Facing Fear in Grand Canyon’s Most Notorious Rapid

I was shooting upstream with a velocity that belied the laws of hydrology. The currents underneath me felt unpredictable. I grunted as I tried to escape the insane helicopter eddy I found myself trapped in. I could feel the burn on my palm as a blister started forming. I kept heaving. I was singularly focused on building speed with strong strokes. As my boat crashed into the rushing downstream current, my nose spun instantaneously, killing both my momentum and the boat angle I needed to cross the eddy line. Instead of making it back into the current, I was left in the gaping purgatory between upstream and downstream currents. My boat was about to get smoothly sucked back into the upstream current, sending me in another loop. Which it did. I collapsed on my bag stack and let my oars drop. I let out an exasperated sigh, thick with disbelief.

Side canyon hike in Grand Canyon

One year and seven months prior to this moment, I was calmly piecing together a jigsaw puzzle in the living room when my phone buzzed. I couldn’t stop smiling as Riely asked if I was available to raft the Grand Canyon in July 2021. I imagined returning to that magical land of red rock and raging rapids. I imagined meandering through the Silver Grotto and tunneling up Elves Chasm. I remembered secret, lush oases, colossal waterfalls, and spellbinding side canyons. “Am I available?!” I mirrored, with elated disbelief.

Three and a half months prior, I looked at the overwhelming stack of Senior Research Papers I still had left to grade. Fifty-four remaining, but neither that fact nor winter’s gloom could steal my excitement. I checked my countdown, smiled, and grabbed the next essay. “Three and a half months,” I said to myself like a mantra, with gratitude and disbelief.

11 days prior, I hugged Casey goodbye and wished him clean lines on the first 6 days of the trip. “See you at Phantom,” I said with a grin I couldn’t swallow. It was finally happening, and I was both thrilled and in disbelief.

1 hour prior, drenched in sweat, ankles swollen, knees complaining, Cyrus and I caught our first glimpse of the Colorado River. We whooped with excitement and picked up our hiking pace as we closed the gap on the final mile of our hike down Bright Angel Trail. We paused in the shade to sip water. That’s when I first saw the eddy. Yes, that eddy.

Hiking along the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon

“Wow,” I said, sobered, “look how freaking fast that current is moving upstream.” We laughed nervously. The enormity of the task ahead of us sunk in and my excitement mingled with apprehension.

“Can you imagine being stuck in that?” I asked, fixated on the massive, molten eddy line, which seemed a mile wide.

Turns out I didn’t have to imagine because one hour later, there I was.

At camp, 8 miles downstream, I read in my map, “There is a wicked eddy at 89.1 on the right you do not want to get in.” It was an inauspicious beginning, to be sure; I was nervous about what was to come. I get nervous before every first rafting trip of the season. I like that part of boating: I have to lean into something that feels a bit scary, a bit out of reach. Greeting the Grand Canyon at mile 88 of 277 is a special kind of first of the season. My heart beat quickly: 84 miles until the notorious Lava Falls.

I laughed giddily through the splashy Serpentine Rapid, 74 miles above Lava.

I chastised myself for pulling upstream instead of pivoting to pull downstream in Bedrock, 49 miles above Lava. “Use the river, don’t fight it,” I reminded myself.

I cried below Upset (fitting in some ways) as I bobbed in the eddy after a clean line, but too tired to get myself out just yet. Twenty-nine miles until Lava.

Running Lava Falls in Grand Canyon

Possible lines through Lava Falls swirled in my head the way my boat swirled through eddies, cyclically and sometimes violently.

I swear my PFD was visibly pulsing the way my heart was beating .1 miles above Lava. When the moment finally arrived, I lost my left oar in the feature coming off the ledge hole, but I tee-d up for the V-wave, got my oar back in my hand somehow, and had the time of my life doing something that four days ago, I didn’t think I could.

In the tail waves, I felt elation. I stared upstream at that mean ol’ infamous rapid and laughed in utter disbelief. Relief flooded me. So did pride. It all was made sweeter for the tears, for the frustration, for the nervousness, and for the quiet voice that sometimes tries to convince me I can’t.

Doing something I don’t think I can, doing something just outside my comfort zone – that is the foundation of my summer. Summer wouldn’t be the same without it. Neither would I.

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Photos: Side canyon exploration, Grand Canyon – Josh Miller; View of the Colorado River from the Bright Angel Trail – Jasmine Wilhelm; Running whitewater in Grand Canyon – Jasmine Wilhelm


 

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