Lava Falls the Hard Way or... How to take 21 hours to raft 200 yards in the Grand Canyon
Story and photos by Will Hansen, July 2011
I checked my watch… it was just after 11am. We were 6 whitewater rafts, drifting quietly down a peaceful stretch of the Colorado River on a gorgeous, picture-perfect morning in late March 2011. I realized the giant black basalt blob in midstream must be Vulcan’s Anvil. Allowing for some time to scout, I figured our impending showdown with Lava Falls would occur at ‘high noon’... a suitably dramatic time for running the biggest rapid in the Grand Canyon. Breaking the quiet, Amanda pulled out a fifth of Jaeger and it made the rounds, passed from boat to boat. The drama continued to build. We’d laid over at Upper National camp yesterday and spent the morning exploring National Canyon and generally screwing around all afternoon, playing games and relaxing. Layover days on a Grand Canyon trip are precious and looked forward to as a time of rest and recovery from the grind of breaking and making camp each day. But the vibe yesterday was different from our layovers at Nankoweep and Lower Bass - because today we would run Lava Falls.
Our showdown with Lava was a very long time in the making for Martin, our permit holder. Martin is a lawyer from Louisiana who used to be a hard-core kayaker. You’ve got to be hard core to live in New Orleans and suffer the long drives to enjoy your favorite sport in the snake-infested waters of “Deliverance Country”. Martin put in his application 18 long years ago. Over those years, Martin’s kayaking buddies succumbed to jobs and parenthood, and fell by the wayside. In fact, Martin hadn’t used his kayak in years. But he stuck with his application, filing his statements of continuing interest with the National Park Service each year, keeping his place in the Grand Canyon waiting list. By the time he finally got this permit, he was alone – a Grand Canyon virgin with permit in-hand.
Over the Internet Martin made contact with Mike to lead the trip. Mike assembled a group of competent rafters from his circle of friends. Lucky for me, I got the call. Unlucky for me, I had signed up for rotator cuff surgery to repair my bicep tendon three days prior. I would have 93 days post-op to recover before shoving off from Lee’s Ferry. As I took the call from Mike, I remembered my surgeon had said it would take 3 months to recover. Gee, 3 days to spare – I’m good to go!
My nose has been pretty firmly on the grindstone throughout my adult life, raising and putting three kids through college. Now, all our kids were off the payroll. So finally the time had arrived to break away for a Grand Canyon trip, and my wife said ‘go for it’. Bum shoulder, huge water, 23 days of schlepping gear. What could go wrong? But for a chance to knock off the top item on my bucket list, I was in from the beginning and worked my ass off to get my shoulder back into rowing shape.
So far, the trip had been awesome. While Martin and I were the Grand Canyon rookies, the rest of our small group had about 100 trips under their combined belt and knew how to get down the canyon and have a great time in the process. For Amanda, a pro Grand Canyon guide, this was her 51st trip. Trip Leader Mike was on his 21st trip, having spent some time guiding in the canyon during his younger days. John too, older than me by a few years, had lost count somewhere north of 20 GC trips. Scott and Scotty each had a half-dozen. So we were 6 rafts and 7 peeps, with Martin spending time at the oars and taking his position as a ‘bow bunny’ in the big stuff. As we pulled away from Lee’s Ferry, the flow level was fluctuating between 16-21K CFS - not huge, but certainly big by modern post-dam standards.
By this point in the trip, we had gelled as a tribe and as a team. We knew each other pretty well, had all our tribe jokes and catch lines down, and were fully immersed in the experience that is a private self-supported Grand Canyon rafting trip. Our teamwork had been proven in Hermit rapid a few days prior, when Amanda flipped in the famous 5th wave. We corralled and righted her fully loaded 18’ Maravia self-bailer in about 30 minutes in deep water against a cliff. We were now a well-oiled machine, often on the water by 8:30am, even after doing dishes from a bacon and eggs breakfast!