One Student Takes on the Daunting Colorado River

By
December 2, 2004

My sunburned feet are cold with apprehension as they rest in the almost freezing 40-degree river water. I stand up out of my seat, a 50-gallon cooler top, and peer over the intimidating horizon line in front of me. Downstream I see spurts of angry water leaping into the air. My heart is racing as I realize turning back is not an option.

I'm staring at the beginning of Lava Falls rapid in the Grand Canyon. My job goes beyond making it out of the oncoming rapid safely, but also hiding my fear from the other two people on my boat. I'm looking at this rapid in a different way than most people do, I'm sitting behind the oars of a 19 foot long raft that weighs over 700 pounds and I'm carrying two passengers as a river guide.

I began to love and appreciate rivers at the age most children are learning to read chapter books. My father guided for a white water rafting company "Beyond Limits" every summer. I was his companion on weekend river trips; in my yellow PVC helmet and oversized XXS adult life jacket I was definitely the only 7-year-old on the boat.

Because I began rafting at such a young age, I naturally grew my way out of those usual phobias through my constant contact with the river. I was at home in the water, and like most children who found joy in the monkey bars or the swing set, a difficult rapid did it for me as a third grader. And at 20, as I sit here on my raft in front of Lava Falls, I feel a little piece of that lost fear creep back up inside of me, and I like that.

This is my second time rafting down the upper Colorado River, and my first time as a guide.

When I introduced myself to the group of men they looked at me with overt skepticism. I cannot blame them, as I stand 5' 5" and weigh 125 lbs, I don't look like the average river guide. However, as I set up my raft and strapped in their coolers and gear bags their disbelief began, however slowly, to lift.

On the first day of the trip I was alone on my boat. I can understand that none of the men would want to ride with me, "the small girl with the purple boat." I also knew that a few days into the trip things would settle down a bit. And they did.

By the second day I earned myself two passengers. I had proven that I was just as qualified a guide as the other hefty men with their boring yellow boats. One passenger was Randy, a rocket scientist for NASA who was on his way to scaling the seven summits; Randy decided that the Colorado River would be a good detour on his way to climb a mountain in Kathmandu in the fall. He had lost all of the toes on his left foot during his last Everest climb, so I sat him in the back of the raft where the boat bottom had better traction for his feet to grip. My other passenger was Brian, a 24-year-old rock climber who had just flown in from Thailand and was looking forward to scaling the many steep canyon walls.

By the time our trip reached Lava Falls we were 15 days into the 21 day river trip. I had already made it through over 200 rapids with Brian and Randy. However, Lava Falls is unlike any of the other rapids; it is by far the most difficult rapid in the entire Colorado River.

In fact, Lava Falls rapid holds a tough record as the biggest rapid in North America. It amounts to a total 30-foot drop within the length of two swimming pools. It has a class rating of a 10 on a one-to-10 scale. There is one large "hole" at the beginning of the rapid; a hole is created when water piles up on one side of a rock. If one goes through the water above the hole, it is unavoidable that they will be pulled into the hole, which can flip a boat over.

As Brian, Randy and I stood at the foot of this daunting hole, we glanced at each other, and the three of us, without saying a word, put our trust in my tiny little arms as the river began to sweep us downstream.

Randy had decided that he was done with riding on the back of the raft, and in spite of his five missing toes he made the move to the front of the boat.

I scooted the raft around the hole at the top with exactly the right timing, and prepared for the second set of waves we were coming into.  The boat turned abruptly and I heard shouting from the side of the river to "turn! turn!" I knew what I had to do, and I saw that there wasn't enough time to do it. so I flipped the boat around the opposite way and opted to take the rest of the run backwards.

Rowing backwards can be an advantage because it gives a guide more strength in a tight situation.  We tore through the second set of waves backwards and then I straihtened us out to hit the third hold directly right on.  I almost lost Randy out the back as the raft folded in half and then unfolded, springing him into the air,  His remining five toes on his right foot must have saved him as he grabbed back onto the boat.  We had made it, as with a relatively clean run,  The screams came out of my mouth immediately.  I had done it.

These various types of challenges are presented daily throughout the trips beyond just that of Lava Falls, and they make a trip on the Grand Canyon an amazing and life-changing experience.  There are over 300 rapids on this 221 mile stretch of river.  And the thrill of adventure doesn't stop there.  There are hundreds of side hikes at every camp, leadning to untouched waterfalls, pristine plant life, unexplored caves, and other unfathomable places that many believe could never exist at the bottom of the desert canyon.  

After guiding that summer on the Grand Canyon I was hooked.  And after conquering Lava Falls that day behind my own sets of oars I knew this river would remain a part of my life forever.


One Student Takes on the Daunting Colorado River was published on December 2, 2004 in Sports & Health

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