By Maria Cimonetti
“You’re taking your boats down that?” the incredulous hiker asked as we scrambled across a jumbled mess of gravel and boulders, the debris from a late summer flash flood. Having a much different experience than our 16-person team of seven rafts and three kayaks, the lone hiker shook his head in disbelief, clearly happy to be exploring the Grand Canyon on terra firma. While scouting Hance Rapid, those in our group who could read the river, noted that the new washout eliminated any option of a left run. It was late afternoon and despite the urge to get to the other side, my brother, our trip leader, made the prudent call to camp above the rapid and tackle the project in the morning. Perhaps my incessant whining from the bow of the boat helped form his decision. More likely it was the fatigued look on our boatmen’s faces wearied from the day’s 12-mile battle with canyon headwinds stalling the momentum of our fully-loaded rafts. Relieved at the verdict and hoping that a belly full of food and spirits might drown out the unremitting roar of the rapids, we scurried back to our boats, and commenced the twice daily schlep of equipment, setting up camp for the night.
The rapids of the Grand Canyon are rated on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most difficult. Hance Rapid is rated an 8 with a 30’ drop, meaning that within the stretch of the rapid, the river drops 30 terrifying feet; to put it mildly, a wet ride. A single skilled boatman guides the raft with his oars through the turbulence with his passenger who has no direct responsibility other than to not be a hazard. The next morning with the stern departure warning from my daughters, “Just hold on to the boat Mama, we need you,” ringing in my ears, I tightened the neoprene collar of my splash jacket, and pulled my hat snugly down on my head. My heart thumped to the beat of a bygone disco song as my brother took the oars and I assumed the safety position in the bow of the boat: squatting, taking care to keep my feet free of entanglement in the various straps, and hanging on with both hands, tapping my supply of bicep strength and river courage.
Grand Canyon rapids have names, and what I garnered from late night campfire conversation, the H’s were scary: Hance, Hermit, Horn, all adrenalin surgers. The gems, Agate, Sapphire, Turquoise, Emerald, and Ruby make for a long wet day with Crystal causing the most digestive distress in my boat. Of course Lava Falls Rapid, lurking at river mile 179.7 is, other than in what boat the beer is in, the most talked about subject on our three-week journey.
Several factors cause the Colorado River to churn through portions of the Grand Canyon. In researching this topic, safely from my couch weeks after my trip, I learned about holes, hydraulics, lateral waves, and eddies. Perhaps this information would have been helpful beforehand but really, an innate sense of when to duck proved to be my most valuable asset on the river.
After Hance, I stopped scouting rapids, preferring to sit on the beach, serving as the parking lot attendant for the rafts, swilling rescue remedy and creating Zen gardens with driftwood in the sand. It was my happy place, no fear until the boatmen returned from the scout, pupils dilated and kidneys over functioning. To my amazement, as the river mileage piled up, my courage grew, conveniently peaking on day 18 floating past Vulcan’s Anvil on our approach to Lava Falls Rapid. Suddenly, the omnipresent flow of adrenalin in my veins merged with an equally powerful surge of euphoria, creating my own standing wave of bliss. I was ready.
Toes in the sand safely downstream of Lava, we peeled off wet clothing, warming in the sun, laughing and joking, replaying our heroic runs. With just a few luxurious, slow moving days left floating the Canyon, jubilation and relief mingled with the sadness that the trip was coming to an end. I smiled, thankful for my brother giving me this opportunity, my kids for growing up and having the courage to fly away, and to the various boatpeople who had gotten me wet and kept me dry, secured my drybags, kept the fire going to warm my feet, marveled at my mad hula skills, convinced me to sleep under the stars, and most importantly, delivered my morning coffee, letting me snuggle into the warmth of my sleeping bag for a few extra minutes each day. I am eternally grateful. But I am gonna have to figure out how to row a boat. Lava awaits.