THE HAVASU FLASH FLOOD
The clients are tired. They smile and drip, standing ankle deep at the edge of the water, caressed by the breathless desert sun. A cocoon of towering coral cliffs and shimmering green cottonwoods rim our iridescent acre of turquoise plunge-pool, domed with a sky of indigo so infinitely deep it makes you feel like it could inhale you. Is this Mars? Maybe Jupiter? They fumble in daypacks for sandwiches. Squirrels scatter.
Wearing nothing but my customary desert costume of frayed shorts, soggy running shoes, floppy straw hat, full-wrap mirrored sunglasses, and ratty daypack, I consider howling like a coyote. Instead I concentrate on my rather crumpled salami sandwich.
My gaze ascends leisurely up the full height of the improbable pastel waterfall to where it first arcs over the lip, nearly two hundred feet above. There are a few others here, non-rafting “civilians” who have climbed down from the campground above through a maze of dusty natural caves and steps carved into the vertical cliffs. The route involves clutching rusty old cables installed ages ago by the local tribesmen, moving through frozen waterfalls of sculpted orange travertine stalactites. Those who can manage to speak do so in hushed tones, as if in a cathedral, leaving only the sound of water.
Destiny is at hand.
“What the ….” The words, whispered to myself, desiccate into the dry air. My smile does likewise.
Appearing at the very brink of the falls, an uncanny obsidian presence, as yet unidentifiable. Is it part of the sky? I try to sort things out, sniffing the air, ears back. Above me looms a pressing, black, groaning Obelisk, unmistakably monstrous, though I glimpse only its margin. My sandwich, still in hand, unconsciously droops to my side. I stand like a statue in a corner nave, gaze aloft.
A cloud? The question floats in my skull. Whatever it is, my skin tingles. My lungs suck in one long, deep draught of air. The still young body prepares itself, the feeble mind has yet to follow.
This black behemoth is ponderously but surely floating down our little canyon like a supertanker. Towards us.
In the our beloved Southwestern Desert, July and August are what the locals call monsoon season. Towering afternoon thunderheads tumble in, edged with brilliant silver by the blinding sun. Their bellies hang gray and somber, cast against a painfully blue sky, grumbling and striking with flashes of raw electricity, weaving firmament and space. The immense atmospheric landscape dwarfs the stony world below. If it rains within your immediate sphere, the cliffs become a tapestry of iridescent black, crystalline burgundy and molten silver, unending ramparts on every hand glinting like sapphires and opals in the slanting rays of the sun. After the drama of the rain pouring down, filling the potholes of your senses, a glorious quality of peace swells, penetrating our restless souls just enough to calm us, even if just for that brief, singular moment. Pure, unadulterated magic. Moments of speechless awe for some…but discomfort for others. The river turns to Cafe-O’lait mud, splattering everyone and all the rafts and gear, leaving a slippery, goopy mess. A safe path through key rapids becomes difficult to read, rocks obscured and currents colored all wrong. Bathing is for the intrepid or the desperately stinky.
For me, being in a monsoon in the desert Canyon Country is to be transported back to primordial roots, my world washed clean once more, allowing me the illusion of being able to start fresh, erase my mistakes and maybe this time move with a bit of grace. Catching an elusive flash flood is akin to discovering buried treasure. Fantastical red, black and green waterfalls roar down side canyons that may have been silent for lifetimes. A quickening of the pulse, a gift from the Gods. Mud sweeps everything in its path downstream, that much closer to the sea, swirling and cascading into oblivion. One must take great care not to join the detritus. Secretly I smile when the once mighty Colorado, Spanish for red-colored, returns for a time back to its pre-dam violence and splendor. Once the spray settles, the debris of a river–driftwood, leaves, carcasses–is left perched in unusual places; high in treetops, jammed in cracks fifty feet above our heads. People point and wonder how the hell that tree trunk got way up there…
I have given myself up to being a boatman–loving the playful intensity, the out-of-controlness, the tease of death that a wild river brings. The troubled waters of my soul are weirdly calmed by the smack of my own mortality just a breath away, the magic somehow more compelling by its fleeting impermanence, the skill of rowing my craft through the tempests all the more thrilling and laughable after having watched lost and pilotless boats make it through just fine all by their lonesome selves. The welcome camaraderie of river guides isn’t so much like cottonwood leaves borne upwards by a whirling Chubasco, or fire ants in a line across burnt rocks, but rather like relentless currents, parting by chance in unpredictable ways and heading off downstream towards calm pool or rollicking whitewater, only to meet again in the next convenient eddy, beer in hand. Part of being good at this boatman dance, part of why you don’t lose your job every time you make an off-color joke or overturn your boat, is a rare but crucial skill: some bit of you remains doggedly aware of where you are in your immediate world, and that world speaks to you. Especially the part that can kill you.
One of the traits of our tribe is that we love to hike what’s called a slot canyon. I guess that the very fact that moving water, our personal medium, the stuff that drips through your fingers and quenches your thirst, can, given the time, carve labyrinthine cathedrals through thousands of feet of stone, means something. Scrambling within those natural playgrounds incised deep in the earth, a cobalt skylight far above, leaping like cats and jamming your body to fit the sculpted rock, holds an allure both sensuous and pure. Still, if you look close, you’ll also notice us covertly sniffing the air for the telltale smell of wet earth, for something…different. Perhaps a peculiar sound where only the flawless desert silence existed before. Something in our subconscious whispering like a messenger…
The sound of water.
It is, of course, better to sense the whisper well before it becomes a roar. Guides too often tempt fate as it is. Personality trait. Keep an eye out at every bend for a quick exit route. Watch for a climbable escape crack as you slither between the vertical walls.
Tie your boats well, ideally not in the direct path of a potential flood. Leave your gear clipped on and at the ready, especially your life jacket. If you choose to remain with the fleet, perhaps to sleep on your boat in the welcome shade, keep one eye open. Clear your senses with one neat shot of highland single-malt, discreetly of course.
Havasu. Sounds simple. Means ‘Blue-Green Water’ in the lingo of the natives that have called this side canyon their home for millennia. An Extraordinary Canyon within the Grand Canyon, one hundred fifty six miles downstream from where boats launch at Lees Ferry. Its preposterously colored waters mingling with my Colorado River from an eddy embraced by thirty-foot high overhanging limestone cliffs. Oh, but what sacred ground. So hard to put into words. Not just the unreal opalescent water flowing over fantastic curving natural tangerine dams, from one to two hundred feet high, formed (if you look close) of countless petrified twigs and leaves and logs. Not just the corridors of lush multi-hued grapevine arches bent over ash and acacia, cactus and cottonwood. Not just the sound of water–dribbling, dashing, cascading, swirling. No, a power that embraces you from your wet flip-flops to the super-heated air touching that expression of awe on your face. Our temple. Our sanctuary. Hike it, splash in it, read or nap in it, its all the same. Like a sponge, you soak up whatever it offers and it makes you complete.
On the evening before we hit Havasu Creek on river trips, during the ritual pre-hike evening talk at “Last Chance” camp, the “peeps” are told to pack their lunches, watch for thieving ravens, choose their destination or no destination at all–in preparation for the much anticipated Havasu. Some guides revel in this preparatory harangue, some are annoyed and avoid it at all costs. This time of year, the pep talkers also remind our charges of what to watch out for in a “flash”: pay attention to the color of the water, the quality of its sound, a scent in the air. Maybe the crossings seem deeper, you can’t see your feet. Maybe the turquoise has turned a little pinkish. Maybe you kinda think maybe the creek sounds just a little bit louder, more insistent. Do I smell freshly dug up garden soil? Anything the least suspicious—head uphill, pronto.
Tie-up ropes of all ages and descriptions are tied around small chockstones stuffed into cracks in the cliffs encircling Havasu eddy. They are stained with the brown mud of innumerable past floods. One or two pitons and bolts are hammered into discreet corners in the rock for backup (where the ever-vigilant Park Rangers can’t easily find them), sporting some very old rusty steel rings and bent carabiners. All of these are way high off the water, a story in itself for the observant. You have to stand on tippy-toe on your craft to reach them from today’s normal dam-tamed water levels. The eddy water is clear and blue-green, the Colorado River darker, colder, flowing swiftly by into a small rapid, itself created by past floods down Havasu. At the eddyline where the waters mix, swirls of varied colors and temperatures whirlpool, dragging leaves and bubbles towards the river bottom deep below. Its not a place to be unless you’re in a boat. Cliff upon tawny cliff ascend to touch the deepest blue senses can ken. Most days, from morning until mid-afternoon, a multitude of boats are tied to anchors and to each other, the boatmen having spun spiderwebs of lines to achieve the common goals of keeping rafts out of the way of incoming or outgoing traffic, and of giving people access to and from the rock shelf that serves for shore and a gathering place. Its a popular attraction site. Sometimes the boat count exceeds forty. Crafts of all shapes and sizes, plus a few big motor rigs elbowing their way in, all so tightly packed at the height of the season that you could walk across them like lily pads, without even getting your feet wet. At the head of the cliff-bound eddy the creek enters through a narrow hourglass-shaped passage, just a bit too tight for an eighteen-foot raft. Occasionally cliff jumpers from upstream swim through the notch back to their boats for that catnap in the shade.
I always aim for Mooney Falls, roughly a two-and-a-half hour hike. Less people to mind, and usually the bolder, more adventurous ones. More appreciative, which is, after all, why I do this. You gotta want it.
Plus I get to see Mooney again. I get to swim across its Caribbean-blue, bottomless pool to behind the falls, clamber along the hidden rock ledge just under the wave-tossed surface, with the clients following, not quite comprehending why. A hurricane of spray blasting us into the sheeting wet wall so we’re barely able to catch our breath. Then we’re diving through the falls, terrified of being driven to the depths but it doesn’t ever happen, to finally turn over on our backs and gaze up at that cascading miracle of water in the desert stretching high above. A rainbow halo encircles the brink of the falls, visible only from that exact spot in all the universe. We then drift, laughing our way back towards the island in the seventy-two degree water. Its a religious experience. You have to be ready for magic.
Rowing into Havasu eddy early on the morning of day ten on our thirteen day trips, the ritual begins. Get the “Moonies,” the long-hikers, off the boats and on the trail. They’re psyched, focused, and a royal pain in the ass. A guide leads them to negotiate the numerous and confusing ankle-to-waist-deep creek crossings. Once they’ve left, the energy dissipates and the others can putter and relax. The guides taking the day off are the harbormasters. After everyone finally leaves them alone, they will dally about tying the rigs up, recover from ten days of heat and hikes and rapids and cooking and toilet duty and flat water chit-chat. It’s a sort of meditation. On this particular early July morning, there is only one other trip in the eddy, also from AzRA, our company. They’re on a trip that’s supposed to be one day ahead of us, but we’ve caught up. They must be planning on booking out the next couple of days on the high water. Last year was the famous high water of 1983, when we nearly lost Glen Canyon Dam. Most of us would have given our first born, or even our last tequila bottle, to watch a six-hundred foot wave clear our Canyon of the rubbish of civilization from the safe vantage point of a six-hundred fifty foot high cliff, beer in hand. Blaming Mother Nature but knowing in their hearts they’d screwed the pooch, the Bureau of Wreck-The-Nation engineers were now putting forty-five thousand cubic feet per second (cfs) down the Colorado day-in, day-out to lower “Lake” Powell before next spring’s floodwaters from the Rockies. We were loving every minute of it.
I’m rowing my “snout” boat on this trip, so I enter the eddy first, tie up at the mouth, near to where the eddy line marks the boundary between Havasu Creek and the Colorado River. The others slide into the eddy, tie up to my stern, then string themselves end to end as my folks slide off the snout onto the ledge. The rigs wrap themselves tight into the eddy, leaving room for other latecomers to jam in. Lorna, who is taking the day off, is the last boat to tie up, jamming her raft tight into the hourglass-shaped notch at the far end of the eddy, where the creek enters. Nice and quiet there, nobody stepping over her, good shade all day. I strap up my oars, exchange my flip-flops for tennies, grab my daypack. Everyone is boat hopping, smiling, preparing for a wonderful day.
Glancing at Dave Edwards, my great big Georgian-Welsh friend, I wave farewell. He smiles his broad smile and turns his face upwards to the overhanging cliffs nearly thirty feet above our heads.
“Ever see anyone jump across?” he says playfully.
“I saw Briggs do it once.” He shakes his head.
“Yeah, right. Six-foot-four and legs like Aspens. Not me. No way! Carayzeee. See ya later, boyo. Enjoy your day off.”
It’s a good start. We leave the others fiddling with their packs and beating off the ravens. I’d prepared the troops the night before, keeping them focused on getting out of the hubbub so we could find our pace, not worry about stragglers. To sweat ourselves into the rhythm of moving through the desert. Destination oriented. We can meander back afterwards, catch what we missed. In oases like Havasu, well scattered and well hidden within the seemingly desolate landscape, you understood where the Navajo got their ancient chant “Walk In Beauty.”
The hike up takes the usual two and a half hours. The clients grow silent as the place sinks in. Halfway, more or less, we eat a snack, have a drink, and take some photos at graceful, stair-stepped Beaver Falls. They always want to dally there. But Mooney beckons. After Beaver, the vibe gets wilder, the pace picks up. Everyone else stops at Beaver. From here on in, its all ours.
Even after seeing it scores of times, Mooney still rocks me. As usual, I make them stop at a little spring just before we get there, partly to fill up their water bottles, partly to increase the tension one last notch.
Finally able to glimpse our objective, everyone stops several times at each little viewpoint, look at each other, then back to the falls and cliffs, trying to comprehend. Impossible. Unbelievable. Silence reigns, except for the sound of water. The pace slows, as if not to disturb something sacred.
As usual, at the pool they drop their daypacks, prepare to eat lunch, fumbling in their packs as their gazes are drawn upwards.
“Hold on, you guys.” My little ritual.
They’re a little confused. After all, we’re here, aren't we?
“Would you like to have a religious experience?” and I dive into the pool and start to swim for the falls.
“Um, you guys?” Softly, calmly.
All faces instantly alert, concerned. Perhaps they are too used to my natural exuberance, noting the abrupt change.
“I think maybe we ought to eat as quick as possible, and then get moving back downstream.” I shrug my shoulders, deliberately not looking at the sky.
Pat, one of two women on the hike, wants more information.
A seemingly simple word, but I know that tone of voice. She’s not going to let it go. Nor, on reflection, should she.
I point with my lips, Navajo style, up towards what I’ve now decided is either the blackest, thickest cloud ever imagined, or the apocalypse. Maybe both. All eyes look upwards towards the menacing black beast peeking over the lip of the falls. All faces, save two, pale. They get it. Most of ’em anyway.
“Whoa. Um…” Pat hesitates. “Is that a cloud, or what?”
I don’t answer directly. All watch the deliberations. I have my “professional” mask on. There’s that damn pause thing that always seems to precede something extraordinary in the offing. Like a chopper in the Canyon, it’s rarely good news.
“Okay. Here’s the deal. That’s the darkest damn cloud I think I’ve ever seen in my whole life. Probably raining like Noah’s flood somewhere upstream.”
As one they stand up, full attention now. In life, some are paralyzed by fear, some energized. We’ll soon see.
Closing my eyes, I visualize. Upstream a few miles it is bucketing hard. All that water, volumes and torrents of water, is hitting the hardpan and bedrock, sheeting off fast. It tumbles downhill, collecting first mud and pebbles, then rocks and chunks of earth, into the natural creek bed which had minutes before been bone dry. It is an irresistible force–the very force that, over the eons, created this entire fractured landscape. It cannot penetrate the hard earth and rock, and so rushes headlong downhill to hit the springs that form this perennial creek and mingle with the turquoise water and turn it into gooey, thick red mud. With endless supply from the heavens, it keeps growing and picking up speed and relentlessly sweeping everything in its path. At the moment, the “in its path” part includes us. I’ve been through flash floods before. You learn the signs. This one is singular. I feel it in my spine.
I glance at some of their faces. “Don’t panic. Just be focused. Okay?” In my way, I pull my sunglasses down over my nose so they can see my eyes. My voice is dead calm. They find that somehow scarier.
“Don’t stop. Listen for a, well, a “different” sound. Keep looking upstream, especially at crossings. Watch for a wave. Kinda like a storm surf only red. Sniff the air, see if it seems muddy. Don’t worry if you don’t understand what that means. You’ll know it when you smell it. You notice any of those signs, run to the highest point you can, fast. This is life and death, kids, I shit you not.”
Nobody moves. Eyes shift back and forth from my face to the growing cloud, trying to process the totality of instantaneous and absolute consequence. They’ve seen me scouting big rapids. The warrior’s calm, slightly pursed smile, welcoming the contest to come. I mean business.
“And you?” says Pat.
Replacing my sunglasses, I look down, cross my arms, then raise my face back to meet hers. “I have to think. I’m supposed to be sweep. There are some other people here. I can catch you pretty quick. I need a minute or two to gather my thoughts.”
The “sweep” is the last guide in the line, the one who has the repair and first aid, the one who’s responsible, on river or trail, for making sure nobody is left behind, everyone’s safe, everything’s copasetic so the trip leader can concentrate on leading. I absolutely love being sweep, fancying myself the reliable backup, which also translates into plenty of time to smell the rocks. Legally, guides are only responsible for the people in their own group. Morally is a different story.
As one, they rise in silence, pack and leave. I notice some of the sandwiches have been discreetly put away, untouched.
I remain, pondering. Climb the cables up to the campground and warn them? Mostly these folks, freshly hiked in from their cars and motel rooms and unfamiliar with the sure consequences of Nature at her Wildest, probably won’t believe me anyway. Run past my small group and warn everybody on the rafts downstream? Nope. I’m sweep. Anything happens to one of my guys if I’m ahead of ‘em, they’re screwed. Surely everyone downstream has noticed that cloud? At least it’ll hit me first, however big it is.
My right eyebrow rises.
This is going to happen, period. If I could be in two places at once, herding them along and keeping well back to gauge and keep watch, I would. I love running this trail. I usually give my folks about thirty minutes lead and don’t catch up to them until just before the waiting rafts, leaping for joy and occasionally allowing myself to question when will be the last time I’ll still have the legs and agility to do it clean. I’m in no rush to catch up just yet.
Whilst caught up in these thoughts, I stroll up to each little group of swimmers and point to the cloud, explaining there’s going to be a flood and they probably should get back to their camps and warn their friends and move their gear. They look at me like I’m some nut on the freeway, which is no more than I expect. I’ve done my best, and leave them to their fates.
An inner clock has struck, compelling me to take off running downstream, free and clear of doubt. Glancing briefly over my shoulder from time to time while maneuvering amongst the grape vines and tangled trees, rocks, and crossings, I perceive The Cloud stalking slowly and inexorably down canyon, consuming the sky as if a starving beast. All of a sudden there is unexpected color and movement just ahead. A bit stunned, I lean back and stomp to a dusty halt at Bill and Ted, two of my six. I’ve only been going for maybe five minutes.
These two came together. Their impatience with the rest of us poor sheep is palpable. They don’t need no one telling them what to do.
They’ve left the track and are standing waist deep in the creek. Lovely spot, nice little pool. After coming to an unsure halt poolside, I consider. They’re hot and tired, stopped for a dip. No harm—in another world. I glance up. The brute is closing in. Just upstream, all is obscured by a slanting grayish blur.
Be polite now.
“So, what are you guys doing?”
“It’s hot,” Bill says, wiping his brow with a wet bandana.
“We’re tired,” says Ted.
“And the others?”
“They went on ahead.”
That part’s good news. I point upstream. “See that? That’s rain. Lots and lots of rain.” I emphasize every word, failing to keep sarcasm at bay. “Very soon a really, really big flash flood is gonna come down on us. You get that?” My arms are crossed in front of my chest; my sunglasses remain in place. “Did you hear me when I said you had to keep moving downstream?”
They nod, ruffled.
“Kinda like now.”
I watch them disappear around a bend. A glance upstream, gauging the advance, a glance around at the tranquility, soon to be rent. I again sort out all the alternatives, possibilities. Part of this is just procrastination. I don’t like them much. I’d rather catch them than hang with them. Besides, the imminent danger is so sublime.
I give them fifteen minutes, for fun making a bet with myself the exact point that we all four, they and I and The Cloud, will meet. I find myself running once again, my mind a welcome blank. Nothing left to do but follow this chosen path.
The trail whirs by, taking my focus. The buzz of a cicada, the flurry of two birds chasing each other into a tangle of leaves, the warm odor of riotous vegetation. Everything. My feet rhythmically pad the earth, joining my heart and my breath, providing a beat to the rising symphony. Everything is in readiness.
Bill and Ted stand at the edge of the cliff, cameras pointed down at Beaver Falls. They are, as usual, oblivious, ignoring my arrival. On cue, as if a curtain were falling, the first heavy raindrops pelt the dust at our feet. Thump thump. Then hail the size of marbles—cat’s eye marbles, the big ones, like we used to play with back in Chicago—bombard us, sounding like applause.
“Ouch. Ooooch. Ow!”
Bill is bald. No hat. The hail is hitting him on the head and it hurts. He squints at me through the instantaneous maelstrom, looking miserable. Smiling, I reach for my straw hat and offer it to him. He grabs it and jams it down, without a thank you. He and Ted try, in vain, to thwart the hail and rain with canted arms and elbows, scrambling in circles and crying out, looking like dancing monkeys. Then, form and color just under the big cottonwood tree down there at the base of the falls catches my eye. Squinting against the hail and rain, tying a bandana around my head, I can just make out the outsized form of the baggage boatman from the other trip. He’s curled up on his side in the luxuriant grass, under the thick leaves, by all appearances asleep. Shouting in this racket is useless. I’ll have to downclimb the cliffs and get closer.
“Hey! What are we supposed to do now?!”
I turn towards my guys. Deep breath.
“Well. Looks like I’m gonna have to get Steve out of bed.” pointing to the shape down below, just visible through the torrent. How on earth is he sleeping through this? Damn big tree.
“I was planning on stickin’ with you guys from here on in, but plans have changed.” I like this option even less than they do. “Just head down the switchbacks and cross the creek. And could you do me a favor, please? Could you just keep on moving?” Sullenly, they move off. I call to their backs, “Remember what I told you about flash floods!” Then I turn to get Steve.
Climbing fast, I arrive under the shelter of the tree in minutes. Already soaked, I shake his arm, and in an instant he’s bolt upright, looking around, trying to place himself. Steve is a big guy, like a walrus. He was a paying client for several years running, lost as so many of us are to the power of The Canyon, until finally the owner gave him a little pity, and an unpaid baggage boat to row.
“STEVE,” I yell, “ITS GONNA FLASH BIG TIME! WE GOTTA GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE!” The falls adds to the cacophony.
He shouts “MOLEY’S GONE HIKING. HE TOLD ME TO WAIT UP.”
Moley, another AzRA boatman, is working the other trip. He’s sweep for their group.
I bellow “I’LL WAIT FOR MOLEY. YOU GO ON AHEAD!”
“NO. I PROMISED I’D WAIT. SO I’M WAITING.”
Pause. “OKAY. WHERE’D HE GO?”
“I DUNNO. SOMETHING ABOUT A SCARY PUPPET. BEAVER MAN OR SOMETHING.”
“HOW LONG AGO?
A shrug. “MUSTA FELL ASLEEP.” We’re both looking upwards, scanning the cliffs, hoping.
Moley’s head is screwed on good. He’ll figure it out. Think fast. This guy’s gonna be stubborn.
“OKAY. OKAY.” I bawl. “CLIMB A BIT UP THE CLIFFS WITH ME. YOU CAN STAY UNDER AN OVERHANG AND WAIT FOR HIM THERE. OKAY?”
Thankfully he consents. I plunk him down in a safe spot and take off, on a mission.
Two minutes down the track I nearly run right over the top of Frick and Frack, sheltering under a tiny overhang on the trail. Time is running out. So is my patience.
“What the hell is wrong with you two?!” I ask, hands on hips.
They are peeved, soggy, and now, at long last, apparently scared.
“What are you talking about?”
“Okay. Fine.” I take a deep breath. My sunglasses are off, my arms fold themselves across my chest.
“Listen to me.”
“I’m supposed to be sweep and now I’ve left someone behind.”
The hail stops, the rain pours on. A garnet red waterfall explodes over a cliff a thousand feet above our heads, cascades from ledge to ledge like a toy Slinky, and finally plunges into our creek not thirty feet away. Another, then another, all along the scarp. The creek turns pink, as if the water were mixed with blood. Yet the level remains steady. So far, anyway. This will change presently.
“Oh! Oh my God!” exclaim the boys.
“Look you two. I’m gonna stay here for a few minutes. I gotta think. Then I’m gonna come after you. We’ve got three more crossings to make.”
“I thought there was four!”
“All we need to make is three. We can get back to the boats from the wrong side if we need to.”
They stand there. The creek alters color, chameleon-like, pink to red. The rowdy rain, the rising creek, a hundred bursting waterfalls draping the stone corridor, the wind, all combine into a deafening crescendo.
“And by the way. If I catch you two again, you won’t have to worry about no flash flood. Cuz I’m gonna fucking kill you myself.”
Moley—ace river guide, trustworthy, capable, savvy, bald as a cue ball. We shared the high water last year, him playing his fiddle at the Crystal concert. No worries there. I stand protected by the tiny overhang, re-assessing, sorting, scoping. Really just an excuse to observe the dazzling show. Red-graphite waterfalls pour over thousand foot cliffs far and wide. Pour from every little notch in the Redwall. Pour upstream and down, both sides, like an enormous wedding veil. There is so much energy it’s hard to breathe. The river is starting to rise. Just a few inches, just a teaser. Not thick red mud yet, but….
Time congeals. I am running. One knee-deep crossing tells me all I need to know: the water has risen, maybe only by a foot or so, but it’s still coming. Steady, now. Another crossing. One more and home free. A half mile, more or less. Waterfalls and rain and the cascading creek. The sound of water, of feet splashing, of breath, blend into a harmonic rhythm. My mind wanders, idiotically, to that Superman movie a few years back, the part where he outruns the train to cross the tracks.
Top speed and cackling madly, now. I wonder how fast a flash flood wave moves?
Faster than, say, a man can run?
At long last, that howl erupts from somewhere deep and red-hot. The sound is not as much drowned by the racket as absorbed by it, melded to it. I shake my head, demanding sanity. Not gonna happen. Some great conductor has turned the page, raised the baton, and I suck my breath through pursed lips at the climax of this boisterous and holy symphony.
And then—The Sound. An exultant roar, like a lioness after a good kill, vibrates the air as if a huge crowd were thumping their seats after the winning goal. Its more than simply vibrations: Attitude.
It compels me to turn, still running. A massive, surreal wave, foaming and greedy and furiously single-minded, appears a hundred yards upstream. The smell of earth and rich fecundity. Freakishly, it crawls in slow-motion, frothing and filling the space behind each huge boulder, tumbling over drops, eddying riotously, then lurching off again. Deliberate. Purposeful. Yet the violent water just behind the crest seems to be madly rushing at twenty miles an hour—creating an optical illusion. The laws of physics seem to oblige it to catch up and overtake the slow-mo wave, but somehow it behaves itself and does not. My head jerks from trail to wave and back again, gauging speeds.
Yup. No doubt about it. I’m beating it.
“No fuckin’ way don’t even think about it…Woohooooooooo…!”
I’ll play with it just so much, and then I’ll head uphill and watch it go by. I swear.
The crossing comes into view a hundred yards downstream.
Bill and Ted stand midstream, backs to the wave, rinsing their frigging bandanas.
“SHIT!” Puff…puff. “GET UP THE BANK…!”
My legs cannot move any faster. I glance at the approaching wave, thundering like a freight train. Right at them. The path is set.
“Get up the bank get up the bank get up the bAAAAAank…!” Glance back. “FLASH FLOOD…!” Seventy-five yards, fifty, glance back.
Startled, they turn and stare—at me, not at their approaching doom. They start towards the far bank–too slow. I hyperventilate, oxygenating my blood. Twenty yards. My eyes take in every rock, where my last steps must fall, where my surface dive will land. Last glance upstream.
Its gonna be close.
In mid-flight, just before the muddy blackness consumes me, I inhale and flick my head for one last glimpse, then I’m underwater. The unexpected, thick silence startles me, and as I frantically plow with all my sinew and bone and spirit, that final airborne image gels: A supernova of red mud just blew over the top of the ten foot high white limestone boulder thirty feet upstream.
I maybe have five seconds.
My feet hit the river bottom running, like in the molasses of a nightmare. My arms drag mud wildly, propelling me forward in the crushing underwater silence. Then, miraculously, air once again touches my face, enters my lungs, the train-like roar again greets my ears. With the absolute clarity that the closeness of annihilation gives, I see my guys facing me at what is just now the bank, but in two seconds will be ten feet deep and utterly ruthless. Their faces are contorted in confusion and anger. I grab their collars, feet scrambling to gain purchase, leaning hard into them, and shove. Puppets and puppeteer. Nothing to do with me and them; Life and Not-Life.
They are flung backwards into a thicket of ash trees. I wrap my arms around the nearest, high as I can reach, no time to choose for stoutness. The wave sweeps my legs out from under me.
The dang thing holds.
“Oh….wow! So that’s what you meant by a flash flood!…” says Bill.
A forty foot cottonwood tree, still alive and whole from root ball to leafy canopy, ponderously rolling over and over, tumbles by. I gain my footing, glancing over my shoulder, soggy but breathing and grateful to the Gods for it. The log footbridge from Supai Village follows it downstream. Supai Village is ten miles upstream.
Miles downstream, Jane, a middle-aged client with ample breasts, sits on a rock midstream, a few hundred yards upstream of the boats in the eddy. She has stopped at the first creek crossing, just at the brink of a set of three beautiful stepped waterfalls, dropping about fifteen feet each. Very pretty spot. She faces downstream, concentrating on removing some pesky pebbles from her sneakers. She stops, knots her brow, turns to see what it is that has just tapped her on the shoulder…and is slapped off her perch like an insect into muddy blackness.
Swept over the falls, violently tumbling over bruising rocks and ear-popping river bottom, she prays.
Back at the eddy, Lorna is napping on her raft, chocked into the hourglass. The wave will hit her first. Sharon, “Shay,” is two rafts down the pack, definitely NOT drinking Kahluah with Bill and Joel. Unfortunately, she’s also on the far upstream edge of the eddy, farthest from an escape ledge.
Barry Lopez writes about the Native Eye, how an Eskimo paddling a skin kayak across miles of featureless Arctic ocean—no land in sight, family members tucked inside and utterly dependent—must focus on moving his kayak through fickle winds and massive currents towards his landing, sometimes a speck of an island beyond view over the liquid horizon. Not tunnel vision. Crystal clear, absolute attentiveness. The merest change in the familiar salty breeze, a wisp of cloud on the horizon, a flock of birds wheeling, and muscles and mind become taut, alert, calculating, ready. He is wholly part of a vast spirit world, telling him all he needs to know. The mind only follows.
The canyon narrows substantially as it enters the last few hundred yards above the boats. The wave responds by getting bigger. Much bigger. Shay’s glance is drawn upstream. Something is speaking to her. Strangely, the usually placid blue-green eddy is moving.
The last time she’d ever heard that noise was only yesterday, when she and her crew had tried to play a joke on us at Matkatamiba, the slot canyon just upstream. They’d created a “butt” dam in a narrows up-canyon from the narrow niche where we were with our folks. The plan was to leap up as one, letting the backed-up water go, and yell “flash flood.” It kind of fell flat, but she’d recall later that this was the first time she’d ever heard that sound.
There is a presence over Lorna’s head–towering, dark, alive. The colossal wave of mud approaches.
One of the other boatmen, ever skeptical, responds “Naaaaaahh.”
Edwards will later swear he saw Lorna leap from a dead sleep and in an instant fly over thirteen rafts, feet never touching rubber, dancing and running to get the hell out of there . Fortunate, since The Wave engulfs her boat, straining, then snapping its lines and wrapping it sideways into the next, like humping hippos, then both into the next, and so on. The lines thrum and stretch and snap, anchors and rock-chocks pop out of cracks, sounding like rifle shots. Metal D-rings on the rubber rafts disintegrate, ripping a hole in one, causing it to deflate and fold in half underneath itself.
The rafts are now wildly bucking in the raging tsunami. Shay screams over the roar, “WHAT DO I DO WHAT DO I DO?”
“CUT ‘EM!” echoes from the cliffs.
For us guides, an unconscious hand-slap to the chest—just checking—is second nature in times of need. Yep, her life jacket is on. (Why? Who can say. Nobody ever wears a life jacket when hanging out in that eddy.) She draws the attached emergency knife from its scabbard and starts cutting anything that looks like a bowline. The whole flotilla is being ripped and contorted, held in the brunt of the torrent, but as lines are cut, it swings out, pendulum-ing off of my snout still tied to the far ledge. On that ledge guides gawk and scramble, grabbing life jackets and throw lines. The dozen tethered boats now strain in the raging current of the Colorado at the head of a rapid running at forty-five thousand cubic feet per second. Off my single bowline.
Which is taut, worried to the point of rupture. The guides stand, absorbing the outrageous scene, trying to wrap their heads around it. As always, some react swiftly, with poise and sureness; others follow.
The rope will only hold for a second or two. Lowry, strong, reliable, taking it all in like a cat, leaps into the rapid and swims to the closest boat, followed by two young acolytes. The boys had been practicing rowing the whole trip, young clients observing their mentor, as well as his stature amongst his peers. They crab crawl and clamber over the surging tubes and flailing oars to reach the farthest outlying boats. Dave cuts the lines, yelling at the boys to grab rowing seats and hold on tight. The impatient current snaps the lines, releasing the rafts, all that pent up energy jerking them fiercely. They then grab the oars and madly row their craft into the only existing eddy, against the left-hand cliffs below, one of the boys missing and ending up all alone downstream on the right. Stuck but safe. Shay, in another single raft, rows into the left eddy, where Lowry, whose usually tanned and rugged face is now pale green like he’d seen a ghost, directs her to stop the boats from wrapping and flipping against the tied-up thirty-eight foot motor rig that was already there.
Back upstream, Suzanne also leaps, landing on her stomach on a fast-moving tube, legs flailing. She’s wearing her own familiar costume of flops, Navajo style print skirt and lacy blouse, adorned by her signature southwestern turquoise necklaces, rings, and bracelets, all highlighted by her flaming jumble of red hair. As Lowry cuts his boats free, she severs the straining line closest to her. A jumble of four boats, all fully loaded and one half-deflated, disappears around the corner, containing one damn determined Alabama girl.
This leaves just my snout and two other rafts, plus a clutch of guides stuck on land feeling like cowboys on foot.
Dave Edwards stares downstream, worried about Suzy. His back is to the eddy as he peers downstream. Bill Wasley has seen something in the water, is leaning over a raft nearest the Colorado, trying to see. The object nearly surfaces, too far from him to help. There is a shout.
Joel points. Time stretches, as it will. In one fluid motion, Dave turns. A shadow below the water’s surface resolves into two breasts and swirling hair. It is sensuous, a siren calling to him, hair framing the silhouette of a face with haunting eyes. He dives, two hundred and twenty muscular pounds of resolve.
On shore, eyes scan the water for an anxious second. Two seconds. Three. Four.
Two spluttering faces appear, noses just above the surface. Dave has Jane in the classic life-saving hold—turned away from him so she cannot pin his arms, his right arm underneath her armpit and across her chest, clasping his left hand with his right, locked in solid. He’s wearing his old, worn, lightweight, comfortable (and basically useless) lifejacket. They get air infrequently, heads submerging through each wave. Seconds count.
Joel is lithe—a runner. His track is an uneven series of serrated limestone ledges. He wears flip-flops; he is encumbered by a life jacket and has a throw bag in his hands. Nonetheless, he hurtles over the terrain, pacing the swimmers, staring into Dave’s eyes. Waiting. They careen two feet away, but they might as well be on the moon.
In an instant it’ll be too late.
In between repeated submersions, Dave spits. Then, glancing up at Joel, says with absolute clarity
“Hit me in the teeth, boyo…”
Whap! The rope appears, right between their heads. Dave, briefly releasing his left hand, stuffs the rope deep between his molars, clamps down, then locks Jane back in. They are traveling at least ten miles an hour.
Others reach Joel and hold onto him, ready for the pull. One chance, one eddy. All comprehend the need for slack, a pendulum to take some of the force. Once they hit that eddy the rope will rip out Dave’s teeth and they’re goners.
Graceful as penguins, they swing in, are gathered ashore, and collapse into welcoming arms.
Later, in her soft southern accent, Jane will tell the tale. “I knew I was going to drown in that wave. But God grabbed me by my breasts, and tugged me to the surface so I could breathe. Then I was on the crest of this huge red wave, and I was headed into a narrow notch just choked with boats. Then, this tiny figure—I just know it was an angel—flew over the boats. It gave me hope. I hit the first boat hard and went back underwater. It was just black. I bumped and banged underneath those boats, and I just knew that was gonna be it. Then I felt myself swirling around and the water got really cold and I could almost see light. Well, I knew what that was. The Colorado. I was ready, but God had other plans. This huge shadow appeared above me—another angel—and that big oaf tackled me so hard it hurt. I was a bit irritated, since I was ready, if you know what I mean, but that was the most beautiful pain in the world.”
Downstream, Suzy gets to work. There is no urgency. She unties, then reties her rafts end to end, freeing her to row the tail end one. She hauls one raft’s deflated half up and over itself and ties it to the frame so it doesn’t drag in the water. She then loops all the spare lines into one nice, long coil on the back deck and aims for shore.
She attempts eddy after eddy. Each time her rear boat hits the undisciplined and powerful eddy line, the seventy-foot rig uncontrollably spirals back out into the high-water current. Suzanne is strong and sure. She reads water better than anyone I’ve ever met, knows what it needs from her, knows how to please it or to set its heart at ease. Knows when it needs a gentle hug, or a slap in the face, a stiff drink or a stern word. As a woman used to working in a man’s world—and used to using finesse and skill, having this certain bond with rivers—she reprocesses. Considers. Drinks some water. Decides. She knows the river well and can visualize a place downstream on the left where a slower current will bring her near some low cliffs without the confused water of an eddy. She hopes the cliffs are mostly underwater, presenting a sloping shore.
Her destination appears downstream. Committing utterly on a singular day of utter commitment, she adjusts her angle early, ships her oars as she nears shore, gathers the coils of line, leaps off the boats moving at eight miles an hour, and starts running in her flops and skirt amidst the lopsided desert scrub. Red hair flies. Desperately she seeks something solid to tie to. Nada. Not a thing. Fragile cacti and small, loose rocks. Coils whip out of her arms, whoop, whoop, whoop, rapidly diminishing her options. The flotilla keeps moving relentlessly downstream.
There is a solitary large boulder at the terminus of the bench. She has tied a big round knot at the end of the rope. The last coil is about to lurch out of her arms. She grabs the knot and jams it into the lone crack in that lone rock and the boats pull it taut… on her hand. The boats rubber-band then settle. She’s trapped for a while, finally frees her pulped hand.
There is now gobs of time to cover the raw meat of her hand, rummage for food. She tethers the boats to shore in a spider’s web of rope, makes a sandwich. It’ll be a while before others arrive.
Back up Havasu, the rain has stopped. I’m shaking with cold—that, and the shock of having death sit on my shoulder once again, only to leave me behind, once again. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Sodden with mud, I stand amidst the trees, leaning against one. Steady now. It is good to feel the rough bark against my cheek. Something solid.
And the responsibilities flow back. Moley and Steve are upstream. The Colorado is only a short hike away, maybe a mile and a half or so. Where are the others in our group? For sure someone’s been swept away and drowned. Bill is shivering. I give him my rain jacket. He now has that plus my hat, with never a thank you. I must keep moving or I’ll get hypothermic. My gut aches for the others, but we have to get moving. I cannot, however, leave Bill and Ted (much as I’d like to).
The trail is now in the river, underneath all that liquefied mud. Downstream there will be parts of it exposed higher up on the bank, but for now we must crawl through Catclaw Acacia and Mesquite, small trees lovely to the eye–from a distance. After all, desert plants must defend themselves. Not much to eat in these parts. Catclaw is rather self-explanatory. The thorns on the mesquite are different, long and straight, kinda like big IV needles. Our only route is choked with these. At waist height and below, the lovely prickly pear, fishhook and hedgehog cacti litter the ground. Blood leaks from countless scratches and holes, like we’ve been flailing ourselves in some religious swoon. I ignore Bill and Ted’s loud and constant complaints until they finally shut up.
At long last, we reach a section of trail which is above the flood. It has abated a couple of feet in the past half-hour. We’re getting strangely used to the clamor and feverish motion of red-brown water. Fish flop in puddles along the recently exposed trail. I mindlessly scoop them sideways back into the river with a flick of my foot as I hike, and they bounce and disappear in a wide-eyed splash, mouthing whoa, whoa, whoa.
We round a corner and stumble into a small knot of clients. Huddled and cold, some sit on rocks, some stand. The men cradle their heads in their palms, staring at their feet. The women softly whimper, arms crossed for warmth or around their companion’s shoulders, comforting each other.
“Oh! It’s a guide! Jeffe! Thank God!” All faces look to me.
I ask “Is everyone okay? Has anyone been washed away?”
“No. Everyone’s fine. But we we’re stuck! We’re cold and wet! And we can’t get back to the boats!”
“Nope. We’re all right” I say, relief apparent in my voice. I nod, as much for myself as for them. “We don’t need that last crossing through the tunnel. It’s probably underwater, but there’s a secret way back to the boats on this side, higher up. Used to be used by the miners back in the thirties. It’s gonna be okay.”
Acquitted, off we tramp, the group chatting, newly lighthearted, me picking the way on the still partly submerged trail. Silently I ponder my comrades in the eddy.
We keep coming upon little pods of clients scattered along the trail. The manner and greeting of the first encounter is repeated. Each time I question, they answer—nobody swept away—until there are nearly thirty of us gaily tramping towards our river.
Moley and Steve appear, having escaped by climbing a crack in the cliffs to a higher ledge. He gives me thumbs up, eases into the sweep position. We share a secret smile of relief, and the warm wash of fraternity one feels when a heavy burden is shared. A few trees still float downstream, but the power is clearly ebbing, still high and muddy but less troubled. We bypass the tunnel where the trail usually goes. Water is sucking through it like a giant toilet. We ascend the old mining track on the scree above, slowing in the steeper terrain. Weary faces concentrate on the loose footing.
Not over yet.
Back on the trail again and clambering over a slight rise just past the “Big Kid’s Pool”, a favorite of the time-constrained six-day motor trips, I gain sight of the cliffs above the first crossing, sporting a rather colorful clutch of boatmen. All geared up, gay yellows and bright purples and vibrant blues, lifejackets on, throwbags in hand. Even from this distance, I see their worried faces staring at the water rushing by, expecting the worst. Rob, AzRA’s owner, glances up, sees me. Only me so far…and then, in an instant, I see the whiteness of a dozen faces. They stiffen, weirdly dressed and posed like mannequins—half bent, limbs akimbo, mouths half open, a river fashion display.
Decades later, Dave, hand clutching my arm as if he were there once more, would describe the mood thusly: “Boyo…it was…Chilling.”
Typically, voices cannot overcome the clamor of rapids. Sometimes communication between one boat and another, or a boat and a swimmer, is critical, so river guides have devised hand signals over the years. A pat on the head means “OK.” It’s a question-response sort of thing, one pat deserving another.
Clearly, they’re expecting bad news, and still only see me. Unable to help myself, I smile, pat my head, and point with my other thumb over my shoulder behind me. They glance at each other, then back to me. One pats his head back, face puzzled, slowly rising from his crouch. Faces turn towards each other, mouths stir.
One by one, my herd tops the rise. The guides begin counting on their fingers. Someone produces a roster. Rob, pen in hand, checks off names. Smiles appear, backs are slapped.
Presently, Moley materializes, bringing up the rear. All accounted for.
Soon, we are yelling across the abyss. We cannot make ourselves understood over the roar of the floodwaters in the final narrows. Joel points downstream towards the boat eddy. Oh. Right. We move off in that direction.
Where a dozen boats were, there are three—my snout and two eighteen footers, swaying in the current.
“WAIT’LL YOU HEAR,” someone shouts.
“Wait’ll YOU hear,” I respond.
Reserves are waning. People are wet and tired and hungry. It is getting late. Time for stories later; this one is still taking shape. Following a brief discussion, Moley and I set up our end of a Tyrolean Traverse. Joel, like myself an ex-Outward Bound instructor, sets up the far side. We swap stories as we work, omitting certain delicate details, watched by curious and anxious clients. There are three more rafts in the eddy downstream, plus a motor rig that happened by. They’d like to get going, get their own passengers to camp and fed. The first good camp at Tuckup is ten miles downstream.
The Tyrolean Traverse: A taut rope, fixed across some terrible abyss (naturally), to which experienced and fearless climbers affix themselves in a sit-harness and joyfully slide themselves with pulleys from one side to the other. Exhilarating fun…for climbers.
I look at the thirty-plus people; they look back, suddenly startled. Darkness is descending, and the helpful motor rigger is getting understandably impatient. Usually, when training student climbers, I spend quite a bit of time on the particulars of knots, safety, technique. No time for that.
I scan the huddled crowd, seeking the most squeamish. I gently lead her by her elbow to the taut line. Nobody speaks. I have her step into the improvised figure-eight harness, clip her into the line.
Innocently, she asks “So, uh, what are we doing?
“Darlin’, you just hold onto this rope here. Yep. That’s it.”
Then I shove her off the cliff.
It is a short distance to the other side, and before her terrified scream gets past her lips, she’s already in the arms of Lorna and Joel.
No saviour appears for the others. Just us scraggly half-clad hippy boatmen. Gradually, efficiently, reluctantly, the rest follow.
The motor rig leaves. It’s a half hour by motor, an hour by oar, maybe less with the high water. There, at Tuckup, dry clothes, hot food, tea, sleeping bags, toilets–the backbones of normality–await. Once all are across, Moley and I frenetically disassemble the gear in the last of the light. We toss the mess across to the others waiting on the ledge. “We’ll meet you at Tuckup. Go on Downstream.” They gather it up and turn to clamber over the ledges into the shadows.
Then it hits me. “Wait a minute!”
I peer over the edge, stand bolt upright and turn to Moley. He points a finger at me and says, “Don’t you say a word. I ain’t sticking around to think about it,” and leaps.
He is lithe, barely makes it, all scrambling feet and arms, pebbles knocking loose and splashing into the dark water somewhere below. Silent and now alone, I shake my head, mouth twisting into a crooked grin, recalling the morning’s musings with Dave.
Deep breath, jump.
We pile wordlessly into our boats and cast off. Floating along on the moonlit Colorado, cliffs drift by like sentinels. Small rapids are rowed by heart. The Black Cloud, having only barely reached the main gouge of the Canyon, has now entirely vanished, leaving an impeccable corridor of brilliant stars, like luminescent sea foam punctuated by the crescent moon, a pendant hanging on a necklace. There is soft conversation; we share trail mix. Each of us considers crag and sky and the essence of things. I listen to the sounds of oarlocks squeaking gently, oars dipping, caressing the water. Sweet music.
Time passes, my ears hear Tuckup rapid. Not much of a rapid really—a little curlicue with a couple of diagonal waves, sheer cliff on the left, bouldery beach on the right. But in the dark with nine passengers on a two-ton snout?
Catching eddies is a special skill, tricky for most to learn at first, second nature once you’ve got the hang of it. If you’re a pro, you’d darn well better have the hang of it or you’ll be flippin’ burgers soon after the trip de-brief. But sometimes they’re a bitch. Sometimes even the old-timers miss one. In a snout, they’re pretty much always a struggle. Add fast current, extra weight, darkness… Jeesh, I really don’t need any more epics today. Downstream, dozens of flashlights and dancing fires light up the cliffs like a Revival Meeting. It looks like a small city, all gaily lit up like that.
I want it.
I set the boat angle to catch the eddy, glance over my shoulder, tell everyone to pipe down so I can concentrate.
What on earth?...are those fireflies flitting over the water there?
In any case, that’s about where I need to be. I await my timing, pull hard, and close my eyes and plead; please let me in.
The eddy, like a magnet, magically draws us in, much to my surprise. But there is more. Eyes now opened, I can see that my strong and capable fellows in cut-off jeans and flip-flops were waiting for me, wading chest deep in the cold eddy. They reached out, grabbed my boat, and pulled us in. A silhouette with a glowing Cyclops eye ties us up; others leap aboard, dripping, and embrace me. One offers a welcome bottle.
Relax, friend. You’re home now.
Headlamps, reflected like stars in the night eddy.
This. Oh, this. Worth every struggle, every failure and fear. Finally, a tribe I can belong to. That I want to be part of. That wants me back.
Boats and people—five river trips worth, are spread out on the huge beach like refugees. Delicious cooking smells drift across the dunes. Suzy runs up and gives me a bear hug. Her laugh is all the welcome I’ll ever need. I notice her bandaged hand. She shakes her head, smiling, points to the paddle raft dry-docked in the sand, on its edge and being patched by firelight. A crowd of boatmen, beers in hand, surround it, passing a bottle. Tired as we are, the boatmen’s sleeping bags will remain lonely for a while yet.
She tells me of Jane and Dave and Joel, and I share my Bill and Ted.
Next morning, after sleeping in and re-rigging and breakfast, each trip separates, sharing smiles and waving and hooting, and we each slide back into the current on our separate ways towards Lava Falls.
Lava is the largest whitewater maelstrom on one of the world’s most renowned rivers. Depending on who’s breathless stories you believe, it drops either seventeen or thirty feet in seventy-five yards. Either way, it is filled with boat-flipping holes, colossal waves, and bone-crushing volcanic rocks. It is now running high and furious at forty-five thousand cubic feet per second. Enough to make any river runner’s belly start to groan.
We pass Vulcan’s Anvil: a shiny, black basalt column sitting placidly, deceptively, a mile above Lava, dead smack in the center of the river. The core of an ancient volcano, once violent, the Anvil is now an altar, the serene recipient of wayward boater’s prayers and offerings. We float that final mile of quiet water, hushed and anticipatory, then round the ultimate bend.
Once again, we are met by the sound of water.