2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Creative Nonfiction
The Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon is known for big iconic rapids, and the biggest of them all is Lava Falls, a storm of energy that churns, tumbles, and explodes in its headlong rush toward the Sea of Cortez. Standing on the banks, I couldn’t see Lava, so instead I listened to its colossal roar as my guide, Harlan, talked me through the rapid. In my six years of learning to kayak, of slamming into rocks, of bleeding, of pulling the skirt on my kayak and swimming for my life, I had come to realize, if you deciphered the river carefully, you could discover a hidden map through the chaos. Boaters called this map “the line,” the safest and easiest way through.
Harlan took my finger and traced it along Lava’s line, stopping to point out the obstacles to be avoided. As you enter, you set your angle, approaching from the right, but not too far right because fierce upsurges of water are piling against the right shore and boiling back underneath your boat, whipping you like a monster’s tail toward the left . You paddle furiously only a few inches to the left of the eddy line separating the bullet trajectory of the river and the pulsing boils. You fight the spin because just to your left is the notorious Ledge Hole, a chunk of rock under the surface spanning almost half the width of the river. Water pours over the lip and collapses under its own weight, recirculating in a maelstrom of white water like an enormous washing machine. It’s the most feared place in all the 277 miles of the Grand Canyon, because it will suck you down and hold you there for a long time. Squeak by the Ledge Hole and you drop off the horizon into the entry waves, two walls of water, the right being the biggest and coming at you in the shape of a huge rooster tail. Next, you line up for the V- Wave, two massive lateral waves that slam together. You need to strike the V slightly left of center and punch through with every thing you have; otherwise, you’ll be launched skyward and cartwheeled into a backflip. If you manage to bust through, you turn left , angling out into the river to avoid the Cheese Grater Rock, a wicked peninsula of jagged black basalt that will tear apart anything that comes into contact with it. You then square off against the Big Kahuna waves, a thundering series of whitecaps over ten feet tall that break over you, crushing you under hundreds of pounds of liquid force. Finally, you ride the tail waves, boils, and whirl pools like a roller coaster toward the exit of Lava.
Staying on the line is no guarantee of success, but if you manage to stick to it, your chances of emerging on the other side upright and unscathed are dramatically increased. Fall off the line, and your chances exponentially decrease, and once you’re off , it’s a cascading series of circumstances going from bad to worse. And you can’t trust the current either, because sometimes the wide, smooth tongue will lead you right into a hazard you need to avoid: a sharp rock ledge or whirling hole that can trap you. As you try to navigate that turbulence, sometimes trusting it, sometimes desperately fighting it, you realize you’re merely experiencing the effects of inexorable forces swirling and colliding. What creates the surface energy are the features far below, a million pounds of water surging against boulders of every size strewn across the bottom: steep drops, undercuts, and narrow grooves between unseen rock.
I had become spellbound by rivers, by the roiling energy at the surface, that, at first, seemed impossible to navigate; but I was equally fascinated by the landscape beneath, those hidden shapes and forms that dictated the map I needed to follow. As a blind man, I knew I could never fully comprehend that power without experiencing it firsthand, to feel and hear the essence of the river, to face that cacophonic mix of forces, and to see if I might hit the line and find a way to ride it through.
After two weeks of kayaking, we were finally here: mile 179, directly above my nemesis. Lava Falls was rated class 10 out of 10 on the Grand Canyon’s difficulty scale. Here, Prospect Canyon converged with the Colorado from the south, its debris flows dumping boulders the size of cars into the main river and constricting the channel by as much as 50 percent. That, combined with massive lava flows pouring in and hardening over 750,000 years ago, had created a dramatic, dangerous rapid.
We’d been scouting Lava for too long. The sun’s heat scorched the volcanic stones and permeated through the bottoms of my paddling booties. Dry wind, superheated between high canyon walls, blew upstream, burning my face to leather and sucking the moisture from my mouth. My arms were leaden, heavy with fatigue from the day’s fourteen-mile paddle. I had been thinking about this rapid ever since we put in upstream at Lees Ferry, this monster that routinely swallowed eighteen- foot, fully loaded rubber oar boats, spitting the passengers out to swim for their lives. But honestly, I’d been thinking about Lava for eight years now, ever since I had pondered the idea of solo kayaking the Grand Canyon. “You ready to do this?” Harlan asked. “I think so,” was all I managed to say. We hiked back upstream to our boats at the put-in. I squeezed into my kayak and sat down, adjusting my seat, getting the distance to the bulkhead, where my feet touched, just right. Continuing my pre-paddling ritual, I stretched my neoprene spray skirt tightly over the top of my cockpit and felt for the grab loop, my means of escape. I shook sand from my helmet, pulled it over my forehead, and adjusted the mouthpiece and earpiece. We tested the radios once more, and they seemed to be working. I pushed off from the shore into calm water above the rapid. Harlan tucked in behind me.
His voice was comforting. “ We’re here, right now, in this moment; nothing else matters. Be clear and calm and concise.” But instead of feeling confidence, I was tentative. I wasn’t ready.
“ We’re about to cross the eddy line, on to the tongue,” he continued, “and we’re going to hug that eddy line. It’s not going to mess with us too much. When we get near the rapid, these boil lines are going to form, and they’re gonna feel like they want to spin us one way or the other, and once we’re on them, I’m going to call for a left-hand turn, and that’s going to set our angle and bring us in. We’ll have the two entry waves, the V-Wave, straighten up into the Kahuna waves, then the tail waves, and you’re through.”
“That’s all?” I asked. It was a lot to process. The current gripped my hull and slung me forward, toward the rumble of an “earthquake,” the deep vibrating echo of frenzied water ricocheting off the surrounding walls. It sounded more menacing than anything I’d ever paddled. All those rivers — the Usumacinta in Mexico, the Apurímac in Peru, and the Ottawa in Canada — had led to this moment. The air felt suddenly cold, the sun gone behind the canyon walls. My upper body had grown stiff and sluggish from the waiting. I shook my arms loose, knowing that mental anxiety translated to physical tension, and physical tension meant imprecise paddle strokes and mistakes. I whispered Harlan’s familiar words: “Relax. Breathe. Be at peace with the river.”
“ We’re about a hundred yards above now. Small left, hold that line, hold that line . . . we’re getting closer to that first boil, calm strokes, good thoughtful strokes, fight the spin, fight the spin . . .” Harlan’s voice was serious, and I knew this was no time for a mistake.
The boil hit my boat from the right; the main channel surged from the left , and I fought the spin. But tension gripped my upper body, and my strokes were rigid. I felt myself leaning the wrong way, and then I was over, upside down underwater at the top of the hardest rapid on the Grand Canyon. My mind spun with the turmoil of water surging around me, and I thought, You’ve got to be freaking kidding me. This can’t be real; this can’t be happening. I dug with my paddle, snapped my hips, and rolled back up to the surface. Harlan was yelling, “Hard left !” then immediately, “Hard right!” I knew the V- Wave was approaching. The colliding surges beneath and around my boat felt violent and confusing, but I tried to follow his commands as I dipped down inside a deep trough and into the snarl of two giant pounding waves, like jaws closing. My angle was crooked, and before it even registered in my brain to react, I was slammed over once more, my boat spinning crazily above me. Years of training took over, and I stuck my roll, emerging upright again. I was totally disoriented. Where am I pointing? I thought desperately, yet Harlan was right there in my ear, his voice loud and definitive.
“Charge, charge, left turn!” he yelled. “ You’re good, you’re good! Charge!”
But as I was yanked backward, I sensed I was facing upriver. “Hard right!” Harlan yelled. A massive surge then slammed me in the back and side of my head, water tearing at my helmet and throwing me over again. In the midst of the roar and spray, I rolled up. I couldn’t hear anything from Harlan. Then more waves broke over me from the left . I felt my boat tipping and fought with a hard brace. I tried to take a gulp of air, but swallowed mostly foam and water as I slipped under for the fourth time. The rush and roil became a gurgle, great bubbles exploding underwater. The power of the conflicting currents beat my paddle against my boat and then attempted to rip it out of my hands.
Crashing waves pounded on the hull of my kayak, shoving me farther down, and I had no idea which direction I was facing. Each roll attempt grew weaker, and I was running out of air. Swimming in raging white water was bad enough for a sighted paddler — but swimming blind — that was the last thing I wanted to do. But I was almost out of oxygen, my arms heavy with fatigue. Finally, clenched by fear and instinct, I reached for my grab loop and yanked hard, releasing my spray skirt. I launched out of my boat, clawing for the surface, for safety, for air, and now my body spun and shook with the swelling waves. I groped for the surface, with no clue whether it was above or below me.
Finally, my head popped up, and I gasped for breath, floundering in the tail waves. I felt a boat next to me and grasped for it, trying to hold on, but it didn’t feel right; it was smooth and rounded, and when I couldn’t get a grip, I realized it was the bottom of Harlan’s boat! My guide was upside down, and I was holding him down. I released his boat and pushed away. Another safety boater skirted up next to me and called for me to hang on.
As he furiously paddled toward an eddy, with me clinging on to his stern, I heard Harlan’s voice nearby. He was breathing hard. “Damn, that big wave hit me head-on and snapped my paddle in two. With half a paddle, it took me a bunch of tries to roll up.” I could hear him clacking the pieces together. Reaching the calm water, I found the shore, clung to a pile of slick rocks, and pulled myself onto the river’s edge. At first, I was just relieved to be out of that terrifying carnage, but soon relief changed to shock and anguish. It was so crushing, I thought I might still be spinning under the weight of the Kahuna waves. I sat on a rock, surrounded by giant volcanic boulders. My team, still in their boats, swirled around in the eddy. My helmet was shoved sideways. My radio earpiece was pushed around the back of my head. My hands shook as I fumbled with the buckle of my helmet. I yanked it off , and silty water poured over my face. My body felt beaten, and I labored to slow my breathing. With my head in my hands, I leaned forward, shattered. The feel of sharp rocks, the echoing sound of canyon walls and sky, the dry smell of sand and desert, all of it faded until there was nothing but the unrelenting surge of the river, moving ever forward and shaping every thing in its path. And with its all-consuming roar, I knew it was speaking to me. I tried to listen to what it was saying, but in that moment, it was impossible to understand.