The boats fully loaded and with us all onboard, our departure eased out slowly from Lee’s Ferry. We gracefully slid under the Navaho Bridges (Between Mile Markers 4 and 5), watching the California Condors perch on the bridges’ substructures.
Transplanted here in an attempt to help seed their survival, Gymnogyps californianus, were slowly clawing their way back from the brink of extinction. About forty years ago, there were only twenty-two in existence. These magnificent birds, sporting wingspans of ten feet, glide effortlessly on the thermals. And their numbers have now rebounded to about 500 today, spread out in Arizona, Utah, California, and Baja Mexico.
But it wouldn’t be long before this incredible peacefulness would be interrupted with the rapids, with names like, Badger Creek, Soap Creek, Brown’s Riffle, Sheer Wall, Redneck, and North Canyon. Some were simply named for mile-markers, like 23-Mile Rapid and 23.5 Mile-Rapid.
Where I come from, in the Midwest, . . .
. . . rapid classifications track the International River Grading System and range from a Class I, the easiest for any novice, to Class VI, which are considered “Extreme and Exploratory.” But the Canyon had its own classification system of 1 through 10, long before the IRGS was adopted. It’s been said that a Class 10 in the Canyon is equal to the Class V on the IRGS, but with some more technical navigational skills required.
No kidding !
However you want to class them, it’s a wild ride. We’d be crashing through a multitude of Class III through VI rapids, the occasional Class VIIIs and IXs, and then the “Falls.” The Nankoweap Rapid (MM 52-53) was “only” a Class III, but we dropped an astonishing 25 feet over only a quarter of a mile. Battling Unkar rapid (MM 73), a Class VII, we dropped another 25 feet! At Hance Rapid (MM 77-78), one of those Class IXs, we dropped an incredible 30 feet in just a half mile!
And before we’d make our accent out of the canyon, we’d pass through at least two of those famous Class 10s – Crystal Rapid (MM 98-99), where the water vertiginously dropped 17 feet, and Lava Falls (MM 180-181), which are the toughest falls to navigate on the River with two drops in sequence.
The Genius Book of World Records lists Lava Falls as the fastest navigable water strip in all of North America speeding along at 20 mph.
Notice – these are called “falls” not rapids.
The Upper Falls drop 13 feet in just 100 feet of distance, and the Lower Falls drop another precipitous 14 feet! I’ve seen other reports stating the total drop is more like 37 feet. But I don’t know if that is an exaggeration, or if those rafters could have been there in higher waters.
Regardless, you have to hit this stretch of River perfectly if you want to come out unscathed.
There are so many rapids that I couldn’t tell you all their names, but our River Rat guides knew them all and had a story about how each one was named.
I had written a description of rafting through the rapids in the Snake River in my post, “The River – Old School.” The start of which says:
“As the gorge narrowed the wind picked up, and the air temperature noticeably dropped. The calming frequency of the soft rush of the water shifted timbre. Now cascading, surging ever faster downward, as the amplitude of the waves, both in size and pitch, increased to a deafening roar.”
In some ways, the Canyon’s rapids were similar to the Snake’s, but in many ways they were not. For one, the Colorado, from my observation, is a much more powerful River than the Snake. This is “Big Water.”
Tremendous volume, fast current, and big waves.
Most rapids in the Canyon occur where the side drainages are located. The sediments and boulders washed into the River from these tributary creeks, streams, and rivers narrow the channel causing the River to pick up speed. Different waves within the rapids are created when the water flows over boulders, or slams into the slower water below the rapid.
There are treacherous “holes, or ledge holes” also called a hydraulic or a reversal, where the water drops over a rock and curls back on itself. These holes can create a “keeper” that can trap a raft.
A massive ledge hole on the left-hand side spanning almost half the River’s width is what makes Lava Falls so dangerous. Imagine a 12-foot wave in the ocean breaking over you, and you being unable to move where that wave just keeps crashing over you again and again and again.
That’s what happens if you get stuck there.
And not only do you have to dodge the ledge hole, there is a smaller “pourover” to its right that can easily flip a raft. A pourover is formed when enough water pours over a rock to form a steep drop into a strong recirculating backwash.
The Crew will aim for the slit in between these danger zones, for the long lateral wave, called the “hump wave.” Once through that, they can hit the desired “V wave” where two lateral waves come together as one massive wave. It’s like sitting in a washing machine, with the waves agitating from both directions.
If you’re dragged to the right of the V wave you can end up in the “Corner Pocket” where a swirling current captures the raft and holds it against “Cheese-Grater Rock.”
And you can imagine what happens there.
Staying steady with the V wave, you’ll hit the Lower Lava Falls where the boats drop into a trough and then crash through a wave that can reach heights of ten feet. Some joke that you should bring a snorkel for this one.
While Lava Falls demonstrates some of the many treacherous features of the rapids, there are also many dangerous “eddies” where the River’s edge and the contour of the bottom cause the current to spin around and go upstream – in short, a whirlpool that can suck you under if you’re dislodged from your boat.
But not all waves and currents are bad ones. There are “haystacks,” or “hydraulic jumps,” where a fast water wave collides with the slower current, which makes for big fun waves with no obstacles.
The River’s ferocity is why we’re on the large, motorized J-Boats.
But I’ve slipped off into wave talk . 🙂
Back to the comparison of the Colorado to the Snake, there are a multitude of rapids on the Colorado for every one on the Snake, and while my trip on the Snake covered 80 absolutely beautiful miles, we were traversing an amazing 188 miles on the Colorado! Looking at my map, I count 106 named rapids that we conquered.**
These pics might better describe the rapids than words:
The Sun Shines not on us, but in us. The Rivers flow not past, but through us.
To be continued . . .
* Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And this blog is the middle of my storytelling on the Canyon and the River. The Greek letter and symbol combination that is in the middle of their alphabet is Mμ. It is the 12th letter of the 24-letter Greek alphabet. Mμ was derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol for water, which is quite appropriate for this piece. 🙂
Sadly WP is not equipped to handle this symbol in the title section so I used a lower case u in its place, which WP had to capitalize. The lower case μ is used as the symbol for “micro” too. In my nursing world this was for micrograms of incredibly powerful medications.
Oh, did I mention I hate the new WP editor. It is FUCKED UP in so many ways . . .
**The map I’m referring to is in Belknap’s Grand Canyon River Guide. This is a must have book if you embark on this journey.
Photos: First off, photo credit for the last three action shots goes to Todd Neal, one of the members of our Tribe. I wasn’t able to capture as good of shots with my camera. The feature photo is a panoramic view of the Navaho Bridges I took the day before our River Run. The next series of pics has two views of the Navaho Bridges, one of a California Condor, a look at the River through the filter of the Smoke from the Magnum Fire, and Me.
If you think I said too much about Lava Falls, consider this: In 1999, the US Geological Survey published a 98 page scientific analysis of the hydraulics of Lava Falls.
If you have 14 minutes you don’t know what to do with, here is the video my new rafting friend put together. It is great !
Other Posts in this Series Include: