As I scouted from atop a neatly formed pile of 1-billion-year-old lava rock on river right with my heart in my throat, I knew that this was going to get interesting. There was no clean line--just a complex series of massive ledge holes, rocks, erratic haystack waves and dangerous pour overs--one after another. Lava Falls was either going to eat my lunch, or I was going to row a superman line that would surely find its way onto my "most daring attempts" list.
The Grand Canyon is the crown jewel of river rafting in North America, and the world, depending on who you ask. Its generally temperate climate and relatively low elevation make it a popular destination for expert Idaho rafters looking to do a private trip in the off-season.
I lucked out when I stumbled upon an invite last spring to join a seasoned group of river legends from Idaho, Washington and Alabama for a late-fall run. The trip leaders were the good folks from Cambridge Welding--custom raft frame and box manufacturers. In total, they had well more than 100 combined trips down the Grand Canyon, and 167 years of professional guiding experience. I was in good hands.
The three-week pilgrimage--covering 280 miles--took us from Lees Ferry near Page, Ariz., to the takeout at Pierce Ferry near Las Vegas. In between, we found myriad slot canyon hikes, waterfalls, various scenic tributaries, countless historical sites, Anasazi and Hualapi ruins, snakes, scorpions, tarantulas and about a million other things that can kill you. A Big Ditch flotilla is a bit different from a weekend trip in Idaho. We packed 50 dozen eggs, 15 pounds of coffee, and six 10-gallon groover canisters (poo buckets). Our gear fit on three full-size trucks (two with trailers) and included eight rafts.
The Grand Canyon boasts a rapid rating system of 1-10, with some of the biggest runnable lines in North America. Traditional rating systems classify rapids as 1-6, but the Colorado River has an expanded scale to account for its huge water volume and dramatic variations seen with changing river flows. We ran it at 16,000 cfs--a fairly straightforward rate, although historical highs have reached well over 120,000 cfs. The hydraulics in the Grand Canyon are second to none, as are many other attributes of this legendary stretch.
I now understand why it is so damned difficult to get a permit to run the Big Ditch--prior to the recent implementation of a lottery system, the waiting list was more than a decade.
As for Lava Falls, I made it. I threaded the needle and lived to row another day. Check out video of my roller coaster run between two deadly, boat eater, son-of-a-bitch holes.