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number ten
85 Mile Rapid
River Mile 85.8

One Last Splash

Today is our last full day on the river, and we’re about to see one of the biggest rapids on our trip: Hance. This rapid formed when flash floods ripped through neighboring Red Canyon, emptying rocks and boulders into the Colorado River at this spot. A rocky run full of holes to dodge, Hance drops 30 feet in a half mile and is listed as a 7-8 rapid on the Grand Canyon’s 10-point scale.

A view from inside a raft hitting rapids on the colorado river
Rapids on the Colorado River are great fun but have to be treated with care. Photo: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

Some in the group are quietly “reserving” their place on certain guides’ rafts — thinking the more experienced ones are less likely to tip over in the rapid. They pull them aside at breakfast: “Hey, can I ride with you today?” I admit, I’m one of them, vying for guide Drew Nichols, who has been down this river three times and never flipped.

What to do if your boat flips and you’re trapped beneath it

I’ve gotten more comfortable on the rapids as the days have gone by. But the fear of flipping in the boat has stuck with me. On our first day, lead guide Jordy Margid, director of UC Davis Campus and Recreation Union’s Outdoor Adventures, gave us advice about what to do if our boat flips and we find ourselves underneath it.

Just going from memory, he said something like, “If you pop up, look around, and it’s dark, you’re probably under the boat. Go back underwater, pick one direction and swim.”

The idea of this terrified me. Not only might we get flung from the raft and have to hope we don’t get slammed against a rock or caught in a whirlpool, we might also be trapped under the boat. Swell.

Outdoor Adventure guide, Larry Guenther, discusses how to navigate Hance Rapid at river mile 77.2. Photo: Millie Levin/UC Davis

Scouting Hance

Before we arrive at Hance, the guides get out of the boats and climb up some rocks to scout it out. They strategize about the best way to approach it, and which guides should go first and last. Then with serious faces, everyone straps on their helmets. Even veteran guide Larry Guenther, who is usually smiling and singing loudly any manner of songs, is quiet and focused. Jordy gives one last pep talk about what to do if we flip, and we head toward the rapid.

In the quiet before the roar, as each boat takes its turn slipping down the rapid’s tongue, there is a soldierly comradery that comes over the guides. They raise their arms with a clenched fist to each other, or nod and say almost somberly, “Have a good ride, man.”

The rest of us just hold on and bear down.

We bump, we jostle, we hoot, we holler, we get wet and then … Whew! Done. That’s the worst of it. Fun even. We can pretty much relax now.

Except we can’t.

The flip at 85-Mile Rapid

On the second to last rapid of the trip, on the second to last day, on a rapid that is not even named in some guidebooks — 85-Mile Rapid, rated a 3 on the canyon’s 10-point scale — our boat gets caught in a nasty snarl of waves that rocks us harshly back and forth until … “So this is happening,” I think … we flip.

I see it all go by in slow motion: I’m up, tipping to the side, and then “splash!”

I can tell as I’m going over that the boat is about to flip right on top of me. Sure enough, when I pop up, it’s dark and I’m under the raft. Luckily, I’m so aware of this, it’s only for a second. I quickly surface on the other side and hold on to the raft’s rope handle. I have just enough time to think, “Whoa, we actually flipped! And I’m OK!” before I remember to look for my boat mates.

Apparently, graduate student Trevor Waldien was tossed fully from the boat and rode the rapid fairly easily on his own until hitting calmer waters and swimming to shore. I look around and see graduate student Roxanne Banker in the water near me, looking surprised and about to get hit by an oar. She dodges it and grabs the boat with me.

Before we both know it, guide Devon Lambert paddles up in a kayak and tells us to grab on to its back handle. We kick as he paddles us to shore, where guide and UC Davis physics Ph.D. candidate Dan Hernandez takes our hands and leads us to another boat.

We wait there while our raft is brought to shore, and about a dozen people take 15 minutes to flip it and its contents over. By the grace of good knots and dry sacks, very little is waterlogged.

As for me, I feel strangely exhilarated. The thing I most feared on this trip happened, and I was just fine.

Members of the team help rescue a crew of a flipped boat on the shores of the Colorado River
The team works together to right a flipped boat. Credit: Evan Wolf /UC Davis

Between flips

Later that night — our last of the trip — guide and forest ecology doctoral student Zack Steel asks me if I thought the flip made my experience here better or worse.

“Definitely better,” I say. Not that I want to do it again.

“That’s usually how the passengers in the boat feel,” he says. “But it’s never what the guide who flips them feels.”

I make sure to thank my guide for bringing a little excitement to my trip and helping me face this particular fear. He still feels bad. He’d never flipped his boat before. But there’s a saying among guides: You’re always between flips. If you haven’t had one yet, just wait, you will.

Graduate student Millie Levin tells the story of how a wave knocked her boat mates, UC Davis multimedia specialist Joe Proudman and guide Dan Hernandez, out of their raft. Credit Joe Proudman/UC Davis
"Places like this bring out people’s best selves."

A life-changing experience

Those who have gone on this trip before told me it is a transformative, even life-changing experience. After rafting through the Grand Canyon with UC Davis, some people switch study tracks or recommit to career choices. They sign up for river guide training. They end, save or begin relationships. Some just rediscover what it’s like to connect with themselves and the natural world — a powerful feeling they vow to take home with them.

This has been a trip of boundary-pushing; fear-conquering; wet, stupid fun; and intense academic discussion.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt a bit like Wild author Cheryl Strayed in the inept beginnings of her journey hiking the Pacific Crest Trail — awkward and fumbling. There have been times I wished I was better at everything: hopping boulders, common sense outdoor stuff, tightly strapping in my dry sack.

That said, I’ve learned a lot, not just about science but also about my own capabilities. On my first day, I was last to be ready in the morning, still fussing with my tent and dry sack when others were loaded up in the boat. Never again, I thought. Now I’m one of the first ones ready, casually drinking my coffee and taking in the sunrise before we launch into the water.

And none of it has been done alone. Everyone here has been not just nice, but kind, and more than willing to help.

Science, adventure and inspiration

Places like this bring out people’s best selves. When you’re your best self, you are open to memorable new experiences and to learning. Science, adventure and inspiration become so tightly woven here as to become inseparable.

“I don’t know of any university anywhere that does anything nearly as cool as this,” Jordy tells the group on our final night together.

Over the past eight days, we’ve witnessed the landscape unfold, taking in surprising caverns, an ever-changing altered river and the puzzle pieces of more than a billion years of history. It’s all become personal, amid a backdrop of guitar strumming, paddles slapping on water, a chocolate cake baking in a Dutch oven while we talk in a circle by the beach under the stars.

Full of lessons we won’t soon forget, this place has been the best outdoor classroom in the world.

- Kat Kerlin writes about environmental science and Joe Proudman is a multimedia specialist for Strategic Communications at UC Davis. They are now both proud members of the Colorado River Swim Club.

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