Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Book 1 of the Dawnwalker Cycle
"Well, I got good news and bad news," Crystal told Myleigh and Randy, who had been waiting in the car, sitting outside the Ocoee Adventures office in Ducktown, Tennessee.
The place was sleepy; it was still winter, here, before the rafting season opened, but the signboards all over the place indicated that it would be busy indeed, when the summer months came. In a metal building behind the office, Randy could see whitewater rafts, some deflated and sitting on shelves, some inflated, so they could be worked on. It was a nice day, especially compared to Marquette's ice and snow, and Lake Superior gray and full of ice floes from the shore to the horizon. Though it was early March, the trees were still barren. Although the locals down in the extreme southeast corner of the state must have considered the day raw and blustery, there was no snow to be seen, so it seemed positively balmy outside to the three northerners.
"Pray, let us have the good news, first," Myleigh smiled.
"They want me back again this summer," Crystal told them. "Just as soon as school's out. They'll only be releasing on weekends until June, but there's other things I can do to kill time during the week. There's some good rock climbing around here, other rivers run during the week, and the Outer Banks aren't that far off. Sometimes the surf gets up pretty good in the spring. But, that's not the best news."
"What's that?" Randy yawned. He'd slept like the dead in the back seat since shortly before dawn, while Crystal had driven the final lap into Ducktown -- she knew the way, in any case. It hadn't been enough sleep, and he was still a little groggy.
Crystal smiled. "They're making me a senior guide and trip leader this year. That makes for an extra five bucks a run. They don't do that for just anybody, and when you get in three and sometimes four runs a day, it starts to add up pretty fast. Besides, I get to do more runs on some of the other rivers around here."
On their way to Chicago from Marquette, Crystal had explained the job at Ocoee Adventures a little. It really wasn't that high paying of a job, she'd told them, but it was exactly the sort of summer job she liked, doing things she liked to do. On days that enough water was released from the Tennessee Valley Authority dam a few miles above Ducktown, she'd take raft-loads of passengers down the river. Depending on how busy they were and other things, it could take from forty-five minutes to two hours to make the trip, then usually an extra hour or two in between to shuttle back to the office, pick up the next group of passengers, and head out for the next run. Since the five miles on what was referred to as the "middle section" of the Ocoee was about the best nearly continuous Class III-IV whitewater in the east, it was a quick and popular thrill ride for the passengers. It was the job of the guides to keep it thrilling and safe as the passengers helped to paddle the rafts down the river.
Class III or no Class III, it did get boring to make the same run, over and over again, and Crystal had given some thought over the winter to applying to some outfitters on rivers in West Virginia, just for the sake of doing something different. But Ducktown and the Ocoee are located near a great collection of whitewater rivers of many types, so it's a Mecca of a sort for whitewater boaters, and it was one to Crystal.
She had first gone to Ducktown on her spring break two years before. The outfitters in the region usually don't have much trouble filling jobs for raft guides with college students, some who had considerably more experience with whitewater than Crystal had at that point. The OLTA diploma and her Wilderness First Responder card got her a grudging offer from Ocoee Adventures to "come down when school's out, and we'll run you down the river and see what you've got." She'd driven straight through from Marquette, not even stopping off in Glen Ellyn, and after one spring weekend when the river was releasing, she was hired on the spot. She had a talent, it seemed, for making the trips thrilling but safe for the customers. She didn't screw around or act stupid, and was always ready for more.
"Well, if that's the good news, what's the bad news?" Randy asked.
"We're not going to be running the Ocoee today," she said. "It's higher than snot. I wouldn't even run the damn thing in a raft, and difficulty is way above what you're used to. Besides, I caught the weather report when I was in there. It's going to get below freezing tonight. That wouldn't bother me, and probably wouldn't bother you, either, but I don't think Myleigh would be too thrilled about camping out in it."
"Yes, I would just as soon avoid that," Myleigh said. "Camping in the best of conditions is roughing it enough for me, and I don't think I'd care to be frozen into a Popsicle."
"Oh, it's not that bad, but we don't have to do it," Crystal said. "We can head right on down to Florida if we want."
"I suppose," Randy said, a little disappointed. "It's just that it seems ridiculous to haul these boats this far and not get to use them, especially if we're around here."
"My thinking exactly," she smiled. "I did some calling around. The Nanty's running just a little high. I've run that lots of times. It's normally Class IIs, with a couple of easy IIIs, but at this level I figure we can add half a grade. The toughest drop, Lesser Wesser, is right at the takeout, so if you do swim, you don't swim very far. Anyway, you ought to be able to handle it. In fact, it ought to be just about perfect for where you're at. The best part is, it's only thirty miles or so right up the road, and it's an easy shuttle for Myleigh. We can get in a run, oh, for a couple hours, maybe stop and play a bit in some of the holes, and then head on south."
"Maybe we can stop on the way back north, too," he suggested. "The weather might be better."
"That's sort of what I was thinking," Crystal agreed. "If the surf is flat, maybe we can head back a little early and get a motel for a night, and check out some other spots. What do you think, Myleigh?"
"It sounds perfectly reasonable," she said. "I confess, I'd definitely not be looking forward to attempting to sleep in a freezing tent."
"The road runs right along the river," Crystal added. "So, you could follow along and watch us, maybe take some pictures. Or, you can hang around the Nantahala Outdoor Center while you're waiting for us," Crystal suggested. "There's probably not much there to interest you, but there's some nice places to sit out beside the river and read a book."
"Yes, Moll Flanders and I might appreciate the serenity," she smiled. "However I may watch you two fools risk your lives for a bit."
"Nantahala" means "River of the Noonday Sun," according to the tourist brochures, but no one is sure what it really means. The river lies deep in a narrow, spectacular rock-strewn gorge along US-19. The Nantahala is a small, friendly stream as whitewater rivers go, and on warm days in the summer it is packed with a colorful collection of kayaks, rafts, inflatable kayaks and tubes. There are several places where people congregate to watch the action.
This, however, was a cold spring day, not a warm summer one, and there were only a couple of cars at the put-in. "It's really strange to see the parking lot this empty," Crystal said as they untied the boats from the roof rack of the Olds. "On a hot summer day, there can be so many people that you can't find a place to park. It's that bad when the Ocoee isn't running in the middle of the week. Then it gets packed even worse on the weekends."
"This is a wetsuit river, right?" Randy asked.
"Yaaah, you betcha," Crystal said. "This river is the coldest son of a bitch in the south. Superior may even be warmer. Take a swim in the summer and it gets interesting."
"Where do we change?" he asked.
"Oh, we can change over in the cans, I suppose," she replied. "But they're a little rank at the best of times. We can do it around behind the car, if Myleigh would be nice enough to keep an eye out."
As it turned out, they changed behind the car, both of them stripping down to underwear bottoms while Myleigh served as a lookout. Crystal's wetsuit was old and had seen a lot of use; Randy's was new, ordered after a couple of bad experiences with borrowed Outdoor Club wetsuits the fall before. Crystal had been along on one of those trips, and that had been the first time he'd taken notice of her, although they really hadn't talked much back then. Randy had a black wetsuit jacket to go on over his full-length sleeveless "farmer john," where Crystal had a Gore-Tex drytop with tight neoprene bands at the neck, wrists and waist to go over her farmer john. It was green and white, and had seen much less use than the wetsuit.
They put on personal flotation devices, spray skirts and helmets, then grabbed paddles and boats to carry them the short distance down the hill to the put-in, as Myleigh tagged along. Crystal had the club's purple Acrobat, a short playboat, meant for spinning and doing enders, while Randy had an older Dancer, which Crystal said was a pretty good boat for river running, although it wasn't much as a playboat. They sat the boats down right on the lip of the launch, got in and buttoned up for running.
"I like to do a roll, right at the beginning, just to be sure I'm tuned up and ready," Crystal said. "And, hell, you might as well get wet right from the start so you don't have to worry about it later."
"Sounds good to me," Randy agreed, trying not to feel nervous. "Is it even deep enough to roll here?"
"It's pretty shallow, but at this level there's enough room once you get out to the deeper part of the pool. It's still pretty shallow, and keep your tuck in good. You ready?"
"Yeah, let's do it."
"You two be careful," Myleigh said, raising the camera to snap a picture of them hand-walking the boats forward a few inches to where they could slide into the water.
Randy let Crystal go ahead out to the deep part of the pool, and then watched as she did a quick screw roll, then an offside sweep roll the other way. "I guess I'm getting that offside pretty good," she said. "You try it."
Crystal and Randy had been working on his roll fairly heavily for a couple weeks. He was to the point where he was halfway confident with an onside roll, done toward his right hand, but his offside was a very shaky thing, so he decided not to risk it at this point. He leaned out, let the boat roll, got his set position, swept with the power face of the paddle and gave a solid hip snap; the boat easily popped back upright, showing that the practice had been to good cause.
"Good God, that water's cold!" he exclaimed. "What the hell do they do, pipe it down here from Superior?"
"It depends on where they take it out of the feeder lake," Crystal explained as she spun the little Acrobat on its flat bottom and started to paddle downriver. "It comes out of the top of the lake on the Ocoee, so in the summer it's like paddling bathwater. It comes out of the bottom of the lake here, so it's pretty cold, even in the summer. Once in a while you even get a layer of fog above the river on a hot summer day. Makes finding your line kind of fun sometimes."
The first rapids, Patton's Run, lay just around the bend, a hundred yards off. The current moved around the big rock that opened the run, across a shoal with several large standing waves downstream of it. For a moment Randy wondered what he'd gotten himself into, but remembered he'd done bigger waves up on Piers Gorge. As it turned out, it was easy enough, and straightforward; he went whooping down through the waves, riding up over one after the other and plunging down into the next. In only a moment, he was getting near the downstream end of the rock, and started edging toward the left. He threw in half of a big turning sweep with his paddle, and leaned on the opposite blade to brace as he crossed the eddy line into the flat below the rock.
He spun around just in time to watch Crystal spin the boat upstream, and try to catch one of the standing waves to surf it. It didn't quite work; she got carried over it despite hard paddling, tried to spin around to get pointed downstream again, but not quite in time, so she went over the next wave sideways, depending on a brace to keep her upright. By the time she got to the next one she had things under control again, and within seconds was sitting next to Randy. "Should have been able to catch that," she said with a smile. "Guess I'm a little rusty after laying off all winter. There'll be plenty of other places to tune up downstream."
Patton's Run had provided a little excitement to get the run going, and the next three miles of river were relatively calm, if not always exactly placid. It consisted of flat stretches, broken up occasionally by short shoals, chutes, and an occasional standing wave, most with holes where a back roller generated a "keeper," with weird currents that allowed some special moves to be made. There was one of these called "Pop 'n' Run" at Winding Stairs Road, where a bridge ran nearly overhead, and as they came up on it, Crystal told Randy he ought to try to surf it. "It's a real good one to practice on," she said. "That Dancer won't spin like this, but it'll go upstream better, so you ought to have a pretty good shot at catching it."
Randy had tried surfing the waves at Piers Gorge, and had an idea of how it was done, even though he hadn't had a lot of success. Now, he waited in a little eddy, watching Crystal approach the wave, spin, and paddle upstream to get up enough speed to catch the wave. Once she had it, she was able to stay on it for a few seconds, before spinning the boat, shooting over the top and eddying out at the bottom. "You try it," she called to him over the roar of the water.
A little nervously he left the spot where he'd waited, got down near the wave and spun to catch it, just in time, but hard paddling got him parked on the wave. He rode it for several seconds before a strange change in the current flushed him over the top, backwards. He spun the boat again, and came out in the eddy next to Crystal, a huge smile on his face. "Hey, that was fun," he told her.
"Told ya so," she smiled. "Hope Myleigh got a picture." She nodded her head toward the bridge, where Myleigh stood, camera in hand. They waved at her -- the noise was a little too much to talk -- and headed on down the river. "There's some other nice waves to try out through here," she explained. "We can stop and mess around if you want."
"Yeah, sure," he said. "I've always liked running this stuff -- never anything quite like this, of course -- but playing in it is more fun."
They ran on downstream, stopping to play at some of the other landmarks on the river, like Pyramid Rock, Highway 19, and Delebar's Rock, all of which were little holes or surfing waves. In between the spots, the river was fast and lively, although nothing that really had to concern them. Despite the chill of the day, the sun was out, and they soon began to feel warm inside the neoprene of the wetsuits -- but as cold as the water was, and as cold as the air was, too, it felt good. There were bird sounds over the whisper of the water, and a couple of times they heard spring peepers. It still may have been winter down at the bottom of the Nantahala gorge, but spring wasn't far away. Soon, the gorge would be alive with butterflies and rhododendrons, filled with life as another season started on the river.
Three miles or so after Pop 'n' Run, an old rock quarry came into view on river left. "This is Quarry Rapids coming up," Crystal told Randy. "It's one of the better play holes on this river. There's a huge standing 'V' wave with a couple of eddies on either side. There's plenty of room to work, so there's no reason we can't both try it at the same time."
They swept around a curve, and the wave stood in front of them. Close together, they swung through the entrance, then Crystal pulled to one side to hunt a sweet spot while Randy moved to the other, but as he moved to catch the wave, he made the mistake of leaning the boat upstream. It was here. Just that quick the force of the current caught him and rolled him upside down right through the wave.
There were rocks in this section of river. He started to get set to roll as the boat floated backwards downstream, upside down, and one bumped the back of his helmet while he tried to sort out the shock of having flipped. Shit! he thought, got set, and started to roll, but another rock struck as he started his sweep, and it threw his timing off. For an instant, he thought about popping the skirt and exiting, but that wasn't why he'd been working on rolling with Crystal. He got set again, took his time, and managed to pop the boat upright, still going backwards. He dug in his paddle and spun the boat around, to notice Crystal pulling up beside him.
"You OK?" she asked anxiously.
"Good combat roll," she smiled as they bumped downward through the shoals below the V-wave. "Up is good, down is bad. It's that simple."
They bumped and scraped their way down through the next quarter mile or so, trying to find deeper water to stay in, but finding nothing difficult. Despite blowing the wave at Quarry, Randy felt pretty good. He'd been worried about what would happen when he had to "combat roll" in action, without thinking about it, and when the chips were down the training had come through for him. Yes, he could do this.
They headed on downstream, stopping to play at several places. Eventually the river began to flatten out and spread out, so wasn't as swift. "OK, the last rapids on the river is up ahead," Crystal explained as they floated along peacefully. "It's the worst one we'll see today, Nantahala Falls, although everyone calls it 'Lesser Wesser.' I don't see any reason why you can't run it, although we should get out and scout it first. We definitely take out in the pool just downstream, at the Outdoor Center. Wesser Falls is only a little way downstream -- we call it 'Worser Wesser.' I know people who have run it, but I'm not crazy enough to try it."
They floated on down the river, to where there was a sign, "Dangerous Rapid Ahead," suspended from a wire overhead. Immediately below, on river right, there was a beach, with the Nantahala Outdoor Center visible through the still-barren trees, and they pulled out and landed. As they got out of their boats, legs stiff from the sitting position, they could see Myleigh waiting for them up the hill. They walked up to join her, then down the river bank to the scouting point outside the Outdoor Center.
At first glance, Lesser Wesser seemed like a complicated, seething mass of churning white water, but as Randy stared at it and studied it, he could see that it was actually a series of ledges, with eddies here and there. The roar of the running water was loud. There was a small rapids at the top, a fairly large hole, and then the big drops. Looking at it, he could pick out a good line to follow down the big drop, and could actually pick out a couple of play spots in it, not that he thought he really wanted to try stopping and surfing in that confusion. "How do you grade it?" he asked.
"High Class III," she shrugged. "Maybe low IV at this level. We'll see what the regulars up at the center think a little later. Wanna run it?"
"I think so," he told her. "I don't know about stopping and playing in the middle, but it looks like I could run it OK."
"You can handle it if you're careful," she assured him. "If you want to play afterward, eddy out river left just below the drop, then work your way up that ledge on the far side to get back into the playhole. We take out right below here, river right, down by the bridge. Actually, that's the raft landing, but this time of year no one ought to mind."
"Yeah, I see it."
"Myleigh, why don't you take the camera and telephoto, and stand right about here to get a picture?" she asked. "This is a favorite spot for people to come and try to get photos of carnage. In the summer, there's usually a crowd here to watch the action. You get people running through here who don't know what they're doing, so there's usually plenty of swimming."
Randy looked at the falls again, trying to set the cues in mind that he would need when he peeled out of the eddy at the top of the ledge, to be sure he had the right line to take over it. It seemed intimidating, but he was pretty sure he could run it all right. If he hit the line right, it wouldn't be difficult, although he could expect a pretty good splash at the bottom of the ledge. Still, this was easily the toughest patch of water he'd ever thought about running. He was pretty sure that the best thing to do was to go ahead and do it before he thought about it too much.
"Yeah," he told Myleigh. "I'm sure the insurance company will be glad to have the photo."
"Be careful, Randy," Myleigh said, foregoing the flowery language. "Don't do it if you think you're going to be in over your head."
"I don't think I'm getting into anything I can't handle," he told her. "I just have to do it, that's all."
While Myleigh waited on the rocky outcrop overlooking the falls, Randy and Crystal hiked back up to where the boats sat waiting. As they got into the boats and fastened spray skirts, Randy asked, "How do you want to do this? You first, or me first?"
"I think I'd better go first," she said. "That way I'll be in the eddy at the bottom to fish you out if you get into trouble. Wait in the eddy at the top until I get out of the pool behind the ledge, and then start out. Take your time, get a good line down the tongue over the ledge, and paddle hard to clear it. This ain't that hard, Randy."
"Let's go for it. Good luck, Crystal."
"You'll be OK," she smiled, pushing her boat out into the current. From there, the roar of Lesser Wesser was muted, but he could see it waiting for him not far downstream. While Crystal went ahead, Randy caught the little eddy just above the first patch of technical water, and turned to look as she went smoothly down it without difficulty. She eddied out in the pool above the ledge, spun around, paddled hard, and disappeared over the top into the maelstrom below.
There was nothing left but to do it.
Randy leaned the boat down-current as he exited the eddy, and ran though the easy water above the drop to the pool without any problems. He could see the line he wanted, and knew he could reach it, so just dug in with the paddle and aimed for the tongue of water roaring over the ledge, paddling hard. There was a little "boof" as he hit the lip of the ledge; then the boat nosed down hard into the swirling water. He kept his paddle low to brace, because he seemed to feel he was a little far to the left, but in only a couple of seconds he was at the bottom, leaning downstream and paddling hard to make the eddy where Crystal was waiting for him.
"Hey, nice clean run," she said, a big grin on her face as he pulled up alongside her.
He was lightheaded from the adrenaline that had built up in the run over the falls. His heart pounded. He'd done it! "That was somethin'," he breathed heavily. He glanced across the river; Myleigh was holding up the camera, with a big grin on her face; she must have gotten a good shot.
"Gonna make a whitewater freak out of you, yet. Wanna go play in the hole?"
"Sure," he said.
"OK, this is a good place to do enders," she told him. "You know how to do it. Paddle straight in, lean forward, then stand straight up on your foot pegs. This boat ought to be able to ender on flatwater, but you'll need some down force to get yours up. I'll go first, and you watch me."
She worked her way up the ledge on river left. It was mostly under water, but she ran aground a couple of times and had to hand-walk the boat up to where she could get in the hole. Once she was in the frothing water, she nosed the boat down, and it stood vertically in the water on the nose, with a paddle stroke to spin her around. Then, the boat caught some current on the nose, and flopped her down backward, pointing downstream. She flew up over the standing wave at the bottom of the hole, and pulled back out into the eddy. By then, he'd worked his way up behind her to the top of the side ledge, so pushed off to follow.
OK, let's try it, he thought. Off of the quiet of the ledge into the swirling drop, spin around, lean forward on the foot pegs, and the boat's nose dove. As it was coming up, he took a sweep with his paddle to swing it around, and everything happened quickly, racing by. A lean back, a brace to keep the boat straight, a little too late, and he plopped down, being carried sideways over the lip of the hole. Frantically, he stuck in a sweep to try and spin the boat around, right at the top of the wave, when the boat's ends were out of the water and could turn even easier than normal. Somehow, it came out all right, headed down over the series of standing waves. A quick move to eddy out again, and there was Crystal waiting.
"Nice pinwheel," she said. "Maybe I'm gonna wind up making a playboater out of you."
Myleigh waited for them on the landing ramp when they pulled into it with big grins on their faces. One by one, she grabbed the loops at the front of each of their boats, and pulled them up onto the asphalt of the landing. "How was it?" she asked.
"That was great," Randy exclaimed.
"Good run," Crystal said exuberantly, a big smile on her face. "Randy got into a little carnage up in Quarry, but he rolled it upright just like he's supposed to, and he made up for that with that big ender here. You get any good pictures?"
"I think I got a couple of good ones of you two coming over the falls, and then some more of you playing below them," she said, the camera still dangling from around her neck. "Crystal, I fear you are debauching this poor lad. You're turning him into a drug addict, just like you are."
"No dope involved," Randy said conversationally as he squirmed to get out of the boat.
"Nevertheless, she is a serious drug addict," Myleigh teased. "Except her drug of choice is adrenaline, and I'm afraid she's addicting you. Now I shall hear of nothing from you two except enders and boofs and pinwheels and rolling and other such strange terminology for the rest of the trip."
"Naw," Crystal teased back. "We get him down to Florida and on a surfboard, and there's another whole set of jargon I can lay on him."
"Yes, I know, pearls and rips and curls," Myleigh said, feigning indigence; it was clear by the smile on her face. "That's what I mean: you are debauching the poor lad."
They were still teasing each other as Randy and Crystal carried their boats back up the hill to the parking lot at the Outdoor Center, but Randy didn't pay a lot of attention to it. While the Nantahala had proven to be an easy whitewater river, except for Lesser Wesser, it had been the hardest whitewater he'd ever done, but even with the upset at Quarry, he felt like he'd more or less handled it comfortably and competently. If nothing else, it proved that he could run whitewater that was more difficult than any he had run in the past, and Lesser Wesser had proved that he could, at least carefully, progress on to harder stuff. Maybe he'd have to think of getting a whitewater boat of his own; there were a couple guys in Spearfish Lake who ran whitewater; maybe he could hook up with them. And, maybe he could consider coming down here over the summer, when Crystal would be here, and spend some time running some of the other water in the area when it wasn't quite as cold. It would make a good reason to get away from Spearfish Lake for a few days.
At the top of the hill, Crystal glanced at the sun and looked around the nearly empty parking lot. "Jeez, it's later than I thought," she said, shaking her head. "We haven't eaten yet, and I want to talk to the folks inside for a bit."
"I could stand to get something to eat myself," Randy agreed.
"We'll play hell getting anything around here this time of year, I'll bet," Crystal said with another headshake and a frown. "The restaurants are all seasonal, and I don't think anything opens up till the end of the month, maybe even later than that. That means we're either gonna have to eat out of the trunk, or find some place on the road."
"Whatever you want," he told her. "But if we can find a restaurant open, I'm buying. It'll be a pain in the ass to dig all that stuff out just to get one meal out of it. Most of the food is pretty well buried, anyway."
"Yeah, we didn't think too good when we packed the car," Crystal agreed thoughtfully. "They do have a changing room inside. What do you say that before we tie the boats down, we go in, and get out of the wet stuff? We can ask if there's anything open around here."
"Sounds good to me," Randy said as they reached the Olds. He already had the boat halfway up, so he rotated it and put it on the roof rack, next to the surfboard, which was tied on edge to an upright post in the middle of the rack. In an instant, he gathered his clothes and shoes from the car and followed Crystal up to the Outdoor Center.