Lava Falls

Our raft heading into Lava Falls.

How did it get to be the last weekend in July? I’ve been whittling away at my to do list, but haven’t devoted the time I’d hoped to writing and participating in Kate Messner’s Teachers Write! Camp. I have been reading her blog every day, though. This post, Tuesday Quick Write  really resonated with me.  I’d been thinking about  this very idea; that it’s okay to write something for the sake of writing it. So I took Kate’s advice and wrote a campfire story. Here it is:

Lava Falls

Hands down, the best vacation my family and I ever had was our trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Everyone has seen the postcard-perfect views of the canyon from the south rim, the river a tiny green and brown ribbon snaking its way around the canyon walls far below. But in reality, the Colorado is a mighty river. Rapids formed by boulders as big as houses dot the 277 mile length of the river through the canyon. My husband and I have been kayaking and rafting down rivers since we were teenagers, and my children have been around rivers since they were born, so everyone was really excited as we got into our rafts and kayaks one hot August morning. The water was cold, about 45 degrees, but we didn’t mind. It was a fabulous trip. Rapids were scouted and run successfully. Hikes through side canyons brought us to clear, cool streams where we could splash and swim. Everything was perfect. Until we got to Lava. Lava Falls is the biggest, baddest rapid in the canyon, and we were appropriately humbled by it.

As we had with most of the other larger rapids, we pulled into an eddy and went ashore to scout the rapid. Because I was in a raft, I wasn’t concerned with the technical aspects of scouting; I just gaped at the roiling water in front of me. But our guide had done a fine job throughout the trip, so I really wasn’t too worried about his ability to navigate safely through Lava.

We piled back onto the raft. As I settled myself into my spot near the back, I cinched my life jacket and made sure there was something nearby to hold onto, just in case.

When you’re heading into a rapid, there’s an almost imperceptible pause at the top, just before the current sweeps your boat into the froth of water that is created when the river narrows or drops quickly. At that moment, you can see the foaming whitewater about to swallow you, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Our raft plunged ahead. People at the front of the raft whopped and hollered as the water hit them. Then, walls of water poured over me as we went down. And  down, and down. I remember thinking that I didn’t expect to drop for so long, or to be covered by so much water. It seemed as if the bottom of the raft had completely fallen away. Then, all at once, we were out from under the foam, back in the sunshine. But something was wrong. “Karen’s out! River left!” someone was shouting. I saw Karen, a tiny blur in the rushing water, struggling to keep her head above the waves.  We managed to pull her back into the raft only after she swam most of the rapid.

Then I noticed we seemed to be drifting, just floating along the smaller waves at the bottom of the rapid. The engine wasn’t working! There was nothing for me to do but pray at that point. Panic has no place in this kind of situation. Somehow, the guide maneuvered the raft safely to shore.

We were all pretty shaken up as we stumbled onto land to figure out what happened and assess the damage. Apparently, our guide had changed course at the last second and had taken us through the worst part of the rapid. When I was thinking, “We’ve been going down for a long time,” the raft was actually bent in half, like a taco. When we came out of the hole, Karen, who was sitting at the back of the raft, popped out  like someone being shot out of a cannon. The engine hit a rock so hard it bent the propeller. It couldn’t be fixed, but we had a spare. Fortunately, Karen’s injuries were minor. She had a broken finger and had several scrapes and bruises on her legs. Our guide injured his arm when he sailed through the air, hanging onto the engine control for dear life.

Ten years later, we took another rafting trip down the Colorado River. When we got to Lava Falls, I said to our guide, “Please get us through here safely.” He was puzzled by my concern. When I told him about my past experience with Lava, he replied, “You were on that raft!?”

We had become the stuff of legend!

Brian in Lava ten years later.
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8 thoughts on “Lava Falls

  1. […] For over 30 years, my family and I have spent vacations and weekends kayaking on rivers throughout the northeast. When my boys were teenagers, it felt like our lives revolved around paddling. We all have favorite memories of these trips. Even, or especially, the near-disasters become epic stories that are told again and again. (You can read one here.) […]

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