Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lava Lessons

I started worrying about Lava three years ago. That's when the Park Service reshuffled its Grand Canyon river permit system, and we were able to move our launch date from "someday maybe" to Summer 2011. A good time: my son would be graduating from Durango High School a month before we put on, and head off to college a month after we took off. A perfect rite of family passage for a family raised in large part on the river.

My son's first river trip was three days on the Dolores River. He had just turned a year old, and my wife, Sarah, and I crafted a system whereby we strapped one of those collapsible playpens atop a layer of gear. As we floated, Webb could sleep back there -- a tarp strapped across top of the playpen shaded him as he snoozed to the roll of the river -- and when he was awake, he'd stand in there, just his head and tiny hands reaching over the rim of the pen, babbling away earnestly if not intelligibly.

I remember how elated we were when we pulled into the takeout and realized our great child-rearing experiment had succeeded. Most fellow river runners we met there applauded and cheered our adventure. But not all. One couple waited for the accolades to pass to chastise us for exposing our toddler to the hazards of the river. Good thing for us, we thought, Social Services doesn't have a river patrol.

But we knew we were doing the right thing. A couple of years later, a daughter came along, fleshing out our fledgling litter of river rats.  We repeated the process, and have several times each year since, giving our kids, I believe, a long and storied childhood. Like a lot of young Durangoitas and Durangoitos.

Still … When I rowed my family up to scout Lava Falls Rapid on day 13 of our Grand Canyon Family Expedition this summer, a Fukushima-like anxiety burned in my gut. And that anxiety had the voice of that disparaging couple at that takeout 17-or-so years ago. Really? You're going to take your family through THAT?

Jeff, a veteran of the Grand Canyon, greeted me at the first scouting point. "Damn," he said leaning into me so I could hear him over the roar of 25,000 cfs of liquid going supernova. "After two weeks, 180 miles and sixty or so rapids, you think you're ready." He paused. "It lives up to the hype."

What to do?

What else to do? We strapped on our helmets, tightened our pfds, found and readied the rescue-rope bags, and reviewed our "Plan B": Hang on. Punch the waves. High side. Look for swimmers. And if I leave the boat, Webb take the oars.

Then we rowed out. I followed the boat in front of us until it did that crazy Grand Canyon thing: approaching a watery horizon line beyond which only whitewater fangs and the explosions of liquid shrapnel could be seen, the raft is suddenly sucked over the edge of the world. We see it again briefly, way downstream, airborne and perpendicular to the river, then it disappears again.

Then we're in.

And I'm immediately out. (Author's note: I did not fall out of the boat. I was WASHED out.) I rose to the surface a short distance away -- remarkably calm, I was surprised to find, considering this was the very real realization of my absolute second-to-worst-case scenario (behind only running my entire family through the rinse cycle) for the past 6 percent of my life. I floated behind the rower-less raft, following its radically parabolic course over the mountainous waves and into the yawning troughs.

Three quick strokes brought me to the side of the boat. I grasped a strap and yelled to my daughter. Crouching to punch the next deluge, she turned toward my voice, and two weeks' of river tan drained from her face. "Dad's in the water!" I lip-read her yelling.

Then something happened: My wife high sided. Webb jumped on the flailing, abandoned oars. Anna leaned over and used her full 95 pounds to hoist my bobbing butt back aboard. I got back on the oars. Our expedition continued.

Later that night, at the long-anticipated "Post-Lava Camp Costume Fest" (I sported a Star Trek uniform, boldly going where many have swum before), we toasted and boasted about our great skill and derring-do. At one point, I sidled up to Jeff. "Man," I exhaled, "it sure feels good to be below Lava."

He glanced at me with a smirk. "You're always above Lava."

Gawddamn backcountry Buddhists. But I knew what he meant, of course. I hope for more Grand Canyon voyages. And we'll face other river trips and their risks. But more than that, there's always some class IV or V stretch of life approaching, unseen, over the horizon line of our days.

Like just this week. A flash flood ripped through our family's life (as it does all our lives at some point). And while I, or we as a family, may not quite yet know what's to be done to navigate this challenge, I do know how I'm going to run it. And I am confident we can run it together.

Because we've done it before.

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