Day Eight

How To Paddle Through Rapids

Going over Lava

The rescue

What to make of it?

Corrections or additions?

This article by Bill Potter was prepared for the August 13, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Colorado River: Lessons from a Tough Course

While thousands of Princeton University alumni were

spending a week in early June schmoozing at reunions, a half dozen

Princetonians spent nine days in rubber pontoon boats paddling down

187 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon — and

along the way, running 64 major rapids through water measuring a numbing

50 degrees and with air temperatures hovering between 100 and 110

in the shade.

On their middle-aged legs, these alumni also climbed over sheer rock

wall faces and hiked along dry tributary river beds prone to flash

flooding in search of hidden mountain pools or to view the ruins left

by Anasazi Indians ("ancient ones") or by a Mormon family

that tried to raise cattle in the canyon and lost a son to drowning

in the wild river over a 150 years ago.

At the last minute, I was asked to join this group of 50-something

Princeton explorers — Thomas "Thos" Paine ’76, David Loevner

’76, Loevner’s business partner Dan Harding, Josh Greene ’81, Charles

Stone ’76, and Bill Lockwood ’59. Paine is president of Dana Communications

in Hopewell, Loevner is an investment manager in Somerville, Greene

publishes Wine and Spirits magazine in Manhattan, and Stone is a lighting

consultant whose firm, Fisher Marantz Stone, was responsible for the

World Trade Center memorial illumination. We were joined by two men

who grew up in Princeton but work in New York (Sean Keenan and David

Morgan), three guides, and two women training to be guides.

As for me, I have had a law practice on Nassau Street since 1987 (Potter

and Dickson focuses on energy, environment, and land use) and teach

part-time in the Princeton University politics department.

The paterfamilias of the group, Helmut Weymar (founder of Commodities

Corp., now Goldman Sachs Princeton), had to cancel due to an injured

Achilles tendon, but not before hosting the "Princeton 9"

in a send-off dinner.

When Charles Stone was trying to persuade me to join this over-the-hill

gang, he warned me that, once we start, there would be no turning

back. "Unless they have to `medivac’ you out by helicopter,"

he added, "you have to go all the way." If someone is seriously

injured — and fractures are not so uncommon — you must radio

a passing airliner on an emergency frequency to ask the pilot to call

the National Park Service because cell phones are useless at the bottom

of the Grand Canyon, and hiking out is almost impossible except in

a few locations along the canyon’s 250-mile length.

Why should I leave my family and Nassau Street law practice, missing

my 35th Princeton reunion, to boot — for a trip that sounded at

least as dangerous as it did enticing? Like Billy Crystal in the hit

film "City Slickers," I was ready to refuse this call of nature,

and for all the right reasons. But also as in the movie, my wife intervened.

"Go! Go!" she encouraged me. "You’ll love it."

I wanted to go as much as I dreaded it. Since boyhood I had daydreamed

of "running the river" after reading John Wesley Powell’s

memoir of his 1869 Grand Canyon trip, but that wasn’t reason enough,

not at age 57. I also sensed that I needed to go, and my wife of 24

years sensed it too. I needed relief from a predictable daily routine

that both comforts and confines.

Even though I was in relatively good physical condition — thanks

to a regimen of running, swimming and lifting in preparation for marathon

racing — I felt I needed more. I needed to be challenged by something

unpredictable, by a task that I would have to finish, adapting as

I went, because — as Stone emphasized — once you start, "there’s

no turning back."

When I told him I would go, he gleefully advised me to "leave

a forwarding address with AZRA" — the acronym for Arizona

Rafting Adventure, one of only two paddle-your-way river guide companies

left on the river — "so they know where to ship the body bag!"

A few weeks later — after a buying spree at various outfitters

that surely boosted the local economy a notch — I boarded a morning

plane in Newark for a cramped flight to Las Vegas and the "Princeton

9" caught a "puddle jumper" DeHavilland for the gut-churning

final leg to the Grand Canyon village a mile above the river.

That’s when I had my first "visual" of the Colorado River,

from the window of the DeHavilland. I was surprised that it was so

green, as green as Lake Carnegie. "Why isn’t it red, like the

name implies?" I asked everyone. The answer came back: Because,

when the upper river was dammed in 1963, creating Lake Powell, the

flow of silt was cut from 100 tons per day to less than five tons

of reddish silt. That silt had painted the river red for millennia

and replenished its banks that are now fast eroding.

But this airborne "visual" did nothing to prepare

me for the impact of seeing the river for the first time at "river

level" — which came the next morning after a three-plus hour

hike down from the canyon rim in 100 degree heat. Though it was only

50 feet wide at that point, the Colorado’s green water was rushing

by us at 16,000 cubic feet per second ("cfs") the morning

we reached it.

Eric Christiansen, AZRA’s 34-year-old guide who would lead the trip,

added this explanation: "Imagine 16,000 basketballs going by every

second."

"That’s a lot of basketballs!" I joked, trying to hide my

apprehension about climbing into a 15-foot pontoon raft that would

become my second "home" for the next week of riding rapids

that sometimes wreck life and limb. Like notorious Lava Falls —

which drops 41 feet in 50 yards, throwing up 30-foot walls of water

that have flipped many a boat — including two on Day Eight.

The essence of this "over-the-hill" Outward Bound trip is

best seen by looking at one day on the river. Let’s take Day Eight

— the day we hit Lava Falls, after a week running dozens of tune-up

rapids — and saw a tragedy in the making.

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Day Eight

By 5 a.m. I rise from my sleeping bag that I sleep on,

not in, since the air temperature seldom falls below 80 and no mosquitoes

force you into a tent. The adrenalin is already rising because I know

that soon we will be on the river — and hitting more rapids for

testing whatever it is that makes us feel like Francis McComber in

the Hemingway short story, "The Short Happy Life . . ."

We groggily line up for the unisex "john," a metal can with

a sealing lid. In accordance with strict National Park Service (NPS)

rules, whatever we bring in, we take out, including human waste, at

least the solid variety. Learning to sit astride one of these "cans"

is an early test of hardiness.

The sun is still an hour away from running down the red canyon walls

nearly a mile above us when a guide blows the conch shell for the

first time: Coffee is served, made "cowboy style," with fresh

grounds dumped into a pot before boiling water is poured over them.

I give up coffee for the duration.

Now comes the second conch blast: breakfast is served! We gorge on

bacon, eggs, pancakes, canned milk or juice. Then we clean our dishes

as best we can. We are not so jolly this morning pondering the assault

on Lava.

After packing up, we quietly line up bucket-brigade fashion to carry

everything back to the tethered boats — water purifying kits,

bags of spare cloths, Army surplus caisson boxes stuffed with food

and cooking gear, and of course the "honey pots" that pass

for toilets.

Now comes the next test: which boat to ride? There are three pontoon

boats, each captained by one guide. Ed Hasse, safe and steady, was

the senior guide, making his 130th trip the length of the river. Next

in seniority was Jerry Cox, the singing cowboy and trained geologist,

who had run it 97 times. As skilled as they are, that morning I pick

Eric Christiansen. He has run the river "only" 40 times but

he is also the zaniest of the three guides — and I know his jokes

will steady me as we go over Lava.

Next decision: where in the boat to paddle? In the stern rides the

guide, who wields a long paddle to steer the boat with one paddler

sitting on each side of him. I rode stern my first day with Jerry,

but quickly found out I was too big and got in Jerry’s way, knocking

him down once as we plowed over a rapid. I didn’t want to do that

again, especially on Lava day.

The middle was the safest spot, but it was also cramped with supplies

clamped to lines all around the paddler. I never rode middle.

I choose the bow, the stroke position on the right where I could set

the pace and use my size and conditioning to the fullest. The guides

preferred having the biggest paddlers in front to weigh down the bow

so it won’t fold back onto the raft when we hit a huge wave —

and Lava would have the biggest waves of all.

So I leaped at the chance to stroke Eric’s boat for Lava; besides,

no one else seemed to want any part of it. On my left I saw little

Matt, a trainee guide, strapping in. I worried if he could stay in

the boat as we bounced over Lava. I didn’t like the idea of having

to pull him out of the infamous "hole" should we fall over

the ledge. And I worried that he was too small to pull me out.

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How To Paddle Through Rapids

Now a word about how to paddle a pontoon boat through

Colorado River rapids. These are not the brief spurts of excitement

that pass for rapids on local rivers in the Poconos or Catskills.

Colorado rapids are rated on a 1 to 10 scale. Most of the named rapids

are in the 7 to 9 range, like Specter or Granite or Separation or

so many others. Anything above a 10 is rated too dangerous to run,

according to NPS rules — and Lava was rated a 10 or 10+ at all

river levels.

Colorado rapids constantly change and new ones are created — after

a thunderstorm sweeps a washout or "debris flow" down a side

canyon at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. Old rapids sprawl downriver

after house-sized boulders wash into the river channel or they can

fade as the river’s powerful erosive forces push boulders into the

familiar "V formation" seen in overhead photos.

As Jerry explained paddling to me on Day One — sometimes with

impatience, since I didn’t seem to get it at first — the only

safe way for a raft to take a big rapid is for each paddler, especially

the stroke, to "lean out over the side of the boat as far as you

can, dig your paddle into that wall of water, and pull as hard as

you can."

Now, that’s entirely counter-intuitive. When you see and hear that

wall of water rising above you, every fiber of your being screams

"duck!" into the interior of the boat for safety — and

your every fiber would be wrong. Only by leaning out and plunging

your paddle into that wall of water — which can hit all sides

at the same time — can you steer the boat and prevent it from

flipping or "sandwiching" onto itself.

But the only thing keeping you attached to the boat when you "lean

out" is a foothold sewn to the rubber "deck" of the raft

that seemed made for size 9 feet. My size 14s did not fit. For me

it was more a "toehold" than a "foothold."

Top Of Page
Going over Lava

On Lava morning, we paddle silently into the main channel

of the river, before Eric tells us to stop. "Now listen to that!"

he grinned — and he didn’t have to say what "that" was.

As we floated forward, gaining speed each second, we heard Lava long

before we reached it. It was the roar of 18-wheeler trucks racing

down the New Jersey Turnpike toward us. The volcano of sound told

us that Lava had well earned its reputation as the nastiest of rapids

on the entire river.

A decade ago, one of the motor powered pontoon boats — 37-foot

long monsters with tourists sitting in straight-ahead chairs like

they’re in a movie theater that have largely replaced paddled pontoons

— had been sucked over Lava’s "ledge" and into the infamous

"hole" at the bottom, where water from two sides crashed into

the swirl generated by the tons of water spilling from behind, and

pushing anything unlucky enough to land inside of it down toward the

recently-discovered underwater caverns that make it so deadly.

No one drowned that day, but several died from hypothermia; they were

left in the calm eddy at the end of Lava Falls for too long, about

40 or 50 minutes. It’s sobering to think that 50-degree water can

kill you on a 100-degree day just like the freezing waters of the

North Atlantic in the dead of an Arctic winter.

Eric ordered us to pull our boat to the left shore, leading all the

boats to tie up alongside us. We climbed over a hill of rocks to have

a long look at what Lava was doing that day — before we made wet

guinea pigs of ourselves. Standing 100 feet above Lava, we stared

down at the "ledge" and the dark "hole" beneath it

— as beautiful as they were frightening.

After Eric and the guides conferred, he explained that we would try

to hug the left bank where we had a narrow passage to make it over

the first and steepest drop. Go too far right and the power of the

river will take us over the "ledge" and into the "hole."

After that, we turn a hard right to avoid an enormous submerged boulder,

before we straighten out and enter the middle channel — where

we will get hit by water from three sides as we shoot over more humps

of crashing water. Overall, we drop 41 feet in 50 yards or so of water

propelled at an estimated 19,000 cfs that day over rocks bigger than

SUVs.

Sporting his customary grin, Eric announced that "We have the

honor of going first!" I expected that. We cheer feebly at the

news. We return to our boats, double check the fit of our life jackets,

dig our feet — or in my case toes — into the deck straps,

and head out, with mouths dry and adrenaline at record highs.

As we paddle out, the river ahead seems to fall off a table; it just

ends in a mid-air line of green water and blue sky. We draw rapidly

closer to the edge, and the roar of water becomes too loud for me

to hear Eric’s commands. I remind Paine sitting behind me to shout

out whatever Eric orders "because I can’t hear a damn word he’s

saying!" Paine nods and pats me on the shoulder.

The next instant I hear Paine shout "Pull hard, turn left!"

and I pull as hard as I can, leaning out so far that I see green water

beneath me, held on by the toes of my right foot which at that moment

could have gripped a tightrope. Now the river has us. As we pick up

speed, I hope we have stayed far enough to the left — a mere two-boats

width — to avoid being sucked over the ledge and into the hole.

Eric does it right, I sigh, as I see us plunge past the ledge and

over the first of Lava’s falls, while the little boat starts to buck

and tilt forward at steepening angles. And then the first of several

walls of water rise up above us before crashing down, this one looming

so high that it blocks out the sky. Now I hear Paine scream at me

"pull hard, all you’ve got!" repeating Eric’s shouts that

I cannot hear. I lean out again and dig my pathetic little paddle

into each mountain of white and green water micro-seconds before it

washes over us.

I look to my left to see how Matt is doing. At that instant he is

lifted into the air. He is "air borne" and I find myself laughing.

He looks like a Road Runner cartoon, spinning legs in thin air —

and still he digs his paddle into the water, with nothing beneath

him but white green water and the boat seemingly far below. In a split

second, Matt is thrown hard against the rubber gunwale, but keeps

paddling, not missing a stroke.

It goes like that for what seemed to be several minutes

of thunder and fury, as we bounce over and around the rocks and water

until — suddenly it is over. We have made it. For a second it

is even quiet, before we start to whoop and holler, and do a ritual

"high five" with our outstretched paddles.

The next moment Eric has instructed us to pull over to watch our comrades

make the same run, ever ready to dash back into the current in case

any boat flips or anyone has to "swim the rapid" after being

thrown out. Back at mile 137 I had volunteered to swim one rapid,

Doris — rated a mere 6 or 7 on the 10 scale — to lose my fear

of being tossed overboard, but it had the opposite effect.

But on Day Eight no one has to swim Lava. Every boat makes it through

— even the two oar-powered supply boats, each one skippered by

a 20-something trainee guide woman — braved Lava without so much

as spilling the "honeypot."

Now this is one happy crew, the Princeton 9 and everyone else we had

joined at Bright Angel trail — including a mother-daughter pair

from Florida, a doctor and his wife from California, a teacher from

Oregon, and two friends from Buffalo who met in a bar. As one, we

climb a steep rock wall for lunch in the shadow of an overhanging

rock, to stare back at Lava while scarfing down sandwiches — and

giggling in our triumph.

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The rescue

But the excitement is far from over. Behind us on the

river is a "private party," not a professionally led set of

boats like our AZRA expedition. We saw them getting ready for Lava,

donning crash helmets and full-body wet suits (we had neither). And

they need them. The first boat does exactly what Eric said it must

not do: it pulls into the main current as if to scout the ledge, and

then finds it impossible to pull back to the left — or to take

the safe passage on the right.

I drop my sandwich as I see the beautiful blue pontoon boat glide,

as if in slow motion, into the middle of the river, bringing it directly

over the ledge, where it pauses (no doubt due to some panicked "back-stroking")

— before it "turns vertical" and falls into the hole,

while several of us shout "they’re going over!"

Then nothing except white water spray and the roar of the rapids for

a few eternally long seconds, until we see the boat emerge, like a

bar of slippery soap flipped away from wet fingers — but with

no one in it.

And right behind them, "like they’re playing follow the leader!"

I hear Jerry say in disgust, comes the next pontoon boat, but this

boat is even less lucky — it flips as it goes over the ledge,

spilling everyone and everything into the hole.

Only the third boat, shepherded by a kayaker, makes it past the ledge

without flipping by turning sharply left to avoid the ledge —

exactly as we had done — before hitting the main rapids below

the first of the falls, and shooting past the remaining rocks.

A moment later we see the first boat flashing past us, one oar missing,

an oar lock bent skyward — with a screaming woman hanging on board.

Before I can exhale, Jerry has jumped down the side of the cliff into

one of our oar boats. I shout after him "do you want some help?"

and he shakes his head no, but Ed was there too and he falls into

Jerry’s boat with him. I shiver at the thought of the dead bodies

in their life jackets picked out of the river at this spot some years

ago.

But with a burst of Hulk-like strength Jerry crosses the river and

cuts off the oar boat, helped by the kayaker who pushes it toward

the opposite bank and into the eddy of calm water. Soon they are pulling

people from the river. Two wet and grinning boys shout to us from

the far bank. We cannot hear them over the river’s roar but we know

they are safe — thanks to swift action by Jerry and Ed, and the

anonymous kayaker.

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What to make of it?

So that was Day Eight and Lava Falls. And much the same,

but not so dramatic, could be said of the other eight days and 64

rapids — with funny names like Pipe Springs, Horn Creek, Salt

Creek, and Hermit on Day One. And Boucher, Crystal, Tuna Creek, Agate,

Sapphire, Turquoise, Ruby, Serpentine, Bass, Walterberg, Rancid Tuna,

Blacktail, Deubendorff, Makatamba, Upset, Havasu, and Separation,

to name a few from the other days, followed by the famous — or

infamous — Lava Falls Rapid before we must leave the river, and

head back to Princeton.

What did this experience mean for our gaggle of graying Princeton

alumni and business leaders? What did they take from a wild river

ride at the base of the deepest and longest canyon on the face of

the earth — a mile deep and enclosed by the oldest exposed rock

on the planet, the black Vishnu schist, over 1.4 billion years old

— with an occasional rattle snake to liven the campsite, plus

scorpions, and ruins of so many who had tried and failed to run the

river, or to have stayed and made a living from it?

The night before Lava, we stayed up late, drinking warm wine and trying

to answer that question. For the mother from Florida, it meant reconnecting

with a daughter after her fight with cancer. For the special ed teacher,

it meant something spiritual that she could not articulate.

For me it was a test of growth. I needed to be tested as part of a

team, and to uphold the values of a team — although I barely knew

my team members — even if it meant "leaning out" over

the wild river, and digging my paddle into whatever mountain of water

was coming over me, and no matter how scared I felt, and no matter

how loud was the inner voice telling me to duck for cover.

And there was more.

Again like Billy Crystal, I wanted my smile back — like the new

smile that I beamed to my wife the morning of my return after an aching

"red eye" flight from Phoenix, and the smiles that she and

my 12-year-old son gave to me in return when I bounded, dirty and

bearded, through the front door at 8 a.m., two days after Lava, the

memory and lessons of which I hope to keep with me always.

If you go: Check with the Arizona Rafting website, www.azraft.com

for information on rates for guided adventures, which range in cost

from $500 to $3,000, and advice on what to bring (cap holders and

insect bite salve) and how to prepare. The nine-day trip described

here costs $2,149. Other Grand Canyon trips, including motor trips

suitable for nonathletes, are offered from $1,440 to $2,925. San Juan

kayaking trips, suitable for families with children and retreat groups,

start at $513.

The website sometimes lists trips that are in need of a certain number

of people to fill out a boat. Thus people can overnight become a member

of a team consisting of people they previously never knew and may

never see again. "The only thing like it," says Potter, "is

the military."


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