Now, on the matter of my death in the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, specifically after an alarming swim in Lava Falls—universally considered the canyon’s nastiest and most difficult rapid—I confess that I miscalculated badly. I miscalculated previous to the run and then again in the aftermath of the excitement to come.
I had been thrown out of the raft at the top of the rapid, ambushed by some bit of rogue hydraulics, and recall attempting to swim against forces entirely beyond human control. I was using reserves of energy that, as it turned out, could have been better used later. Best really to just go with the flow. But the river seemed to yank me directly down as if by the feet, and I was looking up through about 15 feet of water at what appeared to be a perfectly still round pool, colored robin’s egg blue by the cloudless Arizona sky.
For a single moment everything seemed calm. I checked: my life preserver was securely strapped, good, and I was rising toward the surface, good, and there’d be a breath soon, thank God. I was low on air.
But as I rose, the calm water in the pool above began to stretch out in an elongated oval that I could see falling apart on the downriver side. And then I was tumbling unpleasantly in a lot of broken water downstream. A breath on the surface was out of the question. This seemed unfair.
Ahead and to the sides, the water looked like slowly moving shards of clear glass (I had a moment to think: This is like slow-motion movie violence, scary but sometimes oddly beautiful) and that was when I felt myself seem to fall, as off a cliff. And—yes, finally—I caught a sudden breath of air before the river grabbed me again and slapped me sideways and pushed me deep under a second time. Things were happening faster now. The shard-like glass was erupting in real time, like an explosion in a mirror factory. Unwisely, I continued to fight it.
Our group had scouted Lava from a hill on the north side of the rapid. We were a private party, five 18-foot inflatable rafts, half a dozen kayaks, and 16 people. Harry Butler had organized the trip with a bunch of his kayaking pals. Harry is the younger brother of a guy I hung around with a bit in high school. I didn’t know any of the others, but I did know that they were all experienced river folk and that all of them had some connection to the state of Wisconsin, where I grew up.
It was a winter trip, launching in late November 2014. There were no commercial trips at that time of year, and damn few private parties wanted to brave the cold. We had the river pretty much to ourselves. Wisconsinites will go for isolation and cold every time. These are people who are said to enjoy fishing in holes cut through the ice of a frozen lake.
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