DAY 6: FRIDAY, MAY 28
John told us well in advance that we would be beaching at Havasu Creek for a short side hike up to a swimming area. He normally didn't announce stops in advance, in keeping with his plan to keep his options open at all times, I suppose. I sensed that this policy wasn't indecision - just keeping a finger on the pulse of the needs of the group. But this stop was different and there was a reason for the advance notice. In his classically Southwestern-river verbal dialect, his spiel went something like this: "We'll be making a stop farther up, OK? It'll be different from other stops in that we'll be hooking up to rocks in the middle of Havasu Rapid, OK? Havasu's not a bad rapid in the boat but can be nasty as hell if you fall out getting off the boat. And the boat'll be rockin' when you get off. You guys all keep your life jackets on until we're off the boats and a safe distance from the river, OK? If you fall in here, your trip's over - big time. It's been a great trip and there's no need to end it at the bottom of the river. Live today to die another day, eh?"
Half way through Havasu Rapid at Mile 157, John spun the boat and started angling for a parking "spot" along the rocks of the south side of the river. Gretchen was close behind. How they turned those weight-laden rafts upstream and parked them with just a little 30 HP motor is something I will never understand. All debarked safely and we stored our life vests on the rocks, well away from the river's edge and prepared for our hike up Havasu Creek.
The rock here is laid down in layers averaging about a foot or two thick and runs parallel to the river. This made a hodgepodge of stair-step type ledges on which to walk. The hike wasn't bad at all but one was constantly stepping up or down when a layer petered out or got too small to walk on. At some points, we were right on the edge, looking down 70 or 80 feet into the creek below. The same thing kept going through my mind: no room for error. Actually, my biggest worry was over the boys, Marty in particular as he often tends to want to "rush to the front of the line" to be the first to see something new. As John would say, "Rushing to the front of the line in school might get you a trip to the principal's office. But carelessness here will only get you a trip to the morgue."
After about a half-mile or so, we came to an open area with several small waterfalls and a couple of big, open pools. A natural water park. Several pools were deep enough for us to jump off into from rocks above. Other pools were for just wading or swimming. There were short shoals for sliding. There were plenty of flat rocks for sunbathing. And there were other, larger rocks for sitting atop and meditating, as a few in our group chose to do. Bottom line.... Havasu was the perfect place to rest, relax and have some fun. The visit here was only marred slightly by Marty's minor accident in his haste to be the first off one of the rocks. A slick rock and an impatient boy combined for a scraped knee and temporarily wounded ego.
After an extended stay of a couple of hours at Havasu, we retraced our tracks back to the boats, loaded and cast off downstream. We hadn't gone far before stopping for lunch. Everyone was hungry as it must have been well after noon and we enjoyed cold cuts and salad. Chase was eating bites between his fishing bites and was determined to reach a total of 30 fish caught by himself before the end of the trip. Realizing that this was the last full day on the river, he took every opportunity to cast cheese into the many cool, deep holes for a big trout or catfish.
After topping off our lunch with cookies and colas, John called everyone together prior to loading the boats and said we had a long afternoon ahead of us and that we'd probably go close to 30 miles before hitting camp. We were now at Mile 158 and would camp as near as possible to Mile 188, where the "helicopter pad" was located. Between here and there were lots of sights, including a long, narrow area known as the "ice box" for the cool, brisk wind and lack of sun, many different rock strata and several medium-to-small rapids. And one big one, Lava, the granddaddy rapid of the Colorado River at Mile 179. We reloaded for the last afternoon of the trip.
The afternoon passed quickly. Maybe because we all wanted it to slow things down, as this was our last real day on the river. We went through several rapids, which were thrilling, and through geologic formations, whose names, age, and relevance I honestly can't remember. I am an appreciator of history but not nearly even an avid amateur. The infamous "ice box" was an enjoyable ride, even with the cold draft and damp conditions. We didn't want the trip to end this soon.
At about Mile 176, we began seeing black rock upthrusts here and there. We were entering the area of the most recent geologic activity in the Grand Canyon - active volcanoes that changed the lower part of the canyon dramatically only a trivial 20,000 years ago. Many scientists believe that lava flows in this area created dams that were up to 2,000 feet high and possibly backed up the Colorado River up to 50 miles. That's a big lava flow! Compared to earlier rock formations we'd encountered, whose ages were counted in millions of years, this activity had only occurred yesterday, in geologic terms. We passed Vulcan's Anvil, a small volcanic neck sticking out of the middle of the river, at Mile 178.
All of this darkness in our surroundings was appropriate as we approached the largest and most dangerous stretch of whitewater on the Colorado River - Lava Falls Rapid. Rated 10+, regardless of water level, one of our guides told us that this was the highest-rated navigable rapid on the North American continent. "You run Lava to get through it, not to have fun," we were told and I'm still not sure if he was serious or just adding to the drama.
Just before hitting Lava at about Mile 179 1/2 at Prospect Canyon, we started wondering if all this was such a good idea. We heard the roar of water about a half-mile before we could see anything except Vulcan's Anvil's granddaddy, Vulcan's Throne, the largest of the numerous volcanic cinder cones overlooking the river from the north side. Once we could see the whitewater and the drop of several feet just before the rushing water, all of us were deadly serious about all of the safety procedures we'd been warned about.
John lined us up and we suddenly increased speed as we dropped into the rolling water and hit the first dip. A literal wall of water washed completely over the boat as the raft ran through the bottom of the wave. Then we were back up on top of the next wave, angled up toward the sky for a split second. The second and third swells engulfed us the same way. Over the thundering water, we could just hear John gunning the little outboard between waves, when the prop had water to bite into instead of air. The roller coaster ride settled somewhat and took us to the right of a huge suck hole that looked like a huge bathtub drain. It was large enough to easily swallow a car - maybe a bus even. I was too awestruck to be scared as we passed within just feet of this huge hole.
A few seconds later, we were through the worst of the big water and riding the wave train into an eddy to spin and wait to see how Gretchen's boat fared. Watching from below, we all cheered as her boat successfully took the same line we had. Watching another raft go through what we'd just gone through was nearly as incredible and exciting as as our own ride.
We'd "survived" the fabled Lava Falls and the entire ride had lasted maybe 90 seconds - the absolute most petrifying 90 seconds of this life. A few hundred feet on downstream was Lower Lava Rapid, but it felt like floating on lake water after the bigger ride just above. The end of the trip was less than 12 hours away and the best screen writers in Hollywood couldn't have choreographed a better conclusion.
We went on downstream about seven more miles and beached on the north shore at Mile 187, just one mile from Whitmore Wash where tomorrow morning, we'd be extracted from the canyon by helicopter. This last campsite was different from the earlier camps as it had much more ground cover and larger trees than the earlier camps. Perhaps the ancient volcanic ash had made the soil in this part of the canyon more fertile for more and larger plant life. We took our personal items and clothing out of the dry bags we'd been issued last Sunday and stacked the bags up in a pile on the beach. Everybody was worn out after the long and and exciting day and we set up camp quickly as darkness was soon upon us.
Fittingly, we celebrated the last day on the Colorado River with grilled steaks for supper. After supper, John called the entire group together to go over the agenda for ending the trip. He told us that our goodbyes would have to be said tonight because there wouldn't be time in the morning as our chopper ride out Saturday morning would begin at 8 am.
As the meeting broke up and everybody began making their way back to their individual camps, several in the group approached Brian and me and told us they had truly enjoyed having the boys on the trip. A childless couple from Illinois told me that they honestly didn't usually care for the company of kids but that they'd enjoyed the boys' enthusiasm, their outlook on things and their comments during the trip. One man told me that he'd probably not remember me after this trip but that he'd remember Marty. "I'll look forward in the future to seeing his picture either on a campaign poster or in the post office. Maybe both," he said. Even without all of the accompanying natural drama of this trip, these comments alone made the whole affair worthwhile. We all slept well Friday night.