“Piece of cake,” I think as I look out over Killer Fangs Falls, aptly named for two large rocks on the bottom right that stick up through the water…like fangs. The hard Vishnu Schist has been carved by the water for countless years, producing a rock that is fluted with sharp points and edges and that easily can flip or puncture a raft, either of which would mean hours of repair and possible injury.
The fangs seem to be easy to avoid, except for a pourover at the top of the rapid that splits the current and sends most of the water straight into the “Fangs.” As I continue to stare at the rapid and analyze the the water’s movement with my fellow boatmen, their trepidation gives me pause. The low water level has exposed the hidden fangs, so my previous runs and successes here mean nothing and I want to run it as quickly as possible.
I wait to watch our Trip Leader Brady run it first. He runs it neatly, pulling in close behind the pourover at the top and cutting over a lateral wave into the slack water on the left, pulling hard. He comes close to the Fangs but does not hit them as he catches the eddy just below. As I watch, I visualize my line and identify my markers.
Don’t overscout, I tell myself and I start the hike upriver to the small eddy where the rafts are tied. I put my guidebook away and double check my straps—“Rig to flip” is the Grand Canyon boatman’s daily motto since even rapids with numbers instead of names can flip a raft. I suppress my increasing nerves by reminding myself that I have run harder rapids and that we are nearly finished; only two small rapids after this and we will lash our boats together, cook dinner, and float out the last miles of flat water through Lake Mead to the take-out.
I untie my 18-foot cataraft, nervously coil my rope, and jump on. The raft quickly slips out of the eddy and I frantically back row to put some space between me and the raft ahead of me. As I look downriver, the rapid appears vastly different at river-level and my eyes search desperately until I find my markers. My entry will be crucial: too far left and I will drop over a pour over, too far right and the current will sweep me right into the Fangs. I watch the boat ahead of me enter the rapid and then take a few strokes to line up where I wanted to be.
I remind myself that I’m doing something I’ve done many times over the last 18 days (my third trip) and I think back on the multitude of rapids I ran cleanly. I have had an incredible trip so far, rowing 232 miles through “The Canyon” and even styling my personal nemesis rapid, Lava Falls (a class 9 of 10 on the Western Rivers Scale—the river that keeps me up at night before every Grand Canyon trip). I have improved my rowing skills dramatically on this trip and desperately want to “go out while I’m hot,” something I should easily be able to do on this class 6-7 rapid.
With no more time left to correct, I turn my boat around and row backwards, straight toward the giant hole. I clip the corner of the hole, exactly as I had intended, and keep pulling the boat as I hit the lateral wave below. I did it, I tell myself as I nail the entry and keep pulling. Then I look around and realize I am not where I want to be. Instead of being on the eddy line and far away from the Fangs, I am still in the current and quickly getting washed downstream—directly into the Fangs!
I dig deep into my drained energy reserves and PULL. I tell myself I can do this and I keep pulling with all of my strength, using my legs to push off the metal bar in front of me for more leverage. But as I pull the oar back toward me repeatedly, it comes to me too easily; it isn’t grabbing water! I am facing upriver and am getting pushed sideways over the crashing waves; as I crest their peaks, my oar grabs only air. I look downriver over my left shoulder and see the Fangs approaching quickly. Oh crap! I think, I did not plan for this.
I remember that Brady said if you do hit the fangs, put your oar up and try to ride it out around the pillow. But I am not ready to move to my “Plan B” yet and instead pull on the oars again, thinking I still have time to take a few more strokes and narrowly miss the fangs.
As I pull the oars toward me, I am still not getting much traction in the water and look up to see the Fangs—just a few feet away now. For one second, I think They look so much bigger from down here. But I will not go down without a fight!
Then suddenly Fangs are upon me and I watch as the rocks snap my left oar in half, like a toothpick. The boat slams into the rocks and I hold on to the right oar, bracing myself for the flip I am certain is in my future. As the boat rebounds off the rocks, I feel myself being thrown forward violently, my knee breaking my fall on the metal bar in front of me. I scramble to pull myself back onto my seat and take another stroke with my good oar. Slowly, the boat seems to hoover for a percarious second as the realization dawns on me that I am not going to flip. Then the boat slips quietly around the Fangs and into the calm water below. The boat is upright and I am still in it!
The danger is over, but I am not finished. I still have to get into an eddy to change out my oar before the next rapid and my knee is screaming in pain. I pull the good oar but just go in a circle, in and out of the eddy and unable to stabilize the boat. Finally, another raft pushes me into an eddy where I can tie up to a rock and hurry to change my oar.
I look up to watch everyone else’s runs and hope for no more carnage, when I see Johnny dropping over the huge pour over at the top—sideways. Miraculously, he is still in his boat and jumps up to take one pull stroke before he glides into the left eddy and throws his fist into the air in victory. From there, he is able to watch the other rafts come down and then drift back into the current, slowly passing by the vicious Fangs that had claimed my oar and nearly claimed a second raft after me.
I try to ignore the throbbing pain in my knee, hoping it’s not broken, and refocus on the last rapids as I row out of the eddy. Johnny waits to see if I am okay as everyone else heads downstream toward our final two rapids and 40 miles of flat water. After I tell him what happened, he just looks at me, grins, and repeats a line I have already heard a few times this trip: “You should’ve gone left.”
A huge THANKS to my friends at Moenkopi Riverworks for an amazing trip. This time they not only outfitted our trip (rafts, safety gear, food pack, and “groovers”) but I even got to go down the river WITH them! They are top-notch and I would recommend Brady, Marilyn & the crew for any Canyon trip in a second. http://www.moenkopriverworks.com
If you think you want to explore the Grand Canyon by river, apply for the permit lottery! Annual lotteries are held every February for the following year. Although the 2013 lottery has ended, often permits are not claimed and put back up for grabs so you have better odds at a cancellation lottery. Create a profile and you will receive email notifications of future cancellation lotteries. If you win, I’ll even help you plan your trip. https://npspermits.us/grandcanyon/river/login.cfm