I’ve never thought of myself as an adrenaline junkie. Yes, I’ve climbed Mt. Rainier, but only because she is special to me; I’m not a “peak bagger.” Yes, I did once lie on my stomach in the empty streambed of Tuolome Creek and gaze down the 1,500-foot drop of the then-non-flowing Yosemite Falls, but only because I’m an idiot who is apparently missing the gene that warns humans not to go too close to the edges of things. (Ditto with looking into Mt. St. Helens’ crater from a snow ledge on the rim–a huge no-no.) And yes, I’ve been para-sailing, but only up to 400 feet, with a friend. Easy-peasy.
My point is, I did these things because I felt drawn to them, not because I wanted to make my heart pound. I don’t even think my heart DID pound that much (except for exertion–Mt. Rainier is quite a slog).
I used to be a competitive runner. I associated adrenaline rushes with the hours and moments before races–never a good time. Often as not, you want to throw up. So what’s so great about adrenaline?
But since running Lava Falls on the Colorado a couple of weeks ago, I’m afraid I’m beginning to understand.
Lava is the biggest, baddest rapid in Grand Canyon. On the 1-10 rating scale rafters use for that river, it’s a 10, or 10+, depending on the level of the river. Scary as hell. As you might guess, it’s formed by the remnants of a one-time dam of black lava that blocked the river. To the right and left, the river roils and boils with giant waves, but boats can make it through. But in the center is a full-on waterfall, which dumps into a trench the size of a mobile home. You don’t want to go down the center. Here is what can happen, courtesy of Yakbas, who posted this:
(This video must have been taken during the “monsoon season,” when flash flooding in the side canyons turns the river back to its original color–hence “Colorado.” On our trip, it was a nice sage-green.)
Luckily I hadn’t seen this video before going on this trip. I didn’t know that the rapid could spin a raft and all its occupants like laundry in a washing machine. I just knew Lava was bigger than any rapid I’d experienced, and I WANTED it. The way I wanted Mt. Rainier and Yosemite Falls.
So the day came: June 19. It happened to be our son’s 24th birthday, and he happened to be with us, paddling in the same boat. That felt perfect.
We broke camp earlier than usual, about 10 miles upriver. The guides seemed more subdued. Our trip leader took a good 20 minutes to talk us through the rapid, drawing diagrams in the sand. Off we paddled.
After an hour of the usual red canyon walls, the lava made its appearance. Then, in the middle of the river, Vulcan’s Anvil. I was too busy paddling to take a picture, so I’m borrowing this one:
Pretty damn ominous, right? Even more so close up. And then we heard the distant roar. All rapids roar, and some small ones are even pretty good at sounding louder than they are, thanks to canyon acoustics. Lava Falls was different. Deeper, louder, throatier. A beast around the bend.
Ten minutes later, we were tying up the boats to scout the rapid from above. I decided not to take a picture. Giant, boat-eating waves never look like much till you’re in them. But I did take a picture of the huge hole in Crystal Rapid, a hundred miles upriver, when we scouted it. So this’ll give you some idea.
BIG water. Lava’s bigger.
The guides double-checked everyone’s life jackets, repeating instructions about leaning toward the waves, and about keeping your feet pointed downriver if we did “swim.” As we swung back into the smooth current, my heartbeat started filling my ears. The beast roared louder. And there we were, paddling toward it. Voluntarily. I checked my facial muscles to make sure I was smiling. Yes.
At the cusp of the rapid, where the glassy green tongue of the river glides you straight into whitewater oblivion, I could not risk taking my eyes off the rapid. But had I been able to look down, I’m pretty sure I would have seen my life jacket moving up and down from the pounding of my heart.
We hit the first wave and the four people in the front of the boat disappeared behind a wall of water. When we resurfaced, we were missing the front guy, a large rugby player we’d stationed there on purpose. They say 20 seconds or less is a good run for Lava Falls; any more and you’re in deep trouble. We came through under 20, only adding a few at the end to rescue the rugby player, who was grinning at us from the crazy rapid he’d just “swum.” (I’m glad it wasn’t my son who went in; he would’ve been fine, but parental adrenaline is the WRONG sort.) Once our boat was intact again, in time to run “Son of Lava,” we woo-hooed and smacked paddles in celebration. Then we stopped for lunch and I spent some time thinking about what I’d just felt.
Nothing more exciting, ever, with my clothes on. Wow. Damn. I can see why that stuff’s addictive.
From a limestone edge just below the falls, I took pictures, zoomed in, of what we’d just run. Of course they fell flat. As does this description.
Not even close to capturing it.
Understand: I am NOT encouraging this behavior, nor celebrating it as bravery. I’m still not entirely sure I like the way I gave in to that feeling and responded with joy instead of terror, which seems more appropriate. I guess some cliche about “feeling more alive than ever” applies here.
For the record, I can find other ways to feel alive than to make my heart pound like that. But man. I’m glad I know what it feels like. Or am I? Anyone want to weigh in on this?