Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Book 1 of the Dawnwalker Cycle
It all seemed so familiar, yet so foreign. Karin's eyes were looking mostly outside the windows of the big charter bus through the many hours of the trip from the MGM Grand. She remembered spots, like the pines at the top of the Kaibab Plateau, and how like the forests of Spearfish Lake they were, but it was a quarter of a century ago, and many things had faded. She remembered well the turnoff onto the steep road down to Lee's Ferry, remembered how excited and how apprehensive she'd been, heading out into the unknown, almost a child clear back then. A lot of water had flowed down the Colorado since then, and this time she wasn't scared of the unknown before her -- she did have other fears that were adequate, but at least the river, distant though it was in memory, seemed to be a known factor.
There had been some improvements made to the put-in at Lee's Ferry; it was still pretty wild, but not quite as rude and primitive as it had been in those long-past days. Just like the last time, there were a number of rafts pulled up on shore, already partly loaded with gear, and a group of boatmen -- and boatwomen -- standing around waiting for the bus, sitting on the pontoons, ready for another trip. That memory was clear, indeed, and now, here she was again.
The bus braked to a stop. "Here we are," the driver said. "There'll be someone outside the door to take your names. I'm going to set the baggage out, pick it up when I unload it, and head over around the rafts."
The bus emptied slowly, and Karin was back near the end of the line. It moved slowly; but as she got closer to the front of the bus, she could hear people giving their names as they got off. Only as she rounded the corner could she see that the name-taker was Crystal, wearing a Canyon Tours T-shirt and baseball cap, staring down at a clipboard. Karin hadn't seen her in nearly two years, now, not since that horrible afternoon with Nanci and Kip, although they'd talked on the phone half a dozen times.
"Name, please," Crystal said.
She couldn't help herself: "Karin Chladek." She had the pleasure of watching Crystal snap her head up, jaw agape, eyes wide, and give a little cry of shock. "Mom!" she cried. "What are you doing here?"
"Getting set to run the Grand Canyon," Karin smirked. "Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing?"
"Mom, your name isn't on the list . . ." she looked down, and thumbed through a couple of pages. "That frickin' Michelle," she grumbled. "K-a-r-e-n S-l-a-d-i-k. Crap, I never noticed. I hope she got your credit card number right."
"Oh, yes," Karin smiled ruefully. "She made a point of reading it back to me."
"That bubblegum chomping brat," Crystal grumped. "Darn it, I know 'Chladek' isn't the easiest name to spell phonetically, but she writes my frickin' paycheck for God's sake, she ought to have known better. Look, I got a ton to do. Grab your bags while I get everybody else checked in, and stand off to the side, and we can talk for a minute."
Karin got her bags and watched Crystal check off the last of the customers, and head over to her. "Mom, look, what's Dad going to say when he finds out you're here?"
"Pete doesn't know," Karin smiled. "He's in Japan."
"Japan?" Crystal said, amazed. "What in sin is he doing in Japan?"
"Company business. Look, Crystal. It's very simple. He's going to have to accept that I'm here with you. If he doesn't, I refuse to be concerned about it anymore."
"You mean . . .?"
"Very likely," Karin admitted. Unfortunately, it was a spinoff of her real reason for being here, but now was not the time to raise that issue. Somewhere down the river would be fine. "I've about had it with his unnecessary anger and the way he's treated you. This is put up or shut up for him."
"Oh, Mom," Crystal shook her head. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Karin counseled. "It's been that way for some time. It's just coming to a head, and now it gets settled, one way or the other."
"Look, Mom, I got a lot to do . . ." She raised her head and looked around. There was an older couple with several small bags, and they were having trouble with them. She raised her voice. "Randy!" she shouted. "Help these folks with their bags."
Karin looked up at the name, to see a familiar person detach himself from the crowd around the rafts. What was he doing here? She'd gotten that letter from him in Spearfish Lake just days ago! "Randy's here?" she asked.
"Yeah, Mom," she said. "He's a customer, signed up at the last minute, just like you, I guess. We're a little shorthanded this trip, and he's been helping out."
"Crystal, is there something going on with you two?"
"No, Mom," Crystal said, sounding a little exasperated. "I asked him to come last winter, and he got a chance that he didn't think he'd get till it happened. He's getting set to get married, but not to me. Nicole, a girl I walked with on the AT for a while. I think I told you about her. He came up with us from Flagstaff, and he bent my ear half the way about the house they're building and the furniture they're buying. I'm just a little jealous of her, but I don't want him to know."
"I'm sorry," Karin said. "I guess I thought maybe there was something."
"Once, there was," she said, sounding angry now. "But you and Dad loused it up. We'd been planning on living together in Marquette my last semester. It was my one chance to see if I could live like that with him, or maybe with anyone. Myleigh and I had talked about it lots. Then, you had to go and jam Nanci down my throat!"
"Crystal, I had no idea." Karin said. "I thought perhaps you were living with him in Spearfish Lake last winter."
"Wouldn't have worked," she said, sounding even angrier. "It was too late then, he was hooked up with Nicole. We couldn't have done it anyway. It's a small town, and the Clarks are important people. He can't have the gossip going around. He and I would have been pretty anonymous in Marquette, and we'd have been leaving soon, anyway. So, I lost my chance to find out if I could live like a normal person. No, I spent last winter living in a pickup camper surrounded by a hundred and twenty howling huskies."
What could she say? "Crystal, I, we had no idea . . ."
"I know, Mom. I was trying to keep from hurting you. But if you think I sound bitter about it, it's because I am. Randy's a hell of a guy, and we were pretty close before you and Dad and Nanci wrecked it. Now, we're just friends."
"Crystal, I'm sorry," Karin said. "I wish I could make it better, but I can't. I am trying to heal some of the damage."
"I know, Mom," she said exasperatedly. "Look, we gotta talk some time, but not now. I got too much to do. Here, I'll grab your bags. We gotta get down to the group."
Crystal grabbed both of the heavy duffle bags in one hand, and carried her clipboard with the other as they walked down to the group clustered around the rafts, nuzzled up on the river bank. She set down the bags, hopped up onto a raft, and climbed up on top of a large drybox that doubled as a seat. "Yo, folks, listen up," she yelled.
The crowd became silent and turned their attention toward her. "My name is Crystal Chladek," she said in a clear voice that carried to the edge of the crowd. "I'm your trip leader on this little expedition."
Karin opened her eyes a little. Trip leader? That was interesting! If she was trip leader, then maybe Al wasn't going along after all. Karin listened as Crystal continued; she sounded bright and chipper, with no hint of the anger and bitterness in her voice of a few seconds ago. "I'll warn you right now, if you call me 'Chris,' I'll look over my shoulder to see who you're talking to. Now, we're going to be together for over two weeks, and I'm sure we're all going to get to know each other a lot better by the time we get to Diamond Creek, but let's get started with some introductions. First, I have to say I had a heck of a surprise when one of you got off the bus, so I'm going to start off with the person most responsible for me being here in the first place. She ran this river twenty-five years ago, and gave me the bug and the love for it. My mother, Karin Chladek. Stick up your hand, Mom. It was twenty-five years, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was," Karin smiled.
"It's going to be interesting to see what your impressions are," Crystal said with a big smile. "The other person I want to introduce is a long-time friend, who's running this river for the first time, but we've been around a few blocks and down a few rivers before, Randy Clark."
Randy stuck up his hand briefly, and grinned as Crystal continued. "Now, I want to mention him right at the beginning, because you've seen him humping heavy objects around since you got here. He's not a member of the crew, just a customer, like you are, but he's the kind of guy who's always ready to pitch in when there's work to be done. Now, we got a little problem, folks. Usually in the summer, we have several extra hands on these trips just to help out with the lifting and carrying. Most of them are college students and they're all back in school now, so I'm going to have to ask each one of you to lend a hand now and then. It's not going to be a big deal if we all work together, and it'll help you feel more like you're a part of the trip, rather than just along for the ride. We're still going to have a lot of fun and see the most awesome countryside on earth, bar none. Is that all right with everybody?"
"Sure thing," a voice came from the crowd, and there were several assenting voices.
"Thought so," Crystal smiled. "I knew you were a good bunch. OK, the next person I want to introduce is our assistant trip leader, Scooter Whitsell." The solid-looking blonde stuck up her hand.
"I'll let you in on a secret," Crystal grinned. "Her real name is Rhonda, but she doesn't answer to it either, unless you use it three or four times, and maybe hit her with something. So, stick with Scooter. Now, I know you're thinking, what are a couple of kids like us doing running this trip, women at that? Well, Scooter and I may be young, but we've been running around the outside in general and rivers in particular for a long, long time. We both got an early start. Almost everything I've done, Scooter has done more of."
"Almost," Scooter grinned in a loud voice. "I never worked a fishing boat in Alaska like you did."
"You've got time," Crystal grinned. "I guess that'll have to be a campfire story somewhere down the river. Now, I'll be the first to say we haven't done it all, but Scooter will agree with me that we do share a common goal -- we are going to do it all."
That drew a laugh, which Karin was sure Crystal intended. The crowd was loosening up a little.
"OK, let's get to the other boatmen," Crystal continued. "The first boatman I'm going to introduce has done it all, at least as far as the Canyon is concerned. He came along at the last minute to fill in for a boatman who had to go back to college. The reason he's not the trip leader is he learned a long time ago that it's less work and more fun to be a boatman than a trip leader. And, he can make it stick, since he owns Canyon Tours -- Al Buck."
Karin's eyes opened wide -- Al was going after all! He stuck up his hand sheepishly, and her eyes shot to him, sitting down on a raft, half lost in the crowd. Her attention had been so much on Crystal that she hadn't noticed him. There he was, after all these years. He looked, well, pale and uncomfortable, not the grinning Al of her memory, of the picture she'd held in her hands only yesterday. Would he remember her? Probably not, she realized; it was a long time ago; there had been too many customers, too many girls looking for adventure and romance. Still wondering, she turned her attention to Crystal again.
"Now, like I said, Al owns this outfit, but he doesn't want to be trip leader, so we're not going to let him. If you have a problem, come to me or Scooter, not him. If we think we have to, we'll take it to him, but let him lay back and be as lazy as he is, OK?"
She paused for a moment, and went on. "I talked about women trip leaders a few minutes ago," she continued. "The person who invented commercial rafting on this river was a woman, Georgie White. She goes back a long time before my time, but not before Al's. From everything I ever heard, she was a one of a kind, a real character. So, if we're all good little kiddies and we eat all our spinach, maybe Uncle Al will sit us down around a campfire down the river somewhere and tell us some Georgie White stories."
As Crystal went on to introduce the other boatmen -- each one with some laud to their experience and a disparaging dig for laughter, Karin thought back. She remembered Georgie White a little -- she was old by then, older than the hills it seemed, millions of wrinkles, running a huge motor raft down the Canyon. They'd shared a lunch stop one noon, and she mostly remembered her being loud and obnoxious. Well, maybe legends were like that.
Crystal followed up the boatmen's introductions by asking the crowd to give their names. Everybody was getting a little more comfortable by now. Crystal would never make a stand-up comedian, but she had people loose.
"OK, a few things about the trip. It's already late today, but it always is when we get started, so we're only going to run a few miles, just to let you get used to being on the river. First, your boatman is in charge of your boat. Listen to them. They know what they're doing. You may not. As boatmen, we're here to give you a good trip, but also a safe trip. There's an accident every now and then, but it's hardly ever that anyone gets hurt. In nearly forty years, Canyon Tours has never had a death on the river and we aren't going to start now. Major rule: when you're on the river in a raft, you will wear your PFD, at all times. If I catch someone on the river without a PFD, you're not going to like what I say, and I'll warn you, I'm a black belt. It's not just our rule, it's the insurance company's rule, it's a Grand Canyon National Park rule, and it's the law. Period. End of discussion . . ."
She continued on for a while, going over a number of points ranging from camp procedure to whitewater rescue, and even including the bathroom. That was something new to Karin; on her last trip, they'd just dug catholes in the sand bars, but now, they had to use porta-potties, which Crystal called "groovers," and carry their waste with them. It was a lot to cover, and Crystal knew it; she said she'd be going over many of the things again for several days, until everybody got it through their skulls.
Finally, she said, "OK, I'm sure everybody is tired of hearing me talk. I'm even tired of talking. I'm going to assign each of you to a raft. We'll probably do some switching around as we go down the river, but let's stay like this for a couple days, until we get used to being out here. She went down through the list, name by name. Karin wasn't surprised when Randy wound up in Crystal's raft, but was a little surprised that her name wasn't on that list. Was there more bitterness there than she'd detected? Perhaps she just didn't want to have to risk talking about family matters in front of others, she thought.
Crystal continued on, raft by raft, with Scooter's raft being next -- a group of names she didn't know. The next raft was Al's, and now Karin's name was first on the list, along with the older couple who'd had trouble with their bags at the bus, and another man. She was a little surprised at that. Could it be because she was really concerned about her, and put her with Al, as the most experienced boatman? It seemed likely, but still, she couldn't help but wonder: somehow, some way, did Crystal already know?
The four customers gathered around Al's raft. Karin was a little surprised to note that she was the youngest of the four -- the older couple was Bob and Sandy Loveberry, she found out now; she'd missed the names during the round of introductions, but that wasn't surprising. She'd guessed them to be in their sixties, maybe, but somehow they seemed small and frail, both of them. The other passenger was even older, Sam Brayton; he was oh, in his seventies, at a guess, gray-haired and wrinkled, but big and healthy and jovial, a nice guy, she felt from the beginning. Just thinking about it, she realized that her first assumption must have been correct -- Crystal had put her in the safest raft, and Al was closer to their ages than any of the kids on the other rafts.
But Al -- something didn't seem right, now that they were close up. He wasn't the grinning, happy Al, she remembered, there was an obvious pain there, something unseen; he seemed like he was just going through the motions. "Hello, Karin," he said softly, "It's good to see you again. I was real surprised to see you, and even more surprised to find out you're Crystal's mom."
"It's good to see you," she said quietly, trying to sound supportive and friendly. "I'm surprised you remembered me."
"You'd be hard to forget. But, let's not talk about that, now. I do have to complement you on Crystal. She's quite a girl. Even with all the different raft experience she had before she came here, she took to this river like nobody I've ever seen."
"She doesn't do things halfway," Karin grinned. "When she sets out to do something, she means it."
"How's Pete?" he asked quietly.
My God, Karin thought. He does remember! Not just the face, but details, a lot of details. I wonder why? Oh, hell, you ninny, Crystal probably told him about Pete. "He's OK," she said, without going into further explanations. "Getting older, but aren't we all?"
"We are," he said quietly, but in a tone that made Karin wonder about him again. "Well, we better get started before Crystal gets out her whip," he said, in a little brighter tone. That was more like the Al she remembered.
The next few minutes were busy. Al directed people to get into their river clothes -- Karin already had on what she intended to wear on the river today, shorts and a T-shirt, with one of the two-piece swimsuits on underneath, but the Loveberrys weren't dressed for the trip, and Al directed them where to change. Al got out some big river drybags, and helped everyone load their gear into them and pack them on the boat, tying them down tightly, then helped them fit PFDs from a selection on the back of the crew bus. It took a while, but after half an hour or so they were ready to go.
Finally, Crystal called out, "Is everybody ready?"
The boatmen all answered affirmatively. "OK," she replied. "Scooter, you take point, I'll take sweep this time. Let's head 'em up and move 'em out."
In a few moments, they were on the river. Karin got comfortable on a drybag -- she remembered how from long before, and watched Al at the oars, also a familiar sight from long ago. They immediately bounced through a small riffle, nothing to match the roaring water that was to come, but the first fast water. The river bent to the left, and Lee's Ferry was lost to sight, as the river took them into another small rapids. After that, the walls began to climb and the river flowed wide, flat and steady. In a few miles, they floated under the twin strands of Navajo Bridge, twin shiny spans of metal arching across the river. The cliff walls were considerably higher now; a truck going across the downriver bridge looked almost like a toy in the sky.
"'Bout like you remember, Karin?" Al asked. He'd been pretty silent, but staring at the river, the rising walls.
"The second span is new," she said. "Otherwise, it's much like I remember."
"Some things change," he said. "In fact, some things have changed a lot since you were here. The Canyon really hasn't changed much, but the way we treat it has. We used to do things back when you ran that we'd get thrown in jail for today. You ran in what? Must have been '74?"
"In August," she affirmed.
"That was after they put limits on the party sizes, and number of launches," he said. "They've pretty much stayed the same since. We were one of the smaller companies then, and we still are, although we did buy out one of the smallest operations to get a few more launch spots. I've got mixed emotions about the freeze, but it has kept this place from being overrun, and we're pretty well guaranteed of the business we do have, so we can plan for it. It also lets us keep our party sizes small enough so people can get to know each other, small enough that we can work with people. It's a little hard on the crews. They work hard and don't get a lot of time off between trips. I never have trouble finding people, but I do have trouble finding good ones. And, the good ones, like Crystal and Scooter, I try to keep them."
"That has to simplify things. It's nice to see this place being kept wild, not turned into another Disney World."
"I know," Al said. "That's why I kept coming back all these years."
From her trip before, Karin knew well that the bridge was the last sign of civilization they would see for days, until they reached Phantom Ranch, eighty-eight miles below. Karin glanced at the steeply rising cliffs -- a mountain climber might be able to climb out here, but there was no way she could. For better or worse, she was committed to the river for two weeks and more. It might be possible to walk out of the Canyon up the Bright Angel Trail at Phantom Ranch, but it was a heck of a long walk and a long way up, to boot. Crystal might have been able to make the climb, but there was no way that Karin ever could, she remembered well from standing on the suspension bridge there and looking far, far above -- and, perhaps even worse, looking down from the Canyon rim, years later.
A few miles farther on, they heard the rumble of the first rapids ahead. "Badger Rapids," Al said quietly. Karin couldn't actually see the rapids, only an approaching drop-off with white spray jumping behind it. As they drifted closer, she could see rocks and white waves spreading out before the raft. She took a deep breath as the boat slid down a slick tongue of water and dropped into the roar. Waves built in front of them and to the side. They rode smoothly over the first, only to have the next crash over them. It was like getting washed in the raft, back when Crystal took them down the Ocoee while she rode the nose of the raft, years ago, and like she remembered from twenty-five years ago, at this same rapids. She held on tight as the boat bucked and twisted, and Karin began to remember the excitement and adventure she'd felt on the river, as well as the serenity and wildness of the place. "One down," Al grinned, the happiest now that she'd seen him since she first looked at him at Lee's Ferry. "A hundred and sixty to go."
Shortly after Badger, Karin looked ahead, to see Scooter's raft pull into a beach on the left shore. "Good place to camp," Al grunted. "Gets everybody warmed up a little, and daylight enough to get everything set up for the first night."
It did take some organizing. Karin knew exactly how long it had been since she'd camped out -- it was on the last night of her Canyon trip twenty-five years before, and literally, everything she knew about it she'd learned from Al. After the boats were pulled up on the beach, a lot of the gear was unloaded. Karin at least knew the drill, or remembered it from the past -- they didn't usually use tents, but most nights just slept out under the stars. It was dry enough that there was hardly ever any dew.
Even so, there were problems. Back in '74, Karin had been young, and hadn't bothered with an air mattress, just a tarp thrown on the sand, but she wasn't as young as she was then -- but now, Canyon Tours furnished air mattresses. "Al, can you help me with this?" she asked. "I can't figure out how to blow it up."
"You don't," he said. "That's a Paco pad; it blows itself up. Just take off that cap on the end, throw it out on the sand, and let it do it itself."
"I'll be damned," Karin grinned. "What will they think of next?"
"Oh, I'm sure they'll think of something," Al grinned. It was good to see him grin.
She looked around; they were pretty much alone. A lot of people were over where Crystal, Scooter, and a couple of other guides were working on dinner, and Karin knew that it would be a good one. She thought maybe she ought to go over and offer to help, but maybe she'd just be in the way, too. She knew she didn't know much about camp cooking. Besides, it was good to be with Al, again. "Yeah, I guess that's something else that's changed since the last time," she said. She looked around; a swallow darted overhead, and out in the water on the far side of the river a beaver floated lazily downstream. The shadows were creeping up the Canyon walls, darkening the whole scene. "The Canyon hasn't changed much."
"Thank goodness for that," Al said quietly, sitting down in the sand beside her. "Karin, did Crystal ask you to come on this trip?"
"No," she said, wondering where that question came from. "Crystal and I, well, we haven't been close the last couple years. I don't want to go into it, but Pete sort of got in the middle. I came because I wanted to see Crystal again, make sure she was all right."
"I wondered," he said. "When I saw you today, it was like a ghost from the past, and I thought Crystal was up to something, especially when she put you in my boat. I figured you must have told her about us, way back when, and that was why she asked."
"No, she didn't ask me," Karin affirmed. "I surprised her pretty thoroughly. And no, I've never said a word to her about us. In fact, I'm surprised you remembered me at all. I figured that you'd seen so many girls go by, looking for adventure and romance."
"I did see a few, way back then," he said, and smiled a little. "But the reason I remember you so well is that you were the last one."
Karin looked at him; the statement surprised her, but it was also an obvious doorway to something deeper. "Al, is something the matter? You seemed, very, uh, withdrawn today. Not at all like the Al I remember."
"Crystal didn't tell you about that, either?"
"All Crystal has told me about you is what was said at the meeting today, oh, and a photo, with the words, 'I love my boss' on it."
He smiled a little smile. "She's a good kid, and she's kept things going when I haven't been able to this summer. Karin, do you remember Louise?"
"The trip leader on our trip in '74? I remember her well. I don't know if Crystal told you, but her middle name is 'Louise.' That's where the name came from."
"I knew that," Al said. "That was very kind of you. You remember, back in '74, Louise was teaching school, and that the trip we were on was her last one of the summer?"
"I think so," she replied.
"Well, after you left, she went home to her husband. Her husband wasn't there. He left a note that she had to choose between him and the Canyon. She got back in her car, went back to Flagstaff, and ran the next trip. She chose the Canyon. She was pretty hurt over the whole thing, and we, well, we got together. And we stayed together. She divorced him, and there was a settlement, not large, but it came through about the time Willie Stein, who used to own Canyon Tours, got an ulcer and decided he wanted out of the business. We used the settlement for a down payment. We were married by then, and we've been here ever since."
"How is she?" Karin asked, fearing the worst from Al's gloom.
"She's dead," Al said. "Back in June. We left Lee's, and she was fine. Then, at Phantom, I got a message to get to the hospital in a hurry. I told Crystal to take over the party, and hiked out, going as hard as I could go." She could feel the sadness in the low light, and thought she saw a tear as he went on, "That's a long damn way up there with my bum leg, and I half killed myself, but I got there in time to tell her goodbye. She was unconscious after that, and died four days later. Cancer. We never even suspected."
"Oh, Al," Karin said. "I'm so sorry! No wonder I thought you were feeling down."
He gave a little half-laugh. "Oh, I'm feeling great now, compared to a couple months ago. Again, your daughter showed her stuff. She took the party on down and out without a problem, didn't ask me a thing, not that I was in any shape to tell her anything, and then took the next party down. The last time they were on break, she and Scooter came to me, and basically, they told me to get my butt back in the Canyon where it belonged, because the Canyon could heal me if nothing else could. They may be right. I've felt better today than I have in months."
"And, you thought that having me here was part of their plan," she said. "It wasn't, but Al, if there's anything I can do, all you have to do is ask." And, that included anything, she thought, although she doubted he would ask. The memories were too fresh.
"I don't doubt it," he said. "Look, you've reminded me that there were happy times, too. I'm kinda glad that Crystal didn't set this up, but Karin, really, I'm glad you're here. You stirred up some memories today."
"Not bad ones, I hope."
"No, just old ones. Good ones, mostly. What it was like to be young and full of shit. Good times with Louise, too. The last few years, we didn't run together often, then mostly off-season, but we managed two or three times a year, and they were always special trips. Look, I don't want to talk this out on you. You're here for a good time, not to share my sorrows."
Crystal's voice echoed off the Canyon walls, "Soup's on! Last one gets the ears and the tail!"
Karin smiled at the call, and started to get up. "I don't mind," she said. "I'm getting away from a few sorrows on this trip myself, and maybe we're better equipped to share each other's than anyone else."
"You could be right," he smiled. "Thanks, Karin. Let's go see what Crystal made for dinner. Ears are tough and taste like hell."
"This should be an experience," Karin grinned. "She had trouble boiling water at home."
"She's a damn good camp cook. She does better with a fire or a camp stove. You got yourself a heck of a kid there, Karin. Louise and I never had any kids, but if I'd ever had a daughter, I'd have hoped she'd turn out like Crystal."
Oh, dear God, Karin thought. Oh, dear God!