Above Lava (Adventures in Rafting)

Posted by Sara Porterfield on Jan 22nd 2019

This year we're proud to feature stories from the trail (and the river!) from TrailFork ambassadors and adventure aficionados. Our first adventure writer for 2019 is Sara Porterfield. Sara is a historian, river guide, educator, author, and founder of Tributaries Consulting whose work focuses on the Colorado River Basin and water in the American West. She holds a PhD in History from the University of Colorado Boulder, and her goal is to bring fresh, innovative perspectives to present and future challenges facing the West. She writes about water, outdoor recreation, and the history of the Western landscape, and when not working you can find her running rivers, drinking coffee, trail running, eating chocolate, and trying (unsuccessfully) to tire out her Border Collie mix, Japhy Ryder.

The rapid was even worse than I had heard. From my vantage on the shore of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, the river disappeared over a lip crashing into fuming whitewater that looked impossible to run. I couldn’t see a path through the maelstrom, no way to navigate the rocks, waves, and recirculating “holes” that could swallow my eighteen-foot boat whole. The stories about Lava Falls, the biggest runnable whitewater in the United States, had scared me, but nothing prepared me for seeing it in person.

Just as I was about to get in my boat and push off from the riverbank, resigning myself to whatever fate awaited me in the maw of the rapid, I woke up. It was two o’clock in the morning and I was safe in my bed in Colorado, still buzzing from the adrenaline it takes to run a big rapid whether real or imagined. I wasn’t physically above Lava Falls; I had only dreamed myself there, my mind racing ahead the ten months between now and when I would, actually, be preparing to run Lava this coming September. Whitewater boaters on the Colorado River, the river that drains most of the interior American West, have a saying that “you’re always above Lava.” It doesn’t matter if you’ve never run the Grand Canyon or if you’ve just successfully navigated Lava’s maze of whitewater—it’s always waiting for you.

At this moment, I’m feeling the proximity of Lava more acutely than usual. I’ve been “above Lava” since I first heard of the monstrous rapid in the depths of the Grand Canyon more than a decade and a half ago. I’ve worked as a raft guide on the rivers of the Colorado Basin—the Green, the Yampa, the Colorado itself—since 2005, though I haven’t yet had the chance to run the Canyon. But that’s changing this year. A good friend invited me to join his trip this fall, and on September 23rd I’ll be hiking down to Phantom Ranch from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to hop in a boat just in time to row the biggest rapids of the trip: Horn Creek, Granite, Crystal, and, of course, Lava.

photo cred

Not only will this trip be the culmination of years of waiting for the penultimate trip available to a river runner, but it will also bring me in contact with a place I’ve spent the majority of the past decade studying. As a raft guide, I wanted to know more about the rivers I floated: why I and others decided to pilot rubber boats through whitewater, why some parts of the river were part of protected areas like national parks and some had been inundated by the construction of a dam, what kind of relationships tied Colorado to other rivers, both domestic and foreign. In 2010 I entered a PhD program in History to start to answer these questions, beginning a journey that took me into the complicated legal, political, engineering, and recreational history of the river that I knew so well from behind a pair of oars.

Most of my research focuses on sections of the river where I’ve spent a significant amount of time and I can readily conjure the feeling of sitting at the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers, for example, where the Bureau of Reclamation nearly built a dam in the 1950s. But the final (and longest) chapter of my dissertation centers on the Grand Canyon and the growth in popularity of whitewater rafting there in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as its subsequent expansion to rivers around the world. As a result, on one level I know the Canyon—very well. I’ve read about the river runners who pioneered new kinds of water craft, from Georgie White’s massive G-rigs to Martin Litton’s delicate wooden dories. I’ve ventured up hidden canyons, swum the length of the Canyon, flipped a boat in Crystal, mastered the perfect run through Lava, and felt the peace of a golden sunset on a quiet desert river through the stories and writings left by river runners who have gone before me.

But while I can recite facts and figures about who ran the Canyon when and in what kind of boat and based on my other river running experiences I can guess at what it feels like to scout Lava Falls or wander up a narrow side canyon, I’m still “above Lava” for the first time. Running the Canyon this fall will push my boating skills to the limit, but it will also make the stories and histories I know come alive, giving the place I’ve traveled countless times in my mind an even greater depth and meaning and a solid physical form to the mental picture I’ve drawn. It will be the culmination of eight years of graduate work and fourteen years of river running and it will the realization of a long-held dream—and at the end, I’ll be back above Lava again.