Rafting in the Wake of the Grand Canyon’s Wildcat

Riding the rapids to Lava Falls, the most fearsome rapids on the 227-mile Grand Canyon
run. Photo by unnamed fellow passenger

In honor of the 100-year anniversary of the Grand Canyon National Park, Linda Ballou takes on the Colorado River’s Lava Falls with gratitude to rafting pioneer, Georgie White.

Georgie White’s life was changed forever when a hit-and-run-driver took her teenage daughter’s life while they were bicycling on the Pacific Coast Highway. She began to wander solo on the walls of the Grand Canyon on narrow tracks where a slip could mean sudden death.

Having to heed each step, keeping a sharp eye out for rattlers and sleeping under the stars with all manner of wildlife kept her mind riveted upon survival and away from the bottomless sadness that consumed her. After two years of the grueling distraction from her sorrow, she found solace in the canyon, whose only constant—change—satisfied her soul. She came to love the canyon so much she wanted to make it safe for others to know its wonders.

When White ran Lava Falls prior to the installation of the dam in Glen Canyon in 1964, the volume of water was often five times what we experience today. Upsets were the norm and many rafters had the swim of their life. In the 1940s, she not only rafted the entire run through the canyon solo twenty times, she actually swam (wearing a life vest) through more than 100 rapids on the run.

The “Woman of the River,” as she liked to call herself, admitted that the rapids were her first love, but the peace she felt in the Grand Canyon when she rafted the entire 280 miles in 21 days without seeing another person, called her back over and over again. The continuum of nature counter-balanced her life of selling real estate in Los Angeles in the winters.

White was the first to strap three war-surplus rafts together to create a craft buoyant enough to handle everything the river had to offer. It allowed anyone with a spirit of adventure to take this journey with her through deep time. The 37-foot raft with pontoons on each side used by Grand Canyon Expeditions, the company I floated the river with, is steered by a guide at the motor arm of an outboard. It’s called a G-rig named for Georgie.

When I climbed aboard our raft at Lee’s Ferry with 12 other passengers, the river was aquamarine. When White ran the river before the installation of the dam, the river ran red from sediments and warmed to 70 degrees in the summer. Today, the water released from the bottom of the dam is a chilly 55 degrees requiring travelers to wear rain suits that White would have found silly.

Days on the river collided into one another. We chatted in the cool mornings over coffee while the sun peeked over the rim and illuminated the canyon walls that protected us from outside news. In sync with the natural rhythms of the canyon, we woke at first light and were in bed when the sun dipped behind the rim after a full day of rafting and hiking. I slept under blinking stars with a light warm breeze on my cheek and no mosquitoes to ruin the spell.  I imagined I was “Georgie” enjoying splendid solitude in nature as I slipped into dreamland under star-speckled skies.

I envied her time alone here. Her words rang in my ears: “Once you enter the world of that canyon on the Colorado River you are alone. I mean, completely alone.”

I did have a few moments to myself at Stone Canyon where a bubbling flow tumbles over the rim of a red rock framed in maidenhair ferns and green mosses. My skin was dry from the alkaline-rich waters of the Little Colorado where we had giggled down a water slide earlier that day. I tore off my clothes and stood under the tingling spray that made me think about the power of water. The element that in six million years sculpted this canyon a mile below the rim of the Colorado Plateau, unearthing basement rock that is 1.7 billion years old, is the same element that gives life to us all.

Back on the river, we were stirred from a sleepy glide when Captain Adam’s voice boomed over the roar of the monster wave spilling into a 20-foot- hole dead ahead. “Wake up people! Find your ass and sit on it!”

Lava Falls, the most fearsome rapids on the 227-mile Grand Canyon run, was coming up fast. I bolted from my daydreaming position on the warm pontoon. While drifting between walls of black porous rock once inside the cone of a volcano, I’d sunk into river time. I’d forgotten about notorious Lava Falls and that I was holding a one-way ticket home!

Shaking in my rubber boots, I was anxious and worried about getting washed off the raft, or worse, that our boat would flip. I saw water spitting from the churning brew as we headed for it. I held onto the straps for all I was worth and prayed not to join the legions that hadn’t made it through. A thrashing bull ride later, it was over, leaving us clapping and laughing hysterically as we rocked and rolled through the rest of the wave train.

White was direct and honest about her opinions. After reading Georgie White (Clark): The Woman of the River, I have nothing but admiration for a woman who was able to process the death of her daughter in the nurturing solitude of nature. Not only did she prevail against the powerful currents of the river, learning the ways of the water by literally immersing herself in the river for a 60-mile swim—twice!—she held her own against the chauvinistic attitudes that prevailed in the ’50s and ’60s and carved the way for others to know the river and its mysteries.

I am grateful to Georgie for making it possible for less capable or courageous mortals like me, to raft in her wake and know the wonders of the Grandest Canyon of all. n

Grand Canyon Expeditions:  https://www.gcex.

Georgie White’s The Woman of the River is available on Amazon.

 

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