So let’s talk about lava now. Actually, Lava Falls Rapid. Remember that scale of difficulty that rates rapids for rafters? Well this one’s a 9.  10 means it’s unnavigable without grave consequences.  Remember Crystal? It was an 8. And remember how I described speaking of that rapid in quiet worried tones? Well, it’s not even allowed to speak of Lava until after it’s been run.

But the closer we got, the more often the stories of it would erupt, this time in semi-hysterical tones quickly shushed by those in hearing.  Kind of like the bad guy in the Harry Potter books, “He-Who-Must -Not-Be-Named”, this is “The-Rapid-That-Must-Not-Be-Named”.

But it’s really hard not to talk about it because nearly everyone has a story to tell, whether from personal experience, what a friend told them or what they saw on YouTube. And it’s always a horror story of course. Kind of like when people hear you’re pregnant and feel compelled to to tell the most terrifying birth story they know. What IS that?

But I digress….

The last BIG rapid in the Canyon (& THE biggest), Lava Falls Rapid was formed long ago by unimaginably huge flash floods disgorging themselves into the Colorado River from the steep-sided Prospect Canyon. Picture not just water, but a freight train slurry of mud, rocks, plants, trees and even animals caught up and careening out of a tight desert canyon into the corridor of the Colorado. This debris choked the river channel damming up a pool of almost still water at the top of the rapid, and caused a steep tumult of chaotic release over its jumble creating Lava Falls Rapid.

Preparing to drop into the maw. See the leftover jumble of rocks on the far side?

Preparing to drop into the maw. See the leftover jumble of rocks on the far side?  The rest of it’s in the river making a mess.    Photo by Ben Plehal 2003

From above the rapid at river level, you see the dreaded horizon line, punctuated by bursts of exploding water spray. The finer the spray, the more pulverized the water, the more violent the rapid. Lava has such explosions of water clear across its horizon line from bank to bank offering no hope of clear passage.

The boys peering over the horizon line into the chaos 2003

The boys peering over the horizon line into the chaos   2003

We scouted river right, a hot steep climb up an ancient lava flow. Climbing, getting hotter by the step, I consciously chose not to look toward the roaring mess of white froth until I absolutely had to.

This was it.

Lava was actually here. No longer deniable, and very much in my face.

For all these scouts I try to position myself in front of the river masters so I can hang on every wise word of advice. Mind you it’s hard to hear anything but the rapid, even though we’re 100 feet above it. River Jim has done this river forty four times, Jim Laff six times, and my husband four times. But again, as I said before, when it comes to some of these rapids there just are no guarantees regardless of qualifications.

Jim Laff pointed out the burble line leading in from the top right, and said, “line up your boat on that, follow it, and take your licks.” Then silence. Heads nodding. Grim faces. 

So that’s it? Line up on the burble line and then…”take your licks?” That’s kind of abbreviated, isn’t it? No pointing and gesticulating, no advice to go this way or that?

Oh jeez.

This is serious.

Lava Falls is such a jumbled mess of waves, holes and confused, exploding violent waters, there just doesn’t seem to be a way through that can be planned. You just run it on faith.

So we did.

Don was at the oars and I in the front ready to high side, as it’s called in the river world, should we be spun sideways into one of those holes. We ran last.

It was intermittently terrifying and reassuring as from behind we watched each of our friends’ boats enter, run and finish. They all entered fast and smooth in the same place (the burble line), lurched and bounced and then suddenly just… dropped from sight. We held our breath till the boat captain’s helmet was seen emerging at the bottom wave train, upright, still in the boat and intact. Except for one.

Ruh-Roh. Bottoms up Captain Phil!

Ruh-Roh. Bottoms up Captain Phil!  Photo by Sally Nutt

Captain Phil, our trusty crusty but benign Trip Leader’s boat emerged into view at the bottom of Lava with oars askew and most definitely without its skipper. Shit. I was able to see from afar that he was in the water, clinging to the side of his boat as it careened without guidance through some pretty nasty water. The other boats who’d gone before stood ready at the bottom to help soon as they could. But he was on his own in that craziness.

And now here it was our turn already. We were poised at the top of that dam burble line. No time to see how Captain Phil fared. Our Time to face the Major Maw. Oh jeez.

Our Turn in the cataraft, "Spicy"

Our Turn, “Spicy” the cataraft does a beautiful job, not to mention the Captain.   Photo by Sally Nutt

And then, boom, it’s over. Right side up? Yessss. All oars and passengers on board? Yessss!

Captain Tim's boat has a pretty nice ride

Captain Tim’s boat has a perfect ride     Photo by Sally Nutt

Over the Big One. How'd he do it?

Over the Big One. How’d he do that?     Photo by Sally Nutt

The River Guide we’d been following describes the rapid this way, “The center of the rapid at the top has a wide, sharp drop called the Ledge Hole that easily flips oar boats” (like ours) “…Have fun and remember a good run at Lava is less than twenty seconds long. Don’t sweat the little things! If you must walk around this rapid, do it on river right.”

Little Things? What little things? A good run? How long is a ‘bad’ run? And when has this guide ever mentioned walking a rapid before? Take a look at this:

Wait..where's the boat?

Wait..where’s the boat? How is that  little…    Photo by Sally Nutt

That is an 18 foot raft getting swallered up & spit out.

It’s tradition to stop at the first beach below Lava to celebrate being “Alive After Lava” with a shot of Tequila. Or, lotsa shots of tequila. So universal is this practice, it’s known as Tequila Beach and is actually labeled as such in the guide. It is a jubilant event.



Those grins aren't just for the camera

Those grins aren’t just for the camera

In fact, we liked it so much we decided to camp here and continue the celebration.

Easing into Evening on Tequila Beach

So GOOD to be Alive After Lava….!

Gazing back up to the distant roaring rapid. Behind us now…

Connie McClaran

My work is an expression of the deep connection I feel with the natural world. When I’m on a photographic “walkabout” I allow the lines of separation to blur and settle into an immersion, if you will, that becomes the images you’ll see on this website.

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