My relationship with Lava Falls on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is relatively lengthy. For an erstwhile Canyon boater, I have stood at the brink of this geologically cataclysmic, gnarly stretch of water quite a bit. More than your average Grand Canyon duffer.
And, in spite of its surly reputation, Lava Falls has only spanked me and my crew mates the very first time I encountered it. Of course, I abide the hoary old adage, “There are those who have, there are those who will and there are those who will again.” Consequently, I take nothing for granted when I reach River Mile 179.
In my original encounter, I couldn’t find the fucking bubbles. But that is not the hoary river tale I am writing about on this go around.
(As an aside, according to the author of The Emerald Mile, the route known as the “Bubble Run” no longer exists. It’s magical period of existence, when those who found the bubbles slipped through Lava like greased pigs through the clutches of contestants at a county fair, ended some time in the early ‘90s.)
What I want to write about are my recollections relative to Lava. Though no other encounter, other than the first, included flipped rafts - like the converted, monstrous Idaho sweep boat decked from bow to stern in a diamond plated frame with metal drop floors which required the teamwork of two entire parties to flip up right - I have numerous associated Lava Falls memories worth sharing.
If for no other reason, Lava Falls deserves reverence because it sits alone toward the tail end of a Canyon river trip. The last rapid of unusual size after all the harrowing, significant whitewater upstream. After all of the other garden variety boat eating holes. After all of the other boat enveloping, asymmetrical breaking waves. After all of the Colorado River’s deceptive currents lurking in some of the more insignificant drops, eddy lines and unexpected boils.
It’s an old business teasing those who are first time Canyon boaters about the significance of Lava. My mentor on trip number one teased me mercilessly. And, I will admit, it is a tradition I enjoy passing along.
The teasing goes something like this - after surviving any number of drops between river mile x and river mile y, you catch up to one of the greenhorn boaters in the downstream slack water, who are still wide-eyed from their most recent success, congratulate them, and then say, “Nicely done. But it’s nothing like Lava. . . “
Or. . .
“Do you hear that?” Ideally, the teasing commences in Marble Canyon, days and hundreds of miles from Lava.
“That rumble,” you respond.
“What is it?”
“If I am not mistaken, Lava Falls.”
Depending on how much fun you are having with this, it can go on for days. All the way to Lava Falls Eve where it is customary to compose and sing Lava Falls carols to the tune of Christmas songs. As in John Cole and Linda Hedlund’s scintillating performance filmed and saved for posterity by Dane Doerflinger. A Lava Falls carol to the tune of Jingle Bells. They wrote the lyrics down so the group could follow and sing along.
“Lava Falls, Lava Falls, La-a-a-va Falls,
Lava Falls, Lava Falls, La-a-a-va Falls. . . hey!”
Etcetera. Ad infinitum. As long as you can stand it.
Weather conditions on the day of a Lava scout are rarely notable and often pleasant enough in the fall and spring. But, on one trip, as we rounded the last bend prior to Vulcan’s Anvil - a massive black volcanic plug squatting a quarter mile above Lava like the imposing obelisk it is - the cloudless skies at our backs came face-to-face with the blackest, most ominous skies I have ever seen.
The diametrically opposed fronts collided on a line where lava flows surged across the river creating the Canyon’s most notorious whitewater. Angry, roiling clouds and stiff upstream winds, followed by a torrential downpour halted our downstream approach and caused everyone to seek whatever shelter they could find amongst the skimpy tamarisk along the banks.
We hunkered down for an hour as the storm buffeted the Canyon.
Until recently, those clouds that swept over us, blackened the day and dumped buckets of chilling rain were my most ominous memories of arriving at the precipice of Lava. However, on the latest trip, though the weather was blue skies from horizon to horizon, activity overhead once again gave us pause. A Park Service rescue chopper buzzed our party making a bee-line to the bottom of Lava Falls just as our party was pulling into the eddy to scout.
On the beach below the tumultuous rapid we could see a group gathered. The helicopter landed nearby. Through binoculars, it was obvious grief or anguish was one of the emotions coursing through the gathered party. From the cliff above Lava, our group tried to stay focused on the task at hand - each of us seeking our own clear route past towering waves and hydraulics that may have only recently visited disaster on the crew below us.
Needless to say, it was a very sobering scout.
At the conclusion of our uneventful runs, we reached the beach known as Tequila Beach, or Recovery Beach, named for obvious reasons, and learned the reason for the ‘rescue’ helicopter and the glum body language we noted through our spy glasses.
It was a research group who had contracted a commercial rafting company to run the length of the Canyon so that they could remove non-native trout and restore the threatened and native humpback chub. What we witnessed, spying on them from afar, was their reaction upon learning one of their prized chubs had not survived the helicopter ride from rim to canyon floor.
In other words, our morning of anxiety-laden thoughts had been triggered by the death of a single fish.
Perhaps river karma for my teasing was to blame.