"A Spearfish Lake Story"
Josh smiled to himself as he drove the Jeep downtown toward the store. It was good to see Bud in a good mood again, he thought. Last year had been heavy and very hard on Bud, and that had made it hard on everyone. At least he was starting to pull himself together, and that was good to see.
But, Bud had dropped a lot of work on him, Josh realized. In a way, it wasn’t any more than he’d done last year, but last year it had been sort of everyone pulling together to get over a tough spot. But, if some of the stopgaps they’d cobbled up to get them through the season became regular, they might not work as well. Last year, Josh had been able to get his dad to work as much as needed, and he had been willing to do what he could to help Bud out, saying that he could fish another year. Anson was also semi-retired, and normally he wanted to pretty much stick to a forty-hour week, but last year he’d put in extra hours when needed. He’d been able to get Frank Matson to brake pretty much as needed during the spring and fall, but it was only a hobby for Frank; he was really needed at the bank. Like it or not, this year, the same sort of schedules were going to mean a lot of overtime for Chris and for himself. Not that he minded the extra money, but there were only so many hours in a day, and most of them were filled already.
It took several hours a day to deal with the dogs, even on summer maintenance with little training going on. Last year, they’d hired a high school kid to come out and help with the dog feeding and lot cleaning. It wasn’t difficult if you found someone who genuinely liked dogs and knew how to deal with them, but as it got into training, a person who actually knew something about dogsledding was needed. The need grew even greater when the kid went back to school, just at the time that serious training got under way. September had been a major struggle last year, and only the pit runs closing down a month early due to full inventory, plus the availability of Phil, had allowed them to keep fall training somewhere close to schedule. Josh had no idea if Phil was going to try the Iditarod again, and suspected Phil didn’t know either, but if he didn’t run, that problem was going to be worse this fall.
Josh had asked around about finding someone as a dog handler and trainer while he’d been in Alaska. It was a way for someone who had the Iditarod dream to really learn about dogs, and depending on the agreement, might get to run a B-team or a C-team in the race itself for the sake of the experience and seeing if they wanted to carry on after that. Josh hadn’t had any success in finding anyone yet, but he had lines out and was still hoping.
For that matter, Josh wasn’t all that sure he was going to run the race again himself. He was missing it badly this year, but he was managing despite it. It took a tremendous amount of time and training to even run a B-team or a C-team, like this year. He’d only gotten away with running a C-team in the Quest on a lesser amount of training than he normally managed because the team had been made up mostly of veteran older dogs that, while not necessarily over the hill, were past their peak. That was all right, since he really hadn’t intended to make a run for the top end of the race. There were economies of scale in running more than one team, though, so cutting back to one team wouldn’t save much total effort – and would probably take away any chance of winning. The B-team was really dogs in training and evaluation for a spot in the top team. One of the reasons he’d run the Quest was to see if it could be used for B-team training under a little less publicity and pressure, and not having to peak everything for the Iditarod. It looked like it was a possibility, but there still had to be a way to be able to measure the team against the top teams, and they were only found in the big race.
And now, the store and the touring were taking a lot of hours, too. The touring had started mostly as an adjunct to the dogsledding, an extra income source, and they hadn’t been all that serious about it. The touring did get some miles on the teams, and sort of helped with the training. But, it had gotten to be more successful than they’d expected. When they’d added on the kayak tours in the summer, at least partly as a way to give Tiffany something to do besides work full time with the dogs in the slow season, it had actually tightened up the time problem even more. While they didn’t run a lot of trips, the fact that he or Tiffany was leading them accounted for a lot of business – their Iditarod competitor status was in fact a selling point. But, they’d gotten to a point where they just couldn’t do all the trips themselves. They’d gotten a few people whose skills they trusted to lead some trips, like Ken and Judy taking a trip to Isle Royale in the fall, and those were taking hold. If they’d been able to lead even more trips themselves, they would probably be even more popular, but they’d had to set a limit.
The store, Spearfish Lake Outfitters, had been sort of an outgrowth of the kayaking trips. 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 was no one selling kayaks at all, and the sporting goods dealers that sold canoes still pretty much 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. For that matter, no one sold dogsledding gear. There weren’t that many dogsledders around, but they needed gear, too; there was room to do some mail order business of dogsled gear themselves.
They’d known they were already busier than they wanted to be before they started the store, but the opportunity had seemed too good to pass up. They were really only in dogsledding because they had sponsors; without them, the racing wouldn’t pay for itself. It had 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 the first year, partly due to the time problem, but also due to the fact they were learning the business themselves. But, they’d had some backers, Phil among them, and they’d had some help over the rocky spots. Not only did Joe McGuinness teach them a lot about handling a retail business, but he was a long-time whitewater and sea kayaker who took on teaching classes for them, and taught them a lot about some of the other things they were a little vague about, like touring bicycles. In the summer, Josh now often rode a bike to get around town; just now, though, things were still too cold and muddy for that.
But the store really hit the time problem hard. They were normally open about sixty hours a week. Tiffany bore the brunt of it, which wasn’t really all that big a problem in spring and summer, but when dog training time came in the fall, there just weren’t enough hours, and even in the slow months of the winter, someone still had to be present. Having Joe cover the store the last three weeks had been the best solution they could come up with, but a lot of necessary work still went undone.
The location of the store was about as ideal as possible, on the edge of the downtown section between Point Drive and the lake. Joe owned the building, a single-story store block. He had the end storefront for his bookkeeping business – it had the best view of the lake and the beach, which is why he’d bought the building in the first place. Spearfish Lake Outfitters had started up in the third storefront, but when the kayak inventory had about crowded them out the front door a hairdresser in the second storefront had decided to retire, and they expanded into that, as well. Nowadays, that section was all kayaks and water gear, while the older section held the office and everything else. Having the lake right out the back meant that it was a perfect place for people to try out boats. Parking was a little limited in the summer, but it wasn’t bad on this March morning, and Josh parked the Jeep right in front of the store.
Inside, it was a little chilly – they’d been keeping the heat down since no one had been spending much time in the store. Josh turned on the lights and looked around. Joe hadn’t been kidding – the place was stacked with boats, most still wrapped in bubble wrap and tape. There were some empty spaces on the racks inside, and some of the boats were destined to become rentals. They had held a rental boat sale back in October as the kayaking season drew to a close, so the rental racks outside were empty, and the few boats they hadn’t sold had either been pulled inside or been taken out to the barn by their house for the winter. There wasn’t going to be enough space on the racks for all the boats stacked on the floor, and it went without saying that Josh was going to have to get the kayak trailer out and take a few more boats back to the barn even before they were unwrapped.
Josh and Tiffany had learned the hard way that it was a good idea to get the inventory built up in the fall and winter, because the manufacturers couldn’t keep up with orders in the summer months. It looked like he’d better not fill the racks, since the Necky order obviously hadn’t arrived yet, and that was another fairly big one. Looking closer, he could see that Old Town was behind schedule on the delivery of their canoe orders, as usual, and Mad River had some canoes coming in any day now, too. Figuring out which boats got unwrapped and which got hauled out to the barn was a chore that was not going to have to get done today, he thought, but he’d try to leave at least one of each model in the store. All in all, there was going to be a couple days work just straightening out that mess by itself.
Josh went back and kicked the heat up to what he thought might be a comfortable level – still on the chilly side, but he’d gotten used to Alaska, after all – and went into the office. Sure enough, there was a huge pile of mail on the desk, but on closer inspection, it didn’t appear to be all that bad, since several of them were packages full of stock to help build up the summer inventory. There was going to be a fair amount of work to go through them to check everything in and stock up the shelves, but that didn’t have to be done today, either. Other packages were promotional material for the customers, like kayak, canoe and gear catalogs.
Curious, he cleared away stuff enough to get to the computer and fired it up, then got online to check the latest race updates. Tiffany and Phil were still in Rohn, no surprise. He glanced at the clock and figured that it still had to be oh-dark-thirty there, what with the time differential. They probably would be getting under way pretty soon, to take advantage of the cooler air of the morning and the light to run with. If weather favored, they might not make a long stop again before McGrath. The Anchorage Daily News site hadn’t been updated since the last time he looked, although he knew he’d want to check there again after dawn Alaska time. A little reluctantly he got offline; it would have been interesting to check some of the sponsor sites for updates from their mushers, but if he got started doing that, he could blow up much of the day, and there was work to do.
While he had the computer on, he checked the tour bookings. There was still snow enough around that there might be a booking for dogsled rides this weekend, but there were none scheduled, he saw with relief. While the tours were profitable, since there was little overhead over and above what they needed for other purposes, they took a lot of time. He didn’t have enough of that, and he had other things he had to do this weekend. Maybe if something came out of the woodwork, Mark could handle it. Fortunately, the longer dogsled tours were over with for the year; there’d been only a handful while Josh had been gone, and Norm Niven had been good enough to handle them. Norm was a bookish near-hermit who lived in the woods out behind Turtle Hill, but his big gray beard and general outdoor savvy made him seem like a virtual sourdough, rather than the retired feed, grain, and fertilizer salesman he really was. The clients really loved the curmudgeonly "old-timer" taking them on trips, filling them full of stories of the back woods around the campfire, and Josh suspected he liked the human contact.
Some of the kayak trips were starting to fill up, though, and, as Joe had said, the September trip to the island was pretty much booked. That was good, even though Josh was really only handling the bookings for Ken and Judy Sorensen. Again, the tours were something they could make good money at if they could put more time at them, but there was only so much time available. In order to buy some time, they’d sort of backed out of scheduling kayak trips a little this summer, but they wanted to keep their foot in the business in case the time issue ever eased.
With that done, he turned to the records for the last few weeks. Sales had been slow, as anticipated, although Joe had apparently sold a couple of boats, and there were some other transactions. The mail orders that Jackie had been taking care of had been slow, too, but that was almost entirely dogsledding gear, and the dogsledding gear season was getting slow and would stay that way till mid-summer. Josh was a little surprised to see a last-minute rush order a couple weeks before from a guy who he knew was out on the Iditarod trail. They shipped a surprising amount of gear to Alaska, and some of it was stuff that was even made there. He figured that pretty soon he’d better take a look at the inventories there, and be thinking about what he wanted to get ordered in for the training season next fall.
In fact, he was starting to get quite a mental list of things that had to be done around the store in the next couple weeks. He pulled a notebook from his pocket and started in on a list; it’d be best to note each down while he thought about it. On his list, he included some items he’d talked over with Bud earlier, and some he’d thought of back at the house. By the time he was done writing, it came to several pages. He wouldn’t lack for stuff to do, and would probably be working evenings the next couple weeks.
The checkbook was in pretty good shape, he was surprised to notice, but there were obviously bills to be paid in that stack of unopened mail. He knew that a payment was going to be due to the bank for the huge boat and accessory gear order placed months before – but there was money salted back to make the payments before the summer sales season got into full swing, so that wasn’t a worry.
There was nothing to do but start in on the big stack of mail. Jackie had already been through the mail, opening things that were obvious payments, orders, or bills, and had dealt with them as necessary, so he knew that was under control. A little sorting to take some of the dealer shipments out of it cut the pile down a lot; those could be dealt with later. A second sorting filtered out things like junk mail and catalogs that could be sorted through at leisure if he were ever to find any.
In sorting through the stack, he found the flyer for Canoecopia, and he stopped to look it over. Canoecopia was a big show in Wisconsin that he wanted to make; he hadn’t been there before, being tied up with the Iditarod, but he wanted to get down to it this year if he possibly could. He glanced at the calendar; it was this weekend. It would be a long drive in the fragile old Jeep, though; maybe he could borrow a car from Tiffany’s dad for it. He might even like to ride along. But Josh knew it was Tuesday, and therefore paper day, and Mike wouldn’t appreciate a phone call about something this trivial on Tuesday. Maybe he’d call in the evening.
Josh continued on through the mail, noting a number of items that really needed his attention as soon as possible, and he realized that he could get to most of them today. He found himself wishing he had a cup of coffee, and thought about going and firing up the coffee pot, although it was a little silly to heat up the pot for one, or at the most, two, cups. On thinking about it, he figured that he could maybe go next door and get a cup from Joe, who still would likely have his coffeepot on. Then, another idea came along. Joe was the one who had tipped him off about Canoecopia; he might even be going, or might like to go. There was one way to find out; he grabbed his coffee mug and headed for the door.
It was warmer and cheerier next door; the empty store had seemed lonely. Dawn, the receptionist, was sitting out in the front office, working with some papers. "Hi, stranger," she said with a smile. "How was the Yukon?"
"Cold," Josh replied honestly. "Colder than we ever get around here. But pretty."
"Pretty if you like it," she snorted. "I’m getting tired of winter."
"I usually don’t get tired of winter for about another month," he replied. "But then, I’m usually in Alaska for most of that month. This slop, it’s easy to get tired of. Is Joe in?"
"Up to his nose in taxes, but nobody’s back there."
Joe’s voice called from one of the back offices. "Oh, come on back, Josh. Was the place as bad as I said it was?"
"Oh, not really," Josh replied, "But that is a lot of boats. It’s going to take a while to sort ’em all out."
"What’d I say about that Kap Farvel? Isn’t that pretty?"
"I barely glanced at it," Josh said truthfully. "It was sort of lost in amongst all that plastic."
"Yeah, it is a bit jammed in there," McGuinness smiled. "I should have been thinking when the truck came in. The end office is empty. That gal decided her craft shop wasn’t working. I should have stuffed the boats in there. You’re welcome to it, until I can get it rented again."
"Thanks, Joe," Josh said. "That’ll be a big help." It wasn’t the first big favor he’d done for Josh this winter, either. If Joe really liked the Kap Farvel once he paddled it, then Josh made up his mind that Joe would be getting a huge discount on it. It was one way to pay him back for all the help he’d been.
"No big deal, it’s empty anyway," he said. "Grab some coffee and have a seat. It’s nice to have someone in here who’s not all bent out of shape about their tax returns. I sure will be glad to see the day come when I can quit this annual rat race."
"Well, now that you mention it . . . " Josh smiled, heading to the coffeepot.
"Oh, you’re all ready to rumble. You and Tiffany are going to have to sign some stuff, but that’ll have to wait till she gets back, so there’s nothing we can do today, anyway. In a nutshell, you’re in good shape."
"Well, that’s good to know," he replied. He really didn’t understand all the ins and outs of the tax stuff, which was why he let Joe take care of it – not just the annual returns, but the monthly and quarterly stuff, too. "So, how’s the tax season going?"
"About like ever," Joe said. "This time of year, in this business, you begin to look forward to April 15th as the end of your sentence."
"Would you like to get away for a bit? Canoecopia is this weekend, and I thought you might like to ride down there with me."
"I would love to go. I haven’t been able to get away for a couple years, but I’ll have to check the schedule to see if I can get away," he said, raising his voice, "Dawn?"
"Any chance I can get away Friday afternoon?"
"You’ve got four appointments," she said, coming to the office door. "Phyllis Bergener, but I can handle that if I have to. Ben Moyer, but he could be rescheduled if you want to do an evening appointment. Same thing for Jack Whiting. George Webb you’re going to have to do this week, and if you want to reschedule, you should talk to him."
"Why this week?"
"Do the words ‘motor home’ bring anything to mind?"
"Taking off again, huh? I’ll give him a call and see when I can squeeze him in," he replied. "Call the others, and see if you can reschedule. I need an afternoon away from the IRS."
"I’ll see what I can do," she replied.
"It’s not an RV trip to Florida," Joe commented to Josh. "But if she can get them rescheduled, we’re a go." He smiled and said, "Guess he’s not the only one we know who’s planning on using a motor home."
Josh knew that he was talking about Bud, but he didn’t want to let on. "If I didn’t have so much to do, it’d sound good to me, too," he replied, as obliquely as he could.
The evasion went unnoticed. "I’d love to do it myself. Anyway, I think it’ll be good for the both of them," Joe smiled.
"Me, too," Josh conceded. Though Bud didn’t want the trip with Jane noised around the coffee shops and gossip circuits, there was no hope of preventing it, and he should have known it. "Anyway, I’m willing to drive the Jeep," Josh offered, with a ploy of his own in mind.
It worked. "Aw, let’s take my Buick," Joe replied. "I’m getting too old to ride that far in a CJ-5 with a canvas top, not much weather stripping and a bad muffler. I’ll get the gas if you want to get the motel. Better figure on two nights. If we leave at noon or so, we still won’t get there in time for the Friday evening show, but we can have all day Saturday. That’ll give a good look at the show floor, and maybe a presentation or two. You want to check out the touring outfitter booths, and some of their presentations, just to see how other people handle a show like that."
"That’s sort of what I had in mind," Josh said.
"It’s too bad we can’t take more time, ’cause some of the presentations are pretty good. There’s some neat trips there, and I’d like to go some of those places before I get too much older. You hear anything about Tiffany and Phil?"
"They were still in Rohn an hour or so ago," Josh said. "They’ll probably get going again pretty soon. I figured on hitting the updates as soon as I get back over to the shop. It sure is strange to do that. I know what kind of information you get out on the trail, and it’s really weird to have better information about where they are compared to the rest of the field than they do. On the other hand, there’s so many things that we can’t tell from the updates that you find yourself wondering what’s holding them up, or how the dogs are doing, or like that. If Tiffany does her twenty-four at McGrath, well, she said she’d call me if she got a chance, and that may be my only chance to find out how they’re really doing. You can bet that I’m going to be near the phone about two hours after they get there."
"That’s not going to get in the way of going to Canoecopia, is it?"
"They’d better be done with their twenty-fours and be back on the trail before we leave," Josh said. "If they aren’t, well, something will have gone seriously wrong. There wouldn’t be anything I could do about it, though."
"It’s got to make it tough on you," Joe commented.
"Just strange to be here, and not in it."
Dawn stuck her head back in the door. "I’ve got Moyer on for seven tonight, and Whiting the same time tomorrow night," she reported.
"Another couple evenings shot to hell," Joe said, reaching for the phone. "That’s about the normal for this time of year, though. I guess I’d better call George and see if I can move him up."