A Crash Course in Rowing the Grand Canyon’s Lava Falls
By Steven Wesley Law
Lava Falls is a nefarious, hydra-headed beast. She loves to embarrass me. She has tried to maim me. She has tried to drown me. She has pinned me in her corner pocket. I’ve come within an inch of flipping in her V-waves. Lava Falls hates me. I am a Capulet. She is a Montague. She is a stick. I am her piñata. But sometimes, I think just to mess with my head, she lets me pass through cleanly and safely. You never can tell what you’re going to get with Lava Falls. You see, Lava Falls is like a catholic schoolmarm: sometimes she’s forgiving, but sometimes she puts you over her knee and spanks you.
We first hear Lava Falls when we are still a half mile above it. When we’re a quarter mile away, it sounds like a tarmac full of 747s revving their engines for takeoff. The sound rouses us from the tranquility of what has been a peaceful day. We pull our rafts to shore and hike to the overlook to scout it.
Lava Falls is an impressive bit of hydrological mayhem. It’s listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as North America’s fastest navigable rapid. It’s a steep little bugger, dropping 13 vertical feet in a distance of less than 100 horizontal feet. Lava Falls is the Grand Canyon of rapids.
We are at river mile 179. It is the eleventh day of a 12-day Grand Canyon river trip. We are a fleet of six 18-foot oarboats and one motorized S-rig, which accompanies our trip as the supply boat. For those of you uninitiated in the anarchy that is Lava Falls, please allow me to describe her to you. Now the first thing that’s going to command your attention while you’re scouting Lava Falls is the Ledgehole. Right there, right there in the center of the gosh darn rapid, there’s a huge, nasty hole created by the water pouring over a massive ledge. It’s literally a waterfall. One that’s big enough to flip, and I believe destroy, a five-ton motorized S-rig if the pilot of the S-rig were so unfortunate as to fall over it. And if an oarboat gets pulled in there . . . ah crap! Well, it’s going to hold it under water and recirculate it several times before finally spitting it out. It’s happened before. I’ve seen videos on YouTube. When the raft finally emerges it’s been pulled apart and destroyed, the frame bent, straps torn, gear washed away, guide and passengers swimming for their lives. Nope. Don’t go there. And what is that over there on the right?! Well of course, it’s another pourover, essentially a mini-Ledgehole, and there’s no room at all on the left. This leaves us one teensy-weensy little route through Lava Falls where we must squeeze our rafts between the Ledgehole and the Pourover. From the scout point it looks as narrow as a tightrope. This one passage, this one and only way through Lava Falls, puts us on a course to encounter a series of devious obstacles of devilish design. Most notably the V-waves.
The V-waves are where two lateral waves come together to form one massive wave. Imagine two snowplows, side by side, each pushing 10 feet of snow, but the snowplows are turning the snow INTO each other. Those are the V-waves, and you have to go right through them.
Then, if you survive that, you’ll have to face Big Kahuna, which is a 10-foot standing wave that’s going to break over your raft like a backcountry avalanche. Something below the surface of the river causes the water above it to form into a very steep, standing wave, a static tsunami, that’s curled upstream like a scorpion’s tail. So, to state it simply, in the course of less than a hundred feet there are five or six chances for things to go wrong.
Knowing that I had to row Lava Falls today I’ve had a couple butterflies in my stomach the whole time. At the overlook, while scouting Lava, more butterflies materialize Now, as we turn from the scout point and walk down the hill to our boats, I have so many butterflies that my stomach feels like Michoacan, Mexico during the Monarch’s winter hibernation.
We climb back on our rafts, put on our lifejackets and untie our bowlines. Mike goes first. He pushes his raft off the shore, climbs into his seat and pulls out into the current. Jack goes next and I follow. Oh man! Here we go again. My adrenal gland puckers up like a salivary gland when sucking a lime. Lava’s roar gets louder, making a noise like a demon grinding the skulls of its previous victims between its teeth.
Lava Falls has bank to bank horizon line. From above it, as you’re entering it, you can’t see any of its features. This blind entry is the scariest part of the rapids to me, because I feel like I’m going to row my raft straight into the Ledgehole. I hope I’m in the right position.
I reach what we river guides call the burble line. This is a line of swirls and bubbles that appears in the river about 30 feet above the rapid. If you put your raft just on the right side of it, it will guide you into Lava Falls’ narrow, hidden tongue.
As I enter, there are a couple terrifying seconds when my raft is a little too far left and I feel like we’re going to tumble over the Ledgehole, but after many frantic digs I correct our position and dig in a couple more strong pushes away from the falls, just to make sure its vortex doesn’t suck us in. Now we’ve entered the rapid, we’re dropping steep and fast, looking down upon— even careening towards—the evil V-waves, which look like the devil rubbing his filthy hands together in sick anticipation of the butt-whooping he’s about to give me.
My line is good. I square up for the V-waves. I give one last push and pull my oars out of the water, duck down and brace. Ahhhh! Boof! I feel like a sixth grade kid running the football into Auburn’s defensive line. The wall of water I see collapsing over us, just before I squeeze my eyes shut, could easily be mistaken for a calving glacier. The two waves converge and swallow us like an amoeba swallowing a paramecium. The V-waves fold the raft into a shape I’ve only seen in the pages of the Kama Sutra.
Our raft tilts severely to the starboard, and I am washed out of my seat, pushed across the frame and nearly off the raft. I let go of the oar handles and grab hold of the oar tower as the waves begin to carry me off the boat. I watch the raft rolling over further and further. Then I’m swamped by another enormous wave, and this one knocks me out of the boat and into the churning, swirling river. I open my eyes to find that I’m engulfed in a chocolaty darkness. I don’t know if my raft has flipped or if I’ve been washed off.
Oh wait! Time out. Things are cool! It’s just my soggy hat that has fallen over my eyes. No need to panic people.
I climb back into my seat, grab my oars and start squaring up for Big Kahuna. I look downriver to see how far away Big Kahuna is—it’s right there!—and it’s building, lifting like a scorpion’s tail. I give a couple pulls on my right oar in an effort to get square to the wave. I don’t quite get the raft squared up enough before we hit Big Kahuna.
I yell, “HIGHSIDE!”
I am—and this will surprise no river guide—the only one who highsides. Big Kahuna washes over us and there’s a moment where I feel the raft stall—like it does just before it flips—but we slide through the breaking wave and into the tailwaves, safely on the other side. I stand and place my free left oar back into the oar lock as we wash through the rest of the tailwaves.
We emerge exhilarated, amazingly upright, our neurons buzzing like an apiary. We can’t help but scream like survivors. Spontaneous shouts of joy, surprise and life-lust are ripped from our souls like bikini-waxed hair. Our skin is shivering from being drenched in cold water, muscles quivering from their lactic ablutions, hearts palpitating from their adrenaline overloads. Our faces are flushed. We tremble with euphori-gasmic shudders o’relief that come from surviving a disaster. We are bestowed now with increased sensitivity, exaggerated emotions. We are high on the thrill of living in the moment.
It’s a pretty good feeling. It feels like lightning has been churned into butter and is now melting deliciously on my tongue. Rapture stopping by for a booty-call. I say come on in. Stay a while. It’s a feeling, perhaps, akin to enlightenment. Not quite close enough to touch it, but definitely close enough to hear it breathing.
Steven Wesley Law has been published in numerous magazines including: Outside, Arizona Highways and Sunset. He’s the writer and producer of the podcast Gone: The Adventures of an Apprentice Explorer. Steve is a member of the Adonis Storytelling Troupe where he tells his original stories at over 30 performances a year. He’s been a Grand Canyon river guide since 2005 and has 50 trips under his belt.