin Fedarko, The Emerald Mile
The other trip was still at the scouting area as we were pulling up, but they looked like they were wrapping up their scout of the rapid just as we were ‘parking’ the boats to go up and take a look. We hustled up to the best scouting point, to watch the other group run the rapid. Only had one swimmer from the other group, out of the paddleboat, who was pulled in fairly quickly with plenty of time before hitting the rapid below Lava. Nice runs! We scouted the rapid for a good amount of time. It was loud and big and awesome. We would be running to the right, slipping past the ginormous ledge hole to our left – a place you do not want to be (don’t believe me, youtube it!) – into the v-wave, then into the big kahuna wave, hoping not to get tangled up by the massive and sharp boulder called the cheese grater. Our instructions from Kim – lean into the waves, it helps drive the boat through the waves. She said we would get blasted by waves and that we would likely have the feeling of not knowing where we were (in the boat or in the river) after the v-waves, but not to forget about the big kahuna wave. Oh – Kim’s other instruction was to hold on! She paints a lovely picture doesn’t she?!
After getting to scout the rapid, we made our way back to the boats. Kim checked our life jackets, checked her own, and we watched as Clare pushed off to take on the famed Lava. Clare had a clean run (although we really couldn’t see it because of the vertical drop of the rapid). Even the stingray survived! When boats slip past the ledge hole, they are very quickly out of sight. We were up next and Kim made the approach into the rapid, to the right of the ledge hole. The rapid was exactly as she described! We were blasted by massive waves as we went through the v-wave. My hat went one way and my sunglasses went the other. This, folks, is why we have hat clips and croakies! Got my money’s worth in a single rapid for sure! I wiped my face, not really being able to see much without my glasses and grabbed back onto the line so not to find myself in the river. At one point just before slamming through the big kahuna wave I did find myself seriously wondering whether we were in the boat or in the river. Kim wasn’t kidding! There was so much water in the boat (thank god for a self-bailing raft is all I have to say, because bailing that water out would have been a real chore) that it was hard to tell! That in addition to the force of the waves that had just pummeled us, made me feel very confused! I have no clue what the rest of the rapid looked like – but I remember, vividly, getting blasted by the big kahuna…and loving every second of it! We had a clean, perhaps not pretty (per Kim, I really couldn’t tell you one way or the other), run and I cannot wait to see Lynn’s shots from Lava (I’m also really hoping there are some excellent shots of the stingray as well – I mean can you even imagine – fingers crossed)!!
“Dalton was just a few feet to the right of where he needed to be, but that was enough. Instead of riding the magic carpet through the center, he was rudely hurled into the V-wave, a mountain of water created by two standing waves that crash continuously into each other. Here the river gathered itself into a fist and delivered a roundhouse punch straight over his bow, a haymaker of frigid water whose arrival felt like a truckload of wet cement…the boat reeled helplessly under the shocking weight of the more than two tons of water, then flipped – at which point the backside of the V-wave harpooned him straight into a murderous vortex along the right shore known as the Corner Pocket.” – Kevin Fedarko, The Emerald Mile
Everyone had a clean run through Lava and I think the only fatality was Clare’s boots. We assume they are now hanging out with Kelsey’s canteen, the paddle, the red bucket, the strainer and soap, and those freakin adorable little mini mops somewhere along the mighty Colorado.
Lava Falls, rated a class 10, is the standard that all rapids on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon are judged for navigability against. It is a monster. It is the best kind of terrifying. It was the best kind of thrill. It is power in its purest form. And it is fiercely loud. If Lava Falls doesn’t humble you, I don’t know what will.
The rest of the afternoon was uneventful, passing through a couple of minor rapids (everything seemed minor compared to Lava now), rescuing a swimming beer (not a bear…see it does get tricky with the accent), rowing through some crazy, eye-ball melting head wind, and swapping Lava stories. Poor Dean got even more banged up on Lava and his injury from the earlier hike caused his leg to swell up pretty bad. So Dean finished up his afternoon, lying on top of the ‘center console’ of the paddleboat with his leg elevated and beer (not bear) in hand. Dean – always a trooper!
We pulled up to camp (not our first option, but a not so cool move by a motor boat trip snatched up our desired camp – not cool river etiquette at all) at Blackhawk around mile 190, which was a beautiful place. After selecting my campsite – no tent tonight, no clouds in sight – I put on some dry clothes and made my way into the kitchen. Clare whipped up some river ‘ritas to celebrate surviving Lava, and I helped Howie and Lynn in the kitchen, dicing 16 apples (hoping my hand didn’t cramp up because there were seriously 16 of them) and making the apple salad. Howie and Lynn (with the help of Alan, the turkey shredder) whipped up Thai turkey curry and an amazing pineapple upside down cake. Cooking with Howie and Lynn was a blast as usual and we had a fun time in the kitchen. Howie closed out the night with the story of why AZRA guides call the camp Blackhawk – a story that included a Blackhawk helicopter trying to land on the beach to evacuate an injured river passenger. I can’t do the story justice, so I will leave it at that. What I will say is Howie is a masterful and witty storyteller, and we should all feel lucky to have had him on our trip – his stories are fantastic and one of a kind, just like the river man telling us the story. Some of us stayed around for another Howie star talk, compliments of the magnificent clear night sky, and after a while we all retired to our camps.
Once below Lava Falls, the river picks up speed allowing trip to go more miles in a day than what’s been typical. Our goal for the last full day on the river was to float about 30 miles before stopping at camp. I was up early on day 13 as usual and was packed and ready for breakfast before the sun was all the way up. The side effects of sleepless nights on the river! But alas, again I found myself surrounded by the sweet, sweet smell of crispy bacon. This was going to be a great day! After a breakfast of eggs made to order (I turned mine into a river worthy bacon, egg, and cheese bagel sammy), it was Lynn’s turn for story time. Lynn was telling us the story of Buzz Holmstrom, who made the trip alone through the Grand Canyon from Green River, WY on a boat he built himself, becoming the first person in history to make the trek solo. Lynn had some great, additional commentary to add to the story as he told us about the reserved and quiet man named Buzz who had tremendous respect for the river. Fitting, I thought, that Lynn was telling this story as at times, he seemed to also describe himself – a reserved, humble, and quiet river guide with a deep connection to the river. By the end of his talk, Lynn had literally drawn the rivers of the west that fed into the Colorado along with the Colorado itself across a significant part of the beach, often causing other folks to move positions so not to be in the middle of his map! Great morning talk that Clare wrapped up with one of her morning readings.
I jumped in Clare’s boat, next to my pal the stingray, and somehow my dad ended up in Colin’s boat. Not sure how that happened, but it was no big deal and would ultimately allow my dad and I to engage in a friendly rowing battle down the river. Bruce and Sharon were in the front of the boat and we took off for our last full day on the river (major bummer if you ask me). Not too far down the river, Clare asked me if I wanted to row for a bit – I of course said yes and hopped on the oars. I – like a moron – was still in my rain jacket since it was a cooler than normal morning – and it did not take long for me to start roasting like a boss under the jacket and life jacket layers. So Clare provided momentary relief on the oars while I ripped off my sweat/rain jacket. Sweating to death in the Grand Canyon was not a goal of mine.
I jumped back on the oars – loving every minute of it – and began a delightful and strenuous tour of nearly every eddy on the river. Sharon kept me hydrated with her water bottle – I must have looked hot and overworked! But many thanks to Sharon, that was some of the best water I had tasted all trip! I started out doing really well with staying in the current, and then that went to hell in a hand basket real quick. My dad was on the oars on Colin’s boat and at this point he had a commanding lead. As did nearly everyone else. At one point Clare, my kind and bubbly friend Clare, pointed and said “So the current is actually on the far opposite side of the river…over there by the shade.” Mhmm. I quickly responded with, “Yes, I can see it Clare, I just happen to not be in it! I am trying to get over there!” Damn eddy. Thank god she laughed at my bubbly sarcasm, otherwise that could have been real awkward! Bruce and Sharon were such patient troopers throughout the entire eddy tour – I mean after all, I was giving them a fantastic, private tour of the canyon walls and tamarisk trees that no one else was experiencing! After turning myself around, I pulled my way back into the current and the shade, at which point Clare (she was on her game today!) said to me, “Want me to take over?” Convenient timing, I thought, since I was back in the current and the shade! Sneaky gal. I believe I said something along the lines of, “Hell no! I just got back into the current and the shade! I’ve got this.” I gave her a bit of a hard time about her suspicious timing, and we all had a good laugh. I continued to row (finding my way into several more stinkin’ eddys, but also getting to row through a couple of smaller rapids) and Clare read us some great stories from the book There’s This River (which I own and am currently reading). Before lunch, Clare got back on the oars and caught us up with the others and we stopped for lunch around mile 202.
At lunch we took a short and Clare-esque hike (at one point I was basically hurling myself through a boulder-made tunnel, while laughing at myself and our trip leader, who I was pretty sure at this point thought my “are you kidding” looks were very entertaining anytime we came to an ‘interesting spot on the trail’) up to an ancient agave pit, and then to some petroglyphs farther up the “trail”. It was a blazing hot afternoon, so finding a little shade at the top of the trail was wonderful. We headed back down and had lunch on the beach before loading back up into the boats. Sharon and Bruce jumped in the paddleboat – likely to avoid another round of eddy touring – so my dad joined us in Clare’s boat for the afternoon.
We went a few miles down river, seeing a few big horn on river left, and passing by a trip that had stopped at pumpkin springs and were doing some cliff jumping. At one point Clare asked if we wanted to swim a small rapid – it was boiling hot, so my dad jumped in and swam the rapid while I hung out with the stingray. He did a great job swimming the rapid and getting back to the boat! Although the cliffs of the canyon were lower than we had seen, the changing scenery of the river was cool to see. It has been amazing to see so much change each day while floating down the river. The next offer from Clare was to participate in the Grand Canyon triathlon – short hike, jump (from a cliff), swim the rapid.
I’m not gonna lie here – I wasn’t into the idea at all – I was good with the hiking and the jumping, but not so into the frigid water with no glasses part. I’m a strong swimmer, so wasn’t concerned with that, it was really the temperature, not being able to really see well, and not feeling super confident that I could warm myself back up. So I initially declined even though my dad signed himself up for it. But this is where the river guides have the uncanny ability to push you out of your comfort zone for all the right reasons. After several river miles of not-so-subtle Clare-pressure (very similar to peer-pressure but in a joking, subtle, river guide kind of way) we pulled up around mile 216 for the scene of the triathlon and the 15-20 foot cliff (I’m guessing on the height, it seemed high but not like crazy high). I contemplated my decision for a few minutes, and with some additional ‘encouragement’ from Jay and a few others, I finally said to myself – Sarah, just get up there and jump. Do the damned thing. So I hauled myself out of the raft, shedding a few items, and represented the ladies in the triathlon. At the top of the cliff, people were literally just jumping off. My dad jumped after shedding his glasses, getting some basic instruction, and after Clare very kindly guided him to the edge. I however wanted to know where I was going – I needed an organized plan…I am such an OCDish creature of habit sometimes…yes, it’s insane – so I asked Clare for some direction. After that, I stuffed my flip flops down my chest (yes, they smelled), tightened the life jacket, handed Clare my hat, and at the last minute opted to take my sunglasses with me (they are prescription) so I could see what the heck I was doing in the water, and I jumped.
I have no clue if there are pictures of this event.
I loved it.
It was so ridiculously fun. I did not find the water to be cold at all and once I surfaced and got my sunglasses on (thank god they survived), I was good to go. I swam the first rapid easily and floated my way down river, eventually coming up to the boats. At this point my competitive side took over. Jay was literally swimming every rapid he was allowed and was always in the water. He also participated in this event, and I would be damned if I was getting out of the water before Jay. I was having entirely too much fun, and Clare was the sweeper boat so it would take a few minutes for her to make it down the river. I passed up rides from the paddleboat and Colin and said I’d just wait for Clare. I got to swim through the next small rapid, trying not to find myself in an eddy along the way. I had great skill at doing so earlier in the day, so it was only a matter of time before I found one of those damn things. Clare eventually made her way down the river and I swam over to her boat. My dad, who had been on the paddleboat, jumped back in and also swam over to Clare’s boat. The last challenge was getting back in the boat. I personally had some concerns with this given I was roughly twice Clare’s size. But, like the skilled river guide she is, she hauled my tookus back into the boat and pulled my dad in shortly after. Folks, there is no graceful way to get back in a boat. I speak now from experience.
I threw on a dry shirt and my hat and took up residence once again by my friend the stingray. Clare offered up the oars again, and I immediately took them – I literally could not get enough of the rowing. We located all of her starburst candies that had been knocked around in an earlier rapid. They were good and soft from the sun by this point when I handed them over (in my attempt to do a little organizing of her space in the boat…I couldn’t help myself). She had pocketed these little guys at lunch, so we figured she wanted them! I rowed down river for a bit, and after realizing the offer to row was an offer to warm up, I switched off with my dad (I never got cold from the swim oddly enough…it’s probably because of all my additional insulation) and let him have a turn at the oars. We eventually made our way to Lower 220 Mile camp (after a brief stop at the upper where Clare jumped off the boat and ran down river to make sure no one was at the camp down river). This would be the final camp for the trip – which was a little bittersweet to be honest.
Camp was fun, everyone was in great spirits, the kitchen was decorated with San Francisco Giants colors as a tribute to Howie’s 150th trip, and Dean and I helped in the kitchen for the final time on the trip. I would sincerely miss that little kitchen; I really had a fun time helping out with dinner service. Although now I’m sure my dad expects me to continue my kitchen services at their house upon request! At camp, the guides even brought out ice for drinks – a classy move and we LOVED it. We haven’t seen ice in 13 days (well some of us did at Phantom, but still) – it was quite the luxury for the evening and frankly quite a luxury when you’re on the river! Ice is critical, and belongs in the professionally packed coolers to ensure the food keeps for the long river trip.
Before dinner, I made sure to ask Howie for one final request. As I mentioned earlier, this was Howie’s 150th trip down the river. An amazing accomplishment for a great river man. My dad and I began our river adventure with Howie on day 1, and it would be perfectly fitting, and really our honor, to float the final day with Howie down the river on his milestone trip. He was all for it, and while sad to even think about the trip being over, I wouldn’t want to end it any other way. Plus, he owed me some pictures of his wife and 4-legged kiddos – if you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for photos because they always tell a great story!
After a great dinner, we got our take-out day ‘orientation’ from Clare. It wasn’t until she mentioned it during her talk that I realized that not at any point in the day did the thought of what went down at take-out even cross my mind. In fact, no one asked about it. See the key to having the ultimate experience in the great outdoors, especially in a place like the Grand Canyon, is to be present at all times. We were all present on day 13. And it made all the difference – day 13 was actually one of my favorite days, start to finish, of the whole trip…a whole trip of favorite days.
Clare wrapped up her talk, and Kim closed out the evening by finishing up the story of the boys swimming down the Colorado. It was a perfect ending to a perfect day at a perfect camp for our last night on the river. I stuck around for another star search with Howie, my dad, Chris and a few others, before retiring to my sleeping bag and book for the night.
I did not sleep at all, but rather enjoyed my last night between the canyon walls, under the stars, listening to the peaceful sound of water making its way past camp, and on the river that now felt like a home away from home.
It was official; I had no desire to leave this magical place.