We’re running out of big rapids. We run Upset (well, some people do. Thankfully there is a walk around.) and then it is comparatively smooth until Lava Falls. But before Lava, we have the most beautiful part of the canyon to experience- Havasu Falls. Havasu is so perfect it doesn’t look real. It reminds me of the waterfalls we saw outside of some of the hotels in Vegas- each rock is perfectly placed and the milky blue water spills between them like someone has engineered the whole thing. It’s real though. The side canyon is cool and quiet and we walk a long way before we have to turn around. Jerami and I promise ourselves we will come back one day, hike back from the top of the canyon and down, and explore properly.
Then we have an easy, flat water day between Upset and Lava. We hike twice- at National Canyon and again at Cove. Both are side canyons with waterfalls, but they are polar opposites. National is smooth, polished stone, winding up into a slot canyon. Cove is a scramble- up over massive boulders to a flat, shady canyon dead ending in a fern lined waterfall. Both are beautiful, but they are both so different.
Then it’s the day that’s loomed large in our minds the entire trip. Lava Falls! We reach Lava early in the morning and everyone scouts. Some of us have already made up our minds to walk around and take pictures of the rafts going through. Some look at the rapid and decide to join us. It looks like there is no way through. Boulders block the left hand side, leading directly to the ledge hole- a massive hole that fills half of the river. If you dodge the ledge hole on the right side, a line of smaller, but still gigantic holes greets you. Below that, the current pushes you towards a rock, but if you pull left, an enormous breaking wave blocks the path. It looks like there is no way through the rapid without flipping a raft.
Another group on the river goes first. They choose to sneak the rapid- threading through the boulders to the left, avoiding all of the holes. There are a few dicey moments when it looks like they will bounce the wrong way off of a rock and fall into the ledge hole, but all make it through fine. Then it is our turn.
There is no sneaking for us. Tyndall’s boat runs first. I can barely watch. But he floats through the right hand line like there are no obstacles in his path. The holes do not even slow him down and the giant breaking wave is no problem. Everything is fine. The other boats follow him through with no mishaps.
Now the big rapids are over. There are still a few medium sized ones, including one we’ll have a problem with, but for the most part, they are over. I breathe a sigh of relief. Now we can relax a little more.
After Lava, it’s flat water until we reach Whitmore Wash, where we’ll lay over. We spend the flatwater basking in the sun, looking at the cooled lava flows on the bank. The dark rock shines in the sun, it’s menace diminished.
Whitmore wash is beautiful in the sun, and with a white sand beach, we could easily be beside the ocean in a tropical location. We spend our layover day hiking towards the rim, scrambling over boulders to get as high as we can. When we return to camp, it’s to find a swarm of bees in our staples box, trying to get to our honey bottle. They are persuaded to leave with the help of some long sticks to close the box, and some rubbing alcohol to make the honey less appealing. Of all the pests we were warned about in our orientations, bees were not mentioned once.
We burn another layover day at Parashant canyon, just a few miles down river. A weather system moves in soon after we set up camp. Thunder crashes in the evening, and flashes light up the inside of the tent. We’re not camped in a wash, but we’re very close to it. We half keep an ear open for rushing water, but no flash floods appear. In the morning, dark red water flows in the wash.
The weather clears before we leave camp and the sun shines as we head down to Pumpkin Springs. Pumpkin is cool- a spring has spilled over a rock lip and left deposits, and it looks exactly like a pumpkin. We hope the spring will be warm, but thankfully it is not- the water contains arsenic, and it would be much harder to resist.
We move further down the canyon, and then it is Killer Fangs Rapid. Two schist fangs wait at the bottom of the rapid, with all of the current pushing towards them. We scout, and then we ride the wave train down, pulling left, to easily miss the rocks. Mike’s boat is not so lucky. We watch it happen in almost slow motion- he’s too far right, and the waves won’t let him pull left. And then he hits. There’s a second when we’re afraid he’ll wrap, but the current pushes him right. And then he’s trapped between the shore and the fangs. Finally, he wiggles free, passing to the right of the rocks. We cheer, and move on down river.
There are a few more wave trains, and then we hit Gniess. It’s the last rapid in the canyon. The waters and silt of Lake Mead have drowned the others, turning once mighty rapids into ripples. I’m grateful we do not have to run them, but when we reach Separation rapid, I’m a little sad. Here was a rapid so terrifying that it caused three men to leave Powell’s expedition and hike out to their deaths. And now it is just a ripple.
We camp at Spencer Canyon, right above Lava Rapid, which used to be one of the worst in the canyon. Now it is another ripple, and a gravel bar once the water drops low enough.
From here on, since there are no more rapids, and the falling lake levels have left behind massive silt cliffs, making campsites unreachable, we’ll have problems if we want to camp. Instead we will tie the rafts together and night float to the Grand Wash cliffs. I wear all of my layers. Winter is definitely coming. The moon lights our way for the first few hours, and we watch the giant cliffs slowly drift past. I sleep fitfully until dawn. It’s light when we reach the Grand Wash Cliffs, which signal the end of the Grand Canyon.
The landscape changes almost immediately. The horizon opens up. For weeks, the only horizon line that we saw heralded an approaching rapid. Now, we can see so much blue sky. We pull up at Pearce Ferry, to derig our rafts and use our first flush toilet in 24 days.
There is one last rapid for us to see though. Below the take out, the river runs straight at a bedrock wall, creating a rapid we’ve heard is unrunnable. We hike down the bluff to see for ourselves. A furious maelstrom greets us. A keeper hole so massive it is practically a waterfall meets a gigantic boil, recirculating against the cliff on one end and into a cave on the other. Once I see this, I’m glad to say goodbye to the river and head back to Flagstaff.
The river doesn’t really leave us though. As we travel through the South West over the next few days, we’ll return to it over and over again, picking out tributaries on the map
and visiting when we’re close to them. We’ll see it’s wild middles near Arches National Park, and then it’s dam controlled tameness at Lake Havasu. We’ll miss the quiet of the canyon, and the lack of people. The biggest culture shock for us will not be the big cities and the stores, although those will be hard to adjust to. It will be standing at Horseshoe Bend, looking down at the river that we became so intimately connected to and sharing that view with hundreds of other people.
You can see more of our photos at http://www.tagadventure.com/albums/