Nature Is Never Closed: Kyla Yennie
I wake up and the only thing between me and the ground is my paco pad and a cotton sheet. The wind from last night was blasting me with sand and it has permeated my pillowcase, hair and skin. This is life now. I open my eyes and a sense of awe and relief overcomes me, I'm still here. It is day 19 of our 24 day rafting trip through the heart of the Grand Canyon. The first bit of sunlight touches the top of the canyon walls. The familiar roar of the river tempts me to close my eyes again and I think to myself how lucky I am to be here. I also have a moment of sadness when I remember I have less than a week left in this place with these people. Before I can decide to wake up, be happy or sad, I hear the morning coffee call. Today it's more like "Goood morrnningg people, it's LAVA DAY!"
My stomach is in knots. Why did I agree to row Lava?? Am I crazy?! This is one of the most notorious rapids in the country and for some reason I thought I could do it. I have never rowed anything higher than a Class III before this trip.
We eat our breakfast like it's any other morning, discuss our plans and assemble our costumes. The day goes by quickly. We row through ten miles of flat water where all I can do is anticipate this rapid. I read the description in the book over and over, I try to remember the scout from last year, I ask the Grand Canyon veteran how many flips he has seen in Lava, none....Well I could always be the first right?
We finally arrive at Vulcan's Anvil, an enormous 400,000 year old chunk of black lava rock protruding out of the center of the river welcoming us to the biggest rapid of the trip. River lore says it is bad luck to touch, so we stay far away. Then we hear the familiar roar of whitewater echoing off the canyon walls but this time it is an ominous roar, louder and scarier, daring us to continue. We decide to stop for lunch on the opposite side of the river from the scout, right before the rapid. Everyone is chatty and in good spirits, yet I am silent. This rapid is on my mind. Lunch? Hell no, I can't eat. To my relief, we are able to watch an entire commercial group go through the rapid. I watch them successfully make their way through the rapid taking the same line I had imagined for myself. Maybe I can read water. I dodge prickly pear cactus and cryptobiotic soil as I return to our lunch spot. It's a beautiful day and I'm going to run Lava! Must be the beer talking as I crack open another river chilled beverage.
Me and my two boatmates start rigging things in, strapping up loose ends, removing the drag bags, everything we can do to rig to flip. The reasoning behind rig to flip is not lost on me, I could flip this entire raft carrying a bimini, inflatable couch, 100 + beers, all sorts of equipment and two passengers....but I don't think like that now. "Breathe in, breathe out, manifest positivity" I say to myself as I imagine the line I want in my head. The heat is distracting so I stand in the water and feel instant relief from the hot desert sun. I listen to my friends discuss this and that and I appreciate each and every one of them for making this trip happen.
People are talking logistics and we decide to run Lava in two “pods”. We have 6 fully rigged rafts, two kayakers and a paddle raft. A handful of people are going to hike up after the first pod completes the rapid so they can run Lava for the second time. I’m happy with one successful run. I chime in and secure myself a spot in the first pod. I crack open another beer to ease my nerves once more. The boys are joking around, there is talk of them running the rapid naked. "’What can the bimini boys do to help?" I laugh at my friend and his constant need to keep things light and funny and I am thankful for the distraction. Meanwhile the more confident and less stomach sensitive of the group finish up their lunch and it is finally time to cross the river and scout from the other side. "Don't miss the scout" someone jokes and my stomach is in knots again. Imagine missing the scout...ugh.
I row across the river to the safety of the scout and quickly hike up the lava rock strewn path to view the rapid. We all discuss different scenarios amongst each other, where we want to be and where we don't want to be. I think back to the river book where it says "a good run in Lava only takes 20 seconds", less than a minute of my life. I am confident that I have chosen the correct line and do not waver. I make my way down to the boat for the final time before launching. As with most big groups of people, it takes us a while to do anything so I prepare myself to wait. There is no turning back now as the rest of the first pod returns to their boats. We are all quiet, a combination of anticipation and nerves fills our bodies and minds. Yet even right now I wonder how I can stretch these moments because I know we are in the last leg of our trip, and the thought of leaving the canyon brings tears to my eyes. Just as I expected, it seems like a lifetime as we wait for everyone to finish strapping last minute loose ends, double checking this and that; you can never be too careful. Safety third.
Finally, with fists in the air, the captains are ready. I let out a yell because it feels right. My adrenaline is rising and sometimes yelling is all I can do. My boat finally pushes off, the smooth glossy water gives no indication that the biggest rapid of the trip is only about 100 yards downstream. The drop in the river makes it impossible to see the whitewater until you are in the rapid, so all I see is the river's horizon and the occasional splash of whitewater below. I am rowing an 18 foot raft with an inflatable couch attached to the back and on that couch are my two boatmates who are completely naked besides their PFD’s. I insisted before we took off that they give any advice they feel fit while I am rowing them through this rapid. Imagine encouraging someone to be a backseat driver. They offer me advice as I enter the rapid, "stay right", "get your angle", "keep your momentum".
I remember the commercial crew and their boats angles as I enter the rapid, I do everything in my power to keep my boat pointed left. Then we're in it, crashing through the side of the ledge hole, I hit the first bit of whitewater. The water is moving fast, I straighten out and I hear the yell from behind me "WE'RE IN IT!" I let out a scream as I crash into the first large wave. The current rips my right oar from me and I remember past advice from more experienced boaters to let it go and focus on my left oar. The boys behind me are yelling something but I can't hear, perhaps it was "tee it up". I stand up and grab my right oar again and straighten out the boat just in time to crush through the next wave. I know the worst is over and the adrenaline is rushing through me as I spot "cheese grater rock", a sharp rock at the bottom of the rapid that has current pushing against it and is known to tear apart boats. Here we go. We are rushing right towards the rock and the boys are yelling something , "I know what i'm doing" I say...do I? I pull back hard with my right oar and crank forward with my left and like magic I spin around the rock into the eddy. Holy shit, I just successfully ran Lava.