Always Above Lava | Mali Noyes

Always Above Lava

We started with oreos, then pringles, and finally smashed bread with glopped on peanut butter, jelly and banana slices, cut and spread with our PFD safety knives. Lunch was delicious. Between the overhanging tamarisk and lapping river, we huddled around the table. Layered in warm jackets, raincoats, and drysuits, we scavenged the last of the bread, scraped the bottom of the peanut butter jar and poured the crumbs of the pringles into our open mouths. Exhausted from battling the wind and hungry with cold, we had pulled up to this make-shift beach, desperate for calories, grabbing at the oreos and pringles first, the easiest to eat and pass around, offering a calm to our shivering bodies as we tied our boats up and pulled out the rest of lunch.

The day had started dry and still, after checking off with the forest ranger and finishing the rigging, we pushed off, leaving Lees Ferry behind us as we entered the towering walls of orange and red Tapeats Sandstone, our home for the next 16 days. Almost instantly we were met with cold rain and strong upriver winds. Relentless and surging with overpowering gusts, the wind continued to slam us into the shore, trapping us in eddies and dragging us upstream, forcing us to fight our way back into the current and back downstream. As hard as we rowed, the rain remained bitterly cold, and as we strained to move downriver, with our uncoordinated oar strokes and numb fingers and toes, the Grand Canyon introduced itself. A stranger to our weak bodies, deconditioned by the comforts of civilization, its merciless arrogance and wild roar of tumultuous weather humbled and disheartened us, while reminding us that with our rubber rafts and crew of 16 friends, we had a trip in front of us.

Created between five to seventeen million years ago, the Grand Canyon lives as one of the longest and most dramatic canyons in the world. There are deeper canyons but the Grand is unrivaled in its exhibit of geologic history and expression in its sheer canyon walls. Walls that for the majority of the canyon rise up to a vertical mile above the river, at some places leaving winter boaters untouched by sunlight for full days. Commonly mistaken to have deepened slowly, “one grain at a time,” it is in fact the brute strength and power of the hundred-year storms and hundred-year floods that have carved the canyon. Coupled with the desert climate, unequipped to handle large amounts of rainfall, infrequent but massive storms drop more rain in one day than the desert has seen in years. Accumulating quickly, running off rocks and the unnourished dirt, the water gains momentum as the rain turns into a viscous powerhouse of mud and rock, destroying and carrying everything in its path. It is during these catastrophic floods, with the debris grinding, the walls eroding, and the boulders dislodging that the canyon is transformed.

Best known for its deep canyon and eloquent geology, amid boatman, the Grand Canyon is famous for its rapids. Destructive and untamed, the rapids of the Grand Canyon match the power of the river that flows through them. Formed where side canyons meet the Colorado, the storms and floods responsible for deepening the canyon are also responsible for creating the hazardous rapids found within the canyon. For most rivers, rapids are classified on a 1-6 scale, 1 being nothing more than a few splashes and 6 being an un-runnable waterfall. The Grand Canyon stands alone, using a 1-10 scale, the canyon houses some of the most feared and respected rapids in the rafting world. Rapids known for flipping five-ton motor rigs, completely destroying and dismantling dories and rafts, and continually presenting new challenges and surprises to the veterans and long time river guides of the canyon.

Starting with Badger and House Rock rapid, the Colorado launches boatman into its size and splendor. Into the Roaring Twenties the rapids grow in force and consistency, as boatman find their stamina in this back-to-back series of ten rapids between mile 20-29. Further down, Hance marks the first class 8 rapid, complex and long, its hidden boulders and vicious bottom hole leave successful boatman shaken and thankful. Continuing on to Horn Creek, Granite, Hermit, and Crystal rapid, the river pushes boatman through a surge of consequential rapids, with sucking holes, powerful hydraulics and boat pinning walls. As the canyon narrows, cutting deeper into the glossy and erosive resistant Vishnu Schist, the water depth and power increases as boatman run the Jewel series, a string of rapids named after precious jewels. Warmed up now, boatman are thrown into the indiscernible white water of Bedrock, Deubendorff and Upset.

After surviving the first 179 miles of the canyon’s gauntlet of rapids, boaters face the beast that is Lava Falls. A class 10 rapid, Lava Falls is arguably “the biggest navigable waterfall in North America” (Fedarko, 2013). Created from constrictions and remnants of old lava flows, the unforgiving basalt and 13 foot vertical drop, has destroyed the most boats in the canyon. Scorning the prideful and dismantling the confident, Lava Falls is the final and largest rapid of the river. Feared and respected by the best boatman in the world, it’s notorious growl and churning white water turns boatman anxious and crazed with anticipation. Haunting their dreams, draining their attention and consuming their conversations, images of the potential disasters in the falls materialize in every overwhelming wave, missed oar stroke and uncontrolled drift. Up to this point, the rapids of the canyon served as training, testing the boatman’s strength and finesse, all in preparation to face the inevitable Lava Falls.

But back to the beginning, back to day one, in the relentless wind and rain, meeting only a fraction of the temper contained within the canyon walls, we methodically rowed our rafts following the river deeper into the canyon. On a whim Kate put her name into the Grand Canyon lottery and a month later received an email congratulating her with a permit. Having little white water experience but a great propensity to plan, organize and please, Kate pieced together a crew of family, friends, and in my case, a friend of a friend’s recommendation. Having been down the Grand two previous times and worked multiple seasons as a multi-day river guide, I was invited for my ability to row and my knowledge and experience in putting together river trips. I had never met Kate, but said yes to the invitation and on May 15th we arrived at Lee’s Ferry with our collected crew of 16. With help from the rental company, we began rigging and preparing our 5 rubber rafts with all the trip gear, supplies, and other provisions, getting ready for whatever adventure lay downstream.

The first week greeted us with wind, rain, and cold temperatures. Soggy and raw, in our fleece layers and rain jackets, we grew accustomed to black storm clouds, unrelenting headwinds, and freezing mid-day downpours. Rowing was slow and frustrating, arriving to camp late, tired and hungry. And to top it off, we didn’t have enough food. The meals may have been enough on a normal day on a normal trip, but our trip had turned from cold to colder, from drizzling to downpours, and from floating to pushing. The portions were small, the protein scarce, and the menus unclear. For every meal, we meticulously calculated servings, dividing up the food to ensure everyone got something. At breakfast we each got one hardy English muffin (no extras), at lunch we each got a satisfying ¾ pita (that’s 12 pitas divided between 16 people), at dinner, on the rare occasion there was meat, we each got a filling two cubes of beef (cut small), and for the few deserts, we each enjoyed a generous 1 ½ oreos.

Speaking a language of food fractions, wind gusts, and rain saturation, our group grew from schoolmates and strangers into teammates and friends. Those with extras shared their warm layers, costumes where handed out and passed around the group (as we had plenty of those) and we all took turns rowing, spinning, and pushing against the strong wind. Together we scouted and ran the difficult rapids, some spitting us out disheveled and shaken, while others rewarding us with playful waves and smooth transitions. At night we huddled together under our group rain shelter, teasing with optimism, we laughed, sang, and chatted, as we enjoyed our rain soaked camps and our warm, sometimes sandy, meals. Amid these challenging conditions, we continued traveling downstream, tempered with moody storm clouds and splashed with wind cursed riffles, the dominating canyon walls stood as our pathway directing us onward.

As the river cut deeper, the canyon walls transformed into the black and infernal Granite Gorge, leaving behind the warm hues of Tapeats Sandstone, and with it, the cold, wind and rain that had scorned us for far too long. Finally, we shed our rain jackets and warm hats, trading them for sunscreen and shade. Camping on a small beach framed with polished and fluted Vishnu Schist, we splashed in the water, dancing barefoot while enjoying cold beers, as we eagerly embraced the expected heat and cloudless skies of a desert river. Rising above us, glittered with pink sparks of Zoroaster Granite the ancient metamorphic walls of Granite Gorge shined with age. Created 1.8 billion years ago, compressed by heat and pressure, the Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite of Granite Gorge lives as the oldest rock in the canyon. Dancing as mere microscopic specks in the timeline of earth, humbled by the canyon’s marvel and magnitude, we continued to intimately getting to know the power that is the Grand Canyon. And all the while, drifting closer and closer to Lava Falls.

This was my third trip down the Grand. My first trip was when I was eleven years old, with my father rowing and my mother organizing, this first trip jump-started my obsession with rivers and rowing rafts. My next trip down the canyon was thirteen years later, this time with my brother and father. Together, my brother and I shared rowing our raft, taking turns between running the rapids and reassuring and confirming each other’s lines. Now, at the age of twenty-nine, I was back in the canyon, but this time with friends, responsible for part of the trip planning and leading, and this time I was the boatwoman in charge of rowing my raft down the canyon.

On this third trip, as I rowed through the canyon, images from past trips continued to resurface. I reminisce on my innocence, running around above Granite rapid trying to catch a lizard. This time, I’m nervous and focused as I run through the tunnel of tamarisk to scout and pick my line through this intimidating rapid. We have lunch at Grapevine camp, I remember building a drip sandcastle at the edge of the beach, this time I unload the lunch box and hand out tasks to the cook crew. On my second trip with my brother sitting in front of me, I smashed the edge of the hole in Crystal Rapid, washing my brother into the bilge of the boat. This time I set up differently, using the slack water it feels almost effortless as we glide past the smashing hole. I help my boyfriend hide a rubber snake by the groover, I laugh because this is the same place my dad taught me to hide plastic scorpions. I tuck my wet shirt under a cam-strap to dry, remembering my mom’s instructions to keep track of my things, not leaving anything laying around to get blown away in a microburst. Over the course of three Grand Canyon trips it is apparent, my childhood games have expanded into responsible fun, my rookie boating skills have grown in finesse and intuition, my dad’s pranks have become my own and my mom’s lessons have turned into my habits.

All of these trips down the canyon have shaped me, teaching me lessons and directing me on my life path, but there is one lesson that stands out from all the others. On my second trip, while celebrating at Tequila Beach, the camp just below Lava Falls, the experienced kayaker of the group skipped up to my brother and I. Beers and tequila drinks in hand, dressed in costumes and feeling accomplished and relaxed as we looked back up towards Lava Falls, he said, “you know, you’re always above Lava.”

He was right, six years and twelve days later, and here I was, above Lava. Starting in a storm and breaking into the sun, our costume clad, protein starved, dancing crew had arrived. We heard it before we saw it. The air was hot and dry and the shore was black and barren, covered in scorched lava rock, remnants of million-year-old molten flows. Pushing through the slow current, we rounded the corner, catching sight of the daunting horizon line; tranquil and smooth the river fell away, dropping so quickly that at river level all we could see was the occasional splash of water. Our nerves spiked and our chatter grew silent, overpowered by the roar of a river compressing and dropping in an angry mess of chaotic white water. Anticipating it since the second we said “yes” to the trip invitation, with the anxiety growing every mile we rowed closer, the inevitable was here, we were now above the fabled Lava Falls.

Pulling over to scout, we followed a dirt path to an outlook. From here we could see the muscles of the river flexing and seizing in a turbulent madness of foam and spray, pushing down and through the constriction. Daunting to look at, the rapid has no obvious line, forcing boatman to pick the best of the bad choices.

Guarding the top center, the infamous ledge hole viciously cycles back on itself. Consuming a third of the river, this school-bus-sized hole, is one of the most dangerous features on the river. Formed by a submerged ledge of rocks, the water pushes over the edge, waterfalling and recirculating. With no imperfections, there is no exit for trapped rafts or swimmers, but instead an unforgiving crushing hole, destroying boats and leaving victims to swim for their lives. To the left of the ledge hole there is a series of pour overs, large holes, and destructive rocks. In high water, this side is runnable, but in our medium-to-low flow, the left side is a convoluted mess, making piecing together a clean run impossible.

In search of an entrance, looking to the right, a boiling tongue leads into a monstrous V-wave. Formed by two lateral waves smashing together, the V-wave’s crashing jaws swallow rafts, taking advantage and flipping any raft that is not perfectly T-ed up. Spinning and disheveled from the V-wave, boatman are catapulted into Big Kahuna. A steep inconsistently building and breaking haystack wave, standing ten feet tall, that if hit at the wrong time will send fully rigged 18 foot rafts tumbling backward. If they are lucky, swimmers face a whirly swim in the final waves of the rapid. However, if they are unlucky, they are caught in the Corner Pocket; a circulating current that traps rafts and repetitively slams them into Cheese-Grater rock. A spiky and rough lava rock shaped like a cheese wedge, conveniently placed so as the power of the river pushes the rafts, the rock does its job grating the rubber.

From our scouting point, we picked out every detail in the flood of current, watched the lulls and surges in the waves, and talked through all the hazards, eventually finalizing our lines and memorizing our marks. With stomachs churning and adrenaline rising, we checked the straps on our rafts, tightened our PFDs, and one-by-one pushed off to follow the bubble line into the falls.

The river splashed and the tongue dropped away, with gripped hands, braced feet, and focused eyes, for a second, we were held above the terrifying disarray of rushing water. Committed now, I was completely consumed by reading the folds and waves below me; looking to use every piece of this powerful river to run smoothly through this churning rapid. Relying on my interpretation and intuition, I felt the river through my wooden oars and with a final stroke, smashed through the first curling wave. Entering just to the right of the ledge hole, the first hit was hard, and from here, having set up correctly, all I could do was brace and respond to however the river threw me.

Less than twenty seconds, that’s how long a clean run in Lava Falls takes. And in twenty seconds we were all yipping and howling in excitement while bobbing through the tail waves below Lava. All five of our white and blue rafts had come out upright, some runs more graceful than others, but what does grace matter when the consequences of flipping, dismantling, and drowning lay on the line?

We camped at Tequila beach. Celebrating in face paint and costumes, we danced across the beach, threw frisbees, played games and finished our supply of tequila. And as I’d been instructed many years ago, on this same beach, with the relieving roar of Lava above us and the smooth lapping of water at our feet, it was only a matter of time before we were back above Lava.

This 16 day venture, with its gloom and misery from rain and wind, its adrenaline and excitement from rapids and beauty, and it's comradery and appreciation from friendship and discovery had both eroded and empowered us. Starting fresh, clean, and doe-eyed the ever flowing river pushed us onward through its calm turns, towering walls and fits of power, bringing us to Lava Falls, the last large rapid of the canyon, but not the culmination of our experience. Just as the 100 year storms have deepened and changed the flow of the canyon, the river also changes the floaters that grace its presence. Introducing us to our true selves and teaching us lessons that can only be taught in a place so secluded and wild, the canyon leaves us addicted to everything the river offers. As we step off our rafts at Diamond Creek, pulling into the final beach sun-chapped, ragged and sand-caked, we are vibrant with life. And as we say our sad good-byes to the canyon, our anticipation for Lava Falls starts to flicker, for the river will always be with us and we will always be above Lava.

Fedarko, Kevin. The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon. New York, NY: Scribner, 2013. Martin, Tom and Whitis, Duwain. Guide to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Flagstaff, AZ: Vishnu Temple Press, 2008. Ranney, Wayne. Carving Grand Canyon: Evidence, Theories, and Mystery. Grand Canyon, AZ: Grand Canyon Association, 2012.