Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Book 1 of the Dawnwalker Cycle
Sitting around the big breakfast table several mornings each week at the Spearfish Lake Cafe was partly business for Randy. Considering the clientele, it was a good place to troll for construction work. It was accepted in Spearfish Lake that the best way to get a good deal on, say, a garage, was to get a bidding war set up around the breakfast table at the Spearfish Lake Cafe, where a lot of construction people went for breakfast. Nothing serious was ever done, and business was hardly ever transacted on the site, but a lot of deals over the years had their start over coffee and eggs and sausage. It was as good a place as any to test the waters in Spearfish Lake, and Mike McMahon from the Record-Herald had known it for years -- either he or his junior reporter had breakfast there most mornings.
Although there were several such breakfast tables around town, the construction people and the business people mainly used two. The other was at Rick's Cafe, down near the railroad office, although the railroad people mainly ate at the Spearfish Lake Cafe, since crew changes used to be done on the main line just outside, and habit prevailed. Randy went to Rick's now and then, although it was mostly Brent's regular place, so he didn't go there very often. It was probably just as well. It seemed that all the guys talked about at Rick's were hunting, golf, and football. Randy hadn't been out in hunting season since high school, hated golf, and was bored with high school football -- it had even bored him in high school.
The crowd at the Spearfish Lake Cafe was a little younger, and the conversation was rather more eclectic. It ran to rock and roll, women, football, pickup trucks, television, basketball, women, snowmobiles, kids, fishing, guns, country music, sex, politics, cars, baseball, computers, and women, but could take off anywhere and wind up almost anywhere else. Having Matt join him most mornings at the Cafe sort of took him back to the old days at NMU before he'd met Crystal and Myleigh.
"What are we talking about this morning?" Randy asked as he found an empty chair at the middle of the table.
"Would you believe dog sled training?" Mark Gravengood replied from up the table. It wasn't an unusual topic -- Josh Archer, who also usually ate at the Cafe, was Mark's brother-in-law, although many years separated them, and Josh had originally caught the dogsled bug from Mark.
"You don't do much of it anymore, do you?" Randy asked.
"Not really for myself," Mark smiled. "I only keep seven dogs of my own, now. But Josh keeps volunteering me to help out with his."
"Where's Josh this morning?" Randy asked.
"Out on the ass end of a dogsled, naturally. There's snow on the ground, so he's out. Got to, if he and Tiffany are going to stay somewhat close to the way the Alaskans train."
"Dere might be a feature story dere, eh?" Matt said, halfway to Mike, who sat across the table.
"Probably not," Mike said. "We've done a lot on it over the past ten years or so, and it's so close to home I hate to push it." It was close to home in more ways than one; the other half of the Josh and Tiffany duo was Mike's oldest daughter, and the two of them lived right across the road from Mike, along with what averaged out at about 120 dogs. Along with Mark, Mike had been the other crazy person who had reintroduced dogsleds to Spearfish Lake the decade before, and his daughter got the bug at the same time. The end result was that Josh and Tiffany had each run the Iditarod, the 1100-mile dogsled race in Alaska each of the past four years, and were getting set for their fifth try.
"I don' mean 'bout da racing, eh? Yust whad id takes ta deal wid trainin' an' feedin' dat many dogs, yaah." Over the past four months, Matt had pretty much laid off the Yooper accent at work, but he let it run full bore at the breakfast table.
"It is one hell of a big job," Mike said. He knew about it all too well -- he'd been volunteered to help many, many hours in the past, as well. "Huskies need socialization, they need to be with people a bit, or they get pretty wild. Josh and Tiffany actually have a pretty small kennel, compared to some of the people in Alaska. They cut it pretty tight, probably tighter than they should. They have to start the race with sixteen dogs each, or thirty-two between them. They usually try to have about fifty to sixty in training so they can have some selection, and that's only about half what the top Alaskans get by with. Add to that pups and retirees they don't want to get rid of, it adds up to a lot of dogs. If you even spend a few minutes a couple times a day with each dog when you feed them, you can blow through eight man-hours right there and not get anything else done."
"Sounds like dey need some help, yaah," Matt opined.
"They do have help," Mark grunted. "Mike, Kirsten and Henry, Jackie and me, and any other dog musher or crazy person they can volunteer. Hell, at this stage of training, it takes about twenty man-hours a day just for training, along with eight for feeding, and another couple for odds and ends. It'll get worse before it's over with. Between the two of them, they don't get a lot of sleep between now and the end of April. So, we help where we can."
"Then there's the dogsled rides and tours they give to help pay the bills," Mike said. "Some of that can count for training, a little, but still, there's another twenty to thirty hours a week. They've had hired help once or twice, people who want to learn how to handle dogsleds, maybe even do the race some day, but somehow a lot of it still winds up in our laps. It'd be nice if they could find someone this winter, since they've got a lot of other stuff they're trying to do, too."
Other stuff, Randy knew, was that the two had opened an outfitting business in a storefront in the same building as Joe's accounting business. There were a lot of sporting goods stores in the area, but they weren't really in the business of dealing with people interested in the outdoors who didn't hunt or fish. There had been no one selling kayaks at all, and the sporting goods dealers that sold canoes still thought aluminum. A couple of stores sold cheap bicycles, but no one sold quality touring bikes or gear. No one at all sold backpacking equipment and supplies. For that matter, no one sold dogsledding gear. There weren't many dogsledders around, but they needed gear, too; there was plenty of room to get in the mail order business of selling dogsled gear themselves.
Josh and Tiffany had known they were much busier than they wanted to be before they started the store, but the opportunity had seemed too good to pass up. They could only afford to be in dogsledding because they had sponsors; without them, the racing wouldn't pay for itself. It seemed like a good idea to have a position to fall back to if they had to give up racing, and the store was a natural; there was no point in letting someone else see the opportunity and take it. The store had a rocky start, partly due to the time problem, but also partly due to the fact they were learning the business themselves. But, they'd had some backers, Joe among them, and they'd had some help over the rocky spots. Randy had been one of those called on to help with whitewater and rolling instruction. He was glad to help out, in more ways than one; his sea kayak, a Necky Looksha, had been one of the first sea kayaks the two had sold.
"Sure would like to see them find a way to settle down and enjoy themselves a bit," Randy added to the conversation. "I'm afraid I don't know much about dogs, though."
"Yeah," Mike grumped again. "Kirsten keeps making sounds about wanting to be a grandmother, but the kids just don't have time to even think about that. I'm betting Henry will beat her to it. Even Susan has a shot." Henry was six years younger and a senior in high school, probably headed to State for college, so that was a few years up the road; Susan was only ten, though that was Tiffany's age when the dogsledding bug bit her.
"She showing any signs of taking up dogsledding like her big sister?" Joe asked from down at the end of the table.
"No, thank God!" Mike said. "I think she's learned how much work it involves. Susan's a normal kid; she doesn't want to work any harder than she has to."
"Any idea what she wants to do?" Randy asked.
"Who knows?" Mike grinned. "Today it's a nurse. Typical kid. Tiffany decided at her age she wanted to do the Iditarod, and it never once changed, but Susan changes her mind at least three times a week."
"No big deal," Mark said. "It takes some of us a while to figure out what we want to do when we grow up." He'd made a huge career change at the age of forty-four, and was more successful now than he'd been in his old one.
"Yeah," Joe, the assistant chief of the volunteer fire department said, "At least I've figured out that I want to be a fireman if I ever grow up."
"Hey, Matt," Randy asked, "While I'm thinking about it, Mom wanted me to ask if you and Janelle had any plans for Thanksgiving next week."
"Yaah, it's a relative ting, eh? Janelle and I, we go to Spread Eagle an' spend all day runnin' to da relatives."
"Dat's cool," Randy said, slipping into Yooper. "Mom said dat if you weren't doin' nuthin' she'd have ya for Tanksgivin' dinner, eh? But holywa, I bet ya don' haveta wear no suit an' tie in Spread Eagle, yaah."
Randy did have to wear a suit and tie for Thanksgiving dinner at the Clark's, but he'd at least become used to it.
The Clark family Thanksgiving dinner was late this year; they'd slid it back to the evening, so that Randy and Myleigh could join Nicole at an early dinner at the Szczerowski's, and at least there they dressed normally. Myleigh had driven up in the morning, to spend a day and a night and also spend some time pawing through her stored books; Nicole left the school down near Mosquito Valley on Wednesday right after classes ended and had driven until the early morning hours before arriving home.
What with one thing and another, it was after six when the five of them sat down at the dinner table at the Clark's. Randy and his dad were wearing suits and ties, of course, and the women were all dressed in elegant evening gowns. It had become a family tradition, and even Rachel and Ruth had joined in when they were there for holiday dinners, although neither they nor their families had made it this year -- there was hope for Christmas, though.
"Too bad we don't have Crystal here this year," Myleigh said as Randy poured her a glass of wine. Somewhere along the way, Randy and his dad had decided that if the women were going to do all the cooking, they could at least do the serving. That helped make it a special occasion, too.
"Yeah," Randy agreed, turning to fill Nicole's glass, "She's dropped off the face of the earth, again."
"No word since that card from Arizona, right?" Linda asked. "That was, what? Around the end of September?"
"First part of October, I think," Randy nodded. "She said she'd be another month or two getting back, so who knows?"
"I don't know what it is about that lass," Myleigh grinned. "I suspect there's an equal chance of her turning up here in the next five minutes and her calling next spring from the North Pole."
"You know, I suspect you're right," Randy said. "Back when she called from LA in August, I figured she'd be here for Thanksgiving. I guess she's got about six hours to not make a liar out of me."
Ryan started in carving the turkey while Randy took the wine bottle back to the kitchen. As he set it down on the counter, he saw lights driving into the driveway at the side of the house. Wonderful timing, he thought. Wonder what this is all about? He heard a car door slam, and went to the back door and opened it.
There in front of him stood Crystal, wearing a sweatshirt, blue jeans, and a big grin. "Am I too late for dinner?" she asked.
"Good God, no, stranger!" he smiled. "Come on in!" He turned to the room and said, "Look what the Starship Enterprise just beamed down." The dinner table emptied in an instant as everyone rushed to welcome their wandering girl. It had been over a year since they'd seen her, and there had been a lot of worrying and wondering and very little word about what she'd been doing in all that time.
"Darn it," Crystal protested. "I stopped and had dinner to kill time just so I wouldn't walk in on this," she shook her head. "I figured you'd have eaten hours ago, and I'm not dressed for it."
"You're dressed fine," Linda smiled. "You're here, that's the important part. We'll just set an extra place for our prodigal quasi-daughter. There's plenty."
"You sure?" Crystal asked.
"Oh we don't mind in the slightest. So long as you're here, that's enough."
Within minutes, the six were sitting down at the dinner table, the atmosphere a lot lighter than it had been a few minutes before. As Ryan started to carve the turkey again, and Randy poured Crystal a glass of wine, Myleigh was the one to ask the obvious question: "Crystal, what adventure have you been on this time? I dare say, not the moon."
"No," Crystal shook her head, with big grin, "Someplace even neater. The Grand Canyon."
"Oh, my," Myleigh laughed, "Your mother will indeed be jealous when she hears that."
The story started to come out as they ate. After she left Los Angeles, she'd headed for Colorado with the idea of checking in at Cooper Hill and doing some high country hiking. But, she never made it that far; she had to stop for gas at Flagstaff, and decided to get a restaurant meal for once. "They had one of those place mats full of ads for local businesses, and while I was waiting for them to bring my dinner I glanced at it and saw an ad for Canyon Tours. Boy, did that that ring a bell! Remember, Myleigh?"
"Oh, yes," Myleigh said, her eyes lighting up, "I remember your mother showing me through her scrapbook the first Christmas I spent at Glen Ellyn. She had such a faraway look in her eyes."
"Yeah, I grew up with that scrapbook," Crystal grinned. "I mean, I had no idea Canyon Tours was still in business, but I didn't have much I had to do. Their place was only a few blocks away, so I decided to check it out."
She recalled the invoice for the trip that had been saved in the scrapbook; the cost of her mother's trip in 1974 had been $400, but it had increased considerably since then -- more money than Crystal had, let alone wanted to spend. "But I remembered Mom saying that they used to let swampers go along for free, to help with the cooking and gear hauling, and like that, so I got one of the owners off in the corner, a neat guy by the name of Al, about my dad's age, and asked if maybe I could go like that. Well, he wasn't too enthused about it, but he asked if I knew anything about rafts, and I told him about guiding paddle rafts on the Ocoee for four summers. That got him interested, and he said, 'It's a lot of work, and we live kind of rough out there. Can you handle that?' Well, I told him I'd been through OLTA and did the AT last year, and he said, 'Well, all right. The raft truck and crew bus will be leaving in half an hour to set up for the trip tomorrow. If you can get your gear together in time, I'll give you a try.' I made it with twenty minutes to spare."
Al had driven the truck up to Lee's Ferry, the put-in for the trip, loaded with gear and food for a two-and-a-half week trip for twenty-four customers, five boatmen, and Crystal. It had been hot in the late-summer sun, and they'd sweated while unloading the truck, stashing supplies in waterproof containers, and tying all the gear into the boats, but they were ready at midday the next day when a charter bus showed up from Las Vegas with the passengers. Soon after, they were out on the muddy waters of the Colorado, floating down through the initial small Marble Canyon rapids on the same trip that Karin had taken almost a year before Crystal had been born.
After a few miles, they floated under Navajo Bridge, the last real sign of civilization they'd see for days. The Colorado swirled and glided along sculptured dark red sandstone walls, the rim of the Canyon started to loom higher and higher, a thousand feet, now, and the sky narrowed to a band of clear blue desert sky. Embraced by a world of rock and water, they reached the first real rapids, Badger, and the boats slid down a slick tongue of water, then bucked and swirled through the roar of the waves below. The water began to twist and turn the rafts, and Crystal was entranced by the whole thing.
Al stayed behind at Lee's Ferry; Al's wife, Louise, was the leader for this trip. She reminded Crystal a lot of Giselle, having that same hard-carved look about her of a woman who was made for an outdoor life, who'd spent a lot of time in the sun and gloried in it. As they sat around a bankside campfire the first night, she told stories of being on the river at the same time as Georgie White, the first woman to be a raft guide on the Colorado, and one of the inventors of the whole business. It had taken a long time for there to be a second woman raft guide, but Louise had been one of the first of that second generation, since back early in the seventies.
"All of a sudden, it hit me," Crystal related around the Clark Thanksgiving dinner table. "This was the woman I'd been named after! She's been doing the Colorado for almost thirty years, and oh, does she have the stories to tell!"
Women had a hard time getting accepted into the business back then, and there weren't a lot of them. The first time Canyon Tours put together an all-women trip they had to borrow raft guides from three different companies. When Crystal could get together alone with Louise, she told her about Karin and being named after her and the big rapids downstream. Although Louise had no memory of Karin -- a lot of customers had gone by in thirty years -- she thought it was amusing, and it led to more interest from a woman who'd been a little standoffish toward the green swamper. "She asked me if I'd ever done anything with an oar boat, and of course, I hadn't, but had all that Ocoee experience with paddle rafts, so she let me try it on some of the easier stuff," Crystal related. "It turned out that they're even easier to handle than paddle boats, or at least I think that. So, I wound up rowing maybe three quarters of the trip. We had a few passengers who decided to walk Crystal Rapids, so I rowed and she went with me when I went down my namesake rapids. I ran it clean, too. That was so cool!"
By the time Al met them at Diamond Creek Wash, the end of the trip, Crystal had become good friends with the older boatwoman -- and she had absolutely fallen in love with the Grand Canyon. "Next to the day I finished school and then had to leave home, it was the saddest day of my life when we reached Diamond Creek," Crystal said. "The Canyon is such a neat place, and now I had to leave it, and God, it hurt to have to even think about it. I mean, I was really bummed. The bus left with the passengers, and I hung around, helping to tear down the boats and load gear and get ready. Well, anyway, I guess in that time Louise had talked to Al, because when we got everything loaded, they came to me and Al said, 'Louise said you did darn good for a first-timer. If you want to do it again, be at the office at eleven Sunday for the run out to Lee's.' And I said, 'sure thing, I'll be there.' And then Al said, 'You gotta do three more trips and have our approval, then we'll give you a boat of your own.'"
"That's what took you so long?" Randy grinned. "You did the three trips?"
"Yaaah, you betcha," Crystal grinned hugely. "We finished the last one three days ago. I start again the middle of April. They liked all my paddle boat experience; they run some paddle trips, too, and maybe I can even teach them something. Look, you guys, the money isn't real great, the living is rough and primitive, you work like hell, there's responsibility, and it can be dangerous. But from that first trip on, I realized that almost everything I've done has been to get me ready for the Grand Canyon. I couldn't get over the feeling that it's where I'm supposed to be."
Nicole smiled. "I take it that means you're not planning on doing the AT again next summer, after all?"
"No," Crystal shook her head, "I was really looking forward to it until I got to Diamond Creek, and then I knew I was going to have to tell you no."
"Not to worry," Nicole smiled. "You do what you have to do, and you sound like you'd be really bummed to be out on the AT, instead of in the Canyon."
Crystal grinned. "Hey, if you want, maybe I can get you on as a swamper instead."
"Nice thought," Nicole laughed. "But, I'll take a pass. I really don't like whitewater for the sake of whitewater. Randy, Joe, and Rod have taken me out several times, but I just can't get into it. I don't mind running mild stuff on a canoe trip, but to do it as a thrill ride I'll take a pass. Jackpine and I ought to be all right on the AT."
"Thanks, Nicole. I was afraid you were going to be pi . . . upset with me."
"No, you have to follow your own dream," she told her friend. "I don't mind."
"Does your mother know this news yet?" Myleigh asked. "I'm sure she'll be excited."
"I haven't told her yet," Crystal told them. "Look, I want to handle this. I don't want her getting too excited. That trip of hers has always been a little touchy around my dad, so I don't want her getting worked up about it. I know you people have been talking back and forth with her a lot, but let me break the news, and I may have to ask you to not make a big deal about it in the future. I don't want her getting all thrilled and getting Dad into a hissy, for her sake."
Myleigh nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I think you are correct," she said. "I have seen your father get quite sarcastic when the subject comes up, and I would imagine it would be worse if it was to come up and you were involved. Randy, I do believe Crystal is quite correct in this."
"I'll tell her," Crystal said. "I'm just going to not make a big deal about it. At least I can with you guys. So, what's happening with everybody? All I've done is talk about me."
"Nothing as exciting as the Grand Canyon, I'm afraid," Randy said. But, there was a year of news, including a little to be passed on secondhand from Glen Ellyn, and it took the rest of the dinner to work their way through it. Crystal's sudden arrival and exuberant story telling had taken a little of the formality out of it, but that was all right. Everybody pitched in to get the table cleared away and the dishes in the dishwasher, and afterwards, they gathered in the living room, with a fire in the fireplace and more wine glasses in their hand.
"So, Crystal," Myleigh asked, "How long may we expect to see you this time?"
"Don't know yet," Crystal told them. "I haven't figured it out yet. I suppose I can go back to Cooper Hill, but I haven't checked in there, yet. I don't really want to go back out to Cooper Hill. The job is OK, but the bunkhouse parties got more than just a little out of hand. I sort of enjoy one once in a while, but every night gets a little silly. Barb and I spent a lot of time just putting up with them. Barb said there was no way she was going back this year, and I pretty well agreed with her."
"Yeah, it must have been like some of the party dorms at NMU," Randy agreed. "I don't know how any of those jokers ever got any studying done."
"Oh, well, there's always Florida, and maybe the dive boat again, or something. I plan on spending the summers in the Canyon for the next few years."
"Well, I can understand that," Randy said. "Can I get you to stay around for a few days?"
"Yeah, sure. A few days, but I don't want to leech off you and your folks all winter. I really do want to get a job and a place to stay of my own, even if it's not much."
"Not a lot around here, right now," Ryan told her. "In normal times I could maybe sneak you into the plant as a trainee or something, but sales and production slow down in the winter. We're going to try to keep everyone on through Christmas, but there may be some layoffs come the first of the year."
Crystal shook her head. "Thanks, Mr. Clark," she told him. "But I'd really rather not work in a plant. I'd much rather work outside, doing something physical. I need to be in good shape right from the get-go when we do our first trip."
"Well, give us a while to think about it," Ryan said. "There might be something up your alley."
"Yeah," Randy said. "It'd be nice to have you around for a while. Strange, but nice."
"I'd like to pick your brain about the trail some more," Nicole said. "I've got to head back down below Sunday morning, but I'll be back in three weeks for Christmas break. Randy and I plan to go to Florida again right after Christmas, but perhaps I could get Jackpine up here for a day or two."
"I don't know," Crystal shook her head. "I don't know if I should stick around that long," she said. "I'd start getting in the way."
"Oh, we'd be happy to have you here for Christmas," Linda said. "We're going to be having the whole clan, not an intimate little thing like today has been."
"Yes," Myleigh said. "I fear I must tell you I have to be heading back in the morning. I have a major paper due and simply cannot stay any longer. Had it not been for some books that I need, I should have been tempted to bypass the trip up here entirely. I shall be able to spend several days here before Christmas, and had planned to leave for Athens the same day Randy and Nicole leave for Florida."
"I'd like to stay," Crystal said. "I really have missed having a family Christmas for the last couple years, even a sort of family Christmas, since you people are about the only thing I've got that's even close to a family anymore. But I really should be tacking something down, even if it means Cooper Hill again."
For the last several minutes, there had been something knocking around in the back of his mind. There ought to be some sort of alternative outdoor job around here that would be up her alley . . . and all of a sudden, he realized maybe there was.
"I might have an idea," he said. "I was talking with Tiffany's dad over breakfast the other day, and he sort of said that they were looking for a dog handler."
Crystal frowned. "I don't know," she said. "I mean, I get along with dogs OK, but we never had one when I was a kid. About all I know is that you feed one end and clean up what comes out the other."
Randy threw back his head and laughed. "If I understand what Mike rants about at least every other day over breakfast, that's most of the qualifications you need. It'd be mostly feeding and cleaning up, but I'll bet you'd learn to run a dogsled out of the deal."