The strange thing about rapids when you’re on the river is that you hear them long before you see them. Some of them sound like you left the tap running, some sound like Niagara Falls. Obviously those are the ones to worry about.
It was day two, we were still green and we were running some of the biggest rapids of the trip. Our guide for the day was Whalen: The River Buddha. A calm, confident captain, storyteller, mischievous jester; He gave us a quick crash course: some basic commands and tips on how to paddle the raft in unison.
Whalens pre-rapid pep talk
I heard Granite Rapid in the distance, a faint rumble at first, but I knew it was a class 9 out of 10. I’ve never been on a 9, but as Whalen started lashing down everything in sight, I knew I was going to get wet. “Get a good foothold, don’t forget to paddle, we’re gonna go BIG.” He shouted
Granite was a deafening roar now, but I still could not see it. Then almost in slow motion, the Colorado River looked like it was about to fall off a cliff. Now coming into view was total whitewater chaos. Huge waves rising above whirlpools; it looked like the river was boiling.
As we paddled we picked up speed into the oncoming mayhem and I questioned how this was going to work without me getting catapulted into the water.
We hit Granite Rapid dead center. It felt like being in a washing machine, and not the delicate cycle. Whitewater rushed past both sides of the boat; it was hard to tell which way was up; we were flung out of the wash spun sideways. We started to approach a growing, angry standing wave, broadside. I was naive but still even I figured that wasn’t the best way to hit the rinse cycle. With a sense of urgency I hadn’t yet heard from Whalen, he yelled “LEFT BACK!”. In unison, we on the left side paddled a hard backstroke. The boat spun straight and we hammered through the huge wave straight up. A quick rinse through the turbulent water and we were safely through Granite.
We had it more together as we hit the next powerful rapid; Hermit. We hit it square and plowed powerfully through the tsunami wave. Then we discovered these these two were just an appetizer, because Crystal Rapid was coming up next; One of the biggest and more technical rapids we would run all trip.
Crystal Rapid looks mellow from this distance.
I knew Crystal was big when Whalen said, “you hear that?….Sounds like a 747,” and it did and it was still very far away.
I knew Crystal was big when we all got out to scout it before we ran it. When I saw it from an overlooking bluff I understood why it had the 1-10 rating of 10 +.
10 + ? That’s like a 110%.
Whalen started talking us through how we were going to run it. Pointing out the line through all the unseen dangers in a calm and reassuring Buddha sort of way. It still looked scary but I started to feel good.
Then I walked by Tommy, one of the other river guides, as he intensely briefed his paddle crew, circled around him listening to his every word; “It looks like you can go through on the left. You try that and the current pushes you off that wall into the middle” he pauses, and starts slowly spinning his arm in a circle, “and into a hidden hole there” he points to a vortex in the river. ” His arm spinning faster. “It will take a raft, flip it over and over until it decides to let you go”; his arm abruptly stops. His crew is completely silent, everyone looking at him, then at the river. Hidden by their sunglasses, you couldn’t see but you knew everyone’s eyes were really wide, as were mine. He was freaking me out, I headed back to the raft.
Crew looks ready
We quietly loaded up and pushed off. It wasn’t long before we were launched into the teeth of the rapid. It was hard to paddle the chaotic whitewater, sometimes missing altogether as the raft bucked. We dug in and avoided the hole, coming within feet of the cliff bank to hit our line for the rest of the run. We powered through whirlpools, waves that towered over the raft; it was like being power-washed. But we hit it perfectly and came through unscathed.
A celebratory Pabst post-Crystal Rapid.
Sometime early in the day I invented a call before we hit a rapid. Some other paddle boats shouted and whooped before they dived in. My call was a rather unique high-pitched double squeak; ” Eek Eek! ? Not sure where it came from, it was a little strange but it became the rally cry of the boat all trip.
Our confidence had grown as we went through the rest of The Gemstone Rapids. They were all good-sized and we had some fun with them. Whalen always hit them big, and we started to mix it up; some we’d go through standing up, and Whalen had us spin the raft in circles as we bounced down Bass Rapid.
Standing on the rail in Gem rapid.
As we pulled into camp we had paddled 28 miles and 22 rapids under the majestic walls of the Grand Canyon. Hard to believe; an insanely fun day. It was only the first full day on the river but if this was any indication of the rest of the trip, it was going to be something I will dream about for years.