Serious rapid(s) transit

GC Dean Krakel © News
Rafter Craig Beasley cools off and avoids biting flies by sitting in the Colorado River a few miles above the take- out at Diamond Creek on Day 11 of his trip through the Grand Canyon. The thermo- meter registered 110 degrees before it topped out.

By Dean Krakel, Rocky Mountain News
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK - It's 179 miles from the put-in at Lee's Ferry, Ariz., to the brink of Lava Falls Rapid in the Grand Canyon. And though there's lots of Colorado River and canyon in-between, it's Lava you think about at the beginning of a trip.

Lava's legends can haunt your dreams. You hear that the Colorado River plunges 37 feet in 100 yards through Lava Falls; that the Guinness World Records calls Lava the fastest navigable stretch of white water in the Western Hemisphere; that a huge set of Lava waves once turned a raft upside down and then right-side up so fast that the occupants stayed inside; that swimmers sometimes have their life jackets stripped off by the turbulence.

Fact or fiction? It really doesn't matter. What matters are the questions running through your mind: Will I survive Lava? Will I flip? Will I swim? Watching the 40-foot-long, pontoon-supported commercial rafts being rigged at Lee's Ferry doesn't help. Down there, in the canyon's blackest heart, is something big.

First look

Lava Falls announces its presence with a deafening roar. Pouring over a smooth horizon line, the muddy Colorado River simply disappears. An occasional gout of foam leaps from down there. Nothing more.

In the still pool above the rapid, Gary Oyler, Craig Beasley and I row our boats into an eddy and tie the bowlines to a tamarisk tree. For safe measure, I clip my boat to Gary's with a carabiner. Nervous hands make it hard to work the gate.

"OK," I think. "Get a grip."

Leaving the boats, we climb a well-worn trail up to an overlook from which we'll scout our route. At 11 a.m. the temperature is 105 degrees; heat radiates off the black basalt.

Because we're dressed in helmets, life jackets and various combinations of polypropylene and neoprene, the temperature seems to be even hotter. It's like wearing long underwear in the Sahara. One of the incongruities of the Grand Canyon is that the dam-released water is as frigid as a mountain stream. Here, a boater can suffer heatstroke and hypothermia at the same time.

Our first glimpse at Lava leaves us speechless. Three hundred feet below us, the river plunges abruptly into a violent, almost riverwide reversal called the Ledge Hole. Beyond that is an obstacle course of haystacks, laterals, weird hydraulics, holes, boulders, churning eddy lines and whirlpools - features so infamous they have names: The Slot, the V-Wave, Big Wave, Big Bertha, Mountain Wave, Domer Rock, Big Black Rock, Corner Pocket, the Cheese Grater.

Lava Falls is named for the vast black cascades of molten rock that poured down the canyon walls from ancient volcanoes on the rims.

"What a conflict of water and fire there must have been here!" wrote John Wesley Powell, the river's first official explorer in 1869. "Just imagine a river of molten rock running down into a river of melted snow. What a seething and boiling of the waters; what clouds of steam rolled into the heavens!"

Lava Falls Rapid is a product of debris flushed by rains from the mouth of Prospect Canyon across from us. Like all things in the Grand Canyon, the scale is large - the debris fan towers 75 feet above the river. Boulders the size of small houses have been tossed into the current. Periodically, flash floods and the river's flows change the rapid again and again.

The most recent rearrangement occurred in 1995, when rain created a 1,000-foot waterfall that spilled over the lip of the upper Prospect Canyon. Huge boulders loosened from the canyon walls and rolled into the chocolate waters of the Colorado. Afterward, Lava Falls was steeper, faster and fiercer than before.

A warm-up

For Gary, Craig and I, rowing the Colorado through the Grand Canyon is a lifetime dream. For a few thousand dollars, anyone can buy a seat on a commercial boat trip and make the 225-mile Grand Canyon journey. A private boater must apply for a permit and join a list more than thousands of names . Craig has waited eight years for this trip.

At the age of 60, Gary is the senior boatman of our crew. Leaner and stronger than men half his age, he is one of the finest oarsmen I have seen. No nuance of current escapes his notice. Craig and I let him be the lead boat. We call him "the probe."

Gary sold Craig his first set of raft tubes 12 years ago. Both men have honed their oaring skills on the wild rivers of Idaho, Utah and Colorado. At night on the beach, they reminisce about the Salmon, Dagger Falls, Marsh Creek, the Middle Fork, Snake and Payette. Westwater and Cataract. The San Juan and Deso. The Royal Gorge.

It has taken the three of us nine days to reach Lava Falls. We've rowed 179 miles and run 160 rapids. Our arms have been hardened, eyes opened and minds sharpened by legendary white-water passages such as the Roaring Twenties, the Jewels, Hance, Grapevine, Specter, Deubendorff, Bedrock, Sockdolager, Upset, Granite, Horn Creek and Crystal.

At House Rock, mile 17, our first day, I hit a big wave wrong, the boat turned up on its side and I got washed out.

We spent an hour scouting Hance's long, scary minefield of holes, rocks and waves, walking the shore up and down its entire length. Then we spent another 30 minutes just making sure.

When I failed to make the necessary move in Horn Creek, a massive hole swallowed the raft, chewed me up and spit me out into a rock. Only luck left me upright.

I blew an oar against the right wall in Granite's 30-foot drop. While trying to jam the oar back into the oarlock, I got a crippling smack in the calf from the shaft.

Beautiful, terrible Crystal, one of the most fearsome passages in the canyon, was a low-water cakewalk down the left side. Thank God.

Now it's Lava.

The reputation

"The bottom line with Lava is that any line through it can work out for you or bite you," veteran boatman "Gordo" Henderson wrote me. "There is no completely safe line. With Lava, the only valid generalization you make about it is to avoid the Ledge Hole at all costs. The Ledge Hole is capable of disassembling a raft, frame and all."

Former Grand Canyon Dory guide John Blaustein estimates he has rowed Lava 60 times and flipped in it four. "It scares . . . me every time," he says. "Invariably, I stand on the overlook at the top, wondering if there is any way out of having to run it. One never is casual about running Lava Falls. End of story."

Standing on the overlook, Gary sums it up this way: "That is some confused water," he says. "In some places, I don't think even the river knows where it's going."

It's hard to believe that people have swum Lava for fun, done it in inner tubes, rubber duckies and on wake boards. Thousands of tourists yell and scream unharmed through the maelstrom. In 40 years of float trips, only two people have died, according to the National Park Service.

Lava's entrance is deceptive. No marker rocks stick above the surface. All the tongues leading into the entry look alike. At river level, it's nearly impossible to tell where you are in relation to the monstrous Ledge Hole. It's all a bit unnerving in a rapid where being precise means either staying upright or being in a swim for your life.

A bubble line is key to our entry, a slight shimmering of boils breaking the surface just right of the river's center. The bubbles lead to an entry that just misses the edge of the Ledge Hole.

"I'm going to put my tubes across those bubbles," Gary says. "Break that lateral wave coming off the Ledge Hole. Drop in for the V-Wave. Beyond that, I'll square up and see where I'm at."

Given all those waves and turbulence, our biggest challenge, Gary tells us, will be not getting knocked out of the boat.


We watch the bubbles and stare at the rapid until we can't look anymore. Craig says he's seen ocean waves that weren't as big as the Mountain Wave on the far end. I rehearse my route. Still a little unnerved by my House Rock experience, I look for a doable swim line.

"You know, it's probably a good thing you can't walk down there and check the whole thing out," Gary says from behind me as we return to the boats.

"A man could look too long and lose his nerve."

At least he's not singing, "Please, Mr. Custer don't make me go," as he did at Crystal.

Going in

Rafts untied, gently bobbing in the big eddy, we check everything one last time, make sure all the coolers and dry boxes are tied in, all loose items put away. Tighten the life jackets and helmets, and then do it again. I find myself wishing for a few more straps to pull.

Okay. Crapshoot time.

We wish each other "good runs," sink oars into current, move out toward the roar. Gary first, then me. Craig hangs back a little, savoring his fear.

The buzz in my head quiets, replaced by the Rolling Stones. I'm gripping the oar handles so tight that if they had tongues, they'd be sticking out.

It's spooky being 20 yards from the edge, seeing nothing, knowing what's below. The river rumbles like a freight train. Gary and I stand in our boats, craning our necks to see over the edge, making small adjustments, pushing a little, pulling a little on the oars. Some small waves slap the boats, and we sit back down.

"See the bubbles yet?" I ask Gary. We're nearly side by side.

"I'm on them," he replies.

I move in behind.

"You might want to give me a little room," Gary says calmly. All hell is breaking loose below. Waves are lashing into the air higher than his head. My heart is pounding. The Rolling Stones are gone.

Gary falls away in an explosion of foam. My world accelerates. I turn the boat sideways across the bubbles, pulling left, timing my oar strokes so I can move close enough to the Ledge Hole to just miss its right side.

Now I pull hard with both oars and feel something huge hit the boat, wash over my back. Looking over my shoulder, down into the gnashing maw of the Ledge Hole, I realize I've gone too far. I'm headed for oblivion. Push. Push. Push on the oars. I'm yelling and pushing as hard as I can. But the raft's not moving. Instead, I'm falling to the bottom of the world.

Suddenly, the raft stalls, lifts and thrusts forward, smashing the V-Wave over my tubes. My arms and the oars have a mind of their own. Digging and pulling and pushing. Water everywhere. So much water I can't breathe. Foam. A white storm. I can't see my hands. Now and then I see the flash of my tubes. A huge wave erupts on my left, rolls over the boat, and when it's gone, so is my spare oar, straps and all. Then my mouth fills with water and I'm inundated some more.

Something huge, green and smooth picks up the boat. I'm so high, I'm flying over the rapid. The Big Wave. And in front of me the Mountain Wave shakes, rattles and roars. I am the Tin Man before Oz. The wave towers over me and breaks apart.

"Oh, thank you," I say.

Then I'm bouncing down into the tail waves where Gary, smiling, waits in the eddy.

"Some ride," Gary yells. I spit out some river. Pump my fist.

Now, Craig begins his run. We see his entry, a burst of water and then just the top of his helmet or sometimes the tips of his tubes. Suddenly, he's on the crest of the Big Wave. From the back I watch the Mountain Wave swell. Build.

"Oh, no," I think. Just as Craig hits, the wave makes like a volcano. Tons of cascading water blow skyward and then down, driving his boat out of sight. One second. Two. An entire 18-foot cataraft and a man submarined. He surfaces over to the right, digging with his oars.

"Well," he says a few seconds later, still sneezing water, "that's wetter then I've been the whole trip."

A successful run. Three boats all upright. Three boaters still inside.

We wait in the eddy for my spare oar to come floating by, but it never does.

After awhile, Gary pulls out into the current and bounces down through the waves of Lower Lava, rows out of sight.

"There goes the probe," Craig says, smiling. The two of us are in no hurry. We linger, looking back upriver, talking quietly about our runs, the trip. We still have three days ahead to our take-out at Diamond Creek, a few more big rapids, the canyon, but nothing like what we've been through.

"People talk about the Grand Canyon being the trip of a lifetime," Craig says. "But until you've done it, you can't relate. Now I can."

If you go

For guided trips: The National Park Service lists outfitters that run the canyon at

For do-it-yourselfers: No new permit applications are being accepted. The waiting list (currently at more than 8,000 names) has been frozen while the Park Service develops a new river-use plan. Private river runners have been waiting 10 to 20 years for a permit.