Friday, January 7, 2011
Rowing Into Obscurity
Sitting with oars in hand, our 18ft. raft holding 23 days worth of gear begins to pick up speed. All I can do is wait. The roar below is almost deafening, though all I can see from this vantage point is the current in front of us forming into small ripples and then disappearing as they drop off the horizon line. Violent spurts of water shoot straight up into the air beyond in the distance. This is Lava Falls. We drift closer and closer to the entrance as the current moving us faster with each passing second. I take short, choppy strokes with the oars, just trying to keep us on the line I have chosen. There is a strong eddy to my right, and I know that if I allow even the slightest bit of it to touch my boat, it will take us too far right. Just downstream and to the left holds a huge recirculating hydraulic that will flip us instantly if we hit it. There is a fine line, and like every other rapid on the Grand Canyon, it is all about the entrance. It is in this moment when time seems to slow down. It is in these moments when time almost stops. There is nothing else but me and this powerful expression of nature below. My focus becomes so defined and heightened. Everything seems to move in slow motion. In the midst of the surrounding chaos and rush of adrenaline, there is a sense of peace and calm. Over the next few moments, I will taste a tiny piece of what has created this place.
It was day 17 of our 23 day trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and so far, all of my expectations had been exceeded. Pushing off from Lee’s Ferry on day 1, the sense of excitement and adventure was almost overwhelming. We were entering one of America’s last great wilderness areas. As we drifted out into the current, looking back towards the put-in would be our last sight of a road of any kind for 230 miles. We were a group of 16 river guides who all worked together in West Virginia, and for 280 miles, we would be totally self-sufficient, carrying everything from sleeping bags to satellite phone, tents to toilet. As we made our way deeper into the canyon, we were awestruck by the flowing waters and cascades of Vasey’s Paradise, Thunder River, Elves Chasm, and Deer Creek Falls. We explored and scrambled up side canyons called Nautiloid, Nankoweap, Shinumo, Tapeats, and Blacktail, and we stood in disbelief, staring at the milky blue waters of Havasu and the Little Colorado. All the side hikes and canyons alone would have made for a phenomenal trip, but in addition to all this, there were the rapids.
The rapids of the Grand Canyon are some of the most famous in the world. Unlike other rivers that are narrow, steep, and technical, the Colorado river is wide, carrying a large volume of water, and creating rapids with huge, intimidating features. With names like Hance, Horn, Granite, Hermit, and Crystal, they are each beautiful whirling explosions of whitewater. Each has its own dangers to avoid and moves to make. On the ninth day of the trip, we took a layover day just above Crystal Rapid. I spent a large part of the day sitting on the rocky bank staring out at the huge waves and features of the rapid. Strong hydraulics, boiling eddy lines, and waves standing 12ft. from trough to crest. Trying to take in all the dynamics and features was almost overwhelming. I found myself looking at the rapid in both awe and disgust, seeing in it beauty as well as terror. Throughout the years of working on and experiencing different rivers, these interesting contradictions seem to continually present themselves. How can whitewater be so beautiful and yet so terrifying? In the midst of such chaos, why is there a sense of peace? How is it that I can feel simultaneously humbled and empowered? All of these contradictions collided in the heart of Lava Falls.
Lava Falls is the biggest rapid in the Grand Canyon, and one of the largest raftable rapids in the world. Its features are huge. There is a hydraulic known as the “ledge hole” in the center at the top. Running this would result in a sudden and violent end to your raft being right side up and you being in it. The right side of the rapid is monstrous, consisting of multiple 10 to 16 foot tall standing waves, the infamous “V-wave,” and a rock at the very bottom right known lovingly as the “cheese grader.” The idea is to enter moving from right to left, going just to the right of the “ledge hole” but continuing to move left, missing the “V-wave” and staying away from the “cheese grader.” The difficult thing is that almost all of the current is pushing hard to the right. As you approach the rapid, from the boat you cannot see anything below but horizon line until you are within a few feet of the “Ledge Hole.” Sound like fun? Here’s how it went for us.
By us, I mean myself, wife Laura, and our friend Alyson. I took the oars, Laura was coiling our bowline and pushing us off the bank, and Alyson decided to document the run by shooting some video. This was a brave choice, considering that having one hand hold the camera left her with only one hand to hold the boat. As we made our way towards the top of the rapid, I focused on the horizon line created by the “ledge hole” and a tiny bubble line that was moving out from the top of the eddy on the right as I mentioned earlier. That bubble line would lead just to the right of the “ledge hole,” into a 7 to 8 foot standing wave. As we got closer, I saw the wave and began rowing hard straight towards it. Ideally, I wanted to hit it and keep my momentum going left. The roar got louder and louder. As we came to the very top of the rapid, I saw the wave in front of me, the “ledge hole” just off to our left, and the chaotic mess off whitewater beyond. I rowed hard into the wave. When we hit it, I felt like I had run into a brick wall. I was not expecting the wave to pack that much punch. It knocked me back, immediately turned the boat sideways, and sent us to the right, drifting straight for the “V-wave.” As the classic rafting description goes, we lost total control at the top and never recovered.
Looking over my right shoulder, I saw the infamous “V-wave” below. The difficult thing about this particular wave is it is literally shaped just like a “V” that is pointing straight downstream. It is actually two separate waves, crashing into each other. So no matter which one you try and hit square with the nose of your boat, you are bound to hit the other one with your side. At this point, I quickly try and pull with my left oar in order to at least bring the tail of the boat around so we do not go in totally sideways . The next few seconds were a blur. As we backed into the heart of the “V-wave,” I remember suddenly being lifted up into the air. The next thing I knew, my feet were above my head and I was diving head first into the middle of Lava Falls Rapid. In the midst of it all, Laura and Alyson, who were sitting directly behind me, are having their own little adventures. When we hit the “V-wave,” Alyson was tossed from the right side of the boat, over the top of Laura, to the left side of the boat, and halfway out of it. Laura had somehow managed to hold on, and when she realized that I was gone, she lunged for the oars to try and gain control of the boat. I am not sure what I grabbed on to, but in an instant I was able to crawl back in the boat. I went to grab the oars, and simultaneously, the three of us must have looked downstream, because in unison we all immediately yelled “High-Side!!!” We were drifting sideways into a 15 foot tall wave right next to the “cheese grader.” We all knew that without our weight on the downstream side of the boat, we would surely flip. All three of us scrambled onto the downstream tube and held on tight. We hit the wave dead sideways. As the boat crested over the top of the wave, it stalled for an instant. I took a deep breath. I thought we were flipping for sure. They say the average run through Lava Falls takes only 20 seconds, but depending on the run, it could be the longest 20 seconds of your life. Nothing could have been more true.
For whatever reason, our boat did not flip. Once we came over the top of that last wave, I jumped back in my seat and grabbed the oars. There was still work to be done. We had to get over to the eddy at the bottom right of the rapid. Our boat had gone first, and we need to set safety for the other boats. There were a couple other people who fell out while running Lava that day, but out of our six boats, all stayed upright. Sometimes, that is all you can hope for. Lava Falls humbled me that day. It reminded me of how little control I really have. It is one of those interesting contradictions. When nature’s grandness is on display, I feel content in my obscurity. I am reminded there is no point in seeking to conquer or subdue a river and its rapids, or any aspect of nature for that matter. One should only hope to experience them.