Dangerous Rapids of the Colorado River

Author’s note: This blog brings us back to our trip down the Colorado River, which we undertook in late spring. My computer crash interrupted the story. My goal over the next few weeks will be to intersperse Grand Canyon blogs along with current happenings.

A massive wave in Lava Rapid buries Peggy, I and Steve Vandoor. My hat represents Peggy and I. The oar, Steve. Steve's video camera is recording as we go. Photo courtesy of Don Green.

A serious discussion is taking place among our boatmen. They are nervous about the amount of water flowing through House Rock Rapid. A huge, raft-eating hole gapes at us from river left.

A hole is created by water flowing over a rock or ledge. The resulting waterfall forms the hole and sucks in water from downstream, creating a reverse wave. Once a boat gets caught, it is difficult to get out… and easy to flip.

Boatmen, passengers and gear may go for a swim. The bigger the hole; the greater the danger. The force of the water can suck you down into the murky depths.  It’s possible to surface under the raft.  More likely you’ll be spit out down stream.

There are other worries as well. Sleepers, rocks hidden just beneath the surface, can rip out the bottom of your craft. Cross currents may send you crashing into a wall. Your boat can become wrapped around an obstacle such as a rock or log.

To avoid these hazards, boatmen on private trips normally stop to scout the more dangerous rapids. Less threatening cousins receive a ‘read and run.’ The boatman stands up in the boat, takes a look, and goes for it.  Normally a smooth, tongue like section of the river and standing rapids point the way. Success means a thrilling, bumpy, wet ride that is over in seconds with the messy side up. (The messy side is the one with boatman, passengers and gear. The option is the boat’s smooth bottom!)

The ability to ‘read a river’ is an essential boatman skill. While excellent books describe the rapids and suggest routes, changing water levels create varying situations. High water may demand running one side of the river and low water the other.

Water levels are determined by the amount of water being released from Glen Canyon Dam, which in turn is determined by electrical power needs in the Southwest. Greater power needs require more water being released to run the huge turbines that generate the electricity.

The problem with House Rock Rapid is a lack of water. While this may seem counterintuitive, less water means more rocks are exposed to create hazards. Steve, who is a prudent kind of guy for a pirate, urges Tom to wait until the release from Glen Canyon catches up with us and raises the water level.

We place a small stick in the water to measure the water and wait. Peggy and I find a shady location to update our journals. Several people head for a hike up the side canyon. Others nap. I catch several photos of people sleeping. Eventually Tom and Steve determine it is time to go.

We are on Tom’s boat. He is going first and is understandably nervous. I tighten my grip on the safety lines. The more nervous the boatmen are, the more nervous I become. The boat moves slowly at first, inching forward, the calm before the storm that seems to go on and on. Then the current grabs us. The boat leaps forward, bounces, and then hurtles down. Freezing waves crash over the bow and soak us. The roar is deafening. Peggy and I struggle desperately to hold on while Tom fights for control. He yells. The right oar has slipped out of the oarlock. The boat begins to spin. The huge hole looms beside us, threatening to drag us in. But our momentum carries us forward and Tom’s skill brings us into shore.

The few seconds it takes to come through the rapid are burned into my memory.

Even bigger rapids lie ahead. House Rock is labeled a 4-7 using the Grand Canyon rating system. Crystal and Lava, the Grandmother and Grandfather of Colorado River rapids, are labeled a 7-10 and 8-10 respectively. They are considered two of the most challenging rapids in North America.

Almost all of the rapids in the Canyon are created by flash floods coming down side canyons that deposit huge rocks in the river. Because of the floods, rapids can change over the years. For example, Crystal Rapid did not exist prior to a massive flood in 1966.

Colorado River boatmen speak with awe and a tinge of fear about Crystal and Lava. The sentiment is contagious. We approach both with trepidation. We ride through each with Steve on his catamaran raft. Crystal seems to come and go but Lava is something else, almost mythological in its ferocity.

Steve, Peggy and I in Lava on the cat. Photo courtesy of Don Green.

Vulcan’s Anvil, a large chunk of lava in the middle of the river, is a signpost announcing the presence of Lava. (We have already heard its roar.) Superstitious boatmen kiss the rock to assure a safe journey. Steve, always cautious, obediently performs the ritual.  Scouting is carried out with great care; there is plenty of time to contemplate our fate.

The photos in this blog capture our experience much better than words. Lava is indeed a 10 out of 10. At one point, when I am staring into the massive hole on our left, Peggy is watching Steve almost be washed out of the boat on our right: scary stuff.

On the last night of our adventure, Peggy asks Steve what his most memorable experience was. “Turning around at the end of Lava and seeing that the two of you were still on my boat,” he replies. Ditto.

2 comments on “Dangerous Rapids of the Colorado River

    • I am sure nothing ever will, Peggy. The beauty of new experiences in their ability to renew us, and to remind us how precious life is. The more powerful and unique the experience, the more deeply it is etched into our lives. You have always been willing to try what is new and different, and for that, I thank you.

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