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Rapid Musings: Above Lava Falls

“Loreena, buckle your PFD.”

She looks up from the bow of the raft, catching my gaze with wide eyes. My hands shake and my heart leaps in my chest. The world behind me fades and a heightened, deadly focus crystallizes on what lies ahead. There is no time for nonsense. No time to spare for extra words. All my energy bends toward my boat and the crushing water of Lava Falls ahead.

Scouting Lava Falls

Twenty minutes earlier, we stand at the scout staring down at the roiling mass of the Colorado River. Churning and racing along its banks, cutting sheer cliffs from the canyon walls. The water swirls dark and cold before me. It is difficult to say exactly how long we watch it froth beneath us. Time passes strangely before the water – it comes fast and slow at once, the charging water and the throb of my heart racing together. My pulse beats a rhythm behind my eyes and my fingers tingle with anticipation. My mind is clear and, for once, I focus only on the task directly in front of me. From the scout, we watch the crush of waves and slash of oars as boats descend the tumult. A noncommercial group ahead of us enter the chaos unsteadily, bumbling through the vicious water, violently thrashing from side to side. The universe narrows to a 37-foot drop of screaming water on rock. This is Lava Falls.

“If they can do it I surely can.” A mental pep talk. Rationalizing fear, but I am still terrified. I have stared down the dangers of whitewater before, but never like this. This water, chilling in its speed, daunting in its power, is likely the most dangerous situation I have ever put myself into willingly. But I can’t think about that now; no retreating from what lies ahead. There is only action; the strength of my body and the power of my boat amidst the mighty rage of the river. The time has come. An eerie calm settles over my mind as I decide how to throw Loreena and myself into the cacophony.

The choice to run Lava Falls occurred weeks ago when I decided to launch on a Grand Canyon rafting trip, this moment drawing closer every day. Loreena has confidently stood by my side, or rather, gleefully and nervously gripped onto her seat at the front of my raft, for the entirety of the trip so far. It is her first trip through Grand Canyon. It is my first trip rowing through it. Our bond formed as is only possible when two people together confront the fringes of existence. When one’s life is constantly in the throes of near-death, or at least what feels like near-death, and the jubilant elation at survival. Each rapid is a challenge both mental and physical; forcing me to confront the largest and most tumultuous whitewater I’d ever seen and to use my skills to bring me and Loreena through safely.

The bond we share, molded from the audacity of our endeavor, is strengthened by the striking natural beauty of the canyon around us. A canyon 6,000 feet deep and approximately five-and-a-half million years old, beaten by the sun glowing off of the Redwall Limestone and the Vishnu Schist and scoured by the glistening water of the Colorado River forever thrumming underneath our raft. The river is my challenge, the rocks my audience, and Loreena my partner. Under the weight of their gaze, I choose to run one of the most notorious rapids in the world. The pressure is palpable – as a guide, a rower, and a woman in this male-dominated world deep in the wilderness.

OARS guide Sara O'Donnell on a Grand Canyon rafting trip

We march determinedly back to the boats. I find my courage; I know my line. Fear still present but not overpowering determination. “Loreena, buckle your PFD. Now.” Five short words are all I can force out. I can’t say anymore, so I untie my bowline and wait for the others to push off. I am running Lava Falls second in a string of three heavy, baggage-laden rafts that have been chasing the dories for almost two weeks now. Dories, beautiful wooden boats with a long history in Grand Canyon, need supply rafts to carry most of the essential gear for the weeks-long journey. From the put-in at Lees Ferry it will take us sixteen days to break free from the confines of the canyon. Sixteen days, sixteen guests, and seven guides require an immense amount of gear – food, tents, water, chairs, and more.

The massive amount of gear we carry on our rafts often requires the help of an assistant to load, carry, and secure it all (in this case, Loreena). If the dories are the speedboats, the baggage rafts are the tugboats. Our job is to constantly carry heavy pieces of equipment – kitchen boxes, coolers, groovers – to and from the beaches where we eat lunch or camp.

We row our heavy load down the river, racing to keep up with the sleek and much more maneuverable dories. The rafts bulge and bounce and drag against the water while the dories elegantly glide past, cutting through each wave and eddy with ease. They are the dolphins where the rafts are the manatees; both belong in the water, but one does so much more gracefully.

Being on the baggage boat, apart from the others for long days of quiet solitude on the river, Loreena and I become our own system of support and friendship – from our first day together on the raft, tentatively placing trust in each other, to our mutual unease as we stare down at the rapid before us. I see concern crinkle her brow, hope and fear both peering up at me from the bow of my boat. We wait on the edge of a moment, prepared to drop into madness, and yet maintain our faith in one another.

Grand Canyon dory taking on Lava Falls

The first dory launches. Pushing off from shore, it floats around a looming boulder of lava rock and drops out of sight. The second dory pushes off with a cheer of anticipation from the clients riding in the bow. The third and fourth follow soon after. The line of multicolored dories, bows pointing towards the heavens, pause picturesque against the stark blue sky – a snapshot of calm before the tempest. We push away from shore. It is my turn.

Floating above Lava Falls is the definition of calm before the storm. Except it is a storm I cannot see. Eddy lines dance and swirl alongside my raft. I know just below us the explosion awaits, but to the eye there is only the flat edge of a horizon line. I had been warned that it is difficult to see anything before the drop, but my view is even more skewed than I anticipated. It is impossible to find the ledge hole – a massive, boat-eating hole of violently crashing water waiting astride the top of the falls. A hole so steep and sharp it is sure to flip any boat. The waves hide beneath the dropping horizon and the boats vanish before me. We drift in. Sideways, the bow of my boat points at the left shore. Waiting. Three even breaths in through my nose and out through my mouth. Waiting.

The first danger is internal. Most mistakes at the entrance to Lava Falls occur when rowers lose their bearings and overreact. Disoriented and panicking, they think they are headed for the ledge hole and pull hard towards the right shore. Instead of pulling them back to safety, the rightward surge hurls them straight into different dangers – the side of a huge V-shaped wave capable of flipping a boat and straight towards a gigantic chunk of lava rock yearning to flip or shred any craft that comes its way. I sit, hands gripping the foam pads on my oar handles, the shapes of my fingers molded into the foam from the last two weeks of rowing hard. They slide easily into place, taking comfort and belonging in their place. I sit, with one part of my mind watching my fellow guides vanish over the falls. Their boats crest the ridge of the horizon before dropping into the spray of water below. I sit, eyeing the boils and deceiving eddy lines surrounding my raft, and I feel the panic. “Oh no,” I think. “I’m too far left. We’re going over the ledge hole.”

Grand Canyon rafting trip - Lava Falls Rapid

I force myself to sit for one more second. Watch the water, actually see and feel where it moves my raft. Pausing and steadying my concentration allows me to sense the movement of the river and reveals the true pattern of the water and those confusing swirls. As we drift forward, straight into the maw of danger, the water pulls and prods. Ever so gently, it nudges us right-ward without any action from my oars. We rise to the edge of the drop and suddenly I see exactly where I am – right where I wanted to be – just barely to the right of that treacherous ledge hole. Here, a seam of water leads down to the middle of the rapid away from the dangers on the right and below the violence of the ledge hole. But we are not safe yet. First, we must break through powerful lateral waves shuddering off the explosion of the hole.

I angle my boat towards the downstream left shore. Breaking through the entrance, I dig my oar blades into the water and push with all my strength. We break through the first lateral waves and hit the left side of the V-wave, bashing through in a spray of glorious whitewater. I dig my oars in deep and hard, struggling for a few more strokes, trying to maintain my angle, grappling with the madness of the water as it tries to turn us sideways.

Smashing the waves, we break through the entrance, safely past the danger of ledge hole and the fury of those first waves. Now comes the danger of the Big Kahuna: a gigantic crashing wave in the middle of a long, chaotic wave train. Big Kahuna is wildly unpredictable. It swells, gathering water and building power until it crashes, surging down randomly in extreme, boat-flipping force. If a boat is unlucky enough to pass through Big Kahuna when it breaks, it is likely the rower’s next sight will be of their upside-down boat, oars and straps flailing in the swirls of water. Loreena and I are charging towards it, coursing forward at an unknowable speed.

Rapid Musings: Above Lava

I churn my oars in the water, fighting to turn us to point the nose of the boat straight downstream. We must hit the wave straight on, but the river fights me. It surges the boat forward, building speed and momentum to carry us sideways into the wave. Every muscle straining, I dig into the water, forcing the oars to spin the raft. My feet are braced against the bar of my frame, right hand gripping the oar, hurling everything I have into my strokes. With only seconds left, I yank on my right oar as we drop towards the wave, pulling my heart out for one last stroke to line us up. Just as we are dropping in, the boat responds. We turn, dancing up and over Big Kahuna, gliding over its crest like a fallen leaf on a ripple. No crashing, no bashing or flipping. No violence. Only a smooth, seamless flow over the chaos below.

The tail waves mean nothing to me now. Overflowing with delight, I jump up and down, oars drifting listlessly at the boat’s sides, elation pouring from my throat in shouts of indecipherable joy. Loreena grins at me, shouting equally as wildly. We look around at the other boats already through the rapid, many cheering, praising my line, and anxiously watching the last boat come through behind me. My soul swells with the fire of accomplishment. Loreena and I came through Lava Falls together, surviving one of my biggest fears and coursing through in style. This moment will stay with me – the uninhibited glee surging through my veins, so similar to the water rushing excitedly through the canyon, the comradery, this community of humans equally as infatuated with the river’s grace as with its force, unpredictable and enticing. We, and the river, dance and rage and sing and flow.

What a choice to willingly throw myself into something I fear and respect so powerfully. The river is its own master. It will flow how it wants without regard to the small yellow rafts and colorful wooden boats gliding on its surface. But what a joy, what an absolute pleasure it is to successfully row through it and learn some of its secrets. It truly feels like the river opened up and let me and Loreena pass through unharmed – hardly even splashed. I feel graced by the water, and full of respect for its wild ferocity.

Lava Falls is the last major rapid out of almost a hundred notable rapids along 277 miles of the Colorado River. Its notoriety lends to the pressures of a successful trip through the heart of Grand Canyon. Each day of the trip draws nearer to this moment of reckoning, the time to face this beast. And I did it despite the odds against me as a female guide. Many women run Lava Falls successfully, but this trip marked a very poignant moment for one – me.

Tequila Beach in Grand Canyon

Starting as an ignorant, noodle-armed, 21-year-old girl with low confidence and even lower upper body strength, I never dreamed I would someday beautifully row myself through the Grand Canyon. I never imagined I would face its challenges and witness its beauty from the privilege of my own boat. And yet, here I am. Here, with Loreena hugging me and my fellow guides shoving tequila into my hands. Here I stand, conqueror of my fears, proving to my younger self that determination and persistence in the face of many failures – with an important dash of humble humor – are enough. Here, with a deep, unending respect for rivers and for the wild places that lead to wonderful, magical experiences. Here, a woman of the river.

The elation hangs with me for hours, probably days (maybe forever), buoying my spirits and confidence, validating my choice to become a guide, and egging me towards my next run through Grand Canyon. Because as they say, “You’re always above Lava.”

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Lava Falls photos: Josh Miller & Justin Bailie (bottom)