Rowing Killer Fang Falls

A sample of my full Grand Canyon rafting manuscript

Valentines Day – Killer Fang Falls Rapid, Grand Canyon, USA

Our private group of four boats is pulling over to scout Killer Fang Falls, also known as Mile 232 Rapid. It’s February, it’s cold. We’ve been down in the canyon for weeks rafting icy water, one day in the falling snow. But this is the Grand Canyon, the rafting trip of a lifetime. When you win the raft permit lottery, you go. Our boat is on sweep, which is to say we are the last boat. I’m on the oars, having run the past couple of smaller rapids. Killer Fang is not small, and as the name implies, not to be trifled with.

Despite being the strong rower that Boo has dubbed “The Motor” that he drops-in to get us to shore when he doubts his ability, I am not stern to the shore in time to back ferry. I perform a spin too far midstream, miss the eddy. Suddenly we are quite clearly not going to make the scout.

Immediately I snap into GO! mode having no choice but to power through and take our chances with the unknown white water lurking around the bend. What I know about Killer Fang Falls: it takes its name from a two-pronged jagged shard of schist protruding from the wave train. What I don’t know in that instant is exactly where said fangs are located. Turns out they awaits us at lower river right. I deduce this from information being shouted at us from shore and frantically resounded by Boo and Meredith as we plummet down the tongue and straight into a fast narrow chute.

In the words of 19th century canyon explorer John Wesley Powell, “The waters reel and roll and boil.” Once in a Grand Canyon rapid of any substance, there is no escape but straight on through. There is only river right, middle and river left. Often you must enter right and move left, or visa versa.

Up a wave we go and down the other side only to be met by another of greater size and force. The river bends to the right here, the forward driving force of which gives birth to a series of lateral waves striking inward from the left wall.

Just five seconds ago all my force was dedicated to pulling us left to set the boat up to avoid the fangs. And only two seconds ago I shot down the tongue of the rapid straight on. Now I point my bow thirty degree left and thus at a right angle to the now monstrous laterals.

Then we hit it: the seething maw at the core of the rapid, the largest of the hydraulics midway down the falls. Down into its trough we go and then up, up, up but before we clear the top she breaks across the bow. For a few seconds all in the boat is awash in foam.

Now past it the boat bobs and weaves in a mad sea of waves breaking every which way. Somewhere deep beneath us a maze of huge boulders and tunnels carved through the millennia churn and froth and swirl and beat the passing river into the frenzy of white water that is a rapid.

Now all my energies go into pulling the bow around to face the approaching fangs on river right. Always careful to plant my oars where and when the powerful hydraulics won’t rip them from my hands, I commence to turn the boat. But the current fights me. I roar and grunt and shout in unconscious accompaniment to my physical fight for every degree of angular advantage.

I see the fangs. They are barely visible today due to the current high water flow but no less treacherous. To hit them at this speed would be at worst to flip, to shred the boat or at the very least eject a passenger and possibly high center.

They are coming up fast. The boat is not stern to river left as needed. Without this angular advantage, I cannot be sure to pull away from the danger in time.

At last I gain the upper hand. With both oars pulling hard in opposite directions, I manage to pull the bow around to face my nemesis. With mighty back-ferrying strokes, I feel the heavy 18-foot craft creeping across the crazed swirling but mostly hard downstream tangent of the water, all 20,000 cubic feet per second.

Through the flying foam and splashing hysteria that is every great Grand Canyon rapid, I can hear Boo and Meredith cheering, “You got it Jester! You got it! Pull! Pull!”

Suddenly though we are not yet past the fangs, I just know I have cleared their dangerous line. I pull once more for safety’s sake and once again out of pure adrenaline, and a whirlpool under-path spins us ever-so such that as we pass we are sideways to the river, bow to the fangs. We laugh as we cheer. We are clear of them. I have done it. I have run my last Grand Canyon rapid spot on, and I did it without even stopping to scout.

© Rick McKinney 2011

The only way out is straight through the middle
The only way out is through the middle

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