Friday, August 19, 2011

Running Lava Falls in the Historic Cataract Boat "Sandra"

The water that is released from the Glen Canyon Dam is ice cold.  The temperature hovers around 48 degrees.  Even on the hottest day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon getting splashed by it will take your breath away.  It’s so cold that it’s been known to cause hypothermia, heart attacks and even death.

The day we approached Lava Falls rapid it was hot.  As we rounded the corner I could hear the roar of the falls.  It sounded like a locomotive headed at us.  We headed to the scouting point on the left bank.  The guides and passengers scrambled up the rocks for a better view.  A plan was devised.  We would plan to enter left, but not too far left as rocks and a hole lurked.  The real concern, however, was the massive ledge hole in the middle of the run.  If your boat or raft enters this hole no good will come of it.  Simply flipping your boat and sending you on a swim in the icy waters are the least of your worries.  A phenomenon known as “window shading” can occur.  A boat can be turned sideways and then be repeatedly flipped over and over again as the hydraulics of the water can rip and shred the rubber from the frame.  

Did I mention we would be riding down in a fully restored 15 ft. wooden cataract boat?  The “Sandra” built in 1947 by Norm Nevills would be piloted by Greg Reiff, grandson of the pioneer boat builder.  The “Sandra” is 5 ft. wide at its stern and has been restored to its original condition.  

So, we climbed into the boat.  Greg Paulin was in the fisheye position in the front of the boat.  Greg Reiff was piloting in the middle and I would be in the queen seat leaning into the waves to help balance the boat and bailing water as needed.  As we pulled away from shore Greg Reiff turned to me and we shared a joke and a smile. Then, he pivoted around, sat down, and began to row.  We headed into what seemed like the eye of a hurricane.  The water was big.  The river is running at 24,000 CFS [cubic feet per second].  Greg maneuvered the “Sandra” and hit his line perfectly.  We ran between the two holes.  The boat was hit from the left by a large wave, we pushed through.  Then, the second wave hit, also, from the left.  The “Sandra” met it head on and strained past it.  Greg Reiff worked to pivot the boat in the direction of the third wave.  This, the biggest of the 3 waves would come from the right.  We leaned and the “Sandra” never flinched.  

We came through Lava safely.  We were excited, relieved and even a bit giddy.  Greg pulled the boat into an eddy on the left side so we could bail and check the progress of our fellow boatsmen.  It was at this point I noticed I was knee deep in water and completely soaked from head to toe.  They say the water of the Colorado is frigid.  It can take your breath away.  Mmmm…I hadn’t noticed.

-- Jenny Crownhart, Flagstaff, Arizona

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