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So I just got back from a big adventure… I just spent 10 days rowing my raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

(And yes, it was my raft… this was a “private” trip with no guides.)

Rowing my raft down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon

Rowing my raft down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon

Those of you who have been down the Grand Canyon know that it's a trip of a lifetime… and I've been lucky enough to do it six times now. 🙂

You see, rafting and kayaking whitewater rivers is a passion of mine – and I've paddled and rowed down all kinds of wildnerness rivers from Arizona to Alaska. But the Grand Canyon is the mother of all river trips in the U.S… and everything down there is on a bigger scale. The canyon is bigger, the trip is longer, and the rapids are bigger.

It's a wilderness trip… once you pull away from the put-in at Lee's Ferry you are on your own. There's no chance to re-supply, and you have to carry EVERYTHING that you need.

And, of course, while you're down there you're completely disconnected – there's no Internet, cell phones, or electricity… which is a FANTASTIC to recharge while you're away from your business. I can guarantee that you won't be checking email. 🙂

The trip is 225 miles long (my trips have varied from 10 days to 21 days), and there are hundreds of rapids down there. Many of them are big and burly… and things can get pretty exciting.

It's nice that the rapids gradually get bigger as you go down the river… so you can work your way up to the big ones. If had to deal with Granite or Crystal rapid on the first day… well, that would be terrifying.

So as you go down the river, you gradually gain confidence… and if you're having good runs down the rapids, you might even get a bit of a swagger. And you start feeling like maybe you've earned your stripes.

But lurking down the river at Mile 179 is a problem of a whole different sort… and it's called Lava Falls.

Lava Falls is the most famous (or infamous) rapid in Grand Canyon. You usually hit it on Day 14 or so of your trip… and by then you think you've seen everything. You've heard all the stories about Lava, but you're wondering if it can really live up to all the hype. And then you round a turn in the river… and you hear Lava – a huge, deep, menacing roar. And the sobering thought goes through your head – “we're still a half-mile away from the rapid”. Hmmm.

Lava Falls from a quarter mile above the rapid

You pull your boat to the shore a couple hundred yards above the rapid so you can scout it… and you climb up to the top of a bluff and take your first look at Lava Falls… and it's instantly very clear that after 179 miles that this is a whole different ballgame.

In all my trips through Lava, I've always had clean runs… but I always have the same thought when I first look at it… “do I really have to run this rapid?”

There's no such thing as a free pass through Lava. You're always going to be flirting with disaster and hitting some big stuff that could flip you (or knock you out of the boat). And the swims in Lava range from “ugly” right up to “completely horrendous”.

And on this trip, Lava was looking particularly unfriendly. At first glance there was an obvious channel down the left side… but I knew from past experience that a run that is obvious from the side of the river would be not so obvious at all once I was back down on the river, floating into the rapid.

And the real danger was that my run on the left side would take me right past the edge of the “Ledge Hole”… which was the one single place on the whole 225 miles of river that you didn't want to be…

Scouting Lava Falls from the left side... trying to look confident

Scouting Lava Falls from the left side… do I look nervous?

Think of the Ledge Hole as a 12-foot wave in the ocean, then think about that wave breaking on top of you… and then think of it holding you in place and continuing to break on top of you… with you stuck under the crashing whitewater. That's what the Ledge Hole is like.

I didn't want to be anywhere near the Ledge Hole, but I was going to be rowing my boat right past the very lip of it. That was a VERY unnerving thought. But when you're above Lava Falls, there's only one thing to do after you scout it… go back to your raft, tighten everything down, cinch down your lifejacket extra tight… and then go run the rapid.

As you drift down to the rapid, you can't actually see it. You see a horizon line where the river just seems to drop away – and in fact, it does drop away. The entire river falls 37 feet over the span of a couple hundred yards.

(At one time it was rated by the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest stretch of navigable water in the world. That was an exaggeration, but still…)

As I approached the rapid, everything began to accelerate. I was scanning the river, trying to pick out where that left-side channel was… and where the Ledge Hole lurked. I was the second boat in our group… and I watched the boat ahead of me drop into the rapid – it completely disappeared over the edge of the horizon line, and I couldn't tell what happened to it.

Then as the current continued to quicken and pull me towards the lip of the rapid – I was maybe 50 feet above the rapid and I finally got a glimpse over the edge…. and right then I knew I was OK… I knew I was on the correct line. The Ledge Hole wouldn't get me this time!

After that it was all a blur – 20 seconds of crashing waves, icy water crashing over the boat, and big hits… at one point I saw the bow of my boat pointing towards the sky… but then we landed safely in the tail waves at the end of the rapid.

The boat behind me wasn't quite as fortunate… the boatman was thown out of the boat – but he was pulled back in quickly and unharmed… and soon we were all celebrating below the rapid.

We were safely below Lava Falls. After many days with stories of Lava carnage lurking in our thoughts… we had passed the test. We pulled over at “Tequila Beach” just a little downstream… all five boats and 16 people – and we were feeling VERY alive at that moment.

High fives were exchanged. Beers were cracked. We were alive below Lava. And that's when I made the classic Grand Canyon toast…

“You're always above Lava Falls”

That truly is one of my favorite quotes… because even as I celebrated getting through Lava safely, I was looking forward to my next trip through the Grand Canyon, and my next test at Lava Falls.

But, of course, the metaphor goes much deeper.

Your biggest challenge is ahead of you… at least it is if you're living life the way I try to live my life.

I'll admit it right here… I'm addicted to growth in my life. In my capabilities, in my accomplishments, in my relationships. In fact, if I don't see the opportunity for growth in any given situation, then I have a very hard time staying interested.

The celebratory beer below Lava Falls always tastes especially good!

A big smile of relief to be below Lava Falls (and a celebratory beer)

It took me a while to figure this out, but I'm always looking for my next “Lava Falls”… in every area of my life. And I've noticed that most of the entrepreneurs and other “creatives” that I know are very similar.

Want to make sure you stay engaged in your business? That you stay interested, that you stay sharp? Just make sure that your biggest challenges lie ahead of you. Always have a future bigger than your past. Always be looking for your next challenge, for your next Lava Falls.

– Jeff

P.S. One of the toughest things about doing a private trip in Grand Canyon (vs. a commercial trip with guides) is getting the permit from the National Park Service. It can literally take YEARS to get a permit for a private trip. That's why my six trips are pretty amazing – it's unusual to get invited on that many trips.

I'm always interested in trips with great folks… so if you happen to have an upcoming permit and you're looking for an experience boatman, then drop me a line. 🙂

P.P.S. Want to see a particularly terrifying encounter with the Ledge Hole in Lava? The video below was NOT from my trip, but it's pretty crazy… and shows the power of the Lava Falls.

P.P.P.S. Are you still “above Lava”?

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44 Replies to “Above Lava (on a raft in the Grand Canyon)…”

  1. Jeff – WOW dude! All these years I’ve known you, I had no clue you did it that many times. Love the metaphor too. Reminds me of the Shawshank “get busy livin’, or get busy dyin'” philosophy. Great post…and congrats on making it through Lava (yet again).

    Sounds like your summer is rockin’!

    Chris 🙂

  2. I know you might not like this!
    But I am going to say it anyway.
    I think you are crazy!!

    Are you kidding me? No form of GPS to locate you in case anything happen? No bro, I’ll pass. Thank you very much
    You , Richard Branson(Virgin Atlantic), Yanik Silver are all in the same “gang”.
    Ok may be I am the one who is a “chicken”
    I watched your videos many times, you DO NOT look like a guy who would be doing such a crazy stuff though! You look so cool, you know.

    Yanik on the other hand, I won’t be surprised if he say “I just came back from climbing wrestling a Tiger in Africa”

    If this is living, passion, then I pass brother!
    Ok, I must be chicken then. I admit.

    Glad you enjoyed it.

    • linda lawrence


      I believe there is two-way radio on each trip, so that the Nat’l Park Service can be notified in an emergency. My brother felt the same way about the Grand, and on his last trip (his 10th), he suffered a fatal heart attack, after making camp for the evening. Someone in the group contacted the Nat’l Park Service via radio, and they heli-lifted him out. So, in case of emergency, there is help. My brother’s spirit will live “Always Above Lava”, at Deer Creek. Not being a paddler, or river rat, myself. Thank you for letting me read this.

  3. Jeff-

    Why aren’t you home playing video games? You make too much money to be doing this nonsense!



  4. James Klobasa


    Awesome Jeff…
    Great video and some great shots of you in your element.

    Safe travels…James.K
    P.s great quote… “Always be looking for your next challenge, for your next Lava Falls…”

  5. Allen D'Angelo


    Awesome Jeff… the lesson for me is that big challenges lead to big celebrations and lots of moments of feeling very alive indeed. I know that for so many people, including myself for several years, anticipatory fear can really slow progress down. You scouted Lava but then you got in that boat and ran Lava… you placed yourself inside Lave, inside that challenge, past the clutches of the Ledge Hole. We all face our own Lava with its Ledge Hole in our businesses every day in one way or another. You taught us that on the back side of Lava is a feeling of indescribable energization, and a compelling story of how to face nervousness and fear while doing your best. You continue to create the life you want through the choices you make and you build reinforcing experiences into your life that make it really amazing. Jeff you are a brilliant and humble role model for how real success and satisfaction can obtained. Thanks for sharing your story at a time so many need that juice and inspiration.

  6. Hi Jeff- That IS such an incredible feeling scouting a rapid. When I was guiding in Nepal we classified scouts by how many times we had to stop and squat from our nervy bellies. Adrenalin does strange and wonderful things to time, vision, and sense of space.

    When I started PLF in March, I explained to my husband John that your course changed the way I looked at the internet the way guiding changed the way I looked at rivers. It was a great way to explain it, because as a guide, he completely understood. I too tie my life to a sense of running a river and the adventure of choosing a line. For me river running is the perfect metaphor for life. You scout and acknowledge the “Ledge Holes” then you pick where you actually DO WANT TO GO! It is both a realistic and positive way to make decisions. And of course, the bigger the line, the bigger the focus, euphoria and/or consequence.

    Good on you, Jeff. This one makes me smile. Look forward to seeing you in Scottsdale. With love, Becky

  7. I’m having huge financial burden right now and trying to figure out a way to pass this huge “Lava Falls”. I understand my biggest challenge is ahead of me and that’s life…

    Like you said in the post, “I’m always looking for my next “Lava Falls”… in every area of my life.”

    Great post, as usual. I really enjoy reading it!

  8. Congratulations Jeff – Your writing got my adrenaline going! I’ve done my share of canoeing and kayaking on the easy stuff, but love to read about *the process* of adventure on whitewater.
    Just like a business venture: you do research, analyse the risks, show respect for the environment you’re going into, then take the plunge and the adrenaline rush makes you remember why you do it.
    Enjoy the great summer memories!

  9. Jeff – thanks for sharing this; I’m glad you survived; experiences like that do make you appreciate life a little more. I agree, a life without challenges is so boring. I thrive on challenge.

  10. Will McLain


    Eight of us floated the River about 35 years ago with Hatch….one raft, saw Georgia’s raft once late in the trip, And NO OTHER people on the River the entire trip. Tough to do that these days.

    Big difference in the raft size and propulsion, but Lava is really impressive no matter what, but I do envy your ride. And yes, we got tossed around to a fair thee well!

    Great post…keep up the good work!

  11. Jeff, you have the most low-frequency yet high-impact blog I know of.

    Great piece, great story, great lesson.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  12. Hey Jeff,

    Great to see you enjoying yourself. I’ve gotta start doing cool stuff like that too. Too much work and not enough play these days.

    Warm regards


  13. I love it! I’m right there with you. I did the same trip in the 70’s and have kept the passion for adventure alive and roaring ever since. More power to you buddy!

  14. Thanks for showing another side of you. Most of us wouldn’t think that such a smart guy would be such a risk taker. In actually, all of us who are in any form of business has some degree of risk we take. Some are more extreme than others.

    You’re out there!!!! I would like to live of some of my wild side through you!

    You said this isn’t selling anything but, I feel like I’m more apt to buy from you because I know a little more about you as a person.

  15. @Chris: I really don’t consider myself that much of a risk-taker, or even an adrenaline junkie.

    I know I do some things that many people consider a big risk, but I’ve gone out and gotten the skills that I need. The risks I take are always calculated… and I only take them if I think I have the skills required. Of course, there’s a chance my judgement will not be correct… and that has happened on occasion, and I’m sure it will again in the future.

    The reality is that we all take risks all day long – every time you get in your car, you’re taking a bigger risk than I took at Lava… and much of that risk is out of your control (ie, you’re depending on other drivers maintaining the control of their car.)

  16. Man do I miss the Grand Canyon, thanks for sharing what sounds like an incredible trip.

    What a great metaphor for the “secret” to living a fulfilling life. Always seeking growth, looking to become more and share more. Being willing to face fears and come out the other side a deeper, richer version of ones self.

    Amazing lesson.

  17. Absolutely awesome Jeff! I didn’t know you were into river rafting and it’s great to hear that someone I admire is such an ardent adventurer! White water rafting has been on my bucket list and now I’m inspired to get off my duff and get out there before too much time passes. Thanks for the inspiration! It’s a wonderful metaphor for living.

  18. As I sit catching up on emails and recovering from a 200 mile relay race from Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs I know exactly where you are coming from. It is vital to stay above the Lava! I think another lesson here is how important it is to take time to step away from our businesses and unplug for a bit. I learn so much about myself and about my business when I get away from all the noise and push myself in other ways.

    Thanks Jeff!

    • @Daryle: What type of race? Did you go over Rabbit Ears Pass? I rode Rabbit Ears earlier this year on my bike in Ride The Rockies… that was a big climb.

  19. @Jeff: It was a running road race, The Wild West Relay, and it did go over Rabbit Ears. The motto of the race is “Get Your Ass Over The Pass!” I ran it as part of a non profit fundraising team ( and our 12 person team raised $12,000 for youth in Fort Collins and Larimer Country. So all in all it was an amazing weekend.

    Next week I’ll be in your neck of the woods, can’t wait to spend some time away from the Front Range.

    • @Daryle: That’s a tough pass to get over… but what a beautiful climb. I was lucky enough to do the ride with my teenage daughter – she’s a really strong rider, and she paced me up the entire climb. I just turned off my brain, concentrated on staying on her wheel… and tried to enjoy the scenery.

  20. Nicely done Jeff. Your post brings back some great memories of kayaking the canyon way back in 94.

    Frankly, I prefer being BELOW Lava rather than above it :). There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplisment after running a big rapid like that which scares the hell out of you… and then drinking beer and telling stories afterwards.

    As you mentioned, the tough part about Lava is that you can’t see the line from above the rapid. However, when scouting it, we noticed a tiny bubble line in the flatwater above the drop that led to the perfect route — and away from the ledge hole.

    Lava is awesome, but the one that scared me the most was Crystal… at the level we ran it, there were two HUGE holes at the top of the rapid that were nearly impossible to avoid. I walked it, while my buddies ran the hero route on the left side… in squirt boats!

    The video of the raft beatdown is ugly… looks like realy high water.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing back some great memories!

    • @Jeff: I kayaked the canyon in ’01 (when it was my permit, and I could make the decision). I had all clean lines on that trip… Lava was again the scariest drop on the river for me. We had lots of carnage on the left side – two rafts flip and two others had swimmers… so I decided to take the thrills ride on the right, and I had a clean run.

      Crystal has always been friendly to me… I’ve mostly cheated it on the right, but I’ve taken the glory run on the left a couple of times. But I can’t imagine doing that line in a squirt boat!

  21. Well done, Jeff! Pics and video are a real RUSH!!. Congrats on living the dream. Living up here in the Rockies, it’s all in our blood! Western slope has some awesome challenges!

    Life is short, folks!

  22. That rapid is SCARY my friend! Oh, my, god. I just watched the video and I’m freaked out by it. Did these guys survive at all? Wow.

    Well, I’m glad you’re still alive! 🙂

  23. Alexandrina


    Your motto for the journey of Life, the narration talent of story and the sharp eye to keep on the right side of the Lava rapid of Grand Canyon and the rapids of Life launched you on the ramp of the winers.
    You are showing gently and with natural power to all of us what is the real joy and beauty of life.
    You show the way to get this.
    You sold to all the power of being focused and staying in the flow, allowing your DNA to be strengthen by that fantastic epigenetic environment.
    So many lessons in one story!!!
    Your work and life is dense in value. This is situating you on the role model position.
    Thank you for sharing and for pushing us to the profound meanings of our life.

  24. Jackie Holmgren


    Jeff, nice trip. I’m sure you have thought of being one of the first ones down the Grand Canyon and what it must have been like then… Truly NO communication and NO beer, and NO food, at this point on the river the only thing left to eat was coffee for John Wesley Powell and crew.
    August 25, 1869:
    The party has a very good morning, running 12 miles before coming to some very large lava rocks standing in the river. This continues for about three miles before coming to a massive falls. A cinder cone towers above the river on the right bank. The party has reached Lava Falls and the extinct volcano is now known as Vulcan’s Throne. Major Powell theorizes that a massive lava dam at one point totally blocked the river at this point, forming a huge reservoir behind it, until at last the river rose above it and broke through.
    “What a conflict of water and fire there must have been here! Just imagine a river of molten rock running down into a river of melted snow. What a seething and boiling of the waters; what clouds of steam rolled into the heavens.” — Major John Wesley Powell

    I’m sure the word ‘chicken’ wasn’t in his vocabulary too often! I doubt he portaged around it because his four rafts were made of oak and/or pine and were most likely too heavy to do so. I haven’t researched it enough to know. Great vacation! Jackie

    • @Jackie: I’ve read Powell’s account a couple of times, including once as I was floating the river. He started way upstream of the Grand Canyon on the Green River… and I’ve been fortunate to run many of the stretches of river that that he ran.

      And yeah…Powell and his crew had a truly epic, heroic trip down the river.

      Not sure what he did at Lava, but his trip actually DID portage many of the rapids… especially after they lost a boat on the Green in the Gates of Lodore (they named the rapid they lost their boat in “Disaster Falls”… and that name has stuck to this day. And I personally had a near disaster there myself a few years ago).

      Thanks for the quote… Powell’s description of Lava Falls does a great job of capturing the ominous feeling of that spot.

  25. Wow!! Great narrative Jeff and an outstanding adventure. Loved the analogy comparing Lava Falls to life.

    ‘Just completed a 2,100 mile, 9 day motorcycle trip from The Black Hills to Jackson Hole and back. It was one of my bucket list items and Lava Falls type of experience, though obviously different (and I suspect less exciting) than yours.

    It was a big deal, but I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms. Now that you mention it though, we’re planning the next trip that will top it. Thanks for the perspective, and the inspiration.

    Being atop the falls can be scary and certainly tiring, but really there is no place else I would rather be.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  26. Nothing like a video to take an entire textual commentary to a whole new level. Bowing to the power of video and as always, thanks Jeff for sharing!

  27. Jeff …

    Scrolled down to the bottom of your home page and found this post on Lava. Oh yeah!

    I learned to kayak in Idaho (the Middle Fork of the Salmon is also a great trip that perhaps you’ve been on?) and ran rivers all over the West. But I hadn’t yet been on the Grand.

    I’ve had significant vision loss due to glaucoma, and I had three bucket list items I knew I simply HAD to due. The first one was to run the Grand Canyon. And then a buddy called me up and said, “Doug, you know that Canyon permit I’ve been waiting on for 15 years? Well, I got it! WANT TO GO?”

    Two months later we put on – in April, before the motorized commercial trips put on. And it was the trip of a lifetime. I used an older boat (Perception Pirouette) with classic lines and a fast hull speed, so it was a great boat for the Grand. But it’s narrow and tippy.

    Well … I did okay until we got to Granite. That’s where I made the Grand Canyon Swim Team and ended up almost looping around in “Forever Eddy”; I will have forever gratitude for the raft team that saw my predicament and hauled me out.

    Crystal … did the sneak on the right.

    And then – as you state so eloquently – there was Lava. Oyyyy.

    “How bad can it be?” we kayakers asked ourselves. We went up to the overlook on river right and took it in. O …. M …. G. It deserved its reputation.

    There were 5 of us kayaking on the trip. We looked it up and down, tried SO HARD to piece together the sneak on river left. But at 12k cfs, it wasn’t there to be had. Finally, with that option off the table, I realized the only way was to take it head-on.

    Three of my fellow kayakers decided to portage on river left. But deep down I knew it wasn’t an option. Running the Grand Canyon from top to bottom was the goal, and that meant paddling every inch of it. I’ll never forget when my buddy asked me, “So Doug, are you going to run it?”

    I said, “I came here to run this river top to bottom. I’ll likely never be here again. I’M RUNNING IT.” And, in that moment, everything switched. There was a deep feeling of knowing I had a destiny with this rapid. I wasn’t even attached to the outcome so much as I simply knew I had to do it.

    So I studied it top to bottom. One of the guys who’d been a professional guide on the river for years gave me key info about the V-wave at the bottom – that the wave on the right was the more powerful and the one to contend with. Finally, it was time to run it.

    I hope this is okay to include here; it’s from a chapter in a book I’m writing about it:

    “Finally, I’d done enough looking. I hiked back up to Flo, slipped into her cockpit, attached the skirt around the cowling, adjusted my helmet, pulled on my gloves, and grabbed my paddle … there was nothing left to do. I took a deep breath. It’s time.
    I pushed myself off the bank, launched into the river and ferried upstream. I then paddled a few strokes to align with the bubbles, breathed deeply and entered Lava.

    In that moment, I once again felt the peace that comes with being totally present. I dropped into an even deeper mindful space. My usual chatterbox of constant commentary receded. A bigger presence and awareness moved to the forefront. There was the task at hand, and nothing else.

    Even as the visualized moves played out in the primary part of my consciousness, I was also keenly aware of the peripheral. I was aware of nothing and everything at the same time. My body and awareness fused together with only one task: run Lava. There was no thinking – only doing.

    In this state of grace I’ve so longed for in other areas of my life, I melded with the river and everything else around and within me. As it pushed me toward hazards, this presence responded by doing only the necessary strokes to navigate through them and stay on course. No wasted motion, no over-correcting, just the right amount.

    I entered seven feet off the entry rock on river right. Next I spun the kayak left to miss one hole, right to miss another, then braced for a mass of water that swallowed me up. So engulfed was I by the river that, in a picture taken of me, only my paddle blade emerges from the mass of whitewater. The turbulence pushed me hard to the right, but I braced and remained upright.

    I emerged from that wall of whitewater and saw that I was still lined up – just in time to enter the tongue dropping into the V-wave. As it pulled me in, I took a backstroke to line up.

    Then I took two quick forward strokes to bring Flo parallel with the right wave of the “V”. I could see – then even hear – the wave pulsing open and closing, like a revolving door. Timing was everything. Slip into the wave as it’s opening, life is good. Hit it while it’s closing – different story. Entering as it opened meant having a clean wave surface to brace into and – if everything went according to script – getting launched through the left wave and into the middle of the river. If I didn’t, well … Cheese Grater.

    What happened next convinced me the Universe “has my back”. As I entered the wave, it opened at exactly the right moment. I brought up my right hip to bring Flo’s hull parallel with the wave surface. In an explosive burst, I braced my right paddle blade into the wave’s face, then took a forward stroke.

    It was like being shot from a water cannon. I blasted through the left V-wave, exactly as JD predicted, and was once again engulfed in water.

    I was right where I wanted to be – in the middle of the river below Lava. I eddied out, caught my breath, and let the adrenalin ease down. And then it hit me – I’d done it.

    I’d had a near-perfect run on Lava, and my dream of kayaking the Grand Canyon was almost complete. Deep inside my heart – a place I only rarely accessed – I felt joy.


    Footnote: I had three experiences on the Grand that helped me come to terms with glaucoma, including in Lava, Redwall and Matkat. The Grand Canyon was a life-changing experience for me. And I’ve since talked with other friends who’ve had their own transformational experiences in it. It is a sacred place on so many levels – though the most dynamic one is surely Lava.

    Anyway, I’m appreciating your posts and hope you continue to do more such as this one. They obviously touch the essence of many people.

  28. Wow. I would love to go to the Grand Canyon. I am Canadian and have never been to the US even. Looks awesome

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