Where rocks have names: Running rapids on Western rivers

Thursday, May 21, 2015 9:40 PM
To get a rapid named after you in Grand Canyon you have to be an early river runner, have bad luck or be dead. Kolb Rapid is named after the Kolb brothers who filmed the first river run through Grand Canyon in 1911.
Setting up for Triplet Rapid on the Green River, guests tighten their life jackets and hang on with both hands.
Smack in the middle of the Colorado River in the heart of the Grand Canyon, Vulcan’s Anvil looms dark in the channel, warning that Lava Falls will soon come. John Wesley Powell named the rock during his 1869 expedition.
In Hell’s Half Mile, an Adrift Adventures river guide catches a rock nicknamed Huggy Bear, after he just avoided the rock named Lucifer.
On every Western river, both rocks and camps have names. This is Box Elder Camp II on the Green River on a morning full of reflections.
Children jump off a boulder on the Green River at the scouting location for Triplet Rapids.
John Wesley Powell named Vasey’s Paradise in the Grand Canyon and its waterfall after a botanist who accompanied him on his second trip. A rare snail lives there, so boaters cannot stop.
This view of Hell’s Half Mile is often where river runners stop to decide which line they will use to navigate the sharp boulders and fast currents.
In the rapids called Hell’s Half Mile on the Green River, a rock called Lucifer hides beneath the river’s surface.
Up against this big rock and in between the smaller rocks is a narrow, difficult passaged dubbed “The Birth Canal” in the Canyon of Lodore, which is suitable for experienced kayakers, but not for large rafts. Anyone who safely navigates the channel feels re-born, hence the name.

A rock is a rock is a rock, unless it is in the middle of a fast flowing river and you are about to smash into it with the front of your boat. In which case, you’re apt to give it a name. River runners have been christening rocks and rapids for more than a century, and the names have stuck.

John Wesley Powell started the practice in May of 1869 when the one-armed Civil War major launched 10 men in four wooden boats from Green River, Wyoming, on his historic expedition through Grand Canyon. Powell named Flaming Gorge, the Gates of Lodore, and deep in the 500 million-year-old canyon, Disaster Falls, Hell’s Half Mile and Triplet.

He named Disaster Falls because his men accidentally smashed a boat on the large rock in the river’s center. Powell desperately needed the scientific instruments in the boat’s wreckage and was grateful that his crew swam the channel to retrieve his lost barometers. They did not tell him that part of their motivation was to find the three-gallon keg of whiskey hidden in the boat’s bow.

I’ve had my own encounter with Disaster Falls. One September with a relatively low water flow, we positioned for the run in my double duckie or inflatable kayak. I had a friend up front in his mid-80s and all of a sudden the octogenarian bid me farewell, jumped ship and latched onto a big, blue Hyside raft. Everyone had left the beach. There I was, packed and loaded for two people, and I was in the stern. So I launched anyway with the front of my duckie rising up in my face like a big banana headed for my own private disaster because I could not see a thing. Luckily, I sneaked the run on river left.


All across the West, rocks have names. On whitewater, the names continue to accrue as generations of river runners have their own rendezvous with destiny and experience mishaps, poor judgement and luck, both good and bad, especially in the larger rapids. Powell went down the Green in 1869 and 1871. Private boaters and commercial outfitters run those same lines week after week adding their own patina to a rich river lore.

Powell named Hell’s Half Mile, but subsequent river rats have been more selective, finding, just under the surface, the boulder Lucifer with a constantly changing lip of water flowing over it. If you dance beside Lucifer but slip too far river right, then you’ll fall into the arms of Huggy Bear and get abruptly stuck. Your fellow river runners will help you off the rock, but you’ll pay a price in embarrassment and beers in camp.

“I caught a lot of that hole,” says Adrift Adventures guide Andrew Piccirillo.

How to make the run with subtlety and grace? He explains: “There’s a boulder on the right. Go two inches off a small marker rock. Then watch for the big hole on the left. Lucifer’s on the left. Push hard behind it to avoid Huggy Bear.”

Try remembering that with split-second timing and guests laughing, yelling and getting soaked.

“The first few times, I didn’t remember the run, but after a while, I’ve come to know each rock and some by name. You need momentum, and you need to know where and when to make your move,” he says.


Powell named Triplet and had the sense to stay out of The Birth Canal on river right, which is a narrow, fast-moving passage between huge boulders deftly done by kayakers, but no place you’d want to be in a 16-foot raft. Hence the name Birth Canal, where you’ll be re-born whether you want to be christened or not.

My wife and I have capsized in Greasy Pliers, named for the tool river runner Bus Hatch used to lift metal lids while cooking with a Dutch oven. Along that stretch is Bus’s Birthday Cake, a honeycombed sandstone ledge, where, on one expedition, relatives left Bus birthday presents, each on a small sandstone shelf.

I’ve watched friends fall out in Moonshine Rapids, and I’ve been taught a lesson in Schoolboy, where I missed the run, flipped my duck and had my hat claimed by river gods.

Godzilla is the big rock in the Yampa’s Class IV Warm Springs Rapid. The hole is respectfully called Maytag. On the Colorado River west of Grand Junction in Westwater Canyon, there’s Skull Rapid, with the Room of Doom, which is the eddy to the right. On the Dolores, there’s Snaggletooth, Chicken Raper and Stampede. On the Animas, there’s Smelter and Corner Pocket. On the Arkansas, be wary of Sunshine Falls, Sledgehammer, Wall Slammer, Lion’s Head, Spike Buck and Lose Your Lunch.


Of course, when it comes to naming rocks, rapids and beaches, the Grand Canyon is in a class all its own. Stories stick to stone. There’s Badger Creek Rapid, Soap Creek Rapid and the waterfall at Vasey’s Paradise, named by Powell “in honor of the botanist who traveled with us.”

There’s Kwagunt, Nankoweap and President Harding Rapid named in 1923 by a U.S. Geological Survey Expedition who learned of Harding’s death near that previously unnamed rapid. Hance Rapid commemorates miner, rancher, guide and storyteller John Hance, who often left his wife for months at a time. There’s Grapevine, Sockdolager, Serpentine and Bass. Dubendorff is named for a plucky boatman who lost it in a 15-foot drop and though badly bruised, ran it again.

Powell named Vulcan’s Anvil, a huge black rock a mile above Lava Falls. For decades, boaters left offerings on the rock as a blessing for a good run in the rapid below, but the Walapai Tribe prefers that the rock be left alone.


Place names are born from an intimacy with rivers and rocks, and names evolve over time.

In the Grand Canyon within the last few years, a policeman father became agitated that his bikini-clad daughter was becoming a little too enamored of a handsome, tanned, male river guide. Perhaps she liked his tattoos or his copper bracelet. One morning at breakfast, the officer lost it and fired two warning shots from a 9 mm pistol over the top of a coffee pot. The father/daughter received a quick exit courtesy of a National Park Service helicopter, and now, male guides, always wary of feminine attachments, call the place Nine Millimeter Beach.

Upset Rapid has the Shorty Burton Pie Tin Memorial. He flipped a motor rig and died there in the 1950s, when his life jacket became entangled in the boat’s tiller. Because he was famous for baking, Hatch river guides commemorate the spot by leaving a pie tin on a rock. Park service river rangers take down the tin. Hatch guides replace it with a new one.

“Sleep when you’re dead. Eat dessert first, and if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room,” river guides believe.

So get out there. Get wet. Get wild. Go where the rocks have names.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at